Lost in Translation: Shalom.

July 13, 2009 3:20 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

It is easy to take for granted our English translations of the Bible. Yet when translating from one language to another meaning can be lost. This is especially true when translating Hebrew which has a relatively small vocabulary and one word may have many possible meanings. For instance, the word shalom (שָׁלוֹם) can mean “completeness, fullness, wholeness, soundness, welfare, peace, safety, health, quiet, tranquillity, contentment and friendship”.[1] It is also sometimes used as a synonym for salvation,[2] yet more often than not it is simply translated as peace.

If we were reading the word in Hebrew we would be able “to embrace in our minds the breadth of meaning [but] when we translate into English, we have to make choices which limit the meaning”.[3] Therefore, a little time spent looking at a Hebrew word’s full range of meaning can be extremely rewarding. Although the New Testament was written in Greek (the lingua franca throughout the Roman Empire) behind the Greek words are Hebrew minds. Scholars might debate whether Hebrew or Aramaic was the common daily language of First Century Jews, but Hebrew was the language of the Torah, religious instruction, prayer and synagogue services[4] and so it should not be surprising that the New Testament “is full of Hebraisms and Hebrew expressions”.[5] Both Jesus and Paul would have started learning Torah from age 5 and rabbinic commentary from age 10, and so when they spoke of peace they did so with a Hebraic understanding. Therefore, when we exchange peace for shalom where it occurs in their speech and writing, a whole world of new meaning explodes!

The best example of this is John 14:27:

“Shalom I leave with you; my shalom I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

I have often recited this verse in times of anxiety and fear, believing that the peace Jesus spoke of was the antidote to being troubled or afraid, but set in context I now see it rather differently.  Jesus has been telling his disciples that he is to leave them soon but the Father will send the Holy Spirit in his name. His presence/the Holy Spirit will remain with them.  He is saying: “Though I am leaving you in body you do not need to be afraid. My completeness, my wholeness, my fullness I leave with you and give to you. Such a gift the world could not give.”

Jesus is offering more than the ability to remain calm and have a tranquil mind; he is offering the complete, fullness of himself through the Holy Spirit. What a gift!

(The meaning of these verses also expands by inserting shalom: Acts 10:36, Gal. 5:22, Eph. 6:15, Phil. 4:7, Col. 3:15.)


[1] http://www.biblestudytools.net/Lexicons/Hebrew/heb.cgi?number=07965&version=kjv

[2] See Bivin, D. ‘Hebrew Nuggets Lesson 15 – Shalom’ in Jerusalem Perspective, Issue 1, Oct 1987.

[3] Dobson, J. Learn Biblical Hebrew (2008), USA: Baker Academic, p.56.

[4] Pryor, D. Behold The Man (2005), USA: Centre for Judaic-Christian Studies, p. 13 & 50.

[5] Wilson, M. Our Father Abraham (1989), USA: Eerdmans, p.136.

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This post was written by josaxton

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