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    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.

    The 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.

    For 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.

    Traditionally, 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 such beliefs.

    What 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 doubting them.



    The Canon of the Old Testament

    Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
    Ecclesiastes 12:12

    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.

    By 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 Esdras8. The Eastern Churches reached their own compromise in 1672, accepting some disputed books and rejecting others9.

    So 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

    The 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 human beings.

    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)

    If 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.

    To 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.

    The 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.


    Personification of the Euphrates,
    Roman Mosaic 2nd Century AD


    Another 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 tooth....

    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 Egypt.

    Other 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.

    The 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.




    Textual Problems

    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 reading.

    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 him:

    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 beam.

    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 Version reads:

    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 Chronicles 20:5:

    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?

    What 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 different manuscripts23. 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.



    Authorship, Order and Dating

    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 II

    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 books.

    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 biblical chronology.

    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.



    Evidence of Tampering

    …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." Zechariah 6c

    "Different sources have been conflated" Genesis 21b

    "…later elaboration.... " Genesis 32a

    "Two narratives are conflated here.... " Joshua 6a

    "…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 different."



    Errors of Translation

    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.

    The Septuagint

    Translations 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 Greek.

    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.

    Although 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:

    In 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 by Michelangelo.

    A statue of Mary crushing the snake underfoot.When 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”.

    Likeother 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.

    Authorised Version

    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 to Yahweh.

    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.

    Libro de horas de Carlos V. Biblioteca Nacional de España, Paris 16th century.
    Two pink unicorns ascend the ramp of Noah's Ark

    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 Hellsuggesting 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 hole.

    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 of Endor.

    Other Translations

    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 Old Testament:



     Authorised Version

    New International Version

     Jerusalem Bible


    YHWH or Yahveh





    YHWH Elohim

    Lord God

    Lord God

    Yahweh God

    Genesis 2:4





    Isaiah 7:14

    Adonai YHWH

    Lord G od

    Sovereign Lord

    Lord Yahweh

    Ezekiel 6:11


    the Almighty

    the Almighty


    Psalm 91:1

    El Shaddai

    the Almighty

    the Almighty

    El Shaddai

    Genesis 49:25





    Psalms 149:1 and 150:1


    the most High

    the Most High

    the Most High


    Psalm 82:6

    Psalm 91:1

    El Elyon

    the most high God

    God Most High

    God Most High

    Genesis 14:18

    Jahveh Sabaoth

    Lord of Hosts

    Lord Almighty

    Yahweh Sabaoth

    Malachi 1:10

    Eloah (singular)

    the Holy One

    the Holy One

    the Holy One

    Habakkuk 3:3

    Elohim (plural)




    Psalm 91:2

    (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.

    Other 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 19a.




    Contradictions and Inconsistencies

    Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
    Proverbs 26:4

    Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.
    Proverbs 26:5

    God 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.




    Factual Errors and Anachronisms

    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.

    Another 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 supposed commandment:

    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.












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    1 Josephus, Against Apion, cited by Eusebius, The History of the Church, 3:10.

    * Aramaic was a common language in the Middle East from around 700 BC to AD 700 (and is still spoken today in a few areas).

    2 Purim is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the deliverance of Persian Jews from a purported plot to exterminate them around the fifth century BC.

    3 These relegated psalms are now known collectively as "Psalms of Solomon".

    4 The Jews of the Diaspora were Jews living outside the traditional Bible lands.

    5 There is some doubt about whether a formal council was convened. In any case the Jews still had no concept of a canon of scripture — their question was whether a text made people unclean if they touched it, and the test of this was whether it included God's name. Neither the Song of Songs nor Ecclesiastes contained the name JHVH, and Esther failed to mention God at all. According to later Jewish tradition the set of books to be regarded as canonical was settled in the fifth century BC, but this is demonstrably untrue.

    6 Esther was rejected by important authorities such as Clement of Alexandria (Eusebius, The History of the Church, 4:26 ) and St Jerome.

    7 For example John Damascene, De fide orth. 4:17.

    8 The numbering of the books of Esdras is complicated. The Septuagint contained Esdras A and Esdras B. In the Vulgate Esdras B was split into I Esdras and II Esdras, which we now know as Ezra and Nehemiah. Esdras A became III Esdras (1 Esdras in the modern Apocrypha), and a new Greek work dating from the first or early second century AD became IV Esdras (2 Esdras in the modern Apocrypha). Some manuscripts included an appendix, which is known as V Esdras.

    9 Ten books, not present in the Hebrew, are now regarded as Deuterocanonical i.e. Apocryphal, although they were declared to be genuine parts of scripture by the Council of Jassy (1642) and the Council of Jerusalem (1642). Ware, The Orthodox Church, p 208.

    10 The Apocrypha includes the disputed books already mentioned plus the rest of the book of Esther and the Epistle of Jeremiah (= Jeremy) sometimes included at the end of Baruc.

    11 Jude 1:14 quotes a prophecy from 1 Enoch 1:9.

    12 An acrostic is a poem in which the first letter in each line spells a name or other word.

    13 The original Hebrew is full of folk-etymology puns, along the lines of man ("adam) being created from earth ("adamah), which are lost in translation. Similarly the name Eve is derived from the verb "to live". Puns explain many apparently random phrases, for example "Tell it not in Gath" resonates more in Hebrew, in which the words tell and Gath sound similar. Examples of acrostics may be found in the first four chapters of Lamentations, also Psalms 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145, and Proverbs 31:10-31. In traditional English versions of the Bible Psalm 119 is still divided up using Hebrew letters as numbers.

    14 English translations of Gilgamesh are available. For example N. K. Sandars (trans.), The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin Classics (London, 1987).

    15 Romer, Testament, p 30.

    16 Hammurabi's Code was rediscovered at Susa in 1902, engraved on a monument. Clay tablets bearing Hammurabi's law code in cuneiform are housed in the Museum of the Ancient Orient in Istanbul.

    17 Examples of duplications of passages are 2 Kings 19 and Isaiah 37; Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7; and 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 and Ezra 1:1-3. In this last example it is clear that 2 Chronicles 36:23 has been cut off part way through. Again, Psalm 70 is a repeat of Psalm 40:13-17.

    18 Manfred Barthel, What The Bible Really Says, translated by Mark Howson, Souvenir Press ( London, 1982), pp 30 and 141.

    19 For example 2 Samuel 1:21 and Psalm 137 both contain scrambled text that can be explained as distorted versions of text discovered at Ugarit. See Romer, Testament, pp 78-9.

    20 Several such insertions occur in Jeremiah chapters 25-9 and are indicated in the Jerusalem Bible by being placed in brackets. Some are simple explanations of the text; others are new threats and promises made on behalf of God. The Jerusalem Bible also identifies a couple of cases of inserted marginal digressions in Numbers 21.

    21 Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorised Version, p 101.

    22 Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorised Version, pp 377-8.

    23 Jether the Ishmaelite (1 Chronicles 2:17) is none other than Jether the Israelite (2 Samuel 17:25). In some manuscripts he is Jether the Jezreelite. See NIV.

    24 1 Kings 4:26 in the Hebrew says that Solomon had 40 stalls, but the Septuagint agrees with 2 Chronicles 9:25, which says that he had 4,000.

    25 See the NIV note to 1 Chronicles 11:11 , cf. 2 Samuel 23:8. Jashobeam appears to be the same person as Josheb-Basshebeth.

    26 For a few further examples see NIV notes to 1 Kings 5:16, 1 Chronicles 4:3 and 2 Chronicles 22:2.

    27 St Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 72, cf. Irenaeus, Adversus Omnes Haereses, III, xx, 4; IV, xxii, 1; IV, xxxiii, 1,12; V, xxxi, 1.

    28 Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorised Version, p 318.

    29 The absurdity of established biblical chronologies was comprehensively demonstrated by Thomas Paine in Part II of The Age of Reason.

    30 "The historical setting of the story undoubtedly disregards known facts, persons and dates and contains anachronisms in detail; .... " — Introduction to the book of Daniel, Jerusalem Bible.

    31 Genesis 46:27 and Exodus 1:5.

    32 Was the Sabbath instituted because the world was made in seven days (Exodus 20:11) or because the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15)?.

    33 The issue of the Ten Commandments is discussed, and Wellhausen's reconstruction of the original ten listed, in Dodd, The Authority of the Bible, pp 91-2.

    34 Laws specified at Exodus 20-23, Leviticus 11-27 and Deuteronomy 12-26 contradict each other on many points.

    35 1 Samuel 8, 10:17-24, 12 is anti-royalist; 1 Samuel 9-10:16 and 11 is royalist.

    36 For two spectacular examples see 2 Samuel 23 and 1 Chronicles 1.

    37 Irenaeus of Lyons, cited by Eusebius, The History of the Church, 5:8. According to another popular tradition 72 scholars translated it in 72 days.

    38 For a few examples where the Masoretic Text varies from the Septuagint see the NIV 1 Samuel 10:1, 2 Samuel 13:34, and Jeremiah 27:1. There are of course thousands of other disagreements.

    39 According to St Augustine there were riots in Tripoli over the translation of the Hebrew qiqqayon in the book of Jonah as the Latin hedera (ivy) instead of cucurbita (gourd).

    40 According to the Council of Trent God himself was the true author of all the books of the Bible. This was reaffirmed by the papal encyclical Providentissimus deus in 1893.

    41 See for example the books of Judith and Jeremiah in the Jerusalem Bible, where significant differences are apparent, and some passages have been moved around.

    42 The papal bull Ineffabilis deus in 1854 referred to Mary crushing the serpent's head, regarding Jerome's text as authentic, although it was widely known by then to have been a mistranslation.

    43 Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, p 8.

    44 On the strength of this and other gospel passages, John Chrysostom for example accuses Mary of failing to believe in her son, and also of vainglory. Graef, Mary, vol. 1, p 75.

    45 Graef, Mary, vol. 1, pp 19-20.

    46 The cipher worked as follows. The letters of the alphabet were written out in two lines, the top line from left to right, and the second line from right to left:.


    To encrypt or decrypt a message each letter was replaced by the one immediately above or below it. (Remember that there are no vowels in ancient Hebrew.) In Hebrew, Babylon is BBL ( Babel). Encoding it using the above table, each B becomes a Sh, and L becomes K. BBL therefore encodes to ShShK. When translated into English this becomes Sheshak or Sheshach, as in Jeremiah 51:41 (cf. 25:26). Similarly Chaldea, Hebrew Kashdim, transforms to Leb-kamai (Jeremiah 51:1).

    47 The subject of translators introducing their own ideas of pain and suffering into biblical passages concerning childbirth is treated in detail by Grantly Dick-Read, Childbirth Without Fear, Printer & Martin (London, 2004), pp 90-90.

    48 Roland E. Bainton, Here I Stand, A Biography of Martin Luther (Penguin, 1995).

    49 We might deduce that only daughters bear the iniquity of their fathers, if we did not have examples of God being mollified by the death of sons.

    50 The dimensions of Noah's ark are given in Genesis 6:15. It is easy to visualise the volume in question, since St Martin's church in Brighton was built to the same dimensions.

    51 See for example Psalms 89:3-4 and 35-7; 2 Chronicles 7:18 and 9:8; 2 Samuel 7:16.





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