Book excerpt

And God Said

How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning

Dr. Joel M. Hoffman

St. Martin's Press


Getting Started



"If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me."

That quip by Miriam Amanda "Ma" Ferguson to her Texas constituents last century actually reflects a common attitude toward the Bible. While of course most people know that it wasn’t originally written in English, they also think that the ancient text is conveyed pretty accurately in the familiar English quotations: "The Lord is my shepherd . . .," "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth . . .," "Thou shalt not covet . . .," "Let my people go . . .," and so forth. Most people think they know what the Bible says because they’ve read it in English.

But they’re wrong.

Sometimes the familiar English is just misleading, obscuring the focus of the original or misrepresenting an ancient nuance. Other times, the mistakes are more substantial. But the errors are significant and widespread.

This book is a straightforward exploration of where things went awry, how we can recover the original meaning of the Bible, and what we learn from better translations. As we work toward answers, we’ll travel a fascinating path that meanders through history, metaphor, sociology, ethics, the law, and even such obscure topics as zoology and Babylonian mathematics, in addition to our primary tools of linguistics and translation theory. Modern linguistics will guide our understanding of ancient Hebrew, and translation theory will help us render what we understand in English.

Because the familiar English translations are, well, familiar, we’ll use them as a reference point, looking at where they succeed and, perhaps more importantly, where they fail, starting with an appreciation of the magnitude of the problem.

The majority of English translations stem from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV), first published about four hundred years ago. Named for King James of England, who commissioned it in 1604, the KJV is a literary classic, a volume so central that, like Shakespeare’s works, it helped shape the very language in which it was written. But a lot has happened since the early 1600s. English has changed over four centuries. Our understanding of the past has improved. And advances in translation theory and linguistics have opened new doors into antiquity.

Like medieval scholars trying to understand Egypt without carbon dating, or a doctor two hundred years ago trying to fathom the Black Plague, Bible translators throughout most of history have been working blind, struggling—though of course they did not know it—without the numerous benefits of twenty-first century knowledge.

Some people initially don’t like the idea of mixing modernity and the Bible, because, as they correctly point out, the Bible isn’t modern. Nor, they observe, is the Bible scientific, and they therefore wonder why a book like this one introduces linguistics, history, archaeology, and other modern approaches as we probe the Bible. But the matter is more nuanced than that. Even though the prophets who commented on the Five Books of Moses were unaware of modern literary theory, for example, we can still use that framework to help us understand what the prophets were doing and how they wrote. For that matter, they may not even have known about the rhetorical devices they used in the poetry, but we can nonetheless use our modern understanding to understand their ancient work.

We might compare the situation to that of a Renoir painting found languishing in a garage somewhere. Even though the painting is a nonscientific work of art, we’d use science to determine its authenticity. And if it were authentic, we’d use more science to clean it up and to recover as much of the original as possible. Depending on the state of the painting, we might want cleansing agents, infrared photography, or even a complete reconstruction. These modern nonartistic steps would restore the older art. Similarly, modern science, rather than turning the Bible into what it was not, helps us retrieve what it was.

Because the KJV is so widely used, and because it has been so central in English translations of the Bible, we’ll start by looking at that translation more closely. When we do, we’ll find three main sorts of shortcomings. The first problem is that English has changed in 400 years. The second is that the authors misunderstood some of the Hebrew, so they didn’t always appreciate the meaning of some parts of the Bible. And third, their conception of translation was seriously flawed, so that even when they did understand the Hebrew, they were not always able to convey it properly in English.

These problems are not limited to the KJV. They afflict other translations, too. The proportions differ, with more modern versions from last century offering (obviously) more modern English but frequently and surprisingly sometimes doing an even poorer job of translation. First things first, though. Let’s look at the KJV and see how it actually blurs and distorts the meaning and beauty of the Bible.


Not surprisingly, the English of the twenty-first century differs from that of the seventeenth century.

Some of the changes in English are obvious, such as the verbs in "Abraham clave the wood for the burnt offering" (modern English demands "cleaved" or, better, "split"), "The LORD God of heaven . . . which spake unto me and that sware unto me" ("spoke" and "swore"), or "God hath shewed Pharaoh what he is about to do" ("has" and "shown"). Similarly, the fifth plague in Egypt is called "a very grievous murrain" ("murrain" is a disease of cattle and sheep) and the sixth "blains upon man" ("boils," perhaps), both times using terminology that modern readers find foreign. Isaiah 31:3 warns, "He that is holpen shall fall down" ("helped").

While these obsolete words give the modern reader the mistaken impression that the Bible, too, is obsolete, they also red-flag their own shortcomings. Words like "clave," "blains," and "holpen"—and many more like them—don’t mean anything in modern English. So they don’t convey the wrong meaning of the Hebrew so much as they sometimes fail to convey any meaning at all.

Other changes in English are more subtle and insidious, because the older words still exist in modern English but with different meanings. The KJV translation "I shall not want" had nothing to do with desire but rather with lacking, so "I will lack nothing" is the real point. Moses is called "meek," but to indicate humility, not powerlessness. The "vail under the taches" that adorns the Tabernacle might now be called a "curtain." (And "taches" are clasps.) On its face, Proverbs 28:21 seems odd: "To have respect of persons is not good." But "respect" meant "to be partial," and the point was to avoid favoritism.

Similar changes include "let," as from Isaiah 43:13, "[God] works; who can let it?" The text there uses "let" not in the modern sense of "allow" but, rather, its opposite, "hinder" (a term preserved in tennis but otherwise rare nowadays). "Prevent" (from the Latin praevenire) used to mean "go before" or "precede," which is why Psalm 59:10 reads "The God of my mercy shall prevent me" in the KJV, while now we would say, ". . . will go before me." The beautiful imagery of Song of Songs, "the flowers appear on the earth . . . the voice of the turtle is heard," now wrongly suggests a turtle; the animal is in fact a bird, now called a "dove" or a "turtledove." And modern readers do not immediately think that a talking donkey is the same as a talking ass.

In addition to changes in the meanings of English words, we find differences in what linguists call "register," such as how formal language differs from informal, spoken from written, casual from stiff, etc. (We cover this more in Chapter 3.) The authors of the KJV purposely chose formal but not archaic English, English they would have called modern (though now linguists classify it as "Middle English" or "Early Modern English"). Twenty-first-century readers who encounter the lofty, archaic English of the KJV wrongly conclude that it was meant to reflect lofty, archaic Hebrew. It was not. Back then, "I shall" was standard, while "I will" was used only for emphasis. The word "thou" was intimate, sometimes used in contrast to "ye." Verbs like "goest" were commonplace. The effects of these changes combine in sentences like "Who told thee that thou wast naked?" which was originally no more formal than "Who told you that you were naked?" Similarly, "draw not nigh hither" is just "come no closer."

So far, we’ve seen cases where the KJV had the right translation for its time, but English has changed enough to make that translation wrong for our time. But while the scholars and theologians who worked on the KJV did a surprisingly good job, they were not perfect, and sometimes even in the seventeenth century the English in the KJV was wrong.

For example, Leviticus 25 deals extensively with the "jubile year," now spelled "jubilee." It’s the fiftieth year of a cycle, a year in which to "proclaim liberty throughout all the land." (The concept proved so compelling that the forgers of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia co-opted the line.)

The Hebrew for "jubile(e)" year is yovel, a word that refers to a kind of horn, perhaps a ram’s horn, and, presumably, is associated with the fiftieth year because a horn is to be blown in that year. (In Chapter 2 we learn how we know what the Hebrew means.) The Latin form of yovel, based on the Greek, is iobileus. By pure chance, that Latin word sounds like iubileus, connected to the verb iubilare, "to celebrate." That is, the Latin words for "yovel horn" and "jubilation" sound almost the same. Based on this Latin coincidence, the Hebrew word for a kind of horn turned into an English word that suggests celebration. The KJV translation is simply wrong.

(A similar process gave us the myth that the fruit Eveeats in Genesis is an apple. It’s never called that, but the Latin word for "apple" is malum, a word that also happens to mean "evil." Because the tree from which the fruit comes is the tree of "knowing good [bonum in Latin] and evil [malum]," some people assumed that the fruit, too, must be a malum—that is, an apple. At least that mistake never made it into the KJV, but the coincidence still caused enough widespread confusion that most people think the Bible calls the fruit an "apple.")

The KJV didn’t get just individual words wrong. The translators made mistakes about Hebrew grammar, too. The very common Hebrew word leimor, literally "to say," introduced direct quotation in an era that predated punctuation. But the authors of the KJV, not knowing that the word was the equivalent of quotation marks, translated the word as "saying." That’s how we get the common but wrong "God blessed them, saying . . ." or "God spake . . . saying . . .," etc. It’s so common that people who read the Bible find it familiar, but it’s a mistake. (We talk more about "saying" on page 37.)

Another aspect of grammar is syntax—that is, word order. In every language tiny differences of word order can make a huge difference ("working hard" is not "hardly working"), but until last century researchers lacked a solid understanding of these matters. So it should come as no surprise that the KJV translators erred here as well, misunderstanding subtle clues with far-reaching implications. We’ll see examples in Part II, particularly when we look at poetry and imagery.

Sometimes the KJV translators understood the Hebrew but rendered it incorrectly in English. One clear example comes from the snake in Genesis. The snake tells Eve that eating the fruit won’t kill her. But the English reads, "Ye shall not surely die," rather than the correct "[You] surely will not die." That is, the KJV leaves open the possibility that Eve could die (you won’t surely die, but you might die), while the Hebrew is more reassuring.

Another example comes from Ezekiel’s famous vision of the dry bones, in which God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to dry bones in a valley, commanding them to re-form into people. Describing part of the reassembling, Ezekiel 37:7 in the KJV reads, "The bones came together, bone to his bone." Whose bone is "his bone"? The Hebrew simply means "one bone to another," a fact the authors of the KJV must have known, but—and again, we go into more detail in Chapter 3—the primitive state of translation theory (combined with the near lack of the word "its" back then) blocked an accurate translation.

Sometimes the point of the Hebrew was not merely to convey information but to do so poetically. While the KJV certainly possesses a certain poetry, it does not match the original Hebrew very well. Take for instance Job’s humble admission that he is but "dust and ashes." Thanks to the KJV, that phrase has become an English expression. But the original Hebrew had two nearly identical words. The question of exactly how the words were pronounced when the Book of Job was written is a complicated one, but we can see for sure that the words for "dust" and for "ash" (it’s singular in Hebrew) both have three letters, and the final two pairs are identical: ayin-peh-resh for "dust" and aleph-peh-resh for "ashes." The effect in Hebrew is difficult to reproduce in English, but a pair like "oil"/"soil" gives the right idea. "Rhyme"/"reason" is also similar to the original Hebrew effect. "Dust"/"ashes" is not.

We’ve seen examples of three kinds of problems in the KJV: The Hebrew was misunderstood. The English didn’t represent the Hebrew. And the English, even though it used to match the Hebrew, no longer does because English has changed. Unfortunately, the KJV is not the only edition that suffers from these common problems.


The Bible shelf of most bookstores offers dozens of choices for the potential Bible reader. That’s because we are not the first to think about the KJV or about translation, and many others have tried to improve on the flawed but familiar renderings, to correct the antiquated English of the KJV, to apply new theories, or to promulgate religious doctrine.

But even as newer tools to understand the original Hebrew became available, translators generally worked in the shadow of the KJV, either trying to emulate it or, occasionally, specifically trying not to. Some Biblical scholars grew up with the KJV, so they knew it best and unwittingly relied on it. Others, like Ma Ferguson, saw God’s own work in King James’s mission. And still others simply bowed to economic realities, betting that a KJV-based translation was more likely to sell copies. (The Bible remains the all-time bestselling book ever written.)

In other words, the general methodology has been to start with the KJV and either purposely keep as much as possible or (rarely) change as much as possible. But neither approach makes much sense. There’s no sound reason to start translating ancient Hebrew by using a four-hundred-year-old English translation any more than, say, a study of a fifteenth-century Ming vase should start with a photograph instead of with the original.

So in the end, even though more modern translations address some of the shortcomings in the KJV, they are still tainted by it, and even suffer problems of their own. We discuss and evaluate various translations in detail in the Appendix, but for now here’s a sample of what’s available and why none of the current translations is satisfactory.

Excerpted from And God Said by Dr. Joel M. Hoffman.
Copyright © 2010 by Dr. Joel M. Hoffman.
Published in February 2010 by Thomas Dunne books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

JOEL M. HOFFMAN, PH.D., is the author of In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language and is the chief translator for the 10- volume series, My People’s Prayer Book (winner of the National Jewish Book Award) and for My People’s Passover Haggadah. He writes a biweekly column on Hebrew for The Jerusalem Post. He has held faculty appointments at Brandeis University and at Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion. He lives in New York.