and when there was a great hush, he spoke to them in the Hebrew dialect, saying, Acts 21:40 (NASB)
Hebrew Dialect – Sometimes I am simply amazed at the theological assumptions that are built into our translations. Most of us never know that we are reading the bias of the translation committee. You might think that just because “scholars” do the translation work, the results would be accurate and correct. But everyone comes to the text with a particular point of view. Everyone interprets the world through his own eyes. A translator will always have a particular frame of reference. The key is to tell the reader when a particular word is being translated according to the theological bias. Otherwise, there is just no way to know unless we go back to the original.
Let’s use this verse as an example. In the Greek, the phrase is ‘Ebraidi dialekto. Even non-Greek readers can see that this means “Hebrew dialect.” So, why does the NIV translate this phrase “he said to them in Aramaic”? Yes, there is a footnote that says, “possibly Hebrew.” Even in the NASB, the footnote says, “i.e. Jewish Aramaic.” The assumption here is that the people of Israel in the time of the Messiah did not speak Hebrew, but rather spoke a dialect of Hebrew called Aramaic. But if that were the case, why didn’t Luke simply say that Paul spoke to them in Aramaic? Furthermore, the Greek word dialekto means nothing more than a language spoken by the people of the region. It is translated “language,” not dialect, in Acts 1:19, 2:6 and 2:8, but every time the Greek phrase is used in connection with Yeshua or Paul, it is translated “dialect.” Luke is the only writer that uses this word. Do you suppose that he meant two different things by the same word?
Paul has just been conversing with the Roman guard. Obviously, the Romans did not speak Hebrew, so Paul was speaking to them in Latin. Then Paul addresses the crowd in their own language. What language was that? Hebrew. That’s what the text says, so why does the NIV alter the Greek and translate the word ‘Ebraidi as “Aramaic.” Because the translators assumed that Luke meant Aramaic when he wrote Hebrew. That’s like a translator assuming that I mean Castilian when I write Spanish. This is not translation. It is interpretation.
OK, so why do we care? What’s the big deal if the NIV or the NASB or some other Bible translation says Aramaic instead of Hebrew? It’s not such a big mistake, is it? In this case, maybe not. It could be a really big mistake if the assumption that Yeshua spoke Aramaic and all the disciples spoke Aramaic leads us to conclude that Hebrew was no longer understood by the people of the first century. That might push us to believe that Yeshua and Paul were moving away from the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures. That might lead us to believe that there is a difference between the first century view of Torah and the view of Torah during the time of Moses. That might lead us to believe that Christianity rests on some other foundation than Torah. So, a tiny translation issue could lead to much bigger mistakes. It might not take us there, if it is only one little error, but the problem is that it is not simply one little error. This theological bias, that there is a gap between Jewish faith and Christianity, shows up over and over in our translations. Frankly, it is disguised anti-Semitism, concealed in theological propaganda.
But unless you read Greek, you will never know. Maybe it’s time to demand that translations be translations – and not theological interpretations.
Topical Index: Aramaic, ‘Ebraidi dialekto, theological bias, Acts 21:40