Birger A. Pearson

5. The "Scholars Version" Translation

The intent of "the Scholars Version" (SV, samples of which have been given in the previous section), as stated in a preface to The Five Gospels, is to "desacralize" the text of the gospels and make the translation "sound like a piece of contemporary literature" (p. xvi) by using "the common street language of the original" (p. xiv). The scholars have succeeded in this effort brilliantly, whatever one might think of the claim that the original language of the gospels was "street language." Somewhat incongruously, they also demonstrate their commitment to "political correctness" with irritating manipulations of grammatical gender and number. For example, the "child" in Matthew 18:2 (neuter both in Greek and in English) becomes a "she" in the SV rendition (p. 213). "He who seeks" in Thomas 2 becomes "those who seek" in SV (p. 471).

In what follows I shall discuss the SV translations of some of the key words or phrases used frequently in the Jesus tradition. As we shall see, "mistranslation" is often a better term for what the scholars are doing.
a. "God's imperial rule" for hJ basileiva tou' qeou' ("the kingdom of God") (Mark 1:14 et passim). The Greek word usually translated "kingdom" can also mean "reign" or "rule" (Aramaic malkuta', Hebrew malkut). Why "imperial" is added is nowhere explained, and is odd in view of the role played by the Roman imperium in Jewish Palestine. SV translates basileuv" ("king") in Jesus' parables as "secular ruler" (e.g. Matt 18:23, colored pink).
b. "I swear to God" for ajmhn levgw uJmi'n (soi) ("amen" or "truly I say to you [pl. or sg.]") (e.g. John 13:20, colored gray). This use of "amen" (a Hebrew word used in oaths, promises, prayers, etc.) is variously translated in SV, e.g. "I swear to you" (Matt 5:26, pink), "I tell you" (Luke 12:59, pink), "so help me!" (Mark 14:30, black), "let me tell you" (Luke 22:34, black). Perhaps this use of "amen" in Jesus' discourse was a factor in the Seminar's coloring of Jesus' command "Don't swear at all" (Matt 5:34, gray), though this is not stated in the commentary (p. 143). In any case, it seems to have escaped the notice of the scholars that Jesus' use of "amen" is religious language, not "street language."
c. "the son of Adam" for oJ uiJo;" tou' ajnqrwvpou ("the Son of Man") (Mark 2:28 et passim). The scholars explain their translation in a cameo essay, and refer to three different senses of "son of Adam" in the Hebrew Bible: an insignificant human being, as in Job 25:4-6; human beings as next to God in the order of creation, as in Psalm 8:3-6; and "the Apocalyptic Figure of Daniel 7:13-14 (pp. 76-77). In all three cases the translation "son of Adam" is wrong! In Job 25:6 ("how much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!" [RSV]) 'enosh ("man") and ben 'adam ("son of man") mean essentially the same thing, "a human being." 'adam by itself means the same, i.e. generic "man." In the poetry of Job the juxtaposition of the two terms is a case of synonymous parallelism, one of the most common features of Hebrew poetry, and Semitic diction in general. In Hebrew "a son of X" means "a man with the quality of X"; a "daughter of X" means "a woman with the quality of X," as e.g. in Hannah's plea in 1 Samuel 1:16 not to regard her as "a base woman" (bat beli`al, lit. "daughter of worthlessness"). "Son of man" thus means the same as "man," i.e. human being, though "son of" might be taken to indicate that the human being in question is male, but not necessarily (as in Job 25 and Psalm 8). Psalm 8:4 (8:5 in Hebrew) is another instance of what we see in Job 25:6, with the juxtaposition of 'enosh and ben 'adam.
Daniel 7:13 is translated by our scholars:
As I looked, in a night vision, I saw one like a son of Adam coming with heaven's clouds. He came to the Ancient of Days and was presented to him.
This passage is construed by the Seminar in terms of Genesis 1:28, where "the human being" (Adam) is depicted as "the agent to exercise control over every living creature" (p. 77). But the Genesis story of Adam is irrelevant to the interpretation of Daniel 7:13, for "son of Adam" does not occur there. No notice seems to be taken by our scholars that the text of Daniel 7:13 is not Hebrew but Aramaic! It is read as though the text had ben 'adam, which it does not. It has kebar 'enash ("one like a son of man" or "one like a human being").
Aramaic was the language of Jesus. In the gospel sayings the enigmatic self-designation "the Son of Man" renders Aramaic bar 'enasha', which means essentially "the human being." What Jesus meant by this term, or even if he used it at all, is a matter of considerable controversy in New Testament scholarship. [63] In a discussion of Jesus' usage in the aforementioned cameo essay, three different meanings are assigned to "son of Adam": l) the heavenly figure who is to come, 2) one who is to suffer, die, and rise, "a roundabout way of saying 'I'" (e.g. in the passion predictions in Mark 8:31; 9:30; and 10:33, colored black), and 3) "human beings" in general.
The comment on 1) contains a surprising statement: "On the lips of Jesus those references to the apocalyptic figure of the future are not self-references but allusions to a third person" (p. 77). This is surprising because it seems to suggest that Jesus did, after all, have an eschatological doctrine. The verses quoted as examples (Mark 8:38; 13:26; and 14:62) are all colored black, though it is reported in the commentary to Mark 13:26 that some members of the Seminar share the view "that Jesus may have spoken about the son of Adam as a messianic figure other than himself" (p. 113). But they were decisively outvoted.
One interesting example of 3) in the Seminar's interpretation is the one and only "Son of Man" saying in the Gospel of Thomas, saying 86 (colored pink): "Foxes have their dens and birds have their nests but human beings have no place to lay down and rest." This translation of "the Son of Man" as "human beings" creates a statement that is absurd on its face: animals and birds have homes, but people don't! [64] The point here, finally, is that the Jesus Seminar's "son of Adam" amounts to a mistranslation wherever it is used.
d. "Congratulations" for makavrio" ("blessed") (Matt 5:3 et passim). Macarisms pronounced on "the poor" and other people by Jesus are all rendered this way. But to render "blessed" everywhere with "congratulations" would lead to even more absurd results; so alternatives do occur, e.g. "lucky" as applied to Jesus' mother's womb and breasts (Thomas 79) or "fortunate" as applied to the "eyes" of the disciples (Matt 13:16). In general, "congratulations" might be an appropriate translation of makavrio" in certain cases in Greek literature, but Jesus spoke Aramaic, and probably read Hebrew. "Congratulations" is an impossible rendering of 'ashar ("happy") or berikh (Heb. barukh, "[divinely] blessed"). Even as a translation of the Greek, one wonders what "the poor" would have accomplished for which "congratulations" are in order. In short, this example of "street language" amounts to a distortion of the text.
e. "damn" for oujaiv ("woe"). Most of the woes pronounced by Jesus, transformed into curses by our scholars, are colored black. But here is a pink one, hurled at the Pharisees: "Damn you, Pharisees! You're so fond of the prominent seat in synagogues and respectful greetings in marketplaces" (Luke 11:43). [65] My only comment to this use of "street language" by the Jesus Seminar is that even first year biblical students ought to know the difference between a "woe" oracle, or pronouncement of "woe," and a curse. To be sure, the Jesus Seminar could have taken their street language a little further, with a dose of scatology. Why not "shithouse" instead of "outhouse" (ajfedrwvn, "latrine") at Mark 7:19?

Next: The Jesus Seminar's Interpretation of its Data Base


63. See note 47 (above).

64. Oddly enough, the same saying in Luke 9:58 has, instead, ". . . but the son of Adam has nowhere to rest his head." This is one of a number of inconsistencies in The Five Gospels.

65. As already noted (discussion above), the scholars do not think that there were any Pharisees in Galilee in Jesus' day; here they grant the existence of enough of them for Jesus to curse them.