ANELC eLecture Series 2020: Translating the Bible from Hebrew & Greek Origins

Benjamin Whittle, a research student at University College London in Hebrew & Jewish Studies, presented the ANELC eLecture today. Ben’s research is in contact between Hebrew and Greek. This presentation focused on how Hebrew verbal stems are codified in Greek translations of the Pentateuch and Former Prophets.

The Septuagint (LXX), written in Greek, and the Masoretic Text (MT), written in Hebrew, have a complicated and varied textual history. One of the complications of understanding how Hebrew is translated into Greek happens due to the differences in the two languages. Hebrew and Greek come from very different language families and have formed different verbal root systems. In addition, the languages are largely unrelated. Ben’s study examines the likelihood of active and passive verbs in Hebrew to maintain their voice in the Greek translation. His findings demonstrated that the verbal voice often shifts when the Hebrew verb is translated into Greek.

Ben began with an example of the translation variations that occur in the LXX and MT texts. In Genesis 15:11, the LXX adds a subordinate clause and follows a different reading of the verb presented in the MT. This results in two different English translations. There is arguably very little difference in the overall meaning of the verse, but the variations indicate variant agency.

  • “And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.” (MT)
  • “And birds came down on the carcasses, their cut halves, and Abram sat together with them.” (LXX)

Ben presented some detailed examples of Greek translations, most of which made minor adjustments to the meaning of a passage. In the first grouping, he presented some lexical distinctions where a Hebrew verb signifies one meaning, and the Greek uses a variant word in translation. These distinctions become important when translating the Bible.

One example offered the Hebrew root lmd, which can signify two meanings: “to teach” or “to learn.” However, Greek has two distinct words, one meaning “to learn” and another meaning “to teach.” The examples offered by Ben’s study showed that the LXX followed contextual clues to form the Greek translation more often than a literal word-for-word translation. While this changes the form of the text, it may show an attempt to maintain the integrity of contextual meaning.

Another aspect of Ben’s study looked at cases where Hebrew verbs writ passive were translated in Greek as active and vice versa. He gave an example of the Hebrew root smch, which means “to be glad,” stating that the LXX often represents a passive form (“to be gladdened”) where the Hebrew indicates an active verb. His study also presented cases where active forms of Hebrew verbs are translated as causative. For example, the Hebrew root škb means “to lie down or sleep.” In almost every case of its occurrence, the LXX translates a causative form, “made to sleep.”

In some cases, where a Hebrew verb can represent more than one meaning, the Greek conflates occurrences to a single form. This happens with the Hebrew verbal root šbr, which means “to break or shatter” in the active ‘basic’ form (qal) and “to smash into pieces” in an active intensive form (piel). In all occurrences in the Pentateuch and Former Prophets, the LXX uses a single word meaning “to break into pieces.” While this compromises the intensive intent in some passages, Ben suggested that it may also represent a cultural memory of earlier forms of the Hebrew (indicating that some piel forms may have replaced qal forms in the era of the Second Temple Period).

Translating the Bible

One of the questions raised in such a translation discussion is social and cognitive—how is Hebrew understood by the Greek translators? Unfortunately, this discussion can easily slide into a “chicken or egg” scenario due to a complicated linguistic relationship between Hebrew and Greek extant texts and the history of the written Hebrew Bible.

Ben Whittle’s presentation demonstrated a complex relationship of translation between the Septuagint, the Masoretic Text, and the Hebrew tradition as sources for translating the Bible. While many of the translation differences were not significant to the overall meaning of a passage, Ben noted that sometimes the variances flip the perspective of the text in translation. In some cases, the agency may be removed or implied. This can draw attention toward or away from the main subject of a narrative.

A grammatical linguistic study like this one can seem dry and overly detailed to some. Still, the work speaks to larger issues of translation and the significance of social history upon a people’s language. There can also be theological implications in translating the Bible, especially because it is a spiritual text. For example, given a common active/passive verbal shift, the agency may be removed or attributed in translation, altering the intention of meaning. Likewise, where an agency is given or stripped from a divine entity, like God, the implications can impact the reader’s formation of theology.

I am drawn to research that engages with cataloging data from textual sources. It is insightful to look into historical literature and notice the kind of words, names and attributes used by ancient people to describe their world and its relationships. Sometimes this means finding patterns inconsequential to meaning, but sometimes it is a mirror to help us look at how we use words and language to describe ourselves in terms of our environment. Thus, the work of the linguist is not just technical and scientific, but it can be social and meaningful as well.

About this event

ANELC is a joint King’s College LondonUCL series. This is the first year it is running as an online eLecture series. Read about #ANELC presentations. Also, read about other academic conferences.

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