Why Bible Translations Differ: A Guide for the Perplexed by Ben Spackman

I found this article online. It is really a remarkable explanation of the problems with bible translation. Please excuse the Mormon references.

Here is the link if you would like to visit it:

https://rsc.byu.edu/archived/re-15-no-1-2014/why-bible-translations-differ-guide-perplexed

Ben Spackman, “Why Bible Translations Differ: A Guide for the Perplexed,” Religious Educator 15, no. 1 (2014): 31–66.

Why Bible Translations Differ: A Guide for the Perplexed

Ben Spackman

Ben Spackman (benspackman@gmail.com) received an MA in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, where he pursued further graduate work. At the time this article was published, he was a premedical student at City College of New York, applying to medical schools in 2014. 

Translators frequently consult the Dead Sea Scroll texts, particularly in problematic passages. 

Photo by Berthold Werner. Dead Sea Scroll 4Q175, Jordan, Amman.

(Translators frequently consult the Dead Sea Scroll texts, particularly in problematic passages.)

Brigham Young once said that “if [the Bible] be translated incorrectly, and there is a scholar on the earth who professes to be a Christian, and he can translate it any better than King James’s translators did it, he is under obligation to do so.” [1] Many translations have appeared since 1611, and modern Apostles have profitably consulted these other Bible translations, sometimes citing them in general conference or the Ensign[2] Latter-day Saints who likewise wish to engage in personal study from other Bible translations will quickly notice differences of various kinds, not only in style but also in substance. Some differences between translations are subtle, others glaringly obvious, such as the first translation of Psalm 23 into Tlingit: “The Lord is my Goatherder, I don’t want him; he hauls me up the mountain; he drags me down to the beach.” [3]

While the typical Latter-day Saint reads the Bible fairly often, [4] many are unfamiliar with “where the [biblical] texts originated, how they were transmitted, what sorts of issues translators struggled with, or even how different types of translations work, or even where to start finding answers.” [5] Generally speaking, differences arise from four aspects of the translation process, three of which are rooted in the original languages. An introduction to these four categories as well as a bit of background on biblical languages can go far in helping readers understand and evaluate different translations. Various Bible versions will be cited by common abbreviation, explained either at the first reference (e.g., KJV), or by an endnote. Due to my own academic training, the following discussion focuses mainly on the Old Testament, but similar issues are involved in translating the New Testament.

Category 1: What Are the Textual Sources of the Translation?

Translators must choose a base text from which to translate. Until the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (often abbreviated as DSS), the oldest and best Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament were dated back to the ninth century AD, far closer in date to modern translators than to the Hebrew authors and editors. This traditional Hebrew text, called the Masoretic Text (or MT), serves as the source of most Bible translations of the Old Testament, including the KJV. [6] Scribes copied biblical texts by hand for generations. Consequently, changes to the text crept in by nature of imperfect copying [7] as well as by intention. [8] On occasion scribes would “correct” a text to the way they thought it should read.[9] If one read a story in which a dog chases a man, the dog catches him, the man bites the dog, but then the man goes to the hospital, you would reasonably assume that it was the dog that bit the man, not the other way around and correct the corrupted text. Scribes also sometimes made changes in pronunciation (e.g., to make sure Yahweh was pronounced as Adonai), made theological changes,[10] or bowdlerized the text. [11] (This term comes from a Dr. Thomas Bowdler, who produced an edition of Shakespeare in 1807 with offensive or inappropriate passages for women and children removed. Ophelia’s suicide, for example, became merely an unfortunate drowning.) Minor textual errors in the Hebrew text are relatively common, obvious corrections or major theological changes much less so. Translators frequently consult the Dead Sea Scroll texts, particularly in problematic passages.[12] The books of Samuel are held to be two of the more textually corrupt books, with many difficult decisions to be made about which text should be used in which passage.[13] Whether translators decide to use the MT, DSS, or both as the basis of the translation is a philosophical decision based upon theological commitments and scholarly presuppositions. Using a different base text will result in differences in the translation.

The base text is often supplemented by reference to ancient translations of the Hebrew scriptures, known as “versions.” [14] These include the Greek translations known as the Septuagint, or LXX; [15]  Aramaic translations known as targums or targumim; the Samaritan Pentateuch; and more in Latin, Syriac, and other languages. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of the existing copies of these versions predated our oldest copies of the Masoretic Hebrew text, resulting in the odd situation of translations that were older than the “original” text. Translators often consult the versions at difficult or ambiguous passages because they show how ancient translators understood the text, and sometimes attest to a textual tradition different than that handed down in the MT. One example is Deuteronomy 32:8–9, in which the MT was apparently “corrected” in a monotheistic direction, while the Septuagint preserved a very different text that was then largely confirmed by the Dead Sea Scrolls Hebrew text of Deuteronomy.[16]

The standard editions of the original language texts[17] provide the most relevant variations between manuscripts and the versions in what is called the textual apparatus, a densely abbreviated technical tool. [18] Good modern Bibles often include footnotes that say something like “other manuscripts read X” or “Hebrew uncertain.” The NET Bible often explains its translation in terms of the base text and includes text-critical notes labeled TC. [19] (“Text criticism” is the study of textual variants.) English translations of the versions are available, such as the recent and free New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) [20] or The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, which includes the biblical texts of the DSS with some textual commentary.[21] How much weight should be given to the versions, and under what circumstances are questions of translation philosophy that directly affect the translation. Most Bibles thus include a preface explaining the general choice of texts and other decisions.[22]

Category 2: How Does the Translator Understand the Grammar and Syntax?

While the details are complex, a simple overview of a few of the significant ways Biblical Hebrew differs from English will help the reader gain appreciation for the difficulties of translation. Those unfamiliar with these Hebrew difficulties may wonder how anyone can firmly derive meaning from the text under such circumstances, but the Hebrew is rarely as ambiguous as this section makes it appear.

Like many other ancient languages, Biblical Hebrew had no formal punctuation, no capitals, and variable word order.[23] Consequently, a Hebrew translator cannot always easily determine if a word is a proper name [24] or if it belongs to the ending of one phrase or the beginning of the next. Deciding where one sentence ends and another begins can be difficult, particularly since Hebrew uses “and” much more frequently and differently than English. [25] Translators have to decide where the breaks are in the text, and then how to represent that in the target language. [26] James Kugel provides one example from Genesis 22:8: “Since biblical Hebrew was originally written without punctuation marks or even capital letters marking the beginnings of sentences, Abraham’s answer to Isaac could actually be read as two sentences: ‘God Himself will provide. The lamb for the burnt offering [is] my son.’ (Note that Hebrew does not use “to be” in the present tense; thus, this last sentence would be the same whether or not the word ‘is’ is supplied in translation.)”[27]

Another significant way Hebrew differs from English is that it has only two verb “conjugations,” one that adds suffixes and one that adds prefixes. Whereas English makes liberal use of words to indicate tense and mood, Hebrew does not grammatically indicate tenses such as future, past, or present, let alone those nightmarish tenses like future perfect progressive (“you will have been doing X”). [28] This is not to say Israelites weren’t concerned with time; what English indicates explicitly either within the verb itself (e.g., “eat” versus “ate,” “run” versus “ran”) or by ancillary words (“he will work” versus “he did work”), Hebrew indicates less explicitly via syntax or word order. [29] This again means translators must both decide what the Hebrew means and then how to represent that in English. The lack of explicit grammatical tense and scholarly consensus over the verbal system explains why one translation may interpret a verse in the past tense, another in the future, and another in the present. [30] While perhaps an extreme example, compare the variety of tenses in Isaiah 9:6 in table 1 (emphasis added):

KJV: For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

 

NRSV: For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

 

NJPS: For a child has been born to us, A son has been given us. And authority has settled on his shoulders. He has been named “The Mighty God is planning grace; The Eternal Father, a peaceable ruler.” NASB: For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.

 

Present perfect, present perfect, future, future. Past, past, present, present. Past, past, past, past. Future, future, future, future.

 

Another issue with Hebrew is that, like Spanish, it does not require pronouns with verbs; one can simply say “ate” instead of “he ate.” Thus, lacking an explicit subject, translators must decide if the subject is new and assumed (he? it? God?) or carried over from something in the previous phrase. Ambiguities of this nature combined with lexical difficulties described in the next section occur significantly more often in poetry. Indeed, the ambiguities of Hebrew lend themselves frustratingly well to poetry. It poses particular difficulties, as it is often less concrete and more elliptical than prose. Because poetry in English-speaking cultures tends to be used for aesthetic reasons instead of as a practical or common mode of communication, these difficulties may seem irrelevant. However, poetry is the primary form of prophetic texts such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, as well as Psalms, the Old Testament book most quoted in the New Testament. Learning how to understand poetic structures and parse out its ambiguities thus takes on much more importance. [31]

Category 3: How Does the Translator Resolve Ambiguities on the Word Level?

Due to the evolution of the Hebrew writing system, the relatively small number of Hebrew texts, and the nature of Semitic languages, a translator may be very uncertain of the meaning(s) of a word. Ambiguity over one word here or there may seem inconsequential, but the amount of variance possible and the import of one lone word can change a passage significantly. To choose one theological example, considerable ink has been spilled over the translation of ‘almah in Isaiah 7:14. “Behold, [the] ‘almah shall conceive and bear a son, and call his name Immanuel.”[32] Should ‘almah be “virgin” (the traditional translation conservative evangelicals still argue for) or “young woman” (the translation heavily supported by usage and lexical research)?[33] How is such word-level ambiguity possible?

The first cause of ambiguity is the nature of the writing system.[34] The Hebrew alphabet was originally an abjad, a writing system that represented only consonants, likely based on a rebus principle. This means that each Hebrew letter is also the name of an object. To write the word ’ab (“father”), for example, one would draw an ’aleph (the word for ox) and a bet (or house).[35] All Hebrew words begin with consonants. (Those words English speakers would consider to begin with a vowel begin with something like a glottal stop, in which airflow is cut off in the throat, as between the two syllables of uh-oh.)

A later stage of Hebrew began to indicate long vowels at the end of words, using y, w, and perhaps h. Later still, y and w became inconsistently used indicators of long vowels inside a word as well as at the end. For example, David is written DWD (w as a consonant) before the Babylonian exile, but consistently in texts afterward as DWYD, with y indicating the long i-vowel (the name is pronounced dah-VEED in Hebrew today). The Dead Sea Scrolls expand on this trend of using a few consonants to represent certain vowels.[36]

Roughly one thousand years after the close of the Hebrew Bible, Jews who had memorized the traditional text improvised a system of indicating the pronunciation with marks above, below, and inside the consonants, called “vowel pointing” or just “pointing.” Until that time, Hebrew did not indicate doubled consonants, which can change the meaning of a word, nor the full range of vowels. [37] Scholars vary in how much weight should be assigned to the traditional pointing, but at times greater sense can be made of a text by replacing the vowels (“repointing”) or redividing a key word or phrase.[38]

For example, if a text had the consonants GDSNWHR in God’s appearance to Moses, and the tradition pointed and divided as “GoD iS NoWHeRe,” it might be thought a bit odd for an Israelite to say. A scholar might repoint and redivide as “GoD iS NoW HeRe” since it better fits the context of a divine presence. Just as BT in English could give us BuTT, BiT, BaT, ByTe, BuT, aBet, or BeT, many Hebrew words vary only in their pointing. In Amos 6:12, the NRSV prefers to repoint the masculine plural marker of “oxen,” –iym, as a separate word yam, or “sea.” Contrast the KJV “Shall horses run upon the rock? will one plow there with oxen?” with the NRSV “Do horses run on rocks? Does one plow the sea with oxen?”[39]

One of the more common and complex examples involves whether lō “to him” or lō “not” is the correct reading. This entirely changes the meaning of Job 13:15, an old scripture mastery passage; compare the KJV “Though he slay me, yet I will trust in him (lō)” with the NJPS, “He may well slay me; I have no (lō) hope” (emphasis added).

Here is the Hebrew text of Isaiah 9:5 (English numbering) without pointing.

Here is the same text with pointing added.

Finally, here is the same text with the pointing and marks indicating accents and how to “sing” or chant the text, the role of the cantor in a modern synagogue.

Second, assuming the traditional pointing is largely accurate, as it probably is in most cases, another issue deserves consideration: It is usage that determines a word’s meaning. (This, combined with tradition, is the issue with “virgin”/”young woman” in Isaiah 7:14.) The more often a word occurs, the more examples and contexts we have to establish its meaning. However, the Old Testament does not have many words—less than 7,000, many of them related to each other—and words often have multiple meanings. [40]  Add to the small sample size the fact that usage, and therefore meaning, shifts over time, and it can become quite difficult to know just what a word means in a given passage. We can’t haphazardly assume a word with legal or technical meaning will bear the exact same meaning when used in a different genre at a different time. Indeed, conclusions and word studies of this kind require extreme caution. [41]

Particularly when a word is rare, scholars cautiously turn to the versions as well as comparative Semitics. Do Aramaic, Ugaritic, Arabic, or Assyrian/Babylonian use a related word in a similar context? Do the usages there shed any light on its usage in the Old Testament?[42] The combined corpus of these languages dwarfs that of Biblical Hebrew, and is often useful.

Here again the genre of poetry magnifies the difficulties, since poetic texts tend to use more obscure vocabulary and use it in less concrete ways. If the words of Isaiah are great, they are equally rare and semantically difficult. Job is arguably the most difficult text in the Hebrew Bible, with a high concentration of words that occur only once and nowhere else (called hapax legomena) and many other rare words. [43] Indeed, in Job 24:18, the NJPS translation notes that “From here to the end of the chapter [verse 25] the translation is largely conjectural.”[44]

The bottom line is that even with centuries of tradition and scholarship, ancient translations, and modern lexicons, sometimes meaning cannot be established with any degree of certainty. For some passages, that has serious implications. When reading through the list of non-kosher animals in Leviticus 11, the Jewish Study Bible notes a high degree of uncertainty as to what particular birds are intended. Jews have a practical need to know which birds are kosher and which are not.[45] But again, translations must say something, and good scholarship recognizes its own limitations. One scholar has suggested that gaining interpretive humility is one of the advantages of learning biblical languages. “Seeing the messiness of the text—the text-critical problems, the ambiguities, the instances (particularly if reading in Job or Proverbs) in which you stare at a line but you have no idea what it means and neither does anyone else but the translations have to say something so they grab a phrase out of thin air—causes you to be more humble in your interpretive approach. You come to realize that you are not the master of the text.”[46]

At both the word level and higher, the structure of Hebrew lends itself to ambiguity, multiple meanings, puns, and subtle allusions. While lending itself easily to poetry, this tendency also makes it infuriatingly difficult at times to understand and to translate. One of my graduate professors joked that every Semitic word has at least four meanings: the primary meaning, its opposite, something to do with sex, and something to do with camels! He was exaggerating, but not by much.

Category 4: What Conscious Choices are Being Made about Translation Philosophy, Style, and Register?

Translation is a tricky process, but particularly so when involving religious sensitivities. After resolving textual issues (category 1), working through the grammar and syntax (category 2), and weighing lexical ambiguities (category 3), a translator might have a good idea what a passage means in Hebrew, but must still work out what it should convey in the target language and how it should convey it. This means that even if two Bible translations used the same underlying text (e.g., MT versus DSS), and the translators understood that text the same way, and agreed on the meanings of every word, the English from each translator could still vary greatly. One could simply charge “translator bias,” but this is not often the case, and examples of flagrant bias tend to be publicized and debated.[47] To English-only readers, all these decisions and issues remain below the surface. An illuminating example of the difficulty Bible translators have in weighing these issues is available on YouTube.[48] Translations can rarely indicate the debates, the deliberate or unconscious choices made by the translator(s), or that the Hebrew text in question may be terribly difficult to understand or fraught with textual issues; regardless of the difficulties involved, at the end of the day a translator must provide a translation. [49]

Translating involves an original language and a target language. No language exists in isolation; each is embedded in and reflects its cultural matrix. The more “distance” there is between the original and the target languages in terms of linguistic similarity, [50] time, and culture, the more difficult translational decisions become. This also means that evaluation of a translation’s accuracy and utility can change; an excellent translation for 1611 may become a terrible translation by 2013 because the target language and culture have shifted.[51]

Formal or dynamic translation.

Translation is not a science, but has begun to be studied like one. Those introduced to foreign language for the first time often fall into thinking that it’s simply a matter of substituting the equivalent words. An elder in my district in the Missionary Training Center once exclaimed, “Il est à propos le temps!” Intending to convey a frustrated “It’s about time!” he had simply looked up each English word in his dictionary, substituted the French word he found there, and strung them together. His final phrase was good French (“It concerns the time!”), but did not mean what he intended. (A propos has since made its way into English, meaning “relevant to the matter at hand.”) All translation, particularly Bible translation, is much more complex than the word-for-word substitution he performed, particularly where idioms and cultural references are concerned.

Beginning in the mid-twentieth century with Eugene Nida, a linguist and Greek scholar, Bible translators today talk about two endpoints on the spectrum of translation theory. On one end is “word-for-word,” “formal equivalence,” or “text-oriented” translation, which is more literal but less understandable. The translator chooses to preserve more of the original language at the cost of being less accessible to the target language and culture. On the other end is “thought-for-thought,” “dynamic/functional equivalence,” or “reader-oriented” translation, which is more understandable but potentially less reliable.[52] The translator does more interpreting in order to smooth and adapt to target language and culture, intending to create the same understanding and response among the new audience as among the original.

If a translator has misunderstood the meaning embedded in the cultural/language matrix of either the original or target language, than the meaning will be deformed.[53] For example, Isaiah 1:18 reads, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” How should one translate “snow” for a tropical culture that has no concept of winter? “White as wool”? Since the text says “white as snow,” could one translate “white as wool” and footnote (if a translation allows) saying “white symbolized purity for the Israelites”? What if in the target culture, the color white represents death instead of purity or sinlessness? If blue were the paradigmatic color of purity, would “blue as the sky” be acceptable? And so on. Essentially, is it the words that matter or the concepts? How much can, must, or should one deform the text to be true to and accurately convey the message of the text? Sometimes one must translate what the text means instead of what it says. [54] Every translation is a traitor, goes the saying, and this difficulty was recognized long ago by the rabbis. “One who translates literally (according to its form) is a liar, while one who adds [to it] is a blasphemer.” [55]

Continuing this example, let us assume a thought-for-thought translation philosophy; most translations understand “white” in Isaiah 1:18 to represent purity, sinlessness, or forgiveness. What if this equation is mistaken? One scholar concluded that “the formula to be made white as snow is not a blessing in the Hebrew Bible. Rather it is a curse. Thus, also in Isaiah 1:18 we have a judgment speech or rîb [pronounced reeve], which calls the people to judgment. The signs of the judgment are red, as the sign of guilt, and white, the sign of punishment. Come to judgment, if your sins are as bad as scarlet, they shall be made white as snow, a sign of curse and disease.”[56] If this is true, the thought-for-thought translation has seriously mistranslated as “purity” where it should indicate “judgment.” (It may also provide new perspective on Miriam being turned white in Numbers 12:10–12 after speaking against Moses.) A word-for-word translation that simply read “white as snow” would not convey either concept, but allow all interpretation to the reader. In other words, a word-for-word translation puts the onus on the reader to construct a meaning for the passage, whether through tradition, research and study, or problematic “face value”[57] readings. The responsibility for any misunderstanding also falls upon the reader. A thought-for-thought translation offloads much of the responsibility in understanding original contextual meaning onto the translator.

To the left, right, and in between the two points of word-for-word/formal and thought-for-thought/dynamic translation, three more positions can be identified. More literal than formal equivalence is “literal,” between formal and dynamic is “mixed,” and even more interpretive and loose are “paraphrases.” Though every translation is somewhat eclectic depending on the passage, each one generally falls into a particular category, and online guides show generally where a translation falls along this spectrum of translation philosophy.[58]

On one side of the spectrum, there is the literal extreme; Everett Fox’s commendable The Five Books of Moses attempts to capture more of the flavor and rhythm of Hebrew, with the result that the English is sometimes odd. A familiar passage reads, “At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters—God said: Let there be light! And there was light.”[59]

At the other extreme, paraphrases like The Message risk sounding too loose and disconnected from their original context, too casual, perhaps even non-scriptural[60]: “Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are. Set the world right; Do what’s best—as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.”[61] Thus reads the Lord’s Prayer.

The KJV is far towards the word-for-word/formal end of the spectrum; however, its target language was English of the 1500s. The instructions to the KJV translators to revise Tyndale’s version (1526) and the Bishop’s Bible (1568) and leave their text unchanged unless necessary resulted in the KJV already sounding archaic when published in 1611.[62] For example, by the end of the sixteenth century, -eth endings on verbs were still written but had dropped out of speech and were pronounced as -s as standard practice.[63] Four hundred additional years of linguistic shift has not made the KJV more accessible, and this has definite effects on such fundamental LDS matters as missionary work.[64]

Choice of register.

Register is a broad sociolinguistic term that refers to different kinds of language appropriate for a given audience and context. For example, I would speak to a close group of friends at a casual gathering differently than I would to the President of the United States in a formal presentation. I would explain a concept differently to a Primary class, than to my Institute class, than to a missionary contact. The choice of “register” also affects translation. Translators must know their purpose in translation and their audience, and then further decide what kind of language is contextually appropriate for that combination.[65]

One example of this is the reading level chosen for a translation. The NIV has been translated at an eighth-grade reading level, whereas The Message (quoted above with the Lord’s Prayer) is around a fourth-grade reading level. A different kind of example concerning register and genre comes from a critique of a recent anthology of ancient Near Eastern texts:

The [Ugaritic] Baal Cycle is a larger than life tale and its ancient readers likely read it as such. When translators render epics like this in immediately accessible, common vernaculars they inescapably fail to translate aspects of how these stories were received and preserved. These were and are grand, expressive stories; encountering the Baal cycle should feel different from reading legal texts or proverbs.[66]

Should a Bible translation be formal or informal? Archaic or modern? Should it reflect differences in style, tone, genre, and dialect that exist in the original? For modern readers of the KJV, both the nature of the translation and non-fluency in its archaic language contribute to a very flat reading;[67] that is, imagine a movie in which every character spoke in the same voice, energy, emotion, and tone, never raising the pitch or lowering the volume regardless of the setting.

The original language texts are not so flat, but vary in many ways. The Gospel of Mark, for example, is low, common “street” Greek with grammatical infelicities, in contrast to the educated and refined Greek of Luke. Esau’s grunt for grub, “Let me gulp down some of this red red stuff” starkly contrasts Jacob’s careful and lawyerly response.[68] Hebrew had different geographic accents and/or dialects, both a Northern Hebrew and a Southern Hebrew (perhaps like Texan, Brooklynite, or Midwestern English).[69] Both Jacob’s servant and then Jacob himself travel north into Aramaic territory to meet Laban, and their own language changes to match Laban’s Aramaic “accent.”[70] I have an American friend with an Indian mother and grandparents; in conversation with them, her English takes on a different accent, vocabulary, and cadence. Changing registers is something speakers often do unconsciously based on audience and context, and the original texts reflect such changes. Reading the original languages or modern translations which try to capture some of the text’s original “flavor” can thus provide a very different experience than the lordly but flat monotone of the KJV. Perhaps this is what led Joseph Smith to exclaim, “My soul delights in reading the word of the Lord in the original, and I am determined to pursue the study of the languages, until I shall become master of them, if I am permitted to live long enough.”[71] Should a translation attempt to capture the flavors of the underlying text?

Appropriate language.

Another issue of register concerns differing cultural expectations in terms of sacred writing and language. That which is taboo, shocking, or offensive in one culture may not be in another. While a few originally inoffensive passages became so by translation into a different time or culture, sometimes the prophets intended to shock and offend. One scholar even advises, “If you do not wish to be shocked and disgusted, then stay away from reading the prophetic texts.”[72] Some of these difficult passages have been bowdlerized in the past, some overlooked due to archaic language, and some just never noticed due to their relative obscurity.[73] For example, “The Hebrew Bible regularly uses the root ŠKB . . . ‘lie (with)’ as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. But on four occasions the more direct verb ŠGL . . . occurs. Scholars agree that ŠGL was a word for sexual intercourse, but it may or may not have been vulgar (therefore, we cannot supply an exact English translation). In each of the four instances, ŠGL appears as part of a threat or condemnation, and always with the clear intention of shocking the audience . . . Obviously, the authors of these lines [in Deuteronomy 28:30, Isaiah 13:16, Jeremiah 3:1–2 and Zechariah 14:2] deliberately chose strong language—if not actual vulgarity—in order to horrify, upset and rattle their audience.”[74]

The English in 1 Samuel 25, involving David, Nabal (“Fool”), and “every one that pisseth against the wall,” was not offensive when first published,[75] but has now become so as American English has shifted. Translating in such a way as to avoid offending readers, as most modern translations do, turns out to obscure important connections within the story.[76] Even if justifiable “to provoke revulsion and disgust” and contextualized within its own time and culture, the graphic sexual, violent, or scatological imagery used by several prophets, particularly Ezekiel, challenges scholars and those who hold the Bible in high esteem.[77]

How should translators deal with these passages, far more numerous and problematic than most readers realize? They are not limited to the Old Testament. For example, Paul’s use of “you foolish Galatians” may be deliberate use of an ethnic slur to forcefully grab the attention of his audience, equivalent to “you stupid rednecks!”[78] In Philippians 3:8, he disdainfully describes as “dung” (KJV) all he gave up to gain Christ (potentially a considerable amount)[79] but some scholars bluntly suggest a different four-letter word is a more accurate translation. The NET Bible notes that skubalon “was often used in Greek as a vulgar term for fecal matter. As such it would most likely have had a certain shock value for the readers.”[80] Complicating matters, the same skubalon letter contains “the admonition of Paul” to seek out whatever is pure and commendable, among other adjectives (Philippians 4:8). How does Paul reconcile his use of language with this admonition?

Why are these passages so troublesome? Setting aside those examples in which prophets intended offense, other reasons exist. Modern readers have come to apply certain assumptions and expectations to the idea of “Holy Scripture” which were foreign to its authors. John J. Collins remarks, “When [certain Old Testament] stories are read as Scripture, they become more problematic, because of a common but ill-founded assumption that all Scripture should be edifying,” i.e., positive and uplifting.[81] Ancient prophets did not labor under many of the assumptions we attach to scripture today, because they are largely modern assumptions. The contents of our “Holy Scriptures” did not become such until long after they were written or preached. “Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah et al. had no sense of the white-covered, gold-cross embossed Bibles in which their prose was to be packaged, nor had they been briefed on the standards of Western literary decorum against which they would inevitably offend.”[82] Even our basic concept of “scripture” today would be somewhat foreign to them.[83] Certainly they would have thought they were operating under the Spirit of the Lord, but they were rarely conscious of authoring something that would become canon or “Holy Scripture,” because it did not exist as such. Few prophets have ever written with the idea of “I am adding to the canon,” because there was neither a formally established canon nor a concept of canon (generally in the Old Testament period), or because the canon was something other and past; in the New Testament period, “scripture” referred broadly to the writings of Old Testament prophets (as in 2 Timothy 3:15), not things such as Paul’s letters or the Gospels which were being written at the time. Indeed, Peter and Paul (and sometimes Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants) were simply writing letters to congregations, not attempting to produce canonized and inspired writing fit for all Christians in all times.

The writings eventually canonized as the Bible accurately reflected life in its variety, with language humorous and serious, sacred and profane. But once combined with other books (Greek ta biblia, source of the term “Bible,” means “the books,” not The Book) and canonized as “Holy Scripture,” certain expectations and assumptions came to be applied to each book and passage as though these criteria existed at the time, and prophets had written with them in mind. Consequently, the kind of language expected by the target community does not always match the kind of language used by the prophets. Should the translator privilege sensitivities of the target community, who may expect “Holy Scripture” to use elevated, archaic, antiseptic language, or should they provide culturally accurate translations of the text, which would create the same kind of reaction among its readers as among its native audience?

Leaf from a 1611 King James Bible showing Psalms 130-33, chapter headings, illuminated letters, and marginal notes.

Kent P. Jackson

Suggestions for Personal Study

The typical Bible reader who is aware of differences between versions cannot directly investigate the reason for those differences in the original languages. However, a multitude of useful tools are available to attack this problem from a different direction.

Multiple translations.

The easiest and first step is to become familiar with several translations, noting what each appears to say and areas of agreement or disagreement. Most modern Bible translations have been produced by committees of translators, and represent some degree of scholarly evaluation of textual variants and other relevant issues. Where multiple modern translations agree with each other but differ significantly from the KJV (textual scholars would say “agree against” the KJV), as a general rule I would favor the rendering of the modern versions. My personal recommendations would be the NRSV (scholarly/ecumenical), NJPS (Jewish), NIV (evangelical, various editions), NAB or New American Bible, Revised Edition (Catholic), and the NET Bible (discussed below).[84] For those that include them, check each translation’s footnotes of for useful indicators such as “Hebrew uncertain” or “other versions read X.”

Single-volume resources.

Besides the various translations of the Bible, there is also a range of accessible resources that can explain to some degree what is taking place under the surface of the English text. While certainly not necessary to consult with any frequency, simple awareness that these resources exist means the interested student knows where and how to search for answers when the need arises.

•  The most accessible of these is the NET Bible with its myriad footnotes at www.netbible.org. Study Bibles based on reputable translations will provide more footnotes of this kind than simple translations. For example, the Jewish Study Bible comprises the NJPS translation with notes, maps, introductions, and more from a Jewish perspective. Other good recommendations include the NIV Study Bible (evangelical), the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV, scholarly/ecumenical), and the Jewish Annotated New Testament (NRSV, commentary from a Jewish perspective).

•  Robert Alter, a Jewish professor of Literature and Hebrew at UC–Berkeley, often explains his translational decisions in difficult areas by referencing other versions and the original languages.[85] Moreover, his translations are enlightening and enjoyable to read, often capturing literary nuances lacking in others.[86]

•  Another potentially useful volume is The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible.[87] Authored by several prominent scroll scholars, the text contains a heavily annotated translation of the biblical scrolls with commentary focused on textual differences between the traditional Hebrew text, DSS, and other ancient versions. Differences between the Hebrew manuscripts and scrolls are printed in italics. The authors also provide a helpful introduction to the primary ancient translations.

•  Bruce Metzger, a notable scholar of the Greek New Testament, published a one-volume layman’s guide to textual variants of the New Testament.[88] Arranged by chapter and verse, this should be a go-to resource for New Testament questions.

Multivolume resources.

Multivolume works that are often available in public and college libraries can also address these issues in great depth. The UBS Handbook Series by the United Bible Societies (UBS) is one such work. These books were written primarily “to assist Bible translators but are also helpful for others who wish to study, reflect on and communicate the Scriptures. Although the commentaries are based on the original biblical languages, it is not necessary to know these languages to benefit from the commentaries.”[89] These go verse-by-verse, avoid technical language, compare multiple translations, and discuss major textual differences. Like other UBS publications, they are relatively expensive.

Also in this category are the most powerful and most difficult references, namely, commentaries, which vary greatly in length, focus, intended audience, and perspective. One-volume commentaries will rarely prove useful since they lack the space necessary to comment verse-by-verse. The greater depth of multivolume commentaries brings issues of greater expense, bulk (unless purchased electronically), and unevenness, as each volume is usually written by a different author. The most suitable commentary will offer a translation as well as discussion of and justification for it. The strength here is also the weakness: depth enough to explain these issues often means technicality, which is likely to lose or confuse readers without technical training.

As space prevents making specific recommendations for each book of the Bible, a few general suggestions and brief notes on series must suffice.[90] Many of these are available at local public and university libraries.

·      Anchor Bible Commentary—Now published by Yale University (and renamed accordingly as the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary), no denominational orientation, academic. Older volumes are being updated, so more than one volume may exist for a given book.

·      JPS Torah Commentary—Jewish Publication Society, scholarly Jewish perspective, covers Genesis through Deuteronomy under this title. A selection of other Old Testament books and passages such as Ruth and Jonah are covered under the series title JPS Bible Commentary.

·      New International Commentary—Eerdmans, Protestant perspective, semi-technical, conservative.

·      New Interpreters Bible—Abingdon Press, variety of perspectives. (I find the commentary on Romans by N. T. Wright to be particularly illuminating.)

·      NIV Application Commentary—Zondervan, conservative evangelical perspective, less technical, and more useful “modern application” suggestions as Latter-day Saints tend to expect. The authors provide a bridge between ancient and modern perspectives.

·      Word Biblical Commentary—Thomas Nelson, Protestant perspective, semi-technical.

Samples of these commentaries are often available on Amazon.com, the website of the publisher, or Google Books.

Original language resources.

The last category involves those resources dealing with words in the original source language. It is possible to research the underlying Greek and Hebrew without any formal training; however, the risk of misunderstanding and misusing this information cannot be overemphasized! Even students with a year or two of formal training tend to fall into common errors. The serious Bible reader who delves into these should begin by reading John Walton’s essay on word studies and D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies.[91]

The following process allows the non-specialist to make use of some accessible lexicons. As BYU philosophy professor James E. Faulconer devotes a chapter to this process in his excellent short volume Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions (now available online), what follows is a brief summary.[92] Essentially, one looks up the English word, then chapter/verse reference in Strong’s Lexicon, which assigns a unique number to every Greek and Hebrew word. This indicates what original language word is behind the English in any given passage. Several recent Hebrew lexicons are keyed to Strong’s numbers, making them accessible to the nonspecialist; in other words, Strong’s can provide a bridge from the English word to the proper Hebrew entry in one of these other lexicons. Free tools allowing Strong’s Lexicon lookup are available online, such as at www.blueletterbible.org.

There is a caveat to this approach—I cannot recommend relying upon Strong’s for any but the most general interpretive guidance. Besides being outdated, Strong’s provides only brief translational equivalents which can mislead, since the translation of a word is not always its meaning. That is, a simple translational equivalent cannot always adequately convey a native understanding of a word, particularly when it bears technical or cultural meaning. For example, the root PQD occurs some three hundred times in the Old Testament, with a bewildering variety of translational equivalents, including “to visit” (Genesis 21:1), “to appoint” (Genesis 41:34), “to muster troops,” (Numbers 1:3), “to be numbered” (Exodus 30:13), and “to punish” (Isaiah 10:12). The meaning of PQD that contextually demands such different translational equivalents in English is “to assign a person or thing to what the subject believes is its proper or appropriate status or position in an organizational order.” [93] Israelites had no need to say that. They just said “paqad.” Since Strong’s does no more than list the confusing array of seemingly-unrelated English translational equivalents, it should be used only as a stepping stone to more complete tools.

Of all the volumes keyed to Strong’s numbers, I recommend these: the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (or TWOT, 3 volumes, evangelical), Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (or TLOT, 3 volumes, translated from German scholarship), and the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (or NIDOTTE, 6 volumes, evangelical). The last is the most extensive, containing essays on each word as well as some more general background essays. All three are available for electronic purchase from Logos, Accordance, or Bibleworks.[94] Electronic editions greatly facilitate the process, since one can go directly to the desired Hebrew lexicon from English words.[95] None of these lexicons includes every Hebrew word; hapax legomena would not generally be included.[96] The standard academic lexicons[97] do contain those references, but are probably inaccessible to nonspecialists because of their highly technical and abbreviated nature. They are also not keyed to Strong’s, making it very difficult to look up a Hebrew word without knowing the language. In spite of not treating every word, TWOT, TLOT, and NIDOTTE remain excellent tools accessible to the non-specialist.

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