Mistranslations in the Bible

A lot of things you’ll see in English translations of the Bible are translated to say what the translators thought the Bible should say (or what the people buying Bibles think it should say), rather than what it actually says in the text they’re translating from.1

Usually when I write about the Bible, I just go by what it says in the version that’s the default option on Bible Gateway. That’s not a particularly accurate translation, but even after they’ve mistranslated away a lot of the things that would make it too obvious how flawed the Bible is, it’s still full of outrageous and absurd things. But now let’s look at some of the things the Bible really says…

The English word “heart”, when used metaphorically, refers to a person’s emotions, in contrast to rational thought. But the Hebrew and Greek words for “heart” were used to mean the entire mind, not just emotions, so translating them as the metaphorical English “heart” is misleading.

The Bible isn’t exactly using “heart” metaphorically, though. Like most people in ancient times, the writers of the Bible believed that people literally thought with their hearts. And their kidneys. Seriously, the Bible talks about the kidneys as if that’s where the mind was located, just like it does with the heart. Have you read the Bible and never noticed that? That’s because English versions of the Bible always either mistranslate the word for kidneys as something like “mind”, or use “reins” (an obscure word for kidneys), so it won’t sound so silly.

Some translations change the lists of Shem’s sons and Eliphaz’s sons in 1 Chronicles to say that not all of them were the sons of those guys, so you’ll think those parts don’t contradict Genesis.

In the Hebrew text, Abraham clearly says that gods have caused him to wander, and Laban clearly says the gods of Abraham as well as the gods of Nahor can judge between Laban and Jacob. But almost all English translations, being made by monotheists, change it so they say those things about God instead.

A lot of translations change Laban from being Nahor’s son to being his grandson, so you won’t notice the contradiction between that and the part that says he was Bethuel’s son.

The Bible says the Passover sacrifice should be made when the sun goes down, at the same time of day the Israelites left Egypt. But since the Bible also says they left Egypt after midnight, some versions hide the contradiction by just saying the sacrifice should be made at the same time of year.

The Hebrew text has the Israelites singing about how they’ve conquered the peoples of Canaan and settled in their land… before that has even happened. A lot of versions of the Bible mistranslate away this anachronism, and have them instead sing about what will happen.

The Bible says the punishment for causing a miscarriage is merely to pay a fine, as opposed to the death penalty that it requires for killing a person. That doesn’t fit very well with pro-life beliefs, so after the abortion controversy got started, some versions of the Bible started saying this was about making a woman “give birth prematurely” instead.

Moses said God taught his people that you can live on whatever God says you can live on (which in that case was manna). But this is almost always mistranslated to make it sound like he’s saying you can live on God’s words themselves, instead of living on what God’s words are referring to.

Why did the translators change this statement into something that makes less sense than what it really says? Probably because the only other way to make it match the way Jesus quoted it would be to pretend that Jesus had quoted it correctly, which would make what Jesus says make even less sense than what Jesus actually said.

Most English translations change the verse that tells the gods to praise God’s people, pretending it’s just telling the nations to rejoice with God’s people.

Joshua recounts the time Balak king of Moab fought against Israel… Except according to other parts of the Bible, he never actually did that. So some versions of the Bible change it so Joshua just says Balak prepared to fight against Israel.

The book of Judges mentions Hobab being Moses’s father-in-law, but some versions change it to say he’s his brother-in-law. I guess they thought Moses already had enough fathers-in-law.

All the earliest manuscripts that have been found say Goliath was less than seven feet tall, but almost all English versions of the Bible continue the tradition of saying he was over nine feet tall. Even versions that were made recently enough that the translators should have known better.

There’s a verse in 2 Samuel about how many enemy men David captured that’s translated several quite different ways in different versions. It doesn’t seem to agree with what 1 Chronicles says about the same thing, so some versions just replace it with what 1 Chronicles says.

Some versions of 2 Samuel call someone an Ishmaelite to make it agree with 1 Chronicles, rather than making it agree with any of the Hebrew manuscripts of Samuel that they’re supposed to be translating from, which say he was an Israelite.

There’s a passage that, in almost all the manuscripts it’s translated from, says David killed his own stepchildren, the sons of his wife Michal. But the translators of the majority of the English versions apparently found that too inconsistent or otherwise objectionable, so they decided to say David killed the sons of Merab, Michal’s sister who David didn’t marry.

Some versions of the Bible say Elhanan killed the brother of Goliath, even though the actual source texts don’t say anything about a brother. All it really says is that Elhanan killed Goliath. But everybody knows it was somebody else that did that, so the translators had to make it say something else.

The Hebrew text of 2 Samuel says one of the punishment options David was offered was seven years of famine, but some translations change it to three years, so it won’t contradict 1 Chronicles.

Psalm 8 says humans are just a little lower than God, but some translations instead say we’re a little lower than the angels. They’ve changed it to make it match what the New Testament says when it quotes a mistranslation of the Old Testament, rather than making it match the original Hebrew.

Some Christians say Psalm 22 contains a prediction of Jesus’s hands and feet being pierced when he was crucified, but that’s a mistranslation. It doesn’t even say “pierce” in the Hebrew Bible, but that’s how the early Christians happened to interpret it at one point when they made a translation of a translation of that psalm. And since that came out looking so much like a prediction of Jesus, Christians have always opted to translate it that way since then.

In Psalm 51, David says he was conceived, formed, and/or born in sin, which is ambiguous. It could mean his parents sinned in some way when they conceived him. But some English versions of the Bible, versions that want to promote the nonsensical and unjust idea of inherited original sin, translate it to say that David was a sinner all the way back then. And other versions leave it ambiguous.

Some versions have 1 Kings say Solomon had 4000 stalls for his chariot horses, just so it will match what 2 Chronicles says, even though 1 Kings actually says he had 40,000. Most English translations also change the amount of wheat he gave Hiram, for the same reason.

The Bible says humans are animals, but some translators didn’t like that idea for some reason, so they changed it to just say humans are like animals.

There’s a verse where Solomon is obviously talking about his lover’s vulva, but almost all English translations change it so he instead says the same things about her navel, her hips, her belly, her thighs, her waist, or her body in general, which doesn’t make much sense that way. Only a few versions even get close to what it should say.

A lot of translations change the part that says Maakah daughter of Abishalom was Asa’s mother, and instead make it say she was his grandmother. Which she was, apparently, but that’s not what it’s supposed to say. I guess the translators just didn’t like the fact that the Bible seems to be saying Asa’s father had sex with his own mother, so they changed it.

All the Hebrew manuscripts say in 2 Chronicles that Ahaziah became king at age 42, making him older than his own father. But most English versions change it to 22, to make it match 2 Kings, even though it doesn’t.

Most English versions mistranslate away (in one way or another) the absurd part where Isaiah says that after an angel slaughtered thousands of Assyrian men, those men woke up in the morning and noticed they were dead.

Even though almost all existing Hebrew manuscripts say in 2 Chronicles that Jehoiachin became king at age 8, some English versions say he was 18, just because the translators didn’t want 2 Chronicles to contradict 2 Kings, even though it in fact does.

2 Chronicles says Zedekiah was Jehoiachin’s brother, but some translations change it to say he was his uncle, because that’s what it says in 2 Kings.

Some of the gospels claim that Jesus came from a virgin birth, and that the prophet Isaiah had predicted that would happen. But Isaiah never actually said anything about a virgin giving birth. It looks like what actually happened is that the gospel writers got that idea from a previous mistranslation of the scriptures.

If Isaiah had actually intended to predict a miraculous virgin birth, he would have made that clear by using the Hebrew word that specifically means a virgin. Instead, he used a Hebrew word for a young woman, which was later mistranslated as meaning a virgin.

This mistranslation first occurred a few hundred years after Isaiah and a few hundred years before Jesus, in the first-ever translation of the Bible. The Jews were starting to forget how to speak Hebrew, and had to translate their scriptures into Greek. Now, since the New Testament needs the Old Testament to provide a prediction of a virgin birth for Jesus to fulfill, most Christian Bibles opt to translate that part of Isaiah from the Greek mistranslation instead of from the original Hebrew.

Christian Bibles mistranslate another of Isaiah’s prophecies to make it sound like the human king he’s talking about is to be called God. It was probably originally either just saying what God would call the king, or saying a name that contains a reference to God, as plenty of other biblical names do.

Isaiah predicted that satyrs would live in the ruins of Babylon and Edom, but satyrs aren’t real, so most English translations change it so it just says goats will live there.

Isaiah said God would speak with either stammering or mocking lips. But in the New Testament, Paul misquotes that as foreign lips, so now a lot of versions mistranslate it that way in Isaiah, too, so you won’t notice Paul misquoting it.

Isaiah also predicted that the Egyptians will be “like women”. (Meaning the ones who aren’t actually women, I guess?) And then he explained how they would be like women. But a few translations skip the woman simile, and change that word so it just says the Egyptians will be weak, or weaklings. Which probably isn’t even what the simile actually meant.

Jeremiah and Nahum, though, do seem to simply use “women” to mean “weak”. So a few translations again change it so it just says the men are weak, or weaklings, so you won’t know the Bible is using “women” as an insult.

The word “Messiah”, besides meaning a specific prophesied savior of some kind, can also refer to any “anointed king”, or even to “anointed” people and things more generally. But Christian Bibles always translate the parts of the Hebrew Bible that Christians think are about Jesus as “Messiah”, and translate all the other uses of the same word in other ways.

In Esther, when the king of Persia gives the Jews permission to kill all their enemies, he says they can also kill their enemies’ women and children. Some translations completely change this to make it sound like only the Jewish women and children are in danger. And other versions make it ambiguous so you can’t tell which of those things it’s saying.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s response to being sentenced to be thrown into the furnace is ambiguous: They’re either questioning whether God is capable of rescuing them, or questioning whether God exists at all. But a lot of people disagree with the Bible’s implication here, so a lot of translations change this to make it sound like they’re not questioning God at all.

There’s a verse in the gospel of John where Jesus goes into the land of Judea, even though he he was already in the capital of Judea. That doesn’t make sense, so some versions mistranslate that verse to say he went into the countryside of Judea. Those versions translate the word for “country” correctly everywhere except that one verse.

Another verse in John is usually translated as saying the Spirit “had not been given” yet. A more accurate translation would be that there was no Spirit.

Adding or removing details

A few versions of the Bible have Genesis 2 say God “had” created certain things, instead of just saying he created those things. The word they added here covers up the contradictions between the first two chapters regarding what order things were created in.

Some versions of the Bible try to make it a little less obvious how wrong God was when he told Adam he would die the day he ate the fruit, by leaving out the part that specifies the day.

The Hebrew for Genesis 14:20 doesn’t make it clear who is giving to whom. Melchizedek giving to Abraham would seem more consistent with the context. But the author of the book of Hebrews interpreted it the other way around, so now a lot of versions of the Bible have Genesis say it was Abraham who gave a tenth of everything.

The Hebrew text says God responded to an outcry coming from Sodom and Gomorrah. That implies that there were a significant number of innocent people living there who God neglected to warn before he destroyed the cities. So a lot of translations change it so it just says there was an outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah.

It originally said Lot’s daughters thought there were no men besides Lot left in the world. That doesn’t make sense, since they had just been living in a town that wasn’t destroyed. So some versions mistranslate it so the daughters just say there aren’t any other men around.

A couple of versions of the Bible insert the word “fully” to try to hide the inconsistency when God tells Moses he didn’t make himself known to his ancestors by the same name he’s using now, even though that’s exactly what the Bible says God went by back then.

The writers of the Bible originally had God say he didn’t want his people making images of creatures in the water under the earth. Because back then, they thought “the earth” was a land mass floating on top of an endless flat ocean, or something. Some English translations hide this ignorance by not saying what the waters are below (so you’ll just assume it means below the sky), or by not mentioning the sea being below anything, or by not even mentioning water at all.

A lot of translations use “servant” (at least some of the time) for the words that actually mean “slave”, to try to make the Bible’s attitude toward slavery seem a little less shocking.

Some versions of the Bible say it’s okay to beat your slaves till they’re nearly dead and they take days to recover, and there will be no punishment for the owner if the slave recovers after a day or two. But if you look at a more accurate translation, you’ll find that what the Bible really says is even worse. It actually says there’s no punishment for the owner if the slave survives for a day or two. So rather than saying you might get punished if your slave takes too many days to recover, what it’s actually saying is that you won’t be punished for beating your slave to death, as long as you do it slowly enough.

The Bible does not actually forbid sex outside of marriage, but some versions of the Bible do have it forbid “fornication“. That’s actually a mistranslation of a word that originally meant prostitution, and later came to mean all kinds of disapproved sexual activities.

Other versions of the Bible, including the one I’m working with, translate that word as “sexual immorality“. That’s probably a more accurate translation than “fornication”, but it’s also too vague to mean anything. When the Bible says you should abstain from “sexual immorality”, all that says is that the sex acts that are bad are bad. It doesn’t say which ones those are. So that’s a pretty pointless thing to say.

The Hebrew text says Saul only reigned for two years, which doesn’t fit with some other parts of the Bible. And when it tries to say how old he was when he became king, it forgets to say a number at all. Different English translations make up several different numbers to use here to try to make this verse make sense (or not).

One verse says Samuel never saw Saul again until the day he died, but in a later chapter, he does see him. He sees him naked, even. He wasn’t trying to see Saul at all then, though, so some versions “resolve” this contradiction by changing that first verse to just say he never went to see him again.

Some versions of the Bible try to make the little children Elisha got God to murder seem less innocent and helpless, by calling them “youths“, “young people“, “young lads“, “young men“, “insignificant young men“, or “a gang of young men“.

A few versions of the Bible try to cover up the obvious falsehood of God’s claim in Jeremiah that he never gave his people any commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices. These versions add a word to make it seem like he’s just saying that’s not the only thing he gave commands about.

A few translations add the word “savior” to the name given to someone in one of Jeremiah’s prophecies, so you’ll think he’s talking about Jesus.

God tells Ezekiel that the laws God gave his people were not good, and that God defiled his people. Some versions try to make God look a little less bad here by mistranslating it to have him say he just let his people follow bad laws and defile themselves, or to imply that the bad laws he’s talking about aren’t the same laws God originally gave his people.

The book of Ezra says the prophet Zechariah was the son of Iddo, but the book of Zechariah disagrees, and says he was the grandson of Iddo. So some translations try to cover that up by mistranslating Ezra to just say Zechariah was a descendant of Iddo.

A few versions of the Bible try to cover up Jesus’s ignorant statement that a mustard seed is the smallest seed, by having him say it’s the smallest in the region, or just one of the smallest, or just that it’s really small, or even pretending that he’s not talking about mustard seeds at all. (Those versions still leave in the part where he ignorantly says mustard seeds turn into trees, though.)

To try to avoid any possible unfortunate implications when the gospels talk about “the Jews”, some translations change it to “the Jewish leaders”, even when that’s unnecessary and inaccurate and makes a lot less sense.

The early Christians didn’t believe in a “trinity“, but modern Bibles tend to be translated in ways that suggest a trinity every chance they get. For instance, they use personal pronouns to refer to the Holy Spirit even though “it” would be a more accurate translation, and they capitalize “the Spirit” even in the Old Testament.

In some versions of the Bible, the (approving) parts about same-sex kisses are replaced with hugs or handshakes or nothing in particular.

That’s just a few of the things that have been mistranslated in the Bible. There are lots more.

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