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, but most also had to have spoken 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 surviving 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 thus 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 Latin 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 have bothered 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 site by purchasing a book.