God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translation Challenge on Men, Women, and People: Who is an anthropos?

In light of my last post, I thought it might be helpful to move beyond theory to actual translation. How would you translate the Hebrew ish and the Greek anthropos in the following passages?

  1. Genesis 2:24 [Hebrew]: “Therefore an ish leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife.”
  2. Genesis 2;24 [LXX]: “Therefore an anthropos will leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife.”
  3. Deuteronomy 17:5 [Hebrew]: “You shall bring out the ish or the woman who has committed this crime…”
  4. Deuteronomy 17:5 [LXX]: “You shall bring out the anthropos or the woman who has committed this crime…”
  5. Genesis 4:1 [Hebrew]: “…I have acquired an ish…”
  6. Genesis 4:1 [LXX]: “…I have acquired an anthropos…”
  7. Numbers 5:31 [Hebrew]: “The ish will be cleansed of sin but that woman will bear her sin.”
  8. Numbers 5:31 [LXX]: “The anthropos will be clear of sin but that woman will bear her sin.”
  9. Matthew 4:4 [Greek]: “The anthropos does not live by bread alone.”
  10. Matthew 12:12 [Greek]: “How much more valuable is an antrhopos than a sheep.”
  11. John 16:21 [Greek]: “When a woman is a labor she is in pain … but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the pain because of the joy of having brought an anthropos into the world.”
  12. Romans 3:4 [Greek]: “Every anthropos is a liar.”
  13. 1 Corinthians 7:1 [Greek]: “It is good for an anthropos not to touch a woman.”

My answers are as follows:

  1. Genesis 2:24 [Hebrew]: man
  2. Genesis 2;24 [LXX]: man
  3. Deuteronomy 17:5 [Hebrew]: man
  4. Deuteronomy 17:5 [LXX]: man
  5. Genesis 4:1 [Hebrew]: person*
  6. Genesis 4:1 [LXX]: person
  7. Numbers 5:31 [Hebrew]: man
  8. Numbers 5:31 [LXX]: man
  9. Matthew 4:4 [Greek]: people**
  10. Matthew 12:12 [Greek]: person
  11. John 16:21 [Greek]: person
  12. Romans 3:4 [Greek]: person
  13. 1 Corinthians 7:1 [Greek]: man

Do you agree? Disagree? Why?



(*) Rabbinic tradition actually understands the word ish here to mean “fully grown man,” as though Cain skipped over childhood and was born a malicious adult. In the context of that tradition, I might prefer “man” as a translation.

(**) A quirk of English grammar — at least in my dialect — doesn’t allow the general definite singular with the word “person.” Even though “the wolf is a mighty animal,” e.g., refers to all wolves, “the person” cannot refer to all people. So we’re forced into “people” here.

September 24, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

More on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

Suzanne McCarthy brings up the issue, again, of whether the Greek word anthropos is exclusively masculine (“man”) or gender neutral (“person”).

The short answer is that it is both.

We’ve been through this before, but the Greek framework of gender really is difficult for speakers of languages like English to grasp in the abstract, so here are some English examples that will help make things clearer.

The first example is the English word “day,” which has two clear, mutually incompatible meanings. The first is “24-hour period.” There are seven days in a week, 365 days in a year, stores are open for 24 hours a day, etc. The second is “part of a day.” Some pharmacies are open day and night, night follows day, days get shorter in winter, etc.

The second example is “luck,” which again was two clear, mutually incompatible meanings. The first is “good fortune.” The phrase “with any luck” means “with good fortune.” The second meaning is more general, “fortune of any sort.” That’s why people can have good luck or bad luck, and why “I can’t believe his luck” applies equally to lucky people and unlucky people.

The third example is “child,” which yet again has two meanings: “young human” and “any human with a parent.” So we have the phrase, “men, women, and children,” but also “adult children of aging parents.”

This final case is particularly interesting, because every person has a parent (even if the parents are dead: “children continue to mourn their parents’ death for years”). Just looking at the two definitions, it would seem that “child” in the sense of “someone’s offspring of any age” is a pretty silly word to have. How would it be different than “person”?

The answer is that “child” in this broader sense is only used in connection with parents. “Here comes a child” almost always refers only to a juvenile. But “parents and children” is ambiguous.

The case of “day” shows us a pattern that is similar in some ways, different in others. It’s different in that “day” is completely ambiguous. In my dialect, at least, if a store is “open all day,” I don’t know if it’s open at night or not. But it’s similar in that the phrase “day and night” is entirely clear.

One important lesson we learn from all of this is that words often have one meaning when they are used alone, and a separate meaning when they are used in distinction to something else. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, the various meanings can seem confusing, inconsistent, or even contradictory. Nonetheless, native speakers usually find the words entirely clear.

Not surprisingly, the Greek anthropos works just like these words.

By itself, it usually means “person.” John 16:21 is a pretty clear example: “a woman in labor suffers pain, but when her child is born she doesn’t remember her pain on account of her joy at having brought a person [anthropos] into the world.” To the best of my knowledge, no one thinks that this only refers to male children.

On the other hand, anthropos also contrasts with female-gender words like thugater (“daughter”), e.g. in Matthew 10:35; gune (“woman”), e.g., in Matthew 19:3; etc. Looking at the second instance, it’s clear that “an anthropos leaves his father and mother and joins his wife” refers only to men taking wives, not women. I don’t think anyone believes otherwise.

These examples point in a very clear linguistic direction. The Greek word anthropos — like many gendered words in gendered languages and like many other words in other languages — has more than one meaning.

In this context — and I think this was Suzanne’s point in her posting — it’s common to observe (as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood does here) that “in the New Testament, when this term [anthropos] is used for specific individuals, it always refers to males” (their emphasis).

Maybe. But it does not follow from this (potential) fact that anthropos cannot refer to a specific woman. And they even provide the evidence, in their next paragraph: “The list of specific men of which anthropos is used is quite long […] as distinct from the three times Christ refers to a woman (gune) in a parable.”

The lopsided nature of the text here — that is, the very fact that our data set includes a long list of men and only three women — warns us not to draw general conclusions about the word. If we enlarge the data set, to include, for instance, Suzanne’s example from Herodotus’ Histories (1.60), we do find anthropos used in regard to a specific woman.

Two additional points seem in order:

First, I gather from the CBMW piece that some people are trying to use the linguistic qualities of the word anthropos to determine Jesus’ gender. This doesn’t seem like the right approach to me. Again from the CBMW piece: “That Jesus is an anthropos means first of all that he is a human being; but it also means that he is a male human being.” I don’t think so.

Secondly, I frequently read claims like, “Jewish women [in Jesus’ day] were kept in subjection and sometimes even in seclusion” (from Scanzoni and Hardesty’s All We’re Meant To Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, quoted in the CBMW piece). Again, I don’t think so. Salome Alexandra ruled Judaea as queen for about a decade shortly before Jesus’ time. This was a hardly a culture that universally denied power to women.

At any rate, and in summary, lots of words have a variety of interrelated, sometimes contradictory meanings that are determined in part by context. The Greek anthropos is no different. Sometimes its meaning most closely overlaps with “man,” sometimes with “person,” sometimes with “human.” But picking and choosing examples without taking into account how language works will almost always lead to a conclusion that is as convincing as it is wrong.

September 20, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 59 Comments

On Biblical Masculinity and Femininity

Gender roles are a hot topic, so it should come as no surprise that people are looking to the Bible for guidance.

Biblical-Masculinity-FemininityOver the summer, Larry Crabb published his Fully Alive: A Biblical Vision of Gender That Frees Men and Women to Live Beyond Stereotypes. Explaining it to Christianity Today, he says:

Neqebah (female) means one who is open to receive, has an invitational style of relating. And zakar (male) means one who remembers something important and then does it.

Unfortunately, Dr. Crabb makes fundamental factual and methodological errors here.

Factually, the Hebrew neqebah (“female”) comes from the root for “pierce,” not “open to receive.” Though the common translation of neqebah as “pierced” is probably not as accurate as “hollow,” the point is the same: the Hebrew neqebah describes the female sex organ.

More importantly, zakar (“male”) comes from a multifaceted root that does not simply mean “remember.” Rather, the root is connected more broadly to referring to something that is not physically present. One way of doing this is to remember something from the past, but there are many others. In Exodus 3:15, for instance, the root gives us zeker as a synonym for “name,” because a name is one way of referring to something that is not physically present. Another way is to point, and it may be this meaning that gives us the Hebrew zakar.

If so, the Hebrew word for “male” comes from the pointing organ and the word for “female” from the hollow organ.

But whatever the case, the methodological errors make the factual evidence irrelevant, because words do not get their meaning from their etymology. As I explain in And God Said, this is one of the most basic tenets of language, and also one of the most common Bible translation traps.

Just for example, a “building” in English comes from the verb to “build,” but that doesn’t mean that we primarily think of buildings in terms of how they are built, just as the word’s etymology doesn’t preclude the possibility of a building being something we occupy. Another English example is the pair of words “grammar” and “glamour,” which share an etymology even though most people don’t think of grammar as glamorous.

Similarly, the etymologies of the Hebrew words for “male” and “female” — memory and reception, or piercing and pierced, or pointing and hollow — are irrelevant to their meaning. So they do nothing to help answer Dr. Crabb’s question of “what God had in mind when he made a woman feminine and when he made a man masculine.”

It seems to me that what Dr. Crabb has done is take his own notions of what men and women should be and, through flawed linguistics, put them in the mouth of God.

September 17, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

God as Reward(er) and Protector in Genesis 15:1

From the About page comes this great question: Does Genesis 15:1 mean “your [Abram’s] reward will be very great” or “I [God] am your great reward”?

The NRSV translates it, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great,” while the KJV has a different understanding: “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.”

The issue is the final phrase in Hebrew, which (disregarding tense for a moment), according to the NRSV, means “your reward is good,” while the KJV thinks it means “your good reward.” Together with the first part of the sentence (“I am your shield”), the NRSV version ends up, “I am your shield and your reward is good,” while the KJV is also coherent: “I am your shield, your good reward.”

It turns out that the Hebrew is actually ambiguous.

To understand the text here we need a detour through a handful of related bits of Hebrew grammar. (And, really, what says “fun” more on a Friday morning in early September than a handful of Hebrew grammar?)

First, adjectives in Hebrew generally follow nouns, and there’s no word for “a” or “an.” So, for example, from the Hebrew words yeled (“boy”) and tov (“good”), we get yeled tov, “a good boy.”

Secondly, Hebrew does have a word “the” in the form of the prefix ha-. When it’s used, it gets put on both nouns and adjectives. So “the good boy” in Hebrew is ha-yeled ha-tov, literaly “the-boy the-good.” Furthermore, some phrases (technically called “definites”) behave like they have “the.” One such case is possessives. So “my good boy” in Hebrew is “my-boy the-good” (yaldi ha-tov).

Thirdly, Hebrew almost never uses “to be” in the present tense. So, for example, “I am your shield” in Hebrew is just “I your shield.” (The KJV — foolishly, in my opinion — sometimes uses italics in English to reflect the Hebrew grammar in these cases.)

The combination of the first and third bits create potential ambiguity. While yeled tov can mean “a good boy,” it can also mean “a boy is good.”

As a matter of practice, though, this kind of ambiguity is rare, because of the second bit. Hebrew differentiates between “the good boy” and “the boy is good” by using “the-boy the-good” (ha-yeled ha-tov, as we’ve seen) for the first one, and “the-boy good” (ha-yeled tov) for the second.

Similarly, “your good reward” is “your-reward the-good” in Hebrew (s’char’cha hatov), while “your reward is good” in Hebrew is “your-reward good” (s’char’cha tov). So you might expect that we’d be able to distinguish between “your great reward” and “your reward is great.”

Unfortunately, the word for “great” here is harbeh, and, together with m’od (“very”), it forms the invariant phrase harbeh m’od. Unlike most modifiers, that phrase never takes “the.” So “your reward is very great” in Hebrew is (as we see here in Genesis 1:15) “your-reward very great” (s’char’cha harbeh m’od) but “your very great reward” is the identical Hebrew, because, in this case, the expected “your-reward the-very-great” doesn’t exist.

This means that, as a matter of translating this sentence, the Hebrew is truly ambiguous. So we have to look elsewhere for clues.

One such clue might be the tenses. The first is present tense, and the second — if, as in the NRSV, it is its own clause — is also present tense. So the NRSV has to explain why the sentence doesn’t mean, “I am your shield; your reward is very great.” This seems to point in the direction of the KJV.

On the other hand, tenses are notoriously idiosyncratic, and anyone who’s looked at Hebrew knows that we commonly see one tense in Hebrew and a different one in English.

The commentator Rashi suggests that God is assuaging Abram on two fronts: he will not be punished, and he will be rewarded. So Rashi thinks the line means “don’t fear, Abram, I will be your shield [so you will not be punished] and you will be rewarded.” So Rashi would have sided with the NRSV.

I have some more thoughts, but nothing to convince me solidly one way or the other. (For those who are curious, here’s a list of where the phrase harbeh m’od appears: Genesis 15:1, Genesis 41:49, Deuteronomy 3:5, Joshua 13:1, Joshua 22:8, I Samuel 26:21, II Samuel 8:8, II Samuel 12:2, II Samuel 12:30, I Kings 5:9, I Kings 10:10, I Kings 10;11, II Kings 21:16, I Chronicles 20:2, II Chronicles 14;12, II Chronicles 32:27, Ezra 10:1, Nehemiah 2:2, and Jeremiah 40;12.)

So I’m opening up the question here. Based on context, which translation do you think makes more sense? And why?

September 7, 2012 Posted by | grammar, translation practice | , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

Q&A: Genesis 18:14 (and the right way to do Bible translation)

From the About page comes this question:

I have a couple concerns in Gen 18:14. 1) “for the LORD” is prefixed with a mem which is what you see in Gen. 24:50 but is translated there as “from the LORD”; 2) Why is dabar translated as “anything.”

This is an excellent example of why all of the words of a phrase have to be translated together, not one by one.

The prefix mem in Hebrew does two things:

1. The mem indicates “from,” as in your example of Genesis 24:50: mei-Adonai yatzah ha-davar, literally, “from-Adonai went-out the-thing,” or, in English, “this matter comes from Adonai.” (The bold-face is to help compare the words with the next example.)

2. The mem indicates comparison, as in Genesis 24:50: ha-yipaleh mei-Adonai davar, literally, “Q-will-be-wondrous more-than-Adonai thing,” or, in English, “Is anything too wondrous for Adonai?” (Again, the bold-face is for comparison with the previoius example.)

The word “too” in English is one way we express comparison, and the word davar becomes “anything” in English because of the complex interaction between thing/something/anything/nothing. (“I see a thing.” “I see something.” “I don’t see anything.” “I see nothing.” All of these correspond to the Hebrew davar.)

So what we see is a detailed interaction of Hebrew grammar and English grammar. The correct translation comes from using Hebrew grammar to decode the sentence, and then re-encoding the sentence using English grammar.

August 23, 2012 Posted by | grammar, Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , | 1 Comment

Q&A: Who Are You(rselves)?

Anthony asks on the About page:

I have a question about Heb 3:13. When it says “exhort yourselves,” is the Greek literally saying “you all exhort each other” or “you all exhort your own selves,” supporting Galatians 6:4? Would the expression in question be parakaleite eautous?

Yes, that is the Greek, and it’s a great question.

Let’s ignore the nuances of what parakaleo means (“exhort”? “encourage”? “comfort”? etc.) and focus on eautou. It turns out that the word can be both reciprocal (“each other” in English) and reflexive (“oneself”).

For example, we find the word in Colossians 3:13: “[{3:12} As God’s chosen ones … wear clothes of … patience,] {3:13} putting up with each other [allilon] and forgiving each other [eautois] if you have a complaint against another [tis pros tina — ‘one against another’].” There eautou is pretty clearly reciprocal: the exhortation is “forgive each other,” not “forgive yourselves.” The fact that eautou appears in parallel with allilon and tis…tis — both of which are reciprocal — reinforces the reciprocal reading for eautou. (I understand that there’s a rumor that allilon is always reciprocal and eautou never is. That doesn’t seem right.)

So we see pretty clearly that eautou can be reciprocal.

Equally, eautou can be reflexive. James 1:22 reads, “Be doers of the word, not just listeners deceiving yourselves [eautous].” Romans 6 points in the same direction: “{6:11} so consider yourselves [eautous] dead to sin but alive to God… {6:13}…completely present yourselves eautous to God…”

One of the the things that makes this question interesting is that grammar won’t help us with Hebrews 3:13, because eautous there might mean either “yourselves” or “each other.” In this regard Greek didn’t make a distinction. (At least NT Greek didn’t.)

As a general matter, we expect this sort of pronominal ambiguity. It’s a little like, “please speak to myself…” in English, which I find ungrammatical (because the reflexive pronoun is used where an ordinary one should be), but I know other dialects accept it. Similarly, “they love their mother” (the standard example in linguistics) is ambiguous as to whether “they each love their own mother” or “they all love their collective mother.”

I think eautou is likewise ambiguous.

And while the specific lesson here is about that pronoun, more generally I think we see that linguistics can only go so far when it comes to understanding the Bible.

March 16, 2010 Posted by | grammar, Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Top Translation Traps: Forgetting Your Own Grammar

Mark 15:9 demonstrates how translation can make people forget their own grammar.

A curiosity of English generally prevents anything from appearing between a verb an its object. This is why “I saw yesterday Bill” is such an awkward sentence in English. (It’s fine in French, Modern and Biblical Hebrew, Greek, and many other languages.)

Yet for the Greek apoluso umin ton basilea tou Ioudaion the KJV, ESV, NAB, NIV, NJB, and NRSV all have some variant of, “[do you want me to] release for you the King of the Jews,” putting the phrase “for you” (sometimes “to you”) right between the verb and the object.

Simple English grammar demands, “…release the King of the Jews for you.”

I suppose what we see is a result of translators’ (unfortunate) desire to mimic the Greek word order combined with something about Bible translation that makes people temporarily forget what they ordinarily know instinctively.

The lesson this week is simple: When you write an English translation, try to write it in English.

February 1, 2010 Posted by | grammar, Translation Traps | , , , , , | 14 Comments

Q&A: Morphology in Ruth 2:10

From the About page:

Still working on he and vav and I came across this pair of words in Ruth vatishtachu artza.

Two questions — why the vav at the end of the first word? And why the he at the end of the second? KJV translates it as if it were hithpael — she bowed herself to the ground.

I’m playing catch-up after a wonderful visit to Israel, so I thought I’d start with a grammar question. (After all, nothing says “fun” like a little morphology.)

The first word is a wonderful combination of all sorts of grammatical processes. It’s the apocopated hitpa’el, future feminine third person singular. The root is Sh.Ch.H, and the shin and the tav metathesize (“switch places”) as expected with sibilants in hitpa’el.

By apocopated (“short”) I mean that the the final heh from the root Sh.Ch.H has dropped off, as final hehs frequently do in the future third-person singular. (Another example is vayavk instead of vayivkeh for “he wept.”)

So we would expect the form to be vatishtachv instead of vatishtachaveh. The extra vowel in the longer form under the chet — the “a” after the “ch” in transliteration — comes to prevent the frequently undesirable condition of a syllable ending with a chet. In the shorter form, however, another stratagy prevents a chet-final syllable. The consonantal vav becomes vocalic. This, too, is a regular part of Hebrew grammar — consider the prefix “and” which can be v’- or u- (among other possibilities) — but grammar books don’t often emphasize the general nature of this process.

So the first word is just “she bowed.” (Perhaps “bowed herself” was English when the KJV was composed, but now that translation is just wrong.)

As for artza, the final heh is directional. The word means “toward the ground.”

So we have metathesis, apocopation, and resyllabification in the first word. And — perhaps refusing to disappear completely — the missing heh from the first word shows up on the second.

January 8, 2010 Posted by | grammar, Q&A | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Q&A: The Hebrew Suffix -ki

Again from the about page:

What’s going on with the pronominal suffixes in Psalm 103 3-8? I can’t find -ki as a pronominal suffix in any of my grammar books — neither singular nor plural!

Good question.

The suffix -ki (also spelled -chi) is a variant form of -k, and it means “your (sng, f).” We see it in Psalm 103, as you note, and also, e.g., in Psalm 116:19 (b’tocheichi, “within you [Jerusalem]”).

It may have been formed by analogy with the feminine singular future tense, or may be part of a broader pattern in which matres lectionis get added to words for reasons we no longer know (poetic affect, maybe). Other examples include the final heh that is added to some verbs, and, perhaps, the alternation between al and alei.

October 28, 2009 Posted by | grammar, Q&A | , , , | 1 Comment