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What Do Translators Translate?

What do translators of the Bible actually translate?  This has been the question in the back of my mind for the thread that has been going on over the past couple of weeks.  The question has two components.  (1) Which books do they translate and call “the Bible”?  And (2) when they decide on those books, where do they find what they need in order to translate it?  Do they translate certain manuscripts?  Which ones?  How do they decide?  And when the manuscripts have differences among themselves, which ones do they follow?  And on what grounds?

These are among the enormous number of fundamental questions that translators have to deal with even before they translate the first word of the Bible.  But let me be clear and emphatic: they are all questions with which every decent modern translator is intimately familiar, and these scholars always know all the ins and outs of all the issues.  I want to stress this point because about once every other week I get a question on email in which someone asks me which modern English translation is based on the “original” text as opposed to later manuscripts that have changed the text.  And the answer is: virtually all of them!  At least that is always the intent.  Always!

The question of which books to translate is only a problem on the margins.  The Old Testament is…

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What Text Are the Translators Translating?
What About the Apocrypha?



  1. wostraub  January 10, 2017

    Thank you, Bart, for another enlightening post. Regarding your comment on how Mark might have been surprised to learn how people today see his book as sacred gospel, I often try to imagine how Jesus himself would view his own evolution from apocalyptic preacher and failed revolutionary to omnipotent, everlasting son of God, now worshiped as such by 2.2 billion people. Perhaps Shakespeare also would be surprised at his own revered legacy today. “Hey, folks, I just wrote plays and stuff to make a living.”

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  January 10, 2017

    Speaking of translations, I’m on vol. V of Meier’s A Marginal Jew, and in one chapter he makes a pretty solid case that the Coptic Gospel of Thomas was not derived from an independent source but, rather, likely used a gospel harmonization as its source. As part of his evidence Meier refers to several Greek fragments of Thomas that have survived apart from the full Coptic text from Nag Hammadi. I guess my question is how much, if at all, do the Greek fragments of Thomas differ from the Coptic version? Is the Coptic relatively faithful to the Greek? Are there significant differences?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2017

      Yeah, I don’t see how Greek fragments of Thomas are relevant to the question of whether the author was basing his sayings on earlier written or oral traditions. I guess Meier is pointing out verbal parallels in the Greek text to Synoptic sayings (some words in this Gospel, others in the other kind of thing?) The most obvious textual issue with the fragments is that the sayings are in a different sequence.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  January 11, 2017

        Yes, Meier was pointing out areas of literal agreement between the Greek fragments of Thomas and the Greek Synoptics; for example, that Greek Thomas suspiciously uses the exact same Greek words and grammar unique to Luke, which strongly suggests Thomas has used Luke as a source.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 13, 2017

          Yes, it’s a good argument, but not completely suasive to lots of scholars! Mark Goodacre has a good book arguing something similar.

  3. Jana  January 10, 2017

    Digressing again and forgive if you’ve all ready clarified … would Jesus and his disciples spoken Aramaic or Hebrew? Wouldn’t Jesus have taught in Aramaic or was Hebrew the common language of the people? Which language would “Mark” have spoken?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2017

      They would have spoken Aramaic, even though their Bible was in (the related) Hebrew. Mark wrote in Greek and that appears to have been his primary language.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 11, 2017

      For the past half century, it seems most NT scholars have decided that Jesus spoke Aramaic and only Aramaic. Some scholars seem willing to accept that Jesus had known “some” Hebrew, but, for the most part, he only spoke Aramaic. Since Aramaic was the common vernacular at the time, and Hebrew was, more or less, only used in liturgical or scholastic settings, this would be a reasonable conclusion.

      Over the past year, as I have attempted to reconstruct certain purported quotes of Jesus in the NT back into both Aramaic and Hebrew, I, myself, have arrived at a different conclusion (and I should be absolutely clear that I am NOT a philologist or paleo-linguistic of any kind; I’m merely a native Hebrew speaker attempting a reconstruction based on my own knowledge of Semitic languages and culture). What my reconstructions have shown me is that there are basically four linguistic layers behind the Synoptic Gospels: Hebrew, Aramaic, crude Greek and educated Greek. The meager Hebrew parts consist almost exclusively of very terse, very cleverly constructed three or four line aphorisms, heavily consisting of the kinds of puns one often finds in Hebrew expressions. The reason Jesus spoke this way is likely in imitation of the Hebrew Bible, in which much of the Prophets, the Psalms and even the Proverbs were written. This gave added gravity and profundity to Jesus’ “prophecies,” such as how a modern fire breathing preacher will preach in King James English in order to make his sermon sound “Biblical”.

      For example, here’s one of my most recent reconstructions of the Hebrew:
      Mark 2:19-22||Matt. 9:15- 17||Luke 5:35-37
      חדש יקרע ישן
      chadash yiqra’ yashan
      “New rends old”
      In these parallel passages the commentators are trying make a connection between fasting (as per the inquiry of John the Baptist’s disciples) and the rending of one’s garment during mourning. The original quote by Jesus was likely a maxim on “new” material “rending” “old” material. The word used by Jesus was likely, therefore, the Hebrew word used in reference to rending one’s garment as an act of mourning, קרע. Jesus’ apothegm probably was a reference to the “new” Kingdom “rending” the old, corrupt world. But the later Christian commentators saw in it a response to those Jews who criticized the Christian Jews for not fasting properly or not fasting at all. Hence why a seemingly unrelated maxim on not combining new with old (whether cloth or wine) would have been attached to criticism of fasting.

      Next, Jewish Christian commentators added glosses, in Aramaic, to these original Jesus Hebrew quotes, similar to how someone, Jew or Christian, will take a verse from the Bible, OT or NT, and then proceed to built up an argument in support of a certain view based on that one verse. Take, for example, the same parallel passages I gave above: Mark 2:19-22||Matt. 9:15- 17||Luke 5:35-37

      Those passages were essentially glosses on the original Hebrew aphorism by Jesus (I should point out that though Jesus probably spoke these aphorisms, he may not have originated them; in other words, when Jesus said “new rends old”, he may have gotten that expression from someone else, but, either way, the disciples learned the aphorism from Jesus). So what likely happened is that the glosses about how new cloth used to patch old cloth will “rend” the garment, and how new wine will “rend” old skins were added as commentary to the original aphorism, as a way of expounding on and applying its meaning. (In this case, after a while, the original aphorism in Hebrew was probably lost, and the Aramaic gloss was what remained. However, in many cases, the original Hebrew aphorism still remains in the Gospel text, as, for example, when Jesus says: “Ten la-qaisar min la-qaisar” — “Give to Caesar from Caesar’s [i.e. what belongs to Caesar]”)

      So what there was at this point was a list of Jesus’ original Hebrew aphorisms with Aramaic expansionary gloss. But then the Semitic words (whether in document form or oral form) were translated into rather rough Greek (possibly by a second-language Greek speaker, such as a Jew who now lives in the Diaspora) and at this point the “words” of Jesus were placed within their so-called Sitz im Leben; that is, in an anecdotal form as we see within the various episodes of the Gospels. And this is where we see the beginning of a narrative tradition, such as with Mark.

      Then, as these crude Greek translations worked their way around to Gentile Christian communities, they become polished and revised into the masterworks we see in Matthew and Luke.

      • godspell  January 13, 2017

        Jesus certainly would have known some Hebrew, just as most modern observant Jews do. I know a little French, a little Spanish, a little Latin, and even a little Gaelic, but I don’t speak, read, or write any of them.

        Is it your contention Jesus was conversant in Hebrew, or merely that he had some knowledge of it? The sacred texts he was quoting were in Hebrew, so it’s something of a truism to say he knew some Hebrew. He would have known some Latin and Greek as well, living under the Roman yoke. I think the scholarly consensus is that the only language he was comfortable in was Aramaic.

        Which could explain why, in his final moments of life, he cried out in that language. Even though he’s referring to a passage from a Hebrew text. There’s always a core language, even for the multilingual–the language you think in reflexively, dream in, express your deepest thoughts in. For him, that was Aramaic, but as Bart says, that’s a close relation of Hebrew.

        For many modern Jews, it’s been Yiddish.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  January 14, 2017

          godspell, my contention is that:
          A) Jesus must have been very familiar with Hebrew and the Hebrew scriptures — possibly even literate in it, enough to understand, for example, how to create sophisticated Hebrew puns on tevel (“world”), taphel (“flavorless”), and tabel (“seasoning”) in the expression “You are the salt of the world, but if the salt is flavorless, how will you season it?” He must have been skilled enough to imitate the sounds, the cadences, and the structures of Biblical Hebrew prosody.
          B) Jesus used this skill in imitation of Biblical Hebrew to proclaim his own “prophecies” in the style of the classical (i.e. scriptural) Hebrew prophets.
          C) The disciples saw Jesus’ skill as evidence that the Holy Spirit had truly come to Jesus, giving him the gift of prophecy.
          D) Therefore, the disciples saw this as a sign that God was bring prophecy back to the nation of Israel (after the long intertestimental hiatus), and that, therefore, this was a sign of the imminent arrival of Judgment Day and the Kingdom of Heaven.
          E) Upon Jesus’s untimely and unexpected death, his disciples desperately tried to remember Jesus’s “prophecies”, so as to use them as a guide to explain what had happened and for what to do now. It was at this point that they may have recorded a very crude list of Jesus’ proclamations, which they used as a tool to guide their decisions.
          F) The disciples then made interpretations upon these recorded apothegms of Jesus, as most Jewish exegetes were accustomed to do with the Hebrew scriptures — i.e. they began to use Jesus’ utterances as scripture to be interpreted.
          G) Some of these original Hebrew “prophecies” and their “interpretations” (both likely being translated into the Aramaic at this point), upon finding their way outside of Palestine and into the Greek world, were then translated into the Greek, and it was these Greek translations that found their way into the Gospels we have today.

          That’s my hypothesis, more or less.

          As for Jesus’ knowledge of Greek, it was probably crude at best. Moreover, it’s highly unlikely that 1) Jesus made an exclamation from the cross before his death, and 2) that even if he had spoken anything, it’s unlikely that it would have found it’s way back to the disciples. In all likelihood, almost everything in the Gospels post-Jesus’ arrest is total confabulation.

  4. mjt  January 10, 2017

    I wonder if this is a good argument that the NT writings (or at least the synoptic gospels) have been faithfully copied:

    1) The synoptic gospels were originally copied individually., as you stated in the article. That is, the gospel of Mark was copied by itself, not as a companion piece with the other gospels or with the rest of the NT.

    2) Mark, Matthew and Luke contain many stories that are almost identical word for word, obviously because Luke and Matthew copied them from Mark, making slight changes for theological reasons.

    3) If the original copying process had been poorly done, those stories would not have been copied to the point where they would end up nearly word for word identical. For example, the story of the rich young ruler who asks Jesus how to obtain eternal life appears in all 3 synoptic gospels, with slight differences. If the copying process was really bad, we would expect the story in Mark to be very different than the story in Matthew–because they were copied in different communities. Maybe in Mark he’s a rich young ruler asking about eternal life, and Jesus mentions the law and giving away his possessions. And maybe in Matthew, because it was copied poorly, the copyists eventually change the character into a Pharisee, and the part about Jesus telling him to give away his money to ‘have riches in heaven’ gets dropped completely.

    4) Because we don’t see this–many stories in the synoptic gospels are nearly identical, with only slight changes…we can have (some) confidence that the early copyists of the synoptic gospels did a pretty good job.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2017

      I would say that we have pretty good evidence that *two* copyists seem to have done a very good job (the two that produced the mss available to Matthew and Luke)

  5. godspell  January 10, 2017

    ‘Mark’ would probably be amazed people are still reading his book at all, almost two millennia after he wrote it, since he was of a generation of Christians who could still cling to the hope that the Kingdom was coming soon. I’d hate to think he’d be so petty as to object to his gospel being compiled with others. Though I suspect he’d have thought John’s gospel was pretty weird. And Luke’s & Matthew’s too–imaginative?

    Modern biographies are awfully long by comparison, but it’s not unusual, in historical circles, to produce compilations of essays and articles relating to a single historical figure, written at different times by different people. Back then a book was a scroll, so not really practical.

    When a Greek classicist translates Sophocles, or Sappho, don’t many of the same questions apply? Without the risk of offending modern-day worshippers of the Greek pantheon, though I bet they’re out there somewhere.

  6. Saemund  January 10, 2017

    I have a question that is irrelevant to this post. What’s your view of 1 Corinthians 11.10? Do you think the expression “because of the angels” refers to the idea that, since angels are present at the Christian places of worship, they are there to guard the order of creation and will punish any infraction (such as not wearing head-covering by women)? Or would you agree with Meier’s understanding (from “On the Veiling of Hermeneutics,” 1978—did he change his views since then?) that women should wear head-covering so as not to tempt sexually the angels present at the worship (which is also something that Tertullian says in De virginibus velandis, 7)? If neither, what is your opinion on this (if you can comment on it at all since I know that on this blog you try to write only brief comments, I assume, to save time)?

    I wish Paul would have been clearer on his meaning, but I don’t suppose he was expecting us to be reading his words 2000 years later, ha!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2017

      I have debated that point for years and have not ever decided! Good angels who are controlling the order of creation? Or bad angels who are capable of being seduced? I’m not sure.

  7. RonaldTaska  January 10, 2017

    Good questions and I look forward to the next post. Readers of the blog, of course, should read your “Misquoting Jesus.” the best of all Ehrman books.

  8. Hildore  January 10, 2017

    What very interesting information on Bible manuscripts, collection and translations. And to think that some regard the Bible especially the N. T. to have fallen straight from the sky. It is sad to think that people were actually killed if they did not believe some of the things taught out of the Bible.
    Thanks Dr. Ehrman for your blog and all of the information you share with us.

  9. Hume  January 10, 2017

    The Son of Man references are inconclusive! I just read them, and I know you lean toward a Cosmic judge coming on the clouds and have admitted Jesus is also talking about himself as the Son of Man. This is frustrating not knowing the answer.

    But I do not see how you can make that leap with:

    “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
    “And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2017

      Yes, there is no doubt that the Gospels portray Jesus as calling himself the son of man. That is not a matter of debate! The matter of debate is always: “Which of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels are the ones he actually said.” *That* is a much more complicated matter. For my line of argument on the specific point about the Son of Man sayings, see my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. (It’s not an argument I myself came up with, of course!)

  10. Hume  January 10, 2017

    Why did Jesus invent Hell? You must know these passages Bart:

    Mk. 9:43-49, Mt. 13:40-42, Mt. 13:49-50, Mt. 18:7-9, Mt. 24:51, Mt. 25:40-46, Mt. 5:22, Lk. 13:23-34, Jn. 15:6

    These passages scared me as a child, and yet still have some effect since that time. Whether I like it or not, Jesus talks about burning people in various ways – A LOT.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2017

      Again, the question is always how to know what Jesus himself actually said.

      • Hume  January 11, 2017

        That seems quite difficult! I feel like a Padawan without a Jedi Master.

    • drussell60  January 12, 2017

      Ever wonder just how an immaterial soul can be burned in the first place? Did the early purveyors of this “idea” even take the time to think it through? I doubt it.

      • Bart
        Bart  January 13, 2017

        Ancient people thought of souls as “material” entities, not the invisible non-material phenomena that Descartes dreamt up and gave us.

        • drussell60  January 13, 2017

          Interesting. But in what way did they conceive of it as “material?” I don’t know if we have a soul or not, but it’s hard to conceive of a soul, which allegedly resides in a physical body, somehow being physical after the person dies.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 14, 2017

            Yes, it’s hard for those of us raised on a Cartesian understanding of the soul to see it any other way. But for most ancient people “soul” was not immaterial: it was a more highly refined kind of material (as opposed to the clunky matter that made up the body). For many ancients, this highly refined part of yourself would survive death — it couldn’t be killed off like the clunkier stuff could be.

  11. Jason  January 10, 2017

    Is the split between Catholicism and Protestantism over the apocrypha related to the counter-reformation/Council of Trent?

  12. clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 11, 2017

    When I go to the bookstore there are a great many different editions of the Bible. And some have names like life application or have the words of Jesus printed in red. I have no doubt that some translations are more accurate than others. Some versions may have more or different notes or aids that point the reader in different directions, toward, say, the editors’ or denominations’ ideas about life application.

    But my gut reaction is that for 99% of readers, it’s 99% all the same old stuff. These different editions seem mainly intended to tease people into thinking they are going to find deep new insights. In the past most people probably haven’t understood most of the Bible or haven’t been as deeply moved by it as they expected. So they keep searching for something new when here isn’t anything new, ie, because the canon is closed. And I would say the same kind of marketing strategy is at work in many publications of the non-canonical writings.

    If people really want to understand the Bible the best thing they can do is read the works of scholars like yourself in conjunction with their reading of the Bible, or take a college course. The Bible itself is old hat.

    Even though this was not posed in the form of a question I’d appreciate your thoughts on this. I guess it’s a pet peeve of mine.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2017

      Yes, most people do not realize how important the differences are from one Bible translation to another.

    • dankoh  January 12, 2017

      I think if someone really wants to understand the Bible they need to do so in the original language if at all possible. Then top that with scholarly works and so on. And throw in knowledge of the periods when it was written. And so on.

  13. drussell60  January 11, 2017

    Because that is their job? : )

  14. dankoh  January 12, 2017

    My Protestant version of the Bible, the New Oxford Annotated of the RSV, does include the Apocrypha, which is specifically labelled as such as in a separate section. But then, the Anglicans tend to be more catholic than other Protestant denominations.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      Yes, Protestants since Luther have said that the books are fine for reading, even if they are not canonical.

  15. dankoh  January 12, 2017

    I’m curious what your thoughts are about the Jefferson Bible. I don’t recall which translation he used (though he did study Greek, I recall). But his main point was to remove everything that he thought Jesus didn’t say.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      I believe he was using the King James, and his main objective was to eliminate the miraculous deeds of Jesus but to retain his words. You can still buy it today.

  16. Kirktrumb59  January 13, 2017

    In a bookstore in Gloucester, Ma. a few months ago, found “A Short Grammar of the Greek Testament” by AT Robertson and W Hersey Davis.
    Sample entry: “Patronymics These substantives express descent and suffixes are added to proper names. So -δα, masc. nom.”
    From an entry just above this: παιδ -ισκη young girl,..etc.
    I don’t read Greek. Thumbed through it, thought of purchasing, didn’t.
    Is this something you and other scholars have used?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 14, 2017

      Yes, it’s an old classic. It was great in its day, but it’s been superseded.

  17. TWood
    TWood  January 16, 2017

    When the Aramaic statements of Jesus are retained in the Greek gospels… I assume they are transliterated rather than translated (I know they’re translated after they’re stated… but the actual statements are transliterated, right?) As far as I can tell (which admittedly isn’t very far)… they’d have to be transliterated since the two languages used such different “alphabets.” But maybe I’m way off? If I’m right, then “Talitha koum” is either an English transliteration of the Greek transliteration of the original Aramaic—or an English transliteration directly from the original Aramaic. IDK. This kind of stuff confuses me… any clarification would be appreciated!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 17, 2017

      Yes, they are transliterated into Greek, and in English translation then transliterated into English

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