Theological Mistakes #7: “Bishops”

In my last post, I talked about the problems arising from transliteration of Bible words rather than translation. Let me give you an example from German.

In the German language, Volkswagen means “People’s Car.” This was the label applied to a German car designed by Ferdinand Porsche in the 1930s. But when this car was marketed in English-speaking countries, the title was not translated. In effect, the German “Volkswagen” was transliterated to the English as “Volkswagen.” Because the English alphabet and the German alphabet are similar, this was very easy. English even has words similar to the two words that combine to form Volkswagen, “folks” and “wagon.” But notice that some marketing person made the decision to retain the German word rather than translate it. As a result, “Volkswagen” became a recognized name for an automobile manufacturer, and lost its meaning as “People’s Car.”

This sort of thing has happened many times in translating the Bible into English. I am more familiar with New Testament examples based on ancient Greek. Let me give you three.

The word ’επίσκοπος (episkopos) is what might be called a “transparent” word in Greek. In Greek it is a compound word made up of epi (over) + skopos (look or see). Thus an episkopos is one who looks over things, an overseer. If we translated this word using Latin roots, we would get the English wood “supervisor.” This is what the word means. It is a title, but a descriptive, functional title that is easily understood. In Greek, it is as simple as “parking attendant” in English referring to a person who attends to the parking at a hotel.

Unfortunately, this word was crunched and mangled through various transliterations and came into English as “bishop.” It acquired a distinctly churchy sense. No one today refers to their supervisor at work as the “bishop” (unless they work at a cathedral). But to the New Testament authors who used this word, it was not a word limited to describing church hierarchy or clergy. It was a useful secular word that indicated function. Within the church context, an episkopos was an overseer of the work of the church. (Even more, it was not a chess piece!)

I have two more related examples I will explain in the next post. Then I will attempt to tie the three together.

Mark Krause

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