A Stunning Discovery

One of the benefits of working in an academic environment is that I have online access to scholarly journals. Recently, I came across an article which made me rethink my approach to Bible translation in a radical fashion. Let me explain.

The article, by Professor Avril Poisson, a respected expert in Ancient Near Eastern Languages at the University of Eipurirufūru in Tokyo suggests that the Hebrew (and Aramaic in Daniel) deliberately used old fashioned, or archaic, terms in certain circumstances. I’m not an expert in Hebrew, so I can’t either confirm or deny her claims, but I have to say that I find her arguments somewhat convincing.

Here are a few quotes to help you get the gist:

Pronominal forms: a detailed analysis of the corpus and comparison with other sources from the same time period, indicate that the Old Testament writers consistently used contemporary forms for the first person and third person and second person plural pronouns. However, there is clear evidence that for the second person singular pronoun, the various authors consistenly used archaic terms, onces which were four to five hundred years old at the time of writing. A similar pattern is exhibited in the Aramaic passages in the book of Daniel, though in this case the corpus of data is too small to draw any firm conclusions…

Verbs: In a similar way to their use of pronouns, the Old Testament writers consistently use archaic forms of certain verb structures…

…The evidence seems to suggest that educated readers would be able to deciper the archaisms in the text, but that those without a formal education would have struggled to comprehend it. In all probability, much contemporary teaching of the Law and Prophets would have consisted of “translating” the text into normal, everyday language.

In each of these cases, the author gives numerous examples in Hebrew, but I’m not sure how to type Hebrew (and I can’t cut and paste for some reason) so I cannot reproduce them here.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument in the paper concerns the Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament into Greek which was completed around 132BC in Alexandria:

The translators of the Septuagint took pains to reproduce the archaisms found in the Hebrew text in their translation. A detailed analysis of the second person singular pronouns and verb forms indicates that they are typical of Homeric Greek form around the 8th Century BC, rather than from the second century when the Septuagint was produced. In all other aspects; the vocabulary and other grammatical forms, the language used is consistently contemporary.

I realise that this is slightly more technical than most of my blog posts, but I make no apology for this. This paper, which is thoroughly researched and which has been well received in the field will revolutionise the way that we translate the Bible. Let me illustrate this from English.

Instead of using the words “you” or “yours” in the singular, translators should endeavour to use archaic forms such as “thou”, “thy” and “thine”. Equally, verb forms such as “wouldst” and “couldst” should replace the contemporary would and could.

From the original article, it is not entirely clear why the writers used these archaic forms, but it would seem obvious that these should be retained in modern translations of the Bible and that any new English translations should strive to reproduce what is essentially Jacobian English.

If anyone is interested in the original paper, you can find it here:

Poisson A, (2019) Journal of Biblical Annotation (1:4) 1-30.

You should be able to find this in any good online library, but I would advise looking today if at all possible.

6 thoughts on “A Stunning Discovery

  1. If you were to apply the same translation method to the NT epistles, I think you would finish up with something almost indistinguishable from that which St Paul originally wrote.

  2. Significant indeed, though I think Mme. Poisson will find it is the second person singular pronouns and verb forms in the LXX that are archaic, not first person. I would let her know, but suspect I may find it impossible to contact her until the same time next year.

    1. I’m afraid that one has to blame the blogger, not the original paper. The perils of typing out a quote rather than cutting and pasting. It has been corrected, so subsequent readers will wonder what we are going on about!

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