God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Is the Virgin Birth a Mistranslation?

From the About page comes this question:

I saw a teaser on the History Channel about a Bible show coming up. They said that the Virgin Birth is a translation mistake. Is this really true?

AlmahThe short answer is no, it’s not true. The longer and more interesting answer is that a mistranslation does come into play, but only indirectly.

The Bible show is “Bible Secrets Revealed.” (Incidentally, I’ll be in it. More on that later.) And I presume this is the teaser Brian saw: Bible Secrets Revealed: Sneak Peek. About 20 seconds in (not counting the annoying ad), Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou repeats a claim she’s made to the BBC in the past: “The idea the Jesus must have been born of a virgin is essentially a mistranslation.” But it’s not.

The text displayed as Dr. Stavrakopoulou speaks is Isaiah 7:14, which originally referred to a young woman even though it is often wrongly translated as “a virgin shall conceive.” The mistranslation as “virgin” dates back to the Greek version of the Bible known as the Septuagint, which renders the Hebrew alma (“young woman”) there as parthenos (“virgin”). It’s not the only place the Septuagint makes this and similar mistakes. But because Matthew (1:23) highlights the Greek here, this mistranslation is well known.
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November 3, 2013 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , | 12 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: What color is the “blue” of the Bible?

From the About page comes this interesting pair of questions:

1. Is it true that there was no blue in the Bible, and that the word “blue” in our modern versions is a mistranslation? and
2. How do we know what the Hebrew names of the colors represent?

The first question was prompted by a Radiolab episode that claims that the color blue is a relatively modern invention. The episode, like most of Radiolab, is fascinating, so before you keep reading, listen to it. (Or if you’re part of the multitasking generation, listen while you read.)

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May 29, 2012 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

Q&A: On Sisters and Wives

From the About page comes this follow-up question from a presentation I recently gave:

Thanks for your presentation for the ARC — You mentioned the use of achoti in Song of Songs meaning more than “my sister,” but better translated as “my equal.” How do you understand Abraham’s turning to Sarah and telling her to tell the Egyptians that she is “…his sister, so that things will go well for him”?

The issue is the Hebrew word achot, literally “sister,” which forms half of the famous line from Song of Songs, “my sister, my bride” or “my sister, my spouse.” (I bring this up briefly in an on-line video.)

In And God Said I devote the better part of a chapter to achot, starting with the (obvious) point that “my sister, my spouse” isn’t incest. My conclusion is that kinship terms such as achot were used not just for family relationships but also for power structure. For instance, av (“father”) indicated “more powerful.”

The key point is that achot in Song of Songs specifically indicates “a woman who is equal” to the man.

In English, of course, “sister” doesn’t convey this important concept. But “equal” does. In many dialects, so does “partner.” (But for some, “partner” in this context means primarily “same-sex partner.”)

But this extended use of kinship terms doesn’t mean that the words weren’t also used for family relationships. So achot can also be a literal sister.

And this is what we find starting in Genesis 12:13. Abraham has Sarai pretend to be his (flesh-and-blood) sister. His reasoning, we read, is that Pharaoh will want her because she’s so beautiful, so Pharaoh will befriend her brother but dislike or even kill her husband.

The plot — played out again starting in Genesis 20:2 — is interesting and, to modern readers, sometimes disturbing. But the text is pretty clear. In both cases, Abraham’s wife pretends to be his sister.

October 29, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Q&A: Why is Everything Vanity in Ecclesiastes?

From the About page comes this great question:

This may be more of a philosophical/historical question than a linguistic one, but how would you render the word usually given as “vanity” in Ecclesiastes?

Abstract nouns are notoriously difficult to track even within a language — “nobility” now is not what it was — but how would you render it given a all the time and ink in the world.

I was told recently that it should be given as either “wind” or “nothing,” but that was merely a rumour.

Hevel in Ecclesiastes

The Hebrew word is hevel, and it’s important for understanding the Book of Ecclesiastes, because that book begins: “Hevel of hevels, says Kohelet, hevel of hevels. Everything is hevel.”

On the reasonable assumption that the pattern “X of Xs” is meant to convey intensity, Ecclesiastes begins along the lines of “The utmost hevel, says Kohelet, the utmost hevel. Everything is hevel.”

Although this context lets us know how central the word is to the book of Ecclesiastes, it does nothing to narrow down what the word means. So we look elsewhere.

Hevel in Other Contexts

The poetic text of Deuteronomy 32:21 uses the word hevel in parallel with lo el, “non-god.” This doesn’t tell us exactly what the word means — the other words in parallel there mean roughly “jealous” (matching “non-god”) and “anger” (matching hevel), and those two are not synonymous — but the context does tell us that hevel is something negative, like non-god.
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October 28, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , | 27 Comments

Q&A: The Original Baptism

From the About page comes a question about baptism, the essence of which is the observation that the words we now translate “baptize,” “baptism,” “[John the] Baptist,” etc. were actually ordinary words in Greek, like our “wash” in English. They were not technical religious terms like the English “baptize,” and the Greek words did not mean what the modern English “baptize” does.

So perhaps instead of “baptism” we should translate “washing.”

But it’s a little more complicated than that.

Greek Baptism

The Greek word for “baptize” is baptizo.

We know from passages like Mark 7:4 that the word can mean simply “wash”: “[The Pharisees and Jews] do not eat after returning from the marketplace unless they have washed [baptizo] … [Other traditions include] the washing [baptismos] of [various eating vessels].”

We see similar evidence in Luke 11:38: “The Pharisee was amazed to see that [Jesus] didn’t wash [baptizo] before the meal.”

We also see the verb in the OT, once in II Kings 5:14, where it’s the Greek translation of the Hebrew taval (“dip” or “immerse”), and once in Isaiah 21:4, where the word seems out of context.

Equally, we find the verb baptizo in non-Biblical Greek texts — more on this below. In those contexts, too, the verb seems to be a general one.

From all of these sources, it’s clear that baptizo is a common verb, and the specialized “baptize” in English misrepresents the original Greek.
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August 24, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

Q&A: How Mistranslation Created Divorce in the Bible

From the About page comes this response to something I wrote in And God Said:

On p. 155 of And God Said you claim that “there is no divorce in the Bible.”


Two great questions follow. I’ll take them in reverse order:

The Case of Two Husbands

Also, you speculate that perhaps the Bible would call both an ex-wife and a current wife, “his wife” but this is not true, in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 we see “former wife.”

I presume you mean “former husband,” and here we find a true translation gaff.

The KJV, ESV, NAB, NLT, and others translate “former husband” for ba’al rishon. But “former” in English usually implies “no longer,” whereas the Hebrew rishon just means “first.” For example, when Esau is born before Jacob, he is called the rishon. Genesis 26:1 mentions a famine, and then clarifies, “not the first [rishon] famine,” but rather a new famine. This doesn’t mean or imply that the first famine is no longer or famine. Similarly, ba’ala harishon doesn’t “her husband who is no longer her husband,” but rather, “her first husband.”

(There’s a related use of “former” in English that’s the opposite of “latter” and that just means “first.” For example: “Consider two people, the former a senator and the latter a judge….”)

By comparision, we might look at “ex-wife” in English. A man in his third marriage can have two ex-wives. Even if we call them “the former ex-wife” and “the latter ex-wife,” both remain his ex-wives, and the clearer way to refer to them in English is “his first ex-wife” and “his second ex-wife.”

The NIV gets rishon right with “first,” but then errs and translates shilach as “divorced” instead of the more accurate “sent away.”

The NJB’s combination of “first husband” and “repudiated her” isn’t bad, except for the fact that the Hebrew shilach is a common verb while the English “repudiate” is not.

The NRSV’s translation is pretty accurate here: “…her first husband, who sent her away…”

So here we see Hebrew that just talks about two husbands, while the English, with the word “former,” wrongly suggests that one of them is no longer a husband.

The alleged divorce only takes place in translation.
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April 9, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

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 | , , , , , | Comments Off on Q&A: Who Are You(rselves)?

How God Makes Peace

A question arrived via e-mail about the different Hebrew verbs that mean “create” or “make” and how they relate to “peace.”

There are three Biblical Hebrew verbs that all mean roughly the same thing: asah, yatzar, and bara.

Later Jewish thought would differentiate them, giving asah the most basic meaning (like “do” or “make” in English), yatzar the more specific meaning of “fashion” or “form,” and bara the most specific meaning: “create in the way that only God creates.”

The question was why, when God creates peace (shalom), the verb is asah and not bara.

For example, we read in Job 25:2 that God asahs shalom on high (a passage that would later form the basis of one of the most common Jewish prayers). In another famous line, also co-opted into the Liturgy (with a huge modification),* Isaiah 45:7 notes that God yatzars light and baras darkness, asahs shalom and baras evil.

While it’s true that bara is almost always reserved for God’s work, there may be exceptions, like Ezekiel 21:24, where Ezekiel does the baraing. (Ezekiel there, as in other places, is called “son of man.” The combination of “son of man” and a verb usually reserved for God raises all sorts of interesting interpretations.) On the other hand, some people think that the verb in Ezekiel doesn’t mean “create” but rather is a homonym with a different meaning.

Either way, I think this is a good opportunity to revisit how parallelisms work in Hebrew. The poetry of Isaiah 45:7 doesn’t come from the way the verbs match up with their objects. Rather, the poetry lies in the pairs that are created when phrases are juxtaposed. In this case, the three verbs are so commonly put in parallel that they blend into the poetic background. The poetry comes from starting with an obvious pair of opposites (light and dark) and then a non-obvious pair: peace and evil. The message is that peace is to evil what light is to darkness. The verbs are just there to create grammatical sentences.

Though it’s always tricky to draw general conclusions from the stylized writing in Job, we do see another lesson in Job 25:2. Even if bara is reserved for what God does, it doesn’t follow that everything God does gets the verb bara.

Finally, “makes peace” in English has two meanings: “create peace” and “work things out.” I think the Hebrew may have been similarly ambiguous.

(*) The early Jewish rabbis, perhaps not wanting to admit that God creates evil, changed the line — and (“with all due respect”) watered it down — in the liturgy, replacing “evil” with “everything.”

March 9, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , | 5 Comments

Here’s the Story of Toldot

From the about page comes a question about the Hebrew word toldot:

I ran across Genesis 6:9 in the TNIV, which says “this is the account of Noah and his family.” I’ve checked the KJV, NIV, NASB, ESV, Message, Luther’s translation (1545), the Amplified Bible, the NLT, and the Leningrad Codex for good measure. Only the TNIV and NLT mention his family.

We don’t have a good word for toldot is English (at least, not that I can think of). Though it occurs only about a dozen times in Genesis (and then once in Exodus and once in Ruth) it’s an important word. In a sense, what Genesis is about is toldot.

Unfortunately, the usual translation “generations” is completely wrong, and comes from a misunderstanding of how to interpret Hebrew. (Specifically, it comes from using word internal structure to figure out what a word means. This is the second time that that translation trap has come up this week. I’ll try to write more about it soon.)

We first encounter the word in Genesis 2:4: “These are the toldot of the heavens and the earth as they were created.” There’s a lot to bicker about in that translation. What follows, though, is what’s widely called “the second account of creation,” so one thing is clear: “generations” makes no sense here. “These are the toldot” introduces the story of creation: heaven, earth, plants, (lack of) rain, etc. There’s nothing about generations there.

Genesis 25:12-13 gives us more information about the word toldot: “These are the toldot of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom the Egyptian Hagar, Sara’s servant, bore to Abraham. These are the names of Ishmael’s children … Nebaioth — Ishmael’s firstborn — Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam…” Because it’s the children of Ishmael that follow the introduction “these are the toldot,” — and because of the (wrong) English translation “generations,” it looks like toldot here is specifically introducing descendants. Indeed, the NAB translates the word here as “descendants.”

But the reasoning is faulty. Just because the descendants come next doesn’t mean that the word means “descendants.”

In Genesis 6:9 we read, “these are the toldot of Noah. Noah was a righteous man in his generation [dorot in Hebrew, not toldot]. Noah walked with God.” It’s not until the next verse that Noah’s children are listed. The toldot seem to include the fact that Noah was righteous.

Genesis 25:19 tells us, “these are the toldot of Isaac, Abraham’s son. Abraham was Isaac’s father.” Particularly after the phrase, “Abraham’s son,” the sentence “Abraham was Isaac’s father” stands out. The toldot here seem to include Isaac’s father, not just his children.

More evidence comes from Genesis 37:2: “These are the toldot of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father” (ESV — which uses “generations” for toldot here). Here the word toldot includes particularly what happened with Joseph.

The bits of information that come after each person or thing’s toldot have something in common: they are all important for understanding the person or thing. In Genesis 6:9, it’s important to know that “Noah was righteous in his generation” in order to understand Noah. In Genesis 25:19, it’s important to know that Abraham was Isaac’s father; that’s part of who Isaac is. In Genesis 2:4, was follows “the toldot of the heavens and the earth” is important information about their creation. And so forth.

The word toldot seems to introduce something important to know.

It just so happens that descendants were particularly important in the Bible, so frequently the important bit of information regards children.

As for the TNIV’s “account of Noah and his family,” I understand the motivation, but I don’t agree with the translation. The passage is about Noah, even though it mentions his family.

By comparison, we might consider two English sentences: “What you have to know about Bill is that he loves sports” and “what you have to know about Bill and sports is that Bill loves sports.” They’re not the same thing, and to take one and render it as the other seems like a mistake to me.

I think “story” would work pretty well for toldot if the word didn’t have two meanings. “Story” can be “information about” (that’s like toldot) but also “tale.” The first meaning seems pretty good for toldot, but the problem is that the second meaning encroaches. And particularly regarding a text whose nature is a matter of fierce debate — is this is a story? history? fable? myth? etc. — prejudicing the issue with “story” doesn’t seem to work. (Still, some translations use “story” for toldot in places.)

At any rate, I think it’s important not to deflate the force of toldot, which is what I see happening in translations that substitute more specific terms for “toldot” or that over-explain the text.

March 2, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments