God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: On Counting Seeds and Descendants

Dannii asks on the About page:

In Galatians 3:16 Paul makes an essentially linguistic argument about Genesis 22:18. Does the Hebrew word for ‘seed’ have a similar range of meanings as the English word? Paul’s argument feels strange in English because when ‘seed’ is used to mean descendants it is a non-count noun. Is the Hebrew world also a non-count noun?

What a great question!

The issue is this:

The Hebrew word zera means “seed,” including “human seed” and, metonmyically, “descendants.” The Greek sperma works essentially the same way.

As it happens, the Hebrew and Greek words are singular even when they mean “descendants,” similar to the American English “family.” (It’s not uncommon for a singular word in one language to be plural in another — or vice versa — and usually it doesn’t matter very much.)

In Genesis 12:7, 13:5, etc., God makes promises to Abraham and his zera (singular) — sperma (in Greek; also singular) or “descendants” / “offspring” / “progeny” in English. The plural word “descendants” is a great translation for zera there. “Offspring” and “progeny” aren’t bad, either. (“Seed” doesn’t work in my dialect.) The singular/plural issue is nothing more than a curiosity.

But in Galatians 3:16, Paul refers to the grammar of the word itself:

“The promises were made to Abraham and his sperma [“seed”]. It does not say spermas [“seeds”]” but “sperma, who is Christ.” Paul’s wordplay uses the grammatically singular form of sperma in Greek — which matches the grammatically singular form of zera in Hebrew — to explain God’s promise to Abraham as referring to one person only.

Dannii correctly points out that translations of this line usually sound strange. For example (NRSV): “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ as of many; but it says, ‘And to your offspring,’ that is, to one person, who is Christ.” But in its oddness, the translation captures the Greek very well. The plural spermas is also odd in Greek, as zeras would be in Hebrew.

I don’t think Paul is making a “linguistic argument” so much as using a word play. Paul’s point doesn’t strike me as a rational one here (though neither is it irrational — it is non-rational), and, in fact, it’s the same sort of word play that pervades the (Jewish) Midrash from the same time period.

So the answer is that the Hebrew zera and Greek sperma behave almost the same, and the English “progeny” comes pretty close, too. The word play notwithstanding, the singular zera in Hebrew and sperma in Greek can refer to one descendant or to many.

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October 22, 2009 - Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , ,

5 Comments »

  1. Of the various translations – which ones do you think get this verse the best?

    Comment by Jay Davis | October 22, 2009 | Reply

    • None of of the translations I generally consult get it exactly right, but I think the NRSV is best here. Among the mistakes I see are:

      • NIV: Translates zera as “offspring” in Genesis, but uses “seed” in Galatians.
      • ESV: Translates os ephi as “referring to.”
      • NAB: Translates zera as “descendants” in Genesis, making the word play impossible in Galatians. (To be fair, it’s a dilemma, because “descendants” is exactly the right translation in Genesis. Is it really a good idea to mistranslate Genesis just to get Galatians 3:16 right?)
      • NLT: A jumbled mess, with “offspring” in Genesis and both “child(ren)” and — by way of explanation — “descendants” in Galatians.
      • NRSV: Translates enos here as “one person.”

      The translation should be something like:

      The promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It doesn’t say “and to offsprings,” in the plural, but rather the singular “and to your offspring,” who is Christ.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 23, 2009 | Reply

  2. Is it possible that Paul was quoting (and explicating) the Septuagint and didn’t even play off the Hebrew?

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | October 24, 2009 | Reply

    • I think the line “it says ‘and to your offspring'” points in the direction of a quotation of the original Hebrew. It seems to me that it would be odd to quote “and to your offspring” (kai tu spermati sou) in Greek; more natural would be the shorter “offspring” — which is, after all, the word under discussion — or maybe “your offspring” or maybe even “to your offspring.”

      But in Hebrew “and to your offspring” is all one word: ul’zar’acha. So I think the discussion was about the Hebrew word ul’zar’acha.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 24, 2009 | Reply

  3. So what I’m getting is “sperma” & “zera” are singular terms for seed that could also have plural meanings. But Paul specifies a singular meaning in Galatians 3:16 that the Jews would not have known about for certain.

    Comment by Robert Recchia | September 19, 2016 | Reply


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