God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Recording the Oral Tradition

Lamentations 4 in the Leningrad Codex

In a recent post on Lamentations 4:3, I made reference to the Masoretic tradition that gives us both the canonical Hebrew text of the OT and some ways in which the written text might be in error. Here are some images that demonstrate how the Masoretes recorded their notes.

(The notes are widely regarded to be written representations of oral traditions of the time, though we can’t be certain of the degree to which the Masoretes were recording tradition versus trying to create policy.)

At the right is a (slightly digitally enhanced) section of the Leningrad Codex from almost exactly 1,000 years ago. It shows the beginning of Lamentations 4. I’ve used blue shading to highlight the word for tanin (“sea monster”) in the main text, and its correction as tanim (“jackals”) in the margin. Similarly, yellow shading shows ki einim (“because einim”) in the main text, and its correction as kay’einim (“like ostriches”) in the margin. Details of the main text and the corrections (with, unfortunately, significant digital artifacts) appear below. Click any image to enlarge it.

Lamentations 4:3 in the Leningrad Codex. Detail of main text.

Lamentations 4:3 in the Leningrad Codex. Detail of marginal note.

Tanim. The nun in the main text is corrected as a mem in the marginal note.

Lamentations 4:3 in the Leningrad Codex. Detail of main text.

Lamentations 4:3 in the Leningrad Codex. Detail of main text.

Kay’einim The two words in the main text are corrected as one in the marginal note.

February 14, 2010 Posted by | Off Topic | , | 4 Comments

Morning Coyote

From my backyard this morning…


Coyote (probably hunting deer)

…a majestic sight.

January 11, 2010 Posted by | Off Topic | | Leave a comment

Leaving Jerusalem is Always Hard

I’ve just returned from Israel. My short trip afforded me two visits to Jerusalem, and on both occasions I was reminded anew how hard it is to leave that holy city.

Even getting in isn’t easy.

I approached by car, through the foothills that King David may have surveyed as he wondered where to build his city. Dotted with white houses among pine trees, the view seems timeless and eternal. But a slew of bus stops in the right-hand lane of the main artery into the city creates a permanent condition of snarled traffic that reminds drivers that this is a modern city, too.

And as cities go, it’s not a particularly easy one to navigate. Literally built in non-Euclidean space, the network of roads winds around through hills and valleys seemingly at random, and the signs — in English, Hebrew, and Arabic — seem to be strategically placed so that you can only see them once you’ve driven by, as if to announce, “yes, you missed your turn.” Don’t bother with a GPS, either. One-way streets change direction and roads are opened or closed seemingly every month.

The roads come in all varieties and sizes, mirroring the history they represent. Some are named after people: Saul Tchernichovski and Shai Agnon, both famous poets; King George, of England; Nahmanides, the famous 13th century commentator; Salah ad-Din (“Saladin”), who took Jerusalem from the Crusaders in the 12th century; Bar Kokhba, who led an unsuccessful revolt against the Romans in the second century AD; and of course King David, who founded the city over 3,000 years ago.

Some roads recall ancient routes to even more ancient cities: Bethlehem Way, Jaffa Way, and Jericho Way. And some highlight the polyglot population. There’s even a “French Hill,” which may or may not be named for the French. (Some people think it recalls the British General John French.)

Yet the magic of New Jerusalem is dwarfed by the grandeur and splendor of the Old City. I entered, as I usually do, through the 500-year-old Jaffa Gate. Originally designed with sharp angles to keep out invading forces, a wider, straight, duplicate gate was appended next to the older one by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany so he could enter the city by carriage in 1898.

Nearly 2,000 years earlier, in 135 AD, the Roman Emperor Hadrian built what he called Aelia Capitolina on top of Herod’s Jerusalem. Hadrian’s typically Roman planning used thoroughfares that ran east-west and north-south to section the city into quarters. Those ancient roads, though now buried, provide the boundaries for the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters that survive to this day. The Jaffa Gate took me into the Muslim quarter.

The descending stone paths led variously to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Armenian compound. Remnants of a Herodian arch at the Temple Mount remind visitors of the Roman siege on Jerusalem; the destroyed stone is still in a pile of rubble 2,000 years later.

To the north, in tunnels beyond the Western Wall, a plexiglass floor offers a glimpse into the past. The current ground level is several stories higher than the original was. The bottom part of the Western Wall is hidden by centuries of detritus.

But even with so much history in one place, it’s the people that make Old Jerusalem.

Immediately inside the Old City, I bought a few postcards from a shop to my left. Anywhere else in the world my experience would have been unremarkable. But here, the exchange included history and politics. I asked the merchant if he lived in Jerusalem. He did. “For how long has your family been here?” I asked. “Since Salah a-Din,” he told me. His family had come to Jerusalem as the Kurdish Muslim leader we call Saladin retook Jerusalem some 800 years ago.

Further down the road, in the covered market known as the shuk, 6-year-old children speak three languages or more, the better to facilitate commerce.

On one of the paths, three school girls link arms, running carefree through the world’s most contested real estate.

Driving back to Tel Aviv requires skill and luck, because of the signage. I have one example of many immediately below. You can see a green sign indicating that only the right lane can turn right. Hidden off in the distance, barely visible at the point you have to choose a lane, is the sign that tells you where the lanes go.

Guess right — here and elsewhere — and you’re on your way. Guess wrong, and you’re stuck again in the beautiful ancient paradox that is Jerusalem.

It’s almost as though the city doesn’t want you to leave.

Road Signs out of Jerusalem. (Can you spot the tiny sign in the distance that indicates where the roads go?)

Man Walking in Old Jerusalem

Man Pushing a Cart Through Old Jerusalem

Woman Walking in Old Jerusalem

Schoolgirls Walking Home in Old Jerusalem

Two Men in Old Jerusalem

Strolling Through Old Jerusalem

Playing Cards in Old Jerusalem

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Woman in Old Jerusalem

[I didn’t have time to update this blog while I was away. Regularly scheduled programming will return shortly.]

January 7, 2010 Posted by | Off Topic | , | 11 Comments

A Culture of Convolution

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops started their semi-annual meeting today, and among the topics up for vote is the new English text of the Missal. (Bishop Trautman has been vocal about the shortcomings of the new translation, as summarized here and critiqued here.)

So I took a look at some of the proposed changes. They include:

  • “accept this oblation of our service” (instead of “accept this offering”) — the choice of “oblation” has been criticized on the grounds that people won’t know what it means.
  • “order our days in your peace” (I think instead of “grant us your peace in this life”) — I have to admit that I don’t know what “order our days” means.
  • “chalice of my blood” (was “cup of my blood”)
  • “Mary ever-Virgin” (was “Mary, ever virgin,”) — though I understand the point, I don’t think English capitalization works this way.
  • “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.” (was “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”) — the punctuation needs fixing, and I wonder about “behold him who….”

All of these seem to be moving away from standard English syntax, vocabulary, and rules of punctuation and capitalization. (There is an exception. The change from “we celebrate this eucharist” to “we celebrate these mysteries,” though it seems odd to me, is a move toward understandable English.) This pattern is particularly surprising in light of Article 21 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which demands words that “express more clearly the holy things which they signify.” What we see here is a (probably deliberate) move away from that Vatican II position.

At any rate, in this context we can hardly be surprised that Bible translations, too, end up in non-English English — and that some people can’t even tell the difference. (“My Bible sounds just like my liturgy.”)

I think we also have to ask: at what point do we call all of this “non-English English” a separate but valid English dialect?

[Update: Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman has some thoughts on The Catholic Liturgical Controversy and Why We All Have a Stake in It (April 21, 2011)]

[Update 2: I just participated in a symposium about the Missal at Fordham University (“Letting Us Pray: A Symposium on Language in Liturgy”). There’s a participant’s review here. (April 18, 2012)]

November 16, 2009 Posted by | Off Topic, translation theory | , , , | 7 Comments

Morning Buck

From my backyard….

Morning Buck

מלאה הארץ קנינך

October 7, 2009 Posted by | Off Topic | | Leave a comment

On Ethics

Thanks to Dr. Jim West for bringing an essay by Professor Philip Davies to my attention. In it, Davies claims:

Ethics develop in a society where individuals have to make their own moral judgments about intrinsic goodness. […]

[T]he Bible cannot serve a modern democracy as a moral guide — unless of course we decide ourselves, on or own ethical principles, which bits of it we will follow and which ones we will not.

In other words, according to Davies, “ethics” is when we decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. I’m curious how many people belive this.

Of these two options:

1. “Ethics” means I have to choose what’s right and wrong.

2. “Ethics” means I have to discover what’s right and wrong.

what do you believe?

September 8, 2009 Posted by | Off Topic | , , | 4 Comments