Before reading any further in my reflections on the Gospel of John, it is important to pause and read the following caveat that applies to any thoughts I might share on any portion of the Scriptures.

1. I am not: an academic, a biblical scholar, a linguist, even close to an expert in ancient languages, a theologian, or an historian.

2. I am a person who loves the bible, has found great spiritual nourishment in its pages and has spent the past forty years attempting to help reasonably well-educated middle class first world people find in its words encouragement for their spiritual lives.

3. The bible is an enormously complex book. It seeks to address the deepest most inscrutable questions of the human condition. It deals in the realm of mystery, plunging boldly into the secret realms of the unknown. It pushes us to the edge of our intellectual capacity inviting us to step beyond what we think we understand into the realm of the numinous.

4. The process by which we have received our English versions of the bible is bewildering.

Any honest person reading the New Testament must acknowledge, at the very least that when we read the bible, we are not reading the original texts as they were first recorded. The original versions of the New Testament documents do not exist. The earliest complete New Testament in existence today is Codex Sinaiticus, written down about 350 CE, after having been passed from generation to generation by hand-copying.

The documents that make up the New Testament were originally composed between the 40s and 90s of the first century, according to conservative scholars, later according to most liberal scholars. Jesus’ sayings and stories were passed from person to person mostly orally with perhaps some written fragments being shared. It is not until the years 60 or 70 CE that the existence of an actual collection of written documents of sayings attributed to Jesus that had been orally transmitted and written in small fragments is believed to have come into existence. Although no copy of this purported document actually exists, scholars call it “Q” from “Quelle” meaning source.

The Gospel of Mark, generally agreed to be the earliest of the Gospels, was written shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. Mark’s Gospel drew on earlier oral and probably written material, but was not recorded until most, if not all, of the eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’ life were dead.

The teachings and stories of Jesus were first written in Koine Greek, an ancient dialect of the living Greek language, equivalent to reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English. The words of Jesus were, however not originally spoken in Koine Greek; they were most likely first spoken in Aramaic. So, when we read an English version of Jesus’ words, we are reading an English translation of an original written Greek translation of spoken Aramaic words that have been passed down orally and perhaps in small written bits, for at least three decades. We are not reading even a translation of the original, but rather a translation of a translation.

There are seldom exact equivalencies between many words as translators move from one language to another. This is especially true when the translation is from an ancient language no longer spoken to a contemporary language in a context vastly different from the original. The complexity of translation becomes even more acute when the writings in question are dealing with the deepest mysteries of life and the human condition.

My observations here are not intended to encourage cynicism about the documents we call the bible. Rather, my aim is to encourage a degree of humility when we seek to understand what the original speaker or author of these texts may have intended.

All translation involves some degree of interpretation and all interpretation includes some measure of bias. There are no absolutely objective translators. Translators do not practice their art in a vacuum. Their translation choices are shaped to some degree by their culture, their theological backgrounds and commitments and their unavoidable biases. We should always be cautious therefore about saying, “Jesus said…” and assuming we know precisely what it was that “Jesus said”. As with all human communication, there is always more than one way of hearing the words we are told that “Jesus said”.