Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Bible Translation, Part Two: From Septuagint to Syriac to Masoretic


In Part One we talked about the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures – the ‘old’ testament – that began while the Bible was still being written. Within a few generations of Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem in 607 B.C.E., many Jews living outside of Israel could no longer read or even understand Hebrew. It seems likely that some bilingual Jews may have rewritten the Hebrew Scriptures into other languages their fellow exiles could read, though the rabbis disapproved and so far no ancient examples have been found.

The job of metergaman, translator, came into existence. These men would stand and read from the Hebrew scrolls, giving an on-the-spot oral translation of the reading into Aramaic. Where his reading was still not clearly understood the metergaman would add his own commentary to try to clarify it. Their explanatory speeches were called targums. Initially, the rabbis of those days frowned on writing down targums. Some time after the Jewish rabbis reluctantly gave in to Ptolemy’s edict that the Hebrew Scriptures be officially translated into Greek (the Septuagint), the targums with all their (uninspired) commentary also began to be written down, in Aramaic.

In some cases the commentary helped. In other cases, it added details that may (or may not) be true. For example, the Hebrew descriptions of the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy compartment of the tabernacle, and later in Solomon’s temple, include a Hebrew word that could be transliterated ‘shekinah’.

The targums explained shekinah as a miraculous light above the ark that illuminated the Most Holy so the high priest could see what he was doing. But the word actually means simply ‘dwelling’ or ‘presence’; it has no connection with “light”. So most accurate Bibles render it, for example, “I will present myself to you there and speak with you from above the cover. From between the two cherubs that are on the ark…” (Exodus 25:22)

 So was there a miraculous light in the Most Holy? Perhaps. But the bible doesn’t explicitly say so.

An eastern dialect of Aramaic was called Syriac. It came into wide use a couple hundred years after Christianity began. The Syriac Peshitta (an Aramaic word meaning “plain” or “simple”) text was the next translation project after the Greek Septuagint. Syriac Peshitta translations were whole Bibles, not merely the Hebrew Scriptures. They were created by Christian translators. Most of the oldest complete ones found so far date back to about the 5th century, but there is extensive evidence that there were earlier ones. The Old Testament portion was translated directly from Hebrew, no doubt annoying some of the rabbis. Some manuscripts give evidence that their translators also consulted the Greek Septuagint. The New Testament portion of the Peshitta was translated from Greek copies of the originals; then, later, from Latin translations.

For about 400 years starting in the sixth century, Jewish copyists of the Hebrew Scriptures began following a series of traditions that came to be called Masora, ‘preserving tradition.’ The Masoretes copied ancient Hebrew scrolls. The oldest existing Masoretic text is the Leningrad codex, dating from around 1100 C.E.

The Masoretes developed grammatical rules, and they invented signs to be written under and around the Hebrew characters to explain pronunciation. They made mathematical notations in the margins to make sure their copies were exact replicas of the originals, marking the center line on a page, even the center letter in a line. They made note of where the text had been altered by earlier copyists. Some of the most common of these errors were where earlier copyists believed this or that phrase that contained Jehovah’s name was somehow disrespectful of Jehovah – and the earlier copyists had replaced ‘Jehovah’ with ‘Lord’, or had even changed the meaning of the sentence to throw a more positive light on Jehovah. The Masoretes carefully noted these changes. 

However, by the time of the Masoretes, the rabbis had already begun spreading the unscriptural tradition of never speaking Jehovah’s name, so the Masoretes seem to have used vowel symbols from either Adonai (Lord) or Elohim (God) to remind anyone reading aloud to say the alternate word.

A very early all-Greek Bible known as the Codex Alexandrinus was removed (from Alexandria, Egypt) by the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church and gifted to the king of England in the early 1600s. Unfortunately, it arrived about a dozen years after the King James was completed. The Alexandrinus dates to the early 400s C.E.

In 1846 a scholar named von Tischendorf discovered in a monastery in Egypt a complete Greek New Testament that has been dated to around 350 C.E. More recent finds of Greek manuscripts predate even that, with the earliest so far found being a fragment of John 18 that may date to 150 C.E. or even earlier, a mere 50 years after John wrote the original!

In 1892 twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson trekked by camel to a monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai. They weren’t simply tourists. Between them, the ladies knew 12 languages! They had heard there was an extensive ancient library at the monastery. Ultimately, they found a Syriac book that dated to the late 4th century. It contained the four gospels. Today it is called the Sinaitic Syriac.

In 1933 archaeologists found a Greek manuscript that proved to be a ‘harmony’ of the four gospels. It is positively dated to earlier than 256 C.E., since it was buried in the debris of the Syrian city they were excavating that was destroyed in that year.

The value of Syriac Peshittas and other early manuscripts is seen in passages such as 1 John 5:7. Many Bibles translated later from Latin render that, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” The older Syriac versions that have been found prove these words were not in the original: they were added by later Bible translators to bolster their false belief in the trinity. The discoveries of older manuscripts, particularly after the great surge in research that began in the 1800s, made spurious texts stand out like a sore thumb.

After or alongside Greek, Syriac and Latin, the Bible was quickly translated into other languages. 

“Wherever Christianity spread, translations of the Hebrew Scriptures were made based on the Septuagint. Thus, it became the basis for translations made into Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Georgian, Old Latin, and Old Church Slavonic,”  according to Hebrew scholar Emanuel Tov, head of the Dead Sea Scrolls publication team.

An English Bible was actually pretty late to the game. We’ll get to that in Part Three. 

Feel free to leave a polite comment. To read Part One, click here.  

 Bill K. Underwood is the author of several novels and one non-fiction self-help book, all available at You can help support this page by purchasing a book.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

The complex history of Bible translation


“The only real Bible is the King James!”

People have strong opinions about Bible translation. Many have a favorite. Some practically worship one translation over another. Others hold that translating the Bible at all is wrong.

When some Mormon boys came to my door – without Bibles – I handed them one of mine to answer my question about the scriptural foundation of their work. They refused, until I gave them a KJV.

“Why only that one?” I asked.

“Because it’s authorized!” one of the boys replied. And he was serious… (Just to be clear, the King James is also called the Authorized Version. But it was "authorized" by King James. Pretty sure he wasn't a Mormon.)

There is no question that there are some bad translations of the Bible. But there are plenty of good ones. There's no ‘perfect’ translation of the Bible in English. Some are better than others, but none is perfect.

Whether you believe the Bible or not, at one time mankind all spoke the same language. (You can read more about that in the column I wrote about the history of language, here.) In the Bible account, the job of Translator became a necessity about 4,000 years ago, shortly after God himself confused people’s languages to force their compliance when they rebelled against his order to spread out. (Genesis 11:1-9)

When Abraham entered the land of Canaan, there’s no mention of a language barrier; hundreds of years later, when the spies sent into the Promised Land interacted with Rahab in Jericho there was likewise no communication problem – perhaps her Canaanite people had adopted the Semitic language of the locals when they moved in.

When God brought his chosen people, Israel, out of Egypt, most if not all had kept their native Hebrew language, so that a Psalmist centuries later could say that the Israelites considered Egyptian a “foreign language”. (Psalm 114:1) The Israelites used Hebrew among themselves and Egyptian to communicate with their masters. When the family of Israel became the nation of Israel, Jehovah’s warning to them about obedience included language: ‘God will raise against you a distant nation, whose language you will not understand.’ (Deuteronomy 28:49) 

The language of the “distant nation” turned out to be the Chaldean language of Babylon. For Daniel and the other young Israelite men who were taken captive there, learning Chaldean was one of their first tasks. (Daniel 1:4) Aramaic was also spoken there, a holdover from the previous world power, Assyria.

In about 538 B.C.E., the account about Daniel in the lion’s den says that King Darius of Babylon, “wrote to all the peoples, nations, and language groups dwelling throughout the earth: “… in every domain of my kingdom, people are to tremble in fear before the God of Daniel. For he is the living God and he endures forever. His kingdom will never be destroyed, and his rulership is eternal.” (Daniel 6:25, 26) Darius became one of the first to spread a message about Jehovah in multiple languages.

A generation after Daniel, when Nehemiah directed that the Scriptures be read publicly in Hebrew, (Nehemiah 8:8) the account says the Levite readers, ‘explained and put meaning into them.’ That included explaining the more complex texts, but that also likely meant paraphrasing the passages in Aramaic for those listeners who struggled with the Hebrew language.

Fast forward another century and Alexander the Great was blitzing across the known world, quickly making Greek the most common language. Jewish historian Josephus told this story about Alexander the Great’s visit to Jerusalem: 

“When the book of Daniel was shown to him, in which he had declared that one of the Greeks would destroy the empire of the Persians, he believed himself to be the one indicated.”

It’s unlikely Alexander read Hebrew; The Jews would have had to read it to him, translating it into Greek so he could understand it.

After Alexander died suddenly the kingdom of Greece was split into four parts, each part going to one of his four generals, just as the prophecy said. (Daniel 11:2-4)

Ptolemy II, the son of one of those generals described in Daniel 11, inherited the throne of pharaoh in Egypt. He built the greatest library the world had ever seen in Alexandria, the seaport built by Alexander. It was said to have housed up to 400,000 papyrus scrolls, and drew the greatest scholars in the world. Every scroll on every ship that pulled into harbor was seized, no matter the subject - even scrolls in languages unknown to the copyists. They were copied, and the copy was returned to the ship. The original became part of the library. Alexandria became the hub of copying and translating in the ancient world.

Alexandria was a city of over half a million people, a third of whom were Jewish, descendants of those Jews who fled there when Babylon destroyed Jerusalem. (Jeremiah 43:6,7; Acts 6:9)

Ptolemy II commissioned a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. He brought 72 Jewish scholars – six from each tribe, according to legend – to Alexandria for the translation project.  The finished product is called the Septuagint, based on the word for “seventy”.

One important word that appeared in the Hebrew text nearly 7,000 times had to be dealt with: God’s name, in Hebrew, consists of the four letters, YHWH.  It's called the tetragrammaton. Hebrew reads right-to-left, so if transliterated it looked more like יהוה (HWHY).

Contrary to popular belief those Jewish scholars had no superstitions about God's name. That didn't come along until several hundred years later. So far, more than 10 early Greek Septuagint manuscripts and fragments have been found which have the Hebrew characters יהוה in the Greek text wherever the Hebrew original had Jehovah. Some use the more familiar squarish-Hebrew characters shown above, from the alphabet the Jews evidently borrowed from Babylon. Others insert the tetragrammaton in the older paleo-Hebrew (Canaanite) alphabet that looks like this:

Some of the Greek texts leave a blank space where the tetragrammaton should be. It isn't known today whether the intention was for a different scholar to fill in the blank, or whether it was intended to stay blank. There are even some examples of something the Latin translator Jerome commented on in a letter to someone named Marcella:

In a letter written at Rome, 384 C.E., Jerome relates that, when coming upon these Hebrew letters of the Tetragrammaton (יהוה) in copies of the Septuagint, "certain ignorant ones, because of the similarity of the characters…were accustomed to pronounce Pi Pi, mistaking them for the Greek characters." (πιπι)

Jerome did the world a huge disservice: He knew God’s name; He could read Hebrew; He had access to Hebrew Scrolls of the Old Testament in which he saw יהוה nearly 7000 times. But he didn't come up with an adequate translation of the tetragrammaton. It's true that by his day the Jewish rabbis had begun spreading the superstition about not saying God's name out loud, but why should that bother Jerome? He wasn't Jewish. 

There had to have been Jews who could have told him the most common way Hebrew-speaking people pronounced יהוה

There likewise had to have been bilingual Hebrew/Greek speakers who had come up with ways to pronounce God's name in Greek. Yet, when Jerome wrote his Latin Vulgate version, he chose to translate יהוה as "Dominus", Lord, or "Deus", Latin for 'God', little different from words applied to all the hundreds of Roman gods, who all had distinctive names.

Perhaps it never occurred to him that Bible scholars would still be relying on his text a thousand years later.

Ultimately, what difference does it make? We’ll get to that in Part Two.

Click here to read another of my columns on Bible translation. 

 Feel free to leave a polite comment. 

Bill K. Underwood is the author of several novels and one non-fiction self-help book, all available at You can help support this page by purchasing a book.


Saturday, January 13, 2024

WWIII part 3: Hamas, Houthi, Hezbollah

At least I’m not the only one calling it World War Three anymore. I’m starting to see WWIII headlines across major media outlets.

There are so many bad things happening all at once right now, we might get ‘news-fatigue’ and fail to see the signs of the times.

In the past few days the U.S. and the U.K. have attacked more than 60 different targets in the country of Yemen, to Israel’s south. The targets were said to be support sites for the Houthi rebels in their attacks on American and other shipping in the Red Sea. Nearly all the targets contained ammunition, drones, and missiles supplied to the Houthis by Iran.

Who are the Houthis, and what are they doing in Yemen?

The Houthis are Shia Muslims. (Islam is split into two major factions – Shia and Sunni. They don’t get along, but they are united in hatred of Israel.) Houthi rebels overthrew the (Sunni) Yemeni government in 2014, with the help of Shia-led Iran. Sunni-run countries like Saudi Arabia have been trying to reinstate the proper government of Yemen ever since, so far to no avail.

By attacking the Houthis on Yemeni soil, the U.S. and U.K. and their allies are attacking Iran by proxy.

Meanwhile, South Africa has formally brought charges against Israel in the U.N. for war crimes associated with their attacks on Hamas-led Gaza. Turkey has backed South Africa’s charges. 

The day after Hamas’ latest attack on Israel, Hezbollah began firing guided missiles and drones from Lebanon to Israel’s north, into Israel. Israel retaliated in kind, firing at Hezbollah targets within Lebanon They have killed hundreds of Hezbollah, in addition to the tens of thousands they have killed in Gaza. (The actual government of Lebanon doesn’t approve of Hezbollah, but claims it can’t stop them and isn’t responsible for them.)

Like the Houthis, Hezbollah is backed by Iran. Unlike the Houthis, the Hezbollah threat is vast – they are believed to have 150,000 missiles aimed at Israel.

Powerful as Israel is, they are unlikely to be able to succeed against Hamas, Houthis, and Hezbollah without help. The U.S. had to recall an aircraft carrier from the Mediterranean after its mission had been extended twice due to the Ukraine war and other threats. With the new troubles, they moved a different aircraft carrier into the Red Sea. Iran claims they, too, have moved their carrier to the Red Sea.

Meanwhile, the war between Russia and Ukraine may have left the headlines, but it has not gone away. The ‘clay and iron’ problem in the U.S. government has delayed funding for Ukraine and hindered funding for Israel. Once-neutral Sweden, waiting for acceptance into NATO, has vowed to increase military spending, is urging its citizens to start preparing for war, and is encouraging its youth to volunteer for military service.

And on the other side of the world from all of that, Venezuela has decided to move its border and grab about half of the country of its neighbor Guyana, after gold and oil were discovered there. That should be a local squabble except that Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America, has asked the U.K. for help. And Britain responded that they will “ensure Guyana’s territorial integrity” no matter what. They now have a British warship standing off the coast. Venezuela in turn accused the British of destabilizing the area.  

So, for those of you keeping score at home:

The King of the North - Russia, Iran, and their allies - is shoving against the King of the South - America, Britain, Israel, and their allies. However it works out, perhaps we’ll hear ‘Peace and Security!’ when it’s over. (Daniel 2:43; Daniel 11:40; 1 Thessalonians 5:3)

 You can read Part One of this series by clicking here. You can read Part Two here.

Your polite comments are welcome. 
 Bill K. Underwood is the author of several novels and one non-fiction self-help book, all available at You can help support this page by purchasing a book.