God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

If Jerome Jumped off a Cliff, Would You?

In rejecting word-for-word translations, Dr. Daniel B. Wallace explains that, “Jerome argued against this, noting that his translation of the Vulgate was not word-for-word, but sense-for-sense.” A follow-up comment suggests that Jerome implied that he translated holy scriptures “word for word.”

Here’s my question: Does it matter what Jerome did? More generally, does it matter how anyone in the ancient world approached translation? What if Paul had a clear position on the matter? Should we care what approach the Septuagint reflects?

I have often pointed out that we are better equipped now to retrieve the ancient Hebrew and Greek meanings and render them in a new language than we have been at any time since the words of Scripture were first written down.

My analogy is that we know more now about ancient Egypt than they did in the days of King James or of Jesus. Even though they were closer in time, modern science gives us tools they couldn’t even have imagined: carbon dating, for example, and satellite imaging. Similarly, we have better linguistic tools now than they had 400 or 2,000 years ago, and these tools give us better insight into the original texts.

Though I think most people agree that we’ve made huge progress in the fields of linguistics and translation, that doesn’t mean that the matter is settled. After all, “out with the old, in with the new” is hardly a phrase commonly heard resounding in seminary halls.

As it happens, the traditional Jewish answer is that the modern advances are irrelevant. What’s really important is the tradition as reflected in the Talmud, Rashi, and so forth. In one case, the Dead Sea Scrolls, combined with the LXX, provided convincing evidence that two letters are switched in the traditional first word of Deuteronomy 31:1. This is why the KJV translates that verse as, “And Moses went and spake these words…” while the NRSV and NAB agree on “When Moses finished speaking these words…” But the Jewish Publication Society translation retains the older understanding, based on the older text. It’s not that the evidence isn’t convincing. It’s irrelevant.

(As part of my travels, I commonly present to interfaith audiences, and, by and large, the Christians are bewildered by this Jewish approach, while the Jews often think it’s self evident.)

Another example comes from the Ten Commandments. There’s very good reason to think that the 10th commandment has to do with taking, not wanting, but not everyone agrees that we should update the translations or our understanding of the text.

All of this brings us back to the issue of historical translation approaches. Does it matter how people translated in the past? Or should we just use the best that modern science has to offer? What do you think?

October 10, 2012 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Ten Commandments Don’t Forbid Killing

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.
Continue reading

November 24, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

On Genesis 1:1

While most translations agree that the translation of Genesis 1:1 should read, “In the beginning…” the (Jewish) JPS translation offers instead, “When God began to create…” And the NLT and some others offer a footnote with that possibility. What’s going on?

The answer dates back 1,000 years to Rashi. He notes that the usual word for “in the beginning” would be barishona. And he further notes that b’reishit is never used except preceding a noun to mean “at the beginning of.”

He therefore concludes that Genesis 1:1 does not say that creation took place “in the beginning,” but rather that it was “in the beginning of” creation that the first part of the story takes place. That is, the earth was in disarray when God began to create.

Rashi’s analysis gives us, “When God began to create,” or (as the translation in Artscroll’s Rashi edition has it) “In the beginning of God’s creating.”

Rashi’s analysis has at least two kinds of problems.

The first is a matter of detail. For his analysis to work, he needs the verb bara to be a participle, though it’s unclear how that’s possible. Secondly, he needs the “and” of “and the earth was…” to mean “when.” That one is possible, though unlikely.

The second kind of problem, though, is methodological.

Rashi is right that b’reishit is never used except before a noun, but there are only four other times the word is used, all of them in Jeremiah, and all of them before words having to do with “kingdom” or “reign.” This is hardly a large enough sample to deduce what b’reishit means. (The same reasoning would force bara to mean something about kingdoms.)

Rashi’s point is actually more generally about reishit. (The b- prefix means “in/when/at/etc.”) But here, too, he runs into problems, wrongly assuming that a word is the sum of its parts.

Furthermore, while Rashi is correct that barishona means “at first,” that doesn’t really have much bearing on what b’reishit means. Perhaps the two words are nearly synonymous, for example. Or maybe barishona means “at first” in the sense of “the first time around” while b’reishit means “at first” in the sense of “the first and only time around.” (I just met someone who introduces his wife as his “first wife.” She is his first, only, and last wife.)

All of which is to say that Rashi’s commentary here is interesting — and it explains the JPS translation — but I don’t think it helps figure out what the first words of the Bible originally meant.

I have more on Genesis 1:1 here, here, and here.

July 19, 2010 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , | 12 Comments

What do you call water you can drink?

Exodus 15:22-26 deals with drinking water. The People of Israel come to Marah (the name of a place, but the word also means “bitter”) and when they find that the water there is undrinkable, Moses throws a log into the water and it becomes drinkable. It’s a fairly simple concept (thought a complex trick), yet the KJV, ESV, NIV, NJB, NRSV, and JPS translations all translate “drinkable water” here as “sweet water.”

That’s because the Hebrew word here is matok. In Hebrew — as in English — “sweet” and “salty” are generally opposites, and in Hebrew the paradigm extends to water. But unlike Hebrew, in (most dialects of) English the opposite of “salt water” is not “sweet water” but rather “fresh water,” or perhaps “drinkable water” or even “potable water.”

The same contrast in James 3:11 is variously rendered “sweet/bitter” (KJV), “fresh/salt” (ESV), “fresh/bitter” (NLT), “fresh/brackish” (NRSV) or “pure/brackish” (NAB). (I’ve never used the word “brackish” in my life, though I remember hearing the word when I took a boat tour of the Everglades. Apparently it’s a mixture of seawater and fresh lake water.)

All of this complexity is introduced for what is essentially a very simple contrast, with common English words to describe it: fresh water and salt water.

It seems to me that the only reason to prefer “sweet” in Exodus is to maintain the literary contrast between the name of the place (“Marah,” which means “bitter”) and the water, which becomes sweet.

Do you think it’s worth it? Is “sweet” acceptible for “fresh”/”potable”/”drinkable”?

What about in James 3:11. Is “brackish” called for? I don’t see what’s wrong with “fresh/salt.”


February 2, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

How Can I Quote the Bible if They Keep Changing the Translation?

Buses in Israel have the following written over the priority seating reserved for the elderly: mipnei seivah takum. Though the first two words sound esoteric to adult Israeli speakers and are often incomprehensible to children, the line is, in my opinion, a beautiful nod to the holiness code of Leviticus: “Stand before the elderly.”

Unfortunately, even if we wanted to (and even if it were legal), we couldn’t do the same thing in the U.S., because everyone has a different (often bad) translation. The KJV “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head,” would prompt more than a few laughs but it wouldn’t do the job. The ESV, “you shall stand up before the gray head” is only a little better. (Why aren’t these heads attached to bodies?) The NAB “stand up in the presence of the aged” is much better, but those who grew up with the KJV might not even recognize it as Leviticus.

Relatedly, I was recently at a Jewish funeral. Some 1,000 people came to mourn, and there were no prayer books, bibles, or printed guides of any sort available. “Please join me in reciting Psalm 23,” the rabbi nonetheless instructed. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures…” the whole group responded, basically quoting the NKJV. This even though most people in the room had been studying from a different translation (the 1984 NJPS) for over 20 years. That translation renders the Psalm “…I lack nothing.”

I understand that proponents of the ESV try to keep “the Bible” from changing precisely because of issues like these, but it’s worth keeping in mind that neither the (N)KJV nor the ESV would help with the buses.

It seems as though, in many cases, we have to choose accuracy or standardization; we can’t have both, even though they both have merit.

And unfortunately, beyond lamenting the situation (or foolishly suggesting that everyone should learn Hebrew and Greek), I can’t think of a solution.

November 8, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments