[No, we haven’t finished drafting the New Testament. This is a story about our adventures in trying to find the right Nsenga word for a particular context.]
We have been working on the book of Hebrews for quite a while. One of the key terms in Hebrews is a word that is often translated as “perfect” (the Greek word is τελειόω). Examples of this word occur in Hebrews 2:10 and Hebrews 5:9. In both passages, many English versions use the word “perfect.”
The Nsenga word that we have been using for “perfect” is usually wosaifya, which means ‘sinless.’ (Wo– carries the idea of a person, –sa– is a negating affix, and –ifya has to do with evil.) This is what’s known as a negative definition of “perfect,” since it tells what the person is not, rather than what the person is.
Now read those two passages from Hebrews, and substitute the idea of “sinless” for “perfect.” What happens?
Hebrews 2:10 – “…it was fitting that God… should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect sinless through what he suffered.”
Hebrews 5:9 – “…and, once made perfect sinless, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”
Wait! How can Jesus be “made sinless”? Wouldn’t this imply that there was a time when he wasn’t sinless? This definitely introduces an idea into the text that shouldn’t be there!
Well, it turns out that the Greek verb τελειόω (as well as other words which share the same stem, like the noun τελος), doesn’t really have as its basic meaning “perfect” – at least, not in the normal American English way of using the word in the sense of “flawless” or “sinless.” It’s really more like “bring to an end,” “bring something to its goal,” “bring to completion,” or even “fulfill something (like a prophesy).”
The translator and I were talking about all of this, and I was trying to explain the suggestions from the UBS Translators’ Handbook that we should think of these expressions more like, “to cause Jesus to be what he should be” or “after Jesus had reached his goal.”
Then I commented on one of the most famous uses of a τελε– word: “Τετέλεσται,” or ‘it is finished,’ from John 19:30. The translator immediately looked at me and said, “Oh – Like, ‘mission accomplished!’ That’s kukwanilisha.”
So, in one lightbulb moment, we had two awesome things: a good, meaningful, dynamic Nsenga translation for many of the occurrences of τελειόω in the New Testament, and a wonderful reminder that, when he died on the cross, Christ declared “mission accomplished” as he “reached his goal” for our salvation.