God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Powerless to Blog

Snow - February, 2010

Snow - February, 2010

About two feet of very wet snow toppled trees and knocked out power to my neighborhood at 1:00am Friday morning. Two days later we’re still without electricity.

Regularly scheduled programming will resume soon.


February 27, 2010 Posted by | meta, Off Topic | , | 5 Comments

John 3:17 and a Translation That Might Work

I think John 3:17 (like John 3:16) shows us three things: potential traps in translation, typical patterns of some of the common Bible translations, and the importance of paying attention to detail.

The point of John 3:17 is pretty simple (even if the theology is deep): God didn’t send Jesus into the world in order to condemn it, but rather in order for the world to be saved through him.

To me, the line contrasts two possibilities: (1) God sent Jesus to condemn the world; and (2) God sent Jesus for the world to be saved through him. John 3:17 explains that it’s the second one.

And the line presents two aspects of the second possibility: the world will be saved — we can call this (2a) — and, furthermore, the world will be saved through Jesus (2b).

Yet I haven’t found any translation that conveys (1) versus (2a) and (2b) accurately.

The ESV, NRSV, and NAB (and others) translate the second half as, “…in order that the world might be saved through him.” I think that when most English speakers hear “the world might be saved,” they think, “maybe the world will be saved, maybe not.” But that’s not the point of the Greek, or — I don’t think — what the translators wanted their English to mean. In other words, these translations change point (2a). Instead of God sending Jesus so that the world will be saved, these translations have God sending Jesus so that maybe the world will be saved.

I think what happened here is that the translations mimicked the Greek too closely (in this case trying to find an English equivalent of the Greek subjunctive), and what resulted is a translation that’s either misleading or that uses odd syntax. This is typical of the ESV, and to lesser extent of NRSV and NAB.

By contrast, the NLT gives us the straightforward, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.” This has the benefit of being easy to understand. And unlike the previous translation, it doesn’t introduce uncertainty where there was none in the original. But the English ends up overly simplistic, and that’s a big drawback.

The part about “though him” is just missing in the NLT. So right off the bat the NLT mis-conveys point (2b).

Furthermore, the Greek doesn’t actually say that “his Son will save the world,” but rather that “the world will be saved.” It’s not the same. The NLT added a new concept (explaining who will save the world) and missed one that’s in the original (the world will be saved through Jesus).

So here the translators strayed too far from the Greek in order to come up with a simple translation. And this is typical of the NLT. It’s easy to understand, but it misses the depth and nuance of the original.

The CEV moves even further away from the original, with: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn its people. He sent him to save them!” The switch to “the world…its people” makes for better English reading (maybe), but John doesn’t introduce the people until the next verse (3:18). The CEV destroys the progression.

And this is typical of the CEV. In rewriting the English to help make it more readable, it often misconveys the force and sometimes even meaning of the original.l

The Message strays even further yet from the original, giving us: “God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” In this case, the English has both missed part of the Greek and also added so many new ideas (it was a lot of trouble; the world used to be right; etc.) that I think the English is better considered a commentary than a translation. And this, too, is typical of The Message. It tends to be well written, but it tends not to match up with the original nearly so closely as other translations.

The NIV corrects the ESV’s shortcoming, offering “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” This also corrects one of the two problems we saw with the NLT. But the second problem still remains: The NIV tells us who’s doing the saving while the Greek does not.

There are other issues to attend to.

The Greek says merely “the son,” not “his son.” Why not capture this fact in English? (The NRSV gets it right.)

The word “world” appears three times in Greek. Again, why not do the same in English?

The Greek is nicely parallel, with ina krini (“in order to condemn”) starting what I called (1) above, and ina sothi (“in order to be saved”) starting what I called (2) above. The NLT “to condemn it but to save it” captures the parallel structure, but, as we saw, at the expense of the meaning. Is there a way of doing both?

For that matter, “condemn” for krino isn’t quite right, and “world” for kosmos isn’t a perfect fit, either, though in these two cases I don’t think we have anything better.

I would offer: “God didn’t send the Son into the world in order to condemn the world, but in order for the world to be saved through him.” It gets everything (I think) except the exact parallel syntax.

Beyond the actual English rendering, I think this teaches us a general lesson about the complexity of translation, and specific lessons about what different versions tend to miss.

February 25, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Q&A: Nabal the Fool

From the About page:

Wikipedia, the source of all truth, says that Nabal in 1 Samuel 25:25 is “euphemistically translated as fool.” So far as I can tell, it’s always translated as fool or something similar. I can’t seem to find a dirty meaning for “nabal” anywhere. Is that because mainstream scholarship is too prudish or is Wikipedia talking nonsense?

I’ll complain about Wikipedia another time, for now just noting that I took a look at the article and I could find very little right about it.

I don’t think that “fool” is a euphemism here.
Continue reading

February 22, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , | 4 Comments

Book Giveaway: Win A Copy of And God Said

Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press is giving away a free, autographed hard-cover copy of my latest book, And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning.

From blog.AndGodSaid.com:


Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press is giving away a free, autographed hard-cover copy of And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning.more

Leave a comment there to enter, include a link to that page to enter again, and add blog.AndGodSaid.com to your blogroll to enter two more times.

(I’ve technically entered by leaving this post — but I’ll remove my name from the drawing.)

February 22, 2010 Posted by | announcements, Off Topic | , | 2 Comments

On God’s Name (or “Who shall I say is calling?”)

One of God’s very common names in the OT is spelled with the four Hebrew letters Y-H-W-H.

Folk wisdom holds that the proper pronunciation of that four-letter word — technically called the tetragrammaton (“four letters” in Greek) — has been lost over the ages, so it had to be pronounced adonai in Hebrew; because the word adonai is related to the word for “lord,” it became kurios in Greek translation, and then “the Lord” in English.

I believe that a more likely scenario is that the tetragrammaton didn’t originally have a pronunciation. (I’ve written about this extensively, so I won’t go through the whole thing here. A good place to start is a short popular article I wrote on the topic for the Jerusalem Post. I go into more detail in Chapter 4 of my NYU Press publication, In The Beginning.)

The name yahweh is a fairly modern (and, in my opinion, flawed) attempt to pronounce the tetragrammaton. As it happens, “Jehovah” also stems from such an attempt. The Masoretes who recorded the official pronunciation of Hebrew some 1,100 years ago put the diacritic marks of the word adonai under the tetragrammaton just as a way of reminding readers how the four letters are to be pronounced. A naive reading of those letters and diacritic marks would be yehovah, or, in languages that use the letter “J” for /y/, jehovah. And that, in fact, is where the English “Jehovah” comes from: it’s a double mistake, first of reading the tetragrammaton with its diacritic marks too literally, and then of misunderstanding the letter “J.”

Another popular account connects the tetragrammaton to Exodus 3. There, Moses plans for the day when the people of Israel ask him what God’s name is. “What should I tell them?” Moses wants to know (Exodus 3:13).

God’s cryptic answer (in 3:14) is: “ehyeh asher ehyeh… [tell them] ‘ehyeh sent me.'” The word ehyeh means either “I will be” or “I am,” and the word asher conveys “that which.” So the NRSV translates God’s name here as “I AM WHO I AM” (in all caps) with two alternative versions in a footnote: “I AM WHAT I AM” and “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.”

The word ehyeh bears some resemblance to the tetragrammaton. Both are four letter words with two hehs, in second and fourth position; and both have the letter yud somewhere. So this passage is often — wrongly, in my opinion — introduced to explain the tetragrammaton, and, therefore, the name of God.

But these similarities are hardly enough to justify equating the two. In the tetragrammaton, the yud starts the word, while in ehyeh it’s in third position. Ehyeh starts with an aleph while that letter is lacking in the tetragrammaton. The vav from the tetragrammaton is missing in ehyeh. English representations of the two make the differences clear: AHYH versus YHWH.

Furthermore, the next verse (3:15) adds: God further told Moses, “…[tell the Israelites,] ‘YHWH sent me. That is my name.'” In other words, a careful look at the text shows that God’s name in Exodus 3 is YHWH, not ehyeh.

So I don’t think Exodus 3 is an explanation of the tetragrammaton. I think it’s more likely that what we see is a purposeful play on words.

[UPDATE: Dr. Claude Mariottini has some interesting thoughts about YHWH here.]

February 21, 2010 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

How Not To Use Context

A common argument runs along the lines of, “Paul believes X, so here in Paul’s writing we have to make our translation say X.” For example, in translating Galatians 5:6 (recently discussed here, here and by me here), some people try to figure out what Paul believed about circumcision, faith, and love not only to understand what he meant but also to figure out how to translate the verse.

To see how poorly this works, we have only to look at something considerably simpler than faith versus works. One point of Galatians 5:6 is that circumcision is irrelevant: “neither circumcision nor non-circumcision counts for anything” (NRSV). But four verses earlier, Paul says, “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (NRSV again). So which is it? Is circumcision irrelevant (5:6) or detrimental (5:2)?

Of course, it’s both. In Galatians 5:2, Paul begins his claim that circumcision is part and parcel of following OT law more generally, and that following that law is the wrong path; in Galatians 5:6, Paul presents his understanding of the right path.

But in an effort to harmonize the two verses, some translations — wrongly, in my opinion — translate peritemnisthe as “accept circumcision” (ESV, NJB) rather than just “be circumcised.” I think the mistake here (and elsewhere) is not realizing that some ideas require more than one verse.

February 21, 2010 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 1 Comment

Faith, Love, and What Matters in Galatians 5:6

A conversation started by J.R. Daniel Kirk at Stories Theology (picked up by BBB here), addresses two questions: What does energeo mean in Galatians 5:6, and have translators purposely mis-conveyed the relationship between faith and love?

Let’s take a look at the verb first.

Galatians 2:8 is as good a place as any to start. Paul’s claim there is that just as Peter was the means by which God energeod, so too is Paul himself. This is where the dictionary definition of “do, generally of supernatural activity” comes from. (I take issue with “generally of supernatural activity” being part of the definition, but that’s for another time.)

Activities and things, too, can energeo, as we see in James 5:16*, where prayer energeos.

Matthew 14:2 demonstrates another typical use of the verb. There it’s dunamis (“power”) that energeos. And in Galatians 3:5, God energeos dunamis.

Expanding our investigation into the OT, we see in Numbers 8:24 that the Levites are to energeo in the tent of meeting (“tent of witness” in the LXX).

In Proverbs 21:6, energeo is the translation of the general Hebrew verb pa’al, often just “to do.” We find the same pattern in Isaiah 41:4, where the Greek verb is in parallel with poieo for the Hebrew pair pa’al and asah. (In Proverbs 31:12 energeo is the translation of the Hebrew gamal — “to do in return” or “to reward” — but because the LXX and the Hebrew in that section diverge so frequently, they may represent different original texts.)

All of this suggests that energeo is what’s known as a light verb — a verb that gets its semantic content largely from the words around it.

Furthermore, a more careful look at James 5:16 shows us something else, because there energeo is used in conjunction with ischuo, leading to the NRSV translation, “the prayer of the righteous is powerful (energeo) and effective (ischuo).” In Wisdom 18:22 we see the related nouns ischus and energeia used in parallel for “…not by ischus of body nor by energeia of weapons…” (NRSV: “…not by strength of body, not by force of arms…”).

When we see energeo and ischuo together in Galatians 5:6, one very good possibility is that they are nearly synonymous, both because we already see them used in parallel, and because they are light verbs. If so, the point there is that un/circumcision doesn’t ischuo, but faith does energeo, where the two verbs are used essentially synonymously. The NRSV translation that un/circumcision doesn’t “count” but faith does “count” captures the semantics.

All of this is important because it points in a clear direction. The point of Galatians 5:6 is to contrast two things. The usual translations assume that the contrast is between un/circumcision and “faith working (energeo) through love.” But the second half of the sentence can equally be read, “… but faith through love works.” That is, the contrast may be between un/circumcision and “faith through love.”

One objection to such a reading might be that energeo here is a participle.

But we find the same grammatical construction of an active verb contrasted later with a participle in 2 Corinthians 8:8 (“I do not say [lego] … but … testing [dokimazon]”), for example. 2 Thesslonians shows us the same thing with ergazomenoi for “we worked.” And more generally, we know from passages like Romans 5:11 (“we take pride [kauchomenoi]…”) that participles can be used with the force of active verbs. (All of these participles as active verbs come after alla, which may be significant.)

To see the difference in the two possible readings, we can look at Luke 22:45, which has similar structure. There we find, aggelos ap’ ouranou enschon auton, “an angel from heaven strengthening him.” The point is not that the angel strengthened him from heaven (I don’t think), but rather that an angel from from heaven strengthened him.” Greek grammar, unlike English, allows for both possibilities, though.

Similarly in Galatians 5:6, the two possibilities are that “faith works through love” and that “faith through love works.” Because of the rest of the sentence, it seems to me that it’s hard to rule out the latter.

So one possibility runs along the lines of, “…circumcision doesn’t matter, nor non-circumcision; only faith through love counts.” And if so, the question becomes what is “faith through love”? Understanding the verb won’t tell us the (purposely vague?) connection between “faith” and “love” here.

[(*) UPDATE: Peter Kirk offers an exploration of James 5:16-17 and “effective prayer.”]

February 21, 2010 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Q&A: Who is the Wonderful Counselor?

Polycarp asks on the About page how “wonderful, counselor” of Isaiah 9:5 (9:6) should be translated.

It’s a difficult question with a longer than usual answer. But here goes.

As with “Prince of Peace,” we assume that the title “wonderful, counselor” — whatever it means — describes God after whom the child in Isaiah 9 is named, not the child himself. But translating the two-word combination is tricky.


The word for “wonderful” here is the noun peleh, commonly translated “wonder” or “miracle.”

As I point out here, one way of looking at things holds that there were no miracles in the Bible, because miracles are by definition extra-scientific, and there was no science in the Bible. So many people prefer “wonder” for peleh.

A peleh is normally something that is done, as, for example, in Exodus 15:11 (“Who is like you, Adonai … doing peleh!”) or Psalm 77:15 (“You are God who does peleh.”) We also note that the word is usually singular, as though it’s a collective noun. (It usually ends up as the plural terata in the LXX, a word that encompasses not just peleh but other “signs” as well.)

When we see peleh used here as what God is — rather than what God does — the word stands out, and I think that the attempt to turn “wonder” into “wonderful” through translation is probably misguided.

If peleh is indeed a collective noun in Hebrew but not in English, the right translation may be “wonders.”

On the other hand, the whole notion of giving people names that describe the deity after whom they are named is so foreign to most English speakers that whatever we do will end up sounding a little odd, so maybe we may as well stick with “wonder” here.


The Hebrew for “counselor” is yo’eitz. The word is used frequently enough in parallel with other words and phrases that we know that a yo’eitz is wise (e.g., Isaiah 3:3), that a yo’etiz can consult to a king (e.g., 1 Kings 12:6), and that kings can have more than one (2 Chronicles 22:4).

We also see it used in parallel with such words as “prophet” (navi) in Isaiah 29:10 and “judge” (shofet) in Isaiah 1:26. Accordingly, it looks like “adviser” or “counselor” is a pretty good bet, but the emphasis of the Hebrew word seems to be on the qualities of what the person is, not what the person does.

The difference is sometimes hard to appreciate, but for an example we can compare “attorney” (what a person is) and “litigator” (what a person does), though the analogy isn’t perfect.


So what are the words doing together?

Isaiah 9 is not the only place we find what looks like a combination of peleh and yo’eitz. We see it in Isaiah 25 and Isaiah 28, too.

Isaiah 25 is a self-contained text that describes God’s victory over evil. The end of the first verse proclaims that God “does/did peleh,” adding in parallel “eitzot from afar,” (presumably “from a long time ago”) — the word eitzot is the plural noun connected with the verb yo’eitz.

It’s not clear if this passage is meant to reflect actual history or not, but either way, the combination of peleh and a word related to “counselor” is interesting and confusing at the same time. How is peleh like eitzot? Why are they in parallel? And does the odd juxtaposition of the two concepts here connect to Isaiah 9?

Isaiah 28 uses a verbal form of peleh in connection with the singular of eitzot. The verb, hiphli, is a common modal verb, sometimes representing “to do wonderfully,” and sometimes (as in Numbers 6:2) conveying a broader meaning. In Isaiah 28, it’s how God is/does eitzah, “counsel.”

And again, it’s not clear if this phrase is related to Isaiah 9.

But it does seem clear that, at least in these two passages, “counselor” isn’t quite right. Who is there for God to counsel? Rather — and this accords with what we saw before — it looks like the word focuses on not on what the counselor does (that is, counsel) but rather what the counselor is (smart? wise? something else?).

Isaiah 9

All of this brings us back to Isaiah 9, and the phrase peleh yo’eitz. Both of these words seem to describe what God is (though for peleh this is an atypical usage), but beyond that we have more questions than answers.

The biggest question is whether these are two concepts or whether — as translations commonly indicate — peleh modifies yo’eitz. And even here Hebrew grammar helps us only a little. Normally when two nouns appear side by side in Hebrew, it’s the second that modifies the first, not the other way around. So melech Shin’ar, just for instance, is a king of a place, not a kingly place. So peleh yo’etz could be a counselor-like wonder.

But some words, because of their semantics, allow both possibilities. And “wonder” is such a word. So even though the Hebrew could mean “counselor-like wonder” (if the two words were connected), it could also mean “a wonder of a counselor,” which is to say, basically, a wonderful counselor.

But because the words for “wonder” and “counselor” appear in parallel elsewhere, I think that they are meant to reinforce each other, not modify one another.

So “wonderful counselor” certainly doesn’t do the trick of conveying the Hebrew words. But neither does “wonder, counselor,” though it comes closer. I think “wonder” is okay. But the problem with “counselor” is that — at least to me — it indicates actual counseling, whereas the Hebrew yo’eitz, as we saw, reflects certain innate qualities, not actions.

Beyond this it’s hard to know what nuance to try to capture in translation. “Wonder, Genius” might be the point, or, “Wonder, Knower,” though I suspect that there’s a better pair of English words lurking somewhere.

Any ideas?

February 16, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , | 11 Comments

Recording the Oral Tradition

Lamentations 4 in the Leningrad Codex

In a recent post on Lamentations 4:3, I made reference to the Masoretic tradition that gives us both the canonical Hebrew text of the OT and some ways in which the written text might be in error. Here are some images that demonstrate how the Masoretes recorded their notes.

(The notes are widely regarded to be written representations of oral traditions of the time, though we can’t be certain of the degree to which the Masoretes were recording tradition versus trying to create policy.)

At the right is a (slightly digitally enhanced) section of the Leningrad Codex from almost exactly 1,000 years ago. It shows the beginning of Lamentations 4. I’ve used blue shading to highlight the word for tanin (“sea monster”) in the main text, and its correction as tanim (“jackals”) in the margin. Similarly, yellow shading shows ki einim (“because einim”) in the main text, and its correction as kay’einim (“like ostriches”) in the margin. Details of the main text and the corrections (with, unfortunately, significant digital artifacts) appear below. Click any image to enlarge it.

Lamentations 4:3 in the Leningrad Codex. Detail of main text.

Lamentations 4:3 in the Leningrad Codex. Detail of marginal note.

Tanim. The nun in the main text is corrected as a mem in the marginal note.

Lamentations 4:3 in the Leningrad Codex. Detail of main text.

Lamentations 4:3 in the Leningrad Codex. Detail of main text.

Kay’einim The two words in the main text are corrected as one in the marginal note.

February 14, 2010 Posted by | Off Topic | , | 4 Comments

Q&A: Jackals and Sea Monsters in Lamentations 4:3

From the About page comes this question about jackals and sea monsters:

I was wondering about Lamentations 4:3. All modern translations seem to agree that it mentions jackals, but the KJV translated it as “sea monster,” which commentaries then took to mean “pelican” (on the basis that pelicans were thought to feed their young with their own blood, a myth of good parenting that’s relevant to the context).

How could the KJV have got it so wrong? It’s not as though they’re similar animals. And is the modern translation certain?

It’s a great question, for three reasons.

First, it demonstrates the sort of translation problem that arises when there are divergent opinions about what the text is.

Secondly, it’s an example of the problems we have in translating animals and other technical terms. Even in English, “jackal” is ambiguous, inasmuch as people use the term differently. (I alluded briefly to a similar issue regarding “sparrows” here.)

Thirdly, the question highlights the metaphoric use of animals, and why that can be a translation challenge.

Which Text?

To understand Lamentations 4:3, and texts like it, we need a bit of background about where the text of the Hebrew Bible as we now know it comes from.

The exact text of the Hebrew Bible as it appears in today’s printed editions was redacted by a group of people (really, more than one group) called the Masoretes some 1,100 years ago. The Masoretes put in the vowel marks to augment the older consonantal text. They also made notes where they thought the consonantal text was wrong. But because they respected the traditional text so much, they didn’t actually change the printed text that they thought was wrong, relying instead on extra-textual notes to guide the reader.

The official text as it’s printed is called the “written” text and the official correction is called the “read” text.

Jackals and Sea Monsters

Hebrew has two words, tan, usually translated “jackal,” and tanin, usually translated “sea monster” in English and drakon in Greek. The plural suffix -im in Hebrew turns tan (“jackal”) into tanim (“jackals”), a word that sounds a lot like tanin. That is, “jackals” and “sea monster” sound very similar.

In the case of Lamentations 4:3, the “written” text is tanin, “sea monster” with a note that the “read” text should be tanim, “jackals.” (This is not the only “read”/”written” conflict in Lamentations 4:3. The “like ostriches” part is the “read” text for the “written” text that has, apparently, as extra space.)

Though Jewish religious communities assume that the “written” text is the right one, translators shouldn’t always make that assumption. Here, though, the plural verbs in the Hebrew make the singular tanin impossible; unless the verb is wrong, the subject cannot be the written tanin.

On the other hand, the Greek LXX translates drakontes here, as though the Hebrew were taninim.

The KJV seems to have translated the LXX (or maybe the “written” text, but probably the LXX) here.

What are Jackals and Sea Monsters?

The second issue is more difficult. How do we know what tan or tanin means?

The answer is that we don’t.

“Jackal” is a fine guess for tan, based on Isaiah 43:20, where the tanim are “field animals,” probably “wild animals”; and based on Malachi 1:3, where tanot (female tanim) live in the desert. But these could also be “hyenas” or “coyotes” etc.

Also indicative of the confusion, we see “jackals” in most translations of Psalm 63:10, but the Hebrew word there is different.

(We have a bit more information about what tanin means. Genesis 1:21 connects the anim to water; so do Psalm 74(73):13 and Psalm 148:7. Exodus 7:12 connects it to a magic trick with rods. So “water snake” looks like a good guess.)

What, Really, are Jackals?

More importantly, though, we see two additional facts about tanim. They frequently occur metaphorically with ostriches (Job 30:29, Isaiah 43,20, Micah 1:8, etc.); and they are a symbol of destruction (Psalm 44:19, Psalm 63:11, Isaiah 13:22, Jeremiah 9:11, etc.)

To get a sense of how the metaphor might have worked, we can compare “hawk” and “vulture” in English. Most people can’t tell them apart. But even so, to call someone a “vulture” is an insult, while the same is not true for “hawk.”

So even if tanim are jackals, and even if y’einim (in the second half of Lamentations 4:3) are ostriches, “jackals” and “ostriches” still might not be the right translation.

The poetry of Lamentations 4:3-4 seems to rely on taking the image of “jackal,” normally a sign of destruction, and suggesting that even the jackal is better than what Zion has become: the tongue of the nursing infant goes thirsty (Lamentations 4:4) whereas even the jackal (4:3) nurses its young.

I don’t think that “jackal”/”ostrich” conveys that progression. I wonder if “rat” would be a better translation here, because to me when a city is overrun it’s overrun with rats: “Even the rat nurses its young…” is the point.

February 12, 2010 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , | 6 Comments