God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How Were Jesus’s Followers Armed?

Newsweek reports on Dr. Dale Martin‘s claim that Jesus was killed because his followers were armed.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all agree that crowds supporting Jesus carried weapons of some sort, usually translated “swords.” (Curiously, the Newsweek article omits Matthew.)

But Dr. Paula Fredriksen is quoted in the article as arguing that “the Greek word used in the Gospels that Martin interprets as sword really means something more akin to knife.”

She’s almost right. The word, machaira, means both “sword” and “knife.”

In Genesis 27:40, Abraham raises a “knife” against his bound son. In Hebrew, that’s ma’achelet and in Greek translation, machaira. Though etymology is notoriously unreliable, the root shared between the Hebrew words ma’achelet (“knife”?) and ochel (“food”) suggests some connection between the knife and food. But even if there is a connection, a ma’achelet is surely not a butter knife. It’s a sharp blade that’s deadly enough to slaughter with.

Furthermore, we also find machaira used to translate the Hebrew word cherev, “sword.”

Returning to the New Testament (which offers better evidence about Greek, because the Greek in the Septuagint is often a poor translation), we find that machaira is metaphorically the opposite of “peace,” in Matthew 10:34, for instance. And in John 18:10 — the passage about Jesus’s armed followers — one thing we know is that the weapon, a machaira, was carried in a sheath of some sort from which Simon Peter drew it.

Again, the machaira isn’t a butter knife, or (because it hadn’t yet been invented) a switchblade.

I think it’s misleading to say that the word doesn’t mean “sword.” It clearly does. The question is what kind. Perhaps we should call it a “dagger” in English, or perhaps there’s a better specific word, but it was certainly a violent weapon.

Jesus’s followers according to the Gospels were armed.


October 15, 2014 Posted by | translation applications | , , , , | 13 Comments

Coming Soon: The Isaiah Translation Challenge

Translators and poets, get ready!

Now that I’ve submitted my second book manuscript to St. Martin’s Press, I’m looking forward to spending more time here. As part of my return, in the next little while I’m going to announce a project to translate Isaiah 54 collectively. Some of the most moving words ever penned, in my opinion, translations unfortunately run from banal to barely intelligible.

So get ready. Take a look at the text. Start studying the words. Familiarize yourself with the imagery. And think about the best way to convey Isaiah’s message in English.

I’ll post details here soon.

October 7, 2014 Posted by | announcements, translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , | 13 Comments

Review Opportunity: The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor

The-Bibles-Cutting-Room-Floor-by-Dr-Joel-M-Hoffman--cover2Do you have a blog or other media outlet? Do you post book reviews? If so, my publisher has offered to send you an advance copy of my newest book, The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor: The Holy Scriptures Missing From Your Bible. It’s available as a NetGalley (here) or an ARC.

Be in touch with Karlyn Hixson (Karlyn.Hixson@stmartins.com) directly at St. Martin’s Press to get your copy. I believe priority will go to people who can commit to posting a review during the last week of August or the first week of September.

A wonderful book to confirm the beliefs of the faithful, to strengthen those whose faith begs for more information and to enlighten those who reject the stories of the Bible as mere fiction. -- KirkusFor everyone else, if you pre-order the book by August 15, you get access to a special sneak peek which includes an extensive excerpt from my chapter about the second half of the Adam and Eve narrative, along with bonus notes and discussion questions.

(If you’ve noticed that I’ve barely posted here in a while, this is why. I’ve been completing The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor and working on another book, as well as building out my on-line resource to complement the book, “The Unabridged Bible.”)

Learn more about the book from the book’s website.

July 21, 2014 Posted by | announcements | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Was Haman Hanged or Impaled in the Book of Esther?

Haman-Manuscript-HangingWith attention focused on the Book of Esther as the Jewish holiday of Purim approaches, I decided to take a quick break from building “The Unabridged Bible” to address the violent details of the antagonist’s death in the story, because they are interesting in their own right, and are also a prefect demonstration of the two-fold challenge of Bible translation.

The issue is this: As part of the battle between Mordecai (the hero) and Haman (the villain), Haman plans Mordecai’s death in a particular fashion, but in the end the instrument of death is turned on Haman himself.

According to the NRSV, Haman’s wife suggested (verse 5:14) that “a gallows fifty cubits [seventy-five feet] high be made … to have Mordecai hanged on it.” But the JPS translation offers instead, “Let a stake be put up … to have Mordecai impaled on it.” Verse 7:10 details the plot reversal: the King’s men either “hanged Haman on the gallows” (NRSV) or “impaled Haman on the stake” (JPS).

So which is it? Was it a gallows or stake? And was Haman hanged or impaled?

There are two questions here, as there always are with matters of translation. The first is what the original Hebrew means. The second is how best to say that in English.

The Hebrew verb is talah, which means “to hang.” And the Hebrew noun is eitz, “tree” or “wood.” So it looks straightforward. It was a tall piece of wood, and what they did to Haman was hang him on it.

Surprisingly, though, the way to say that in English is not “hang Haman,” because even though the verb “hang” in general encompasses a wide variety of acts, it has a very narrow meaning in English in connection to killing someone: putting the person’s head through a loop of rope and hanging the rope, not the person, from some horizontal structure. (Imagine a comic. The caption is “she told me to hang the wash.” The drawing shows shirts in a noose.)

In other words, “Haman was hanged from a gallows” means that a vertical post was constructed to support a horizontal crossbar; a noose was hung from that crossbar; and Haman was suspended by the neck from that noose. There is almost no chance that this is what the text intended. (This specialized meaning of “hang” used to have its own past tense: “hanged,” as opposed to “hung.” Most people don’t preserve that distinction any more.)

But if not in stereotypical western-movie fashion, how was Haman suspended from the wooden post? Here, unfortunately, we don’t have a clear answer. One reasonable possibility is that he was impaled by the post. Another is that he was crucified in some fashion. We don’t know for sure. (The evidence comes in part from Greek translations, and in part from other Greek writing about the capital punishment practices of the Medes.)

So what do we do about a translation? “Hanged on a gallows” is clearly wrong. It wasn’t a gallows as we think of it, and he wasn’t hanged. “Impaled on a stake” might be right. Certainly “stake” is better than “gallows.” But “impaled” adds a detail that might not be right, and, even if it is, goes beyond what the text actually tells us.

My suggestion, then, is “they hung Haman on the stake.” At least to my ear, this conveys the original image of Haman being attached in some direct manner to a tall piece of wood from which he hung.

What do you think?

March 11, 2014 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The History Channel’s Bible Secrets Revealed

Dr. Joel M. Hoffman taping Bible Secrets Revealed

Dr. Joel M. Hoffman taping Bible Secrets Revealed

I’m excited and a little nervous to announce that I’m appearing in two episodes of the History Channel’s upcoming Bible Secrets Revealed, which starts airing nationwide this Wednesday, November 13, at 10:00pm EST.

Read the whole story — including air times, links to more information, and video trailers from the series — in my latest e-newsletter.

UPDATE (December 19, 2013): It turns out I had a prominent role in the 5th episode, as well: “Mysterious Prophecies.” You may be able to watch the whole thing on-line via the “Bible Secrets Revealed” Video page.

UPDATE (December 1, 2013): Learn more about “The Life of Adam and Eve,” which I describe in the third episode, from the sneak-peak look at “The Unabridged Bible.”

UPDATE (November 26, 2013): The third episode — “The Forbidden Scriptures” — airs tomorrow (Wednesday) night. This could be the most enlightening of the episodes, because it addresses something most people don’t know much about.

I remember talking about this in depth on camera, and I’m told that some of my explanations made it into the final show.

Here’s the official description, from the History Channel:

The books, gospels and epistles found in the Holy Bible are writings considered to be divinely inspired. But are there chapters of the Bible that are missing? Have stories been censored and characters deleted? And if so, just who decides what is included—and what is forbidden?

UPDATE (November 20, 2013): The second episode airs tonight: “The Promised Land.” When I was interviewed, I declined to comment publicly about the connection between the Bible and Modern Israel’s borders, so I’m not in this one, but I’m curious to hear what other people say. Here’s the History Channel’s description:

It is considered the most sacred place on Earth. But it has also been carved up, sub-divided and fought over for thousands of years. Was the area known as “The Promised Land” really given by God to a “chosen people?” For the Jewish people, it is the land where David was King, where Solomon built a great temple and where Abraham and his descendants could live in peace and prosperity. Christians believe they have a right to this area because, according to the New Testament, Jesus will first appear here when he returns for the Day of Judgment. Since the Crusades, Temple Mount in Jerusalem has remained under Muslim control and is the site of one of the most sacred mosques in all of Islam. Perhaps God’s real promise was not to Abraham, but to all of humanity, and that a “promised land” was to be earned—not simply given. Could this land of religious tension and endless warfare actually become a Promised Land of peace as foretold in the Bible?

November 12, 2013 Posted by | announcements | , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

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

What did God Really Create in the Beginning?

What did God create in the beginning?

The usual answer is as obvious as it is wrong: “heaven and earth.”

The problem is that the Hebrew for the first word here means “sky,” not “heaven.” In English, the birds, clouds, rain, etc. are all in the sky, not in heaven. Heaven, by contrast, is, depending on one’s theology, either where good people go when they die or where all people go when they die.

A translation variation, “heavens,” is a little better, but only to the extent that that Biblish word has entered the mainstream. People don’t talk about “cloudy heavens” when it’s overcast. They talk about a cloudy sky.

We see the Hebrew word, shamayim, ten times in the first chapter of Genesis.

The final four times the word is where birds are, which is obviously the “sky” in English, not “heaven” or “heavens.”

Four times the word appears in connection with the Hebrew raki’a, which is usually translated into English as “firmament” — though, again, that’s a word whose use is almost entirely confined to translations of Genesis; the NRSV’s “dome” isn’t a bad alternative. The raki’a is the ancient conception of the sky, which is why the Hebrew raki’a is God’s name for the shamayim, in one place, just like “day” is God’s name for “light.”

In one case, the shamayim is the place under which the water of the ocean is gathered — again, “sky” in English.

And that leaves Genesis 1:1, where God creates the shamayim. (If you’re counting along, it seems like we now have eleven instances, not ten, but only because one of them appears in two lists — in connection with raki’a and in connection with birds.)

Elsewhere in the Bible (Deut. 11:17, e.g.), a lack of rain results when the shamayim gets stopped up. The shamayim is where the stars are (Gen. 26:4). And so forth. All of these are “sky” in English.

So it seems to me that Genesis 1:1 should talk about the “the sky and the land” or “the sky and the earth.”

The only possible reason I can think of not to go with this clear translation is that the Hebrew pair shamayim and eretz is used metaphorically (as a merism) to represent all of creation. (This is presumably why the ISV goes with “universe” here. But in turning the pair “sky/earth” into the one word “universe,” the ISV destroys the dualism that underlies the creation story.)

So what do you think? Is there any reason to keep the common translation “heaven(s)”?

October 9, 2013 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , | 12 Comments

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