God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Once Upon a Time in Bible Translation

Earlier this week I posted a piece on the Huffington Post about different biblical writing styles. In particular, I claim that the exaggerated ages in Genesis served to notify the ancient reader that the stories weren’t meant to be taken literally.

In other words, there are at least two different kinds of stories in the Bible: those meant as history and those not meant as history. Furthermore, the different kinds of stories were written differently.

(The quick summary is this: The OT has three parts, detailing: the world, the people Israel, and life in Jerusalem. Only in the third do the characters tend to live biologically reasonable lives. Furthermore, historians generally agree that only the third is historically accurate. This suggests that the ancient authors used large, symbolic ages to mark non-historical stories. I have more in Chapter 8 of And God Said.)

If I’m right — and with almost 4,000 comments on my Huffington Post piece, it’s clear that not everyone thinks I am — an obvious question presents itself: Should we translate these stories differently?

Sometimes the answer to “should we?” in Bible translation is “yes, but we can’t.” In this case, though, we’re lucky, because in English we have a simple, widely accepted way to mark non-historical stories: “Once upon a time.”

Should we, then, translate Genesis 6:9 as, “Once upon a time, there lived a righteous man named Noah…”? Should Genesis 11:1 read, “Once upon a time, the whole earth had one language…”?

What do you think?


March 8, 2013 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , ,


  1. The stories in Genesis are myths not fairy tales! Thus we need to use a different expression. “Once upon a time” doesn’t cut it.

    Comment by shoreline83 | March 8, 2013

    • A perfectly reasonable point. Any other suggestions?

      Comment by Joel H. | March 8, 2013

      • A long time ago…?

        Comment by David | March 9, 2013

      • …in a galaxy far, far away.

        Comment by George M | March 10, 2013

  2. I like the beginning of Job – it signals story time to me. I rendered it a little poetically
    A man there was in the land of Uz
    Job his name
    and he was, the man, this very one,
    complete and upright
    and he fears God and turns away from evil

    So a little verse maybe…

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | March 8, 2013

  3. Also bear in mind that the ancient Hebrews measured time by the lunar month well before they took up the solar year. Now consider the immense ages of folk in the OT, and change the word “year” to “month”, and you get something much more reasonable.

    –Leslie < Fish

    Comment by Leslie Fish | March 8, 2013

    • Holy crap Leslie, you just blew my mind! no joke.

      Comment by Josh Gould | March 8, 2013

      • This will not wash – Adam then begat his first son at about 10 years old. And Seth at age 9. (First comment was lost – usual WordPress error)

        Comment by Bob MacDonald | March 8, 2013

  4. haven’t read the Huffington Post piece yet, but if the ages in Genesis aren’t meant to carry any factual weight then they seem rather arbitrary. And if they are meant as symbols, what are those symbols? What are the long ages symbolic of?

    Also, how do you make sense the progressions from ~900, to ~500, to ~200, to ~120, to ~100. I don’t quite buy into the scholarly consensus.

    On a side note: What is the significance of the number 40, as in “For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth,” and about the Israelites wondering 40 years in the wilderness, and about Jesus fasting “40 days and 40 nights?”

    Comment by George M | March 9, 2013

    • In the Bible, 40 represents the period of uncertainty between our initial spiritual awakening (from the bondage of our material thinking) and our arrival at the promised land. This is most clearly recognizable by the 40 years spent in the wilderness, no longer part of the world, but not yet spiritually mature either. It is a little less recognizable as the 40 days of temptation for Jesus. And at least for me, it is least clear in the 40 days Noah went through. Nonetheless 40 represents the same thing all three places and if it exists anywhere else in the Bible it will mean the same there as well.
      The way biblical writers represented spiritual things did change some over the course of time, but later writers were careful not to adopt new metaphor that confused old metaphor. 40 has the same meaning in both the old and new testaments.

      Comment by Caleb | March 9, 2013

    • I think the ages represent genres of literature.

      People living many hundreds of years was one kind, people living into their second century was a second, and people living biologically reasonable lives was a third.

      My contention is that only the third was meant as what we would now call history.

      As for 40: Most of the number in the Bible come from the Babylonian system of mathematics, in which multiples of small integers are round numbers: 2×3, 3×4, etc.

      This is why there are six days in a week (2×3 — and the Sabbath came after the week); twelve tribes (3×4); forty days/night, etc (2x4x5). And to this day, there are twelve hours in a day and in a night; sixty seconds in a minute (3x4x5) and sixty minutes in an hour. And Moses lives to the age of one-hundred twenty (2x3x4x5).

      In this context, Noah’s age of 930 is 3×3 hundreds and 2x3x5 years — a nice round number. It would be like a story now in which a character lived to be 1,100 years old.

      Comment by Joel H. | March 10, 2013

      • What about, say, Enoch, Methuselah or Ishmael?

        Genesis 5:23 So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years
        Genesis 5:27 So all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred and sixty-nine years, and he died.
        Genesis 25:17 These are the years of the life of Ishmael, one hundred and thirty-seven years

        My math doesn’t compute.

        Comment by Robert Kan | March 10, 2013

      • That’s all well and good. But the age progressions from ~900 to ~100 take place in the book of Genesis alone. So, can Genesis be separated into three different genres because of the large age gaps?

        Of course you can rationalize and say that the first 11 chapters in Genesis are mythology (non-historical) and the rest is “history,” but that’s kind of a cop-out. The genealogies become meaningless.

        Comment by George | March 14, 2013

      • Not just Genesis — all of the Five Books of Moses, ending with Moses, who lives to the symbolic age of 120 (2x3x4x5).

        More importantly, I think the genealogies have value beyond any historical accuracy.

        Comment by Joel H. | March 14, 2013

      • I’m interested in hearing your complete thought on this!

        Comment by George M | March 15, 2013

  5. I need to ask a few questions.

    Are we saying that only the stories were non-historical, or both the stories and the characters?

    If the characters were non-historical, why do we have the NT genealogies of these people?

    Why did Jesus speak of Abraham, Moses, Noah and Abel as though being historical? Examples:

    Luke 9:30
    And behold, two men were talking with Him; and they were Moses and Elijah,
    Luke 13:28
    In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being thrown out.
    John 8:56
    Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.
    Luke 11:51
    from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the house of God; yes, I tell you, it shall be charged against this generation.

    What am I missing?

    Comment by Robert Kan | March 10, 2013

  6. Once upon a time, in the not too distant past, a theory called “evolution” sprung up and infected the minds of believers, causing them to reject huge chunks of Scripture. Unfortunately, as a result, history is no longer sacred. In our enlightenment, we’ve put science before religion, reasoning before faith, and hence death, decay and violence before the fall. We’ve belittled the ancient records and God’s holiness (he sanctified the Sabbath as well as the altar) and fail to see the full implications of our academic pursuits. No doubt, some things in the Bible are hard to believe, like bearing a child in one’s nineties, being born red with hair all over, fasting forty days/nights without food and water, living 900 years or leaving Egypt 600,000 strong. But if the whole point of the Bible is to see man’s utter hopelessness in the backdrop of God’s complete salvation, should we not sit up and take note when God himself should rhetorically ask, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” I’m fine with accepting certain metaphors (like a manipulative snake in the garden Eden) and recognizing certain writing styles. And I understand we don’t want to believe certain stories, like a drunken man having sex with his daughters, or a father actually willing to sacrifice his one and only son. But rejecting the historicity of these accounts on the basis of what is hard-to-believe seems like a denial of God’s loudness throughout history and his achievements through human failings and weaknesses. I bring to mind for our consideration Heb 12:1, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” And who might those witnesses be? I think Heb 11 give us a glimpse. Have a read if you haven’t done so recently. I don’t think those stories were meant to just tickle our ears.

    Comment by Robert Kan | March 11, 2013

  7. Mat 22:31-32 “But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” 33 When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at His teaching.

    Talk about not letting the facts get in the way of a good story!

    Comment by Robert Kan | March 12, 2013

  8. Besides what Jesus said, do a search on “our fathers” in the NT, and you will find numerous references in the book of Acts where Peter, Stephen and Paul delivered fearless sermons making mention of their “fathers” the Israelites. There is no doubt that they deemed their scriptures to be historically important, whose stories they took literally. For instance, read Stephen’s defense in Acts 7, and you will find that he not only took history literally, he died on account of what he preached. If he wasn’t right, he certainly died in vain. And so the apostles and others were not only the first believers of the gospel; they were the earliest Christian interpreters of the OT. How they understood the OT and its impact upon them cannot be dismissed.

    Comment by Robert Kan | March 14, 2013

    • I agree that they took the accounts seriously, but I don’t think that literal interpretation was the only way to take something seriously.

      Comment by Joel H. | March 14, 2013

      • Agreed, Jesus spoke in parables not to mention all the metaphors he used to describe himself. My point is that the first church leaders referred to Moses, Abraham, David etc. as their “fathers”. They didn’t believe they were fictional characters. They spoke about the OT accounts as though they literally happened. I think this is where we might disagree.

        Comment by Robert Kan | March 14, 2013

      • I think the distinction between “historical” and “real” is a modern one, so even though I think that Jesus (and certainly Paul) thought that Adam was real, I don’t think that they could have thought that he was historical. I have more here, as you know: “The Apostle Paul did not Believe in the Historical Adam.”

        I think the matter is of particular importance for people who do not think that Adam is historical. Are those people really locked into believing that Jesus isn’t either?

        Comment by Joel H. | March 14, 2013

      • In neither of your blogs have you clarified the difference between “real” and “historical”. Historical to me just means that something happened in the past. Am I misunderstanding something?

        Comment by Robert Kan | March 14, 2013

      • The notion of “historical” is not a modern one. A person in the first century knew his father. He knew that his father also had a father. He knew that his father’s father also had a father. And so on. That is why they frequently used the term “fathers”. They believed in the historical Adam, Moses, etc. They knew their roots, their ancestry and their origins. Just because everything is not literal doesn’t mean that nothing is. My point is that people in the Bible are literal, by virtue of the existence of the family line. I don’t disagree that the family line has value beyond any historical accuracy. But I can’t envisage a family line where an individual listed was intentionally “non-historical”, while another listed was “historical”. Why ponder on such a possibility in the first place? Why this whole discussion, if not for our assumptions? I can hear someone say that Adam didn’t keep records, nor did his kids, but how is that relevant to the records themselves? We cannot make logical assumptions about the dissemination of inspired information.

        As to the stories themselves, what is the problem with believing “myths”? It is only alleged that the stories were fudged, besides the names and figures. These are only allegations. Furthermore, lack of understanding or knowledge does not point us in another direction. You object to someone literally living up to 900 years. Another might also object: How could Moses possibly speak to all of Israel in their thousands, without today’s technology? Good question. Does that demonstrate to us that the stories, though “sacred”, were historically inaccurate? Absurdity is only a perception, not shared equally by everyone. Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Let each person make his own judgments about absurdity.

        Comment by Robert Kan | March 15, 2013

      • From your other post: “Here, our question is whether the Adam described in the Bible existed in the same sense that Jesus existed. What interests me is that the answer could have been “yes” for Paul and can be “no” for us, and we can both be right.”

        Turn this around a bit. What if the answer was “no” for Paul and “yes” for us? Can we both be right?

        Comment by Robert Kan | March 16, 2013

      • Interesting question, Robert.

        I think the answer is yes, we can still both be right.

        The reason is that we have different categories now than they did 2,000 years ago.

        It seems to me that the most important new category is science, and I see religious communities all over the world struggling to incorporate this new scientific approach.

        For most modern readers, “real” is the same as “scientifically true.” But that couldn’t have been true for Paul, who didn’t have our modern science. That’s why I say that a scientifically real Jesus is not in the same modern category as a non-scientifically real Adam, but the two could both have been real for Paul.

        In the other direction (and to take a probably trivial example), Paul considered Jesus more or less a contemporary, while he certainly didn’t put Adam into that category. So for Paul, Adam was ancient, while Jesus was modern. For us, obviously, that’s not true. In that sense, Adam and Jesus were in different categories for Paul, but in the same category for us.

        The categories strike me as important because even though we use “exist” and similar words for different kinds of things, the words mean different things for different categories. For example, “all unicorns have one horn” is a different kind of sentence than “all unicorns have two horns.” Most people say the first is true and the second is not, even though, scientifically, they are both in the same category.

        Similarly, and more to the point, Jesus in Paul’s eyes can be descended from David and from Adam in the same way, even if, today, only one is historical.

        I know that this sort of thing seems like nonsense at first glance, but I think that’s only because (quite naturally) we are so used to our own modern worldview.

        I’ll try to devote a whole post to this important topic soon.

        Comment by Joel H. | March 17, 2013

      • Dr. Hoffman, what about the Auschwitz concentration camp? What if history says “yes” and some educated people today say “no”? Can they both be right?

        Think about the consequences 2000 years from now, or 50 years from now.

        Comment by Robert Kan | March 17, 2013

      • I think you’re still missing the point.

        I’m talking about categories, not facts.

        If one person thinks that Auschwitz and Guantanamo Bay are in the same category, and another person thinks they are in different categories, both people can be right. If one person says Auschwitz is historical and the other says it is not, they are not both right.

        Similarly, if Paul says that Adam and Jesus are in the same category, and someone else says they are not, they can both be right.

        By analogy, we can consider color words. Americans think that “light blue,” “blue,” and “dark blue” are all shades of blue. Israelis disagree, because, in Hebrew, “light blue” is its own color, separate from blue, just as in English “pink” is separate from “red.” One person might think that “light blue” and “blue” are in the same category; another might disagree. And they’d both be right.

        The key point regarding Paul, Adam, and Jesus is that Paul doesn’t express an opinion on historicity, because historicity is a modern notion. We do know that he put Adam and Jesus (for at least some purposes) in the same category, but that doesn’t mean that they are in the same category for all modern purposes.

        I know it’s hard to imagine a worldview in which science and facts are not preeminent, but I think it’s important to make the effort if we’re going to understand Scripture. (As it happens, I also think that future generations will mock us for our fascination with science — our “new toy,” as it were — and our attempts to shove science in where it doesn’t belong.)

        Comment by Joel H. | March 18, 2013

      • Dr. Hoffman, I think we need to clarify something. Your blog is about what God didn’t say. Put another way, God is the point of reference here. Now, if God says – not just thinks – that “light blue” is its own color but I say its just another shade of blue, which is right? Contrary to what you said, God and I cannot both be right. For whatever reason he might say this, in his eyes “light blue” is a separate color and everyone else who says otherwise is wrong. If it’s so important to God that I agree with him that “light blue” is a separate color, who am I to think that I should reason otherwise? On the other hand, if God says nothing about colors, then it doesn’t matter what I think or say about “light blue”. Silence on God’s part means I can rationalize. But as his slave, I am not at liberty to disagree with him on anything.

        Sorry, I can’t appreciate your perspective of categories. Even for our modern purposes, Adam and Jesus shared things in common. Both had a physical body made from the dust of the earth. Both were male. Both had the breath of life. And because the life of the flesh is in the blood, both had the blood of life flowing through their veins. And in the NT, Jesus put Moses and Elijah in the same category. He put Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the same category as the disciples. He even put Abraham in the same category as himself.

        People in the Bible didn’t think that the earth was flat. Please, be wary of postmodern intellectual enlightenment.

        Comment by Robert Kan | March 19, 2013

      • Starting at the end of your comments: My understanding is that it wasn’t the postmodern intellectual enlightenment movement that suggested that people in the Bible thought the earth was flat. It was some elements in the Church. (And of course they knew in antiquity that the earth was round: they could watch a ship gradually lowering as it sailed out to sea. Much later, Ferdinand Magellan noted that he had “seen the shadow [of the earth] on the moon” so he knew the earth was round.)

        I believe that the then-modern apparent conflict between the Bible and science — that is, the reason that some people in the Church felt that they had to attack science — stemmed from the same misunderstanding about science that is causing trouble today. Just as some in the Church back then felt compelled to defend a flat-earth hypothesis, people today defend a historical-Adam hypothesis. Yet the Bible doesn’t actually force an acceptance of either a flat earth or a historical Adam. That’s my main point.

        Similarly, 1 Kings 7:23 puts the value of pi at exactly 3: “Then he made the molten sea; it was round, ten cubits from brim to brim […] A line of thirty cubits would encircle it completely.” But a sea with a diameter of 10 cubits would need a line of over 31 cubits to encircle it.

        To continue my example about different shades of blue: If the Bible says that two things were different colors, one “blue” and the other t’chelet* (“light blue”), the most accurate way to paint them in modern America is not with two different colors, but with the different shades of the same color: blue and light blue. I don’t think the accident of how we talk about colors should be confused with the reality of the colors.

        Similarly, I think we should recognize that there’s a cultural difference between our use of the word “real” and the way Paul might have used it. Only once we understand that difference can we understand what Paul meant.

        (*)It’s not clear that t’chelet in the Bible is light blue, so this is really just a hypothetical example: Q&A: What color is the “blue” of the Bible?

        Comment by Joel H. | March 24, 2013

      • Pi is never exact. One person may use 3 decimal places, another 10, another may use none at all. Look at it like this: 30 cubits and 9.5 cubits. He rounded it off at 10, not 9.5. I don’t think this supports your argument.

        People today defend what the Bible says about Adam. That is, he had a body, mind and spirit. He is literal to most naïve people, because this is how the OT/NT portrays him. I think this is where we disagree.

        Comment by Robert Kan | March 24, 2013

  9. Is the phrase “once upon a time” present in the original? If not, why on earth would anybody want to put it in there?

    Comment by Jambe d'Argent | May 19, 2013

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