Theology in 3D

What We Might Miss Using Modern Bible Translations

Greg Stiekes | November 17, 2018
New Testament

We preach and teach from modern translations that are true to the original text in order to allow people to hear the word of God in a language they can truly understand. For, as the preface to the KJV states, “Without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well.”

About twenty years ago I was serving on the pastoral staff of a church that shifted from using the KJV to the NKJV in public ministry, and I noticed two immediate effects. First, my own understanding of the Scriptures broadened. Second, it was freeing to not have to explain the Elizabethan English to the congregation in addition to explaining the biblical text. The English of Shakespeare’s day is, after all, no longer the “vulgar” (common) tongue. Then about five years ago I began to preach from the ESV, historically derived from the KJV (KJV → RV → ASV → RSV → ESV) and have enjoyed this version immensely.

There is no perfect translation, however. And there are times when I still prefer the KJV translation of a particular phrase or verse when its rendering seems to me closer than the modern versions to the original text. And recently I noticed something that we might be missing in our updated Bible versions. Namely, words that were once transliterated in older versions that are now translated in newer versions. Here is an example of what I’m talking about:

Matthew 6:24 (ESV) reads,

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

Having read and memorized the KJV for at least half my life, my eyes are reading, “You cannot serve God and money,” but my mind is saying, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” What is mammon? Is it just one of those Elizabethan words that nobody uses anymore, hence the updated translation, “money”?

No, this is actually an example of a KJV transliteration of a word in the original text that the translators (the Oxford team) did not choose to translate into English. Rather, they looked at this word in (Beza’s fifth edition of) Erasmus’s Greek text—μαμωνᾶς—and rendered it “mammon,” leaving the original word to stand in English letters.

The reason the translators chose to transliterate this word may lie in the tradition established in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, which also provides the transliteration of the same word: non potestis Deo servire et mamonae. Likewise, Luther’s 1522 September translation reads, Ihr sund nicht gott dienen und dem Mammon (updated spelling). And, soon after Luther, William Tyndale translated, “Ye can not serve God and mammon.” Because the KJV relied heavily on Tyndale’s translation, it is not surprising to find the same translation there either.

Not all translators followed this tradition. Most ironically, John Wycliffe, though he was actually translating the Latin Vulgate (not the Greek text) rendered Matt 6:24, “Ye be not able to serve God and riches” (1382). Likewise, the once popular Geneva Bible rendered the verse, “Ye cannot serve God and riches” (1557).

But for most of translation history in the West, the word μαμωνᾶς was not translated as “money” or “riches,” but was merely rendered as “Mammon” in the target language. Moreover, the word was further enforced by its use in classic literature. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, for instance, Mammon is one of the spirits who fell with Satan and helps to plot the overthrow of the King of Heaven (1.226–83).

So, does it matter much whether we translate the word “money” or “riches” rather than render the word mammon? I do not think I’m overstating the case by answering yes, because I think that we lose something of what Jesus is telling us in Matthew 6:24 when we translate this word to mean merely “money” or “wealth” or “possessions.”

The word mammon is not a Greek word but is most likely an Aramaic word that was itself actually transliterated in the Greek. And a word is often transliterated when there is no direct corresponding word to use in its place. If Matthew or Luke (cf. Luke 16:13) wanted to render Jesus’s Aramaic use of mammon into Greek they could have easily done so with the word ἀργύριον (argyrion), or silver, the common currency of the day. By an easy compound, the term φιλάργυρος (philargyros, lover of money) was also available to the authors.

Instead, however, they chose to retain the original Aramaic word. Why? Because mammon does not merely mean “money” or “wealth.” Money is not necessarily a wrong thing; in fact, it can be a very good thing. But mammon is more than material gain. Mammon is an object of worship. One of the possible etymologies of mammon is the Aramaic word, āman, meaning an object of trust. Mammon is not merely material gain, but material gain that becomes one’s consuming focus as a kind of salvation.

Luke easily pairs the word with the adjective “unrighteous” (Luke 16:910). And Milton describes the evil spirit Mammon as

… the least erected spirit that fell/ From Heaven, for even in Heaven his looks and thoughts/ Were always downward bend, admiring more/ The riches of Heavens pavement, trodden gold,/ Than aught divine or holy ….

This word mammon enhances Jesus’s teaching in Matt 6:24. For the Lord’s point is not limited to money or wealth. Jesus is warning us that we cannot have competing objects of worship. We cannot “love” (agapaō) or “be devoted to” (antechōmai) him if we are worshiping something material. In fact, Jesus implies, if we are not devoted to him alone, then we “hate” (miseō) or scorn (kataphroneō) him.

So, there is a significant difference between material gain and mammon, And now that Black Friday has come and gone and we are about to enter full force into the busiest buying and selling season of the year, it would be good for us to have the two ideas clear in our minds. We can journey into this holiday season and enjoy our material things, exchange gifts, receive bonuses, enjoy eating more than normal, and all that December usually brings, as long as we keep in mind that these are merely earthly goods that God has given to us to enjoy. But they are not to become mammon; they are not to become objects of worship. Matthew 6:24 plainly teaches this truth, with or without the transliteration of mammon in our Bible. But I sense that we miss something of the “bite” at the end of Jesus’s saying if we do not have the significance of this word in our vocabulary.

John Piper observes in his book, A Hunger for God, “The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, an almost incurable” (p. 14).

There is a word for this kind of idolatry that comes from an ancient word group. Mammon. I don’t think it’s a word we should lose, but rather retain in our translations, just like the Greek text retains it. And we should teach the church what it means, lest we limit or detract from the dire warning of Jesus to his followers. We cannot serve God while clinging to any other object of worship.


5 responses to “What We Might Miss Using Modern Bible Translations”

  1. Thought-provoking post, Greg. Do you think it’s possible that the KJV translators were not necessarily falling back on transliteration, but were actually using a recognized translation? I’m no linguist, but the OED history of “mammon” is fascinating and seems to suggest that the word had been in the English language for over half a millennium before the KJV. OED includes sample uses from, e.g., 1502, 1400, 1376, and even in Old English from before the time of “Beowulf.” Even if “mammon” was ‘originally’ a transliteration (from Aramaic into Greek, then Latin, then English), it seems to have become a ‘normal’ English word used long before 1611. Perhaps “mammon” was as much a recognized English word in 1611 (and hence a translation, not a transliteration) as “baptism” is to us now, even though both ultimately trace their roots to (pre-1611) transliterations. The etymological line between transliteration and translation is exceedingly thin sometimes, is it not?

  2. Dustin B. says:

    Mark Ward recently wrote in his book on the KJV:
    “Until recently, I had no idea what dropsy was; it’s a word I’d never heard or read outside the KJV, and dictionaries confirm that it is obsolete. The technical modern equivalent is edema, and though I was minimally familiar with that word, I was pretty fuzzy on its meaning. It sounds so clinical, like pseudofolliculitis barbae or something. If it were placed in the Bible text, I would feel like I was being wrenched out of the first century and into a modern hospital ward. It would feel out of place. So I like the solution many modern translations give: “abnormal swelling of the body.” What is one (compound) word in the Greek becomes five words in English. It’s not “literal,” but it’s the best translation.”
    Mark Ward, Authorized: The Use & Misuse of the King James Bible, ed. Elliot Ritzema, Lynnea Fraser, and Danielle Thevenaz (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018), 77–78.
    I wonder if perhaps instead of mammon—a word nobody knows what it means anymore—we should translate it as an expanded phrase instead. I don’t have any good suggestions, but here are a few:
    “prided possessions”
    “temporal satisfaction”
    I’d argue for something like this (or even “riches” or “money”) over “mammon.” “Prided possessions,” “temporal satisfaction,” or even “riches” or “money” communicate far more than a bunch of random letters (for most people) spelled M-A-M-M-O-N.
    Mark cited D.A. Carson in this footnote in his book:
    “It is true that Elizabethan English is more precise than modern English in its use of pronouns. Nevertheless I confess that, as a preacher, I would rather specify the exact meaning of the odd ambiguous pronoun now and then, than explain all the archaisms in the text of the KJV.” The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 98.
    Mark Ward, Authorized: The Use & Misuse of the King James Bible, ed. Elliot Ritzema, Lynnea Fraser, and Danielle Thevenaz (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018).
    It’s like one time when Dr. Leedy had us do an etymological study on a made up word. My word was chosen (and I still remember it, remarkably): Monzid. He asked a bunch of questions about my made up word, like using it in a sentence, and eventually we got the definition. But the word itself without context or definition is unhelpful.
    I realize that “mammon” has a historical use (a la KJV) that “monzid” doesn’t. But I’d rather I have to expand on “riches” or “money” to my church people than give a basic definition not in English.

  3. Tim sturm says:

    More than one lexicon for most greek words. KJV has no errors. Written during the church age of Philadelphia. KEPT THY WORD. Shall I attack the Esv? Plenty of errors in your catholic bible. You mentioned ORIGIONALS. There No ORIGIONALS around. Why do you lie.

  4. Greg Stiekes says:

    Tim, when we say “original,” we of course do not mean that we have the physical copies or “autographs” that were originally penned and two copies made, one for the author and one to dispatch. We mean the “original” as the surviving copies bear witness to the autograph. For example, in the case of the word “mammon,” all of the Greek texts have the Greek spelling “mamona” at Matt 6:24, and Luke 16:9, 11, and 13. So they bear witness to what the original said. Interestingly enough, the one exception that I know of is the Textus Receptus, which misspells “mammon” in Matt 6:24 by adding an extra “m.” I think that this just a typo, though. Because the majority text (Byzantine text type) has it spelled correctly.

  5. Christopher says:

    Why when you come across a word you do not understand in the KJV you opt for throwing the baby out with the bath water, Just get another version that still has hard words in it. Will you do this with the next version you use, or do we just use that logic on the KJV? Why not “study” and look up what the word means. Now we all know what mammon means, right? Now that was easy and you can keep your Bible. I thought preachers and teachers are supposed to help people understand and explain the Bible? If you stumble upon explaining what a word means, how in the world do you explain a passage when you preach? Then, to boot, you run to an unknown language to most (Greek) to define the hard word 😉

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