Does the kingdom of God suffer violence?: Matt 11:12

Recently a friend asked me concerning a very interesting (and puzzling) verse of the bible found in the gospel according to Matthew, Matt 11:12. It’s a verse that we’ve no doubt read from time to time but if we were careful, we might have detected some difficulty with the flow of the verse – not least because it gets translated differently in different English versions:-
NKJV – And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.
NASB – From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.
NIV(2011) – From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence,and violent people have been raiding it.
NRSV – From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.
NET – From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it.
ESV – From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence,4 and the violent take it by force.
I remember reading this verse as a young Christian and being rather perplexed by what it could possibly mean. In particular I was curious about who these “violent men” who were taking the kingdom of heaven by force might be. Were they “good” people whom we are to emulate? ie. Should we too take the kingdom by force? Or were they “bad” people that we should be on the lookout for? Either ways, the verse just doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. I mean – how do you even go about taking an invisible kingdom by force?
To be sure, this is one of those verses that scholars debate over and translators agonise over. The problem stems from the word βιάζεται (biazetai) which is usually translated as “suffers violence”. The word “biazetai” means “to use force or violence”. The problem is that Greek verbs have different “voices” – the active, passive and what is called the middle voice (sometimes called the “aorist”). In English we are used to the active and passive voices. So “He will be killed” is a passive form of the verb “kill”. In English, the voice is determined by other parts of speech. In Greek, the voice is determined by the conjugation of the verb, in the same way that the tense in English is conjugated as part of the same word, eg. kill, killed, kills, killing. They’re all one word. So in Greek, you get one word “biazetai” (βιάζεται) and you will need to look at the conjugation to determine the voice, and hence the correct translation.
In this case, βιάζεται is the third person, singular, masculine, middle, indicative form. It is masculine because in the Greek, heaven is “masculine” so the verb associated with it is also masculine. It is the third person, for obvious reasons, when referring to the kingdom of heaven. The real problem comes when we get to the voice – the aorist middle voice. Middle voices are neither active nor passive, and is usually reflexive – acting on itself. In English, you might translate this literally as “the kingdom of heaven is violencing itself” – which is how many translators have translated it, more smoothly albeit. That, however, isn’t the only way of translating this. It is also possible to translate the reflexivity as “the kingdom of heaven is operating forcefully” [Rudolf Otto, “The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man”, pg.78], or as “the kingdom of heaven operates through force” [Reza Aslan, “Zealot”, pg.256]. These two translations are, for me, more sensible in the context of the passage.
The verse (Mt 11:12) says that since John the Baptist, which isn’t very long before Jesus said those words, the kingdom of heaven has been advancing forcefully, or operating forcefully. (I prefer “spreading powerfully” here.) Some have chosen “suffers violence” in the light of John the Baptist’s beheading by Herod Antipas (or Antipater). If so, the “violent men” are bad people who abuse God’s people. Fortunately for us, we have more than just one gospel. This same verse is reproduced for us in Luke 16:16:-
NKJV – The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it.
NASB – The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.
NRSV – The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force.
NET – The law and the prophets were in force until John; since then, the good news of the kingdom of God has been proclaimed, and everyone is urged to enter it.
Once you consider Lk 16:16, the “violent men” are clearly those who have responded to the preaching of the good news, rather than “bad people” like king Herod. If so, then Mt 11:12 should be translated more towards “advancing forcefully” or “operating with force/strength” as opposed to “suffers violence.” When Luke 16:16 used the same word “biazetai”, the context is that of people pressing into the kingdom of God forcefully, or “urged” as the NET translation puts it.
In summary – we have in Mt 11:12 a verse that talks about how since John the Baptist (the last of the OT prophets as implied in v.13-15) a new era has begun and people have been responding to the preaching of the good news of the kingdom of God in droves and, as a result, entering the kingdom of God in large numbers. This fits in well with the context of Mt 11:7-11. Jesus was trying to tell them that they have witnessed the fulfilment of the Malachi 4:5 and John had come to usher in a whole new era – the era of the good news of the kingdom of God. It’s not talking about “violent men” but those who are eagerly responding to the gospel described for us in Mt 3:5-6. Matthew, in particular, was trying to show how Jesus’ life fulfilled OT prophecies as the one that Isa 40:3 speaks of (see. Mt 3:1-3).
For what it’s worth, my interpretation of Mt 11:12:-
“John the Baptist marks the beginning of a new era of the kingdom that is spreading powerfully, through preaching of the good news and people are eagerly responding in droves, and entering the kingdom of heaven.”

The rope that broke the camel’s back: Matt 19:24

Okay, I know I made a “concluding rant” but this was too interesting (and it has Aramaic too!) to leave out so bear with me for just one more short rant. This one comes from Matt 19:24 (and also Mk 10:25, Lk 18:25). The NKJV reads:-
“And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
I have read some suggestions that the “eye of a needle” might be referring to a small door by the main gate to allow a man through at night when the gates are closed. Supposedly, the door is so small that you would have to shed all your baggage just to squeeze through and a camel would have a hard time getting in. Nice try. Unfortunately no such “eye of the needle” doors have been found in the walls of Jerusalem and certainly none that are so named, so strike that one out.
Still, we have to admit that the idea of a camel going through the eye of a needle is a rather awkward metaphor. That’s like saying, “This bag is as heavy as a a forest.” You know – the metaphor doesn’t really work because of the lack of obvious connection between the principal subjects. So what’s going on here? Why “camel”? Well, we do have a very compelling explanation for this that comes from the fact that Jesus probably taught in Aramaic or Hebrew. The above verse would have been rendered as such (Aramaic/Syriac: R-to-L):-
ܬܘܒ ܕܝܢ ܐܡܪ ܐܢܐ ܠܟܘܢ. ܕܦܫܝܩ ܗܘ ܠܓܡܠܐ ܕܢܥܒܪ ܒܚܪܘܪܐ ܕܡܚܛܐ. ܐܘ ܠܥܬܝܪܐ ܠܡܠܟܘܬܐ ܕܫܡܝܐ.
That’s just for you see what Aramaic script looks like. The word “camel” is the 8th word in the sentence ܓܐܡܠܐ (I left out the preposition for clarity) and reads as “gamlo” which means “camel”. There is another Aramaic word that sounds very close to this. The word ܓܐܡܠܥ (Aramaic:gamla) meaning “rope” according to Mar Bahlul, a 10th century Aramaic lexicographer. In George Lamsa’s Peshitta (Aramaic bible) translation, the word “rope” is used in place of “camel”.
At the same time, the Greek word for “camel”, κάμηλον (Greek:kamilon) is also somewhat similar to the Greek word for “rope”, κάμιλος (Greek:kamilos) although this usage is very rare (see BDAG: κάμιλος.) Cyril of Alexandria (376-444AD) insisted that it should have been “rope” instead of “camel.” (This can be found in his work: Fragment 219.) In fact, there are some post 10th century manuscripts of the gospels that have “rope” instead of “camel”, which makes a bit more sense as a metaphor.
These are all speculative, of course. The point is that just one little stroke of the pen, one vowel, can completely change the metaphor. Just because a metaphor is awkward does not, however, mean that there is a textual problem. It may just be that the original context may have been lost and we no longer understand it as it was meant to be understood. Fortunately for us, in this case – whether it was a camel or a rope, the meaning is not lost to us – it’s just a very hard thing to do enter through that eye of a needle.

Beyond Linguistics – Those pesky books: The book of Jasher

We should be aware that scripture does not stand as an island in the literary world. Every now and then we discover bridges across to other extra-canonical texts. In the past we have seen how extra-canonical translations and texts can contribute to canonical texts but what about entire books? A case in point is Joshua 10:13 (and 2Sam 1:18) where a certain “Book of Jasher” is referenced, a book that we do not find as part of the OT canon. So what exactly is contained in this (סֵ֣פֶר הַיָּשָׁ֑ר) “Book of Jasher”?
We know that the book actually existed at some point and was in wide use as it was referenced in other texts such as the Babylonian Talmud, the Mishnah, the Legend of the Jews, and other rabbinic works.
It turns out that there are quite a few claimants to this title, not to mention quite a few forgeries. Some of the supposed Hebrew manuscripts for Jasher have been floating around since the 1800’s, purportedly acquired in Spain and India. While it would be impossible to discuss the merit and provenance of the manuscripts, I happen to have the English translation of one such manuscript which proved to be rather fascinating.
You’d probably be curious to know what the book contains. It does contain the expanded account of the day the sun stood still (Jasher 88:63-64), as referred to in Josh 10:13, as well as the use of the bow (Jasher 56:9) referenced by 2Sam 1:18. Further to that it actually contains details of “Jannes and Jambres” who opposed Moses as mentioned in 2Tim 3:8-9. Paul assumes common knowledge of these two characters who aren’t mentioned anywhere else in the bible. (According to the book, they were the two sons of Balaam, the magician in Pharaoh’s court that Moses confronted.)
This so-called Book of Jasher (henceforth referred to as simply “Jasher”) consists mainly of parallel accounts of Genesis, Exodus and parts of Joshua. What makes it exceptionally interesting is that the accounts furnish a lot of details not found in Genesis (and the other books) itself – some of which offers rather interesting explanations to otherwise rather puzzling narratives. I say “so-called” because the authenticity of the book cannot be ascertained and there are a handful of inconsistencies here and there. As a whole, however, the text seems fairly credible so take this for what it’s worth. While I cannot reproduce the entire book here, I can provide some interesting examples to give you an idea of what the book contains.
For example, in Gen 19:26 we are told that Lot’s wife “looked back behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” I suppose all of us have at some point wondered at the severity of the consequence, and also on why Lot’s wife had looked back. The bible itself doesn’t offer any more details than this but the parallel account in Jasher does. Jasher 19:52-53 reads:-
“And he [the Lord] overthrew these cities, all the plain and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground; and Ado the wife of Lot looked back to see the destruction of the cities, for her compassion was moved on account of her daughters who remained in Sodom, for they did not go with her. And when she looked back she became a pillar of salt, and it is yet in that place unto this day.”
* square brackets are my comments
Well, now we know her name – Ado. And it seems that she looked back out of concern for her daughters. This is an example of the kind of additional detail that could be found in Jasher. This same kind of elaboration can be found for many of the Genesis accounts – though nothing that contradicts the basic biblical narratives. Another elaboration that’s of some interest is the background of Abram’s life and his relationship with his father Terah. Jasher 11 has the account. Here are some excerpts:-
(11:19-20) And Abram asked his father, saying, Father, tell me where is God who created heaven and earth, and all the sons of men upon earth, and who created thee and me. And Terah answered his son Abram and said, Behold those who created us are all with us in the house. [referring to his idols] And Abram said to his father, My lord, shew them to me I pray thee; and Terah brought Abram into the chamber of the inner court, and Abram saw and behold the whole room was full of gods of wood and stone, twelve great images and others less than they without number.
(11:29-33) And Abram took the savory meat from his mother, and brought it before his father’s gods into the chamber, and he came nigh unto them that they might eat, and he placed it before them, and Abram sat before them all day, thinking perhaps they might eat. And Abram viewed them, and behold they had neither voice nor hearing, nor did one of them stretch forth his hand to the meat to eat. And in the evening of that day in that house Abram was clothed with the spirit of God. And he called out and said, Woe unto my father and this wicked generation, whose hearts are all inclined to vanity, who serve these idols of wood and stone which can neither eat, smell, hear nor speak, who have mouths without speech, eyes without sight, ears without hearing, hands without feeling, and legs which cannot move. Like them are those that made them and that trust in them. And when Abram saw all these things his anger was kindled against his father, and he hastened and took a hatchet in his hand, and came unto the chamber of the gods, and he broke all his father’s gods.
You get a sense of the drama and Abram really comes to life as a character in Jasher. There are lots more such elaborations in the book but you get the idea. If nothing else, it’s really fun reading. On a more serious note, these details are consistent with the Canaanite idol worship practices of the day and are entirely credible.
So there you go – is this THE “Book of Jasher”? I couldn’t say but if it is, it sure offers some interesting insights. Sure beats playing PG!!! Haha.

Those additional words: Deut 6:5

The LXX translators faced the same sort of challenges that confront modern day bible translators. There are times when a literal word-for-word translator was felt to insufficiently convey the full meaning of the word and in the attempt to better convey their understanding of the particular word, they may insert elaborations into the text. While there may be some benefits to this, it can also have unintended consequences in the longer term when contexts have changed from when the translators worked.
Today we look at one of the most famous verses in the Torah, Deuteronomy 6:5. Part of the “Shema” prayer that almost every Jewish adult and child would know, this part reads:-
וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ
The transliteration and word-for-word translation is as follows:-
v’ahavta et YHWH eloekha b’kol levav’kha u’b’kol nefsh’kha u’b’kol meod’kha
and-you-shall-love YHWH your-god in-all your-heart and-in-all your-soul and-in-all your-strength
The translation is very straightforward and unambiguous. However, when you look at Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30 and Luke 10:27 where Deut 6:5 is quoted, you will see all kinds of variations that do not accurately reflect the Hebrew text for Deut 6:5. From the NKJV:-
Mt 22:37 – … you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. …
Mk 12:30 – … and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. …
Lk 10:27 – … You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind. …
One explanation might be that Jesus or the gospel writers weren’t particular about accuracy in their citations of scripture – which seems a little unlikely give how well known this particular verse is. Almost any Jew could have quoted it directly without error. We might have some explanation for Matt 22:37 in that the Hebrew manuscript for Matthew (known as the Shem Tov Hebrew Matthew – but let’s not get into the provenance of this text) actually provides a more accurate citation.
What the three gospel citations have in common, though, is the inclusion of the words “all your mind” which is not found in the Hebrew text. Where did this come from?
If you guessed the LXX, you were right. The LXX (Brenton English translation) reads:-
LXX-B – And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy mind, and with all thy soul, and all thy strength.
It turns out that some versions of LXX (yes, there are variants) use the Greek word διάνοιαν (Greek:dianoian = “understanding” or “mind”) instead of καρδίας (Greek:kardias = “heart”) to translate לְבָבְ (Hebrew:levav = “heart”). Some translators probably felt that “understanding” or “mind” was a better translation for “heart” – ie: we should love God with all our understanding or mind. Inevitably there were some people quoting the “heart” version and others who quoted the “mind” version. For this reason, it isn’t surprising that after a period of time, there was some confusion as to which word should be used and Mark probably decided to include both in Mk 12:30:-
NKJV – … and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. …
In other cases, “mind” was combined with “soul” or “strength”. It looked like there was a lot of confusion in how this verse was quoted in the Greek. The exegetical intricacies of these issues would take far more than FB posts could cover so I’ll just leave it at this point. Again, we have to remember that it wasn’t easy to get your hands on biblical text back in those days and oral transmission was the main method by which information was passed along. Most people could not really read or write either as there was no mandatory education in those days.
I should also add that in the Hebrew, there is no separate word for “mind”. In 2Sam 7:3, for example, the word translated as “mind” is in fact לְבָבְ (Hebrew:levav = “heart”). While the Greek has separate words for heart and mind, Hebrew only has one word and it is therefore very unlikely that Jesus would have actually said “mind” separately from “heart” given that he probably spoke Aramaic or Hebrew rather than Greek.
What we learn here is that translations can help shed light on the meaning of a word – the heart is for pumping blood and the mind is for understanding. To love God with all our heart is, per the LXX translators, simply a metaphorical way of saying that we should love God with our understanding and mind, as opposed to how modern readers mind think to love God with our (heart) emotions. At the same time, we also see that textual transmission cannot escape the imperfections of the human hands that put the information into writing. The gospel writers had to make some decisions about which was the best citation based on what was available to them, and not on perfect sources. This really forces us to reconsider the popular (but deeply flawed) views of verbal plenary inspiration of the bible.
Of course, what’s most important in the end is to keep Deut 6:5! With all you’ve got regardless of translators or translations.

More on translations (LXX): Luke 4:17

One of the things that happened when Jesus began his earthly ministry was his reading of Isaiah 61 in a synagogue setting. According to Luke 4:17 he was handed the scroll (not “book” as the Greek suggests) of Isaiah. He would have opened the scroll to the appointed parsha (the weekly appointed scripture reading) which fell on Isaiah 61. It would have been written in Hebrew, which Jesus could apparently read (not everyone could read in those days.) According to Luke’s account, this is what Jesus read (NASB):-
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed
We’ll ignore the fact that the reading stopped mid-verse in Isaiah 61:2 and look at what Luke reports for the first part that Jesus read, from Isaiah 61:1. When you turn to Isa 61:1, what you find is this:-
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
Because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
Hmmm… there seems to be some difference here that cannot be simply attributed to different ways of rendering the same text. In Luke’s account, there is missing the clause “bind up the brokenhearted” and includes an additional clause “recovery of sight to the blind.” In case you’re wondering, these differences are reflected in the Greek and Hebrew texts as well so it’s not a modern translational error.
What do we make of this discrepancy? Does it mean that the scroll Jesus was given to read was corrupted? Does it mean that our copy of Isa 61 is corrupted? The discrepancy is obviously there in the bible so we can’t ignore it or pretend there’s no problem there. As it turns out, there is a much better explanation for how this discrepancy came to be – well, a partial explanation anyway. Luke, as you may already know, was not a Jew and could not himself read Hebrew. Neither was he personally a disciple of Jesus. He followed Paul (who never really followed Jesus around as a disciple) and relied on the testimony of others to help him assemble the text for his gospel account (Lk 1:1-3).
So it is very likely that when he heard from witnesses that Jesus read from Isaiah 61, he would have heard either a verbal recount of the text of Isa 61:1-2a or was simply given a reference to the parsha that Jesus read. Being that he could not read Hebrew, he would naturally have relied on the LXX, something that we know he and Paul used a lot. So, what does the LXX’s account of Isaiah 61:1 say? [This is the Brenton English translation of the LXX Greek]:-
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
Because he has anointed me; he has sent me to preach glad tidings to the poor
To heal the broken in heart
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind;
Okay – now we’ve found where the “recovery of sight to the blind” clause came from. Most likely it wasn’t there in the Hebrew parsha that Jesus read but was in the LXX version of Isa 61:1 that Luke cited for his gospel account. Unfortunately the story isn’t that simple – I mean, when is it ever that simple? When you look at the LXX, you find that it includes “to heal the broken in heart” which, if he was citing the LXX directly, Luke decidedly left out. Now it appears that Luke didn’t even have access to the LXX text, which isn’t surprising because it’s not like you could just saunter into the library and pick up a copy of the LXX for reference. What Luke had was the verbal account of a Greek speaker telling of Jesus’ reading of the Isa 61 parsha, and then citing the LXX version of it from memory, and possibly leaving out a section of a rather long verse. Alternatively, Luke could have himself missed the clause while copying the citation. Even in comparing the three versions above, you can see how easy it is to skip a clause.
There are implications to this textual problem because the LXX version came to be included as part of “inspired” canonical text of Luke’s gospel. Does that make the LXX inspired even when it clearly differs from the Hebrew text? We also know that the Hebrew text is very reliable at this point because it is corroborated by 1QIsa Isaiah Scroll that was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) and dates back to 125BC, making it the one of the oldest extant bible manuscripts. Secondly, we can’t even get into why the LXX included the “recovery of sight” clause in a post like this, so let’s just put that aside.
What this tells us is that our whole idea of “inspiration” of the bible is rarely thought through carefully. The type of inspiration that is popularly held, what is sometimes known as “verbal plenary inspiration”, is pretty weak and leads to really poor understanding of the bible even if it appears very pious. It simply doesn’t take into account these types of problems and has a tendency to turn a blind eye or go into denial when confronted by textual issues. Simplistic answers are sometimes wrong answers.

Are translations inspired?: Gen 4:8

Translations are inevitable when it comes to the bible, and they’ve been around for a very long time – even during the time of Jesus and earlier. But are these translations inspired? The question is actually a little more complicated than it initially appears. Take Gen 4:8 as an example of this complication:-
NKJV – Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field …
NASB – Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field …
NIV – Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field …
JPS – Can said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field ..
NET – Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field …
NRSV – Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And they were in the field …
ESV – Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field …
You’ll notice, right off the bat, that some versions have extra details: “Let’s go out to the field”, while others don’t. Why is this so and what does the Hebrew text say (R-to-L)?
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר קַ֖יִן אֶל־הֶ֣בֶל אָחִ֑יו וַֽיְהִי֙ בִּהְיוֹתָ֣ם בַּשָּׂדֶ֔ה …
The transliteration and word-for-word translation is:-
v’yomer Cain al_Hevel achiu … v’yehi b’heyotem b’sadeh …
and said Cain to_Abel his-brother … and-it-was(that) they-were-together in-the-field …
In the Hebrew, it is actually quite clear that something is missing in the text because it says “And Cain said to Abel his brother” which would normally be followed by the content of the speech. In this case, nothing is given and the verse moves right on to another part where they were already in the field. This begs the question, “but what did Cain say to Abel?” The Hebrew text here doesn’t provide it.
If you were reading the NKJV or the ESV, you wouldn’t have suspected that anything was missing because the translators deliberately mistranslated יֹּ֥אמֶר (yomer) which means “said” into the intransitive verbs “talked” and “spoke” which did not require content to be provided, thus obscuring the problem from readers. The NASB was a little better but still mistranslated the word. Had they used “said” like how the JPS did, it would have become more obvious that something was missing.
So how did the NIV(2011), NET and NRSV come up with the missing content, “Let’s go out to the field”? Well, they looked to the LXX and the Samaritan Torah/Pentateuch for it. As I have earlier explained, the LXX is a relatively early Greek translation of the Hebrew bible that is especially valuable since the copies of the Masoretic Text from which we get the Hebrew of the OT dates to 8th century AD at the earliest. The LXX relied on much earlier Hebrew manuscripts (pre-3rd century BC). The Samaritan Torah is an independently maintained Hebrew Pentateuch (first 5-books of the bible) with many variations and some textual corruptions but generally attested ancient source. In both these sources, the LXX and the ST, the missing bits can be found.
Now we have a situation where the canonical Hebrew text is clearly missing bits that can be out in extra-canonical translations and texts, the LXX and the ST. The question is – should we consider those missing bits “inspired” and add those external data back into the canonical texts, knowing that they were not part of the canonical manuscripts as received in the first place? If so, should we consider the LXX an inspired translation? What do you think?
This just goes to show that our understanding of “inspired” is usually too unsophisticated and simplistic. In most cases, our doctrines of inspiration isn’t even biblically founded in the first place but it doesn’t bother most people because of the general ignorance of the textual issues. Of course, ignorance has never stopped people from zealously crusading for doctrines and positions that they themselves don’t fully understand.
p.s. Think about this but don’t reach a conclusion too quickly – there will be other LXX curiosities in the next post (or two.)

Digging deeper into the text: Rev 22:14

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that I tend to use both the NASB and the NKJV bibles and people were interested to know why. Well, they’re not the most perfect, for starters – I still read the Hebrew and Greek to check and make sure nothing fishy is going on in the translations. The two versions are quite good and reliable for the most part but the real reason I rely on them is because they represent the two major traditions of Greek manuscripts that are most commonly in use.
The NASB comes from the Wescott-Hort critical text that depends on the Alexandrian texts. The NKJV, on the other hand, comes from the Textus-Receptus that draws from the Byzantine texts. If you read Greek, you will likely use even more modern critical texts such as the Nestle-Aland or the Greek New Testament (UBS) which tends to combine both traditions. My purpose is not to discuss the different critical texts but to show you an example of why having two versions can be useful. The example I am using comes from Rev 22:14. If you look at Rev 22:14, you will find very different readings between the two traditions:-
NKJV – Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life …
NASB – Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life …
I think it doesn’t take a scholar to recognize that we have a problem here with texts that mean completely different things. To be sure, most of the verse are the same. It is only a very little portion where it says “do His commandments” vs. “wash their robes” that are different. So which is the correct version in this case? To appreciate how this problem came about, we will have to do a little CSI on the Greek text. The oldest Greek manuscripts were all written in uncials (all upper case letters). I am going to put the Greek versions side by side. TR is the Textus Receptus Greek that gave us the NKJV and TIS is the Tischendorf Greek (basically Alexandrian text) from which we get the NASB:-
TR – μακάριοι οἱ ποιοῦντες τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ, ἵνα ἔσται ἡ ἐξουσία αὐτῶν ἐπὶ τὸ ξύλον τῆς ζωῆς …
TIS – μακάριοι οἱ πλύνοντες τὰς στολὰς αὐτῶν, ἵνα ἔσται ἡ ἐξουσία αὐτῶν ἐπὶ τὸ ξύλον τῆς ζωῆς …
I want you to notice that apart from the emboldened words, the verse is actually identical in the Greek. The problem of the variation comes only from the bracketed segments so we will look at this in a bit more detail. I reproduce just those words here in uncials, just as they would have been written in the earliest Greek manuscripts, along with the literal translation.
TR – ΠΟΙΟΥ͂ΝΤΕΣ ΤᾺΣ ἘΝΤΟΛᾺΣ ΑΥ̓ΤΟΥ͂ – do the commandments of his
TIS – ΠΛΎΝΟΝΤΕΣ ΤᾺΣ ΣΤΟΛᾺΣ ΑΥ̓ΤΩ͂Ν – wash the robes of theirs
Now, even if you may not understand Greek, I want you to see that the writing of those two sets of words are physically very similar. ΠΟΙΟΥ͂ΝΤΕΣ (do/perform) looks like ΠΛΎΝΟΝΤΕΣ (wash), and ἘΝΤΟΛᾺΣ (commands) looks like ΣΤΟΛᾺΣ (robes). You can probably guess where I am going with this now. Somebody either had really bad handwriting or bad eye-sight. Perhaps there was some damage to the original parchment at some point of the textual transmission that resulted in a corrupted copy. Some of the copyists couldn’t actually read – they simply copied the shapes as they saw it. The real question now is, “Which was the original reading?”
Well, Rev 7:14 has a similar phrase “washed their robes” which is rendered as ἔπλυναν τὰς στολὰς αὐτῶν in the Greek (literal: washed the robes of-theirs). Notice how apart from the word στολὰς (stolas = robes), the word used for “washed” is completely different. Also Rev 22:14 was missing the 3rd person genitive pronoun αὐτῶν (of-theirs). In other words, the author was certainly capable of correctly rendering this text as he did in Rev 7:14. Somehow, he writes a much lower quality Greek in Rev 22:14. This sounds a tad suspicious but I can imagine a copyist trying to use 7:14 to make sense of 22:14 if the text was illegible or unclear in parts.
Textually, it is more likely for a longer text to be corrupted to a shorter text due to illegibility or damage. Between the two readings, the TR is longer and seems more likely to be corrupted towards a shortened version. From ἘΝΤΟΛᾺΣ to ΣΤΟΛᾺΣ requires the loss of the “N” alphabet and it is more likely for this to happen than for an “N” to be added accidentally.
The TR’s “do the commandments” seems to make more sense, especially given the reference in v.11 to the practice of righteousness and holiness. Two other times in the book of Revelations are there mention of “keep the commandments” and albeit a little different from “do the commandments”, still makes more sense than “wash the robes”. Without going into extensive CSI, my gut feeling is that the TR got this one right and the Alexandrian text (used in NASB, NIV, NET, NRSV, ESV, among others). In the previous post, we saw where the NKJV was wrong in the insertion of the Johannine Comma. In short – you win some and lose some. Sometimes NKJV wins, sometimes NASB wins, most of the time it’s a draw.
This is the reason for me to refer to both the NASB and the NKJV versions for study, as a way of checking the two major textual traditions for any discrepancies. By the way, the OT text has fewer such problems because it draws mainly from very complete and consistent texts – the Masoretic texts of the Leningrad Codex and the Aleppo Codex agree for the most part.
At this point, I’m not sure if you guys are sick of all the linguistic stuff. I can write more if you like but if you guys have had enough, I’ll stop here. If I do write, I think I’ll write something that involves the LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch. Let me know if you’re interested.

The Johannine Comma: 1John 5:7

It is not uncommon to come across strong adherents to certain translations, who hold such translations as inspired. I used to have Jehovah’s Witnesses who would come to my door and try to persuade me that the KJV is the best and only inspired translation to use. In the same way, we find quite a few Christians who have somehow been taught this and fell for it, line, hook, and sinker, without actually having understood the underlying facts of the matter. Usually, the views are so deeply entrenched, and they are so deeply invested in it (having perhaps espoused the view for a long time publicly), that they would rather not deal with the possibility that they have been long misled. This post isn’t intended to argue a case for or against the KJV but to show that it, like any other translation, is fraught with translational errors – that are certainly not “inspired by the Holy Spirit”.
1John 5:7 is sometimes referred to as the Johannine Comma. When we look at the various English translations, we immediately see marked differences that should make us wonder what’s going on.
KJV – For there are three that bear record in heaven; the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one
NKJV – For there are three that bear witness in heaven; the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one
NASB – For there are three that testify
NIV – For there are three that testify
NET – For there are three that testify
NRSV – For there are three that testify
ESV – For there are three that testify
Now, even without reading – the sheer difference in the length of the verse alone must have gotten your attention, pointing to the fact that there are two different translations. They can’t both be correct, can they? So what is really happening here, and why do we have such different readings? In order to understand this, you’ll have to know something about how our bibles came about. Speaking mainly for the NT text – this was originally written in Koine-Greek. Epistles such as 1John would have been hand copied (of course) widely onto parchments and so on, by believers. We do not possess any of the original Greek texts, only copies. Not only that, sometimes we don’t even have complete texts but many parchments or fragments that are pieced together to give us a more complete text. In some cases, we have fairly complete texts, and in other cases fragmented ones.
Historically, there have been compilations of these texts that have been handed down through various historical traditions. Very broadly speaking (because it would be impossible to speak of all the manuscripts individually) there are two main traditions, known as the Alexandrian and the Byzantine texts. The Codex Sinaiticus (compilation of Greek texts of the NT) discovered in a monastery on Mt. Sinai was written in the 4th century AD and is an example of the Alexandrian text. Likewise the Codex Vaticanus (so called because it is being kept in the Vatican library) is another Alexandrian compilation of the NT dating back to the 4th century. The Byzantine text, on the other hand, is called the Majority Text because it has the largest number of surviving manuscripts. And there there were also translations of the Greek into Syriac, Coptic, Latin and other languages of the day.
Translators have to consider the different texts, especially where there are variations. When Erasmus, the humanist scholar in the 16th century, worked on the compilation of a standardised Greek NT, he had to do the same thing – based on what manuscripts he had access to, he had to choose which texts he considered most reliable. He produced five versions of this Greek text that eventually came to be called the Textus Receptus (TR).
In the first two versions of his work, he didn’t include the bit that said “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit …” (the Johannine Comma, or Comma for short) because it wasn’t there in any of the Greek manuscripts. So how did Erasmus end up including the Comma into the later versions? It turns out that he relied the Latin Vulgate translation of the Greek for that bit, presumably under pressure from the Catholic church. So, firstly, it wasn’t based on the Greek text but on a translation. Secondly, the Comma does not appear in ANY of the Greek manuscripts pre-dating the 16th century, regardless of tradition.
So basically – the TR, in this case, got the text wrong. It wasn’t the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that put it there. It was the the innovation of man. And, as you might have guessed, the KJV when it was first published, relied on the TR in this case and that’s how the Comma ended up in the KJV and the NKJV translation (of a translation).
Now, I am sure the KJV fans will protest that the KJV translation is still inspired by God, even when here is a clear example of it’s imperfection – clearly an adding to the best available Greek text with man’s ideas. If people want to ignore truth because of vested interests, that’s their choice. All I’m saying is that, the KJV is not somehow more special than the other modern translations. There is no biblical basis, obviously, for making such a claim – it is a claim made by man, not by God, but idolised by many.

When the text is unclear: 1Sam 13:1

Translating ancient texts isn’t always an easy thing to do. Sometimes, the text itself can be so difficult you just don’t know what to do with it. A case in point is 1Sam 13:1 where the Hebrew text (R-to-L) says:-
בֶּן־שָׁנָ֖ה שָׁא֣וּל בְּמָלְכ֑וֹ וּשְׁתֵּ֣י שָׁנִ֔ים מָלַ֖ךְ עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל
transliteration and word-for-word translation:-
ben_shanah Shaul b-malekh-o  v-shetei  shanim malakh   al_Israel
son-of_year  Saul    he-ruled       and-two years    (as)king  over_Israel
This text is difficult in several ways. First of all, the words “ben_shanah Shaul” seems to be incomplete and doesn’t really make sense. It seems to be saying “the year/age of Saul was …” but that’s where it just stops making sense. Secondly, the text says that Saul reigned for two years over Israel. [Acts 13:21 says that Saul reigned for 40-years] We know that the ark was lost to the Philistines (1Sam 4:1-18) before Saul started reigning as king, and it had ended up in Kirjath Jearim for 20-years (1Sam 7:2) before David brought it back to Jerusalem (2Sam 6:2). Therefore, by inference, Saul’s reign would have to have been less than 20-years. So now we have 2-years, 40-years, 42-years, and 20-years, plus the ambiguity in the text. What would you do?
Well, usually scholars would check the LXX at this point. The LXX (Roman numerals for 70), also known as the Septuagint (meaning 70 in Latin), was the (probably first proper) Greek translation for the OT that was made around the 3rd century BC. As the Greek empire expanded under Alexander the Great, Greek became a widely used language and eventually there were Jews who were more familiar with Greek than with Hebrew – just like how we have Singaporean Chinese who are more at home with English than Mandarin. So a translation was commissioned and because it was so early – it is sometimes useful as a way to reverse-engineering what their early copy of the Hebrew text might have said. Of course, you’d have to understand Koine-Greek to read it.
So what did the LXX say about 1Sam 13:1? Well, haha – they left it out completely! The translators probably had so much difficulty with it, they simply left it out. So there is no 1Sam 13:1 in the LXX, just 1Sam 13:2 onwards. Great. That’s not really helpful to us. It also doesn’t help that the DSS (Dead Sea Scrolls) 4Q51 parchments are missing the whole of 1Sam 13 so that’s another dead-end.
So what did our modern translators do with this text? Let’s see:-
NKJV – Saul reigned one year, and when he had reigned two years over Israel …
NASB – Saul was thirty years old when he began to reign and he reigned forty-two years over Israel.
NIV – Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years.
JPSS – Saul was … years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel two years.
NET – Saul was thirty years old when he began to reign; he ruled over Israel for forty years.
NRSV – Saul was … years old when he began to reign; and he reigned … and two years over Israel.
ESV – Saul lived for one year and then became king, and when he had reigned for two years over Israel …
It’s amazing how many translators felt the need to inject information into the text – the difficulty of the text not-withstanding. You can also see how the different translators struggled to make sense of the text. I guess sometimes you just can’t win! At least in this case, it didn’t result in deeply held doctrinal positions as in the previous two examples.
Happy National Day Singapore!

When Translators Theologise: Gen 14:20b

Following my previous rant on Mal 2:16, there were people who asked which translation would be best. While there are no perfect translations, I tend to use both NKJV and the NASB as they tend to be generally quite faithful to the Hebrew text. I avoid dynamic translations such as The Message, NIV, NLT, GNB due to their limited value for study purposes. One example of this would be in the translation of Gen 14:20b:-
NKJV – … and he gave him a tithe of all
NASB – … he gave him a tenth of all
but the other translations say:-
NIV – … Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything
JPSS – … And Abram gave him a tenth of everything
NET – … Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything
NRSV – … And Abram gave him one tenth of everything
ESV – … And Abram gave him a tenth of everything
The Hebrew text for this bit actually reads (from right to left):-
וַיִּתֶּן־ל֥וֹ מַעֲשֵׂ֖ר מִכֹּֽל
the transliteration and word for word translation:-
v-yitten_l-o                  ma’aser  me-kol
and-he-gave_to-him  tenth       of-all
The first problem you can already see is that there are no names in the text. No “Abram” and certainly no “Melchizedek”. The translators of NIV, JPSS, NET, NRSV, ESV took the liberty of inserting those names in order to make the text say things a certain way. But did they get it wrong in spite of their good (theological) intentions?
Secondly. If you read Gen 14:18-20 to get the full context, you will discover that this entire section was about Melchizedek doing things to Abram.
v.18 – we see that Melchizedek was the main actor – bringing out bread and wine.
v.19 – we see that he (Melchizedek) blessed him (Abram) with words that are contextually incontrovertible
v.20 – is a continuation of v.19 with Melchizedek as the main actor.
v.20b – this should simply be a continuation of everything else with Melchizedek giving Abram a tenth of all
If all you had was this text, this would be how you would have read it. There would be no way you would suddenly turn around and say that Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything just as you wouldn’t interpret v.19 as Abram blessing Melchizedek. What is going here is that the translators were looking at Hebrew 7:2 which said that Abraham gave a tenth to Melchizedek, and then decided to alter the translation of Gen 14:20b to make the text agree with Hebrew 7:2. In other words, they’re no longer translating here, but theologising because the plain text was inconvenient and disturbing in its implications. At the very least, if the context wasn’t clear – just leave it the way NKJV and NASB did, without taking the liberty to inject an interpretation that isn’t found in the original text.
So the question is – what do you do when the text says something inconvenient? Should translators smooth it out by injecting their own interpretation to avoid any textual difficulties? Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that word for word translations are the way to go. Far from it. All good translations require contextual understanding. The problem with this and other examples is that the translators were authoring stuff that did not exist in the text, nor was what the text meant. They probably represented the prevailing theology of the day and/or desired to avoid theologically difficult translations.
Once again, I’m not addressing the question of Hebrew 7:2. I’m simply pointing out examples of where translators go amuck, and why I tend to stick to NKJV and NASB. Why two versions? That’s a story for another post if anyone’s interested.
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