God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

If not by bread alone then by what?

Matthew 4:4 (also Luke 4:4) is among the most famous Bible quotations: “Man shall not live on bread alone” (NIV2011) or, better, “one does not live on bread alone.” But if not on bread, then what?

What’s interesting is that there are two completely different answers.
Continue reading

March 29, 2011 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , | 8 Comments

Exploring the Bible Videos

I’m thrilled to announce the beta version of my latest project: Exploring the Bible videos. The site is a growing collection of short text-based videos about the Bible, frequently focusing on translation issues.

Logo

The first three videos (also available on YouTube) are:

Longer than a soundbite and (much) shorter than a lecture, each video presents a single idea in two or three minutes.

These first three videos mirror blog posts I’ve written (here, here, and here).

My hope is that these videos will be an effective way of discussing the text of the Bible, because the medium of video makes it possible to display the text as I talk about it.

Please let me know what you think.

I’ll also be grateful if you can ask a few friends or colleagues to take a look — particularly if they don’t follow this blog — so I can get a sense of what these videos are like for people who encounter the material for the first time.

Enjoy!

March 28, 2011 Posted by | announcements, translation practice, translation theory, video | , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Where have all the posts gone?

Regular followers of this blog may have noticed that recently there hasn’t been much to regularly follow. In part that’s because I’ve been traveling so much, but mostly it’s because I’ve been working on an exciting new project, as I describe next.

The project, like many, obeyed the 90-90 rule: The first 90 percent of the work took 90 percent of the time I’d budgeted, and the last 10 percent of the work also took up 90 percent of the time…

Now that the beta version is finally live, I hope to have more time to spend here.

March 28, 2011 Posted by | meta | , , | Leave a comment

Girl Animals, Boy Animals, and Neuter Animals

CNN’s belief blog has an interesting story about a request by PETA not to call animals “it” in Bible translations:

PETA is hoping the [NIV’s] move toward greater gender inclusiveness will continue toward animals as well.

“When the Bible moves toward inclusively in one area [human gender -JMH] … it wasn’t much of a stretch to suggest they move toward inclusively in this area,” Bruce Friedrich, PETA’s vice president for policy, told CNN.

Friedrich, a practicing Roman Catholic, said, “Language matters. Calling an animal ‘it’ denies them something. They are beloved by God. They glorify God.”

I think it’s an interesting and complex question, and I’ll try to post some reactions when I have time. For now, read the article.

March 24, 2011 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Who are you calling a virgin?

The NAB’s decision to change “virgin” to “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14 has once again brought up the virgin birth, Mary, and the nature of prophesy, as well as the role of translation in accurately conveying the text of the Bible.

Most reports I’ve seen recently, though, confuse what are really three separate issues here.

Isaiah 7:14

The first issue is the text of Isaiah 7:14. The Hebrew there reads: “an alma … will bear a son and call him `Emmanuel.'” It has long been known that alma does not mean “virgin.” Rather, the Hebrew word applies to any young woman. So the English translation of that line should read along the lines of “a young woman … will bear a son…” (The evidence is widely known and readily available, including in my And God Said.)

Unfortunately, the Septuagint — the highly influential ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament — got the translation wrong here, translating the Hebrew alma as the Greek parthenos, which (probably) did mean “virgin.” It was an easy mistake to make, because most young women back then were virgins, and most virgins were young women. It would be like translating “teenager” as “high-school student” in a society where most teenagers were in fact in high school.

Based on this mistranslation, though, most modern translations — going back to the KJV and including the recently published NIV — translate “a virgin … will bear a son” here. (The NIV has a footnote, “or young woman.”) The new NAB (“NABRE”) is a notable exception. That version now has, “the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.” Their choice to go with “young woman” reflects the correct understanding of the original Hebrew (though I do have problems with their phrasing of the rest of the line).

The Virgin Birth

Importantly, though, Isaiah 7:14 is not the description of “the virgin birth” of Jesus. Rather, we find the virgin birth first in Matthew 1:18-25, which brings us to the second issue.

As part of the description of Jesus’ birth, the text in Matthew cites Isaiah 7:14, noting that Jesus’ birth “fulfilled” (plirow) the phrophet Isaiah’s words (a point I return to below).

Matthew 1:18-25 only uses “virgin” (parthenos) in quoting Isaiah 7:14. But Matthew’s description of Jesus’ birth is nonetheless clear on the matter. The text uses the euphemisms “before [Mary and Joseph] came together [sunerchomai]” and “[Joseph] did not know [ginosko] her [Mary] until after she gave birth” to indicate that Mary was a virgin, and the text twice clarifies that the pregnancy was “from the Holy Spirit” [ek pneumatos agiou].

These combine to create a clear account: Jesus was born to a virgin.

The text in Luke 1:26-38 is similar in nature. Though again “virgin” is replaced with a euphemism (“Mary asked the angel, `how [is it possible that I will conceive] since I do not know [ginosko]” any men?), the text is clear, adding for emphasis that “with God nothing is impossible.”

The actual descriptions indicate a virgin birth, regardless of what the words in Isaiah 7:14 mean.

Prophesy

The third issue is how to reconcile the virgin birth with Isaiah 7:14, which is cited in Matthew 1:23.

The most straightforward way is to note that even though Isaiah 7:14 refers to a “young woman,” not a “virgin,” the text doesn’t say that she wasn’t a virgin. She could have been. (By comparison, the text also doesn’t say that the woman had long hair, but she might have.) In other words, Isaiah 7:14, even with the better understanding of the original text, doesn’t contradict anything in the NT.

The more nuanced way to reconcile the two texts is to recognize what the verb in Matthew 1:22, plirow, really indicates. Though the word is commonly translated “fulfill” (as in, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet [Isaiah]”), better is “match,” as I describe here (“What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?”). I won’t go through the whole explanation again, but for now I think it suffices to note that Matthew knew that the details in Isaiah 7:14 differed from those he was describing. After all, the name of the child in Isaiah 7:14 was Immanuel, not Jesus.

Either way (and even though it’s not really my place to say), I don’t see a huge theological problem here. And even if there were a problem, I would still be in favor of an accurate translation.

Summary

It seems pretty clear to me that Isaiah 7:14 mentions a pregnant woman (who, at least as far as translation can take us, may or may not have been a virgin) and that the NT refers to the virgin birth of Jesus. It seems equally clear that the lack of perfect harmony between the texts is in keeping with other kinds of prophesy in the NT.

Still, from the international stage (“traditionalists may see [the NABRE’s change from “virgin” to “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14] as a step away from the original meaning”) to local communities (“If the meaning of the language is changed to reflect that Mary may not have been a virgin, you’ve just denied the divinity of Christ”) the discussion seems skewed to me. It seems to start with theology, and then ask how the translations can be doctored to match that theology, while I think an accurate translation should stand on its own.

Or to put it another way, it seems to me that basing theology on a translation designed solely to support that theology is both bad translation technique and bad theology.

March 23, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , | 45 Comments

The Ten Commandments Don’t Forbid Coveting

In the original Hebrew, the Ten Commandments don’t address coveting, so common renditions like “do not covet” or “thou shalt not covet” are mistranslations.


New! This post is also available as a video, part of the Exploring the Bible Videos series.

The Hebrew verb in the 10th commandment (or, for some, the 9th and 10th commandments) is chamad. As usual, we learn what the word means by looking at how it is used elsewhere.

The clearest case against “covet” is Exodus 34:24, which has to do with the three pilgrimage holidays, for which the Israelites would leave their homes and ascend to Jerusalem. Exodus 34:24 promises that no one will chamad the Israelites’ land when they leave for Jerusalem to appear before God.

It seems absurd to me to think that the Israelites were afraid that in leaving their land for a while, other people would desire (“covet”) it. After all, other people could desire the land whether or not the Israelites were around.

So it’s pretty clear that chamad doesn’t mean “covet” or “desire” there.

In Deuteronomy 7:25, we see chamad in parallel with “take” (lakach): “Do not chamad the silver and gold [of statues of false gods] and take [lakach] it…” Just from this context, the verb could mean “covet,” but other than our preconceptions of what the text should mean, we see nothing to suggest that translation. (By similar reasoning, it could mean “draw a picture of” or any number of other possibilities for which there is no evidence.)

Furthermore, the parallelism here suggests that chamad is like lakach. That is, to chamad is to take in some way, not to want in some way.

We find the same juxtaposition of chamad and lakach elsewhere. For example, in Joshua 7:21 we read “[Achan said,] `when I saw among the spoil a beautiful mantle from Shinar, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, then I chamaded them and took them” (NRSV, my emphasis). Proverbs 6:25, too, puts the two verbs together. These examples further reinforce the close connection between chamad and lakach.

And in Proverbs 12:12, we see a pair of opposites: “righteous” and “give” versus “wicked” and “chamad.” So chamad seems to be the opposite of “give.”

All of these point in a clear direction: chamad doesn’t mean “covet” or “want.” It means “take.”

So the last commandment should read: “Do not take…”

March 2, 2011 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , | 87 Comments