Translation and the Bible

CODEX Entry 1038: Translation and the Bible


In the Blood Ritual, one sees the seismic confusion caused by inaccurate translations of the Old Testament’s hebrew text. The problems created by translation are compounded, firstly, by an absence of context from the religions of Canaan, the Persian and Hellenistic Greek influence on Jewish beliefs, and the iterative variations in Jewish and Christian beliefs over the centuries. Each of these colored the translators’ choice of words.

The original Masoretic texts are divided into the Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). That is why the Jewish Bible is called the TaNaKh. Although the events in Genesis occurred around 4000BC and those in Exodus around 1400BC, no earlier texts than the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran have survived. Although two fragments have been found elsewhere from the 6th century BC, the Qumran cave find contains 40% of the Tanakh. Bronze coins from the 2nd Century BC found at the same site support the radiocarbon and paleographic dating of the scrolls. Very few manuscripts are said to have survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, making this find so precious. Some variations in later copies of the Tanakh did appear after this Roman attempt at cultural and physical genocide. More than half of all the Jews were killed. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Aleppo Codex a thousand years later, show remarkably similar texts, suggesting it had been copied with great care over the centuries. This gives confidence that they represent accurately even older texts. The ritual Torah scroll would contain only the Hebrew consonantal text, but the copy used by the rabbi could contain masorah, showing vowel points, pronunciation marks, and annotations of possible variants since the destruction of the temple.

Scribes had strict rules, they had to match the page layout of the original text, so that the middle paragraph, word and letter corresponded exactly to the original document. The ink used was made with a special recipe to expose any forgery. Scribes had to verbalize each word aloud to remain alert, and wash their entire bodies before writing the word “Yahweh”. It took two thousand hours to make a copy, with a review every thirty days. If as many as three pages required corrections, the entire manuscript had to be thrown out. The letters, words, and paragraphs had to be counted, and the document became invalid if two letters touched each other. If the error was not fixed within thirty days the document must be buried in the cemetery.

However, although the words themselves were protected in this manner, their interpretation was not. The second exile of the Jews from Canaan to Babylon in 597BC for 70 years, saw many modifications to their beliefs. Cyrus the Great was even celebrated as the Messiah for many decades afterwards, as a result of his support for the construction of the Second Temple. It is indeed ironic today to imagine the Jews proclaiming an Iranian, their arch enemy, as the Messiah. But the most profound and long lasting introduction was Persian monotheism, replacing the henotheist and polytheists elements of the original texts. Rather than change wording in their most sacred text, the Hebrews took the drastic step of making the plural ending of -ohim remain singular in meaning only when referring to God. In all other words it retained its plural meaning. Effectively they made the word Gods have a singular meaning, and with this, removed the concept of the pantheon or family of Gods which were recognised throughout the rest of the world. The removal of fathers, sons, wives, and daughters, now also rendered the God eternal, as he had no parents, birth, childhood, or death. This eternal nature transformed the Judaic religion, and sat awkwardly besides descriptions of Yahweh as ‘A Living God’. More specifically now Elohim was translated as God of Gods, rather than Sons of El or Gods of God. This issue arrives in the very first sentence of the bible Genesis 1:1 ‘In the beginning the Gods created the heavens and the earth.’ Other plural references to deities, which could not be given this treatment, have survived in the Hebrew, but were also changed to the singular in early Latin and all current English translations. Indeed Yahweh does not appear in the Bible until Genesis 2:7 with the making of Adam, hā·’ā·ḏām, meaning a man. The text also does not in any way suggest he is the first man. El was no longer the father of Yahweh, Baal, Yamm, and Mat, as described by the Canaanite pantheon, but simply the supreme title for Yahweh, the only God. The sons are now translated as the sons of Israel. The Molech, Mighty ones of the Sun, mentioned twenty six times in the Bible, now have no context. References to his brothers and sisters or their spouses, Ashtoreth, Anat, Ashera, Illib, Resheph, and Shemesh are still present but, without context, slip into the general category of heathen gods. The numerous other references to this creation of men across the region were now in conflict, as each community claimed their God was the only eternal God who created the first man. A dilemma highlighted by Cain’s wife Awan.

Three centuries later we find the first recorded translation of the texts, the Septuagint, which was also adopted by early Christians. Commissioned by Ptolemny II, to translate the ancient Hebrew Tanakh into Greek for his father’s library in Alexandria. Indeed most Jews in the region could not read Hebrew and the translation was welcomed. While Christianity continued to use the Septuagint, after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Judaism turned back within itself and withdrew to the original Masoretic texts.

At this point we follow the evolutions of the text in their Christian form. Prior to, and overlapping with, Jerome’s Vulgate of 380 AD, were the Vetus Latina which varied wildly and were largely rejected finally in 1545. However, even today, we use some elements, where the Vulgate has fallen out of favor. For example, maintaining the Vetus Latina’s ‘Give us our daily bread’ instead of Jerome’s ‘give us our superstantial bread’. Jerome only learned Hebrew in his mid thirties, and shortly afterwards, at the age of forty he became secretary to Pope Damasus I. It was in this capacity that he began his Latin translation of the Tanakh and Septuagent in what came to be called the Vulgate. Jerome’s excluded 1 & 2 Esdras, 3 & 4 Maccabees, Psalm 151 and the Prayer of Manasseh. .

The authorized Greek and Latin translations were now guarded jealously by the church. Translation of the Latin Vulgate was punishable by excommunication from the church, imprisonment or death. The first english version, the Great Bible was commissioned by Henry VIII after his excommunication from the church, and the first German bible, the Luther Bible, by Martin Luther, after his. Both were written in the 1520’s. At the same time Erasmus was working on a new Latin translation, trying to carefully tread the line between orthodoxy and heresy while the books and writings went through another round of review and comparison, reflecting the evolution in Christian thought in the intervening 1200 years. Erasmus’ work stimulated work at the heart of the Reformation.

As the Church lurched through the century of reform and reaction, first the new Sixtine Septuagint and Vulgate Bibles were declared divine, replacing the earlier Vulgate. Then, shortly afterwards, the Clementine Vulgate replaced it and was declared the divine word of God. The modern Protestant Old Testament has the same books as the Tanakh, simply in a different order.

The English translation referenced throughout this Codex is from the New Living Translation, 1996. This is currently the most printed and read english version of the Bible, followed by the New International Translation, 1973, and the New King James version, 1982. The New Living Bible worked mainly from the original hebrew Masoretic texts with some Greek cross references, rather than the later Latin translations of these, or the Greek Septuagint. It is largely the same as the other two popular versions but in a few areas the scholars have moved the text closer to the original Hebrew. However, to this day, the church has been able to maintain most of the important modifications to the old hebrew and greek texts.


Some other key concepts that evolved over time:


During the period between 380AD and 1545AD, words such as messenger were replaced with ‘angel’ when relating to Yahweh’s messengers. The different members of the Divine Council and Yahweh’s entourage; Malachim (messengers), Seraphim (the burning ones or Yahweh’s soldiers), Cherubim (the chariot drivers of Yahweh), Ophanim (guardians of Yahweh’s throne), Chayot (living beings), and Metatron (watchers) are still all reduced to the single word, angel. Indeed the iconic angel Gabriel, a key character in the christian and muslim religions, only appears in the old testament in a vision of Daniel, in the time of Darius son of Xerxes in 520BC. The vision concerned the Jews exile from Jerusalem to Persia for 70 years, over one thousand years after Yahweh was last seen on earth. Gabriel is described in person only once, in the new testament in Luke’s version of Jesus’ birth and not in the other gospels. In the Koran it is the Angel Gabriel who meets twice with Mohammed in the mountains. The generic word malak (messenger or representative) appears 200 times in the bible, half of the time it is referring to human messengers, and the others to flying messengers of god where the word angel is used. When the messengers or angels of Yahweh appear they speak in the first person as if they are Yahweh and this has caused much grammatical discussion for centuries.


Holy was a reasonably recent concept also from the early medieval period. Its original meaning related generally to health and cleanliness, but later spatially to the area around a temple and, when referring to people, to an anointed priest. Again the word anointed originally referred to grease or oil smeared on for hygiene purposes but has since taken on spiritual connotations. Priests serving the Gods used to have their hair or turbans soaked in resin oils after intense bathing to maintain hygiene standards dictated by the Gods.


Heaven and Hell
Shamayim, is translated arbitrarily as either sky or heaven depending on whether the translator wishes to refer to something related to the Gods or something more mundane such as the flight of birds.

The concept of the eternal fight between good and evil were deeply rooted in persian Zoroastrian philosophy. Lassedim, meaning demons, only appears twice, in the Old Testament in Deuteronomy and Psalms. Its context makes it clear that it is a derogatory term for other Canaanite gods. The word Devil does not appear in the Old Testament. Sheol appears more than fifty times, and was believed to be the place of the spirits, where everyone goes after death. It was only in the period 500 BC to 70 BC that the concept of Sheol having separate compartments for the righteous and the unrighteous was added, along with ideas of punishment. It wasn’t until medieval times that the good were offered a place in heaven rather than a place in the righteous compartments in Sheol. Previously heaven was the exclusive home of Yahweh, his court, his sons and also the great prophet Elijah. Now Sheol came to represent Hell and Purgatory exclusively.


Sin, or chattath, meant offering. Offerings were made when Israelites intentionally or unintentionally breached the Covenant or agreement with Yahweh. The Book of the Covenant was a long document of over 3000 words on the stone tablets, rather than just the ten commandments, stating clearly what the Israelites were honor-bound to do, and to abstain from doing, in return for delivery by Yahweh of the land of Canaan as their new home. Sinners meant those who had recently made an offering or, effectively paid the fine. Sinners were ‘breakers of the Covenant’.


The Messiah
A Judaic definition of Messiah had three very clear meanings at that time of Jesus, depending on its context. Firstly it could mean the return of a son of Yahweh to lead the Jewish people, or it could mean a new King of the Israelites to lead them again into better times, or lastly a great prophet or judge in the role of the last prophet Molachi (420BC) or the judge Gideon. Two thousand years earlier, a severe famine had driven the Jews into exile in Egypt. After 400 years in that country as foreigners, they had been led, as a united and independent people by Yahweh. And after Yahweh’s departure the Israelites were led by the judges, and finally by a royal family. After the death of King Solomon there was the rupture of civil war, splitting the nation of Israel in two. Even though the Jews returned to Canaan after their exile to Babylon in 538BC, it was with the blessing and financing of the Persian Empire, not as a truly independent people. In 332 BCE, the Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great and Judea was then placed under one of his generals, in what came to be called the Seleucid Kingdom. It was in the century that followed that the Septuagint, or Greek bible was written, a fusion of Jewish and Hellenistic theology. The Maccabees, the last book of the Old Testament, were a family that led a revolt against the government of the Greek protectorate which led to the forming of a new, smaller independent Jewish kingdom, which lasted from 165 BC to 63 BC. This kingdom itself went into civil war, with one side inviting in the Romans, who annexed the territory, just a generation before Jesus’ birth. The Romans made the first puppet ‘King of the Jews’, Herod the Great, in 37BC. After his death in 4BC Judea was ruled by some of his children, without the title of king, and then, in Jesus’ time by Roman prefects. Rebellions were going on almost on an annual basis, some of the largest of which occurred 30 years after Jesus’ death during the Roman Jewish War. In this period the second temple was destroyed and an estimated 1.1 million Jews were killed. This represented a higher percentage of the global Jewish population than killed in Hitler’s final solution. In 132AD, Simon Bar Kokhba (Son of the Star) was briefly declared the Messiah and successfully established an independent Jewish state for 3 years before the Romans exacted their brutal revenge. The Romans were replaced by the Byzantines in 324AD, the Byzantines were replaced by the Muslims in 638AD, and then the Jews of Canaan were under the Ottoman Empire from 1260AD. While the stories of Crusaders focuses on the battles with the muslims, it should be noted that the fiercest prosecutions and massacres by the crusaders were of Jews. All through this period over 40 men were briefly considered the Messiah. Self-rule didn’t infact return to the tribes of Israel until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. As the Jews articulate, and history shows, their Messiah or leader did not appear during these three thousand years. If anyone came close to the original definition of the Messiah perhaps it would be David Ben-Gurion.

Much of the gospels are devoted to proving that Jesus was the Messiah of the people of Israel either as a son of Yahweh, the return of King David’s great lineage, or a powerful religious prophet. To be a son of Yahweh required that the mother have had sexual relations with Yahweh, the ‘virgin birth’, and for Jesus to display many miraculous powers like his father, such as flying, parting water, feeding thousands with manna, killing and healing. To be the next King of the Jews, required a lineage back to the Jews second king, David. As this line is carefully traced from Joseph, this conflicts with the story of the virgin birth, but this problem appears to be, thankfully, overlooked. To be the next great prophet required fulfilling many prophecies that had foretold the manner of his coming. Jesus is quoted as saying the Kingdom of Yahweh will return from the heavens within the year, which proved unfounded. The Jewish people’s desire for a leader though was intense in the period around Jesus’ birth, and anyone showing any of these attributes would have quickly acquired the label of a Messiah, gaining unwanted attention from crowds of people and from the military authorities. Jesus’ role as Messiah of the people of Israel was cut short by his death, and the Jews remained leaderless and under foreign control for the next 2000 years. The first schism of the church while Jesus’ brother James was Bishop of Jerusalem saw the acceptance of gentiles into the church, and the rejection of circumcision and animal sacrifice. Here at last we find something recognisable as Christianity with, at its core, the teachings of Jesus, which now spread around the world. The very word Messiah was now redefined retrospectively into a more universal role.