God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: The Stiff Burning Neck of Proverbs 29:1

These questions about Proverbs 29:1 come in via the About page:

1. Is it possible that this verse refers to, or alludes to, a broken neck (spinal column), with no possibility of mending (except, in modern times, T-cells)?

2. What is with the references to “reprover” and “fire” in the LXX?

The verse is (NRSV): “One who is often reproved, yet remains stubborn, will suddenly be broken beyond healing.”

The Neck

Regarding the first question, I’d hate to say that it’s impossible that this is a broken neck, but I don’t think it’s very likely. The phrase “neck-hard” or “hard of neck” (k’she oref) that we find in Proverbs 29:1 is a common one, and it seems to refer to stubbornness. We find it applied to the people Israel in Exodus (32:9, 33:3, 33:5, and 34:9) and in Deuteronomy (9:6 and 9:13). It seems to be a negative trait that can describe a group. Furthermore, it’s not the neck that breaks in Proverbs 29:1, but the person who has it.

I’m not sure how we’d know if an idiom were used literally. (It would be like “he kicked the bucket” meaning someone who literally gave the bucket a kick.) But because we have no evidence to point to a literal meaning, I think the idiomatic one is our best guess.

The final word, marpei, is common in Proverbs. Some things have no marpei, as here, and as in Proverbs 6:15 (and Jeremiah 14:19). Other times, something can bring marpei: in Proverbs 12:18, it’s the tongue of the wise.

Proverbs 29:1 promises no marpei for the stubborn who are broken. That’s where “beyond healing” (NRSV) comes from. But I think the phrasing in the NRSV (and others) is off. It’s not, “…will be broken beyond repair,” but rather “…will be broken; [the situation] will be beyond repair.”

The Fire

The LXX’s flegomenou (“set on fire”) is surprising.

Often when the LXX differs significantly from the Hebrew, it’s because the LXX reflects a different interpretation of the Hebrew — usually a different way of adding vowels to the consonantal text — or actually a different (sometimes erroneous) Hebrew text. Frequently, the alternative text that gave us the variations in the LXX involves one or more Hebrew letters having been copied incorrectly. For example, we often find a vav (long line) for a yud (short line), which is manifested in sound as an /o/ or /u/ for an /i/ or /ei/; sometimes we see swapped or missing letters.

In the case of “better than a stiff-necked man” (Brenton LXX translation), it seems that the LXX translators took makshei oref and read it as mikshei oref. The latter phrase means “than a stiff necked person.” From there, maybe someone added “better.” The details of the Hebrew grammar here are complicated, and ultimately this case isn’t all that interesting.

But the “fire” is very interesting. There’s no Hebrew word in Proverbs 29:1 that — even with letter changes — seems to have to do with “fire.” But — and this is the fun part — Proverbs 6:15 ends with the same four words as Proverbs 29:1. And in Proverbs 6:15, we find the somewhat rare Hebrew word eid, which (probably) means something like “disaster.”

However, make the middle yud of eid into a vav and you get oud, “firebrand!”

So I think the LXX’s “fire” comes not from Proverbs 29:1 but from (a misreading of) the similar Proverbs 6:15.

Great question.

February 7, 2010 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Do You Speak KJV?

Thanks to A. Admin for pointing out an interview with Dr. Benjamin Shaw.

I do want to credit the interviewer for asking for input both from those who agree and who disagree with Dr. Shaw.

But I’m always skeptical of people like Dr. Shaw who recommend the KJV for accuracy.

Even ignoring the flawed translation strategy of the KJV authors and the advances we’ve made regarding ancient manuscripts in the past 400 years, I think we have to recognize that English has changed in four centuries. So even where the KJV used to be accurate, sometimes now it is not.

Here’s a short quiz of KJV English. How many can you get right? (The answers are right at the end. Don’t peek.)

1. The “turtle” (Song of Solomon 2:12, Jeremiah 8:7) is:

A. An animal that crawls on the land.
B. An animal that swims in the sea.
C. An animal that flies in the sky.

2. “Prevent” (E.g., Psalms 59:10, “The God of mercy shall prevent me”) means:

A. Allow.
B. Disallow.
C. Precede.

3. God “So loved….” (John 3:16) means:

A. Loved a lot.
B. Loved a little.
C. Loved in this way.

4. “Suffered” (E.g., Matthew 3:15, “then he suffered….”) has to do with:

A. Pain and agony.
B. Patience.
C. Consent.

5. “Who shall let it?” (Isaiah 43:13) means:

A. Who shall allow it?
B. Who shall reverse it?
C. Who shall prevent it?

Continue reading

February 7, 2010 Posted by | translation practice | , , , | 5 Comments

Clayboy on the Preacher’s Fallacy

Clayboy has an informative and well-written post about the mistakes that often follow after someone tries the “what the Greek really says” argument:

One of the biggest warning flags in a sermon comes when the preacher says: “Now, in Greek, the word is … which (literally) means …” Sometimes they know what they’re talking about. More often they are about to pull a fast one.

Read more….

And by the way, “informative and well-written” after “Clayboy” almost goes without saying.

February 7, 2010 Posted by | translation theory | , , | 3 Comments

Do you talk this way at home?

I recently observed master teacher and musician Kenny Green telling children about the Jewish month of Adar.

“Once Adar begins, we increase our happiness,” he explained, using the usual terminology. Then he added with a self-mocking grin, “yes, I talk that way at home, too.”

There’s a Hebrew verb hirbah that means generally “to do/have/make a lot.”

For example, in Genesis 3:16, God punishes women by hirbahing their pain in childbirth; the usual translation is “multiply” or “increase,” though it’s not clear that there was originally any pain to be multiplied or increased. I think the point is closer to “you will have severe pain” than to “you will have more pain.”

In Genesis 34:12 we find the imperative in the context of “hirbah to me greatly the dowry and gift — I will give it.” I think the point here is, “no matter how high you make the dowry….”

In Psalm 78(77):38, the verb appears before an expression that probably means “to show restraint,” and there the NRSV translates, “often [God] restrained his anger.”

The core meaning of the verb is what “multiply,” “increase,” “make high,” “frequently,” etc. have in common. We don’t have anything like this in English.

The Rabbis used the verb in expressions like, marbeh tz’daka, marbeh shalom, commonly translated “the more charity, the more peace” or even less felicitously, “the one who increases charity increases peace.” “Charity leads to peace” is the point. (Marbeh is the present tense of hirbah.)

This brings us to the tradition of the month of Adar. “From the time Adar enters, we marbeh in happiness.”

It’s a pretty simply concept. “Adar is the time of happiness.” Or, perhaps more poetically, “Happiness abounds in Adar.” A reasonable translation of the Rabbi’s statement might be, “From the time Adar begins happiness abounds.”

By contrast, the usual translation (“we increase our happiness”) is barely English, and a variation, “we have an increase in our happiness,” seems more reminiscent of a sterile scientific experiment than of joy.

Kenny Green correctly noted that his own customary speech made sense only to people who already knew what he was saying.

More generally, I think Bible translations frequently end up as incomprehensible English, but because some people already know what the translation is supposed to mean, they don’t realize that their translation doesn’t say it.

One easy way to see this is to use the grammar of the translation in a new, secular context.

For example, “once July enters, we increase our free time.” It’s barely English.

Similarly, going back to John 3:16, “I so do my homework…” doesn’t mean “this is how I do my homework.”

I think Kenny’s approach can be a useful guide in translation. After you’ve worked through the ancient vocabulary and grammar, and after you’ve crafted an English rendition that you think captures the original, a reasonable question might be, “do you talk this way at home?”

February 4, 2010 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 9 Comments

So, What? John 3:16 and the Lord’s Prayer

Scripture Zealot reminds us that the usual translation of John 3:16 is wrong. The Greek there doesn’t mean, “for God so loved the world…,” so the line shouldn’t read (NRSV) “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Watch my “Exporing the Bible” video about John 3:16.

The translation used to be right, though, when “so” between a subject and a verb meant “in this manner.” The word “so” is meant to translate the Greek outos, and the point of John 3:16 is that “God loved the world like this….” or “God loved the world in this way….” or “This is how God loved the world.” (Don’t confuse “outos,” meaning “so,” with autos, which means something else.)

The word outos appears hundreds of times in the NT, including in the introduction to what has become known as the Lord’s prayer. Most translations get the word right in Matthew 6:9, as for example, “after this manner” (KJV), which is needlessly awkward but still generally accurate; “in this way” (NRSV); “like this” (ESV); variations on “this is how” (NAB, NIV); etc. (Outos doesn’t appear in the introduction to the “short Lord’s prayer” in Luke.)

So John 3:16 should read along the lines of, “for this is how God loved the world…”

The meaning of John 3:16 is not generally a disputed point.

The authors of the KJV knew what outos meant, but in their 400-year-old dialect (it wasn’t 400 years old then — but it is now), “God so loved…” meant “God loved in this way….”

The translators of the ESV knew it, too, and they even added a footnote to John 3:16: “Or For this is how God loved the world.” I can only guess that they didn’t change the KJV because in this case they valued tradition over accuracy.

The current translations are as wrong as it would be to render Matthew 6:9 as “you should pray this much….” instead of “you should pray this way….”

Other versions also seem to prefer tradition over accuracy when it comes to John 3:16, even when they do not adhere to the KJV translation tradition. The NLT rewrites the line, but their rendition, “For God loved the world so much that….” is a rewrite of the wrong meaning. The Message gets it wrong, too, with “This is how much God loved the world….” So does the CEV: “God loved the people of this world so much….” In other words, these three translations rewrote the wrong meaning to make the wrong meaning more accessible.

This pattern is interesting, and, I think, important for understanding the field of Bible translation. We see that in practice Bible translation is not simply translation applied to the Bible (though many people think that it should be).

Cases like these — where the Greek is easy to understand and generally undisputed — show us that even the most knowledgeable Bible translators can have trouble breaking free from their familiar, if wrong, translations.

February 4, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 40 Comments

What do you call water you can drink?

Exodus 15:22-26 deals with drinking water. The People of Israel come to Marah (the name of a place, but the word also means “bitter”) and when they find that the water there is undrinkable, Moses throws a log into the water and it becomes drinkable. It’s a fairly simple concept (thought a complex trick), yet the KJV, ESV, NIV, NJB, NRSV, and JPS translations all translate “drinkable water” here as “sweet water.”

That’s because the Hebrew word here is matok. In Hebrew — as in English — “sweet” and “salty” are generally opposites, and in Hebrew the paradigm extends to water. But unlike Hebrew, in (most dialects of) English the opposite of “salt water” is not “sweet water” but rather “fresh water,” or perhaps “drinkable water” or even “potable water.”

The same contrast in James 3:11 is variously rendered “sweet/bitter” (KJV), “fresh/salt” (ESV), “fresh/bitter” (NLT), “fresh/brackish” (NRSV) or “pure/brackish” (NAB). (I’ve never used the word “brackish” in my life, though I remember hearing the word when I took a boat tour of the Everglades. Apparently it’s a mixture of seawater and fresh lake water.)

All of this complexity is introduced for what is essentially a very simple contrast, with common English words to describe it: fresh water and salt water.

It seems to me that the only reason to prefer “sweet” in Exodus is to maintain the literary contrast between the name of the place (“Marah,” which means “bitter”) and the water, which becomes sweet.

Do you think it’s worth it? Is “sweet” acceptible for “fresh”/”potable”/”drinkable”?

What about in James 3:11. Is “brackish” called for? I don’t see what’s wrong with “fresh/salt.”


February 2, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

And God Said Goes On Sale Today


I’m thrilled to announce that my latest book, And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning, goes on sale today.

I want to keep “God Didn’t Say That” as commercial-free as possible, so I’ve set up a separate blog for the book here, though the book is about Bible translation, so I’m sure there will be considerable overlap.

More information about the book is available here, and you can even find the book on Facebook. (“Won’t you be my friend?” pleads the book.)

It took me four months and fifteen years to write. I hope you enjoy it.


“Hoffman’s work is the best gift for a careful reader of [the Bible].” -Dr. Walter Brueggemann

“Retrieves what the Bible really was.” -The Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski

“A wise and important book.” -Rabbi Harold Kushner

February 2, 2010 Posted by | announcements | , , , , | 5 Comments

“God is an Online Forum”

Because this is a blog about translation, I’m curious when people read it in translation. Recently the logs showed me that someone used Google to translate the blog from English into Turkish. I took a look at what the site looked like in Turkish, and then used Google to translate the Turkish back into English.

The “about” section of my blog starts off, “God Didn’t Say That is an online forum….” By the time Google translated it into Turkish and back, it read, “God is an online forum.” (Oops.)

Though most Bible translation mistakes aren’t so severe as what we see here, I think the underlying problem is the same: some translators stop when they have a grammatical translation (though see my last post — sometimes they stop sooner), even though it might not be the right grammatical translation.

February 1, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , | Comments Off on “God is an Online Forum”

Top Translation Traps: Forgetting Your Own Grammar

Mark 15:9 demonstrates how translation can make people forget their own grammar.

A curiosity of English generally prevents anything from appearing between a verb an its object. This is why “I saw yesterday Bill” is such an awkward sentence in English. (It’s fine in French, Modern and Biblical Hebrew, Greek, and many other languages.)

Yet for the Greek apoluso umin ton basilea tou Ioudaion the KJV, ESV, NAB, NIV, NJB, and NRSV all have some variant of, “[do you want me to] release for you the King of the Jews,” putting the phrase “for you” (sometimes “to you”) right between the verb and the object.

Simple English grammar demands, “…release the King of the Jews for you.”

I suppose what we see is a result of translators’ (unfortunate) desire to mimic the Greek word order combined with something about Bible translation that makes people temporarily forget what they ordinarily know instinctively.

The lesson this week is simple: When you write an English translation, try to write it in English.

February 1, 2010 Posted by | grammar, Translation Traps | , , , , , | 14 Comments