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Friday, October 20, 2006

translating kosmos

English Bibles translate the Greek word kosmos as "world." But is the English word "world" the most accurate translation of kosmos in all biblical contexts for most English speakers? I suspect it is not.

Here are the definitions of "world" in the American Heritage Dictionary:
1. The earth. 2. The universe. 3. The earth with its inhabitants. 4. The inhabitants of the earth; the human race. 5.a. Humankind considered as social beings; human society: turned her back on the world. b. People as a whole; the public: The event amazed the world. 6. Often World. A specified part of the earth: the Western World. 7. A part of the earth and its inhabitants as known at a given period in history: the ancient world. 8. A realm or domain: the animal world; the world of imagination. 9.a. A sphere of human activity or interest: the world of sports. b. A class or group of people with common characteristics or pursuits: the scientific world. 10. A particular way of life: the world of the homeless. 11. All that relates to or affects the life of a person: He saw his world collapse about him. 12. Secular life and its concerns: a man of the world. 13.a. Human existence; life: brought a child into the world. b. A state of existence: the next world. 14. Often worlds. A large amount; much: did her a world of good; candidates that are worlds apart on foreign policy. 15. A celestial body such as a planet: the possibility of life on other worlds.
When we consider different meaning senses of a word in a dictionary, we also need to consider which of those senses are most common to most people. In other words, in typical literary or speech contexts today, which of the AHED meaning senses do most English speakers have active in their minds?

I suggest that the most common meaning sense for most English speakers today is AHED #1. A number of the other meaning senses, including 2, 3, 4, and 12 are not so commonly known today.

One of the most common meanings of kosmos in the Bible refers to a realm that is opposed to God, a sphere of unspirituality, as in Rom 12:2
Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (RSV)
I don't think that the meaning intended in translations of Rom. 12:2 is commonly known to English speakers, except to those who are familiar with the dialect of "church English."

What would be an English wording that would accurately translate the meaning of kosmos in Rom. 12:1 for most English speakers today? I suggest one possibility would be: "the way that ungodly people live."

John 3:16 is probably the most commonly known verse in the Bible. It begins in most English versions as:
For God so loved the world
I suggest that if we field test this translation wording, even within its larger context of John 3, with a significant number of native speakers today, we will discover that they do not share the meaning of kosmos which is most likely for this verse, which is probably AHED meaning sense 4. I suspect that the first meaning of "world" that most English speakers would have if they heard John 3:16 in English would be AHED meaning sense 1, namely, 'the earth.' They might have some sense that that meaning may not fit, since they may not think it too likely that God would love the earth, but I'm not sure whether they would come up with the meaning intended by the biblical author. I'd like, of course, to be proven wrong by adequate field testing.

What would be a more accurate translation of kosmos in John 3:16 for most English speakers?

I suggest "everyone." But I have not found a single English Bible version which agrees with me, not even the most idiomatic translations, TEV, CEV, and The Message.

What do you think?


At Fri Oct 20, 12:48:00 PM, Blogger Rey said...

On any other site I would say that this could be opening a can of worms.

I think "everyone" works although it might suggest to some that everyone means every single individual. But in that case, I don't think they would use that translation anyway. heh.

At Fri Oct 20, 12:58:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Rey said:

I think "everyone" works although it might suggest to some that everyone means every single individual.

And I would think that that "every single individual" would be the intended meaning.

How about the word "people"?

At Fri Oct 20, 05:09:00 PM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

It could have even broader meaning. I vaguely remember once having to memorize something like five different meanings for kosmos for a class. The fact that I can't recall them all off the top of my head demonstrates the value of that kind of testing :-)

If kosmos can mean all of God's creation, how would we translate it? God so loved the universe? God so loved all of his created order?

At Fri Oct 20, 06:07:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I like 'the world' because in French 'le monde' really does mean simply 'everyone'. However, there would be a diferent connotation for different people.

At Fri Oct 20, 10:22:00 PM, Blogger Sylvanus said...

There seem to be 4 Greek words commonly translated 'world' in most Bibles: ge (Strong's number 1093), oikoumene(3625), kosmos(2889) and aion(165).
The first relates to planet Earth itself, the second the habitation of Man (oik), as in 'the known world', and the fourth, relating to time, is also translated 'age' (the world of that time).
As for 'kosmos', it relates, not just to the inhabitants of the world themselves, but also to their disposition, as in the world's (or Human's) families, or Man's world etc., indicating, not the individuals themselves, but rather the entirety of them arranged by groups or countries and so forth.
1John2:15 says: Love not - the world, nor the things in the world, the 'in' indicating there is more to the world than people.
So I would agree with Wayne in that it is probably AHED meaning sense 4.
I think that when translating the Bible, translators need to differentiate these four words throughout the NT to make it clear they are different.
I would then translate 'kosmos' as 'world' (like in worldly) (or perhaps as 'the world's inhabitants' or similar), but would translate the other three otherwise.

At Sat Oct 21, 01:33:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Sylvanus, thanks for mentioning 1 John 2:15. The same John (presumably) says that God loved "the world" and tells us not to love "the world". A question of "do what I say, not what I do"? Surely not! But in translations this can look like a serious inconsistency if not handled carefully.

At Sat Oct 21, 06:34:00 AM, Blogger Rey said...

And I would think that that "every single individual" would be the intended meaning.

Oh I have no problem with it but some might then see the verse to support universalism (kind of like how the gender neutral language implies to some an egalitarian agenda when it doesn't). CEV uses "the people of this world" (which sounds SciFI to me--heh) but reading it as below sounds nice to me:

"This is the way God loved people; that he gave his only Son so that anyone who believes in Him will not die but have Life without end."

At Sat Oct 21, 06:48:00 AM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...


There is one English version that agrees with you - The Better Life Bible: "Since God cares about everyone ..."

At Sat Oct 21, 09:45:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Hurray, Dan! If two of us agree, we must be right! :-)

At Sat Oct 21, 10:05:00 AM, Blogger Mark Strobel said...

I think "world" is still the best way to go.

From Genesis where God declares the creation "good," through prophets who point to a restored creation, and on to Revelation where the earth and heaven are made new and sea creatures declare God's praise, God's love is beyond love for individual person, as important as that it (and keeps me going).

"World" especially seems correct in light of the next verse where the Son is sent "eis ton kosmon."

The tricky bit of translation in these verses from John is to convey what it means that God's action toward the world is to "sodze" the world.

At Sat Oct 21, 08:15:00 PM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

I suggest "everyone." But I have not found a single English Bible version which agrees with me, not even the most idiomatic translations, TEV, CEV, and The Message.

Perhaps my catechesis has been based on flawed translation, but I was taught that when God "loved the world", "the world" referred to the whole created order. That is, Christ redeemed not only mankind but the entirety of creation, which had been corrupted by the Fall. To use "everyone" would not reflect that meaning.


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