The Pope’s latest comments about condoms have again brought up the Ten Commandments, and, in particular, “thou shalt not kill,” which Catholics and some others number as the fifth commandment, while Jews and most Protestants call it the sixth.
Unfortunately, “kill” is a mistranslation of the original Hebrew, which does not say, “you shall not kill.”
The Hebrew verb here is ratsach, and it only refers to illegal killing.
We see this pretty clearly from Numbers 35, which deals with different kinds of killing — somewhat like modern murder vs. manslaughter laws.
For example, in Numbers 35:16, we learn that one person who kills another with an iron instrument has ratsached. Verses 17-18 expand ratsach to include killing by hitting someone with a deadly stone object or a deadly wooden object. The reasoning seems to be that iron is assumed to be a deadly weapon, while stones and wood come in both deadly and non-deadly varieties. Hitting someone with a deadly instrument is a case of ratsaching.
The point of these clauses is that there are lots of kinds of killing, and only some of them are instances of ratsaching.
Other kinds of killing — for example, killing the assailant from verses 16-18 — is not only allowed but required. That sort of required killing (capital punishment, as we call it now) is not ratsaching, and is not forbidden by the Ten Commandments.
Similarly, many other kinds of killing are not addressed in the Ten Commandments.
I go through much more evidence in Chapter 7 of And God Said, so I won’t repeat it here.
Much of this information, though, is not new.
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.
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.
James 2:23-24 uses the same root twice to highlight the point that Faith requires Works. But that important rhetorical device — duplication of the root — is lost in most translations. For example (NRSV):
(23) …”Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” [Genesis 15:6] … (24) You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
That translation, like most others, is ambiguous regarding the exact connection between Abraham’s belief (in James 2:23, which quotes Genesis 15:6) and faith (in James 2:24).
But in Greek, “believed” is pisteuo and “faith” is pistis. The text connects Abraham’s pistis with the general nature of pistis. It’s essentially a grammatical accident that we see a verb in Genesis 15:6 — so also in James 2:23 — and a noun in James 2:24.
Why do translations have such a hard time capturing this basic effect? The KJV, ESV, NAB, NIV, NLT, and NRSV all have “Abraham believed” here, instead of the obvious other choice: “Abraham had faith.”
(The NAB’s lapse is particularly surprising. In Genesis itself that translation reads, “put his faith.” The CEV opts for “had faith” in James 2:23, but then goes with “what we believe” in verse 24.)
I also think it’s no small matter that the same root appears twice, a topic I’ll turn to soon.
The Ten Commandments — listed in Exodus 20 and again in Deuteronomy 5 — aren’t called commandments in the original Hebrew or in the Greek LXX.
In Hebrew, they are d’varim in Exodus 20, either “things” or “words.” (This dual use of d’varim is a bit like “things” in English — I can own ten things or tell you ten things.)
To the best of my knowledge, of the major translations only the NAB renders the Hebrew as “commandments” in Exodus 20.
For that matter, the number “10” doesn’t come from Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5, but rather from Exodus 34:28 and two other places in Deuteronomy. There, the KJV and other translations (NIV, ESV, NAB, NRSV, and others) translate “ten d’varim” as “ten commandments,” sometimes capitalizing the phrase and sometimes with a note that the Hebrew doesn’t say “commandments.”
(Later Jewish tradition would replace d’varim with dibrot, which also doesn’t mean “commandments.”)
Two questions come to mind: Should we keep calling these the “ten commandments” even though that doesn’t seem to be what they are in the Bible? And is the NAB justified in its translation decision?
I frequently hear support for a translation philosophy that is in favor of only changing the original “as much as necessary” or of keeping the formal structure of the original “as far as possible” (to quote the introduction to the ESV). But I think that approach is fundamentally misguided.
The first three words of the Bible demonstrate. In Hebrew, they are breishit (“in the beginning”), bara (“created”), and elohim (“God”).
The most direct mapping from Hebrew to English would therefore be, “In the beginning created God [the heavens and the earth].” But that’s not grammatical English. So translators change the text to, “In the beginning God created…”
Unfortunately, they stop there, reasoning (wrongly in my opinion) that a translation of the Bible that means something in English necessarily means the same thing in English as the original.
In our example, the reasoning is this: Putting the verb before the subject in English is bad because it’s not grammatical in English. So far, so good. But the next bit of reasoning is that putting “in the beginning” first is accurate merely because it’s grammatical. The question “does it mean the same thing?” rarely gets asked. And in this case, the answer is “no.” Putting something at the start of a Hebrew sentence does not always mean the same thing as putting something at the start of an English sentence.
In fact, a better translation would be, “it was in the beginning that God created…,” because the first line of Genesis answers the question “when?” not “what?”
More importantly, the reasoning that leads to “in the beginning…” is, I think, faulty. We should not be asking only “is the English grammatical?” but also “does it mean the same thing as the original?”