In most Bibles, Matthew 24:34 says something like:
“...this generation will not pass away until...”
However, ours says:
“...this people won’t pass away until...”
In our Greek sources, the word usually translated as generation has several definitions; yes, it can mean generation, but it can also mean family or a group of people. The definition chosen is entirely up to the translator, a decision usually made by looking at the context. Original readers of the Greek version of Matthew’s gospel did not see “generation.” No, they saw a word that could mean a variety of things, with generation merely being one possible definition.
We say that the usual choice of “generation” is inaccurate here because it distorts the original word. Rather than carefully conveying that the text uses an ambiguous term, modern translators who choose “generation” erase all ambiguity and present a specific meaning that is not present in the original text.
Such translators feel justified in doing this because Jerusalem was destroyed only 37 years later, that is, within a generation. However, this is putting the cart before the horse; it imposes future knowledge of events onto the past. They are, in effect, putting words in Jesus’ mouth. The text records him using an ambiguous term, and the translators use their knowledge of the future to replace that with a specific one.
Is that acceptable? Not to us, no.
It could be argued that it introduces a contradiction, as Jesus also talked about not knowing the day or hour. For if Jesus had actually said “generation,” then he would have effectively started a countdown clock until one generation expires. The apostles could have said, “Remember, Jesus said that Jerusalem will be destroyed within one generation! It’s already been over 30 years!” Yet there is no record of the apostles saying such a thing; the reason for this is simply that Jesus didn’t say generation; he used an ambiguous term – as anyone who examines the lexicons can confirm for themselves.
However, there is more.
The Aramaic sources of Matthew quote him using the word sha’urbetah. Lexicons only list this word as meaning family, tribe, nation, people, and class (as in a distinct class of people such as the priestly class). Unlike the Greek, only the plural version is listed to mean generations.
For example, the Aramaic version of Matthew 24:30 uses the same word to say tribes:
‘...the Son of Man’s sign will appear in the skies, and all the tribes of the earth will beat themselves...’
Aramaic does have a word for generation, darah, a word that appears in other parts of the Aramaic New Testament in contexts that clearly point to a time limit (for example, Ephesians 3:5 and Hebrews 3:10). However, as already stated, Matthew 24:34 does not use that word, it uses the singular sha’urbetah which means only family, tribe, people, or nation.
What does this mean? Well, it means that the large eastern community of Aramaic-speaking Christians did not think that Jesus said generation. That’s very significant indeed. And since their Greek-speaking counterparts in the West were reading a word with multiple definitions, we have no reason to think they thought Jesus said generation either.
Also, since Aramaic was Jesus’ native language, there’s the possibility that the Aramaic text accurately conveys his real word choice (although we don’t know if this is the case).
For these reasons, our version of Matthew 24:34 says ‘people’ and not ‘generation.’
This is also why our version of the parallel account in Mark 13:30 (from the Greek text) uses the definition of ‘people,’ as it is the only definition shared by both the Aramaic and Greek words.
Why is this even an issue?
Some people have strong emotional attachments to the translation of “generation” because of modern apocalyptic interpretations of scripture.
They believe that Jesus’ words about Jerusalem’s destruction by the Romans have an application in modern times. They point to the events in Matthew 24 and connect them with modern wars and earthquakes. They then use the word “generation” as a countdown timer to make sensational claims about the rapture coming, or the end of the world, or Armageddon.
Therefore, such people get very upset when we point out that Jesus probably never used that word.