With attention focused on the Book of Esther as the Jewish holiday of Purim approaches, I decided to take a quick break from building “The Unabridged Bible” to address the violent details of the antagonist’s death in the story, because they are interesting in their own right, and are also a prefect demonstration of the two-fold challenge of Bible translation.
The issue is this: As part of the battle between Mordecai (the hero) and Haman (the villain), Haman plans Mordecai’s death in a particular fashion, but in the end the instrument of death is turned on Haman himself.
According to the NRSV, Haman’s wife suggested (verse 5:14) that “a gallows fifty cubits [seventy-five feet] high be made … to have Mordecai hanged on it.” But the JPS translation offers instead, “Let a stake be put up … to have Mordecai impaled on it.” Verse 7:10 details the plot reversal: the King’s men either “hanged Haman on the gallows” (NRSV) or “impaled Haman on the stake” (JPS).
So which is it? Was it a gallows or stake? And was Haman hanged or impaled?
There are two questions here, as there always are with matters of translation. The first is what the original Hebrew means. The second is how best to say that in English.
The Hebrew verb is talah, which means “to hang.” And the Hebrew noun is eitz, “tree” or “wood.” So it looks straightforward. It was a tall piece of wood, and what they did to Haman was hang him on it.
Surprisingly, though, the way to say that in English is not “hang Haman,” because even though the verb “hang” in general encompasses a wide variety of acts, it has a very narrow meaning in English in connection to killing someone: putting the person’s head through a loop of rope and hanging the rope, not the person, from some horizontal structure. (Imagine a comic. The caption is “she told me to hang the wash.” The drawing shows shirts in a noose.)
In other words, “Haman was hanged from a gallows” means that a vertical post was constructed to support a horizontal crossbar; a noose was hung from that crossbar; and Haman was suspended by the neck from that noose. There is almost no chance that this is what the text intended. (This specialized meaning of “hang” used to have its own past tense: “hanged,” as opposed to “hung.” Most people don’t preserve that distinction any more.)
But if not in stereotypical western-movie fashion, how was Haman suspended from the wooden post? Here, unfortunately, we don’t have a clear answer. One reasonable possibility is that he was impaled by the post. Another is that he was crucified in some fashion. We don’t know for sure. (The evidence comes in part from Greek translations, and in part from other Greek writing about the capital punishment practices of the Medes.)
So what do we do about a translation? “Hanged on a gallows” is clearly wrong. It wasn’t a gallows as we think of it, and he wasn’t hanged. “Impaled on a stake” might be right. Certainly “stake” is better than “gallows.” But “impaled” adds a detail that might not be right, and, even if it is, goes beyond what the text actually tells us.
My suggestion, then, is “they hung Haman on the stake.” At least to my ear, this conveys the original image of Haman being attached in some direct manner to a tall piece of wood from which he hung.
What do you think?
There’s something inexplicably exhilarating — at least for me — about reading actual ancient texts. I don’t mean transcriptions, but the texts themselves.
To help spread this joy, I’ve put a page of the glorious 6th-century Vienna Genesis manuscript of the Septuagint on The Unabridged Bible. In addition to the fabulous illustration, the Greek text of Genesis 39 is remarkably clear. If you know Greek, you can probably read a lot of it, even though it’s in all caps, with no spaces between the words.
For navigational help, I’ve added verse numbers, and, beneath the facsimile, I’ve put a complete transcription of the Greek, with diacritics. (It’s hard to imagine I didn’t mistype anything, though, so if you find a typo, please let me know.)
Comments are disabled here because this is off topic, but I’d love to hear from you in the comments section of the original post.
As I’ve said, I’m devoting most of my energy for the next little while to “The Unabridged Bible,” which will gradually start officially rolling out soon.
In the meantime, readers here may enjoy my translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls on that site because of my copious translation notes, and because the passages frequently quote the Bible.
I offer thanks to you2 Lord, for your eye stood guard3 over me and you saved my soul4 from the zeal of those who spread lies, and from the community of those who seek rumors. You redeemed5 this downtrodden one6 whom they conspired to finish off7 by pouring out his blood on account of his service to you. It failed because they did not know that my steps come from you.8 They made me a mockery9…
Though my newest project, “The Unabridged Bible,” won’t roll out until a couple of months into 2014, a sneak-peek is available now, with
two four lots of sample pages, including:
- The Life of Adam and Eve (which I mentioned on the History Channel’s Bible Secrets Revealed: The Forbidden Scriptures).
- Antiochus (in honor of Hanukah).
- The Hymn to the Creator, a Psalm from the Dead Sea Scrolls that’s missing from the Bible.
The Master Index is also live, though we’re still tweaking the format.
I’ll be grateful for any early feedback, here or on the project’s blog,
(except that I think I hate the look of that blog as it stands now) with a new look that I think I like.
Read the whole story — including air times, links to more information, and video trailers from the series — in my latest e-newsletter.
UPDATE (December 19, 2013): It turns out I had a prominent role in the 5th episode, as well: “Mysterious Prophecies.” You may be able to watch the whole thing on-line via the “Bible Secrets Revealed” Video page.
UPDATE (December 1, 2013): Learn more about “The Life of Adam and Eve,” which I describe in the third episode, from the sneak-peak look at “The Unabridged Bible.”
UPDATE (November 26, 2013): The third episode — “The Forbidden Scriptures” — airs tomorrow (Wednesday) night. This could be the most enlightening of the episodes, because it addresses something most people don’t know much about.
I remember talking about this in depth on camera, and I’m told that some of my explanations made it into the final show.
Here’s the official description, from the History Channel:
The books, gospels and epistles found in the Holy Bible are writings considered to be divinely inspired. But are there chapters of the Bible that are missing? Have stories been censored and characters deleted? And if so, just who decides what is included—and what is forbidden?
UPDATE (November 20, 2013): The second episode airs tonight: “The Promised Land.” When I was interviewed, I declined to comment publicly about the connection between the Bible and Modern Israel’s borders, so I’m not in this one, but I’m curious to hear what other people say. Here’s the History Channel’s description:
It is considered the most sacred place on Earth. But it has also been carved up, sub-divided and fought over for thousands of years. Was the area known as “The Promised Land” really given by God to a “chosen people?” For the Jewish people, it is the land where David was King, where Solomon built a great temple and where Abraham and his descendants could live in peace and prosperity. Christians believe they have a right to this area because, according to the New Testament, Jesus will first appear here when he returns for the Day of Judgment. Since the Crusades, Temple Mount in Jerusalem has remained under Muslim control and is the site of one of the most sacred mosques in all of Islam. Perhaps God’s real promise was not to Abraham, but to all of humanity, and that a “promised land” was to be earned—not simply given. Could this land of religious tension and endless warfare actually become a Promised Land of peace as foretold in the Bible?
From the About page comes this question:
I saw a teaser on the History Channel about a Bible show coming up. They said that the Virgin Birth is a translation mistake. Is this really true?
The Bible show is “Bible Secrets Revealed.” (Incidentally, I’ll be in it. More on that later.) And I presume this is the teaser Brian saw: Bible Secrets Revealed: Sneak Peek. About 20 seconds in (not counting the annoying ad), Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou repeats a claim she’s made to the BBC in the past: “The idea the Jesus must have been born of a virgin is essentially a mistranslation.” But it’s not.
The text displayed as Dr. Stavrakopoulou speaks is Isaiah 7:14, which originally referred to a young woman even though it is often wrongly translated as “a virgin shall conceive.” The mistranslation as “virgin” dates back to the Greek version of the Bible known as the Septuagint, which renders the Hebrew alma (“young woman”) there as parthenos (“virgin”). It’s not the only place the Septuagint makes this and similar mistakes. But because Matthew (1:23) highlights the Greek here, this mistranslation is well known.
In light of my last post, I thought it might be helpful to move beyond theory to actual translation. How would you translate the Hebrew ish and the Greek anthropos in the following passages?
- Genesis 2:24 [Hebrew]: “Therefore an ish leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife.”
- Genesis 2;24 [LXX]: “Therefore an anthropos will leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife.”
- Deuteronomy 17:5 [Hebrew]: “You shall bring out the ish or the woman who has committed this crime…”
- Deuteronomy 17:5 [LXX]: “You shall bring out the anthropos or the woman who has committed this crime…”
- Genesis 4:1 [Hebrew]: “…I have acquired an ish…”
- Genesis 4:1 [LXX]: “…I have acquired an anthropos…”
- Numbers 5:31 [Hebrew]: “The ish will be cleansed of sin but that woman will bear her sin.”
- Numbers 5:31 [LXX]: “The anthropos will be clear of sin but that woman will bear her sin.”
- Matthew 4:4 [Greek]: “The anthropos does not live by bread alone.”
- Matthew 12:12 [Greek]: “How much more valuable is an antrhopos than a sheep.”
- John 16:21 [Greek]: “When a woman is a labor she is in pain … but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the pain because of the joy of having brought an anthropos into the world.”
- Romans 3:4 [Greek]: “Every anthropos is a liar.”
- 1 Corinthians 7:1 [Greek]: “It is good for an anthropos not to touch a woman.”
My answers are as follows:
- Genesis 2:24 [Hebrew]: man
- Genesis 2;24 [LXX]: man
- Deuteronomy 17:5 [Hebrew]: man
- Deuteronomy 17:5 [LXX]: man
- Genesis 4:1 [Hebrew]: person*
- Genesis 4:1 [LXX]: person
- Numbers 5:31 [Hebrew]: man
- Numbers 5:31 [LXX]: man
- Matthew 4:4 [Greek]: people**
- Matthew 12:12 [Greek]: person
- John 16:21 [Greek]: person
- Romans 3:4 [Greek]: person
- 1 Corinthians 7:1 [Greek]: man
Do you agree? Disagree? Why?
(*) Rabbinic tradition actually understands the word ish here to mean “fully grown man,” as though Cain skipped over childhood and was born a malicious adult. In the context of that tradition, I might prefer “man” as a translation.
(**) A quirk of English grammar — at least in my dialect — doesn’t allow the general definite singular with the word “person.” Even though “the wolf is a mighty animal,” e.g., refers to all wolves, “the person” cannot refer to all people. So we’re forced into “people” here.
Suzanne McCarthy brings up the issue, again, of whether the Greek word anthropos is exclusively masculine (“man”) or gender neutral (“person”).
The short answer is that it is both.
We’ve been through this before, but the Greek framework of gender really is difficult for speakers of languages like English to grasp in the abstract, so here are some English examples that will help make things clearer.
The first example is the English word “day,” which has two clear, mutually incompatible meanings. The first is “24-hour period.” There are seven days in a week, 365 days in a year, stores are open for 24 hours a day, etc. The second is “part of a day.” Some pharmacies are open day and night, night follows day, days get shorter in winter, etc.
The second example is “luck,” which again was two clear, mutually incompatible meanings. The first is “good fortune.” The phrase “with any luck” means “with good fortune.” The second meaning is more general, “fortune of any sort.” That’s why people can have good luck or bad luck, and why “I can’t believe his luck” applies equally to lucky people and unlucky people.
The third example is “child,” which yet again has two meanings: “young human” and “any human with a parent.” So we have the phrase, “men, women, and children,” but also “adult children of aging parents.”
This final case is particularly interesting, because every person has a parent (even if the parents are dead: “children continue to mourn their parents’ death for years”). Just looking at the two definitions, it would seem that “child” in the sense of “someone’s offspring of any age” is a pretty silly word to have. How would it be different than “person”?
The answer is that “child” in this broader sense is only used in connection with parents. “Here comes a child” almost always refers only to a juvenile. But “parents and children” is ambiguous.
The case of “day” shows us a pattern that is similar in some ways, different in others. It’s different in that “day” is completely ambiguous. In my dialect, at least, if a store is “open all day,” I don’t know if it’s open at night or not. But it’s similar in that the phrase “day and night” is entirely clear.
One important lesson we learn from all of this is that words often have one meaning when they are used alone, and a separate meaning when they are used in distinction to something else. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, the various meanings can seem confusing, inconsistent, or even contradictory. Nonetheless, native speakers usually find the words entirely clear.
Not surprisingly, the Greek anthropos works just like these words.
By itself, it usually means “person.” John 16:21 is a pretty clear example: “a woman in labor suffers pain, but when her child is born she doesn’t remember her pain on account of her joy at having brought a person [anthropos] into the world.” To the best of my knowledge, no one thinks that this only refers to male children.
On the other hand, anthropos also contrasts with female-gender words like thugater (“daughter”), e.g. in Matthew 10:35; gune (“woman”), e.g., in Matthew 19:3; etc. Looking at the second instance, it’s clear that “an anthropos leaves his father and mother and joins his wife” refers only to men taking wives, not women. I don’t think anyone believes otherwise.
These examples point in a very clear linguistic direction. The Greek word anthropos — like many gendered words in gendered languages and like many other words in other languages — has more than one meaning.
In this context — and I think this was Suzanne’s point in her posting — it’s common to observe (as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood does here) that “in the New Testament, when this term [anthropos] is used for specific individuals, it always refers to males” (their emphasis).
Maybe. But it does not follow from this (potential) fact that anthropos cannot refer to a specific woman. And they even provide the evidence, in their next paragraph: “The list of specific men of which anthropos is used is quite long [...] as distinct from the three times Christ refers to a woman (gune) in a parable.”
The lopsided nature of the text here — that is, the very fact that our data set includes a long list of men and only three women — warns us not to draw general conclusions about the word. If we enlarge the data set, to include, for instance, Suzanne’s example from Herodotus’ Histories (1.60), we do find anthropos used in regard to a specific woman.
Two additional points seem in order:
First, I gather from the CBMW piece that some people are trying to use the linguistic qualities of the word anthropos to determine Jesus’ gender. This doesn’t seem like the right approach to me. Again from the CBMW piece: “That Jesus is an anthropos means first of all that he is a human being; but it also means that he is a male human being.” I don’t think so.
Secondly, I frequently read claims like, “Jewish women [in Jesus' day] were kept in subjection and sometimes even in seclusion” (from Scanzoni and Hardesty’s All We’re Meant To Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, quoted in the CBMW piece). Again, I don’t think so. Salome Alexandra ruled Judaea as queen for about a decade shortly before Jesus’ time. This was a hardly a culture that universally denied power to women.
At any rate, and in summary, lots of words have a variety of interrelated, sometimes contradictory meanings that are determined in part by context. The Greek anthropos is no different. Sometimes its meaning most closely overlaps with “man,” sometimes with “person,” sometimes with “human.” But picking and choosing examples without taking into account how language works will almost always lead to a conclusion that is as convincing as it is wrong.
Gender roles are a hot topic, so it should come as no surprise that people are looking to the Bible for guidance.
Over the summer, Larry Crabb published his Fully Alive: A Biblical Vision of Gender That Frees Men and Women to Live Beyond Stereotypes. Explaining it to Christianity Today, he says:
Neqebah (female) means one who is open to receive, has an invitational style of relating. And zakar (male) means one who remembers something important and then does it.
Unfortunately, Dr. Crabb makes fundamental factual and methodological errors here.
Factually, the Hebrew neqebah (“female”) comes from the root for “pierce,” not “open to receive.” Though the common translation of neqebah as “pierced” is probably not as accurate as “hollow,” the point is the same: the Hebrew neqebah describes the female sex organ.
More importantly, zakar (“male”) comes from a multifaceted root that does not simply mean “remember.” Rather, the root is connected more broadly to referring to something that is not physically present. One way of doing this is to remember something from the past, but there are many others. In Exodus 3:15, for instance, the root gives us zeker as a synonym for “name,” because a name is one way of referring to something that is not physically present. Another way is to point, and it may be this meaning that gives us the Hebrew zakar.
If so, the Hebrew word for “male” comes from the pointing organ and the word for “female” from the hollow organ.
But whatever the case, the methodological errors make the factual evidence irrelevant, because words do not get their meaning from their etymology. As I explain in And God Said, this is one of the most basic tenets of language, and also one of the most common Bible translation traps.
Just for example, a “building” in English comes from the verb to “build,” but that doesn’t mean that we primarily think of buildings in terms of how they are built, just as the word’s etymology doesn’t preclude the possibility of a building being something we occupy. Another English example is the pair of words “grammar” and “glamour,” which share an etymology even though most people don’t think of grammar as glamorous.
Similarly, the etymologies of the Hebrew words for “male” and “female” — memory and reception, or piercing and pierced, or pointing and hollow — are irrelevant to their meaning. So they do nothing to help answer Dr. Crabb’s question of “what God had in mind when he made a woman feminine and when he made a man masculine.”
It seems to me that what Dr. Crabb has done is take his own notions of what men and women should be and, through flawed linguistics, put them in the mouth of God.