God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Importance of the Ten Commandments

A short excerpt from a lecture I gave a while back. (A little off topic, but still….)

July 20, 2010 Posted by | Off Topic, video | | 3 Comments

On Genesis 1:1

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.

I have more on Genesis 1:1 here, here, and here.

July 19, 2010 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Rashi – The Great Jewish Translator and Commentator

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:

  1. Consistency.
  2. Theology.
  3. Linguistics.

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.

July 19, 2010 Posted by | Off Topic | | 3 Comments

How Translation Used to Work

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.

July 14, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 4 Comments

Bible Translation: Where Melody and Mirrors Merge

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)?

July 12, 2010 Posted by | translation theory, using Bible translations | , , , | 5 Comments

Choosing What the Bible Is

I recently asked how people choose a Bible translation. (And I have more here.)

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)?

July 12, 2010 Posted by | translation theory, using Bible translations | , , , | 14 Comments

How Important is Accuracy?

“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?

July 6, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions | , , , | 11 Comments

The Microcosm of Bible Translation: Amos 5:15

[This is the first in what I hope will become an occasional series about the details of actual translation: methods, decisions that have to be made, compromises, etc.]

Amos 15:5

The first part of Amos 15:5 reads (NRSV), “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate;” What goes in to that translation? What does the translation miss? What other options might be better?

As we go through, I’ve italicized questions that the translator needs to answer. I offer my answers to some of them toward the end.


We start with the words, most of which are straightforward:

and love
and place/put in place
in/at the gate

There are details of the words which are not conveyed in these English glosses.


The verbs (“hate,” “love,” and “put in place”) are plural imperatives. We don’t have plurals like this in English, but there are ways of expressing the same point if we want: “all of you, hate…,” for example. (The LXX‘s “we hated” and “we loved” doesn’t match the Hebrew here.)

Is the nuance of the verb forms important to convey in translation?


There are at least two reasonable translations for ra: “bad” and “evil.” The Hebrew is the common opposite of “good” (tov), so “bad” seems like the better choice. Unfortunately, while “good” and “evil” in English function both as adjectives and nouns, “bad” is only an adjective. “Hate bad” isn’t English. The KJV ops for “hate the bad” to preserve the pair “good/bad.” Modern translations almost all go with “hate evil.”

Is the substitution of “evil” for “bad” warranted? Or should the translator find a way of making the more accurate “bad” work in English?


There are lots of ways of loving. Clearly, one doesn’t love a spouse the same way one loves what is good. Perhaps for this reason, the CEV goes with “choose good.” (In a similar vein, the Greek agapao is frequently glossed along the lines “love, primarily of Christian love.”)

Should the translation reflect how “love” (ahav) is used here?


The verb I gloss as “[put in] place” is usually used for people and physical things. In Genesis, “present” is often a good translation. In Deuteronomy 28:56, the verb is used for “set” in the phrase “set the sole of her foot on the ground.” In Judges 6:37, it’s used for “set” in the phrase “set the wool fleece” on the ground.

Is “establish” too grandiose here?

The NIV offers “maintain justice” here. But the broader context of the passage makes it clear that justice was lacking and that it had to be restored. (The LXX gives us “restore.”)

Should the translation of “establish” include the context here?


For me, the issue of “gate” is one of the most interesting. The “gate” (sha’ar) here is a city gate, but when I think of “gate” in English, I think of the gate of a fence. (Similarly, the famous phrase from Deuteronomy 6:9, “write them … on your gates” deals with the entrances to cities.) Maybe “city gate” is better?

More importantly, the gate in antiquity was a gathering spot, not merely a portal. In modernity, the “city square” serves the same purpose. (So does the watercooler, I guess, but not really.)

One purpose of gathering at the gate was justice. This is probably why the NIV goes with “courts” here instead of “gate.” The English translation that puts “justice” in the “gate” seems to put it in an odd spot, whereas originally the Hebrew put it right where it normally was.

Does “gate” in English correctly convey the Hebrew? Should the translation focus on the physical location of the gate or on its purpose? Is the translation successful if readers have to know details of ancient society to understand it?


The Hebrew mishpat is variously “judgement,” “justice,” “rule,” “law,” “sentence,” and more.

Does “mishpat” have to be translated uniformly throughout the Bible? What nuance is implied here? Should the translation indicate the nuances?


Beyond the choice of words, the Hebrew is poetic.

The phrase starts with classic parallelism, juxtaposing two pairs of opposites: “hate/love” and “bad/good.” The previous verse also puts “good” and “bad” together, though there “good” comes first. (Surprisingly, the KJV translates “good/evil” in verse 14 but “the good/the bad” for the same Hebrew in verse 15.)

Then a new element, “justice,” is introduced. Stylistically the third clause is similar to the first two, but in terms of content it’s very different. (This has the effect of emphasizing “justice.”)

The object of the verb comes last in all three cases (“bad,” “good,” and “justice”). Should the English translation preserve this poetic device? Is it possible?

The NLT, correctly noting that “evil” is more commonly used as a noun than “good,” translates, “hate evil and love what is good.” Should the English translation preserve the single-verb-single-noun pattern for the first two clauses?

Reading Between the Lines

The connection between “justice” and the first two pairs is (purposely?) left vague. Should the translation fill in the details of the connection here? For example, The Message and God’s Word translations offer “then” instead of just “and.”

Noting that gates used to be where justice was administered and that courts now serve that function, the NIV, God’s Word and others translate “gates” as “courts.” The Message goes with “public square” in the phrase “work it out in the public square.” The NLT offers, “remodel your courts into true halls of justice.”

Other translations explain what happens with justice. For example, the NJB translates, “let justice reign.”

Should a translation explain the text in these kinds of ways?

English Grammar

Maybe it’s because of all of this hidden complexity that modern translations sometimes ignore English grammar. One immediate question is whether one meets “in the gate” or “at the gate” in English. (For me, “I’ll meet you at Jaffa gate in Jerusalem” is better than “I’ll meet in you Jaffa gate in Jerusalem.” I suspect this will be dialectal. Does anyone prefer “in” here?)

The NIV, NJB, and others forget about simple English punctuation. The NIV drops the first “and” (“Hate evil, love good;”), for example. Is there any reason not to use correct English grammar?

Summary and Answers


We’ve seen that the original text refers to hating what is bad, loving what is good, and (re)establishing justice in the place where justice was usually administered, that is, the city gate.

The text addresses people collectively.

The text is poetic and pithy. It consists of three clauses, the third standing out because it’s a little longer than the first two.

My Answers

I think it’s nice to convey singular/plural nuances in imperative verbs, but not necessary, primarily because ancient Hebrew uses both singular and plural for addressing a group. This doesn’t seem to be a big deal, and there’s no easy way to do it in English anyway.

I think that “evil” for ra is going too far. I see a statement about ordinary, daily life in the original. We use “bad” for that in English, I think, not “evil.”

I think that the English “love” covers roughly the same areas of meaning as the Hebrew ahav. It’s a mistake to try to spell out in English what the original did not spell out in Hebrew, so “love,” though broad, is right.

I think “establish” is not too bad for the Hebrew, and I can’t think of anything better. “Set up” might work, too, depending on the other lexical choices.

The issue of “gate” is, for me, the hardest. “Justice” in modernity has nothing to do with “gates,” and, in fact, this passage in Hebrew is not about gates except to the degree that gates are the locus of justice. It’s like “restore justice to the courts” in English. The focus there isn’t “courts” but rather “justice.”

On the other hand, gates come up frequently in the Bible, so changing the word only here seems problematic. Just for example, the Hebrew in this passage matches Deuteronomy 6:9. If we change “gate” to “court” here we destroy the connection.

As for “gate” or “city gate,” I think “city gate” is more accurate, but the accuracy is irrelevant, because either way we end up with an odd place for justice. People who know about the role of ancient city gates will know what “gates” means, and those who don’t won’t find “city gates” to be particularly helpful.

I think the poetry is important, and, in particular, the translation should preserve the grammatical connection among the three phrases. I don’t think the translation necessarily has to use verb-noun each time, though; another repeated pattern would serve just as well.

I do not think that it’s the job of the translation to fill in details that are not in the text. I think that’s where commentary comes in.

And I think writing an English translation according to the rules of English grammar is important.


So one reasonable translation is:

“Hate what is bad and love what is good, and establish what is just among you.”

I’ve use the “what is…” construction to give all three clauses the same pattern, yet not force myself to use “evil.” I’m pretty happy with everything up to “among you.” Though I still think “among you” is better than “at the gate,” I’m left wondering if there is a better solution. I also worry that the sentence might be read as referring to “what is just among you.”

Another reasonable translation leaves out “gate” altogether. Perhaps every English translation is more misleading that not translating the word: “Hate what is bad and love what is good, and establish what is just.”

Or, to revert to “evil,” we might try: “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice among you.” While “evil” sounds stronger in English, it may be stronger than what the Hebrew represented.

What do you think?

July 1, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments