Friday, February 17, 2012

Who is the θεος of this World?

Bible Study rule #2: Be aware of translator eisegesis.

3 But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: 4 In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.
2 Corinthians 4:3-4

As a student of the original languages, whenever I'm reading the Bible in English, simultaneously, in the back of my mind, I'm wondering how the original text looks; which is why, while reading 2 Corinthians 4:4 in the KJV last night, the phrase “god of this world” virtually jumped off the page at me. My first thought was, “Oh-oh, is this another example of wildly misleading translator eisegesis in the English New Testament?” A quick look at the verses in the Greek NT had me thinking it was.
3 εἰ δὲ καὶ ἔστιν κεκαλυμμένον τὸ εὐαγγέλιον ἡμῶν, ἐν τοῖς ἀπολλυμένοις ἐστὶν κεκαλυμμένον· 4ἐν οἷς ὁ θεὸς τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου ἐτύφλωσεν τὰ νοήματα τῶν ἀπίστων εἰς τὸ μὴ αὐγάσαι αὐτοῖς τὸν φωτισμὸν τοῦ εὐαγγελίου τῆς δόξης τοῦ Χριστοῦ ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ.
I then checked the readings in other English versions on Blue Letter Bible—the NKJV, NIV, ESV, YLT, ASV, DBY, WEB, HNV—as well as the Spanish RVR (Reina-Valera) and the Latin Vulgate, and, yep, they all showed a small-g god of this world. The NLT (New Living Translation) went so far over the cliff of eisegesis as to helpfully include the word “Satan” into their translation.

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don't believe.
For those who might not get what all the fuss is about here, I should explain that the original Greek texts of the Bible were written in uppercase letters. In fact, there were no lowercase or cursive letters when the NT books were first penned; these were a later scribal development.

This means that there was no literary convention whereby proper nouns were capitalized to distinguish them from common nouns—as with God and god—so there was no way to know from the morphology alone whether a proper noun or common noun was intended.1

Even now, in lowercase Greek texts like the one above, you can see that there is no distinguishing capitalization on the two occurrences (in red) of the word θεός [theos], which is translated “god” in English. In these modern Greek texts, you will find proper names capitalized, but not common nouns, so there’s never a capital theta (Θ) on θεός.

Given that, you can now see that the translating of the first θεός in this verse as “god” and the second one as “God” is a function of translator interpretation. It all hinges on who the translator believes the Apostle Paul is referring to as the “god of this age” (the use of the word “world” is another interpretation rather than translation. The Greek word αἰών [aion] is closer in meaning to the word “age”, and is used to refer to an unbroken, therefore eternal, perpetuity of time.).

There are arguments on both sides of this question, but I am convinced, by the context, as well as the whole counsel of Scripture, that the Apostle Paul meant the God in 2 Corinthians 4:4. Sam Shamoun on the Answering Islam website has a great post about this very thing here. Conveniently, all my arguments (and more) are there, so there’s no need for me to detail them all now.

No matter which side you eventually fall on, however, it is still important to realize that there are many instances like this where the translators (and those who employed them) have taken it upon themselves to interpret the words of Scripture, rather than just translate them. In fact, the same capitalization decisions made with θεός were made regarding the word πνεῦμα [pneuma], which is translated as “spirit”. In the absence of the adjective “holy”, the translators decided when the Author meant uppercase-s “Spirit”.

Of course, interpretation is impossible to avoid entirely when rendering one language into another, but it is my firm belief that, especially with Scripture, in order to keep interpretation down to a minimum, a word for word translation should be done as consistently as possible, regardless of how odd it might look in English (E.g. if there is no first letter morphological distinction in the Greek text, then don’t capitalize the English text ever!). Any great amount of interpretation that a translator thinks might be needed could easily be done with foot or margin notes. That way, the reader would be given a purer text that he can either interpret or query for himself, without being forced to accept the questionable doctrine of an insular ecclesiastical or academic gate-keeper.

Herr Professor Brooke Foss Westcott II

But, of course, this has not happened with our English Bibles. Right now, the only way a believer can truly know what the Word of God said is to study with the original texts. However, to do this effectively, he will first have to acknowledge that doctrinal eisegesis has occurred in our English Bibles, and that even his most foundational belief might be in error, wholly or in part. One of the greatest tools used to corral Christians away from truth and the authority of the Bible into ignorance and dependence on church leadership has been English-only instruction.

καὶ γνώσεσθε τὴν ἀλήθειαν καὶ ἡ ἀλήθεια ἐλευθερώσει ὑμᾶς—John 8:32


1. I am aware of the scribal custom of abbreviating certain holy names like ΙΗΣΥΣ [IESUS] and ΘΕΟΣ [THEOS] as ΙΣ and ΘΣ respectively, but this too was a later development and every bit an example of eisegetical translation as proper name capitalization.

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