December 21, 2018

"Still, as a readerly translation of the Bible, the King James is imperfect. Its archaisms aren’t always grand..."

"... sometimes they’re just dead weight. Its Christian bias, in theologically freighted words like 'soul,' can be a distraction. And some of its translations are simply incorrect, as we’ve learned thanks to advances in Near East philology and archaeology since the 19th century. The translators of the King James, though they were masters of English style, showed little interest or ability to represent the characteristic forms of ancient Hebrew, especially, as Alter has argued, in the poetic sections. If the King James demonstrates that the Hebrew Bible can be made an English masterpiece, it also proves that even a masterpiece of translation is never the final word."

From "After More Than Two Decades of Work, a New Hebrew Bible to Rival the King James/The pre-eminent scholar Robert Alter has finally finished his own translation" (NYT).

On the subject of rejecting the English word "soul" (to translate the Hebrew word "nefesh"):

But consider the Book of Jonah 2:6 in which Jonah, caught in the depths of a giant fish’s gut, sings about the terror of near-death by water. According to the King James Version, Jonah says that the Mediterranean waters “compassed me about, even to the soul” — or nefesh. The problem with this “soul,” for Alter, is its Christian connotations of an incorporeal and immortal being, the dualism of the soul apart from the body. Nefesh, to the contrary, suggests the material, mortal parts, the things that make us alive on this earth. The body.

“Well,” Alter said, speaking in the unrushed, amused tone of a veteran footnoter. “That Hebrew word, nefesh, can mean many things. It can be ‘breath’ or ‘life-breath.’ It can mean ‘throat’ or ‘neck’ or ‘gullet.’ Sometimes it can suggest ‘blood.’ It can mean ‘person’ or even a ‘dead person,’ ‘corpse.’ Or it can be ‘appetite’ or something more general: ‘life’ or even ‘the essential self.’ But it’s not quite ‘soul.’ ”

But, I asked Alter, doesn’t “soul” help dramatize the scene’s intense emotion? I mentioned another instance of the word nefesh, the terrifyingly evocative line from the King James’ translation of Psalm 69: “For the waters are come in unto my soul.”

“Oh, yes,” Alter said, with a smile. “That one does have a certain emotional resonance to it. But it’s not what the poet had in mind. And, I would add that the line ‘for the waters have come up to my neck’ ... is also rather dramatic.”

Later I looked up the Jonah verse and saw that Alter’s translation was true to the poem’s formal structure. The verse starts with Jonah’s declaring that water had reached his nefesh — his “neck,” as Alter had it — and ends with his exclaiming that his head had been covered with seaweed. Biblical poetry is often made up of line pairings composed of analogous images, and Alter had chosen an anatomical noun, “neck,” that logically matched “head” in the parallel clause. You don’t need to know Hebrew etymology to see that “soul” doesn’t fit the analogy. The poetic structure dictates its own logic.


Expat(ish) said...

I think this guy may have missed his publishing window.

OTOH, if he'd done this several hundred years ago the piles of burning bodies would have lit the night sky.


Shouting Thomas said...

Admittedly, I haven't read the NYT article.

I saw it this morning and thought: "What worse source for this kind of article than a newspaper that loathes Christianity?"

rhhardin said...

Chouraqui translation, verbum pro verbo

Here are the sons of Shem
for their clans, for their tongues,
in their lands, for their peoples.
Here are the clans of the sons of Noah for their exploits,
in their peoples:
from the latter divide the peoples on earth, after the flood.

And it is all the earth: a single lip, one speech.
And it is at their departure from the Orient: they find a canyon,
in the land of Shine'ar.
They settle there.
They say, each to his like:
``Come, let us brick some bricks.
Let us fire them in the fire.''
The brick becomes for them stone, the tar, mortar.
They say:
``Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower.
Its head: in the heavens.
Let us make ourselves a name,
that we not be scattered over the face of all the earth.''

YHWH descends to see the city and the tower
that the sons of man have built.
YHWH says:
``Yes! A single people, a single lip for all:
that is what they begin to do! ...
Come! Let us descend! Let us confound their lips,
man will no longer understand the lip of his neighbor.''

YHWH disperses them from here over the face of all the earth.
They cease to build the city.
Over which he proclaims his name: Bavel, Confusion,
for there, YHWH confounds the lip of all the earth,
and from there YHWH disperses them over the face of all the earth."

rhhardin said...

School morning readings from the KVJ is what makes old people able to conjugate old-timey verbs correctly.

mccullough said...

Should have used gullet. Bolder choice.

gilbar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
stevew said...

Nefesh in its various interpretations relates to all or part or functions of the physical self. Soul, on the other hand, refers to our spiritual essence, the immortal, non-physical being. At least that's what I get from this examination.

rhhardin said...

Google translate puts Chouraqui's translation into French into English

1. ENTÊTE Elohîms created the skies and the earth,
2. the earth was hustle and bustle,
a darkness on the faces of the abyss,
but Elohim's breath hovered over the faces of the waters.
3. Elohim says, "A light will be. "
And it's a light.
4. Elohim sees light: what good!
Elohim separates light from darkness.
5. Elohim cries out in the light: "Day. "
In the darkness he had shouted, "Night. "
And it's an evening and it's a morning: day one.
6. Elohim says, "A ceiling shall be in the midst of the waters:
it is to separate between waters and between waters. "
Elohim makes the ceiling.
7. It separates the waters under the ceiling from the waters on the ceiling.
And it is so.
8. Elohim cries to the ceiling: "Skies. "
And it's an evening and it's a morning: second day.
9. Elohim says, "The waters will line up under the skies
towards a single place, the dry will be seen. "
And it is so.
10. Elohim cries dryly: "Earth. "
At the alignment of the waters, he had shouted: "Seas. "
Elohim sees what good!
11. Elohim says, "The earth will sod with turf,
grass sowing seed,
fruit tree making fruit for its species,
whose seed is in him on the earth. "
And it is so.
12. The earth brings out the grass,
grass sowing seed, for its kind
and fruiting tree, whose seed is in him, for his kind.
Elohim sees what good!
13. And it's an evening and it's a morning: third day.
14. Elohim says: "Chandeliers shall be on the ceiling of the skies,
to separate the day from the night.
They are for signs, appointments, days and years.
15. These are chandeliers on the ceiling of the skies to illuminate the earth. "
And it is so.
16. Elohim makes the two great lights,
the big chandelier for the government of the day,
the little chandelier for the government of the night and the stars.
17. Elohim gives them to the ceiling of the skies to illuminate on the earth,
18. to rule the day and the night,
and to separate the light from the darkness.
Elohim sees what good!
19. And it's an evening and it's a morning: a fourth day.
20. Elohim says, "The waters will abound with living creatures,
the fowl will fly on the earth, on the faces of the ceiling of the skies. "
21. Elohim creates great crocodiles, all living beings, crawling,
whose waters have abounded for their species,
and any winged bird for its species.
Elohim sees what good!
22. Elohim blesses them to say:
"Grow, multiply, fill the waters in the seas,
the bird will multiply on earth. "
23. And it's an evening and it's a morning: fifth day.
24. Elohim says, "The earth will bring out the living being for its kind,
beast, reptile, the living of the earth for its kind. "
And it is so.
25. Elohim makes the living of the earth for his kind,
the beast for its species and all the reptile of the soil for its species.
Elohim sees what good!
26. Elohim said, "We will make Adam the Glaucous
to our reply, according to our resemblance.
They will subjugate the fish of the sea, the volatile of the skies,
the beast, the whole earth, every reptile that crawls on the earth. "
27. Elohim creates the legless in his reply,
to the replica of Elohim, he creates it,
male and female, he creates them.
28. Elohim blesses them. Elohim said to them:
"Fruit, multiply, fill the earth, conquer it.
Subject the fish of the sea, the volatile of the skies,
everything alive that crawls on the ground. "
29. Elohim said, "Behold, I have given you
all the sowing grass on the faces of all the earth,
and all the tree with in it tree fruit, sowing seed:
for you he will be to eat.
30. For all living things of the earth, for every fowl of the skies,
for every reptile on the earth, with in it being alive,
all green grass will be to eat. "
And it is so.
31. Elohim sees all that he has done, and this is an intense good.
And it's an evening and it's a morning: sixth day.

Lucid-Ideas said...

Just so long as it's not the like The New Passion translation. That's garbage.

tim maguire said...

I started off thinking, wow, you really can't please some people. I finished thinking, maybe he's on to something. Is it possible that a modern scholar actually did a good job?

rhhardin said...

10. Elohim cries dryly: "Earth. "

That's a Tom Swifty.

etbass said...

It has its critics and always has but nevertheless has been the means of many being saved to the uttermost. A couple big pros; it sounds like the Bible and is recognizable by more people than any other translation as "the Bible." Its language is that of Shakespeare. There's that.

Quayle said...

Two points:

1. Just to add an additional view: the Mormon definition of soul is derived from a revelation to Joseph Smith, and states that "...the spirit and the body are the soul of man." Joseph Smith went on later to say, "There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter."

2. Regarding "translation" of scripture (or anything): Looking for the "right" word in a translation can be an impossible task. Writers of the ancient scripture were just as capable of double or layered parabolic meanings, or even of puns, as are we. The use of words that could show multiple meanings is something a good writer can do. But use of those layered words might not have a direct translation into another language - another word that has layers.

rhhardin said...

(Google Chouraqui wiki, go to references for Chouraqui translation, give that link to google translate)

mockturtle said...

This would pertain only to the OT, as the NT was translated from Greek and Aramaic.

At any rate, Christ is the message in both the Old and New Testaments.

tim maguire said...

rhhardin said...

2. the earth was hustle and bustle,

I like that. The earth is hustle and bustle.

Lexington Green said...

Alter’s translations read very well, and his introductions and notes are helpful and fascinating. I read his Exodus with some friends and it was very good as literature and spiritual reading, though I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the translation!

Chris of Rights said...

Christian bias.

Just stop and think about that phrase for a moment.

The KJV is a Christian Bible. Is it even possible for it to show a Christian bias? And if it is, is that truly a problem?

I grew up with the KJV. I went through RCIA some years ago and am now Catholic, and use the New American Bible now (NAB). I find the NAB easier to read, but the parts missing from the KJV annoy me.

Ficta said...

I read Alter's translation of the first five books. It's really good. I've bought a couple of the other volumes but haven't had time to read them yet. Wonderful to hear he's finished it.

Quayle said...

I agree. Another translation of the Bible is always welcome. But the Old Testiment is as much about Christ as is the New. So I also agree that claims of a Christian bias are themselves biased.

TreeJoe said...

I'm a Christian, raised as one and one today - albeit loosely practicing.

One of the fatal flaws of modern church theology (I'm saying that agnostic to specific doctrine) is that the bible is the infallible word of God. There are currently 6 most common versions of the Bible and well over 1,000 translations. There are versions containing 66 books and there are versions containing 80 books.

And here we have a man dedicated to God spending a good portion of his adult life trying to improve upon one of the most popular versions ever printed.

There is a difference between faith and refusing to acknowledge that such variates cannot co-exist with infallibility.

Sydney said...

My favorite translation is the Revised Standard Version, but I'm willing to give this version a try, at least for the Old Testament. How does ancient Hebrew compare to modern Hebrew? Is it as ancient Greek is to modern Greek? I assume this translator is knowledgeable in ancient Hebrew, but how knowledgeable?

James K said...

One of the most damaging mistranslations was “Thou shalt not kill” when the Hebrew word means “murder.” Nothing wrong with capital punishment or eating tasty animals, obviously.

mockturtle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James K said...

“How does ancient Hebrew compare to modern Hebrew? Is it as ancient Greek is to modern Greek?”

Much more similar, probably analogous to us reading Shakespeare. An Israeli would have no trouble reading and understanding the OT. The main differences are some verb tenses, and idioms.

Fr. Denis Lemieux said...

I am somewhat amused by the excerpts of the article posted here (I admit, I did not click through to the NYT). There seems to be an idea that nothing has been done in the area of English translations of Scripture since the King James Version. Whereas... well, there's the RSV, the NRSV, the NAB, the NEB, the NIV, the Jerusalem, the New Jerusalem... and that's just off the top of my head. I suspect there are others. All of which take into account the nuances of Hebrew and Greek that Alter mentions here. Personally, I am skeptical of any translation done by one person alone, as their own biases are almost inevitably going to be reflected in the result. Scripture translation (an inherently difficult job on multiple levels) may well be the only human activity best done by a committee.

Anonymous said...

ST: I saw it this morning and thought: "What worse source for this kind of article than a newspaper that loathes Christianity?"

The article is specifically about English-language translation of the texts of the Hebrew Bible as the *Hebrew* Bible, as texts of the Jewish tradition, not as texts of the Christian Old Testament. So the NYT's Christian-loathing for the most part doesn't intrude.

Not that you can get through it with out stumbling on one or two annoying NYT-isms* (that would be too much to ask), but it's an interesting read; makes me want to check out Alter's translation.

*E.g., "...known in English as the Old Testament, a name that still carries a pejorative edge, positioning those books as the primitive precursors to the enlightened New Testament..." Yes, toots, Christians have a different relation to those texts than Jews. To them, it *is* the "Old Testament". Yes, I know that Christians actually believing in their own religion is considered unacceptable (pejorative, anti-Semitic, whatever) to some people. Tough. Get over it.)

Henry said...

A translation is not the text, but something different is gained. It's kind of like the concept of Dharma state:

Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot become firewood again. However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before. We should know that firewood dwells in the Dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after.... Ash stays in the position of ash, with its own before and after.

That's from a commentary on Dōgen's Sansuikyo by Shohaku Okumara. The translation is by Carl Bielefeldt. In the introduction, Okumara talks about how Dōgen studied buddhism in China, translated Chinese texts into Japanese, reinterpreted those texts in the process, then presented his reinterpretation in poetic language, unique even for 13th century Japan.

Okumara is quite happy with the ambiguity of all this:

Transition from one culture to another is very interesting. Something very stupid could happen, and yet something very creative could happen too. We are in the process of that transition here as well; I am thinking in Japanese and writing in English, so I'm not sure whether what I am writing is the same as what I am thinking.

Otto said...

Whenever AA (atheist Althouse) references the Holy Bible or Christianity it is for ridicule and never for instruction. It is part and parcel of a life-long deconstructionalist.

James K said...

“Personally, I am skeptical of any translation done by one person alone, as their own biases are almost inevitably going to be reflected in the result.“

Yes, translation involves interpretation. There are always ambiguities. In the Jewish tradition there is even a debate about the opening sentence: “In the beginning, God created...” versus “When God began to create....” But that’s true of a committee too.

iowan2 said...

A lot of our "religion" is tied up in translation. This is something I learned when our church had a pastor with a doctorate in religion. He could speak and write, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Being able to do that, he was able to delve into something like the word 'nefresh', form his own translation, building on his biblical knowledge, gained from reading early writings, before they were translated through three or more languages. Many of the commonly quoted biblical passages have subtle new depths of meaning where the English words used, are dismantled against the the old translations the King James translation were taken from. This is a source of some of my growth in spirituality. Being handcuffed by a certain churches interpretation of scripture, to align with a predetermined narrative, leave God out of a lot of religion.

robother said...

Fascinating. A real shame that virtually no one outside of divinity schools is acquainted with any of these texts; our common language and references is poorer every generation.

As I recall, the Greek word "psyche" (now meaning mind and formerly soul) is similarly ambiguous--its oldest meaning suggested as "breath" or "final breath."

Quayle said...

“Scripture translation (an inherently difficult job on multiple levels) may well be the only human activity best done by a committee.”

I have to suggest the even Committee is insufficient. A proper translation can only be done by one or more persons who have the same spirit of revelation that animated the original prophet writer.

Scholarly attainment means nothing. Joseph and Daniel didn’t interpret the dreams because they had studied stuff. The things of God are cannot be known except by the Spirit of God.

Anonymous said...


Christian bias.

Just stop and think about that phrase for a moment.

He's not talking about the Christian Bible. He's talking about the subset of texts of the Bible that are not exclusively Christian.

It helps to read the article.

Fernandinande said...

Ash cannot become firewood again.

Yes it can. That might be a nice example of translating nonsense into different nonsense.

Ron Winkleheimer said...

What makes this translation superior to the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation? Or any other modern translation done from the Jewish theological perspective?

Ron Winkleheimer said...

positioning those books as the primitive precursors to the enlightened New Testament.

Always remember, journalists are dumb rich kids who couldn't get into law school.

EAB said...

Count me as one who loves to look at different translations (I rarely use KJV). My main is ESV, which I find the best midpoint between accuracy and beauty of language (in Job, it translates as “neck” not “soul”). Precision of translation loses something if the poetic beauty of the writing is lost. The Bible should speak to us inwardly, and we tend to respond to beauty more than precision. So, Alter’s translation sounds like an interesting and welcome addition to the canon.

Lewis Wetzel said...

The OT should be more difficult to translate than the NT. The OT was written for speakers of Hebrew. The NT was written for everyone.
A selection from the Psalms, translated by the poets Alan Sullivan and Seree Cohen Zohar:
Alan Sullivan passed away in 2010. I was privileged to call him a friend.

William said...

When it comes to hymns, I give Alison Krauss the nod over Leonard Cohen. There's something like affirming in the way she sings them. I like Leonard Cohen, but there's not much comfort in his religious music........ The KJV has the advantage of having been done by people who actually believed in the majesty of God and feltt awe in His presence. They had the kind of faith in God that the original writers of the Bible felt. We are all of us these days post Newtonian, post ironic, post everything in our beliefs. Is it possible to achieve a better translation but leave out the majesty of God?

rhhardin said...

Babel is about the impossibility of translation.

The word itself means confusion. That couldn't be translated as both a name and a common noun.

Gahrie said...

Its Christian bias,'re telling me the foundational texts of Christianity are biased towards Christians?!? Burn them!!!

As for inaccuracies, the argument made is that the translators were inspired by God, and did his biding. I've read a Bible in which God is assumed to be a woman, and is referred to that way. Jefferson wrote a version of the Bible with the miracles taken out. You find the Bible that speaks to you.

That being said, I used to watch a man named Gene Scott on TV every week that would go back to the Aramaic and Hebrew to support his personal translation of the Bible. It was fascinating to me, even as an atheist and later a deist.

tam said...

The comments made earlier that point out the multitude of newer English translations since the KJV are spot on. There are still some who stick to the KJV as the "authorized" version. But most of us Evangelicals see it as an "historical document" mostly. We joke, "If the KJV was good enough for Saint Paul, then it's good enough for me!"

But we do honor it and the men who created it. It was a magnificent achievement. Yes, later translations improve upon it. But they all have the advantage of more source material, later scholarship and study. For those men to have produced as good a translation as they did back in 1611 is amazing.

MadTownGuy said...

Looks intriguing. I have been revisiting Msgr. Knox's translation which seems to capture the poetry well though I have to slog through the Briticisms a bit. Found here:

Knox Bible

Two-eyed Jack said...

Gahrie, I loved watching Gene Scott!

Yancey Ward said...

He will never get votes from Democrats to sit on the Supreme Court.

Two-eyed Jack said...

In 1975 a local Evangelical minister in Tallahassee FL made national news by burning rock and roll records, so I went to a service with some friends from high school. They sang a song about how we should stick to the KJV, because now people were trying to translate God out of the Bible. Later they stomped on some records, but the congregation was running out of R&R, so they stomped on Merle Haggard records as well.

YoungHegelian said...

Its Christian bias, in theologically freighted words like 'soul,' can be a distraction.

Ah, yes, the modern liberal Jewish (in the religious sense) pretense that the Septuagint was a translation by Christians, and thus can be safely ignored.

Nope. Nope Nope. The Septuagint was done by Alexandrian Jews in from the mid 3rd to the 2nd C BCE. No Christians involved at all. It was 2nd C Alexandrian Jews who translated nefesh as pysche, and it is with them, not the Church Fathers, that Alter & the NYT should take up their cudgels.

Of course, it's part and parcel of the intellectual arrogance here that Alter is sure he knows this stuff better than a bunch of Alexandrian Jews from 2200 years ago. The only problem is --- there are very good reasons to assume that those Alexandrian Jews had much better manuscript resources to draw on than we do. The surviving manuscripts for the Hebrew Bible are appallingly late, as in early Medieval late. That's why when they recently found a manuscript of Isaiah among the Dead Sea Scrolls there was such rejoicing among Old Testament scholars --- it is by far the oldest surviving OT manuscript in Hebrew.

Michael said...

I think I'd go with "core" and "to my core" in most cases. "Neck" makes sense where he used it.

narciso said...

no they really don't know anything at all, the miracles are not important in and of themselves, but they confirm the prophesies of Isiah, were did Jefferson think he was going to find records of events in a little colonial outpost like Palestine, it is only in the works of Tacitus and Josephus as well as Pliny does the presence of Christians really manifest,

YoungHegelian said...

Sometimes, I gotta admit the KJV just knocks it outta the park in the beauty of its language. For example, Phil 4:4-8 in the American Standard Version:

Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice. Let your forbearance be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. In nothing be anxious; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.

Compare this to the KJV:

Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.

Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.

Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.

And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

I'd go so far as to claim that the KJV of this passage is an improvement over the Greek, but that's just me.

rcocean said...

I've never been a fan of the OT.

Endless stories about King David and who begot who. Who cares?.

I'm not sure why translating the "Hebrew Poetry" more accurately into English is an improvement.

But if it makes some people happy, why not.

narciso said...

well the story of david makes him relatable, a boy who became a great warrior, and had a great fall, then repented, it's hard to think of a similar person in the current era, perhaps john profumo, in the last elements,

rcocean said...

using the word Kill in "Thou Shalt not Kill" was a big mistake.

I can't tell you how many Dumbo's I've know that would say "How can we wage war, or execute murderers, when the Bible tells us "Thou shalt not kill"?

I assume in 1600 England, "Kill" had a specific meaning that excluded capital punishment or waging war - or was so obvious it didn't need to be identified as murder.

rcocean said...

I remember telling my Sunday school teacher, after getting stories about King David, and Bathsheba, and King Solomon, and Exodus, etc.

When do we get to the religion part? Y'know about heaven, hell, Jesus, etc.

I think she underestimated us

James K said...

Alexandrian Jews had much better manuscript resources to draw on than we do.

And presumably better knowledge of Hebrew. In fact, though I'm no biblical scholar my understanding is that we only know the meaning of some of the more obscure OT Hebrew because of the Septuagint.

narciso said...

I explained David's role, he is also in the genealogy of jesus, but it shows how human behavior has not changed in the last 4,000 years,

Molly said...


It's been known for a long, long time that the King James has many inaccuracies. However, in terms of language, it is by far -- BY FAR -- the most beautiful version in English.

See GOD'S SECRETARIES: The Making of the King James Bible , or

The Shadow of a Great Rock: A literary appreciation of the King James Bible by Harold Bloom

Ron Winkleheimer said...

I've never been a fan of the OT.

Endless stories about King David and who begot who. Who cares?.

Your kidding, right? The Old Testament shows that you don't have to be perfect to follow God, and that you are going to fail, but God will still love you. Israel's history is a continuous cycle of it turning its face from God, experiencing a crisis, asking God to rescue them, which He does, and then turning from Him again. Israel is a metaphor for Christians. Christ and His disciples quote extensively from the OT. They thought it was important.

"All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the faith and correcting error, for re-setting the direction of a man’s life and training him in good living. The scriptures are the comprehensive equipment of the man of God and fit him fully for all branches of his work."

2 Timothy 3:16

That was written before there was a New Testament

Char Char Binks, Esq. said...

As far as I can tell, nefesh pretty much just means life. Spirit is Greek for "breath", and when you put that together with a body, anatomy plus physiology, you have life, anima, and in some animals, including humans, consciousness.

These are simply pre-scientific understandings of nature, and they're actually not far from reality, although their meanings have been somewhat lost in translation.

The Godfather said...

If you want to understand the Christian scriptures, you need to be familiar with the Jewish scriptures. Most of the Christian Bible consists of Jewish writings. In the NRSV I keep next to my desk, there are 1,237 pp of Old Testament (Jewish), 361 pp of Apocrypha (also Jewish), and 367 pp of New Testament. In the New Testament, when Jesus and his followers refer to “the scriptures” (which they do constantly) they can only mean the Jewish scriptures. They were almost certainly referring to the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint, to which Young Hegelian and perhaps others referred above.

The translation issues being discussed here are interesting, and even enlightening (such as the question of “soul” in Jonah), but as far as I can tell they don’t have a significant effect on our understanding of the Christian scriptures. Even if some modern scholars conclude that the Septuagint got some Hebrew-to-Greek translation issue wrong, that erroneous translation would still be the “right” one for understanding the early Christian writings in the New Testament.

YoungHegelian said...

@James K,

In fact, though I'm no biblical scholar my understanding is that we only know the meaning of some of the more obscure OT Hebrew because of the Septuagint.

There are also words in the Septuagint, such as among the list of unclean animals in Leviticus, or "build an Ark of Gopher Wood", which are simply transliterations from Hebrew to Greek, meaning that the meaning of the Hebrew was lost even by the 2nd C BCE.

There's scholarly dispute now as to when Hebrew got "displaced" by Aramaic & then Koine Greek, since it seems from the Dead Sea Scrolls that there remained at least limited communities that spoke a vulgar version of Hebrew even up to the 1st C CE. The standard scholarly line was that the displacement occurs during & after the Babylonian Captivity (6th C BCE). But it's clear that some aspects of the Hebrew Tanakh were problematic even to the Jews of the inter-testamental period.

Rosalyn C. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rosalyn C. said...

I'm also reluctant to accept the interpretation of Jewish text and theology by a secular academic scholar rather than a Jewish Torah scholar. Frankly I think what Dr. Alter says about the nefesh or soul is incorrect and unhelpful. Here's a lecture on the topic by renowned Rabbi Manis Friedman, "The Soul and the Afterlife: Where Do We Go From Here?" delivered at an annual Torah convention of the foremost international Jewish leaders.

Char Char Binks, Esq. said...

"build an Ark of Gopher Wood"

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a gopher would chuck wood?

narciso said...

Isiah is strongly relied on in the gospels, but one finds interesting references to jesus coming going back to Joshua and even farther back,

narciso said...

for example before the siege of Jericho, Joshua has an encounter, that prefigures what will happen a millenia later,

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The KJV should be reserved for ceremonial usage at this point, because it is deeply part of English-speaking culture these last 400 years. It's phrasing and cadence are familiar, and it has the added advantage of keeping many words and word-orders alive that would likely slip under the waves, making us less able to understand the words of our ancestors even in secular matters. It works - for holidays, weddings, funerals, literary allusions.

But as a translation, it is no longer that good, for the reasons given. While there is a strain of Protestantism that still insists on it, that is a rearguard action more tied to cultural familiarity, with little scholarship behind it. When people talk about traditional Christianity, they are sometimes thinking of their childhood and their grandparents than the 2000 year actual traditions of the church.

rhhardin said...

Thou art Peter and thou shalt pick pecks of pickled peppers. - Mary Ann Madden contest

Two-eyed Jack said...

Wycliffe translated Exodus 20:13 as "Thou schalt not sle."

That is "slay" in modern spelling.

hombre said...

We will owe a great debt to “preeminent” Alter since there have been no other translations since the KJV. Right? Lol.

JackOfClubs said...

Nothing wrong with putting "neck" in that translation; other versions do the same, including the New English Translation and the Christian Standard Bible. The argument from Hebrew parallelism is weak though. Sometimes Hebrew poetry highlights parallels, but it often also focuses on contrasts. It is perfectly plausible that the author meant to say that both body and soul were in peril.

However that may be, I don't see how the choice of "soul" indicates "Christian bias" in the KJV. Earlier translations, such as the Latin Vulgate ("anima") and the Greek Septuagint ("psyche"), use cognates for the English "soul". The Vulgate was indeed produced in the Christian era, but the Septuagint predates the birth of Jesus by at least a century.