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.

Deuteronomy 8:3

The first time we find “one does not live on bread alone” is in Deuteronomy 8:3, in the context of the purpose of the manna that fed the Israelites during their 40 year post-Egypt journey. There, the point is that bread is the usual way to gain sustenance, but not the only way. Manna is another option. So I think that an even better translation — which, like the Hebrew, makes the sentence clearly about bread — is “bread is not the only way to stay alive.”

But if not by bread, then by what?

In Deuteronomy 8:3 we find the Hebrew answer: kol motza pi adonai, that is, “every motza of the Lord’s mouth.”

Almost every translation I’ve seen renders “every motza” as “every word.” But motza doesn’t mean “word.”

We see this both from the context of Dueteronomy 8:3 and from how the word is used elsewhere.

In Deuteronomy 8:3, the point is that people can live on anything that God says people can live on, or, more succinctly, “anything that God says.” So the motza of the Lord’s mouth is “what God says” in the sense of “what God refers to,” not the actual words. If God says people can live on manna, then people can life on manna.

This usage — a kind of metonymy — is similar to “I give you my word” in English, or “I always keep my word,” both of which refer to the content of what I’m talking about, not to the actual words. And, in fact, this is exactly how we see motza in Hebrew used elsewhere.

In Numbers 30:13, regarding the annulment of women’s vows, we see that in certain circumstances the “motza of a woman’s lips” as it pertains to her vows is canceled.

In Deuteronomy 23:24, again in the context of vows, we see the admonition to “be careful to do the motza of your lips,” that is, “to do what you said you would.”

And in Jeremiah 17:16, we find the “motza of [Jeremiah’s] lips,” which seems to refer to Jeremiah’s previous prophecies.

Psalm 89:34(35) is particularly helpful, because we find “the motza of my lips” in parallel with “my covenant.”

(There are other meanings for motza, including “outlet” in the context of water and as a proper noun.)

These examples clearly point toward “anything that God says [one can live on]” for a translation of Deuteronomy 8:3. So where does God’s “word” as a translation come from?

The Septuagint

Part of the answer can be traced to the Septuagint — the hugely influential ancient translation of the OT into Greek.

The Septuagint translates motza in Deuteronomy 8:3 as rima, that is “word,” even though we find different translations of motza in other contexts. In Numbers 30:13, motza becomes “that which goes out [exerchomai].” Deuteronomy 23:24, Jeremiah 17:16, and Psalm 89:34(35) have the similar ekporeuomai.

But there are lots of places where the Greek in the Septuagint differs from the Hebrew text of the OT, and usually it’s the Hebrew that gets translated, not the Greek, so the fact that the Greek has rima here isn’t enough to explain the translation “word.”

For that, we really have to look at Matthew 4:4.

Matthew 4:4

Recounting Jesus’ temptation, Matthew 4:4 explains why Jesus will not turn stones into bread, even though he is hungry. (He’s hungry because he’s been fasting for 40 days and 40 nights, numbers which may allude to the 40 years of the Israelites’ wandering during which they ate the manna that’s referenced in Deuteronomy 8:3.)

In Matthew 4:4, Jesus quotes (the Greek text of) Deuteronomy 8:3 and announces that he doesn’t need bread, because one can live instead on God’s words. That is, he doesn’t need bread because he has God’s words.

At first glance, the statement wouldn’t make sense if Dueteronomy 8:3 referred to manna, because Jesus isn’t relying on manna, and manna is irrelevant to Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4:4.

But we get a different picture from a more nuanced look at how the NT quotes the OT, for example, as I explore here (“What happens to prophecies in the New Testament?“). In particular, we see that sometimes a reference to the OT is specifically a reference to the words, even though the meaning may not match exactly.

So Deuteronomy 8:3 can be about manna (and I believe it is) even if Matthew 4:4 is about God’s words.

Deuteronomy 8:3, Again

Unfortunately, all of this complexity is masked by translations that change Deuteronomy 8:3 to make the English match the text of Matthew 4:4 exactly, thereby mistranslating the Hebrew.

As it happens, I don’t think there’s any sound theological reason to change Deuteronomy 8:3, but even if there were, I’d be against the change. I think the translation should reflect the original as closely as possible.

And yet the ESV, NAB, NIV, NJB, NLT, NRSV, and others all add “word” to the translation of Deuteronomy 8:3, even though it’s lacking in the Hebrew. (The ESV explains in a footnote that the Hebrew says “by all,” not “by every word.” The NRSV suggests in a footnote to “by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” that another option is “by anything that the LORD decrees.”)

As in so many other cases, it seems to me that English translations mask the subtle beauty of the text here.


March 29, 2011 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , ,


  1. Doesn’t the root of motza have the sense of “expressed” – which is to say that motza, or pita bread, is bread that is baked with all of the gas expelled from it?

    Comment by WoundedEgo | March 29, 2011

    • There are two different words: motza and matza.

      Motza is from the root Yud.Tzadi.Aleph combined with the prefix letter mem. (The yud becomes a vav, which is typical.) The root Yud.Tzadi.Aleph generally has to do with “going out,” as in y’tzia (“exodus”), or motzi (“brings out”).

      Matza — that is, unleavened bread — is harder to identify. It may be from the root Mem.Tzadi.Tzadi, having to do with “draw out.” But it certainly is not from a root having an aleph in it.

      So the two words, even though they sound pretty close in English, are very different in Hebrew.

      Comment by Joel H. | March 29, 2011

      • You have cited the idea that motza can refer to an outlet of water and the expression of the mouth (words). My thought is that it might relate to what is “expressed” or “goes out of.”

        What do you think of my understanding that matzo is Pita bread, and not “crackers”? It seems an anachronistic idea to think if “omitting the yeast” – since they had not cultured yeast, that I know of.

        Comment by WoundedEgo | March 29, 2011

  2. I found this useful, and have linked to it on Facebook.

    Comment by Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) | March 30, 2011

  3. Regarding what ancient matza was, for sure it wasn’t the modern incarnation of matza, because the technology to create the modern cardboard-like food didn’t exist in antiquity.

    I suspect that matza was anything that wasn’t significantly leavened. So I think that pita bread was a kind of matza.

    But I know that there’s a whole field of food archaeology, and I know very little about it. Probably someone has much more information than I do.

    Comment by Joel H. | March 30, 2011

    • It is a dubious practice to attempt to understand the OT from the NT, but ISTM that Paul understands the unleavened bread to be essentially pita bread, where the first rise is pressed out, making a “new lump” which is cooked without a second rise (other than the “oven spring” that results when it first starts cooking). This results in a relatively flat bread, but not a cracker.

      1Co 5:7 Purge out therefore the old leaven [rise], that ye may be a new [degassed] lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:
      1Co 5:8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven [rise, gasses], neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

      Interestingly, not only is this “element” misrepresented by modern observances, so also the animal was to be a sheep, not a lamb. The wine is not to be grape juice, but fermented. And the only ones who should indulge are Jews (since the NT version is a memorial of the new testament, which is made only with the Jews)!

      Comment by WoundedEgo | March 30, 2011

  4. […] at The ElaboratedThe Complete List of Biblioblogs (RSS)CriticalJoel H. at God Didn’t Say ThatIf not by bread alone then by what?Stephen C. Carlson at HypotyposeisWord Play in PhilemonNTTodayBart Ehrman Lectures on […]

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  5. It is not dubious , in my opinion, to understand the OT in light of the NT, since Jesus Himself, stated that all the Scriptures (meaning the OT at that time) spoke of Him.

    Comment by Lois | November 16, 2014

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