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Translating τῶν Ἰουδαίων in the Open English Bible

Posted on Jun 29, 2011

The translation of this term, which appears in the King James Version as ‘the Jews’, is difficult and sensitive. The mind of the modern reader is different to that of the initial readers of John’s Gospel and of Acts. We read in the context of our culture and our history, just as the early readers of the Gospel of John read in the light of theirs.

In keeping with our commitment to be open and transparent in the translation choices we are making, I’ve written this post to explain how the OEB project deals with this challenge.

After much thought, we have chosen to listen to the advice of such translators as Barclay Newman and David Burke (see the Bibliography below) and have committed to the GitHub repository changes which represent an adoption of the suggestions of Newman (2005) after comparison with the most recent edition of the NIV (2011), the New Living Translation (NLT), Contemporary English Version (CEV) and other translations.

The changes represent an awareness of the truth of the statement of Burke (1993) that:

”The problem is not how well the English locution reflects the Greek text or the escalating polemical realities of the first century situation, but rather its effect on the (poorly informed) modern reader.”

And Newman (1996):

”I am thoroughly convinced that it was never the intention of any New Testament writer to perpetuate anti-Jewish sentiments that would ultimately result in either discrimination against or persecution of the Jewish community in the course of history. One has only to listen to the apostle Paul: “I would gladly be placed under God’s curse and be separated from Christ for the good of my own people” (Romans 9:3). In the many New Testament passages (especially in John and Acts) where the phrase “the Jews” occurs, a literal rendering has historically resulted in arousing negative reactions that were not intended by the authors of these documents. Whatever the response of the authors to their particular conflict with certain segments of the Jewish community, it was never their intention to perpetuate 20 centuries of anti-Jewish feelings.”

I agree with this and the views of Motyer (1994) and others. I disagree with the view that the Gospel of John was intended to contain in itself a hatred of those Jews who did not join the early Church - the view that the author of John has intentionally and anachronistically placed bitter disputes of his time back into the time (and mouth) of Jesus. My position is that later anti-Semitism is not a valid continuation of the text’s intent but is instead a distortion of it.

We must always keep in mind when determining what the author of the Gospel of John intends to say when he wrote ‘τῶν Ἰουδαίων’ that both the author and his readers knew and understood that all of the participants in the drama were Jews, including Jesus and his apostles.

If translation is at least in part the attempt to have the translated text have a similar effect on the mind of the reader as the initial text had on the minds of the first listeners, to communicate to today’s readers what the original communicated to the original readers, then adopting the readings committed to GitHub creates, I have come to believe, a more accurate translation than one which is more ‘literal’ but is nevertheless (no doubt unintentionally) misleading.

I think it is clear that not only does the repeated translation of “τῶν Ἰουδαίων” as ‘the Jews’ have the potential to mislead readers into thinking it is the intent of the writer of John to apply corporate blame for the persecution and death of Jesus to the Jewish people as a whole, but that the use of the phrase in previous translations has as a matter of historical fact led to precisely that misunderstanding, with tragic and horrific consequences.

A translation is a bad translation if it leads to readers suspecting that the author of the Gospel of John would have had sympathy for or would have supported the historical treatment of Jews by Christians.

Finally, as a reminder, although I believe the choices I have made are the correct ones, you are free, as always, to create your own version of the Open English Bible without this or any other set of changes. That freedom is the intent of the OEB’s CC0 licence and the reason for the OEB’s existence.– Russell

Some further reading

Compare the translation choice of the CEV, NLT, CEB, NET, TEV and NIV2011.

See also: