>The Use of Upper Case in Translations of the Bible

>In a recent post on the use of upper case in translating biblical passages, Suzanne McCarthy at Better Bibles Blog wrote:

However, one can see how the choice of whether to use upper case or not could well be doctrinally motivated.

We can’t really have the same experience as those who read this in the original language. Having upper case letters means one thing and not having them means something else.

In her study, she provides examples taken from Judges 9:13, Psalm 110:1, Psalm 2:2, and Isaiah 63:10. In this post, I want to demonstrate that two of Suzanne’s statements are true, that is, “the choice of whether to use upper case or not could well be doctrinally motivated,” and that “having upper case letters means one thing and not having them means something else.”

The use of upper case in English is very common and represents an author’s deliberate effort to communicate a message to the reader. For instance, the word “god” is used to represent a false god while the word “God” is used to represent the God of the Bible. The word “son” is used to designate the offspring of a father or mother while the word “Son” represents Jesus Christ. In the same way, the word “he” is used to designate a man, while the word “He” is used to designate God or Jesus Christ.

This use of upper case to convey a theological message is generally used by Christian writers. For instance, in his book Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), Bruce K. Waltke believes that the Hebrew word for serpent in Genesis 3:1 “functions as a proper name.” He wrote (p. 222): “In Genesis 3:1 the Serpent–with a capital S to represent its uniqueness–brings unaided humanity under its rule.” Thus, the serpent ceases being one of the “beasts of the field which the LORD God had made” to become the incarnation of Satan (p. 265), “that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan” (Revelation 12:9).

In the same manner, the “seed of the woman” becomes a reference to Jesus Christ. Waltke asks: “To whom does the ‘seed’ refer?” He answers his own question by saying: “Surely the most satisfactory identification of the ‘seed’ is Jesus Christ and the church” (p. 62). Although Waltke never uses upper case for “seed,” the New King James Version does: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (Genesis 3:15 NKJ).

These two examples demonstrate that Suzanne’s statement, that the “choice of whether to use upper case or not could well be doctrinally motivated,” is true. The use of upper case in translations of the Bible serves, in many cases, to emphasize a certain theological perspective about a text.

Suzanne’s other statement, that “having upper case letters means one thing and not having them means something else,” can be demonstrated by different translations of Daniel 9:25. Let me illustrate this point by quoting from the King James Version:

Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times (Daniel 9:25 KJV).

It is clear in this translation from the KJV that the word “Messiah” with upper case is a clear reference to Jesus Christ. In late Judaism, the Messiah was considered to be God’s agent who would bring restoration to Israel. The New Testament used the title and applied it to Christ to designate him as the savior of the world.

There is no doubt that readers of the King James would identify the “Messiah” with Christ. The problem with the KJV’s translation, besides the upper case, is that in Hebrew, however, the word “mashiach” means “the anointed one.” So, to do justice to the Hebrew word, the NIV translates Daniel 9:25 as follows:

Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble (Daniel 9:25 NIV).

The NIV corrects one of the mistakes of the KJV. The NIV correctly translates the word “Messiah” but it keeps the upper case in “Anointed One.” Thus, a reader of the NIV will also have no problem identifying the “Anointed One” with Jesus Christ.

The problem with both the KJV and the NIV is that they use the upper case to show that, in the mind of the translators, the “Messiah” or the “Anointed One” was Jesus Christ. The Revised Standard Version eliminates this problem by eliminating the upper case. The RSV reads as follows:

Know therefore and understand that from the going forth of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time (Daniel 9:25 RSV).

So, in the RSV, the “Messiah” and the “Anointed One” becomes “an anointed one.” However, another problem with the KJV and the NIV is that in they use the definite article “the” to identify the person referred to in Daniel 9:25. In the KJV that person is “the Messiah.” In the NIV it is “the Anointed One.” In the Old Testament two people were anointed: the priest and the king. By using the definite article, both the KJV and the NIV are saying (indirectly) that the “Messiah” or the “Anointed One” is a king.

However, the definite article does not appear in the Hebrew text and the RSV’s translation reflects this fact: “to the coming of an anointed one.” This means that the “anointed one” of Daniel 9:25 could be either a priest or a king. The proper exegesis of Daniel 9:25 reveals that the “anointed one” in Daniel 9:25 is a priest.

Thus, by using the upper case in Daniel 9:25, the translators of the KJV and the NIV say that the “Anointed One” was Jesus Christ, while the RSV by not using upper case is saying that the one coming could be either a priest or a king.

In conclusion, translators should refrain from using upper case in translating biblical texts from Hebrew into English because the use of upper case in translation of biblical texts infuses a text with a theological meaning that may not be present in the original text. This infusion of meaning becomes in itself an interpretation of the text that then is transmitted to readers who have little or no knowledge of the original language. These readers, in turn, will accept the inference that these theologically infused translations represent the real meaning of the text.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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2 Responses to >The Use of Upper Case in Translations of the Bible

  1. Anonymous says:

    >Dear Claude – Thank you for your explanation.So what about translating the Hebrew words ‘El’ or ‘Elohim’? Is it true that this word normally refers to Yahweh but sometimes may alternatively refer to powerful people, rulers, judges, angels, or pagan gods?How would you translate Exodus 22:28?The NIV says: Do not blaspheme God or curse the ruler of your people.The KJV says: Thou shalt not revile the gods, nor curse the ruler of thy people.I find the ESV is very inconsistent in its use of upper/lower case. For example, Isaiah 44:6-8 says:”I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god….Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.”Many thanksPhil McCheddar

  2. >Dear Phil,Thank you for your comment and for the interesting questions you asked. I will briefly answer your questions.1. The word El can be used to describe the God of the Bible but El was also the name of the main Canaanite God. For instance, Bethel can be “the house (or temple) of God” and “the temple of El.”2. Elohim can be the name of God but it can also be translated as “gods.” Elohim has also been translated as powerful people, rulers, judges, angels, or pagan gods but in some cases the translation is debated. 3. The NIV has a better translation in Exodus 22:28. The word used there is “elohim” which can be either “God” or “gods.”4. Generally the ESV will use upper case when a word refers to God or Christ.Thank you for visiting my blog.Claude Mariottini

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