Here is wisdom; this is the royal
Law; these are the lively Oracles of God.
Words spoken at the presenting
of the Bible at the British Coronation Service
In this section we will review the nature of the Old Testament,
and assess some of the claims made for it by Jews and Christians.
Old Testament is divided into a number of books, most of them
originally written in Hebrew, all of them now considered by
Jews to have been inspired by God. Some parts of some books
were originally written in Aramaic,
some apparently in Syriac or other Middle Eastern languages,
but all such texts were rendered into Hebrew. Later these Hebrew
scriptures were translated into Greek, Latin and other languages.
Some additions to the text were written in Greek and survive
only in Greek. The Jews distinguished three kinds of book within
the Old Testament: the Torah (Law), Nebim
(Prophets) and Ketubim (Writings). They came to be
regarded as divinely inspired in this same chronological order:
First the Torah, later the Nebim, and later
still the Ketubim.
centuries the Church taught that God had communicated his word
through certain Jewish prophets. There was no doubt about who
these prophets were or what they had written, no question that
the original text had ever been tampered with, and no possibility
that errors had been introduced in authorised translations.
Not only was the text internally consistent and free from error,
but it also contained nothing that was superfluous. Furthermore
it was held that the text had been set down in chronological
order. Those without learning generally held that the text was
to be interpreted literally, but biblical scholars have always
used a certain amount of interpretation (they call it exegesis)
to help understand the more opaque passages.
Jews believed that the Hebrew text of the Old Testament was
the infallible word of God. Orthodox Christians held that the
Greek translation called the Septuagint held the same
status. For centuries this was the only version used by Christians.
The Roman Church later accorded the same status to a fourth
century Latin translation (the Vulgate); and later
still Protestants accorded it to their own translations. Many
fundamentalist Christians still believe that the Old Testament
is the literal and infallible word of God, but over the last
200 years or so virtually all Christian scholars have abandoned
would we expect of the Old Testament if it were, as claimed,
the word of God? We might reasonably expect that there would
be no doubt about what constituted the Old Testament. The books
in it, called the canon, should be clearly defined. Furthermore
this canon should be unchanged from the earliest days of Christianity.
We might even expect some sort of divine confirmation of it.
We might also expect that the Bible would be original. We would
not for example expect to find stories that have been plagiarised
from neighbouring cultures or other religions. If the claims
made for the Bible were true, then in view of their importance
we might expect that the original manuscripts would have been
carefully preserved. Failing this, we might expect that various
copies would at least agree with each other. We certainly would
not expect to find evidence of tampering and later editing.
We might also reasonably expect various books to have been written
by the authors to whom they are attributed, and in the historical
periods claimed for them. Also, if translations were divinely
inspired, as the Greek Septuagint, Latin Vulgate, and English
Authorised Version have been claimed to be, then we might expect
the same standards of them as of the original text. We would
not expect to find evidence of deliberate mistranslation. Also,
if the Bible represented the infallible word of God, then it
might reasonably be expected to be internally consistent and
free from factual errors.
These expectations are not unreasonable. Neither are they merely
the expectations of modern rationalists. Christians have made
all of these claims and in the past have persecuted people for
The Canon of the Old Testament
Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a
weariness of the flesh.
There is no evidence that any divine agency ever issued or
confirmed an authorised list of contents for anything like a
Bible, or even for an Old Testament. Jewish scholars disagreed
with each other about what constituted Holy Scripture. When
the Jewish historian Josephus (AD 37-c.100) listed books believed
to be of divine origin he counted only four amongst what would
now be called the Writings1. Later Jews (and Christians)
would count no fewer than eleven.
the time of Jesus, the Jews had included some books as scriptural
on grounds that are now known to have been flawed. The book
of Esther, for example, is a popular romance that does
not even mention God. Furthermore, the story in it looks suspiciously
like a version of an old Babylonian myth. There was much debate
in Jewish circles as to whether Esther should be counted
as scripture, and eventually it won hesitating approval, primarily
because it justifies the Jewish institution of Purim.
However, the book had to be reduced by half to make it acceptable.
The Song of Songs, also called Canticles,
is an anthology of love poems, whose place in the canon was
also disputed. It won approval on the erroneous ground that
its author was Solomon, hence its alternative name, the Song
of Solomon. Its explicit sex scenes have long caused unease
amongst both Jews and Christians, who have traditionally mollified
themselves with the belief that it is some sort of allegory.
Ecclesiastes found its way into the canon because it
was also mistakenly believed to have been written by Solomon.
Uncomfortable material was removed: for example 18 psalms had
to be dropped from the book of Psalms3.
The book of Daniel found its way in under false pretences,
having being written much later than it purports to have been.
The Jews in Jerusalem were stricter than the Greek-speaking
Jews of the Diaspora in
what they regarded as divinely inspired. Greek-speaking Jews
included 1 Esdras, Judith, Tobit (Tobias)
and the books of the two Maccabees with the histories,
and Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (= Ben Sirach)
and Baruch and the Prayer of Manasseh
with the poetic and prophetic books, while the Song of the
Three Holy Children, Susanna and the Elders, and
Bel and the Dragon were appended to the book of Daniel.
Arguments about what was and what was not genuine scripture
prompted Jewish scholars to consider the question around the
end of the first century AD. The first attempt at settling a
definitive Jewish canon was reputedly made around AD 90 at the
Council of Jamnia, where Jewish scholars discussed the validity
of various books. If such a council did ever meet5,
its decisions apparently failed to reach the Jews of the Diaspora,
for they continued to accept as scripture works that other scholars
had rejected, and indeed they continued to tamper with and supplement
what they already had for many years to come.
When early Christians addressed the problem of what to regard
as canonical, there was a distinct lack of agreement. No one
knows what Jesus would have regarded as canonical. He probably
never considered the question, since the question of a canon
had not yet arisen. The first Christian known to have assembled
a definitive list of Christian writings was Marcion (AD c.85-160),
a ship owner and native of Sinope (Sinop in modern Turkey),
towards the end of the second century AD. He had a low opinion
of Christianity's Jewish origins and omitted the whole of the
Old Testament. Stimulated into action by Marcion, the Church
Father Irenaeus of Lyons
(AD c.130-c.200), Bishop of Lyons, compiled his own canon, which
did include a version of the Old Testament.
Books that were held to be non-canonical by Jewish scholars
continued to be regarded as canonical by the Jews of the Diaspora,
and this dichotomy has echoed throughout Christendom to the
present day, since Christian scholars generally accepted the
Jews as authorities on their own scriptures. Initially the Church
accepted the disputed books, at least partly because the Septuagint
included them, and the Septuagint was considered to have been
divinely inspired. Nevertheless, particularly unconvincing books,
such as Esther, were excluded6.
Leading churchmen were still disputing books like Wisdom
and Ecclesiasticus as late as the eighth century7,
and disagreements continued for centuries to come. When Protestants
started reconsidering the canon they rejected the disputed books,
falling back into line with the Hebrew texts but printing the
disputed ones as an appendix. At the Council of Trent in 1545-7
the Roman Church reconsidered its attachment to the Septuagint
and decided to reject from the canon 1 Esdras and the
Prayer of Manasseh, along with a late addition, 2
The Eastern Churches reached their own compromise in 1672, accepting
some disputed books and rejecting others9.
it is that the principal Churches still disagree about the canon
of the Old Testament. Roman Catholic versions of the Bible include
seven whole books and several further parts of books that are
omitted from Anglican and Protestant versions. The material
missing from the Anglican versions (listed in Article 6 of the
39 Articles) is included in the Apocrypha, now generally bound
as a separate volume10.
The Apocrypha takes its name from the Greek word apocryphos
meaning hidden away. Works hidden away in the Apocrypha
were so unlikely that they have given rise to the word apocryphal,
meaning fanciful or imaginary. In his German Bible, Martin Luther
(1483-1546) excluded 1 and 2 Esdras not only
from the canon, but also from the appendix of apocryphal works.
To complicate matters further, some books that are not generally
considered even apocryphal by modern Churches are considered
as fully canonical by ancient Churches. For example, the Ethiopic
Church regards 1 Enoch as canonical. Their case is
strengthened by the fact that a New Testament author cites 1
Enoch as though it were valid scripture11
key point here is not that some biblical works are fanciful
but that there is no reliable way of knowing which works possessed
God's own authority. Was it the selection of the Jews of Jerusalem
or the Jews of the Diaspora? Was it the works chosen by the
Eastern Churches or the Western Church, or by the Roman Catholics,
the Protestants, or by one of the hundreds of other Christian
sects with their own canon? It seems odd that God should have
permitted such a lack of clarity and so much disagreement about
the contents of his divine revelation. It is also odd that the
true word of God is not immediately distinguishable from the
work of impostors. No version of the canon was so obviously
divine that it could inspire universal agreement. Indeed, Churches
typically decide their canons by a majority vote. Furthermore,
all the oldest Churches have revised their canons over the centuries.
For many people, the implication is that all such canons are
not the selections of God at all but of fallible and capricious
An Original Work?
"…Tear down your house, I say, and build a boat.
These are the measurements of the barque as you shall build
her: let her beam equal her length, let her deck be roofed
over like the vault that covers the abyss; then take up into
the boat the seed of all living creatures"
The Epic of Gilgamesh, c.2500 BC (Translation by N. K. Sandars)
the books of the Old Testament contained God's unique revelation,
they might reasonably be expected to be original. If on the
other hand they were writings typical of the Middle East between
2,000 and 3,000 years ago, they would be likely to contain material
plagiarised from other works and from neighbouring peoples.
Which pattern does the Old Testament best fit? Did any biblical
stories exist before God revealed them to his chosen people?
The Old Testament is not a single work but a collection of
ancient Jewish writings. As a cursory glance shows, it is an
amalgamation of laws, genealogies, chronicles (or histories),
myths, proverbs, poetry, songs, eroticism, propaganda, prophecy,
allegories, morality tales and humorous stories. In the original
Hebrew there are numerous folk etymologies, puns and acrostics.
However, nearly all of these are lost in translation13.
Any good story or choice morsel circulating in the Middle East
could be included in the anthology, subject to amendments where
necessary. The Jewish scholars who compiled the books that now
comprise the Old Testament borrowed from the songs, folk tales
and myths not only of the Jews themselves, but of their neighbours
too. This sort of plagiarism was both widespread and acceptable
in the Middle East at the time.
take a well-known example, the story of Noah's ark (Genesis
6-8) closely parallels the story of a flood given in the Epic
of Gilgamesh14. Gilgamesh
is an Assyrian work dating from around 2500 BC, almost 2,000
years before the biblical account was written. The story from
Gilgamesh is the more complete version. In fact the
biblical account appears to be an amalgamation of two derivative
versions of the Gilgamesh story. Odd details are lost in the
biblical account: for example where in Gilgamesh a raven, a
dove and a swallow are sent to find dry land, in the biblical
version only a raven and a dove are sent. Both stories appear
to explain rainbows. In the biblical version Jahveh places his
bow in the sky as a reminder of his covenant not to cause such
a flood again. In the older version the goddess Ishtar dedicates
her spectacular necklace with the "jewels of Heaven"
made by the sky god. The Jews would certainly have known this
epic. It was to be found in many Eastern libraries fragments
have been found in Turkey, Syria, Israel and Egypt15.
A Babylonian version of the story is also known, again older
than the biblical version, and again more complete. There is
also a well-known Greek version of the story.
story of Moses" mother hiding her infant son in a basket
of rushes caulked with pitch, and entrusting him to the river,
is also adapted from an older Middle Eastern story.
The original river was the Euphrates, the role of Pharaoh's
daughter was played by the goddess Ishtar, and the child grew
up to be the Mesopotamian king, Sargon of Akkad. In ancient
times rivers were thought of as the embodiment of gods, so in
the original tale the mother was entrusting her child to a deity,
not abandoning him to the elements. The story of Moses, which
may be found in Exodus 2:1-10, dates from about 1,000 years
after that of Sargon.
well-known story from the Old Testament is that of God giving
Moses tablets of stone on which were inscribed God's commandments.
But long before then the Babylonian Sun god Shamash had handed
stone tablets of the law to Hammurabi, a king during the first
dynasty of Babylon, around 4,000 years ago. Again there are
clear parallels: Hammurabi received his tablets on top of a
ziggurat, Moses receives his on top of a mountain 16.
The laws given to Hammurabi are sophisticated, exceeding 280
in number. They evidently provided the basis not only for the
story of divine laws being inscribed on tablets, but also for
some of the later Jewish laws. To take an example, the Code
of Hammurabi states that:
If a man shall put out the eye of another, then let his own
eye be put out. If a man shall knock out the teeth of another
... then let his own teeth be knocked out
The familiar Mosaic Code (Exodus 21:23-24) is more concise:
...thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for
Hammurabi predated Moses by many hundreds of years. God seems
to have copied the behaviour of other Middle Eastern gods. For
example many divinities practised the art of separating the
waters, as God did for Moses and his followers fleeing from
Old Testament events have clear parallels in classical mythologies.
For example the story of the Tower of Babel echoes that of the
Giant's staircase to Olympus. Samson slaying the lion echoes
Hercules slaying the Nemean lion (and also has an older parallel
in the saga of Gilgamesh ). Again, in Genesis (22:1-13) God
tests Abraham by telling him to kill his son Isaac and offer
him up as a burnt offering. At the last minute God settles for
the sacrifice of a ram instead. This is an adaptation of another
old Sumerian legend, tailored to demonstrate God's mercy and
benevolence. It also has a classical parallel. When Agamemnon
was about to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, the goddess Diana,
struck by compassion, substituted a goat at the last minute.
Many passages occur in more than one book of the Bible17,
a reminder of the fact that the Jews considered these books
to be quite distinct works, and an illustration of how freely
writers would borrow from other writers. Psalms 14 and 53 are
the same, except that a Hebrew editor has substituted one divine
name (Elohim) for another (Jahveh). Genesis (19:4-8) contains
a story of how Lot offered his virgin daughters to the Sodomites
in order to appease them. This was a popular Middle Eastern
tale. Indeed it was so popular that it appears again in a slightly
different form in the book of Judges (19:22-25). The participants
are different but the story is much the same. Apparently, different
authors have adapted the same basic story for their own purposes,
adding different endings to make different points.
pagan origin of many Old Testament stories has long been known.
Sometimes the scribes who did the borrowing did little to disguise
their plagiarism, for example failing to amend the text to its
new home. Thus, in the Jerusalem Bible, Proverb 22:20 makes
reference to thirty chapters of advice and knowledge,
alluding to the Wisdom of Amenemophis, on which, as
is confirmed in a footnote, "this whole passage is based".
Psalm 104 contains material from the Hymn to the Sun
of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten, dating from around 1340 BC.
Other psalms were originally written in honour of Baal18.
Again, biblical texts are so similar to older pagan Canaanite
texts that it has been possible to explain certain odd-looking
Hebrew passages by referring to the Canaanite versions
they turn out to be either mistranslations or mistranscriptions19.
Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.
Job 5:7 ( Authorised Version)
It is man who breeds trouble for himself as surely as eagles
fly to the height.
Job 5:7 ( Jerusalem Bible)
There is no single original text of the Old Testament, nor
is there a single original version of even one book of it. The
Jews were remarkably free in early times to edit and re-edit
their Hebrew texts. They did not regard their scriptures as
a single body, but as separate works. As we have already seen
they often copied chunks of one book into another, sometimes
changing names and other details to meet the needs of the moment.
Impious suggestions were also doctored. For example, it seemed
wrong that God should stand before Abraham, so the two swapped
places and Abraham now stood before God. There were genuine
errors too. A common one was to incorporate marginal notes into
the text. Typically, one scholar would add a note giving his
explanation of an opaque passage. A later scholar, copying the
manuscript, would interpret the note as a correction and copy
it as part of the main text20.
In later times (after AD 100) Jewish scribes began to take
pains to ensure that texts were accurately copied, for example
by checking the number of letters and words in the new manuscripts.
The texts then settled down to relative uniformity, although
they preserved errors and contradictions originating from earlier
editing. Until the twentieth century, the oldest known Hebrew
manuscript was only about 1,000 years old. When much older texts
were rediscovered, it was possible to confirm what had previously
been suspected that numerous passages had been inserted,
duplicated, scrambled or omitted.
A further difficulty was that different Jewish sects each tampered
with the scriptures to suit their own teachings. For example
the Samaritans had their own version, and so did the Essenes.
There were also mainstream variants, and it is now generally
accepted that the traditional text, known as the Masoretic Text,
is "only one late and arbitrary line, surviving from an
earlier uncontrolled variety"21.
The texts are only relatively uniform, and surviving manuscripts
frequently disagree with each other. The New International Version
(NIV) of the Bible gives variant readings in footnotes, showing
that Hebrew manuscripts often disagree with each other, and
with Greek, Syriac and other texts. Here are extracts from the
preface to the NIV explaining how the translators worked:
For the Old Testament the standard Hebrew text, the Masoretic
Text as published in the latest editions of Biblia Hebraica,
was used throughout. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain material bearing
on an earlier stage of the Hebrew text. They were consulted,
as were the Samaritan Pentateuch and the ancient scribal traditions
relating to textual changes. Sometimes a variant Hebrew reading
in the margin of the Masoretic Text was followed instead of
the text itself.... …The translators also consulted the
more important early versions the Septuagint; Aquila,
Symmachus and Theodotion; the Vulgate; the Syriac Peshitta;
the Targums; and for the Psalms the Juxta Hebraica of St Jerome
(c.340-420). Readings from these versions were occasionally
followed where the Masoretic Text seemed doubtful and where
accepted principles of textual criticism showed that one or
more of these textual witnesses appeared to provide the correct
A recent international committee, considering the text of the
Old Testament, identified some 5,000 places where the Hebrew
was so puzzling that it might need to be corrected. A few of
these are noted in footnotes to modern translations, although
different translations handle them in different ways.
Some cases look like simple errors. According to the Masoretic
Text corresponding to 1 Samuel 1:24, Sarah took a three-year-old
bull to Shiloh, but according to most other manuscripts she
took three bulls rather than one. In other cases it appears
that the scribes have created rather a mess by deliberate tampering.
Take for example the case of the killing of Goliath. Everyone
knows that he was killed by David. The Bible says so, at least
it does if one reads 1 Samuel 17:49-51. But according to the
original text of another passage in 2 Samuel, Elhanan killed
And there was again a battle in Gob with the Philistines,
where Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, a Bethlehemite, slew
Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear was like a weaver's
This is not what is printed in the Authorised Version, however.
The translators have inserted the words "the brother of"
before Goliath's name in 2 Samuel 21:19 so that the Authorised
And there was again a battle in Gob with the Philistines,
where Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, a Bethlehemite, slew
the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear
was like a weaver's beam.
The words the brother of are italicised in the Authorised
Version because they are interpolations additions made
by the translators. They are absent in more accurate recent
translations. So why did Christian scholars manipulate the text
in this way? In mitigation they could claim that they were merely
bringing it into line with a third version of the story in 1
And there was a war again with the Philistines; and Elhanan
the son of Jair slew Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite,
whose spear staff was like a weaver's beam.
But why then did 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles contradict each
other in the original texts?
seems to have happened is this: Goliath was killed by Elhanan,
and the story, dating from around 950 BC, was recounted in both
1 Chronicles and 2 Samuel. Some 350 years later it was felt
that David's reputation needed a boost, so David was made into
the hero of the story and this new version was included in 1
Samuel. To cover their tracks the Jewish editors changed the
passage in 1 Chronicles by adding the words "Lahmi the
brother of". They neglected however to change 2 Samuel
in the same way, leaving a contradiction that later English
translators obligingly tried to cover up using the same technique.
The original interpolators made another gaffe, for they used
the new David and Goliath story to explain how David came to
meet Saul (1 Samuel 17: 31-32), neglecting to square it with
a different story about how they met, which appears in chapter
16. Early manuscripts contain only one of the two stories, further
evidence that the contradictions arose through tampering22.
The book of Chronicles routinely tidies up earlier historical
accounts. For example in an original story the actions of King
Asa were slightly flawed:
And Asa did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord…But
the high places were not removed.... 1 Kings 15:11-14
Asa would have been more impressive if he had removed the (pagan)
high places, so in Chronicles we read:
And Asa did that which was good and right in the eyes of
the Lord his God: For he took away the altars of the strange
gods, and the high places.... 2 Chronicles 14:2-3
Jewish history was routinely rewritten to show up a favourite
leader in a good light, or to confirm God's attachment to the
Jewish people. Sometimes God was introduced into a story to
explain key events. A story in 2 Chronicles 18:31-32 is essentially
the same as that in 1 Kings 22:32-33, except that the mechanics
of Jehoshaphat's escape is different. In the earlier version
he simply calls out to those who are about to attack him.
And it came to pass, when the captains of the chariots saw
Jehoshaphat, that they said, Surely it is the king of Israel.
And they turned aside to fight against him: and Jehoshaphat
cried out. And it came to pass, when the captains of the chariots
perceived that it was not the king of Israel, that they turned
back from pursuing him. 1 Kings 22:32-33
In the improved version he calls out to God, and God is responsible
for his delivery.
And it came to pass, when the captains of the chariots saw
Jehoshaphat, that they said, It is the king of Israel. Therefore
they compassed about him to fight: but Jehoshaphat cried out,
and the LORD helped him; and God moved them to depart from
him. For it came to pass, that, when the captains of the chariots
perceived that it was not the king of Israel, they turned
back again from pursuing him. 2 Chronicles 18:31-32
Significantly, the original text is not altered, but added
to. The later text (Chronicles) is almost identical except that
an additional sentence has been inserted.
A man called Jether has different nationalities according to
It appears that it was politically correct for him to become
an Israelite, and this was achieved simply by doctoring the
text. Did Solomon have a mere 40 stalls for chariot horses,
or a much more impressive 4,00024,
and did Jashobeam kill three men on a single occasion, or was
it 30 men, or 300, or even 800 men25?
There are numerous such inconsistencies, both between different
books, and different manuscripts of the same book26.
Such tampering can be detected only when the editors failed
to cover their tracks early enough and well enough. We can never
know how many times they covered their tracks successfully.
Like the Jewish scribes who had not always been careful of
the truth, neither were Christians. Early Christians tampered
with the Septuagint, but this tampering was exposed by comparison
with the original Hebrew. Christians then accused Jews of suppressing
the truth in their Hebrew versions. But the Jews had largely
stopped tampering with their ancient texts by the end of the
first century AD and were thus routinely vindicated by the evidence.
For example, in the Septuagint, Psalm 96 was amended to include
an apparent prophecy about the Lord ruling from the tree (i.e.
the cross). The fact that Jewish versions included no such line
was explained away by the fact that the perfidious Jews had
removed it from the text. In fact it was the Christians who
had been responsible for the tampering, a fact easily confirmed
by comparing the texts with older copies in both Greek and Hebrew.
Christians also inserted a line in Jeremiah to foretell Christ's
descent into Hell "The Lord God remembered His dead people
of Israel who slept in the earth of the grave, and He went down
to them to preach to them His salvation". This fraudulence
has been quietly dropped, but the writings of the Church Fathers
confirm that they believed it to be genuine and thought that
the Jews had tried to suppress it27.
We will come across a number of other attempts by Christians
to insert convenient text often either retrospective
prophecies or justifications for novel doctrines.
Having now shown that every book in the Bible, from Genesis
to Judges, is without authenticity, I come to the book of
Ruth, an idle, bungling story, foolishly told, nobody knows
by whom, about a strolling country-girl creeping slyly to
bed with her cousin Boaz. Pretty stuff indeed to be called
the word of God!
Thomas Paine (1737-1809), The Age of Reason, Part
Traditionally God was held to have been the author of all books
of the Bible, just as Muslims believe Allah to have been the
true author of the Koran. In both cases, part of the evidence
of divine authorship was the sublime quality of the language
used. Many Muslims hold that God must have written the Koran
because no human could produce such beautiful prose. Unfortunately
its supernatural beauty seems to be discernible only by Muslim
speakers of Arabic and remains opaque to other Arabic speakers.
The position of the Old Testament is less convincing. Even the
most pious Christian scholars found the original text crude
and uncouth. St Jerome
for example found the language of the prophets "harsh and
barbarous" , much preferring the quality of writing of
pagan authors such as Cicero and Plautus.
Another problem is that of identifying the human authors. Most
books of the Old Testament were not written by the people whose
names they bear. Many were written and edited over a long period
by unknown hands. Traditional ascriptions are known to be unreliable,
and textual analysis reveals some books to be the work of more
than one writer. The oldest book whose author is known is an
apocryphal book called Ecclesiasticus or Ben Sirach,
written by the Jewish scholar Jesus ben Sirach at a surprisingly
late date (around 200 BC).
The books of the Law were traditionally believed to have been
written by Moses, although this has long been discounted by
scholars. No one previously seems to have been unduly concerned
that Moses sometimes referred to himself in the third person,
as in Numbers 12:3, but writing about his own death and burial
(Deuteronomy 34:5-7) raised a few questions. A further give-away
was the phrase " ...before there reigned any king over
the children of Israel" (Genesis 36:31). This could only
have been written after there had been a king, which was centuries
after the time of Moses. Moses was not the only person traditionally
identified as a biblical author to write as historical fact
about events that occurred after his death. Samuel, in 1
Samuel 25:1, gives an account of his own death and burial.
Again, Joshua (in Joshua 24:31) tells us that "
... Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the
days of the elders that outlived Joshua".
Scholars generally accept that at least four different hands
were responsible for the books traditionally attributed to Moses,
and that their contributions have been interwoven by a creative
editor (a redactor, the scholars call him). The four
strands are known as Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomic
and Priestly. These four strands are often identifiable
by characteristics in the writing, such as the name the author
used for God. For example the Yahwist author calls
God JHVH or YHWH (spoken as "Yahweh") while the Elohist
author calls him Elohim. The Deuteronomic introduced
changes by the Levites after the fall of the kingdom of Israel
and was responsible for a three-volume work that we now know
as Deuteronomy, Joshua and Kings. The Priestly author
edited these traditions together after the Babylonian Exile.
The four traditions are often denoted by the letters J, E, D
and P, though J and E were edited together before the others
and so are often denoted together as JE. The P strand includes
the books of Numbers and Leviticus and also forms the framework
into which the earlier books were fitted after the Exile.
Other works are also joint efforts edited together by one or
more redactors. The book of Isaiah for example is now generally
acknowledged to have been written by three authors, known to
scholars for convenience as Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2 and Isaiah 3.
Isaiah 2 appears to have been an exponent of the retrospective
prophecy. He predicted the coming of Cyrus the Great in the
530s BC after the event, and had his work incorporated into
that of Isaiah 1, which dated from 200 years earlier.
Another retrospective prophet is responsible for Zechariah's
astonishing prescience, and yet another one for Jeremiah's.
Jeremiah's interpolator was caught out by an ancient Greek translation
of the original text. Comparing it to the later Hebrew text
showed that the Hebrew version had been supplemented by retrospective
prophecies28. Again, some
works are specifically identified as being written by Solomon
or David, or other kings or their sons, but these ascriptions
are now discounted. As the Jerusalem Bible confirms, the Song
of Songs was not written by Solomon but by an unknown author
after the Exile, and Ecclesiastes not by a son of David,
as it claims, but by an unknown author (possibly a number of
unknown authors), again after the Exile.
The Jews took many centuries to agree a body of scripture.
Such a body had crystallised by the time of Rabbi Akiva a few
generations after the time of Jesus. As we have already seen,
the Jews distinguished three kinds of book:
The Torah, which comprises the first
five books of the Bible, i.e. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers
and Deuteronomy. The word Torah translates as Teaching,
but these books are generally known in English as the Law.
The Jews regarded them as being on a higher level than the other
The Nebim (English Prophets),
which comprise Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings,
Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel along with the 12 minor prophets.
In the New Testament reference is sometimes made to "the
Law and Prophets", meaning the Torah and the Nebim.
TheKetubim (or Writings),
the remaining books, which have a lower status than the Law
and the Prophets.
These categories were ignored by Christians, who came to regard
all of the works as equally inspired. In the Christians"
Old Testament, the books appear in a different order, with the
prophets placed last, so that the final book, Malachi, appears
to lead into the New Testament.
Traditionally the order of the books was believed to reflect
the chronological order of the events described. Many old versions
of the Bible included a chronology, often in a margin parallel
to the text, which was regarded as being as free from error
as the text itself. However much it was refined, the chronology
was flawed by numerous absurdities and contradictions, as demonstrated
by the freethinker Thomas Paine (1737-1809) in his book The
Age of Reason29.
At the time Paine was accused of blasphemy, as much for querying
the chronology as for questioning other aspects of the Bible.
No reputable Church now tries to sustain a full traditional
Perhaps the most infamous case of misdating and misrepresentation
is the book of Daniel. It is a hotchpotch of stories, some in
Aramaic, some in Hebrew; some (retrospectively) describing visions,
some incorporating known Babylonian tales; some regarded as
canonical, some apocryphal. It purports to have been written
during the Babylonian Exile, but scholars now accept that it
was written about 400 years later, between 167 and 164 BC, at
least partly in Aramaic. It is propaganda compiled to encourage
resistance to the Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, who was then
trying to crush the Jewish religion. It tells how Daniel and
his associates refused to compromise on matters of faith during
the Babylonian Exile, but displays ignorance of the period,
and of the Persian succession, and uses Macedonian words that
were unknown at the time it was supposedly written.
The most recent Old Testament writings date from around AD
120 almost a century after Jesus lived, which
suggests that God continued to refine his old Covenant with
the Jews long after he had superseded it with his new one. Divine
authorship is also compromised by the parochialism of the text.
Whoever wrote the books of the Old Testament knew about nomadic
life and tribal warfare in Middle Eastern deserts, but little
else. For example locusts are covered exceptionally well, but
penguins are badly underrepresented.
…it is, I believe, impossible to find in any story
upon record so many and such glaring absurdities, contradictions
and falsehoods as are in these books.
Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, Part II
For many centuries the mainstream Churches denied that there
was any evidence of tampering in God's divine word, but this
position is no longer tenable, and no mainstream Church now
seeks to deny it. For example the introduction to the Pentateuch
in the Jerusalem Bible concludes with the statement that "Throughout,
the hands of the Deuteronomic and Priestly editors are often
to be observed, annotating and adapting".
Sometimes the text has been tampered with in an effort to make
sense of it. For example, in 2 Samuel 24:10 David regretted
having carried out a census, saying he had "sinned greatly",
even though God had told him to do so. Some 200 years later
the story was revised so that it was Satan who instigated the
census, but the revisers neglected to revise the original. So
it is that a duplicate of the same story appears at 1 Chronicles
21:1, except Satan replaces God.
Sometimes, the disruption of regular patterns betrays the fact
that changes have been made either deliberately or accidentally.
For example acrostic poems have been broken up, presumably by
people who failed to realise that the text formed an acrostic.
Psalms 9 and 10 are really a single poem, each verse starting
with a Hebrew letter in alphabetical order, but as a note in
the Jerusalem Bible puts it "in the present text there
are several letters without their strophes". Again, in
Psalm 145 one of the verses ("Nun") is missing from
the Hebrew text and has had to be supplied from Greek texts
(see the Jerusalem Bible Psalm 145, note a ).
Another give-away arises from taking a passage and inserting
it elsewhere without checking the context. Thus for example
2 Samuel 23:9 says that the Philistines were gathered "there"
but gives no indication of where "there" was. Presumably
the passage was picked up from another part of the text where
the location of the action had already been established. A parallel
passage at 1 Chronicles 11:13 identifies the place as Pas Dammim,
and this is frequently substituted in translations of 2 Samuel
to cover up the error. Again whoever inserted the text saying
that God spoke to Moses "face to face, as a man speaketh
unto his friend" (Exodus 33:11) apparently failed to check
that this was consistent with the main narrative, which at verse
20 has God saying to Moses "Thou canst not see my face".
If the same fact was stated several times, then a scribe who
wanted to tamper with it had to be sure that he changed every
incidence. This was often difficult. In the Dead Sea Scrolls
and the Septuagint, Jacob is credited with having 75 descendants
when his family came to Egypt; this is also the number quoted
by Acts 7:14. But the Masoretic Text gives the number as 70,
and this is the figure that appears in biblical versions of
Genesis and Exodus30.
The Ten Commandments provides a series of examples of the dangers
of tampering. The first problem is that there are two versions
of the Commandments, at Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21.
The two versions contradict each other by giving different reasons
for observing the Sabbath31.
As a note to the Jerusalem Bible says at Exodus 20: "This
is the Priestly version of the Ten Commandments; another version,
the Deuteronomic, is found in Deuteronomy 5, and it is the second
which has been adopted by the Church". But this is only
the start, because neither of these versions is the original.
The original Ten Commandments, inscribed by Moses at God's dictation,
bear little resemblance to either of them, being concerned mainly
with religious festivals and taboos (Exodus 34:14-26). It is
this list that is explicitly identified in the text as the "Ten
Commandments" and is stated to have been written on the
tablets that Moses brought down from mount Sinai (Exodus 34:27-29).
But there is yet another problem, because there are more than
ten commandments listed here, which means that this list has
been tampered with as well32
quite apart from the fact that the whole collection was
overtaken by the current Ten Commandments. Furthermore other
sets of laws are listed that contradict each other in many details33.
Footnotes in the Jerusalem Bible demonstrate all sorts of errors
and sometimes how they arose:
"…not always consistent" Numbers 22b
"Not an accurate figure" 1 Kings 20b
"The chronological details cannot be harmonised....
" Esther 1c
"…a “modernisation” by a later hand."
"Different sources have been conflated" Genesis
"…later elaboration.... " Genesis 32a
"Two narratives are conflated here.... " Joshua
"…contains several traditions put together by
an editor;.... " Judges 21a
"Editorial comment" Exodus 15a
Two versions of the institution of the monarchy, a key episode
in the history of Israel, are to be found alternating in the
five chapters from 1 Samuel 8. One is by an anti-royalist author
and the other by a royalist34.
Another area particularly subject to both mistakes and deliberate
tampering was provided by the numerous genealogies contained
in the Old Testament. The New International Version (NIV) identifies
dozens of inconsistencies in footnotes, sometimes several in
the same genealogy35.
As an explanation of why two genealogies differ, the Jerusalem
Bible (see 1 Chronicles 2 note b) points out that "Genealogies
were often deduced from relationships between clans. This reconstruction
of the descendants of Caleb may differ from the list in vv.18-24
because it was made at a date when alliances between clans were
Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy
crib? Job 39:9
Ancient Middle Eastern alphabets contained no vowels. In the
earliest biblical texts only the consonants were written down,
without punctuation. This provided plenty of scope for misunderstandings,
especially as the tense had to be guessed from the context.
In many cases the wrong vowels were later inserted, giving the
wrong word and the wrong meaning. Again, since there was no
equivalent to our quotation marks it is often difficult to identify
the end of a speech. There were no gaps between words, and all
letters were capitals, so it was sometimes difficult even to
tell where one word ended and the next began. Furthermore the
Jews did not use separate symbols for numbers, but like the
Greeks and the Romans, used letters instead, a practice that
opened up further possibilities for confusion. Furthermore,
Hebrew writers often swapped back and forth between first, second
and third person personal pronouns, and even when they did not
it is not always clear which pronoun referred to which noun.
Most translations iron out such ambiguities without comment.
We have seen that the original biblical texts contained errors
of various sorts, but further errors have been introduced by
translators. Sometimes these errors are deliberate interpolations
by translators, performed to tidy up inconvenient or inconsistent
passages. In other cases they are genuine mistakes. The following
examples include both types.
of the books of the Old Testament were made during the third
and second centuries BC, probably for the library at Alexandria.
The translations were made into the common Mediterranean language
of the time, which was Greek. This collection is called the
Septuagint, which in Latin means seventy, because of
a tradition that it was translated by seventy scholars, all
of whom were inspired and who independently produced identical
translations36. The name
is sometimes abbreviated as LXX, the Roman numerals for seventy.
In the first century, the New Testament did not exist and authority
was believed to reside in the Septuagint and in Jesus"
sayings, which circulated orally. At one time both Jews and
Christians regarded the Septuagint as divinely inspired, but
in the course of time many errors were revealed, and the Jews
adopted better translations. The Eastern Church retained its
attachment to the Septuagint, while the Western Church adopted
a Latin translation instead. The Septuagint was then virtually
abandoned within Western Europe. For many centuries the Greek
version was regarded there as no more than the book belonging
to schismatic Eastern Churches.
The Hebrew and Greek texts differed in many ways, even before
Christians started interpolating their own text37.
In the original text the book of Esther is simply a nationalistic
Jewish tract. Christians were not comfortable with the fact
that it made no mention of God. Translators therefore inserted
references to God into their versions of the Septuagint. From
there the additions were transferred to other early translations.
Other additions are more difficult to discover, but are sometimes
given away by linguistic features. For example, the story of
Susanna and the Elders does not exist in the ancient Hebrew
texts, only in the Greek. Had Hebrew editors suppressed it,
as Christians claimed? Or had Greek editors added it, as the
Jews claimed? As Julius Africanus noted as early as the third
century AD, a principal feature of the story is a pun that works
only in Greek, and the story must therefore be an addition to
the original Semitic text.
Illustration of the story of Susanna
and the Elders, a prurient story poular among painters
(The Elders threaten Susanna with death if she does not
consent to have sex with them)
As Jews, Jesus and his disciples would have used Aramaic as
their everyday language. In view of their location and their
professions, we have no reason to suppose that any of them knew
Koine, a form of Greek, was the common language of
the Mediterranean, and this was the language used by the Pauline
Christians. Educated Romans had always spoken Greek rather than
Latin, and even up to the third century the language of Roman
Christians was Greek. Hippolytus
(AD c.170-c.236) was the last Western theologian to write in
Greek, and Tertullian
(AD c.160-c.225) the first to write in Latin. In Rome, the Eucharist
(Communion) continued to be celebrated in Greek up to the time
of Pope Damasus (reigned 366-384). Yet in time the Western Church
would claim that Latin was the peculiar language of Christianity.
the Biblewas originally written mainly in Hebrew and Greek,
the Western Church ceded primacy to its own translation. St
Jerome translated (most
of) the Bible into Latin probably between 384 and 404, based
on Hebrew and Greek texts, along with earlier Latin translations.
His version is the known as Vulgate, so called because it was
written as a new vulgar (i.e. common) edition. At the time it
was controversial. There were riots over some of Jerome's
translations, which were held to amount to tampering with established
traditions38. In time
it became established not merely as authoritative, but divinely
inspired. In 1546 the Council of Trent pronounced the Vulgate
to be the only authentic Latin text. It is still considered
authoritative on questions of faith and morals by the Roman
Catholic Church39. How
widely it differs from modern translations (such as the Jerusalem
Bible) may be seen by the dual numbering system adopted in the
Jerusalem Bible40. We
note a couple of errors for historical interest:
Exodus 34:29 the Authorised Version records that when he came
down from Mount Sinai " ...Moses wist not that the skin
of his face shone ...". This corrects an error in the Vulgate,
which records that when Moses came down from the mountain he
knew not that there were horns upon his countenance. The problem
was caused by the lack of diacritical marks to represent vowel
sounds: in Hebrew the words qaran, to shine, and qeren,
to bear horns, have exactly the same consonants. St Jerome
chose the wrong one and translated it by the Latin cornuta;
so, later, did Luther who translated it with the German gehornt.
Because of this mistranslation, many of the most famous depictions
of Moses show him with a set of horns. The most spectacular
examples are the well-known painting by Rembrandt and the statue
Adam and Eve are being evicted from the Garden of Eden, God
promises that snakes and mankind will be enemies: mankind will
strike snakes on the head and snakes will strike mankind on
the foot. In the original Hebrew of Genesis 3:15 God cursed
the snake saying "it [mankind] shall crush thy head".
This was translated into Greek as "he [man] shall crush
thy head", which Jerome
turned into "she [Mary] shall crush thy head", a mistranslation
that has been known for centuries but was held onto by the Church
possibly because it helped bolster the claims of Mariologists.
According to them Mary will one day crush Satan's head under
her immaculate foot. The error was still receiving papal confirmation
in the nineteenth century41,
and this is still a favourite theme in the Roman Catholic art
of southern Europe. The mistranslation has been admitted by
the Roman Church only recently well within living memory.
The Jerusalem Bible has it rather than she,
without so much as a footnote by way of explanation, surprising
since this switch reverses the Catholic Church's position on
what it traditionally cited as the most important text to justify
its Marian doctrines - what it calls a “proof-text”.
Church leaders of his time St Jerome
had a low opinion of sex. In the Vulgate version of the book
of Tobit, he made Tobias wait three nights before consummating
his marriage (see for example Tobit 8:1-10 in the Douay-Rheims
Bible, a Catholic translation of the Vulgate into English).
Then Tobias exhorted the virgin, and said to her: Sara, arise,
and let us pray to God today, and tomorrow, and the next day:
because for these three nights we are joined to God: and when
the third night is over, we will be in our own wedlock. For
we are the children of saints, and we must not be joined together
like heathens that know not God. (Tobit 8:4-5)
In modern versions, consummation of the marriage has reverted
to a single night, but the bizarre numbering of the verses in
the Jerusalem Bible shows that changes have been made. (For
a time the Church tried to enforce three "Tobias nights"
during which newly married couples had to refrain from sexual
intercourse, though a dispensation could be bought for a fee42.)
Another problem was the way Jesus spoke to his mother "Woman,
what have I to do with thee?" (Gynai, ti emoi kai soi,
in the original Greek, John 2:4). Greek scholars had no doubt
that this constituted a stern rebuke43.
To people like St Jerome
who were already in the process of elevating Mary above the
rest of womankind, a more opaque translation was needed, and
so he translated it as "Woman, what is that to me and to
thee?", which rather takes the edge off it44.
This softer translation is repeated in the Douay-Rheims Bible
(in English), but it is now generally accepted that the original
conveys a rebuke.
Probably the greatest-ever blunder in translation involved
the name of God. As already mentioned, in early Hebrew only
consonants were written down. There were no letters to fulfil
the role of vowels (diacritical marks were sometimes used instead,
but not always). One of the Hebrew names of God, written JHVH
and probably pronounced something like Yahweh, was regarded
from the third century BC as too awful to speak aloud, except
in special circumstances. When reading the scriptures aloud,
accepted Jewish practice was to substitute the word Adonai
(Lord) for Yahweh. To remind readers about this the
diacritical marks belonging to the word Adonai were written
along with the name JHVH. The reader would see the name JHVH
but say Adonai. Not knowing this, European translators
in the sixteenth century combined the consonants and diacritics
to produce a new name Jahovah or Jehovah.
Some modern versions still use this name; others have reverted
As modern translations admit, many terms used in the Bible
are no longer in common use or understood. Among them are some
names for animals, flowers, architectural features, clothing,
jewellery, and musical instruments. Christians can mostly gloss
over these shortcomings for instance, no one is much
worried about what distinguishes the four types of creature
mentioned in Joel 1:4. On the other hand, for those who opt
to, it must be difficult to follow the Old Testament dietary
laws, when no one knows to which animals the prohibitions refer.
Some of the traditional translations now seem a little quaint.
The Hebrew re"em for example was translated into
Greek as monoceros, and thence into English as unicorn.
Modern versions translate re"em less exotically
as wild ox.
More serious is the mistranslation of words for doctrinal reasons.
For example in Isaiah 14:15 the Hebrew word for a grave (Sheol)
was translated as Hell suggesting that the ancient
Jews had a concept of an afterlife and eternal punishment. In
fact they had neither these ideas were introduced by
Greeks and Egyptians a few generations before Jesus. Again,
the continuity of the priesthood from ancient times could ostensibly
be confirmed by having the first priest Aaron being invested
with a bishop's crown of office rather than some sort of mullah's
headgear. So it is that in the Authorised Version, Leviticus
8:9 relates that Aaron wore a mitre, while more accurate
modern translations render the word as turban.
If the translators of the English Bible were divinely inspired,
then it is odd that they remained ignorant of some of the hidden
information in their texts. When Babylon represented the Jews"
greatest enemy it was often impolitic to mention the place by
name, so a code word was substituted. The Jews used the Atbash
code, a simple substitution cipher that rendered Babylon as
Sheshach and Chaldea as Leb-kamai45.
The translators of the Bible were apparently unaware that they
were writing about Babylon and Chaldea, and simply transcribed
the words as Sheshach and Leb-kamai.
In other cases tampering is designed to disguise the true meaning
of the text. The eroticism of the Song of Songs was a little
too explicit for most translators. In the Authorised Version
the lady in the Song of Songs 5:4 tells us:
My beloved put his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels
were moved for him.
The words of the door are de-italicised because they
do not exist in the original text. Modern translators are even
more coy, referring to a latch or latch-opening instead of a
The translators of the Authorised Version did their best to
paper over the cracks in the original texts. As we have already
seen, they doctored the account of Goliath's death in 2 Samuel.
To take another example, they were faced by a contradiction
concerning a woman called Michal, a daughter of Saul. According
to 2 Samuel 6:23 she remained childless until her death, but
according to 2 Samuel 21:8 she had five sons. The Authorised
Version disguised this contradiction by implying that she merely
brought up these sons for someone else (Adriel). More modern
versions of the Bible prefer a method used by a few early manuscripts
and replace the name Michal by the name Merab in one of the
stories. (The NIV admits the truth in a footnote; the Jerusalem
Bible keeps quiet about it.)
According to 1 Samuel 13:1 Saul reigned for one year, but the
text then goes on to talk about when he had reigned for two
years. The Authorised Version tried to gloss over the problem
by some judicious punctuation: "Saul reigned for one year;
and when he had reigned for two years over Israel ...".
The NIV abandons the Hebrew in favour of a few late manuscripts
of the Septuagint giving a different account: "Saul was
<thirty> years old when he became king, and he reigned
over Israel for <forty-> two years". The Jerusalem
Bible avoids the problem by simply missing out the first verse
altogether and starting at verse 2.
Often, translators mistranslated the ancient text to reflect
the prejudices of their own times. In late medieval times Christians
firmly believed that God had cursed women with suffering in
childbirth. This idea is not present in the Hebrew, which refers
to concept like “labour”, but translators introduced
ideas of “pain” and “suffering” into
European texts, and these ideas became so entrenched that they
continue in modern translations of the Bible46.
An even more damaging example is that of Hell. By translating
different words as hell, bibles like the Authorized
Version give the impression that the concept of hell dates back
to ancient Jewish times, which it does not. Reading an English
bible alone it would be impossible to distinguish Gehenna
in the New Testament from Sheol in the Old. Completely
different ideas are thus conflated in English translations,
which together seem to confirm the existence of a Satanic realm
under the earth. Often a better translation for Hell
would be grave, a different concept altogether.
Witchcraft was a topical issue by the time that the Authorised
Version was commissioned in the early seventeenth century, and
King James wanted confirmation that the practice of witch killing
had divine approval. The names of wrongdoers were therefore
now translated as witch. For example Exodus 22:18 was
translated as "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live".
But this was not the most natural translation. The original
Hebrew had been mekashshephah (magician, diviner, or
sorcerer), which had been rendered into Greek as pharmakos
(druggist, apothecary, maker of potions) and into Latin as Maleficos
(evil doer, criminal). No one suspected that the term referred
to a witch or Devil worshipper, until it became necessary to
justify witch persecutions. In modern translations the word
is generally rendered as "sorceress", though there
is also a good case for "poisoner". Again, the woman
consulted by Saul (1 Samuel 28:7) had really been a fortune
teller or ba"alath ob, a "mistress of the
talisman". In Latin she became a mulierem habentem
pythonem, "a woman possessing an oracular spirit",
but in order to conform to the requirements of seventeenth century
England, she became a Devil worshipper as well, the famous witch
Translations have always been angled to suit the views of the
translators, and not always for doctrinal reasons. As we have
just seen, flexibility in translation can justify activities
like witch-hunting. But there have been many other motivations,
for example to confirm that kings are divinely appointed. Traditional
Christian anti-Semitism has also been accommodated, for example
by minimising the Jewishness of important biblical characters.
Speaking of his German translation of the Bible Martin Luther
said "I endeavoured to make Moses so German that no one
would suspect he was a Jew"47.
This was perfectly in line with the traditional techniques employed
to make the text conform to current orthodoxy.
Modern translations use a variety of more subtle techniques
to manipulate the text. One is to introduce a section heading
above a piece of text indicating that the subject matter concerns
one thing when it might otherwise be interpreted as concerning
something else. Thus for example in the NIV, the real Ten Commandments
(Exodus 34:14-26) are not flagged as such, though the text explicitly
describes them (verse 28) as the Ten Commandments. By contrast
the later laws are so flagged by a heading, though the text
does not identify them as the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20).
To take another example, the Church has traditionally justified
the practice of taxing people through the tithe system by reference
to a biblical passage at Deuteronomy 25:4 that does not mention
tithes at all. A few versions of the Bible continue an old convention
of inserting a heading that mentions tithes and thus helps foster
the impression that tithes were justified by scripture.
Again, quotation marks are placed in places that make the passage
conform to Christian requirements, and inverted commas are used
to smooth over inconvenient terms. Thus for example the need
to deny that there is more than one god is achieved in the NIV
by placing the word gods (in Psalm 82:1 and 6) in inverted
commas, so that Jahveh gives judgement not among the gods, but
among the "gods". The inverted commas suggest that
these gods who are so clearly identified as such
seem not to be gods at all.
Inconvenient sons of God become children of Israel
in Deuteronomy 32:8. As in earlier translations, the free use
of pronouns disguises the number of deities around. For example
the following passage looks wrong in the mouth of God "I
overthrew some of you, as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah"
so it is instead translated as "I overthrew some of you,
as I overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah" (see Amos 4:11 NIV).
Capital letters can be used to the same end: a god
becomes God so that Jahveh ceases to be one god among
many (see Deuteronomy 4:33 NIV). Names of gods can be represented
as different names for one God. Compare the first two verses
of Psalm 91, first according to the Authorised Version, then
with the real names of God instead of the conventional translations
(key words in bold type):
He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most
High shall abide under the shadow of the
Almighty. I will say of the LORD,
He is my refuge and my fortress: my God;
in him will I trust. (Authorised Version)
He that dwelleth in the secret place of Elyon
shall abide under the shadow of Shaddai.
I will say of Jahveh, He is my refuge and
my fortress: my Elohim; in him will I trust
(cf. Jerusalem Bible)
The following table shows how some principal translations deal
with the various names of the ancient Jewish gods found in the
New International Version
YHWH or Yahveh
Lord G od
Psalms 149:1 and 150:1
the most High
the Most High
the Most High
the most high God
God Most High
God Most High
Lord of Hosts
the Holy One
the Holy One
the Holy One
(The names Jahveh and Yaweh are just variant
spellings. Other translators prefer Yahveh.)
At least one biblical writer found it necessary to assure readers
that Jahveh and El Shaddai were the same god: in Exodus 6:2-3
God explains that he had not used the name Jahveh in earlier
times. It is more than likely that Jahveh and El Shaddai were
originally separate gods.
divinities are melded into one by appropriate punctuation, for
example the "fear of Isaac" in Genesis 31:42becomes
a description of God rather than a separate god. So does the
"God of Abraham" also mentioned in 31:42 and the "Mighty
One of Jacob" mentioned in Genesis 49:24 (NIV). The existence
of other divinities is also disguised by judicious mistranslation.
The original text of Psalm 110:3 refers to the womb of the goddess
of the dawn, but it is not acceptable to mention that the Jews
recognised other deities, so the Authorised Version speaks evasively
of the womb of the morning. The Jerusalem Bible distorts the
passage even further. In this version the womb does not even
belong to the morning, let alone a goddess, and it is impossible
from the English to deduce that the original author was referring
to the womb of a goddess called Dawn.
Capital letters are important weapons in the armoury of orthodox
Christian translators. By capitalising certain words they can
be made into names, and by capitalising phrases it is possible
to make them into titles. Thus in the New Testament Jesus is
given the title of Son of man, but when the same phrase occurs
in the Old Testament referring to someone else (as it is throughout
the book of Ezekiel) it is more convenient to render it without
capitals as the son of man, so that it is not a title at all.
Another example of a name being manipulated is that of the supernatural
character called Wisdom. In English translations of the Bible
her name is written wisdom, without a capital W, so that it
does not look like a name at all. It is possible to read English
translations without even suspecting the existence of a character
called Wisdom, though she played a major part in Jewish and
early Christian theology. By denying her a capital letter, her
claim to divinity looks much weaker than it is. The same would
be true of the second person of the Trinity if we translated
logos as word, instead of the Word.
Similarly the Holy Spirit would look rather less impressive
as a mere holy spirit.
Careful translation also avoids the embarrassment to Christians
of referring to people other than Jesus as Christ.
In fact many individuals are referred to in the Old Testament
as Christ (Hebrew messiah, English "anointed").
When applied to Jesus in the New Testament the word is always
used as a title, but when it is used of kings and high priests
in the Old Testament it is rendered as "the anointed"
(see for example Leviticus 4:5, 4:16 and 6:22). Psalm 105:15
should really be translated as "Touch not my christs"
, which does not sound right to orthodox Christian ears. In
almost all translations of Isaiah 45:1, God refers to Cyrus
the Great as his anointed, rather than as his christ,
which is just as correct.
Inconvenient text can simply be dropped, though missing lines
can sometimes be identified by missing verse numbers. Another
possibility is to swap the verses around to make the meaning
more acceptable, as at Judges 1:19. In the Authorised Version
God himself could not drive people from a valley because they
had iron chariots.
And the LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants
of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of
the valley, because they had chariots of iron.
not very impressive for an omnipotent God. In the Jerusalem
Bible the word order is changed and the sense of the account
jigged so that God is not involved in the difficulties that
occurred in the valley or plain at all, only in the victory
in the highlands.
19b they could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain,
because they had iron chariots
19a Yahweh was with Judah, and Judah subdued the highlands.
.... but the game is partially given away by verse 19b preceding
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also
be like unto him.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in
his own conceit.
created both man and woman on the sixth day (Genesis 1:27),
having already created the plants and animals. But later, after
the seventh day, he formed Adam from the dust of the ground
(Genesis2:7), then the plants and animals again, then Eve. In
the seventeenth century scholars noted the inconsistencies and
deduced that there had been two creations, first of the gentiles
then of the Jews. Scholars in the next century realised that
the story is composed of two separate accounts, although it
took 200 years for this realisation to gain general acceptance.
It is now widely accepted to be correct, and biblical scholars
concur that the first account was written by the Priestly (P)
source and the second by the Yahwist (J) source.
Again, the story of the flood is a conflation of two versions
of the Babylonian story of Gilgamesh, one P, and the other J.
In the P version, only one male and one female of each species
is saved (Genesis 6:19-20), whereas in the J version, seven
(or seven pairs) of each clean animal species and one pair of
unclean animal species are saved (Genesis 7:2-3).
Ages and timings are frequently unreliable. Jehoiachin was
eight years old when he began his reign according to 2 Chronicles
36:9, but he was eighteen according to 2 Kings 24:8. The two
books also disagree about how long he reigned in Jerusalem.
Again, Ahaziah was 22 years old when he ascended the throne
according to 2 Kings 8:26, but he was 42 years old according
to 2 Chronicles 22:2. The first sounds slightly more reasonable
since the second would make him two years older than his own
father. Other stories in the Bible also stretch the imagination.
Enemies of the Jews for example were incredibly tenacious. The
Edomites rebelled (2 Kings 8:22) after every male of that race
had been killed (1 Kings 11:16). The Midianites were even more
impressive. With all their males killed and females captured
(Numbers 31:7-9) they somehow managed to defeat the Israelites
(Judges 6:1-5). The Amalekites, having been utterly destroyed
by Saul (1 Samuel 15:7-20), rose up against David, who left
neither man nor woman alive amongst them (1 Samuel 27:9), after
which they attacked him yet again (1 Samuel 30:1-17).
There are conflicting versions of what happened when the Assyrian
Sennacherib demanded increased tribute from Hezekiah. According
to 2 Kings 18:14-16 Hezekiah simply pays up. But, in the subsequent
passage, 2 Kings 18:17-19:37, he appears to defy Sennacherib.
The angel of the Lord then appears and kills 185,000 of Sennacherib's
men during the night so that Sennacherib is obliged to return
home defeated. In one place the Old Testament says that Aaron
died at Mosera (Deuteronomy 10:6) but in another that he died
on Mount Hor (Numbers 20:27-8).
God himself is not always consistent. The modern Ten Commandments
say that God will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the
children (Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:9), but Ezekiel 18:20
says that the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father49.
And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the Lord
went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred
fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in
the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses. 2 Kings 19:35
Factual errors in the Old Testament are widely (but not universally)
accepted. Like any pre-scientific narrative, the Old Testament
makes assumptions about the nature of the world that are now
realised to be false. For example frequent references are made
to the waters under Earth waters that many ancient peoples
believed in and that gods could use to flood the world (cf.
Genesis 7:11) but are now known not to exist. Again we know
today that stars do not sing (Job 38:7), that Earth does not
have edges or corners (Job 38:13, Psalm 2:8, Ezekiel 7:2), and
that snow and hail are not kept in storehouses (Job 38:22).
The Bible also makes factual errors on subjects like geography,
history and etymology , and assumes the efficacy of traditional
folk magic (e.g. Genesis 30:37-43).
The Biblical version of the structure
of the cosmos. Fundamentalist Christians still believe
this to be a faithful representation of God's creation,with
waters above and below (the storehouses of snow and hail
are ommitted here, but they can be presumably be tipped
by God through the floodgates)
Accounts of the creation of the world are clearly incompatible
with what is now known about cosmology and geology. The story
of the creation of Adam and Eve does not square with archaeological
or evolutionary evidence. The animal species known to science,
which include over 4,600 species of mammals alone, could not
fit into Noah's ark, whose dimensions are given in the biblical
story50. Errors revealed
by science could fill a book; indeed such errors did fill many
books in the nineteenth century when many Christians still believed
in the literal truth of the Bible. Biblical arithmetic is not
too reliable either. In Ezra 2 a list is given the total of
which is stated to be 42,360 but which is really 29,818. Nehemiah
7 gives essentially the same list, but with some changes. This
time the total is 31,089, though it is still stated to be 42,360.
class of error in the Old Testament comprises the numerous statements
and promises that have proved to be false. For example the earthly
punishments promised in Deuteronomy 28:15-68 to those who fail
to obey God do not appear to have ever been visited on a single
offender. God promised that men and women who follow his laws
will never be childless, nor will their cattle; and neither
will God's followers ever become ill (Deuteronomy 7:14-15).
But none of these promises has been kept. The Jews were told
repeatedly that they would not lose their land, but they lost
it for many centuries. They were also told repeatedly that they
would always have a king to rule over them, but they do not
have one today51. The
Old Testament says that Jerusalem will always be a peaceful
abode (Isaiah 33:20), which it has frequently not been; and
that the uncircumcised will never enter it again (Isaiah 52:1),
though they enter it today, by the thousand. Ezekiel 26 predicts
that Nebuchadnezzar will take and destroy Tyre, but he failed
to do so and had to be satisfied with Egypt instead.
Old Testament authors often failed to appreciate that times
change. They frequently projected titles, rituals and customs
from their own time into the distant past. The author of Chronicles
(third century BC) did it writing about the time of David (tenth
century BC). The author of Esther (third or fourth century BC)
did it writing about ancient Persia around the fifth century
BC, and the author of Daniel (167-164 BC) did it writing about
events 400 years earlier. In each case the author was trying
to present his work as being much older than it really was.
Like the original authors, later interpolators gave themselves
away in various ways. According to Genesis (12:16) Pharaoh gave
Abraham a number of animals including camels. The problem here
is that camels were not domesticated until some 200 years after
the time of Abraham. Since Pharaoh is hardly likely to have
provided wild animals as a reward, the passage must be a later
interpolation. Again, in Genesis (40:22) Pharaoh has his chief
baker hanged. But this form of capital punishment was unknown
in Egypt at the time. Again the story seems to have been added
later. Aaron placed manna in front of the "Testimony"
or Tablets of the Law before these Tablets of the Law
existed (Exodus 16:34). According to 1 Samuel 17:54, David took
Goliath's head back to Jerusalem, but this is hardly likely.
Jerusalem was not annexed until years later. Saul's capital
at this time was Gibeah in Judah. Genesis 17:11 reports God's
And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it
shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.
This is the reason why to this day Jewish males are circumcised.
The problem is that when Genesis was purportedly written all
Mesopotamian peoples practised circumcision. The custom could
be regarded as especially Jewish only much later, when neighbouring
peoples no longer practiced it. The passage is thought to have
been added during the Babylonian Exile, when Jewish leaders
were keen to maintain the distinction between their own people
and the uncircumcised Babylonians.