SEEK THE CONTEXT: Biblical Texts, Language, Cultural Background & Meaning. Context Changes Everything!

Context, Terminology, and Translation

Context, Terminology, and Translation

In this article, I want to discuss the importance of context, terminology and precise translation of the original text (be it Greek or Hebrew). When it comes to the interpretation of biblical texts and conclusions drawn from them these building blocks are the foundation. Theology cannot exist without interpretation and interpretation rests on the accurate examination of the sacred text.

In a well-known movie “The Matrix” a lead character Morpheus tells a young programmer who wants to understand how the world around him really works, how it is all an illusion, a computer program. He offers him a choice “Take the blue pill, wake up and forget we have met. Take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes”. The “rabbit hole” is a reference to Lewis Carrol’s story “Alice in Wonderland”. In Carrol’s tale, Alice discovers a strange and bizarre world when she follows the rabbit deep into his whole.

What does any of this have to do with context, terminology, and translation? Sometimes when I invite people to examine a biblical text deeper and in context, I feel like Morpheus. Especially if it is a well-known Bible verse that people think they actually understand.

I am offering people to see something that is right in front of them, but they have never seen it. Why have they never seen it? Why my insight might surprise them or even shock them slightly?  Because they have accepted a way of looking at the biblical passage which was handed to them without even knowing it, intuitively. No, no one tried to dupe them. They just never looked deep. It is natural to accept the common opinion, the majority view people hear espoused thousands of times. This may bother you a little. But there is nothing wrong with that. We are human and we are busy living our lives. Our perception is limited and we only focus on the things that concern us at the moment. The human brain quickly rationalizes the world around us and files its components into neat categories.

I am a believer in developing an attitude of exploring the Bible deeply and allowing the texts to speak for themselves even when their message clashes with our understanding of reality. And that means breaking out of the established categories.

A Deeper Look

So here is a tough task…  Everyone knows John 3:16. This is one of the truly beloved and most often quoted verses from the gospels. I once was asked to explain this verse to a person who really wanted to know what it says in the original language. What’s there to explain? Most people equate this verse with biblical teaching about salvation, that God wants everyone to be saved. This is one of those moments when we realize that we do not see the actual message of the verse because we are so used to seeing what everyone says we should see.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16 NIV)

  1. First, the context.  The topic most people see is “salvation from sin” because “God does not want anyone to perish” and that, of course, implies salvation. Salvation is theologically understood as the action of rescue from perishing.  And John qualifies what it means “not to perish” – eternal life! Is eternal life the same as salvation? Perhaps. But the verse is a part of a larger unit, where Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, a learned teacher of Israel (John 3:10). And whatever the “Rabbi from God” means by “eternal life” has to make sense, first of all, to a first-century Jew – Nicodemus. And his thinking will probably differ from the thinking of 21st century Christians. After all, John records verse 16 as he describes their conversation to us. Starting in verse 16 Yeshua’s teaching shifts from the individual path to “eternal life” to the broader, global world perspective as he explains why the Son came into the world.
  2. Second, deeper context. John is a very nuanced gospel in the terminology it employes. It is not a simple reporting of facts but is somewhat philosophical. To catch John’s central idea you have to pay attention to his terminology and trace his meaning, sometimes through entire chapters. John writes to a very special audience and uses non-mainstream language to make his points, and that means terminology matters. In fact, that is what makes John’s gospel so beautiful and so deep. He makes us think outside the box. We have to be clear on his terminology to understand his ideas.
  3. Third, the translation. Language can be very stylized and very smoothed out in order to make it flow in modern English. Translations are funny like that. Often people who do not translate routinely do not realize that word choices can turn the meaning of the passage entirely if the translator is not careful.

Now the text itself.  So whom did God love? – simple, the world. And that seems to imply to everyone in this world collectively, all people in English. The Greek actually says it was κόσμος (kosmos) “universe” or the “world order itself” which includes all created things, and even inanimate objects, and nature, and all that surrounds us. That is cosmos. This is the most general term possible for “everything that exists”.  Now John could have said “humans” or “people” but he did not, he used κόσμος (kosmos) ” the universe” or  “the created world”. Perhaps he deliberately wanted to apply the eternal life (salvation) to all creation? This is a strange and such a general reference if this verse is truly about “human salvation from sin”.  Hope you see how clarity over terminology makes a difference in meaning and interpretation. All of a sudden there may be interpretive options for this verse you have never considered. But I have to keep reading…

I have mentioned that translation is sometimes an issue. Let’s take another phrase – “whoever believes”. The Greek word translated with English pronoun “whoever” is actually a very common and very often used adjective – πᾶς (pas). It means “all”, “every” or “whole” – a very flexible term that adapts to many contexts.  Once again the most general word possible in the Greek text. But translating this word into English as a pronoun “whoever” is a bit problematic. It is somewhat a stretch to turn an adjective into a pronoun.

This pronoun “whoever” in English implies “anyone” or “someone undetermined”. The problem is that the original Greek adjective implies something else – “universal totality” or “collective wholeness” not “randomness” or “ambiguity” of any sort.  This is where relying on translations can cause huge problems. A much better English word choice instead of “whoever” is “everyone” or simply “all” since it reflects the idea of “totality” in English as well, not “specificity” even if the identity is undefined. Some English translations (CEV, Christian Standard, Holman Christain Standard, International Standard Version, Young’s Literal Translation, NET Bible) actually translate the term as “everyone”.

So how do these issues affect the meaning of the text? Well, we can presume that the verse context is about eternal life and salvation, but it seems broader than an individual experience. And the love of kosmos (world) is directed not to some undetermined “whosoever” according to the Greek text but a group. The original text says that God gave his Son to πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων (pas ho pisteuon) “all who believe” and that is not just random anyone. The only way I can interpret “all who believe” group is as a “totality of those who embraced that gift (by believing)”. I hope you see the problem with thinking that John 3:16 shows that “God wants everyone to be saved”. All of a sudden we are not talking about everyone. This time a poor translation choice creates an impression that all people, just about anyone out there, all are called by God to come and accept his gift of eternal life. I see how this idea is possible based on the translation, but “all who believe” group cannot be dismissed from the picture in the original text.

Implications

So God loved the world, cosmos, the universe. True. But this call of God cannot be universal if salvation (eternal life) is something God does sovereignly without the involvement of humans. Now you may feel that salvation is a cooperative effort (God+Humans=Salvation). Many people embrace such thinking. To me, this diminishes God and his ability to exercise his will completely and sovereignly. If salvation is not a cooperative effort, but God’s exclusive work, then every time it is rejected (people do not believe), God fails in his purpose to save the world from perishing. And that does not add up either. Because by definition God is perfect and he cannot fail. But if the gift of eternal life is extended only to “those who believe” then God’s intent reaches its goal every time.

The context changes everything and not every proof text is so plain and simple once examined deeper, beyond the English translation. I am sure there are many other texts out there that show God’s heart for all his children. For God made all of us, even the most wicked. But if examined deeply, John 3:16 is actually not one of them.

Pinchas

I am an educator, researcher, a faculty member and an avid believer in online education. My specialties are Sacred Texts and Cultures (Second Temple period, early Judaism and nascent Christianity). I am passionate about meaning, context, and cultural transmission of ancient texts. My preoccupations with history, ancient languages and contextual interpretation often find expression in my blog posts. Every human has a pretext, every message has a context. Context changes everything! Enjoy reading.


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