In the Bible an interpreter may be either of two kinds. He may be a translator, one who conveys the meaning of words spoken or written in one language to persons reading or speaking another, and he can do this either orally or in writing. On the other hand, an interpreter may be one who explains Bible prophecy by giving others the meaning, significance, and understanding of prophetic dreams, visions, and messages of divine origin.
Translation. The confusion of man’s language during the building of the Tower of Babel resulted in the human family’s suddenly becoming a multilingual race. This, in turn, gave rise to a new profession, that of interpreter or translator. (Ge 11:1-9) Some five centuries later, in order to conceal his identity as their brother, Joseph employed a translator to interpret for him when speaking to his Hebrew brothers in the Egyptian language. (Ge 42:23) A form of the Hebrew word lits (deride; scorn) is rendered “interpreter” in this text. The same word is sometimes rendered ‘spokesman’ when referring to an envoy versed in a foreign language, as were “the spokesmen of the princes of Babylon” sent to converse with King Hezekiah of Judah.
The gift of speaking in foreign tongues was one of the manifestations of God’s outpoured holy spirit upon the faithful disciples of Christ on Pentecost 33 C.E. However, this was no duplication of what occurred on the Plains of Shinar 22 centuries earlier. For, instead of replacing their original language with a new one, these disciples retained their mother tongue and at the same time were enabled to speak in the tongues of foreign-language groups about the magnificent things of God. (Ac 2:1-11) Along with this ability to speak in different tongues, other miraculous gifts of the spirit were bestowed on members of the early Christian congregation, including the gift of translating from one language to another. Christians were also given instruction on the proper use of this gift.
The most remarkable example of translation from one language to another is the rendering of the Bible into many, many tongues, a monumental task that has consumed centuries of time. Today this Book, the whole or in part, appears in well over 2,000 languages. However, none of such translations or their translators were inspired. Historically, such translation work dates back to the third century B.C.E. when work on the Greek Septuagint was begun in which the inspired Holy Scriptures in Hebrew and Aramaic, the 39 books as they are now reckoned, were rendered into the common Greek, or Koine, the international language of that time.
Bible writers of the 27 books that make up the Christian Greek Scriptures, which books completed the Bible’s canon, often quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures. Apparently they sometimes used the Greek Septuagint instead of personally translating from the Hebrew text of the Scriptures. (Compare Ps 40:6 [39:7, LXX] with Heb 10:5.) They also made their own rather free translations, however, as is seen by comparing Hosea 2:23 with Romans 9:25. An example of where they paraphrased, instead of making a literal translation, may be noted by comparing Deuteronomy 30:11-14 with Romans 10:6-8.
These Bible writers often translated the names of persons, titles, places, and expressions for the benefit of their readers. They gave the meaning of such names as Cephas, Barnabas, Tabitha, Bar-Jesus, and Melchizedek (Joh 1:42; Ac 4:36; 9:36; 13:6, 8; Heb 7:1, 2); also the meaning of the titles Immanuel, Rabbi, and Messiah (Mt 1:23; Joh 1:38, 41); the meaning of places like Golgotha, Siloam, and Salem (Mr 15:22; Joh 9:7; Heb 7:2); and translations of the terms “Talʹi·tha cuʹmi” and “Eʹli, Eʹli, laʹma sa·bach·thaʹni?”
Matthew first wrote his Gospel account in Hebrew, according to the ancient testimony of Jerome, Eusebius Pamphili, Origen, Irenaeus, and Papias. Who translated this Gospel later into Greek is not known. If Matthew did so himself, as some think, then it is the only known inspired translation of Scripture.
In classical Greek the word her·me·neuʹo often means “explain, interpret.” In the Christian Greek Scriptures it has the meaning “translate.” (Joh 1:42; 9:7; Heb 7:2) It is similar to the name of the Greek god Hermes (Mercury), regarded by ancient mythologists not only as the messenger, envoy, and interpreter for the gods but also the patron of writers, speakers, and translators. The pagans in Lystra called Paul “Hermes, since he was the one taking the lead in speaking.” (Ac 14:12) The prefix me·taʹ implies “a change,” and so, added to her·me·neuʹo, the word me·ther·me·neuʹo·mai results, a word that also occurs several times in the Bible. It means “change or translate from one language to another,” and is always in the passive voice, as “when translated.”
Interpretation of Prophecy. Di·er·me·neuʹo is a strengthened and intensified form of her·me·neuʹo. It is usually used in reference to translating languages (Ac 9:36; 1Co 12:30), but it also signifies “explain fully; interpret fully.” Di·er·me·neuʹo was therefore the word Luke used in relating how Jesus on the road to Emmaus with two of his disciples commenced with the writings of Moses and the prophets and “interpreted to them things pertaining to himself in all the Scriptures.” The two disciples were later telling others of the experience, how Jesus was “fully opening up the Scriptures” to them.
Dy·ser·meʹneu·tos has an opposite meaning. It was used by Paul and is found only at Hebrews 5:11, meaning “hard to interpret,” that is, “hard to be explained.”
Another Greek word rendered “interpretation” is e·piʹly·sis, from the verb literally meaning “loosen up or release” (hence, explain or solve). True prophecy does not find its source in the expressed opinions or interpretations of men but, rather, originates with God. Hence Peter writes: “No prophecy of Scripture springs from any private interpretation [e·pi·lyʹse·os] . . . but men spoke from God as they were borne along by holy spirit.” (2Pe 1:20, 21) Thus, the Bible prophecies were never the product of astute deductions and predictions by men based on their personal analysis of human events or trends.
The meaning of some prophecies was obvious, hence requiring no interpretation, as when the prophet was used to foretell that the Judeans would ‘go into captivity to the king of Babylon for seventy years’ or that Babylon would become ‘a desolate waste.’ The time of the fulfillment, of course, was not always known, though in some cases this, too, was explicitly stated. Many prophecies or particular features of the prophecies, however, were only partially understood at the time of their being given, the full understanding or interpretation awaiting God’s due time for their being made clear. This was true with some of the prophecies of Daniel and with regard to the Messiah and the sacred secret involving him.
All of Egypt’s magic-practicing priests and wise men were helpless when it came to interpreting Pharaoh’s God-sent dreams. “There was no interpreter of them for Pharaoh.” (Ge 41:1-8) It was then brought to Pharaoh’s attention that Joseph had successfully interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and chief baker. (Ge 40:5-22; 41:9-13) However, in that connection Joseph had taken no credit to himself but had called their attention to Jehovah as the Interpreter of dreams, saying, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” (Ge 40:8) So when called before Pharaoh to interpret the king’s dream, Joseph declared: “I need not be considered! God will announce welfare to Pharaoh.” (Ge 41:14-16) After hearing the interpretation, even Pharaoh acknowledged Joseph to be “one in whom the spirit of God” was found, for “God has caused you [Joseph] to know all this.”
Similarly, Daniel was used by God to make known the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams. After first praying to God for understanding of the secret and getting the answer in a night vision, Daniel was brought before the king both to recall the forgotten dream and then to give the interpretation. (Da 2:14-26) By way of an introduction, Daniel reminded the king that all his wise men, conjurers, magic-practicing priests, and astrologers were unable to interpret the dream. “However,” Daniel continued, “there exists a God in the heavens who is a Revealer of secrets, . . . as for me, it is not through any wisdom that exists in me more than in any others alive that this secret is revealed to me, except to the intent that the interpretation may be made known to the king.”
On a second occasion, when all the magic-practicing priests, conjurers, Chaldeans, and astrologers were unable to interpret the king’s dream concerning the great tree that was cut down, Daniel was again called in, and again the divine origin of the prophecy was emphasized. In virtual acknowledgment of this fact, the king said to Daniel: “I myself well know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you,” and “you are competent, because the spirit of holy gods is in you.”
Years later, on the very night in which Babylon fell to the Medes and Persians, this aging servant of Jehovah, Daniel, was once again called upon to interpret a divine message for a king. This time a mysterious hand had written MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN on the palace wall during Belshazzar’s feast. All the wise men of Babylon proved unable to interpret the cryptic writing. The queen mother then recalled that Daniel was still available, the one “in whom there is the spirit of holy gods,” as well as “illumination and insight and wisdom like the wisdom of gods.” In interpreting the writing, which was really a prophecy in itself, Daniel once again magnified Jehovah as the God of true prophecy.