Let There Be Light

Or brightness! Or maybe a strong glow? Definitely less shade. (Inside the epic quest to translate the Bible.)

It doesn’t matter who you are -a Sunday school teacher, a 12-year-old memorizing the Torah for your bar or bat mitzvah, or an atheist who has never set foot inside a church- you probably know the opening phrase of the Bible. And, chances are, you have it wrong.

“In the beginning,” the King James Bible starts, “God created the heaven and the earth.” Most of the English-speaking world will recognize that line. But it’s not an accurate translation of the original ancient Hebrew.

The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV), a translation that was honed by a diverse council of experts throughout the 20th century, offers this alternative: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” That isn’t quite right either.

The 100-plus other English translations also miss the mark. And here’s where it gets complicated. It’s not because they’re poor translations. The NRSV, for example, is among the best. It serves as the base material for The New Oxford Annotated Bible, which is arguably the most comprehensive study Bible money can buy. But the New Oxford includes a footnote, right in the beginning, alerting the reader to different versions of that line. According to Michael D. Coogan, Oxford’s editor, the best translation of Genesis 1:1 is: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth.”

For millions of believers, that alteration shifts the timeline for literally everything. “It’s not talking about an absolute beginning,” Coogan explains. “The beginning of the cosmos, the big bang, or anything like that. But just, when God started to create the heavens and the earth, this is what he did.” Coogan and his team of scholars at Oxford University Press aren’t allowed to change the text, so their Bible includes a brief footnote and moves on.

After all, it’s just the beginning.


Millions of people treat the Bible as the authoritative word of God. Western civilization has been shaped -for better and worse- by the ways people interpret the book. People place faith in translators who have dedicated themselves to the same goal: to get it right.

But translating the Bible is hard. Scholars can’t just plug in an English word and call it a day. The gig requires a vast understanding of the history of ancient cultures and their languages. And quite frequently, there is no “right.”

Take the Hebrew Bible. Its books were written in ancient Hebrew, a language that appears in only one major text: the Hebrew Bible. It is its own source material. The Rosetta Stone helped scholars crack the meaning of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, but the Hebrew Bible has no equivalent aid. “There are many words in the Bible that occur only once,” Coogan says, “and we’re not sure what they mean.”

One of the estimated 1,500 words that aren’t repeated appears in Genesis 6, when God asks Noah to build an ark out of “gopher wood.” It’s the only time “gopher” appears, and it’s not referring to the rodent. Scholars have guessed it means cypress, cedar, or some other common wood, and translated it thusly. Others resisted taking a guess and kept it as is, leaving it up to the reader to picture what a boat made of “gopher wood” would look like.

Some of the first Bible translators had worse troubles. The Masoretes, Jewish scholars in the 6th to 10th centuries, established the standardized Old Testament despite the troubling fact that classical Hebrew contained no vowels. The Masoretes gazed upon a field of consonants and sprinkled them with vowels. To this day, theologians are still playing with those vowels in an attempt to solve the oldest Word Jumble in Western civilization.

To complicate matters, the Bible is not really one book, but a library of at least 66 books. (The word bible comes from the Greek ta biblia, meaning “the books.”) The earliest parts of the Hebrew Bible date back to almost 1000 BCE, and the most recent sections were written in the 2nd century BCE. As anyone who’s struggled through the original Canterbury Tales can tell you, language changes a lot over centuries. A word in one section of the Bible may mean something different a few pages later -because the sections were written 500 years apart.

For example, kelayot means kidneys in Hebrew. A section from Leviticus uses the word to describe a sacrifice in which literal kidneys were burned. But there was also a time when kelayot meant all internal organs. Plus, in Psalm 16, kelayot is used metaphorically, and translators interpret it to mean a different organ altogether: “In the night also my heart instructs me.” A modern translator must understand the eras in which these sentences were written, lest readers think kidney function dictates faith.

Besides ancient Hebrew, the original texts of the Bible were written in Greek, Aramaic, and Latin. Most of the New Testament was written in Koine, a colloquial and almost conversational Greek. Versions of these books were repeatedly copied, some more faithfully than others. Like a game of telephone, small changes appeared in later editions, and these changes spread and begat errors down the line. In Ecclesiasticus 30, three separate lines end with the words “in his youth.” Centuries ago, a copyist must have assumed this repetition was a mistake and “fixed” it, because now some versions omit the phrase.

Some mistakes are more obvious. In 1631, a London printing shop produced a version of the Bible that accidentally omitted the word not from the seventh commandment, stating: “Thou shalt commit adultery.” The printers were fined and stripped of their licenses, and copies of this “Wicked Bible” were destroyed, though surviving editions still pop up at auction houses and sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Another goof appears in Exodus. After Moses returns from the mountain where he spoke with God, his face was said to shine radiantly. In the 4th century, one Latin translator described the effect as horn-like beams of light emanating from Moses’s head. The description led some readers, and artists, to believe Moses literally had horns. Which means that Moses is easy to spot in medieval and Renaissance art—he’s the guy with stubby antlers sprouting from his forehead.


The first English Bible didn’t exist until the late 14th century, when John Wycliffe led a team of translators to convert many of the texts into a language that common folks could understand. Wycliffe believed there shouldn’t be a buffer between the word of God and the people. Naturally, that buffer -the Catholic Church- didn’t like his translation. Allowing commoners to interpret the Bible risked its authority, and the Vatican went to extreme lengths to preserve its control. It’s one reason why the church used stained glass windows- since parishioners couldn’t read Bible stories, they were given pictures instead.

There were legitimate arguments against Wycliffe’s translations. For one, it was a translation of a translation. Wycliffe worked from the Latin Vulgate version, which was compiled by St. Jerome in the 4th century, and not from the original Hebrew and Greek. His Bible was also translated word for word, so it didn’t flow grammatically.

Despite its shabby form, Wycliffe’s Middle English translation spread among the country’s lower classes. The Pope hated Wycliffe, as did his representative in England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and they blamed a string of unrelated peasant uprisings on his translation. They arrested him, and in 1384, he died after having been banished to his home parish.

But Wycliffe continued to haunt the monarchy and the Church after his death. In 1408 a council passed the Constitutions of Oxford, an act that banned all unauthorized translations of the Bible, and Wycliffe was posthumously declared a heretic in 1415. In 1428 Pope Martin V ordered that his bones be exhumed, burned, and thrown into the River Swift.

This marked the beginning of a little rough patch for Bible translators in England, one that culminated in the execution of William Tyndale in 1536. Tyndale translated the Bible into English from the original Hebrew and Greek, and, with the help of Gutenberg’s press, he produced perhaps the most influential English Bible of all time.

As his translation was unauthorized, Tyndale was charged with the same offenses that had been posthumously levied on Wycliffe. Tyndale went into hiding, but an informant ratted him out, and he was subsequently tried and found guilty. He was strangled to death and his corpse was burned at the stake in front of a crowd. His last words were “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!”

Decades later, in 1604, the message got through. Newly ordained as the English king, James I ordered “that a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek.” He assigned 54 translators to the task and put them into groups to check each other’s work -an early version of the peer review process. The resulting manuscript, the King James Version, is celebrated as scripture and as a work of literature.

The King James Bible is also largely the work of Tyndale. Three-quarters of its New Testament is worded exactly like Tyndale’s, and most of the text that isn’t directly copied is liberally cribbed from Tyndale’s work. Tyndale was a pious man who believed he was translating the direct word of God, so matters of credit would not have concerned him, but he probably would have enjoyed the benefit of living in a time when a translation credit didn’t mean being roasted at the stake.


For 250 years, before a wave of new translations began appearing in the 1800s, the King James Version existed as the de facto English Bible. Modern archaeological discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls, uncovered in the 1940s and 1950s, have since provided linguistic and cultural context to the Old Testament. With every find, translators must revisit the texts.

These discoveries may help crystallize what life was like in ancient Israel, but translators have to consider shifts in modern society too. For example, Saint Paul in his letters addresses his audience as “brothers.” Coogan says that when the committee of translators met in the 1980s to decide the language of the NRSV, they changed it to “brothers and sisters” to be more inclusive. The change outraged conservative sects. “For some more evangelical Protestants,” Coogan says, “the NRSV is practically heretical.”

But such changes aren’t new; the opposite happened in 16th- and 17th-century England. According to the King James Version, John 15:13 reads, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” But the original ancient Greek says “no one,” not “no man.” In this instance, Enlightenment society exercised its own judgment and specified a gender where there was none.

Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov said the worst sin a translator can make is when “a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public.” This, he said, “is a crime, to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoe-buckle days.”

Coogan agrees. “The Bible comes from a very different culture with different values and different ways of perceiving reality,” he says. “To make it sound like a 20th-century, 21st-century American, I think, is a mistake.”

Translation comes down to choice, and one person can make all the difference. To return to Genesis 1:1, the NRSV kept the famous opener, Coogan says, “because the Gospel of John begins, ‘In the beginning,’ and they wanted to consciously or unconsciously keep that link clear.” The “they” Coogan refers to is one man, Bruce M. Metzger, the chair of the committee. Although the group collectively scrapped “In the beginning,” Metzger slipped it back in.

The committee last met in the 1980s, and there are no plans for the members to meet again. Their work -which boasts inclusive language and Metzger’s rogue addition- will stand for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Coogan and his team are in the midst of preparing a new edition of the Oxford annotation (the last one was published in 2010). They have plenty of additions to make- a lot can happen to a millennia-old book in just two years.

The article above by Nick Greene appeared in the November-December 2016 issue of Mental Floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

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