Another Poor Bible Translator

I was reading a popular news website and came across a headline which read “Five Ways Your Bible Translation Distorts The Original Meaning of the Text.” It turns out the article is from a writer published on The Huffington Post, Joel Hoffman (see the article here).

Hoffman says that etymology, internal structure, and cognates are the three pillars of bible translation, and all are flawed means of translation, therefore all our modern bible translations are wrong. Etymology is the history of a word, like explaining why board of directors, and room and board use the word board, originally meaning a wooden plank. Internal structure is like saying that host should not be connected with hostile even though the first is found in the second. And cognates are taking a word from one language and using it directly in another as if the words meant the same.

That these techniques are flawed is indeed correct. However, this is something found in a first level undergraduate class on languages, and are certainly not mistakes that professional translators would make. Hoffman correctly tells us that context is critical for determining the meaning of a word. Again, first level undergraduate information, not something that warrants a headline that translations are necessarily wrong.

Hoffman goes on to say that the word for covet (chamad) in the ten commandments has been translated incorrectly. As evidence, Hoffman compares the following verses:

Exodus 20:17 (the commandment) “Thou shalt not chamad thy neighbors house…”
Exodus 34:24: “…neither shall any man chamad thy land, when thou shalt go up to appear before the LORD thy God thrice in the year.”

So according to Hoffman, the Ex 34:24 verse gives solid enough proof to determine that chamad really means take, and that the commandment is wrong, and every English translation that renders chamad as covet is incorrect.

Well, at least Hoffman got the part about the context correct. As such, a simple search for chamad reveals the term is used in the following passages:

Duet. 7:25: “The graven images of their gods shall ye burn with fire: thou shalt not chamad the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it.”
Josh 7:21: “When I saw among the spoils a goodly Babylonish garment, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold of fifty shekels weight, then I chamad them, and took them”
Is. 53:2: “and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should chamad him.”
Micah 2:2: “and they chamad fields, and take them by violence”
Prov. 1:22: “How long will the . . . scorners chamad in their scorning”
Prov. 6:25: “Chamad not after her beauty in thine heart;”

There is more, but you get the point. In each of these passages, the context prevents chamad from meaning take. Hoffman’s point is grossly wrong on the face of it, and proven by using his own advice. What Hoffman’s low level of teaching seems to indicate is that he’s cut his teeth on poor references such as Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, which makes some of the mistakes that Hoffman mentions.

Further, it is the height of arrogance to hint that every bible translation committee is wrong, and that one man has learned something that all these language scholars have somehow gotten wrong. It is horribly wrong to suggest that people who spend their entire careers studying languages have somehow missed such a basic mistake as Hoffman suggests.

I will not waste more time chasing down Hoffman’s other patently incredulous statements, such as people mistaking poetic language for literal (somehow the lover calling his girlfriend sister in the poem Song of Solomon is supposed to be misleading), and the bible translators supposedly also missed soul and murder.  Golly, they must have gone to lunch early that day.

Arguably the worst of Hoffman’s lines is when he states, “Usually the King James Version got it wrong because they were not very good translators, and that was because they really didn’t understand language.” Really, Joel? Are you honestly prepared to look a team of modern professional translators in the eye and make such a false statement, given the level of non-scholarship you just demonstrated?

(all this reminds me of the similarly poor work of Michael White. See here.)

To the reader, be assured that all the modern translations of the Bible are correct, for they have been labored over by teams of people who give their lives to making sure of the accuracy of the word of God.


About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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6 Responses to Another Poor Bible Translator

  1. kelly says:

    Hi. I have read both post and this is not an attack but a question. can you honestly say ALL modern bible translations are correct? ok and how because the catholic bible and our protestant bible are not all the same, and who are we as protestant to have told catholics who were first that they got it wrong and every protestant bible doesn’t include all the same verses’ I am a true believer in the Lord and i believe in studying his word, but i cannot agree with your statement, please do elaborate

    • humblesmith says:

      In general, blanket statements like ‘everything is correct’ or ‘everthing is incorrect’ should be avoided, because of the huge amount of nuances involved with translations. Saying they are “all correct” is a very broad statement…for example, both Greek and Hebrew have verb tenses that do not exist in English. There is a Greek verb tense that means ‘completed in the past, but has ongoing implications to the present.’ Different translators take different approaches on whether to use English present or past tense for such a verb. Neither is wrong or right necessarily, just different.

      However, making blanket statements such as the king james translators were poor translators, or that all English translations mistranslate a term, is so blatantly incorrect as to be absurd, as the post shows.

      What we can be sure of, and I will say plainly, is that all the modern translation committees do a very careful job of studying the original languages, and we can trust the translations. It is not a protestant or cathlic issue, for all modern translators go back to the original languages. So yes, I will say in that sense that all modern translations, such as NIV, NASB, NKJV, ESV, are correct, and do not disagree in translation issues with Catholic translations. This does not include translations created by individuals, nor does it include translations that disagree with every single published grammar book, which all scholars would agree are incorrect.

      While I am not a language scholar, I do not know of a protestant language scholar who disagreed with Catholics on a significant translation issue….maybe minor issues, but as i said above, this is not restricted to denominations. Now, there were disagreements between protestants and catholics about whether certain books should be inserted or not, i.e., the apocrypha. But this is not a translation issue. And protestants disagree about what human authority can be used to interpret the Bible, but these are not translation issues.


  2. Jake says:

    I think on his site he mentions those passages you used as counter examples but he says they still mean take, it’s just an example of Hebrew repetition.

    • humblesmith says:

      Passages like Micah 2:2 could be stretched into a repetition, which is called chiasm or chiastic structure. Hebrew poetry is filled with this, sometimes a simple repetition and sometimes a complex one. A look at the Isaiah 53:2 verse is telling:
      For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant,
      and as a root out of dry ground.
      He has no form or comliness;
      and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him.

      The first two lines are obviously repetition: a tender plant growing is repeated as a shoot out of dry ground. But the resolution phrase, which is the one in question, is not repeated, the one about desiring beauty. But I still fail to see how one can steal someone else’s beauty or scorning, as the verses I quoted do.

      The pattern of repetition in Hebrew poetry is rather straightforward to follow, and these passages do not seem to fit his explanation.

  3. I don’t totally agree with Hoffman. It appears to me as though chamed probably means something more than the English word ‘want’, yet it also means something less than the English word ‘take’. Perhaps its meaning falls closer to “planning how one might choose or take hold of” something – or “visualizing and delighting in thinking about how great something would be to choose or to have”. It appears to me that some of the Bible translators over the years have tried to convey this idea of chamed meaning something stronger (and more volitional) than a mere natural sense of desire by translating it as “covet”.

    In Hoffman’s defense, his analysis doesn’t seem as patently sloppy as one might conclude from reading this blog post. Almost all of the verses you cite are addressed directly in his analysis. And to be fair, the field of translation has progressed more than a little bit since the 1600’s. I’ll admit, he probably comes across as dismissive at times – but his translation ideas should stand or fall on merit – not on politeness, right?

    Looking at his analysis. I don’t think I’ve seen Isaiah 53:2 in his treatment. Can you think of a reason why he might consider “wə·neḥ·mə·ḏê·hū” to be sufficiently “different” from other Qal verb forms of chamed? For example, Hoffman asserts that care should be taken whenever one compares the Qal verbal form to other forms using the same root. But isn’t “wə·neḥ·mə·ḏê·hū” a verbal Qal form of chamed? If it isn’t, then that explains why I didn’t see Isaiah 53:2 in his analysis.

    (I don’t know much at all about Hebrew so I hope I’m posing that question appropriately.)


    • humblesmith says:

      Reading back over my original post….it has been while since I wrote this…..I do seem to be a bit harsh, do I not?. Perhaps I should have been more humble and less caustic. However, please consider that the original muse for this post was an article in the Huffington Post, a liberal news outlet. These popular-level articles have titles designed to catch quick attention and short sound-bite statements that undermine the Bible to a wide audience. The only things people remember are that the bible is wrong, the translators got it wrong, the ten commandments are even wrong….all of which is not the case. If people like Hoffman were making nuanced explanations, I would not respond so strongly. Perhaps in other places he is more careful, but the Huffington Post article was misleading and poor.

      Part of what is going on here is that Hebrew has a vocabulary in the range of…..I am working from memory…..I think about 4,000 or so words. Modern English has several hundred thousand words. So we are able to make nuances in English that Hebrew is incapable of making. Hence words such as the one in question that have more nuanced renderings in the translations. But really? To claim the King James translators “usually got it wrong” because they did not understand the language? Sure, translation and language scholarship has advanced since then, I agree. But such a blanket statement is simply factually incorrect and an unwarranted statement.

      Perhaps Hoffman’s other work is more careful and scholarly, I do not know. But I do know that this news article, and the youtube video he linked, which more people will read and watch than any academic publication, came across with the flavor of a classic theological liberal who has made broad claims designed to undermine the scriptures. His claims here were quite incorrect and unbalanced. To wit:

      –He accuses modern translators of not updating their translation techniques in hundreds of years. This is untrue.
      –He gives examples that are very basic concepts that anyone doing work in the languages would know, whether modern or King James era.
      –He accuses modern translators of making these basic mistakes, which is an unfair criticism of people doing difficult work for little reward.
      –He accuses modern translators of confusing poetic language for literal, which is factually untrue.
      –He says these flaws are in “all English translations” to the point that the translations are misleading, which is factually incorrect.

      Articles such as this do more damage than good.

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