God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Where did Jesus come from? (Or: Is your father the father of you?)

One of the most common expressions in Bible translations is a variation on the theme “daughter of so-and-so,” “father of so-and-so,” etc.

For example, in Genesis 11:29, we learn that Milcah was the daughter of “Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah” (NRSV, along with most others). Even the new CEB, which prides itself on using ordinary English, gives us “Haran, father of both Milcah and Iscah.” (The NLT “does the genealogical math” for us: “Milcah had a sister named Iscah.”)

But it seems to me that the way we translate Genesis 11:29 into English is, “Haran, Milcah and Iscah’s father.” Somehow, standard English grammar disappears from most translations.

This is how the start of the New Testament (Matthew 1:2) almost always becomes, in English, “Abraham was the father of Isaac.” (Other variations try to use an English verb for the Greek one: “Abraham fathered Isaac” [NJB] or the archaic “Abraham begat Isaac.”)

But again, the way we say that in English is “Abraham was Isaac’s father.” The grammar gets tricky a few words later — “Jacob was Judah and his brothers’ father” is a tad awkward — but that doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to abandon common English.

I understand that there’s a formal dialect of English that prefers “father of Isaac,” but I don’t that “Isaac’s father” is overly colloquial.

So I think the list should read:

Abraham was Isaac’s father,
Isaac, Jacob’s father,
Jacob, Judah and his brothers’ father,
Judah, Perez and Zerah’s father, with Tamar,
Perez, Hezron’s father,
Hezron, Ram’s father,
Ram, Amminadab’s father,
Amminadab, Nahshon’s father,
Nahshon, Salmon’s father,
Salmon, Boaz’s father, with Rahab,
Boaz, Obed’s father, with Ruth,
Obed, Jesse’s father,
and Jesse, King David’s father.

What do you think? Is there some merit to the standard phrasing that I’m missing?


January 26, 2012 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , ,


  1. Here’s is how I’ve translated Luke’s geneaology of Jesus, would love your feedback/criticism Joel. I left it out entirely, due to the archaic, formal, still, not used anymore way that others have translated geneaologies. Forgive the length due to format.

    Jesus, assumed to be “Joseph’s son,” was about thirty years old when He began His ministry. Now here are the names of Mary’s ancestors, from her father down, traced all the way back to Adam:

    Adam, who was the son of God.

    Comment by Brian | January 26, 2012

    • In general, I think you’re on the right track. (For those who don’t know: Luke’s genealogy list differs in that it just lists the names in Greek — using a bit of Greek grammar not available to us in English — a fact which is often hidden by English translations that introduce the word “son.”)

      One key question is whether you want to end with “…Seth, Adam, God” or break the pattern, as you do, with “the son of God.”

      Also, I’ve edited your comment and replaced the names in the middle with “[…],” just to make it easier for people to follow the conversation. I hope you don’t mind too much.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 26, 2012

  2. I agree with you 100% and prefer your phrasing, Joel.

    In my own translation, I have four or five standard ways of translating the genitive of the source language into English, and always choose the most natural (and semantically correct) option. In this case, the English possessive seems to be the most natural.

    Comment by Paul D. | January 26, 2012

  3. May be some semi-colons as well as the commas. Also removed commas for the ‘with Rahab/Ruth’ lines – reads better I think.

    Abraham was Isaac’s father;
    Isaac, Jacob’s father;
    Jacob, Judah and his brothers’ father;
    Judah, Perez and Zerah’s father, with Tamar;
    Perez, Hezron’s father;
    Hezron, Ram’s father;
    Ram, Amminadab’s father;
    Amminadab, Nahshon’s father;
    Nahshon, Salmon’s father;
    Salmon, Boaz’s father with Rahab;
    Boaz, Obed’s father with Ruth;
    Obed, Jesse’s father;
    and Jesse, King David’s father.

    Comment by newsterrorist | January 26, 2012

  4. For Genesis 11:29, you have to try to translate the entire relevant phrase. Here is my best attempt of a translation the “usual way” and your suggested way:

    (usual way:) “…and the name of Nachor’s wife was Milcah, the daughter of Haran [who was] the father of Milcah and the father of Iscah.”

    (suggested way:) “…and the name of Nachor’s wife was Milcah, the daughter of Haran [who was] Milcah and Iscah’s father.”

    I don’t think the second is inherently better than the first. (Part of the problem is that the entire phrase is odd: why is it telling us that Haran is Milcah’s father when it just told us that Milcah is Haran’s daughter…?)

    Comment by jonkatz | January 26, 2012

    • Part of the problem is that the entire phrase is odd: why is it telling us that Haran is Milcah’s father when it just told us that Milcah is Haran’s daughter…?

      The NLT rephrases this line as, “Milcah had a sister named Iscah.” Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s best understood as, “Milcah and Iscah‘s father.”

      Comment by Joel H. | January 31, 2012

  5. The only problem that I see is that you’ve lost the gender marking. While Abraham is still a common name; Iscah is not. Tossing her into the list as merely one of the kids loses the distinction of a woman’s name being in the list. There are so few listed and we are usually given interesting stories to explain why any one daughter’s name was included when there must have been others.

    Comment by marian42 | January 26, 2012

    • This is an interesting point, part of a more general problem when we don’t know the contextual background that the text assumes. On the one hand, to spell out the context is overkill (“the female Iscah,” for example), but not to spell it out can leave readers missing part of the point of the original.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 31, 2012

  6. Another point – patronyms were often considered part of the son’s name, in the way that a surname is today. Thus, to continue with your example from Gen 25:19, it would be perfectly redundant to translate it as most translations do: “And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham begot Isaac.” (JPS 1917).
    Rather, in this context “Yitzhak ben Avraham” is the man’s full name. It would be like translating Alexey Fyodorovich Karamazov as “Alexey son of Fyodor Karamazov. son”.
    In such situations, I translate “Isaac ben Abraham” or “Isaac b. Abraham”. This rule applies not only to the Jewish and Christian Bibles but also to rabbinic literature, where patronyms are employed extensively.

    Comment by Elli | January 27, 2012

  7. Thanks Paul, Jon, Marian, Elli, and others. I’m off to lecture in Columbus, GA. I’ll try to respond when I return.

    Comment by Joel H. | January 27, 2012

  8. Steve:

    I agree on both points: We want the “normal” way of listing genealogies, but I don’t know that we have one in contemporary American English.

    As for the family-tree idea, one might also suggest a blueprint of Noah’s ark instead of the tedious description.

    My own take is that drawings and other graphics are helpful alongside the text, but they’re not a substitute for translating what’s there.

    [Steve: Somehow I overwrote your helpful comment, and I couldn’t find a way of retrieving it, so I had to delete it. I apologize.]

    Comment by Joel H. | January 31, 2012

  9. Yes, Begat or variations there of shows a “genetic” connection! John 3:16 His only begotten son, means It was His genetic child, NOT adopted, as a father could mean, as for example joseph was. Stay away from the NLT, and NIV, due to all the removals in the translations.
    Exp: John 3:16 for starters, these later translations have removed His precious words, do the research, and you will see!

    Comment by Paul Holbrow | April 13, 2012

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