A short excerpt from a lecture I gave a while back. (A little off topic, but still….)
While most translations agree that the translation of Genesis 1:1 should read, “In the beginning…” the (Jewish) JPS translation offers instead, “When God began to create…” And the NLT and some others offer a footnote with that possibility. What’s going on?
The answer dates back 1,000 years to Rashi. He notes that the usual word for “in the beginning” would be barishona. And he further notes that b’reishit is never used except preceding a noun to mean “at the beginning of.”
He therefore concludes that Genesis 1:1 does not say that creation took place “in the beginning,” but rather that it was “in the beginning of” creation that the first part of the story takes place. That is, the earth was in disarray when God began to create.
Rashi’s analysis gives us, “When God began to create,” or (as the translation in Artscroll’s Rashi edition has it) “In the beginning of God’s creating.”
Rashi’s analysis has at least two kinds of problems.
The first is a matter of detail. For his analysis to work, he needs the verb bara to be a participle, though it’s unclear how that’s possible. Secondly, he needs the “and” of “and the earth was…” to mean “when.” That one is possible, though unlikely.
The second kind of problem, though, is methodological.
Rashi is right that b’reishit is never used except before a noun, but there are only four other times the word is used, all of them in Jeremiah, and all of them before words having to do with “kingdom” or “reign.” This is hardly a large enough sample to deduce what b’reishit means. (The same reasoning would force bara to mean something about kingdoms.)
Rashi’s point is actually more generally about reishit. (The b- prefix means “in/when/at/etc.”) But here, too, he runs into problems, wrongly assuming that a word is the sum of its parts.
Furthermore, while Rashi is correct that barishona means “at first,” that doesn’t really have much bearing on what b’reishit means. Perhaps the two words are nearly synonymous, for example. Or maybe barishona means “at first” in the sense of “the first time around” while b’reishit means “at first” in the sense of “the first and only time around.” (I just met someone who introduces his wife as his “first wife.” She is his first, only, and last wife.)
All of which is to say that Rashi’s commentary here is interesting — and it explains the JPS translation — but I don’t think it helps figure out what the first words of the Bible originally meant.
The year 1040 saw the birth of a man destined to become the greatest Jewish commentator and a major influence on translations. Born Solomon, son of Isaac, in Troyes, France, he is better known by the acronym his Hebrew name forms: Rashi.
Rashi’s travels and the timing of the Crusades catapulted him to the forefront of Jewish scholarship. Rashi left his birthplace of Troyes to study in Worms (now part of Germany), which was then a major center of Jewish scholarship. While there, he learned the accumulated wisdom of nearly 1,000 years of Jewish exile. Then he went back home to Troyes.
By the time of his death, Crusaders had ransacked Worms, killing Rashi’s teachers and destroying the schools of his youth. But Rashi remained safe in Troyes. He therefore became one of the sole repositories of nearly a millennium of collected Jewish scholarship.
So many people read Rashi alongside the Bible because in so doing they incorporate the first 1,000 years of post-exilic Bible scholarship.
Rashi’s most well-known work takes the form of running commentary to (parts of) the Bible. In general, he offers three kinds of commentary:
Consistency was important to Rashi. He had, apparently, memorized the entire Bible, and he wanted all of it to be consistent. When he found passages that seemed not to be, he offered commentary to explain why the passages were consistent after all.
Rashi also cared deeply about what he saw as Jewish values and beliefs, and he used the Bible homiletically to make various points.
Thirdly, Rashi tried to analyze the Hebrew language of the Bible.
(Though he didn’t know he was doing it, we can add a fourth accomplishment: he helped preserve middle French by using Hebrew transliterations of French to refer to words in his native language.)
Unfortunately, while Rashi proved extraordinary at the first two goals, he lived nearly 1,000 years before modern linguistics, and his linguistic analyses, therefore, are not usually on a par with his other work. To compound matters, Rashi didn’t distinguish among his various goals. So readers must figure out for themselves when Rashi is making a Jewish point that is only loosely based on the text and when he is explaining what the text originally meant.
This background can be helpful for understanding how Rashi’s work influenced Bible translation and scholarship.
I have an example next.
Nowadays, translators usually try to figure out what a word originally meant before they translate it. But translation hasn’t always worked that way.
For example, a passage in the (mid-first-millennium) Talmud explains the Hebrew word sechvi. The story, in the part of the Talmud known as Rosh Hashanah 26a, explains that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish went traveling, and on his travels he heard people using the word sechvi to mean “rooster.” And that’s how we know that the word sechvi — a hapax legomenon appearing only in the book of Job — means “rooster.”
The story is unlikely to be true. It’s unlikely that it was meant to be true. The story is set in a time long after people stopped speaking Hebrew. And normally when an opinion is important enough to consider it is cited along with the person who said it.
Yet to this day, the official Jewish assumption is that this unnamed, anonymous, unlikely-to-be-informed source from the Talmud was right. Accordingly, when Jewish prayer books quote the line as part of the daily liturgy, the translation “rooster” accompanies the text. The NAB, The Message, and others translate the word as “rooster” as well.
I think what we see is a reflection of a different approach to translation.
In the days of the Talmud (not long after the NT was canonized), they didn’t care if the translation was what we would now call accurate, because it’s a modern approach that focuses on what the text originally meant.
It used to be that the focus was on what the text could be made to mean.
Still following up on my question about accuracy and choosing Bible translations, and by way of answering my question about whether it’s okay if people choose what the Bible is, it occurs to me that music might be a useful comparison.
Many, many parts of the Bible have been set to music, and the options for any single passage usually range considerably. So people get to choose, for example, if they want Isaiah to be majestic or meditative, or if they want the Lord’s Prayer to be glorious, powerful, or pensive.
And most people — myself included — don’t see any problem with this. We should be able to choose how we want our religious music to sound.
But most people also agree — and again, I’m one of them — that we don’t get to choose what our religious texts mean, or, at least, that the options are more constrained.
So it seems to me that another way of looking of the question of choosing a Bible translation is this: Should a Bible translation be more like a melody (where everything is fair game), or more like a mirror (where accuracy is paramount)?
One interesting (though entirely predictable) result was that some people prefer more than one translation: the NLT for “readability,” for example, but the NET for “accuracy,” or the NASB for use in formal settings.
Even people who only have one preferred translation usually like the translation for similar kinds of reasons.
The upshot of this, though, is that people are deciding for themselves what the Bible is.
You can decide to have a formal Bible, a chatty Bible, an accessible Bible, or an esoteric Bible. You can opt for a Christian OT or a Jewish OT (even though it’s the same text).
Do you think this is okay? Do you think it’s okay that people get to choose what the Bible is (for them)?
“I like my Bible translation because it…” How would you complete that sentence?
I hear this sort of thing all the time — in comments on this blog, in discussions on similar blogs, via e-mail, in books, and from people who attend my lectures — and there are lots of reasons people like a particular translation.
But I’m surprised that the sentence almost never ends “…because it is accurate.”
Rather, I hear that people like a translation because it’s familiar, formal, chatty, accessible, entertaining, modern, gender-neutral, inclusive, etc.
I’ll post some more thoughts on this soon.
For now: Which translation do you prefer? And why?