Bible Ambiguities and Mistranslations

Many Hebrew and Greek words have more than one way they can be translated into English (or any other language). In each case, translators must choose the most appropriate translation in the context. They don’t always agree!

Sometimes, major doctrines are affected, including such questions as the ultimate fate of unbelievers, the doctrine of the Trinity, the method of baptism and the death penalty. Where relevant, I have put links to my writings on these and other subjects.

You can click on any underlined verse reference to see how more than 50 different English translations have handled it.

In the following sections, I have considered alternative translations of the following verses or words.

Αἰων

The Greek word αἰων (aion) is used in 3 ways in the New Testament. Its basic meaning is age, but it also can mean world and, thirdly, it is used as an equivalent to the Hebrew word olam meaning hidden (time).

However, it is most commonly (and wrongly) translated ever, as in the phrase forever, which is used to translate the Greek phrase εἰς τον αἰωνα (eis ton aiona).

The vastly important question as to whether future punish is everlasting or time-limited hinges on the translation of this word αἰων and its adjective αἰωνιος.

I have dealt with this question in detail in Αἰων and עֹלָֽם (olam) and other related writings.

Everlasting Destruction

Everlasting Destruction (or Eternal Destruction) is a meaningles phrase found in most translations of 2Thes 1:9. Destruction is by definition everlasting.

In the ESV, the full verse is, “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”

The key Greek words are αἰωνιος (aionios) and ὀλεθρος (olethros) . If we translate these as age-lasting and perdition (lostness) (as does the Geneva Bible), we get a verse that makes sense: “They will suffer the punishment of age-lasting perdition from the presence of the Lord ...”. This, of course, supports the view of limited punishment as opposed to eternity of torment in hell.

For a full explanation, see Ὀλεθρος.

Erets & γη

The Hebrew word erets (אֶרֶץ) and the Greek word γη (ge - whence Geograhy and Geology) are both ambiguous. Both can be translated by either earth or land. For example,

Modern Israel is often referred to “erets Yisrael” - the land of Israel.

Let’s now look at Matt 5:3,5:

People who are poor in spirit inherit the kingdom of heaven and people who are meek inherit the earth. People who are both poor in spirit and meek, presumably, inherit both the kingdom of heaven and the earth! Whereas some would only get one or the other! Not very good sense!

But what if we change the translation? “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land (γη).”

Now it suddenly makes perfect sense. Inheriting the land is exactly parallel to having the kingdom of heaven.

Angel of the Lord

The Hebrew word malach (מַלְאַךְ) and the Greek word ἀγγελος (angelos) both mean messenger. Neither Hebrew nor Greek has a separate word for angel.

This is why in both OT and NT we repeatedly find the phrase an angel of the Lord. Many translations put the angel of the Lord, where the word the does not appear in the Hebrew. This is very misleading as it implies one particular special angel.

Exodus 23:20 says “Behold, I send a malach before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.” Does this mean a messenger or an angel? Translators do not agree! Most think it is an angel and several even give Angel a capital A. See Exodus 23:20 in different translations.

Εν

The Greek preposition ἐν (en) is ambiguous. Its most common English translation is in, but it can also mean by or with.

The following Bible verses illustrate this:

No problem with these verses; the meaning is clear.

But what about the following verses?

Should it be in water and in the spirit, or with water and with the spirit?

Some people believe in baptism by immersion and some by sprinkling. Both in and with are legitimate transaltions of ἐν. Click on Mark 1:8 or Acts 1:5 and you will see that most translators opt for with.

See Baptism Shadows and Substance

Wonderful Counsellor

​“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

“כִּי־יֶלֶד יֻלַּד־לָנוּ בֵּן נִתַּן־לָנוּ וַתְּהִי הַמִּשְׂרָה עַל־שִׁכְמֹו וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמֹו פֶּלֶא יֹועֵץ אֵל גִּבֹּור אֲבִיעַד שַׂר־שָׁלֹֽום׃”

But there are 2 problems:

A possible alternative translation could be: “The Mighty God, the Everlasting Father has called his name Wonderful Counsellor, Prince of Peace.” This would make much better sense.

See The Doctrine of the Trinity.

Ambiguous Commands

In Greek the imperative (in the plural) has the same form as the indicative. Or to clarify this with an example, the words of Jesus “ἐρευνατε τας γραφας” “ereunate tas graphas” in John 5:39. This can be translated in either of two ways:

The first sounds like an instruction, telling his hearers (the Pharisees) that they ought to search the Scriptures. The second would be a simple statement of fact. The Pharisees did search the Scriptures.

Most translations of John 5:39 go for “You search the Scriptures.”

“Thou shalt not killExodus 20:13

No difference in the Hebrew - (לֹא תִּֿרְצָֽח) - but a vast difference in the English! The KJV supports pacifism and abolishing the death penalty and, for some people, even not killing animals; the NKJV and ESV think otherwise!

See “Thou shalt not kill”

σταυρος cross or stake

The Greek word σταυρος (stauros) is translated cross in nearly English Bible translations. It actually means a stake or pole.

Huge implications.

See The Cross or the Stake


For more on translation problems see The King James Version and The Concordant Literal New Testament.