Bible Translation (Series): Love and Unicorns, two challenges of language

Love and Unicorns. These two words demonstrate some of the basic difficulties of Bible translation.


The word love appears over 300 times in the Bible. Love is one of the most important messages of the Bible. And it can be one of the most confusing words in the Bible.

The difficulty arises because we translate a single word in English for nearly a dozen different words in Hebrew and Greek. Each of these words in the original language carries very important meaning to understanding the message. A single word implies all the passages have a similar meaning. Three examples are philos (brotherly love), eros (romantic love) and agape (unconditional love) in Greek, all translated to a single word, love in English.

Add to that, in our modern world we use the word love in terms like “I love a rainy night,” “I love chocolate” or “I love unicorns.” The word love has simply lost much of its impact from Biblical times.


In the King James Version, the word unicorn(s) appears nine times in the Old Testament. Today, we view unicorn as a mythical, gentle animal. There are two problems here when compared to the meaning in the Bible. (This is not a criticism of the KJV, only an observation of the difficulties of language.)

1. When the King James Version of the Bible was written, a unicorn was defined as a “single horned, wild, untamable beast.” In some dictionaries of the times it was described as a rhinoceros. That’s a whole different picture from the gentle unicorn of today.

2. Many literalists say that “unicorn means unicorn.” The problem is that they see the pretty, tame animal we know as the unicorn today. At the very best, it makes the message of the Bible confusing. Critics and opponents of Christianity then grab onto this as “proof” that the mysteries and message of the Bible are simply myth.

So, we have two very critical problems with translating the Bible from one language to another:

1. Languages are not parallel. We can’t just substitute one word for another in many cases.

2. Languages are dynamic. Words and their meanings change. The modern reader of an older translation of the Bible may well have to do his own translation into today’s vernacular.

In future blogs we will explore some of the other difficulties when translating between languages, cultures and over time.

Shalom, Art
Alive in The Word

This blog is part of a series on Bible Translation. A listing of all blogs in the series (with links):

Bible Translation (Series): What Language Does God Speak?

Bible Translation (Series): In the Beginning

Bible Translation (Series): The Septuagint

Bible Translation (Series): The Vulgate

Bible Translation (Series): Love and Unicorns, two challenges of language

Bible Translation (Series): Formal vs. Dynamic Equivalency

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About aliveintheword

Missouri, USA Married to Marty, 45 years 2 sons (with 2 daughers-in-law) and 2 granddaughters Life dedicated to serving Jesus Christ and delivering the Good News
This entry was posted in CHRISTIAN LIFE AND THE WORD and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Bible Translation (Series): Love and Unicorns, two challenges of language

  1. ptl2010 says:

    We most surely need the Holy Spirit to clarify word meanings for us who are not specialists in the Word. Thank you Art for sharing you blog.

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