God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Did God Sit on a Chair or a Throne?

In my last post I asked whether we should use modern terms like “womb” and “stomach” to translate the ancient beten, which was used for both.

Similarly, what about “chair” and “throne”? It seems that, at least in the OT, one word was used for both different modern concepts.

The Hebrew for both is kisei. It’s a common word, so it’s not hard to find examples of a kisei for commoners (I Samuel 1:9, e.g.), for kings (II Samuel 3:10, e.g., where it’s used metonymically for “kingdom”), and for God (Psalm 11:4).

Though the Greek thronos is used consistently in the LXX for kisei, in the NT thronos seems more narrowly reserved for kings and other dignitaries (Luke 1:32, Revelation 4:4) and God (Matthew 5:34), though Satan (Revelation 2:13) gets one, too.

The Greek kathedra is used in the NT for ordinary chairs (Matthew 21:12), and in the LXX for the Hebrew moshav “seat” and more generally shevet “sitting.” (The Hebrew moshav seems to include seats of any kind, both “chairs” and “thrones.”)

Another way of looking kisei in the OT is to compare it to the modern English word “shoe.” Even though kings and ordinary folk wear different kinds of them (I think), there’s only one word for them (I think).

The translation issue is forced in I Kings 2:19, where King Solomon sits on his kisei and also orders a kisei brought for his mom (which, at the risk of editorializing, is really sweet). The KJV, ESV, and NJB use two different words here, first “throne” (for the king) then “seat” (for mom). The LXX (in Greek), NAB, NIV, NLT, and NRSV use the same word twice. (I’m a little surprised to find the “essentially literal” ESV using two words here, and the generally more idiomatic NLT sticking with one.)

The original Hebrew of I Kings 2:19 emphasizes the equality of Solomon and his mother. The KJV emphasizes the inequality of the two. The NRSV preserves the equality, but does so by giving Bathsheba a throne.

Elsewhere, the translator has to decide between “chair” and “throne” for God. By choosing “throne,” God is necessarily like royalty; and while that’s certainly a common metaphor for God in the OT, how do we know it’s always what the Hebrew meant? In the famous vision of Isaiah 6, for example, the only clue to a kingship metaphor is the word “throne” in English.

Should a translation preserve the OT way of looking at things that are sat upon (if you’ll pardon my grammar), the NT way, or go straight for the modern English way?

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December 6, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments