Common Mistranslations – Acts 21:20

46 is the earliest (nearly) complete manuscrip...

Let’s face it: Rendering a fully accurate, nuanced translation from one language to another is a Herculean task at the best of times, even if the languages come from the same family tree; e.g., Italian to Spanish. The task is made ten times more difficult when you have to translate between two completely unrelated languages, like Koine Greek and English or (Heaven help you) Hebrew and English. There’s the constant tension between trying to translate the original author’s words (which may cause shades of meaning to be lost) and their thoughts (which puts the translator in the seat of a commentator). Even doing amateur translations from Hebrew to English as practice, I’ve come to greatly respect the translator’s job and appreciate the difficulties they face.

However, there are a number of translation errors that routinely pop up in Christian translations of the New Testament that are so obvious that even someone with absolutely no knowledge of the Greek, but using a program like e-Sword for ten minutes can pick them out. These outright errors are not ones that I’ve cherry-picked from one or two Bible versions, but are so ubiquitous that they might as well be universal. This seems particularly strange to me when each new version of the Bible claims in its introductory notes to attempt to be a faithful (to the best of its translator’s ability) translation from the original Greek, and yet when it comes to the mistranslations that I will detail below, seem to do little more than quote or paraphrase the King James Version. I have also avoided discussing verses where there is room to debate the correct translation or some ambiguity that could lead to honest disagreement among scholars. These posts will only presents unambiguous, blatant errors.

Let me start with a passage that seems innocuous at first, but turns out to be very important. Here is how Acts 21:20 is translated by four major versions of the Bible:

KJVAnd when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest , brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe ; and they are all zealous of the law:

NIV When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law.

ESVAnd when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law,

YLTand they having heard, were glorifying the Lord. They said also to him, `Thou seest, brother, how many myriads there are of Jews who have believed, and all are zealous of the law,

The problem is that none of these are correct. The Greek word translated “thousands” here is muriades (μυριάδες), which means not “thousands,” but “tens of thousands.” If only “thousands” were intended, the word chiliades (χιλιάδες) would have been used instead. Each of these versions correctly translates muriades in Rev. 5:11. (Young’s Literal Translation realizes the fallacy of translating the word as “thousands,” but dodges the point by transliterating muriades rather than properly translating it.)

So why, if the word so obviously means “tens of thousands” why do Christian translations consistently underplay the number of Jewish believers in the First Century by a whole order of magnitude? The answer is that the real number tends to undermine the standard Christian narrative about the New Testament, that “the Jews rejected Jesus, but the Gentiles accepted him.”

There are two ways of looking at this passage: Either Jacob (and the mistranslation of a perfectly good Jewish name into the very English “James” probably deserves its own article) and the elders are referring to the nominal population of Jerusalem and the surrounding villages, or they are referring to the numbers of believers who had made their pilgrimage for Shavuot.1 If the former, then we’ve got a real problem, since Jerusalem had a nominal population of 60-80,000 during the 1st Century2—implying that a minimum of a quarter of its population believed in Yeshua. That would be devastating for the Christian narrative that “the Jews” rejected Yeshua, since if over a quarter of Jerusalem’s population believed in Him, this would far outstrip the percentages of Gentiles who came to believe anywhere else in the world.

However, it seems unlikely that Jacob was referring to Jerusalem’s nominal Messianic population, given that this took place during a pilgrimage feast3: Why would he not include the pilgrims in his number? This second option is equally devastating, but for a different reason. While it “thins the soup” somewhat, we note that the sacred Scriptures report to us that all of these tens of thousands of Jews from all over the world were zealous for the Torah.

It is sometimes assumed by those not familiar with Jewish circles that all Jews are as zealous for the Torah and keep it as strictly as the Orthodox (the successors to the Pharisees) do. Nothing could be further from the truth! The Orthodox today represent only 7% of the Jewish people. The remaining 93% is made up of Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and outright secular Jews. Likewise in the 1st Century, a Jew might be a Pharisee or an Essene, zealous for keeping the Torah according to the strictest possible standard, but in the Diaspora, he was far more likely to be a Hellenist, far more lax in both the Torah and the traditions and in most things following the ways of the Greeks. Indeed, as close-by as Galilee, the standards for keeping the Torah and the zealousness for its minutiae were far less than in Judea.4

This means that among Yeshua’s Jewish disciples, the level of Torah-observance went up, not down. They did not see the Law as something that they needed an escape from or which had been “fulfilled” by the Messiah so that they could now live as Gentiles. On the contrary, the coming of the Son of David instilled in them an even greater love and zealousness for the Torah. In short, the Jews of the 1st Century who became Nazarenes repented back to the Torah, not away from it. When we realize that they were not a tiny remnant, but perhaps in the neighborhood of 10% of the Jewish people, we have to ask a very simple, and devastating, question: What happened to all of these myriads of Jewish believers who were zealous for the Torah?

Sadly, the answer is that they were persecuted and driven underground not only by the Jewish community, but by the Church as well.

To really drive home how important this is, let me repeat some of what I wrote in The Jew and the Law:

When Paul returns to Jerusalem after many years abroad, he immediately reports in to Jacob, Yeshua’s brother, and the other elders. They are overjoyed to find out that his mission was so successful: In the council related in chapter 15, they had discovered in the prophecies that Gentile inclusion was a necessary prerequisite for the Messiah to return and restore the Davidic monarchy. But, they explained, there was a problem. A big one. “You see, brother, how many tens of thousands there are among the Jews (or Judeans) of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Torah. They have been informed about you, that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake [the Torah of] Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children neither to walk after the customs” (vv.:20-21). How ironic that Paul’s opponents in the 1st Century and his devotees in the nineteen centuries since make the same accusation!

What is their solution? “We have four men who have taken a vow. Take them, and purify yourself with them, and pay their expenses for them, that they may shave their heads. Then all will know that there is no truth in the things that they have been informed about you, but that you yourself also walk keeping the Torah” (vv. 23-24). Paul agrees to their proposal (v. 26). Since the whole point of the endeavor is to show Paul’s continued fidelity to the Torah, and since there is only one vow in Scripture that has anything to do with shaving the head, this must be a Nazrite vow (Num. 6:18).

Christian authors are understandably uncomfortable with this passage and its implications. For example, Adam Clarke remarks,

Had they done this in order to acquire justification through the law, Paul could not have assisted them in any measure with a clear conscience; but, as he did assist them, it is a proof that they had not taken this vow on them for this purpose. . . Besides, God had not yet fully shown that the law was abolished, as has already been remarked: he tolerated it till the time that the iniquity of the Jews was filled up; and then, by the destruction of Jerusalem, he swept every rite and ceremony of the Jewish law away, with the besom of destruction.

Matthew Henry in his Concise Commentary goes much farther, even accusing Paul and Jacob of sinning!

The apostles were not free from blame in all they did; and it would be hard to defend Paul from the charge of giving way too much in this matter. It is vain to attempt to court the favour of zealots, or bigots to a party. This compliance of Paul did not answer, for the very thing by which he hoped to pacify the Jews, provoked them, and brought him into trouble. But the all-wise God overruled both their advice and Paul’s compliance with it, to serve a better purpose than was intended.

Both authors (and others that we could cite) miss the question that should drive our understanding of this event: Why exactly did Jacob and the elders choose a Nazrite vow as proof of Paul’s fidelity? Surely his enemies would simply say, as some Christians do, that Paul was simply making a show in order to placate them!

The answer is deceptively simple: It was because Paul had already taken a Nazrite vow on his own, while traveling among the Gentiles, before he ever knew that there was a problem back home. In Acts 18:18, Luke suddenly mentions, in an almost off-hand way, in the middle of his travelogue, “He (Paul) shaved his head in Cenchreae, for he had a vow.” Since Paul had taken his vow while traveling, completing his vow under Jewish law and helping four other Jewish disciples of Yeshua to complete theirs’ would be the perfect refutation of his enemies’ accusations. Paul had actually returned to Jerusalem with the intent of completing his vow: “Now after some years, I came to bring gifts for the needy to my nation, and offerings” (Acts 24:17). The word translated “offerings” in this verse (prosphoras) always refers to a sacrificial offering–such as the three animal sacrifices, grain offering, and wine oblation required to complete the Nazrite vow (Num. 6:14-15). By agreeing to help four other Nazrites, Paul had actually agreed to pay for a total of fifteen sacrificial animals. One hopes he was able to get a bulk discount.

Of course, due to the false rumor that Paul had brought Gentiles into the Holy Place (Acts 21:28), Paul was attacked and arrested, and was never able to complete his own vow. He evidently remained under it until his death. This may be why he had to persuade Timothy to “Be no longer a drinker of water only, but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities” (1Ti. 5:23). Jewish disciples were extraordinarily dedicated to their rabbis, even to the point of superseding their relationships with their own parents, and we see hints of just such a relationship in Paul’s letters (1Ti. 1:2, 18; 2Ti. 1:2, 2:1). It is very likely that Timothy, without taking a formal vow, had decided that as long as Paul was constrained from drinking wine (Num. 6:4), he would not drink wine either, even to the detriment of his own health. This again proves the dedication Paul had to the Torah. A modern Christian would likely decide that God’s grace permitted him to break his vow due to the unforeseen circumstances that had waylaid Paul, but to the Apostle to the Gentiles, such a flagrant and deliberate breach of the Torah’s commandment was unthinkable.

When both properly translated and understood, Acts 21 provides such a rebuke to Christian attacks on Jews keeping the Torah that it provokes an almost panicked reaction from some Christian commentators–who are forced to side with Paul’s enemies when they claim that he was indeed teaching Jews to forsake the Torah of Moses, not to circumcise our sons, and not to keep our traditions. But there’s a terrible arrogance in the claim that those from the same culture and same time as the Messiah himself–many of whom heard his teaching with their own ears and saw his example with their own eyes–somehow misunderstood everything he had taught them.


1 While it is not a given that the events of Acts 21:20-23:11 took place on Shavuot (Pentecost), we do know that Paul had been racing to arrive in Jerusalem in time for the Feast (Acts 20:16), so it is not too much a stretch to suppose that he either arrived on time or soon enough thereafter that many of the pilgrims still remained. (See also Acts 2:9-11, which details the far reaches of the world from which Jews would travel to make their pilgrimage.)

2 Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary (JNTP, 1988), p. 301., citing pp. 10-15 in Biblical Archeology Review 4:2 (1978)

3 Paul had been in haste to arrive in Jerusalem in time for Shavuot (Pentecost; Acts 20:16). Technically, the narrative does not tell us whether he made it on time, though I tend to presume that he did. However, whether he arrived on time or shortly after the Feast ended, it is likely that the numbers of Jewish disciples of Yeshua would have remained elevated for some time after the Feast (as in Acts 4-6, in which provision had to be made for the many Greek-speaking, and hence foreign, Jews who remained in Jerusalem to receive instruction after that first, Spirit-filled Shavuot).

4 See Stephen M. Wylen, Jews in the Time of Jesus (Paulist Press, 1995), p. 64

5 Replies to “Common Mistranslations – Acts 21:20”

      1. Whoops. Never saw this one. No, I’ve not done anything in-depth on the Prodigal Son, or most of Yeshua’s parables for that matter. They’re almost too straightforward to really warrant picking them apart.


      2. No, no, no. Not ‘the prodigal son’, ‘the elder brother’. Far from being straightforward it is almost universally ignored. Especially the final blessing! And the blame is usually put on the Jews, so I thought you would be interested.


      3. I was just referring to the parable by it’s traditional title, but I get your meaning. I’ll see about doing a series on the parables in general and start off with this one (just in case it becomes another orphaned project for me :) ).


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