I’d like to nominate the phrase “End of the World” as the most significant translation error of all time.
This translation is found in several places in the King James version of the Bible in the Gospel of Matthew (13:39-40, 49, 24:3, and 28:20). If translated correctly, it would have been the “end of the eon” or age, according to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, which gives the Greek equivalent of each word.
In the original Greek Bible, the term used was the Greek word “aion” from which we get the English word “eon,” that is, a long period of time. When King James asked his scholars to create a reliable English version of the Bible back in 1611 AD, they somehow decided that the end of an eon was also the end of the world. But if the Greeks had intended to say “the end of the world,” they would have used the term kosmos. Elsewhere in the New Testament, kosmos is used for describing the physical world.
The unforeseen results of this error are astounding to contemplate. It suggested that Christian followers did not need to look carefully for the signs of the end of the age. If the world itself was ending, no one could possibly miss it!! There would be no need to make the effort to search, as the wise men of the East had searched for the King of the Jews at the time of Jesus’ birth (Matt. 2:1–2).
And thus, much of Protestant Christianity, in the English-speaking world at least, proceeded along with a false premise that Christ’s return was associated with the ending of the physical world.
Paul’s letter to the Hebrews (9:26) provides clear evidence of his understanding of the term: In the KJV, he notes that his own time (“now”) was “the end of the world.” Clearly, the physical world did not end during Paul’s lifetime. In the Greek Bible, he is using the same term, aion, and he was correct because the age of Judaism was gradually ending during his lifetime and within the first century after Jesus’ crucifixion. The Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD during the First Jewish-Roman War and the Jewish people were barred from living in the Holy Land after the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 132-136 AD. Paul clearly understood that the Hebrew age had ended, but the world itself would not end.
And, in case you have any doubts, look at more recent English translations of the Bible. For ease of reference, you can find many different translations of the above verses at http://www.biblegateway.com . The scholars of the Christian world have adjusted their translations because they have recognized that the dramatic end-of-the-world was never predicted in the Bible. The only prediction was for “the end of the age”.
But alas, the error was realized too late! Many Christian ministers and missionaries had used the concept so often that it became woven into their theology and written into their books and teachings. This was particularly true of the newer denominations that have appeared since the 1830s in America, which were built on “end times” theology. These ideas were spread extensively by Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses and a host of smaller evangelical churches, which grew particularly in America in the later 1800s, and which led to the modern evangelical movement within Christianity. In the twentieth century, they carried these teachings around the world.
So, although the errant translation in 1611 might have seemed minor at the time, it has created a world-encircling misunderstanding since then. The signs of the end of the previous age have occurred regularly since the 1830s—the spread of Christ’s gospel to all nations (Matt 24:14), the ending of the period of Gentile control of Jerusalem (Luke 21:24), as well as more outward evidence such as the invention of millions of modern devices that have transformed our world, and the creation of a host of modern problems that have ensued. But the mistranslated end-of-the-world has not occurred. For nearly 200 years, religious leaders have told us to wait because “it is coming soon”.
Now, as several generations have come and gone, many people have realized that something was wrong with this understanding. Many are realizing that the time has come to go back and re-evaluate some fundamental assumptions, including the real meaning of “the end of the world”. Many are looking to see if they or their forebearers might have missed something. Is there a reasonable way out of this conundrum?
This is why The Wise Men of the West was written.
Available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Wise-Men-West-Search-Promised/dp/173245115X