Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Of Words and Wording

Which version of the Old Testament did Jesus use?

Being a Jew, one might expect him to quote from the Hebrew scriptures, which would surely have been the “official” word of God in his day. But this was not always the case. Craig Evans makes the case that the Lord often quoted from a well-known Greek translation of the proto-Masoretic Hebrew, and even occasionally from the Aramaic tradition.

If you find that odd, here’s something odder: once in a while, a non-literal translation is more useful than a literal one.

Envy / Jealousy / Zeal

Take the Hebrew word qana', for instance. Most translators unpack it into at least three different English concepts: envy, jealousy and zeal:
  1. Envy is generally considered to be a bad thing and in some quarters a deadly sin, unless you are talking to a socialist. In brief, it means wanting what someone else has, and to which you have no legitimate claim. It implies discontent with one’s own lot in life.
  2. Jealousy may be good or bad, as may its consequences. It is defined various ways, but most dictionaries take for granted it arises from an agreement of some sort that is being protected and cherished, such as marriage or official political freedom. Jealousy is appropriate when triggered by a genuine violation of agreed-upon expectations, and inappropriate when the jealous person has his or her facts wrong. (And of course jealousy may be expressed honorably or sinfully; that’s a separate issue; we’re talking here only about the emotion.) But we would not reasonably describe a wife’s emotional reaction to the revelation that her husband has taken a lover as “envy”. She has good reason to be worked up about it!
  3. Zeal is a more general word describing intense interest. As used in the Bible, zeal is jealousy that is not personal; protectiveness of someone else’s covenant or rights.
Not Literal, But Useful

Now, you may or may not precisely agree with my definitions, but that’s not particularly important. What we can agree upon, I think, is that: (1) in English these words are similar but not the same; and (2) it is only the translation process that succinctly captures for us the necessary distinctions. In the original Hebrew, no such subtleties are inherent to qana' in and of itself. A single word transmits all three ideas, and the necessary baggage that we get right on the surface in English (the information as to the specific nature and morality of the qana' in question) is in Hebrew found sprinkled throughout the surrounding context.

These English distinctions may not be literal, but they’re useful. We might say the translators of the King James (and other current English versions of the Bible) are editorializing rather than rendering the Hebrew with exacting literalism. Because they are.

Thing is, they are not wrong to do so, and they appear to have done their work with great consistency. They also have a good reason employ three different English words, in that there IS no single English word with a semantic range sufficiently broad to encompass all three concepts. Some choices had to be made in order to make the meaning of the text understood to English readers.

A few brief examples of the use of qana' will probably do the trick:


Rachel envied [qana'] her sister. That wasn’t Leah’s fault. She couldn’t help it that she was pregnant and Rachel wasn’t. Further, Rachel could claim no “right” to children. Sure, children are a blessing, but I cannot think of anywhere we are guaranteed that particular blessing. Likewise, the Philistines in Gerar envied [qana'] Isaac’s wealth, which speaks poorly of their character.


Godly jealousy exists:
“You shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous [qanna'], is a jealous [qanna'] God.”
Clear? In and of itself, jealousy is not a bad thing. It’s inherent in God’s nature. He says so himself. The covenant relationship with Israel (to which the nation itself was very much a party) gives rise to a well-established expectation of resolute spiritual monogamy. Israel failed to live up to its end of the deal. So God can say, in effect, “Don’t bring a third party into this relationship. It will not end well.”

Then there is bad jealousy. The book of Numbers speaks of a man who “is jealous [qana'] of his wife, though she has not defiled herself.” In this case, the husband’s emotional energy is misdirected and wasteful. It endangers the relationship.


Phinehas, grandson of Aaron the priest, took a spear and strode into the tent of an adulterous man and impaled him and his Midianite lover together, stopping a plague on Israel in the process. God’s comment: “He was zealous [qana'] for my sake.” That’s the KJV. Slightly more literally, perhaps, the ESV translates the same phrase “He was jealous [qana'] with my jealousy [qin'ah].”

I like that. That’s good zeal, though one might prefer not to be on the receiving end of that sort of enthusiasm.

Saul too was most enthusiastic, but unlike Phinehas his zeal was misplaced. Samuel records this:
“Saul had sought to strike them [the Gibeonites] down in his zeal [qana'] for the people of Israel and Judah.”
Saul’s zeal was nationalistic rather than inspired by devotion to his God. No further comment required there; the results speak for themselves.

Precision and Nuance

You can see, I hope, that a single word in English is insufficient to cope with the scope of this particular Hebraism. It turns out we Anglos speak about that continuum of emotions in a more precise or perhaps nuanced way than the Hebrews.

That is not always the case, naturally. Every culture has its strong and its weak points with language. Allegedly the ancient Persians had 80 words for love. If so, we can’t compete in that department. Undoubtedly there were more than a few concepts and ideas illuminated in new ways in the process of translating the Septuagint, some even more usefully than in Hebrew; not least because the Greek translators were putting older ideas into the vernacular as precisely as possible. And all the same complications and quandaries anyone encounters in moving from language to language would have been part and parcel of that process.

And yet it sure seems like the Lord Jesus used the Septuagint.

Diacritical Points on Words

Now, this is long way to go to get where I’m going, but let me now pose you a question: What should we make of this statement?
“For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
So which “Law”: Hebrew, Greek ... or maybe even Aramaic? How do we speak meaningfully about diacritical points on words when the words themselves change as we translate them?

A range of answers is posited.

From “Anything Goes” to “Everything Stays”

At one end there is the “anything goes” school, where “relevance” is the metric. It produces things like The Way, the International Standard Version and more recently, Eugene Peterson’s The Message. These are more paraphrases than translations, and useful in provoking readers to rethink passages they might otherwise gloss over, but not much else. They simply drift too far from the original languages to be used as Bibles.

On the other end, there are Christian numerologists who claim things like this:
“The eight Hebrew letter string ישוע משיח Yeshua Meshiach appears in Psalm 22 at a skip of 45 letter intervals, written reversed in Hebrew in relation to the open text, with the last letter of Meshiach being the 14th letter of the first verse.”
Cool, no? But also remarkably useless to the average believer, and utterly impossible to import into English or any other language. And of course it requires a version of the Hebrew text of Psalm 22 to which the analyst may appeal as absolutely definitive, and I’m not sure we can claim to have that sort of thing available for most of scripture.

Spirit and Letter

Moreover, I don’t think that’s the way the Lord Jesus regarded the Hebrew Old Testament: as a very clever puzzle or as some kind of immutable set of sacred runes with higher math built in for the intellectuals. Not if he felt free to slip into Greek or Aramaic as the moment or the audience or the particular quote required. Remember, he was speaking to people who didn’t have copies of those iotas and dots at home to go scrutinize. Their salvation was not to be realized in the minute examination of diacritical points.

It was in believing and acting on the things he said to them.

I think he was telling his audience that his own interpretations of scripture, his actions, his words and everything about his life, were 100% consistent with what God had spoken to Israel from the beginning. Nothing about what God was or had said was lost in Christ’s expression of him, regardless of the language in which it may have been spoken. His words could surely be meaningfully explained different ways at different times and to different cultures, because it was the message that really mattered, not some rigidly-defined set of runes or brushstrokes or penmarks or pixils.

Further, the Spirit of God is not just the author of a perfect document but also its living, very present interpreter.

If we keep that fact in front of us, I think we’ll do okay.

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