Mistranslation and the Holocaust

There is little question that Christendom’s anti-Semitic history sowed the seeds for the unthinkable and John’s Gospel played an outsized role.

April 27, 2014 22:48
4 minute read.
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new testament. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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What does correcting a mistranslation in the New Testament Gospel of John have to do with the resolve of decent people everywhere never to allow another Holocaust? As we approach Holocaust Remembrance Day, the short answer is “plenty.”

There is little question that Christendom’s anti-Semitic history sowed the seeds for the unthinkable – and that John’s Gospel played an outsized role.

Its portrayal of those whom translators render “the Jews” is strikingly negative: “the Jews” confront and hound Jesus, persecute and arrest him, and hand him to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who crucifies him.

But what if the word rendered “Jews” by most translators means something else? In fact, scholars agree that the Greek word in question, “ioudaioi,” appearing 67 times in the text, also can mean “Judeans,” meaning not all or most Jews, but certain leaders in first-century Judea who collaborated with Rome.

The evidence suggests that in most instances in John, this is exactly its meaning. If so, the implications are staggering.

The translators were wrong, the cost to the Jewish people was incalculable, and the moral duty to correct this error should be obvious to all.

One example from the New King James Version (NKJV) is instructive: “Then after this, [Jesus] said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again. The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the ioudaioi [Jews] sought to stone you and are you going there again?’” (John 11:7-8) Translating “ioudaioi” above as “Jews” presents an immediate problem. It implies that Jesus – even while called “rabbi” – was not Jewish, but an outsider, along with his disciples. This would include John, despite his insider knowledge of the people and places, customs and nuances of early first-century Israel.

It obscures the fact that John is describing a family dispute – albeit a bitter one – among some of his fellow Jews on whether Jesus was Israel’s deliverer. It implies that the Jews as a people were Christ’s monolithic foe, and perhaps even collectively culpable for his mistreatment and death.

In other words, rendering “ioudaioi” as “Jews” suggests the writer drew an impassable line between Jesus and his earliest followers and “the Jews.”

Clearly he did not. The problem rests with the translation. Ioudaioi here means “Judeans,” not “Jews.”

A careful look at the geography and politics of the time reveals why.

In all four gospels, Judea was one of two frequently-mentioned regions of first-century Israel – the other being Galilee. The hated Roman oppressor directly ruled Judea, including Jerusalem and surrounding areas, through governors like Pilate, and indirectly ran Galilee through puppet kings. Both Judeans and Galileans were Jews, but their relationship was strained: Galileans often saw Judean leaders, especially Jerusalem’s chief priests, as spiritually compromised, pro-Roman appeasers, while these leaders often saw Galileans as firebrands taunting them and the Romans.

Jesus and most of his followers, including John, were Galileans. While born in Bethlehem in Judea, Jesus was raised in the Galilean town of Nazareth.

In John’s Gospel, the most heated confrontations with Jesus’ foes occurred in Judea, with the high priest, Caiaphas – whom many Jews despised due to his financial corruption and collaboration with Rome – and the other chief priests as the main antagonists.

Armed with these facts, let’s substitute “Judeans” for “Jews” in the previously cited passage: “Then after this, [Jesus] said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again. The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the [Judeans] sought to stone you and are you going there again?’” (John 11:7-8) “Judeans” clearly fits better. Jesus’ Galilean disciples worried about entering Judea precisely due to concerns about Judean-based leaders like Caiaphas. Both groups were Jewish. It was, again, a first-century family dispute, though a serious one.

The next step is to do likewise with the rest of John’s Gospel. Does “Judeans” fit better? In most cases, yes.

Don’t translators see the problem? Actually, the New King James Version (NKJV) translators did. In I Thessalonians 2:14-16, a portion from one of Paul’s letters, they rightly rendered ioudaioi “Judeans.” With this one simple change, they transformed a passage wielded infamously for centuries against the entire people of Israel into one that criticizes a miniscule clique of individuals – likely Caiaphas and his allies – within first-century Judea.

Why no similar corrections for John’s Gospel? Why indeed.

As Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches, translators must face the problem squarely. This will not alter what C.S. Lewis once called “mere Christianity,” nor any Jewish teaching or belief. Here’s what it will do: correct a fateful mistake, right a historical wrong, neutralize a powerful weapon in the toolbox of hate, and honor the words, “Never Again,” in a concrete, unmistakable way.

The author is a writer in Washington, DC.

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