God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How Can I Quote the Bible if They Keep Changing the Translation?

Buses in Israel have the following written over the priority seating reserved for the elderly: mipnei seivah takum. Though the first two words sound esoteric to adult Israeli speakers and are often incomprehensible to children, the line is, in my opinion, a beautiful nod to the holiness code of Leviticus: “Stand before the elderly.”

Unfortunately, even if we wanted to (and even if it were legal), we couldn’t do the same thing in the U.S., because everyone has a different (often bad) translation. The KJV “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head,” would prompt more than a few laughs but it wouldn’t do the job. The ESV, “you shall stand up before the gray head” is only a little better. (Why aren’t these heads attached to bodies?) The NAB “stand up in the presence of the aged” is much better, but those who grew up with the KJV might not even recognize it as Leviticus.

Relatedly, I was recently at a Jewish funeral. Some 1,000 people came to mourn, and there were no prayer books, bibles, or printed guides of any sort available. “Please join me in reciting Psalm 23,” the rabbi nonetheless instructed. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures…” the whole group responded, basically quoting the NKJV. This even though most people in the room had been studying from a different translation (the 1984 NJPS) for over 20 years. That translation renders the Psalm “…I lack nothing.”

I understand that proponents of the ESV try to keep “the Bible” from changing precisely because of issues like these, but it’s worth keeping in mind that neither the (N)KJV nor the ESV would help with the buses.

It seems as though, in many cases, we have to choose accuracy or standardization; we can’t have both, even though they both have merit.

And unfortunately, beyond lamenting the situation (or foolishly suggesting that everyone should learn Hebrew and Greek), I can’t think of a solution.


November 8, 2009 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I can’t think of a solution.

    While this isn’t a solution, it doesn’t help that would-be Islamic, Jewish and especially Christian authorities mis-educate the masses on translation.. I find that people who speak more than one language often have less hang-ups with translation issues. But that’s generally speaking.

    Comment by Bryon | November 9, 2009

  2. You don’t need a solution, because you don’t have a problem. You are discussing the various meanings and texts the versions of Holy Writ make available, and you are considering which is good for what. That’s what we are supposed to do. The words in the bus are excellent, as is the Jewish English rendering of the line on the woman at the end of Proverbs: who can find a *valorous* woman — better than King James’ “virtuous” (unless one knows that in earlier English “virtue” meant ‘power,’ ‘strength’). –On the other hand, would you really want to do without King James? which sets out not only a translation but an idiom and a vocabulary and a range of tone and rhythm for all religious language in English?

    Comment by Ellen | November 9, 2009

  3. […] In favor of keeping “men”: Even though “men” may not usually be the right word to express anthropoi, it would be a shame to destroy such a well-known quotation. (I have some thoughts about quoting the Bible when the translation keeps changing here.) […]

    Pingback by When the Bible Quotes Itself « God Didn't Say That | December 21, 2009

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