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, both 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. The languages are largely unrelated. Ben’s study examines the likelihood of active verbs 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 kind of 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.

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 integrity of contextual meaning.

Another aspect of Ben’s study was looking at cases where Hebrew verbs writ passive were translated in the 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 occurence, 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 active intensive (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).

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

Ben Whittle’s presentation demonstrated a complex relationship of translation between the Septuagint, the Masoretic Text, and the Hebrew tradition as a source for translation. While many of the translation differences were not significant to overall meaning of a passage, Ben noted that sometimes the variances flip the perspective of the text in translation. In some cases, 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, but the work speaks to larger issues of translation and the significance of social history upon a people’s language. In the translation of a spiritual text, like the Hebrew Bible, there can also be theological implications. For example, given a common active/passive verbal shift, agency may be either removed or attributed in translation. Where agency is given or stripped from a divine entity, like God, the implications can have a larger impact on how theology is formed in the reader.

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

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