Reasons to Believe

Historic Age Debate: Dependence on Translations, Part 4 (of 5)

The King James Version renders the sixth commandment as "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17). Can people use this as evidence that capital punishment is unbiblical? Actually, no. The original Hebrew in these verses specifically refers to murder, not to all forms of killing.1 This example highlights the need to consider other translations or better yet to go back to the original text.

The vast majority of theologians and scholars (both past and present) have relied on Greek, Latin, English, or other translations for their understanding of the Old Testament (OT). This series of articles has focused on the implications this practice has for the interpretation of Genesis 1-11 in particular part 1. Parts 2 and 3 discussed how differences in [language] and [culture] can affect how we construe these critical passages. Here we focus on the roles that errors or problems in specific translations play in debates over Genesis.

The most influential translations

Septuagint (or LXX): Hebrew Scripture was first translated into Greek starting c. 282 BC. This version was named the Septuagint (meaning 70) because the work was said to have been done by 70 rabbis. Legends grew up around its formation imbuing it with special authority. It was particularly influential among the Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jews living outside of Israel as well as those in the early church.

Old Latin Bible (or Vetus Latina): The Old Latin Bible refers to a collection of translations of the Greek Septuagint into Latin. These manuscripts should be understood as "translations of translations" rather than as true translations from the Hebrew. The Old Latin nourished Western believers who knew Latin but not Greek or Hebrew.

Vulgate: After Latin began to dominate Europe, Jerome (fifth century) was commissioned by the Pope to create a single authorized Latin translation to replace the Old Latin ones. Originally, Jerome was instructed to only revise the Old Latin by comparing it against the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament because people were familiar with the Old Latin and wouldn't be receptive to a significant change in the reading of the text. Jerome wanted to translate the OT from the Hebrew instead and eventually did just that. He still had to stay close to earlier translations, so some details (and problems) of the Septuagint and Old Latin translations were carried over into the Vulgate.

King James Version (KJV): The fifth in a series of "authorized" English Bibles, the KJV was commissioned in 1611 by King James I of England. While its OT was translated directly from the Hebrew, in many cases the KJV follows the Septuagint or Vulgate instead. (This occurred primarily when the translators had difficulty understanding the original Hebrew.) For example, the use of "firmament" in Genesis 1:8 is a direct carry over from the Latin firmamentum of the Vulgate rather than a direct translation of the original Hebrew (raqiya or "sky").2 Nevertheless, the KJV remained the dominant English translation among Protestants until the twentieth century.

As history shows, "transitional inertia" allowed problems in early translations to pass into newer ones (such as in the KJV's use of "firmament"). Furthermore, all four of these translations were popularly treated as being inspired in their own day; so many believers considered them of equal or greater authority than the Hebrew original.3 As a result, errors in these translations were often defended rather than being corrected.

Their impact on interpretation

The debate over the age of the Earth and the days of creation involves figuring out which point-of-view understands Genesis "literally." But ultimately, "literal" applies only to the Hebrew original. Translations are human productions and must be judged according to how closely they reproduce the original text.

While Bible translators strive to be faithful in their work, small problems or errors may still creep in. Thankfully most of occurrences are insignificant. But we can identify a number of instances where translational issues have had a direct and long-lasting effect on how theologians interpreted the early chapters of Genesis.

The Sons of God/Giants

Genesis 6:1-4 reads that the "sons of God" had children with the "daughters of men." Historically, the most popular way of understanding this passage was that the "sons of God" refer to angels or to the descendents of the godly line of Seth, Adam's son. The translators of the Septuagint, however, biased interpretations toward one standpoint by substituting "angels" for "sons of God". (The sons-of-God-as-angels view was fashionable in Jewish circles at that time. It appears in the apocryphal Book of Enoch, so the translators of the Septuagint were simply reflecting popular thinking.) This helps explain why the angel interpretation held exclusive dominance in the church for the first two centuries.4 A second example can be found in this same passage where the Septuagint translated Nephilim (literally "fallen ones") as "giants" (Greek gigos). As a result, the view that the Nephilim were "giants" was rampant in the early church.

Evening-Morning-Day in Genesis 1

At the center of controversy over the days of creation is the evening-morning-day phrase, which appears six times in Genesis 1. The KJV renders it, "And the evening and the morning were the Xth day." This interpretation actually misrepresents the original Hebrew in multiple ways and in each case lends artificial support for a calendar-day view.

First, the verb ("was") appears twice in the Hebrew, but the KJV actually leaves out the second occurrence and so reduces it to a simple sentence. The Young's Literal Translation (YLT) correctly says, "and there is an evening, and there is a morning–day one." Second, the KJV reads "the first day" for Genesis 1:5, whereas the Hebrew actually reads "one day" or "day one" instead. Third, the KJV adds the definite article "the" before "day" even though it is not present in the Hebrew.5 For example, Genesis 1:8 KJV says "the second day" when it should say "second day" or "a second day." Adding "the" makes the reading easier in English, but it implies that it is talking about a specific period of time (i.e., a solar day) rather than representing time generically.6 Given the dominance of the KJV for the last several centuries, this mistranslation has played a major role in popularizing the calendar-day interpretation among English speakers.

The Genesis Genealogies

Many early Jewish and Christian writers summed the ages at fatherhood in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 in order to compute the time from Abraham back to Adam and creation. Such attempts assume that these genealogies don't skip names, but, as previously discussed, this assumption is untenable (see parts 2 and 3). For those who chose to perform these calculations anyways there is yet another problem–the ages given in the Septuagint differ from those in the original Hebrew. It seems they were altered to make the gradual decrease in life spans smoother.7 Thus, estimates for the time of Adam and Eve's existence (again assuming no gaps) were in the range of 5700-5200 BC based on the modified values in the Septuagint (and Old Latin). The Vulgate restored the Hebrew values and so subsequent attempts placed Adam around 4000 BC.8 This little exercise demonstrates how using the Septuagint instead of the Hebrew gave dramatically different results.

Ussher-Lightfoot Chronology

In the mid-seventeenth century, James Ussher and John Lightfoot took the young-earth view of the Genesis genealogies one step farther and published chronologies of biblical events starting with the creation of the world in 4004 BC. Details of their chronologies were included in footnotes and even headers of some KJV Bibles. The popularity of the KJV among Protestants effectively spread and canonized this estimate for the age of the earth throughout the English-speaking world. This in turn, helped solidify their assumptions regarding Genesis 1-2, 5, and 11. While these miscalculations don't represent errors in the text of the KJV itself, it does demonstrate how a particular translation can dramatically shape the age debate.

I will wrap up this series in part 5 by looking at the big picture question of whether we can trust our Bible translations.

My complete work on this topic is currently unpublished. Inquiries regarding it should be directed to KansasCity@Reasons.org


Dr. John Millam

Dr. Millam received his doctorate in theoretical chemistry from Rice University in 1997, and currently serves as a programmer for Semichem in Kansas City.


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Subjects: Bible Difficulties

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Endnotes:

  1. Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books), 78-79.

  2. Rodney Whitefield, Reading Genesis One, (San Jose, CA: R. Whitefield Publisher, 2003), 90-91.

  3. Robert I. Bradshaw, "Creationism and the Early Church," Creationism and the Early Church, updated January 25, 1999. http://www.robibradshaw.com/contents.htm (accessed May 25, 2009), chapter 1.

  4. Ibid, chapter 5.

  5. One important clarification is needed for my statement that the original Hebrew rendition of the evening-morning-day phrase does not attach the definite article ("the") to "day". The YLT translation correctly omits the definite article for the first five days but does include it with the sixth day, which seems to contradict my statement. In Hebrew, the definite article would generally be expected to appear twice in this case–once with the ordinal "sixth" and once with "day"–whereas in English it can only appear once. If the sixth day was intended to be a definite (i.e., solar) day, then the literal Hebrew should have read "the day the six" or even "the day sixth." This verse instead reads "day the six," which leaves "day" indefinite (i.e., simply a period of time) but emphasizes the notion of "sixth" by making it definite. The same is true for the "seventh day" (Genesis 2:2-3)–"seventh" is definite but "day" is left indefinite.

  6. Gleason L. Archer, "Reading Between the Fossil Lines," Facts for Faith, no. 7 (Q4 2001). http://www.reasons.org/resources/publications/facts-faith/2001issue07#fossil_lines (accessed May 25, 2009).

  7. William Henry Green, "Primeval Chronology: Are there Gaps in the Biblical Genealogies?" Bibliotheca Sacra 47 (April 1890) 285-303. http://www.reasons.org/resources/non-staff-papers/primeval-chronology (accessed May 25, 2009).

  8. John Millam, "The Genesis Genealogies," Reasons To Believe. http://www.reasons.org/resources/non-staff-papers/the-genesis-genealogies?main (accessed May 25, 2009).