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The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.


The next issue that confronts the Bible translator is that of the textual basis for the translation. We have no original text of any biblical book, and some books may have circulated in more than one version almost from the beginning of their existence as written documents. One theory has it that in the case of a number of Old Testament books three distinct texts emerged between the fifth and first centuries B.C., among the Jews of Palestine, Egypt, and Babylonia, respectively. Later, when ancient Jewish and Christian authorities defined the limits of the biblical canon, they did not fix the precise text of each individual book. To further complicate matters, all the books of the Bible have to some degree suffered the textual corruption that is the inevitable by-product of two to three thousand years of manuscript copying and recopying.

How, then, do Bible translators establish reliable working texts of the books that they are to translate? Even the assumption that a given book had a single prototype, an Urtext, is itself questionable and unprovable. What scholars can do is try to reconstruct, from surviving manuscripts, the earliest stage of the text that can be established with confidence. This is an extraordinarily tangled problem, one that requires scholars to sift through a prodigious mass of data. In some instances where the text of a verse is obviously corrupt, half a dozen plausible reconstructions of the verse have been proposed. Such conjectural solutions to textual cruxes are often quite ingenious. The job of a Bible translator is -- or should be -- to choose the most probable reconstruction, to discriminate between what is merely ingenious and what is in fact likely.

Establishing a good critical text for the New Testament is a less severe task than establishing a text for the Old. Most of the books of the New Testament were composed in the second half of the first century; a few -- Jude and 2 Peter, for example -- may stem from the second century. We possess complete manuscripts of the Greek New Testament that date from the fourth century, as well as copies of individual books that may be as early as the second century in origin. Therefore, the oldest surviving copies were made a maximum of three centuries after the books were originally written. Thanks to the existence of these early manuscripts, New Testament scholars, unlike their Old Testament colleagues, have been able to reach something resembling a consensus on the matter of a critical text. That something is a work entitled The Greek New Testament, published by the United Bible Societies. It contains a critical text of the New Testament, prepared by an international, interdenominational panel of specialists and intended especially for translators.

The text of the Old Testament is in places the stuff of scholarly nightmares. Whereas the entire New Testament was written within fifty to a hundred years, the books of the Old Testament were composed and edited over a period of about a thousand. The youngest book is Daniel, from the second century B.C. The oldest portions of the Old Testament (if we limit ourselves to the present form of the literature and exclude from consideration the streams of oral tradition that fed it) are probably a group of poems that appear, on the basis of linguistic features and historical allusions contained in them, to date from roughly the twelfth and eleventh centuries B.C. They include the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1- 18, 21), the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:2- 31), the Blessing of Jacob (Genesis 49:2- 27), the Blessing of Moses (Deuteronomy 33:2- 29), the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:1-43), Psalm 29, Psalm 68, and a number of other poetic compositions now embedded in longer works. So the Bible was written over a span of some 1,100 to 1,300 (or more) years. (The books of the Apocrypha belong to the period between the Testaments; they, together with a corpus of documents commonly known as the Pseudepigrapha, are often referred to as intertestamental literature.)

The Hebrew text of the Old Testament now in use is a highly standardized text that was consolidated, fine-tuned, and faithfully transmitted by Jewish scholars and scribes of the Middle Ages, called the Masoretes. Using as their guide the oral and written traditions that had been handed down from the ancient rabbis, the Masoretes worked to preserve and safeguard what they believed to be the definitive text of the Hebrew Bible. The same pious motives led them to suppress all competing textual traditions. In addition to conservation, they were responsible for an exceptionally important innovation. Up to the time of the Masoretes the Hebrew language had been written with consonants only. Hebrew, like Arabic, can be written pretty adequately using only consonants, but on occasion this creates ambiguity. A passive verb may be misconstrued as active, an attached preposition can be mistaken for part of a verbal root, and so on. The Masoretes, to ensure that the sacred words of Scripture would be understood and also pronounced correctly, employed vowel signs in the form of tiny strokes and dots, and added these to the consonantal text. They even added accents and cantillation symbols to guarantee the proper chanting of biblical passages in worship services. The resultant text, known today as the Masoretic text, exhibits only the most minute, semantically inconsequential variations from one manuscript to another.

The oldest extant manuscripts of the Masoretic text, upon which all modern editions of the Hebrew Biblc are based, date from the ninth to the eleventh century A.D. -- more than a thousand years after the latest book of the Old Testament was written. As a rule, ancient and medieval scribes felt obliged to copy the received text as accurately as possible, without making any changes or adjustments. Yet virtually every scribe who ever copied a biblical manuscript perpetuated the errors of others and introduced a few of his own. Imagine this process being repeated for one to two thousand years, and you have some idea of the vicissitudes that the Hebrew biblical text has endured. Compounding the problem was the occasional scribe who made a conscious alteration in the text, either for ideological reasons or because he sincerely thought he was correcting someone else's mistake.

Until 1947 the only direct evidence for the pre-Masoretic Hebrew text of the Old Testament was a lone papyrus leaf dating from about 100 B.C.; this preserves the text of the Ten Commandments. But in 1947 the study of the Old Testament text was suddenly revolutionized by the discovery of the first Dead Sea Scrolls, in a cave at Qumran, near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. Over the next decade another ten caves in the immediate area yielded additional manuscript treasures. Among the finds (which also included an assortment of nonbiblical texts) were a complete Hebrew scroll of the book of Isaiah, a verse- by- verse commentary incorporating most of.the Hebrew text of chapters one and two of Habakkuk, and leather and papyrus fragments of the Hebrew text of every other Old Testament book, with the sole exception of Esther. Although the age of the manuscripts was initially in question, scholars now generally agree that they date from the second century B.C. to the first century A.D.; a few may go back to the third century B.C.

When the high antiquity of the scrolls was realized, some scholars anticipated that the biblical text preserved in them would differ substantially from the medieval Masoretic text, thereby demonstrating that the Old Testament's journey through the hands of generations of Jewish copyists had left its text in a most imperfect state. However, although the scrolls furnish numerous readings at variance with the Masoretic tradition, the Dead Sea and Masoretic texts of the Old Testament are strikingly alike.

The most important ancient version of the Old Testament is the Greek Septuagint, originally produced for Greek- speaking Jews in Egypt. Parts of it date from as early as the third and second centuries B.C. As a translation, it is uneven in quality. In some cases where the Septuagint and the Masoretic text disagree, the Septuagint passage is clearly a bad translation of an underlying Hebrew text that was identical to the version of the passage found in Masoretic manuscripts. But in other instances the discrepancies are too marked to have been caused by poor translation. Long before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars had guessed that in cases where the ancient translator did not appear to be at fault, the Greek text actually reflected a Hebrew original appreciably different from what survives in the Masoretic text. This theory was dramatically confirmed by the Dead Sea copies of the books of Samuel. The text contained in these ancient Hebrew biblical manuscripts corresponds much more closely to the Septuagint Greek version of Samuel than to the Hebrew text found in Masoretic manuscripts of the Middle Ages. This creates a dilemma for the translator: which text does one translate? The easy response is that one translates the reading that in one's opinion is most nearly identical to the presumed original, the prototype. But on what grounds does one arrive at such an opinion? What if there is no convincing basis for preferring one reading to another? What if the biblical book in question, being a collection of traditions that circulated widely and in a diversity of forms before ever being committed to writing, seems to have crystallized from the very outset in a number of equally "original" written versions? Often the methodology that lies behind textual choices is unclear or inconsistent.

The RSV committee's position with respect to the Old Testament text has changed over the years. Work on the first edition of the Old Testament was well under way when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and even when the complete RSV Bible was issued, in 1952, scholars were just beginning to comprehend the significance of these ancient manuscripes for the history of the biblical text. The scrolls have furnished definitive proof that the medieval Masoretes faithfully preserved a textual tradition of exceptional antiquity, and the current RSV committee is much less inclined to opt for non-Masoretic readings than the pre-1952 committee was.

The problem of interpretation basically is this: how do translators establish the precise meaning of a word, a verse, or a passage in the Bible? This is not the same thing as determining the best way to say it in English, although the two issues are closely intertwined and sometimes inseparable. A translator must first establish what the original text is saying before he decides how to express that meaning in the "target" language, the language into which he is translating.

The problem of interpretation, like the problem of the textual basis, is much worse for the Old Testament than for the New. New Testament Greek differs somewhat from the Greek of the classical authors but poses relatively few difficulties for modern scholars. Its vocabulary and syntax are for the most part well understood (though any language in the hands of a wordy writer like Paul can tax the ability and patience of skilled translators).

Biblical Hebrew presents more problems. Hundreds of words occur but once in the entire Old Testament. The meanings of many of these are obscure; the Old Testament words for various animals and plants, for example, cannot be defined with exactitude. Prose syntax is usually clear; however, the syntax of ancient Hebrew poetry is extraordinarily problematic. For hundreds of verses -- in Psalms, Job, Isaiah, Hosea, and one or two other books -- any English rendering is speculative or at best provisional.

Where does a translator turn when the meaning of an Old Testament word or passage is unclear (assuming he believes the text to be sound at that point)? The first place is the ancient versions, to see how they render the unit in question. Often, though, the translators of the Septuagint, the Vulgate, the Targums (Aramaic translations of portions of the Bible), and the other versions appear to have been as baffled by a particular word or passage as their modern counterparts are. Then other methods must be used.

Scholars have been able to figure out the meaning of many a Hebrew word by reviewing the corpus of Old Testament words derived from the same root and then examining how the first word is used in the sentence(s) in which it occurs. Sometimes context alone is a reliable guide to a word's meaning. But scholars can also look for help outside the Old Testament, using what is called the comparative philological method -- one of the most controversial strategies in all of biblical studies.

Biblical Hebrew, the form of Hebrew found in the Old Testament, is a member of the Semitic subfamily of languages, which in turn belongs to a larger group that many linguists are now calling the Afroasiatic family. The linguistic relatives of Hebrew include a number of present-day tongues -- such as Arabic, modern Aramaic, and a group of languages spoken in Ethiopia -- and an even greater number of dead languages, among them Akkadian, spoken in ancient Babylonia and Assyria; Ugaritic, the language of ancient Ugarit, an important Canaanite city- state situated on the Mediterranean coast of north Syria (the site of Ugarit was discovered in 1928); Eblaite, named after the ancient Syrian city- state of Ebla (texts in this language were first unearthed in 1974); Phoenician, a widely used commercial language of antiquity, originally spoken in what is today Lebanon; Moabite, Ammonite, and Edomite, the ancient tongues of what is now Jordan, each only scantily attested; ancient Aramaic, represented by a host of dialects from all over the Near East; Classical Ethiopic; and Classical Arabic. (For the sake of comparison, English -- along with German, Dutch, Flemish, Yiddish, Afrikaans, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and Icelandic, among others -- belongs to the Germanic subfamily of the Indo- European family. Language families are believed to descend from a single hypothesized parent language that was spoken at a time long before the invention of writing, and thus for which no documentary evidence exists.)

A typical word in a Semitic language is derived from a three- consonant root, which itself covers a semantic range, or area of meaning. Most roots occur in more than one Semitic language, and the general meaning of a root is usually the same from one language to the next. So, for example, the common Semitic root k-t-b covers the general idea of writing and things related to writing. It yields not only the basic verb "to write" but also, in one language or another, words for book, author, scribe, document, list, library, bookstore, school, desk, office, marriage contract, amulet, foreordained, secretary, and dictaphone. A much broader range of meaning attaches itself to a Hebrew or Arabic or Aramaic root than to an English infinitive.

In the comparative philological approach to Old Testament interpretation a lost meaning of a word in Biblical Hebrew is sought by studying the root's cognates in other Semitic languages. Scholars look for a particular meaning that is well attested in another language to provide them with the true meaning of their obscure Hebrew word.

The language that has done more than any other to illumine rare Old Testament words is Ugaritic. The study of Ugaritic literature began soon after the first texts were found, in 1929; no archaeological discovery, not even that of the Dead Sea Scrolls, has had a more profound impact on our understanding of the Bible. The Ugaritic mythological and ritual texts, written in cuneiform script but in a language closely akin to Biblical Hebrew, have given scholars a direct window onto the Canaanite fertility religion against which much of the Old Testament is an undisguised reaction. The Israelite prophets rail repeatedly against Canaanite Baal-worship, but prior to 1929 their fulminations were our chief source of knowledge about Baal-worship and the mythoIogy behind it. The Ugaritic texts help fill in the Canaanite background of Old Testament religion by supplying us with the literature of the Baal- worshipers themselves.

The linguistic parallels between Biblical Hebrew and Ugaritic, as well as the cultural parallels between ancient Israel and ancient Ugarit, are naturally of great interest to Bible translators. One verse for which Ugaritic apparently provides the key that unlocks the true meaning is Psalm 68:6. The RSV, reflecting the traditional interpretation of this verse (much of the important work on Ugaritic has been published since the completion of the RSV Old Testament), reads: "God gives the desolate a home to dwell in; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity; but the rebellious dwell in a parched land." A Ugaritic cognate suggests that the Hebrew word translated "to prosperity" should actually be rendered "with jubilation." Another example is Judges 5:17. The RSV translates the first part of the verse: "Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan; and Dan, why did he abide with the ships?" Now, however, Ugaritic evidence makes it likely that "with the ships" is wrong. The more probable rendering is "and Dan, why did he abide at ease?" The new edition of the RSV may or may not include these specific changes, though it is certain to include a number of alterations of a similar nature, based on the evidence fumished by Ugaritic.

The problem with the comparative philological method is that one can never be sure that the meaning of a root or a word in one language is the same as the meaning of its cognate in a related language. Take the common Hebrew word for bread. Its Arabic cognate means "meat," and in another, little- known Semitic dialect, the equivalent word denotes "fish" or "shark." The English word worm is related by origin to the German Wurst, "sausage." Our knave goes back to the Old English cnafa, which simply meant "youth." The French verb achever can sometimes mean "to achieve," but its usual meaning is "to finish, to put the finishing touch to."

In the case of Biblical Hebrew and Ugaritic, a given root frequently has the same meaning in both languages -- but not always. Hebrew was spoken in ancient Palestine; Ugaritic had its home far to the north, in northwestern Syria. The city- state of Ugarit was at its cultural zenith from roughly 1450 to around 1200 B.C.; Ugaritic literature therefore predates most of Old Testament literature by hundreds of years, and this fact alone ought to make anyone wary of drawing precise analogies between the two.


The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.

Copyright © 1985 by Barry Hoberman. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1985; Translating the Bible; Volume 255, No. 2; pages 43-58.

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