God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

On the King James Version

The BBC News Magazine has an interesting, accurate, and balanced piece on the KJV out today, called “King James Bible: How it changed the way we speak.”

Based largely on works by David Crystal (Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language) and Alister McGrath (In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible), the article quantifies and explains the impact of the KJV on English, along the way describing the nature of the KJV.

From the middle of the article:

Perhaps the most intriguing reason for the impact of the King James Bible is that it ignored what today would be considered essentials for good translation.

Read the article


January 17, 2011 Posted by | article review, translation practice, translation theory | , , , | Comments Off on On the King James Version

Review: Professor Ellen van Wolde on bara in Genesis

Professor Ellen van Wolde’s recent paper on Genesis has captured significant attention for claiming that the Hebrew bara ought to be translated as “divided.” That is:

Met andere woorden, onze conclusie is dat het woord bara niet ‘scheppen’, maar ‘scheiden’ betekent.

I’ve already pointed out why I don’t think she can be correct, but I did so with the caveat that I hadn’t read her work. A reader pointed me to a PDF of her paper, so now, having read it, I’m able to offer this brief review. (I think I’ve got it right. It’s not so easy for me to read Dutch.)

The Evidence

Van Wolde’s evidence that bara means “separate,” not “create,” is this:

1. Creation in Genesis comes about only in one of two ways: Jussive speech (as in, “let there be light”), or with the verb asah. She writes:

Telkens wanneer iets nieuws wordt gemaakt in Genesis 1, staat dat aangegeven op een van de volgende twee manieren. 1. “God zei” gevolgd door een directe rede met een werkwoord in de aanvoegende wijs of iussivus […] 2. Zeven keren gebruikt de verteller het werkwoord asa “maken” om het scheppen van God van iets nieuws te beschrijven: God maakte het uitspansel….

2. In Genesis 1:1, the verb bara applies to two direct objects, both of which are definite, and therefore known. (“Het werkwoord drukt een type handeling uit die God uitvoert met betrekking tot twee directe lijdende voorwerpen, de hemel en de aarde….”)

3. We learn from verses 6-7 and 9-10 that the creation story is, at least in part, about transformation of the uniform water into four regions: water above the sky, water in the sky, water below the sky, and dry land. (“De handeling zelf transformeert deze uniforme watermassa in ten minste vier ruimtelijke domeinen: water boven het hemelgewelf, water onder het hemelgewelf, terwijl het water onder het hemelgewelf verder wordt verdeeld in droog land en zeeen.”)

4. Other ANE texts refer to creation stories that feature separation at the beginning.

5. In Genesis 1:21 we find the verb bara for the taninim, which are not mentioned in the previous verse or in the following verse, so the verb bara in Genesis 1:21 refers to separating the taninim from the other animals.

6. In verses 26-27 we first find asah used in reference to the plural “us” and “gods,” then, in verse 27, bara only refers to “him” (God). Further, asah in verse 26 matches up with d’mut and tzelem, “image and likeness” (beeld and gelijkenis), while bara in 27 only has tzelem. Van Wolde uses these facts to posit that verse 27 refers to (a) separating man from the plural god-man construct; and (b) then separating man from woman.

7. Van Wolde points to the word toldot in Genesis 2:4, using its etymology to suggest that it complements bara. Genesis 2:4 for her is about “begetting” and “separating.” (“Aldus blijkt dat vers 2,4a het hele verhaal evalueert en afsluit: het maken of tot stand brengen (‘schepping’) wordt weergegeven door het begrip verwekken of voortbrengen (toledot) en het scheiden wordt weergegeven door het woord bara.”)

8. Van Wolde points to other words (asah and kana) that mean “create.”

9. Van Wolde suggests that the present participle of bara is never used to mean “creator.” (“Een vierde toetssteen voor de hypothese is het opvallende feit dat in de Hebreeuwse bijbel het abstracte woord schepper nooit wordt uitgedrukt door het tegenwoordig deelwoord van bara.”)

10. Isaiah 45:7 reads, “[God] yotzers light and borehs darkness, osehs peace and borehs evil.” Van Wolde points out the theological problem with a text that ascribes the creation of darkness and evil to God, and further suggests that, in part because the words come in pairs, the verb here, too, means “separate.”

My Evaluation

I still don’t think Professor Van Wolde is correct.

Van Wolde’s “evidence” in (1) above is essentially her conclusion. If one assumes that God’s acts of creation are only described in terms of speech acts or with the verb asah, of course it follows that bara doesn’t refer to acts of creation. But (1) is what she’s trying to show, and by assuming it at the beginning she starts off weakly.

I think (2) and (3) are vague, and compatible with too many hypotheses to be helpful.

I think (4) may be interesting, but probably not directly relevant.

Points (5) and (6) also appear vague to me.

Point (7) seems to rely too closely on the etymology of toldot.

Point (8) seems irrelevant, because the same logic could show that asah doesn’t mean “create,” because kanah does.

I may have misunderstood the Dutch that I summarized as point (9), because it doesn’t seem to be accurate. Isaiah 40:28, for example, reads, “Adonai is the boreh of the ends of the earth.”

Finally, (10) is the same sort of reasoning as (2), the theology notwithstanding.

So in the end, Van Wolde’s argument boils down to two arguments: (A) the verb bara is sometimes applied to pairs; and (B) other verbs mean “create.” And her article doesn’t address the numerous other uses of bara where it seems that only “create” is possible.

So I’m not convinced.

October 15, 2009 Posted by | article review, translation practice | , , , , , , | 21 Comments