Hebrew Scriptures: Translation Issues

As we’ve all no doubt considered, interpreting the meaning of any text presents readers with great hurdles, but this difficulty is compounded when the text we are reading is likely based on an originally oral tale, which refers to historical incidences that took place up to 1,000 years before the written version, and has been translated, for example, from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to 1611 English to modern English (The Old Testament of the King James Bible (1611) was primarily taken from Hebrew sources, but in some sections translations were taken the Septuagint Greek in order to correspond with Christian concepts). 

Consider, for example, how difficult it is to read the original Beowulf, which was written roughly 1,000 years ago in what was then "English".  Consider how much the English language used by Shakespeare has changed in the past 400 years.  These types of changes happen to all languages in all times, and they happen even more in less literate cultures.

And that's just one language -- English -- so what happens when we consider that the King James Bible, written in 1611, was based on a Latin bible, which was in turn a translation of a Greek translation (Septuagint) of the "original" Hebrew, translated by Greek speaking Jews (living in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 3rd to 1st centuries BCE).

These issues are further compounded when we realize that our modern (or Medieval) conception of the very words was shaped by the translation "errors" so much that the words themselves changed their meaning to fit the "translation error".  In other words, these books have had such a profound impact on our culture that they changed the meanings of words that we, in turn, use to re-interpret these books.

Genesis "God" and "Adam"

We confront translation issues within the first pages of the Hebrew Scriptures, both in the word "God" or "Lord" (depending on your translation) and with the word or proper name "Adam".

The author or authors of Genesis 1 use the term "Elohim" a generic term to describe "the god", as in any god, while the author(s) of Genesis 2 use the proper name YHWY or "Yahway".  This difference continues throughout Genesis and helps us understand why there are often two, occasionally conflicting narrations of a single event. Most English Bibles use the same name "God" for both and thus lose the otherwise more apparent fact that there really are two simultaneous, interwoven -- and occasionally slightly conflicting -- narrations throughout Genesis.  For more on this, see The Documentary Hypothesis. For an in depth look into this, see: Who Wrote The Bible by Richard Friedman.

This difference helps us explain why, for example, in Gen 1 animals are created before "adam", while in Gen 2 they are created after Adam.

Which brings us to the Hebrew word "adam", which can either mean "mankind" -- as in "humankind", as it is used in Gen 1  -- or "man", singular, as it is used in Gen 2  Of course, until recently we had the same usage:  the word "man" was often used to refer to "human beings" of both gender as well as males.

As in English, we can tell which the word refers to by context: when carefully translated from the Hebrew, Gen 1 says "in his image he created them; male and female he created them," while Gen 2 and 3 refers to "adam" as "him" or "he" and then continues to explain a separate creation of "the woman" (later named Eve).

Who cares? Well, arguably you should, because with this context in mind the two creation stories treat the relationships between quite differently.


Are Apples Evil? 

Connecting the Eden’s “fruit” with apples is a relatively modern invention, apparently rooted in the Latin pun on “malum”, which means both “apple” and “evil”.

Jewish tradition has associated the tree’s fruit with grapes, tamarinds, figs and wheat, or with wine itself.  The last two are associated with ancient, pagan cults of fertility (Demeter/Ceres (“cereal”) and rebirth.

Further, as the Hebrew Scriptures spread from Asia to Europe via early Christians, it would make sense to associate the tree of knowledge with the Pagan tree of life.  In the Greek mythology, Hera’s garden of the Hesperides grew golden apples of immortality. The apple tree or trees was guarded by a dragon or serpent. Heracles (Hercules)11th labor involved stealing some of the apples.  The apple is treated similarly among the Norse pagans.

Hercules with an apple of Hesperides:File:Hercules Musei Capitolini MC1265 n2.jpg

The Red Sea?

Exodus 21: Much modern controversy surrounds exactly where – or what – Moses led his people across to escape Egypt: was it the “Red Sea” or the “Reed Sea/Sea of Reeds”?   The issue is one of translation; what does the Hebrew phrase Yam Suph refer to?

Yam Suph = Red Sea      Yam Suphim: Sea of Reeds

Soph: The verb “soph” means “to destroy”, suggesting this sea was named after and for the Israelite’s destruction of the pharaoh’s forces.   In other words, the place became known as “Sea Where Moses Destroyed” etc.

Suphah: Refers to a storm wind, suggesting pharaoh’s forced were drowned when storm winds whipped up high waters.

It’s also worth remembering that the Israelites were escaped slaves, crossing on foot, while the pharaoh’s armies pursued in their armory and chariots. 

My personal theory is that because Jews use the lunar calendar and Egyptians worshipped the sun, the Jews would have been able to apply their knowledge of the tides -- controlled by the moon -- against the Egyptians.




Isaiah 14:12: "Lucifer" and "Morning Star" (Venus)

The Hebrew Scriptures (Tanakh) reads like (translates as) this:
"How are you fallen from heaven,
O Shining One, son of Dawn!
How are you felled to earth,
O vanquisher of nations!"
[and the footnote often reads "A character in some lost myth."]

The pre-Christian Septuagint Greek version of Isaiah 14:12 uses the phrase “ho heosphoros,” which translates as "morning star" (the star we call Venus).  This is similar to another Greek name for this star "phosphorus", which means "burning bright" (Venus is the third brightest object in the sky).

The latin name for this star is "Lucifer" and has the same root as lux; it essentially simply means "burning bright" or "bright light" or "day star".

Martin Luther’s German version (c. 1534)  had “schoener Morgenstern,” that is, “beautiful morning star” as the translation of the Hebrew phrase heylel ben-shachar. 

The King James (1611) reads like this:
“How you are fallen from heaven,
      O Lucifer, son of the morning!
      How you are cut down to the ground,
      You who weakened the nations!"

[In the original margin notes of the KJV, however, the original translators included the note that it could also read “O day-starre”.]

Because the KJV was used for hundreds of years as the basic English Bible, most modern versions continued to use the word "Lucifer", and they kept the Old English style of capitalizing it as a formal name.  In the 1600s this word began to be used as a synonym for "Satan".

And that is how it has passed into not only our own language but our very conception of not only evil but of how the Jews thought of Satan.  But  Jews do not conceive of Satan as the force of evil, much less as "Venus". 

However, Jesus was also referred to as the "Morning Star":

Revelation 22:16:
"I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you [1] this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star."

2 Peter 1:19,:
And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

NIV:  Revelation 2:28:
I will also give him the morning star.

The Jews and Satan:

For a Jewish view of Satan, read the book of Job.

Also see: Satan

For more on this transliteration: http://www.kjvonly.org/doug/kutilek_notes_on_lucifer.htm