Disclaimer: My purpose is not to offend anyone’s religious beliefs: I actually don’t want to talk about religion. If you feel offended by this title, I understand and I’m sorry: this was not my intention – my suggestion would be to stop reading this post right now. If the title doesn’t offend you – but rather stimulates your curiosity – and you’re inclined to read about this topic, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
The Bible: unexpectedly difficult to define what it is
My education and my culture are christian – Roman catholic, to be precise. Until some time ago, I thought I had an average knowledge about the Bible. I am now not ashamed to admit that I was ignorant…. In order to orderly share my latest findings on the Bible, I’d start with a superficial description of the Bible. “Bible” comes from the Koine Greek τὰ βιβλία which means the books. So, instead of thinking about it as one book, it would be better to imagine it as a collection of books.
It can be divided into two big sets: the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament”, very different one another nearly under every aspect. Perhaps, the only common aspect is that they are both a group of books.
The New Testament, the most recent set, is all written in Greek, the main language of the Eastern portion of the Roman Empire. It is made of the four Gospels (from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), the Acts of the Apostles (a narrative of the apostles’ activity after Jesus Christ’s death), the Epistles (twenty-one letters from the Apostles to various communities) and the Book of Revelation (better known as the Apocalypse of John). This list was first compiled by the 20th bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, in the IV century, approved by the Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397). Pope Innocent I ratified in 405. There is also a possibility that a Council in Rome in 382 under Pope Damasus was the first to give the same list. Obviously, they were all written after Jesus Christ’s death, during a period of approximatively three centuries. As better described in this other post of mine, there was a large number of Gospels, but the Church ultimately chose the Four ones as the so-called “true” ones, leaving the other ones as “apocryphal”….
For the Old Testament, things are very different. Just to have a taste of the variations and complexities of the matter, one needs to appreciate that the Catholic Church considers forty-six books, the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches fifty-one books and, generally, Protestants thirty-nine books. These are supposed to be the Scriptures coming from the Jewish but Jews generally recognise only twenty-nine books and Samaritans only six…. What the old Testament is will depend on your doctrine, your tradition, the history of your community: fundamentally on where you were born….
The vast majority of the Old Testament books were originally written in ancient Hebrew, some also in Aramaic, just a few in Greek. They were written by various authors, in a period that vaguely expands from VIII century and I century BCE but, despite the names of the various books, none of the actual authors is known with certitude. For example, specialists broadly agree that the Book of Isaiah has probably be written at least by three authors – none of them known with certainty. There is another aspect about the ancient Hebrew in these books: it’s written with consonants only and with vowel-like sounds displayed as signs above or under the consonants. The most ancient copies don’t have these signs, so we don’t know how to read it – especially when non-common words are used. The current text with vowels was introduced around between VI and IX century by the Masoretic translators.
The Bible: what are we reading today?
The New Testament, being much more recent, has been written in Greek and in a much more defined way, that should have left less room for interpretation. The Old Testament is mostly written in ancient Hebrew and was later translated in Greek, Latin and modern languages during centuries. Every translation – and even every transcription – failed to keep the integrity of the text by modifying – sometimes significantly – the original text. There are eighteen “official” modifications that the rabbinic tradition acknowledges, calls תיקוני סופרים (pronounced tiqquney sofferim) and accepts – for example – “in order to preserve the honor of God”. But, in reality, many more modifications have been applied through centuries and the only fair comment that we can make today is that what we are reading today is not what was first written. During a period of ten years between 1946 and 1956, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in caves near the Dead Sea in the West Bank (then part of Jordan). They contain portions of what we consider today the Bible and are dated to a period between VI and I century BC. There are hundreds of differences between these scrolls and the related version that we use today…. What we are reading today in the various incarnations of the Christian Bibles is the stratification of translations and alterations that have polluted the original text, in a way that was probably helping the translator to stress a message or to give a biblical justification to a theory that was being presented and supported at the time of translation. A typical example of this is the names of God.
The Bible: what has been translated as God
If you think about God as a spiritual and superior being, omnipotent and omnipresent, who knows everything about the past, the present and the future, you need to know that the ancient Hebrew has no word for it! The next question then is: what has been translated with “God” ?
Without being pedantic, if there is no ancient Hebrew word for “God”, then something else has been translated to “God”. Indeed, the Old Testament uses three locutions:
- אֱלֹהִים (pronounced Elohim), translated as God;
- עליון (pronounced Elyon), often translated the Most High,
- יהוה (pronounced Yahweh or Yehowah or Jehowah), sometimes just transcripted as YHWH (to testify that the vowels are a conjecture more than a certitude), usually translated as the Lord.
All these translations are superficial – at best.
The only certitude is that Elohim is the plural of El. There’s no agreement on its literal translation. It has also been used to identify high dignitaries or magistrates. There is controversy on whether the plural is real (i.e. related to multiple individuals) or a form of courtesy or respect, similar to the one used by kings or the Pope (who use “we” and “us” instead of “I” and “me”). The translation of this word into God appears to require much more justification. My recommendation – supported by scholars – would be not to translate it.
The real translation of Elyon is the one who stays higher/above, both in physical meaning (e.g. the floor above) or in a hierarchical structure (e.g. the boss).
Again, there is no real translation for YHWH. Observant Jews and those who follow Talmudic Jewish traditions do not pronounce it, nor they read aloud any of the proposed vocalisations (e.g. Yahweh, Yehowah or Jehowah). Reading the Masoretic version of Old Testament in a literal manner, YHWH clearly identifies an individual, physically present, with physical necessities and to whom a relatively large number of people had interaction with. Its biblical translation (The Lord) could still hold, only if it referred to a noble or a commander of armies: a powerful individual…. Again: my recommendation – supported by scholars – would be not to translate it.
In my view, in the Book of Psalms (Chapter 82, verses 1, 6 and 7), the presence of Elohim and Elyon in the same sentences makes it difficult to support the current way of translating:
.אֱלֹהִים, נִצָּב בַּעֲדַת-א: בְּקֶרֶב אֱלֹהִים יִשְׁפֹּט:מִזְמוֹר, לְאָסָף
Elohim stands in the congregation of Elohim; in the midst of the judges, he judges.
.אֲנִי-אָמַרְתִּי, אֱלֹהִים אַתֶּם; וּבְנֵי עֶלְיוֹן כֻּלְּכֶם
You are Elohim, and all of you sons of Elyon.
.אָכֵן, כְּאָדָם תְּמוּתוּן; וּכְאַחַד הַשָּׂרִים תִּפֹּלוּ
Nevertheless you shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.
The above literal translations unequivocally show:
- there was more than one Elohim (a congregation requires more than one individual);
- Elohim and Elyon are not the same thing;
- Elohim can die.
I don’t feel I need to investigate the matter further to satisfy myself that the “official” translation is not 100% correct.
The question then becomes: if it’s not God, then who?
The Bible: what does it tell?
I don’t have the right competences to talk about religion. So, again, as expressed above, I don’t talk about religion. The point is that all the above throws a strange light on the translations that we – common mortals and ignorant of ancient Hebrew – have been reading so far.
For the Old Testament, perhaps a better, more logical, less polluted approach would be to go back to the ancient Hebrew texts and translate them literally. A literal translation, albeit limited to the Torah, is available: The Torah – A Mechanical Translation. This is mainly to avoid the interpretations – especially the religious ones – that would relate to the faith and not to the facts.
I am no ancient Hebrew expert. So what follows is just a conjecture and you’re free to either confirm it or deny it….
If translated literally, the Bible appears to be telling the story of a group of people in what we would call “the Middle East” today. An ancient story, written so that it could be transmitted to the future generations. Some facts would be real, others would be artificially magnified, others again neglected or just briefly mentioned: choices of the tellers….
It would be the story of only one of Abraham‘s descendants: Jacob, also known as Israel. It would leave out Abraham’s brothers, Aran and Nachor, and their descendants. It would leave out Ismael, another Abraham’s son, to focus on Isaac‘s son Jacob, leaving out his other son: Esau.
I’d like to know if my conjecture is correct – or at least has chances to be correct. Because, if it is, I think the Bible would be much more interesting.
By the way, did you know that the Bible also doesn’t talk about creation? The concept of creation out of nothing did not exist in ancient Hebrew….
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