How Bibles Make Mistakes

A lesbian poet friend of mine had an intriguing strategy when she was attacked by Bible-quoters for her sexual identity. Very quietly, she'd say, "I didn't know you read Greek and Biblical Hebrew."

That would stump them, and they'd ask what she meant.

"Well, if you're reading the Bible in English, you can't be sure what it really says, so when you study those languages, get back to me."

Is there a country in the world where people quote the Bible as much as we do here in America? But what are we quoting? Lots of us rely on the King James version because it's so familiar, and because of the poetry. New editions keep proliferating, but many of them rely in one way or another on that classic translation.

And like the KJV (as it's abbreviated), most of them get major things wrong, according to biblical expert Joel Hoffman. He's written an entertaining commentary on how far too many biblical translations distort the meaning of the text. In "And God Said: How Translators Conceal The Bible's Original Meaning," he also points out that translators goof because they often try to make every part of it sound the same, even though it's composed of different books by different authors writing in different voices.

For Hoffman, the main problem is the translators who are overly literal and narrow-minded. They don't spend the time to explore the entire range of meanings of a word, all the places where it occurs in the Old Testament, and so they end up making gross errors.

He lays out how anyone can approach this kind of study and then meticulously gives us a handful of examples of popular quotes that are wrong because they completely miss the context. My favorite example was "The Lord is my shepherd" from Psalm 23. The noun literally is shepherd, and it conjures for us today pastoral images of flocks of sheep being gently herded from one pasture to another, guarded perhaps by some sort of dog, but all of it evoking a bucolic Hallmark card scene.

Hoffman clearly explores the evidence that what the psalmist was really aiming at was an image of someone valiant and heroic, a fierce protector, a guardian who would never, ever fail us. Shepherd just doesn't mean the same thing. So, it's well worth reading his eye-opening short book before you turn to a Bible again, because you may find familiar texts opening up to you in brand new ways.