Saturday, September 12, 2009

Bible Translation Matters

Genesis 4:8 reads as follows in the KJV:

8And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.

But in the NIV, it reads as follows:

8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field." [a] And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Note the footnote in the NIV, which is as follows:

a. Genesis 4:8 Samaritan Pentateuch, Septuagint, Vulgate and Syriac; Masoretic Text does not have "Let's go out to the field."

Having the additional phrase in that verse makes the event so much more vivid, because it emphasizes Cain's premeditation. To me, that is very important.

Reading VanderKamp and Flint's, the Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, has been a mini-course on how the Bible was put together, especially the OT. Their approach to presenting the Scrolls is first to explore "the texts of the Old Testament that were available to us before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls" (See V&K at the beginning of Chapter 5, entitled "The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Before the Scrolls.") Then, having laid that predicate, V&K begin their discussion of the Scrolls directly. The reader, therefore, is in a position to understand more fully how important and interesting the Scrolls are. This is what makes their book so useful for understanding the Scrolls - having the context so carefully and completely laid out. But that context has been very helpful in reading the OT generally. Thus, for example, Genesis 4:8, becomes even more "real" for me, because I can understand the sources indentified in the footnote, though the Scrolls are not directly involved with that particular verse.

Here is what I have learned with regard to the sources that are cited in that footnote:

The Samaritan Pentateuch "is not a translation, but the Samaritan version of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. For Samaritan Jews, who still exist as a group in Israel today (especially in Nablus and at Holon), the Samaritan Pentateuch constitutes the entire canon of the Bible. . . [It] was rediscovered by European scholars only in the seventeenth century, when Pietro della Valle sent a complete copy, now called Codex B, to Europe in 1616." V&K at p. 91

The Septuagint "encompasses Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible . . . [but note that s]ome scholars understand the Septuagint as referring only to the Pentateuch, while others include the entire collection of Jewish-Greek Scriptures. . . The word itself comes from the Latin septuaginta, meaning seventy (hence the Roman abbreviation LXX), and derives from a fascinating story [which I won't repeat here]" V&K at p. 96

The Vulgate is "the Latin Vulgate (390-405 CE, which was translated by Jerome and became the Bible of the Church)." V&K at 102.

The Syriac is "the Syriac Pashitta (second-third century CE)." The New Bible Dictionary, in its article entitled "Texts and Versions" states that "After the LXX, [this was] the oldest and most important translation of the Heb. Scriptures . . . This translation used by the Syriac church, was described since the 9th century as the Peshitta (Syr. psitta) or "simple" translation."

The Masoretic Text is the Hebrew text put together by the Masoretes. V&K write that it is the backbone of the Protestant OT and of the Jewish Bible.

As I grew up, there was a controversy at our church (among some people) about moving away from the KJV. It was lively, although limited. At the time, the main translation to which one could move was the RSV, a translation sponsored by the National Council of Churches. To hear some people talk, the NCC was in league with the Communist Party. The Southern Baptists were NOT in it, and have not joined it to this day.

I first met the RSV on a more or less level playing field when, as a freshman at Duke, I took Old Testament the first semester and New Testament the second. The Oxford Annotated Version of the RSV was our text. (My copy fell apart after a few years, but I had it rebound and still have it.) Our teacher was simply marvelous, Barney Jones, a Methodist minister and Duke Divinity School PhD. I took several courses from Dr. Jones as an upperclassman, and he is one of the two greatest teachers (outside of my parents) with whom God blessed me. (The other was Bill Holley, also at Duke, and in the History Department.) Rather than shake my faith, my time at Duke, a good bit of it taking courses in the Department of Religion, affirmed and strengthened it.

Years later, after Carol and I had moved to Miami Springs and joined FPC there, Bruce Metzger of Princeton came to our church and preached for five nights on the Sermon on the Mount. He was the foremost Greek scholar in the country, worked on the RSV and later chaired the committee that developed the NRSV. He was on the team that wrote the annotations in my Oxford Annotated RSV! I still marvel that FPCMS had Bruce Metzger for an entire week. (He must have liked our town. He came down for a week a year or two later and led another conference.) Revisiting lately the subject of Bible translation by means of a consideration of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been great fun.

One more story about this: My friend at Duke, Doug Tanner, who is from Western North Carolina, liked to quote someone he knew at his church on the matter of the authority of the KJV. "If it was good enough for Peter and Paul," he would quote, "it is good enough for me."



Hebrew Scholar said...

Thanks for your interesting post comparing the text in the Hebrew Bible in this verse with other traditions. I'm not sure what you mean when you say the Masoretes "put together" the Massoretic text (=Hebrew Bible). They preserved the Hebrew text according to the traditional text which Jews had. They were careful to *preserve* not to add or delete. No doubt they were aware that some of the text in the verse you discuss was "missing", but since no Hebrew texts contain this "missing" phrase, it is not in the Hebrew Bible. It's entirely possible that other (non-Hebrew) traditions simply added a phrase which they deemed had been omitted from the Hebrew.

Paul Stokes said...

By "put together" I certainly didn't mean that they made it up! Or to diminish the wonderful work of the Masoretes. But what I am reading indicates that they didn't simply "preserve" in a narrow sense of the word. For one thing, I understand that the Masoretes filled in (may I not say "added"?) the vowels. But "preserving" is fine with me. Great thanks to the Mssoretes. And thanks to you for commenting. I like your website, and didn't know about it.

Unknown said...

You might want to take a look at my short commentary on the differences between the Masoretic and the Samaritan texts of the Pentateuch, at (and if you can read Hebrew, the printed comparing Pentateuch I made; will redirect you to Amazon for it).

Paul Stokes said...

Thanks, Mark. I don't read Hebrew. It's on my "someday maybe" list. Thanks for the link.