In this post I want to look at two important steps in the process of translating the Bible. First how to discern which word has the greatest possibility to be the original word that the author had used. That is vital in those cases where there are more than one variation in the manuscripts to our disposal. Second I would like to look at how one should go about to choose which word in the receiving language best conveys the actual meaning that the original author intended. We look at John 20:17 as an example.
1. Which word? In any language words are found that do have more or less the same meaning. In John 20:17 when Jesus met Mary outside the grave, He used the word hapto to say that there should not be physical contact between Himself and Mary, for “I have not yet returned to the Father.” Just as an example, let us presume that some manuscripts had the word psylafao instead of hapto, (Heb.12:18: “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched”.) and other manuscripts the word tigys. (Heb. 11:28: “so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel”) Then the translator first had to establish which one of these three words had been the word used by John in his gospel. Universally accepted scientific criteria are utilised for this important challenge. I elaborate on this process in my post at https://bibledifferences.net/2012/08/10/26-evaluation-of-variant-readings/
But here in John 20:17 the word without doubt is hapto.
2. What meaning? Quite often words have more than one meaning or emphasis. The word hapto can mean “touch” as in just physical contact, or “attach oneself to”, or even by implication “lay hand on” transferring the meaning of hindering or holding back. Now the translator has to discern what Jesus actually meant by cautioning Mary not to touch him. For this the translator has to look at the context. Yet this is not always that obvious. In this case Jesus linked his caution directly to his forthcoming ascension to the Father in heaven. But why? Looking at the meaning of touch as in physical contact, the following might play a role: Let us presume that there had been some direct indication to emphasize Jesus’ role as High priest (Heb. 8:1) like wearing a High priests robe. Then the warning would be to prevent Mary from bringing down the wrath of God onto her, and “not touch” would be obvious. But Jesus more probably still wore the burial cloak, and touching him would render her unclean according to the Jewish purity laws. “Do not touch me” could therefore fit perfectly within the context. The King James Version translates this way.
With no obvious indication from within the context, the meaning of “attach oneself to” is also a possibility. Jesus might have tried to prevent Mary from a second shock and pain if she held onto him physically being there. He was going to ascend into heaven, and she should not attach herself to him anew. The Good News Bible and the New International Version could be understood this way: “Do not hold on to me,” Jesus told her, “because I have not yet gone back up to the Father…” Also the New Living Translation: (“Don’t cling onto me…”)
But the word hapto could even convey the meaning of holding back or hindering. Jesus new he had to ascend into heaven and could not be held back. It is possible to translate this way, but again there is no indication in the context to assume this meaning. The translation found in the Bible in Basic English could thus be understood: “Do not put your hand on me…”
One word with three divergent possible translations. Do not touch me, do not cling to me or do not hold me back. Which would be the best rendering of what Jesus meant when he directly linked this command to his soon to come ascension into heaven?
The words I am familiar and easy with, usually would be my logic choice. But I pray that this post would free you from your comfort zone so that you would not feel threatened to consider other possibilities. May you be open to the Holy Spirit to convince you of “new” truths.
Translation is such a responsibility. We can only thank God for providing us with so many devout and true children of God to present us with many understandable versions of the Bible in our home language. Keep them in your prayers.
God bless you,