God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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