A Good Thing about That Emoji Bible

One of my favorite questions as a Bible-scholar-lady is “So, what’s the best translation?” I love this question not only because it opens the door to substantive discussion that can last for the better part of a class period… no matter how long the meeting. But I also love it because we get to talk about paradox: The best translation is precisely not the one. Rather, the best translation is a whole mess of ’em, side by side, allowing a reader to see the varieties of ways this ancient text can mean (and sometimes revealing the biases of whoever’s behind said translation). So even when I disagree with some version’s particular word choice, turn of phrase, or punctuation, finally I say bring it on. Give us a new translation, and keep them coming. Come they do.Bible Emoji cover225x225

Jazz Riff on Genesis 1

It was a great honor to be invited to give the Dillard series of lectures at Trinity United Methodist Church this year. Wow, what a turn-out! and what wonderfully warm, hospitable, and thoughtful folks I met there, people deeply invested in the pursuit of understanding, committed as much to the humbling business of query and investigation as to a rich faith.

My part was a small one — to deliver four lectures on the general topic “The Power of Story and the Greatest Ever Told.” By way of beginning and end, I offered this wee meditation:

Some Musings on the Name of God

There is a long-standing tradition that no person, no mere mortal, should presume to possess the name of God. The Name, as the reasoning goes, is a holy thing, a handle on the divine not to be trifled with. We hear concern about its misuse in the ancient biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD in vain.”

But what is that name? The short (but incomplete) answer is that it’s the four-letter word that God introduced to Moses — a Hebrew word that played on the verb “to be”: “I am who I am.” Transliterating those four Hebrew letters yields some variation of YHWH or JHVH.

Cut the Cake, the KJV is 400

“Did you know,” a bright-eyed young woman breathlessly exclaimed to me, “that when King James wrote the Bible, he didn’t actually put everything in?!” I was riding the DC Metro a few weeks ago when she sat down beside me with this information. Since people don’t normally talk on the train (unless it’s a first date or someone you work with), I might have suspected that the conversation would take an odd turn. King James did not, of course, write the Bible. He didn’t even write the version that got his name. My commuting companion was right, in a way, though: The King James Version didn’t happen out of the blue and from scratch but depended on other versions and the input of a lot of people.

The Particular Exasperations of Learning Biblical Hebrew

“The language of God,” Biblical Hebrew. I’m off soon to teach our third week’s class, and we’re in the thick of it now. The alphabet (or aleph-bet) is kind of fun — little ditties, the novelty of recognizing letters completely different from what we see in English, of reading from right to left. But the rose is paling as we get into “weak roots” and the finicky needs of gutteral letters. Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, a.k.a. “Hebrew Bible,” because… ok, you get it… can be exasperating. So many rules that hardly qualify as rules for all their exceptions, shape-shifting letters, and other letters that simply disappear from the words you’ve laboriously memorized. But what a thrill to recognize the multi-layered nature of sacred text, to be able to unpack a single Hebrew word to yield a full sentence, to see the wordplay for oneself, and to contemplate the possibilities and limitations of translation. I hope the students catch that energy at least as often as they grimace at “compensatory lengthening” and “virtual doubling.”

Now that’s one bad apple

Countless visual representations of the Garden of Eden creation story narrated in Genesis chaps 2-3 depict a crisp apple as the downfall of Adam and Eve. Yet the original Hebrew reads simply “fruit.” Without knowing that, we English speakers (and readers) can be excused for assuming that it was specifically an apple such as a Gala or juicy Granny Smith, since that’s the way that the Hebrew is often translated — Eve ate from the apple, shared it with Adam, and bye bye Paradise. Translating like that makes a certain kind of sense, since “apple” used to function in English to describe all sorts of fruit. But even before that, when the text began to be translated into Latin, the translators introduced an evocative wordplay: they translated the Hebrew “fruit” with “apple,” which in Latin is malum — not incidentally related to malus, meaning “bad.” Poor guys clearly never had my mom’s apple pie…

An Unsentimental Text

I just finished an interpretive translation of the biblical book of Numbers for “The Voice,” a multi-volume project to which many extraordinary Christian writers have contributed. I’m honored to be in their company. Numbers is a funny book — one minute you can be slogging through mind-numbing details of genealogies or ritual details and the next you’re suddenly smack in the middle of high drama. Remarkably economical, few biblical narratives go in for the kind of backstory, landscape, or inner thoughts that enrich modern stories. And sometimes the result is heart-breaking.

Bible as Poetry

I had the great good fortune to read a couple of new Bible translations and communicate, albeit briefly, with their creators for an article that will appear in Publishers Weekly Religion BookLine (10/28). In both cases, the translators are poets in their own right. Not only that, but both have worked for decades with these biblical texts, one with the Hebrew Hebrew Bible, the other with the Greek New Testament. The results — beautiful, thought-provoking renderings with more poetry than English translations normally reflect.

LORDy, Lordy! typos and misunderstandings

Over the past couple of days, my editor, agent, and I have been scrambling to deal with an ironic case of mistaken identity in Bible Babel. In short: the main character’s name isn’t correct in the version poised to go out to reviewers and potential endorsers. Yikes! One of the reasons that I wrote Bible Babel was to help people understand big and little puzzlers such as why God is sometimes referred to as LORD (appearing as big capital L, small caps ORD) and other times Lord. The former, LORD, is the way many English translations render the Old Testament’s four-letter, personal name for God (transliterated YHWH). This is THE NAME that God revealed to Moses, a stand-in for God’s very presence in the Jerusalem Temple, and by which God’s people could specially know their particular God. “Lord,” on the other hand, is the translation of a different Hebrew word, a generic noun meaning just that — “lord, master,” or (brace yourselves, feminists) “husband.” YHWH or LORD never appears in the New Testament, and the transition from LORD to Lord (especially the manner in which “the name of the Lord” functions in the New Testament) signals a provocative theological shift — finally defining what makes a Christian a Christian. Well, just before the book’s galleys (final form “lite” — i.e., possibly containing typos, etc) were produced, a typesetter misunderstood copyediting instructions and changed some cases of Lord to LORD. The result — sometimes there’s an error that may confound though a reader wouldn’t necessarily identify it as the typo it is, and sometimes the text simply doesn’t make sense. Even though the galleys clearly state that this is an “uncorrected proof,” to the credit of my superb editor and the team at HarperCollins, the plan now is to correct manually every instance in which the word appears erroneously before sending the copies out. Whew!  

Conservative Bible

Work is underway on a new translation of the King James Version designed to correct what its authors call a “liberal bias” in modern translations. Conservapedia, which claims to be “the trustworthy encyclopedia,” has determined to correct what it sees as “three sources of errors in conveying biblical meaning are, in increasing amount:

  • lack of precision in the original language, such as terms underdeveloped to convey new concepts introduced by Christ
  • lack of precision in modern language
  • translation bias in converting the original language to the modern one.”