When Word-For-Word is Not so Word-For-Word

In translation, especially in Bible translation, we rightly regard a word-for-word approach as more transparent than a thought-for-thought approach, involving less of the translator’s interpretation of the reality behind the words in the original text. In Bible translations, the word-for-word method involves less risk of carrying theological baggage (though there is still a risk), meaning it is more likely to be able to remain neutral if there is a debate about the meaning of the text. As someone who has translated large portions of the Bible, I can tell you that there are, at times, theologically charged mistranslations of the Bible that have become traditional that a simple word-for-word translation would correct. Interestingly, one example of such a traditional mistranslation comes originally from a word-for-word English translation and is perpetuated in almost every word-for-word English translation descended from it.

That example is Hebrews 12:2. Most modern English Bible translations preserve a translation innovation in this verse that, as far as I can tell, originated with William Tyndale. Tyndale translated the first phrase this way: “lokynge vnto Iesus the auctor and fynnyssher of oure fayth”. Updating the spelling, we get this: “Looking unto Jesus the auctor and finisher of our faith.” This is practically the KJV, except for the word “auctor”, which the KJV updates to “author”. “Auctor” is a Latin term borrowed into English that means “originator”, and it is the word used in the Latin Vulgate to translate the Greek archegos.

The innovation introduced here is the word “our”. There is no corollary for this word in the original Greek, nor does one find it in the Latin Vulgate, Luther’s German Bible, John Wycliffe’s earlier English translation, or the Douay-Rheims translation (a Catholic English translation contemporary to the KJV). It was not in the Spanish translation tradition until it was introduced into the Nueva Version Internacional (under the influence, no doubt, of the English NIV). It continues to be a minority reading in Spanish and practically unheard of in any other language. It is only in English that the majority reading includes the interpolation “our”.

There are a few English translations that do not include “our”. These are the New American Standard Bible, the Common English Bible, Darby’s translation, Young’s Literal translation, and the Complete Jewish Bible (the Message also might be considered in this group). There may be others, but I’ve checked all the translations commonly available today, and, other than the exceptions I mentioned, every single one follows Tyndale in inserting “our” before “faith”, though commentators on Hebrews have long noted the insertion and its lack of basis in the Greek text.

The addition of “our” arguably has a tremendous impact on the way we translate this sentence, particularly in our understanding of “faith”. It ends up shading “faith” in one of two directions. On the one hand, it could be understood as “the faith”, meaning the Christian faith, the set of beliefs and practices that make up the Christian religion. Jesus, then, is the originator of our religion and the one who brings it to completion. He is the total object of our religious beliefs. While these confessional statements may be true, they are not, however, probably what is meant in Hebrews 12:2. The most decisive reason is that “faith” already has an established meaning in Hebrews, and it is not the body of Christian religious beliefs and practices. That’s certainly not what it means in Hebrews 11, the “faith’s hall of fame” chapter that this verse comes immediately after and concludes.

On the other hand, “our faith” could push “faith” toward the subjective. Jesus is the one who originates my personal faith, and he is the one who will preserve my faith and bring it to perfection. But this sense also has trouble connecting to its context, which is the main reason I do not think it is appropriate to read the possessive adjective into the definite article (perhaps technically possible, but it must be justified in the text elsewhere). The point of these first few verses of Hebrews 12 is to highlight Jesus’ perfect obedience in faith. All these other people mentioned in Hebrews 11 were full of faith and good examples to follow, but turn your eyes to Jesus, who was the faith-filled person par excellence. This passage is focused on Jesus as the obedient perfect human, not as a deified figure indistinguishable from the Holy Spirit, which is what the subjective version of “our faith” makes him out to be (the one who works on our hearts to perfect our interior faith).

The true meaning of this passage cannot be salvaged while retaining the word “our”. What the verse actually means is that Jesus is the prototype of faith, and he reveals faith in its most perfect form. This is faithfulness, objectively speaking, a godly virtue, and you cannot find a better example of faith than Jesus. That’s what Hebrews 12:2 is saying, and this meaning is completely obscured by the unwarranted insertion of the word “our”, because this kind of faith is external to us. We can follow the example, but it is a paradigm that remains external to ourselves.

So what’s the moral of the story? Even though the word-for-word translation method ought to produce a more transparent and theologically neutral translation of the Bible, it is still possible for predominately word-for-word translations to make subtle alterations to the text that have a pretty profound impact upon its meaning.

Let’s be clear: I am not condemning Tyndale or any of the people involved in the production of any of the translations that have followed him in adding “our” to Hebrews 12:2. If I can be as faithful as Tyndale, who was executed as a heretic for doing what he believed was God’s will (namely, translating the Bible into English and distributing this Bible), I’ll be doing well. The point I am making is that even someone as awesome as William Tyndale can make a mistake. And even as revered a translation as the King James Version can unthinkingly perpetuate it.

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