God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Did God Abandon Jesus in Mark 15:34?

Polycarp asks on the about page about a comment to a thread he started.

The issue is Mark 15:34: eloi eloi lema sabachthani. The Greek — which appears almost identically in Matthew 27:46 — is actually transliterated Hebrew/Aramaic. In Mark we find eloi, which is probably Aramaic; in Matthew eli, probably Hebrew. The only line of scripture that repeats eli is Psalm 22:1, and the only time we find eli lama is also Psalm 22:1. So this is almost certainly a rendition of Psalm 22:1 (also numbered Psalm 22:2): eli eli lama azavtani.

The Hebrew there means “my God, my God, why have you left me.” (Or, “…why did you leave me.” It’s an important difference for another time.) And both Mark and Matthew continue with a translation the Greek-transliterated Aramaic, and though the wording differs, both Mark and Matthew translate the line as “my God, my God, why have you abandoned [egkatelipes] me.”

The question from the original thread is whether the Aramaic shavaktani (which is spelled sabachthani in Greek) really means “abandoned.” And the answer is almost certainly “yes.” It’s conceivable that both Mark and Matthew translated it wrong, and it’s conceivable that Jesus substituted another word rather than translating azavtani directly, but we have external evidence about shavaktani.

In particular, we find the same verb (in different conjugations) in Ezra 6:6, Dan 4:12, Daniel 4:20, and Daniel 4:23. In each spot, it looks like it has to do with “leaving alone.” Furthermore, we frequently find the Aramaic shavak as a translation for the Hebrew azav (just for example, in Targum Onkolos to Genesis 2:24).

In his book Idioms in the Bible Explained and A Key to the Original Gospels, George Lamsa claims (p. 103) that:

“Jesus [in Matthew 27] did not quote the Psalms. If He had He would have said these words in Hebrew instead of Aramaic, and if He had translated them from Hebrew He would have used the Aramaic word “nashatani,” which means “forsaken me,” instead of the word “shabacktani,” which in this case means, “kept me.”

I believe that Lamsa grew up speaking Syriac, but even so, his Syriac would have been nearly 2,000 years removed from the Aramaic Jesus spoke, so I think it’s a mistake to rely on native intuitions here. And I’m not convinced by Lamsa’s (unsupported) claim that Jesus would not have referred to the Psalms in Aramaic.

So while there’s a lot I don’t know about Aramaic, in this case I have to say that the evidence seems overwhelmingly in favor of sabachthani meaning just what Mark and Matthew say it does. We can wonder if it meant “abandoned,” “forsaken,” “left me,” or some other nuance, but I think it was probably something along those lines.

November 30, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , | 22 Comments

The “Nothing’s Perfect So There’s No Point In Trying” Syndrome

I frequently read comments like “Every Bible translation is a paraphrase” (Abraham Piper) and cringe. The philosophy seems to be “nothing is perfect, so everything is the same.”

I agree that no translations are perfect, but that quite obviously doesn’t mean that they are all the same.

A related complaint is that we can’t know for sure what the Greek or Hebrew means, so every translation is equally valid. Again, the first part is true — it’s difficult to know for sure what a word meant over two millennia ago — but I still think that careful investigation can lead us to translations that are more likely to be correct (and perhaps more importantly help us know how confident to be in our knowledge).

The flaw in the reasoning seems so clear to me that I have to wonder why people are so attracted to the idea that “all translations are equally valid.”

November 30, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , | 6 Comments

Q&A: What’s going on in Genesis 4:7?

And one more from the about page:

Is Genesis 4:7, the first words, halo im-teitiv s’eit, an example of the idiom of a condition with antecedent but no stated consequence? Would the last of the words apply to Cain (as KJV implies) or to Cain’s offering (JPS)?

Genesis 4:7 is clearly poetry, so we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s a little difficult to understand.

The first word, halo, generally introduces a question, but in this case it’s a rhetorical question, perhaps used as an exclamation.

The second and third words, connected by a hyphen, mean “if you do well.” The words are addressed to Cain. These present the condition.

The fourth word means “rise.” It’s the consequence of “if you do well,” and the grammatical form is tenseless and devoid of agreement. (For those who care: it’s an infinitive absolute. The word comes from the root nun.sin.aleph. In the infinitive the nun drops out, and a final tav is appended: laseit. The infinitive absolute consists of the infinitive without the initial l- [“to”], which is how we get s’eit.)

To make sense of s’eit here, we we have to look back to Genesis 4:5–6, where the opposite verb nafal is used idiomatically. In Genesis 4:5, Cain’s “face fell” (nafal) — he was upset or angry — and in the next verse God asks Cain why his “face fell” (again nafal). God’s lesson is that that, if Cain does well, he will (have a face that doesn’t fall but rather that will) rise; and if he doesn’t do well (the continuation of Genesis 4:7), “sin will couch at the door.”

November 29, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Q&A: Is Greek Different Than All Other Languages?

Also from the about page:

Is it true that in Greek they didn’t have multiple words that meant the same thing or one word that meant multiple things? More clearly — that every word had only one meaning and each thing/idea had only one word for it. Thanks!

Thanks for the question, which I think is important for two reasons, not just because of the details of the question but also for the more general implication.

The short answer is no. There is no truth to the idea that there was a one-to-one match between Greek words and meanings/things/ideas.

More generally, I think it’s a common error to view Greek as fundamentally different than other languages. Ancient Greek is a human language like any other, and what’s true of languages in general is also true of Greek in particular. This is one reason that the linguistics revolution of the last century is so exciting for Bible scholarship and translation in particular. Even without looking at Greek, we know a lot about the language. Of course, this is not to say that Greek doesn’t have to be studied in detail, but linguistics guides what we look for, because we already have a sense of what’s possible and what’s not.

In this case, no language has the one-to-one mapping you mention, so in particular Greek does not.

November 29, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, Q&A, translation theory | , , , , | 2 Comments

Q&A: Who is Judas Iscariot and why is he called “Iscariot”?

From the about page:

Ooh, let me be number eleven! I’d like to formally ask about the possible meanings of Iscariot. Although I highly doubt it’s actually related to the Latin sicarius (assassin), I’ve heard that as an unlikely though interesting theory.

What explanation(s) of that surname/eponym do you find plausible?

As usual, I’ll start with a little background:

First, etymology is notoriously tricky, plagued by “folk etymology” that ignores the dissimilarities between two words and focuses only on what they have in common in order to validate a preconceived idea. For example, about a decade ago David Howard was fired for using the word “niggardly” — presumably because someone (wrongly) though it had something to do with an ethnic slur; the word actually comes from a completely different source. But Washington D.C. mayor Williams ignored the letter “d” in analyzing the word.

Secondly, the particular combination of Hebrew and Greek creates lots of potential ambiguity, for two reasons. The vowels in Hebrew are much less important than they are in Greek, and to a lesser degree the opposite is true of the consonants. And Greek spellings of Hebrew words conflate lots of letters, particularly the sibilants: so samech, sin, shin, and tzadi all end up as the same Greek sigma. Combined, these differences between Greek and Hebrew mean that it’s easy to find apparent connections between unrelated words.

Thirdly, we don’t know how ancient Hebrew was pronounced. A clear example is the Hebrew name rivka, which the LXX records as rebekka. The Hebrew as we now know it is a bisyllabic word, while the Greek points to a trisyllabic word, perhaps with a double letter.

With all of these caveats in mind, we can consider the Greek iskariot (“Iscariot” in English). I don’t think that iskariot is related to sicarius. The etymology I find most convincing is that the word comes from the Hebrew ish k’riot, a “man of k’riot.” The /sh/ in Hebrew becomes /s/ in Greek, as it usually does. The Greek /a/ between the /k/ and the /r/, lacking in the current vocalization of the Hebrew, could have been there originally, or it could have been a Greek addition. Iskariot is as close to ish k’riot as rebekka is to rivka.

K’riot (also spelled “kerioth”) is a city mentioned in Jeremiah 48:24, Jeremiah 48:41, Amos 2;2, and perhaps Joshua 15:25. The word is also the plural of kirya, “city.” So ish k’riot could mean “someone from K’riot” or “someone from the cities.” A similar example in Modern English is “twin cities,” which in most contexts means “Minneapolis and Saint Paul,” but could mean any two large cities near each other; another example is “tri-state area,” which for me means where I live (outside New York City), but I imagine there are others.

Furthermore, it’s common to use geographical terms not (only) to indicate place of origin but also for qualities stereotypically associated with that place. For example, k’na’anim (“Canaanites”) in Job 40:30 is almost universally translated as “merchants.” So ish k’riot could have meant “a guy from K’riot” or something roughly akin to “city boy,” with some connotation of what it meant to be from a city.

So even if iskariot comes from ish k’riot — and that’s my best guess — we still don’t know for sure why Judas was called that or what it signified.

November 29, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation theory | , , , , | 6 Comments

How do You Say Hosanna in English?

The Greek word hosanna appears six times in the NT: three times in Matthew, twice in Mark, and twice in John. The context is each case includes the quotation, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” from Psalm 118:26. Because Psalm 118:25 contains the Hebrew words hoshi’a na, the Greek hosanna is widely (and I think correctly) assumed to be a Greek spelling of those Hebrew words, or perhaps an Aramaic equivalent.

In Psalm 118, hoshi’a means “save,” presumably, “save us.” (The direct object is optional in Hebrew, and can be inferred from context.) And na is a word that’s hard to translate — it may indicate politeness (“please”) or, more likely, formality or elegance.

There’s a persistent rumor that hosanna literally means “save now,” as in the NLT footnote that explains the word this way. But even the NLT translates hoshi’a na as “please save us,” not “save now.” The NAB says hosanna means “(O Lord) grant salvation,” and the NIV’s footnote explains the phrase as “A Hebrew expression meaning ‘Save!’ which became an exclamation of praise.” The rumor about “save now” probably comes from the KJV rendering of Psalm 118, “Save now, I beseech thee…”

In English, hosanna becomes “hosanna,” because the English spelling is taken directly from the Greek, (h)osanna. But the Greek is — again, widely and probably accurately — assumed to be a simplification of the Hebrew. The word should be hoshana, with the “sh” that is consistently lacking from Greek transliterations of Hebrew.

So should we put the “sh” back in to the English? By comparison, what if a French publication took the English “North Carolina” and turned it into norskarolina. Should a transliteration of that transliteration perpetuate the mistake?

For that matter, is transliterating the word the best way to go? And if it is, should “hosanna” be italicized?

Compounding the confusion, in Matthew and Mark “hosanna” appears in a phrase that gets translated as the barely intelligable “hosanna in the highest.” It apparently is supposed to mean “praise God on high.”

I think the case of hosanna is interesting not just in its own right, but also because it highlights the question of how much a translation into English has to be written in English. If we allow the word “hosanna,” and assume that it means “praise God” (but only here) can we use “in the highest” for “(God) on high” (but only here)? Or “man” for “people” (but only here)? Or allow any of the other seemingly wrong translations to be “one time exceptions”?

What do you think?

November 24, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A Curious Footnote

A curious footnote in the ESV:

Numbers 24:3 “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened,…”(1)

(1) “Or closed”

It seems to me that when the translator can’t narrow it down beyond “open or closed,” the footnote should be “we don’t know what it means.”

November 23, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , | 6 Comments

Who is the Most High?

Adjectives without nouns are quirky and idiosyncratic, and understanding them is important for translation.

As an example, in English we have “the Americans” (American people) but not (*)”the Swisses,” or (*)”the Frenches.” We have “the Swiss” (Swiss people) and “the French” (French people), but “the American” can only mean one person.

Other languages work differently. In French, “la suisse” is a Swiss girl or woman, and “les suisses” is more than one of them. In French, “une suisse” (literally, “a swiss”) makes sense, but (*)”a swiss is here” doesn’t work in English.

Moving away from nationalities, we find in biblical Hebrew that plural adjectives are people when they’re masculine, events when they’re feminine. By themselves, the rishonim (literally, “the first [m,pl]”) are “people from long ago” and the rishonot (literally, “the first [f,pl]”) are “events from long ago”; Isaiah 43:9 is an example of the latter.

This range of variation is relevant for understanding upsistos in Greek. As a singular superlative masculine adjective, it works like any other Greek adjective, and it means “the one who is highest.” In Mark 5:7 we see upsistos with a noun, and in Acts 7:48 without one.

But as a plural neuter adjective, it means “heights,” a usage we see in Luke 2:14, for example: doxa en upsistois theo, “glory to God on high.”

I don’t know of any English translation that renders rishonot as “the firsts” in Isaiah 43:9. It just wouldn’t make any sense in English. Translators generally add the noun “things.”

Yet en (tois) upsistois ends up in English as “in the highest” in the KJV, ESV, and NAB. It seems to me that that translation is just wrong. To me, “in the highest” — if it means anything at all in English — is adverbial and it signifies “greatly.” Other translations preserve the superlative degree, giving us “highest heaven” or “highest heavens,” which may or may not be right. On one hand, there was a hierarchy of heavens in Greek thought, so there was a lowest one, middle ones, and a highest one. On the other hand, the phrase seems to be a Hebraicism, but the original Hebrew m’romim is not superlative (or adjectival — it’s a plural noun).

As for upsistos, “the Most High” is multiply problematic as a translation. First — and it’s hard to know what to do with this — being “high” in English doesn’t usually mean what we want it to here. (An old anecdote tells of a teenager who decided to get religious when he was taught that we should strive to be like God and that God is the most high.) Secondly, we don’t use adjectives that way in English. The closest we have is “high one.” Unlike in Greek and Hebrew, “the high” doesn’t make sense in English. Also, the superlative of “high” is “highest,” not “most high.”

And we end up with capitalization problems. Most versions give us “the Most High God” in Mark 5:7 (and Luke 8:28 etc.), which is not how capitalization works in English.

So all in all, translations of en upsistois and upsistos are a mess.

November 20, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Culture of Convolution

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops started their semi-annual meeting today, and among the topics up for vote is the new English text of the Missal. (Bishop Trautman has been vocal about the shortcomings of the new translation, as summarized here and critiqued here.)

So I took a look at some of the proposed changes. They include:


  • “accept this oblation of our service” (instead of “accept this offering”) — the choice of “oblation” has been criticized on the grounds that people won’t know what it means.
  • “order our days in your peace” (I think instead of “grant us your peace in this life”) — I have to admit that I don’t know what “order our days” means.
  • “chalice of my blood” (was “cup of my blood”)
  • “Mary ever-Virgin” (was “Mary, ever virgin,”) — though I understand the point, I don’t think English capitalization works this way.
  • “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.” (was “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”) — the punctuation needs fixing, and I wonder about “behold him who….”

All of these seem to be moving away from standard English syntax, vocabulary, and rules of punctuation and capitalization. (There is an exception. The change from “we celebrate this eucharist” to “we celebrate these mysteries,” though it seems odd to me, is a move toward understandable English.) This pattern is particularly surprising in light of Article 21 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which demands words that “express more clearly the holy things which they signify.” What we see here is a (probably deliberate) move away from that Vatican II position.

At any rate, in this context we can hardly be surprised that Bible translations, too, end up in non-English English — and that some people can’t even tell the difference. (“My Bible sounds just like my liturgy.”)

I think we also have to ask: at what point do we call all of this “non-English English” a separate but valid English dialect?

[Update: Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman has some thoughts on The Catholic Liturgical Controversy and Why We All Have a Stake in It (April 21, 2011)]

[Update 2: I just participated in a symposium about the Missal at Fordham University (“Letting Us Pray: A Symposium on Language in Liturgy”). There’s a participant’s review here. (April 18, 2012)]

November 16, 2009 Posted by | Off Topic, translation theory | , , , | 7 Comments

Q&A: On the Sons of Gods

From the about page comes this question:

Here is something I ignored when I translated Job and I don’t think I should have. In chapter 1 we get the b’nei ha-elohim. In chapter 38 we get the b’nei elohim without the definite article. I am thinking that the first should be the children (or sons) of the gods or of the mighty, and the second the children of God? This is without looking up Tur Sinai and all the other references I used that are since back in the library — so I ask you instead (thanks).

Don’t thank me yet, since calling this “Q&A” might be a stretch. I don’t have much of an answer.

The difference between ha-elohim and elohim seems like it has to be important, but I’ve yet to find a satisfactory explanation of the two. I do know that the simplistic approach of using “the” in English for ha- here doesn’t work. These may be dialectal variants, they might be the same thing, or they might differ in ways we haven’t figured out yet.

In general I think it’s a good idea to use different English for different Hebrew, but in this case, I don’t think we have that option. “Children of the gods” versus “children of God” is likely to be wrong, as is “children of the mighty.”

Though both ha-elohim and elohim are common, we find b’nei ha-elohim only in Genesis 6 and twice in Job, and b’nei elohim only in Job 38:7.

So an important related question is who these god children are. The Jewish Study Bible (which I highly recommend) has this to say:

[Job 1:]6. The divine beings presented themselves before the Lord: Similar meetings of the Lord enthroned on His heavenly throne and all the heavenly host standing before Him on either side are reported by the prophet Micah son of Imlah in 1 Kings 22.19-23, by the prophet Isaiah in Isa. ch 6, and in Ps. 82 and Dan. 7.9-10. The members of the heavenly court, here and in Ps. 82 called divine beings (here lit. “sons of the gods”; in Ps. 82.2 lit. “gods”) are called in 1 Kings ch 22 “the heavenly host”; in Job 4.18 they are called “servants” and “angels”; in 15:15 they are called “holy ones” and “the heavens,” while in 25:5 they are identified with the moon and stars, who, with the sun, are called “the whole heavenly host” in Deut. 4.19. Typically, these divine beings, though they have great power, may not act independently of God. [My emphasis.]

The LXX translates “angels of the God” in Job 1 and 2, and “my angels” in Job 38.

With all of this in mind, I think both phrases refer to the same group. (Maybe the b’nai here is like the word b’nai in b’nai yisrael, and these are the Lordites.)

At any rate, my suggestion is to pick a phrase that’s likely to be accurate, capitalize it, and hope for the best.

November 15, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , | 3 Comments