An small break from dog stuff – it’s Syriac, baby!

Biblical minutiae warning! Run away if you don’t want it!


CNN published a somewhat crazy article on the digitizing of the Codex Sinaiticus, and I couldn’t let it go because, as much as I love having ANY aspect of Biblical scholarship get mainstream attention, the article strongly implied that this was some kind of WILD AND NEW AND CONTROVERSIAL version of the Bible that was going to SPLIT THE CHRISTIAN WORLD ASUNDER or some such nonsense.

Here’s the deal: It is genuinely cool that we get one of the earliest Syriac versions of the text in a digital format; it’s always best for scholars to get as close to the original source as possible. It’s also a triumph of cooperation, because the original parchments are owned by multiple museums and institutions and yay that we got it all put back together.

However, THIS IS NOT NEW. Biblical scholars have been able to work from the Codex Sinaiticus for at least 100 years. It’s in very wide publication and has been used in textual criticism for a heck of a lot of versions of the Bible. Having it in digital form will be useful for scholars like the ones that fill my parents’ table at holidays, because they’ll be able to look at the parchment and make sure that the word that’s been translated “bench” isn’t actually the word “fort” with an unfortunate erasure mark through it. So there will be some fist-bumping going on in a few professorial offices as somebody says “Dang it, I KNEW that had to be ‘fort’; that makes so much more sense considering that the wall is mentioned three verses down!” And who knows, publishing an article on how “fort” is clearly the right translation in that verse may get somebody tenure somewhere, and I’m all for that.

But is it controversial? Absolutely not. Is it going to change the way we look at the Bible? Except for some very isolated verses, almost certainly not. And, honestly, I can pretty much guarantee you that if someone DOES replace “bench” with “fort” in some future translation, it will almost certainly be put back to “bench” by the editorial board (editorial boards HATE surprises) and if you don’t read the 900-pg commentary that the translator wrote at the same time, you’d never know about the fist-bumping.

So there you go. The world goes on, despite having scanned copies of some Syriac parchments.

(By the way, if you want an example of words being changed by editorial boards, here’s a good one, which was told to me just yesterday while waiting for hot dogs to grill: Exodus 4:24-25 actually describes an angel of the Lord coming to kill Gershom, not Moses. The angel comes because Gershom has not been circumcised despite the fact that both Moses and Zipporah know well and good that he’s supposed to be. Zipporah admits their huge error, and quickly arranges a ceremonial circumcision. She cuts off Gershom’s foreskin and then touches it back to his (Gershom’s) genitals, and says words that are actually a formulaic prayer or blessing that is something like “You are part of my family by blood,” (she identifies him as a Hebrew and as part of a family that are Yahweh-worshippers), which is exactly the right thing to do. Thus Gershom is redeemed and the mistake is forgiven.

So it’s actually a story about a belated circumcision ceremony, specifically 1) How Moses is always reluctant to obey God, elements of which are present in most of the stories in Exodus – Moses is always telling God “OK, but later” or “OK, but are you sure?”, and 2) the fact that the Hebrews who have faith in God are going to be protected from the angel of the Lord. So these two little verses become a foreshadowing of the Passover AND it’s actually a beautiful little lesson of how God is merciful even if you screw up.

The way the passage gets translated in virtually all the versions is that the Lord is coming to kill Moses for some unknown reason, and to appease him Zipporah yells something creepy about him being her bloody bridegroom and throws their son’s just-cut-off foreskin at his feet. Which would indeed be VERY bizarre behavior.

The whole difficulty is in just a few words – “The Angel of the Lord” being translated as “Lord,” the fact that the Hebrew uses “him” and doesn’t use Gershom’s name and so a bunch of translators have substituted Moses’ name into the English translation, “feet” being translated instead of “genitals,” and in the “bloody husband” being confused with “family by blood.”

Translated correctly, sent off to the Holman Christian Standard Bible editorial board correctly, and the editorial board objected and the text was published with the same old “bloody bridegroom” line. Thus making my dad, who translated the whole of Exodus for them, ticked off. His commentary (buy it and my dad gets something like eighty-five cents! Woo!) has it correct (it’s around p. 150, for those who are interested).

So the Gershom circumcision is a story that has a TON of textual criticism. Some of it is made possible by comparing different codices and fragments but a whole bunch of it just careful, slow reading of the Masoritic Text, which was almost certainly originally brought back to Jerusalem (from Babylon) by Ezra in 458 BC.)

Even though I just spent 30 minutes writing that all down, I would bet you five dollars that if you aren’t a Biblical scholar you didn’t even know that story existed, much less that it had two slightly variant translations, and if you DID read it you’d probably just say “Huh, weird,” and skip on to the exciting stuff about let my people go, which starts in the next chapter. Your faith was not formed by the three or four words that are translated incorrectly, and it’s not rocked by the fact that now you have the more original wording. And that’s the way the entire Bible is, honestly; you can get a rich and fully formed and accurate education by reading the King James, even though it’s based on much newer/less original materials than the NIV, which is in turn a little less good than something like the HCSB, which will itself be eclipsed in twenty or thirty years when somebody knocks over a trashcan in the Vatican and a fragment of old scroll falls out. The stuff that changes when older texts or fragments are uncovered is the lace around the edges; the fabric of the story and of the truly vital parts has been incredibly faithfully communicated and the amount that is genuinely disputed is TINY.

So yay for the pictures of the Syriac, but please don’t think that any of the scholarly community, from Benedict (who is actually a very, very good scholar) to the Baptists, is actually startled by it.


11 thoughts on “An small break from dog stuff – it’s Syriac, baby!

  1. This is fascinating. I am not a biblical scholar, but I am Jewish, thus we read this several times a year.
    I have the ArtScroll Stone Chumash, and it is translated there as Hashem coming to kill Moses, and Zipporah circumsizing Gershom with the words “you caused my bridegroom’s bloodshed”, then “A bridegroom’s bloodshed is because of circumcision.” This interpretation has her touching the foreskin to Moses’ feet, while the JPS Tanach has her touching the foreskin to ‘his’ legs.
    This makes me want to go to the shul library and start looking at Rashi and Ibn Ezra. Thanks for reminding me. I haven’t been to Torah study in a long time.

  2. Thanks for the interesting post. Just one minor quibble. Codex Sinaiticus was written in Greek, not Syriac.

    By the way, I’m familiar with your father’s work and have appreciated it much over the years.

  3. Suddenly I don’t feel nearly as ignorant as I did with the last post. You are apparently a genius who is also a dog person. VBG

    This is one reason I hate when people take parts of the Bible and use it as their “proof” of something. Translation people!! (and I say this as a Christian persuing more education of the subject myself) Do we really find that the translation of this material infallible? It was written by men after all. Or should I say translated by many, many men over many, many years. I think that needs to be taken into account as your post (sorta) points out.

    I went into a store to buy a Bible once and came out all confused. I wonder if people realize just how many versions there are of it out there, and that is just in english! (which wasn’t the original language for those that hadn’t considered that before) It made my head spin.

    I am currently stumbling my way through the New Testament. It seems odd to need books on how to understand what you have read. (I got a study version that gives context which helps.)

    • Well, I believe in Biblical inerrancy, so I’m not going to tell you to ignore parts of the Bible because of translation issues. It’s actually remarkable how faithful the different translations have been, considering how often they’ve been recopied. And in a lot of cases, especially in the New Testament, you’re getting very little static; newer translations (NIV and later) are based on very, very early papyri and parchments of the New Testament, books that were copied less than 100 years after their original writers died. You really don’t have to worry that you’re reading a bunch of miscopied garbage.

      Generally speaking you’ll do very well with NIV, RSV and NRSV, HCSB, etc. Anything in the last 40 years that is either a literal or dynamic equivalency model. The Living Translation and the other paraphrases are not illegitimate for reading, but they’re not something you’d study from. NIV is very readable; RSV can feel a little more stilted because it’s an attempt to be more of a literal translation of what’s actually there in the original language. HCSB is somewhere in between.

      The classic NIV Study Bible is what most of us carry around, so if that’s what you own it’s a good one.

      If you’ll let me plug another of my dad’s books, How to Read the Bible Book by Book is designed to do just what you’re talking about, provide a reading companion that gives you some essential background information so you’re not completely confused by some of the more obscure stuff.

  4. Man I wish I could have been at your family’s dinner table at night.

    I have the NKJV study Bible. Is that a good version?

    I will definatly check out his book. Every little bit helps. Thanks!

    • Come visit any time :).

      I’ve not ever used the NKJV to study from. It’s not a version that is read in my “circle,” though that certainly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it. So I am ill-equipped to comment on it with any kind of personal experience. I think the NIV is probably considered the default choice for most readers, and when I am studying I am using the NIV in conjunction with a couple of other versions (usually RSV and HCSB). I don’t have any languages anymore; they’re all gone. So I am stuck with the English versions, which makes me no kind of scholar at all, but you get the best approximation of seeing the original if you compare several versions.

  5. when you write something like this, it makes my heart sing. You’re awesome 😀

    I think you grew up the way I dreamed of — scholarly parents who believe in God AND farm life? I grew up in large cities, surrounded by PhD’d college professor-hippies who occasionally visited the countryside, praised its authenticity, then booked it back to the city to debate their version of Utopia. And who firmly believed that God was for those lacking in intellect. *sigh* I would love to do a bible-study with you & your “circle”.

    • Doug and I run a Bible study – take a road trip :).

      We belong to a tiny little church and the Bible study is tiny little too. I’d love more dog people in it!

      • we live in the most SW part of AZ, it’s a looong drive to your place… 😦 If we decide to relocate to the East at some point, I know my hub wouldn’t be opposed to your area, so there *is* hope.

        I love tiny churches, you get to know everyone. 😀

  6. Very, very interesting. I love the Lord and rejoice in the power of prayer, but have been “burned” by organized religion (I was brought up Jewish but not accepted as my parents are a “mixed religion” marriage).

    I am very tempted to buy the NIV to study from.

    • The NIV is probably the most readable of the modern translations, and it’s available in an admittedly ridiculous number of targeted mini-versions (Womens, Teens, Mens, Young Mens, Youth, Recovery, Sports, Grandmothers, Golf, and about fifty others, you think I’m kidding about the Golf version but I am sadly not. In those targeted versions the text says the same but there are all kinds of little “helpful” pullquotes and explanations). Doug and I always joke about going out to buy the Astrophysicists Who Skateboard version. The “NIV Study Bible” is my recommendation, but anything that floats your boat is fine. Just stay away from the weird old ones like Scofield and you should be in the clear.

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