Anyone who regularly reads the English Bible knows the joys of those magical times when even your favorite and most cherished translation goes clunk. “Oh no!,” you cry. “Does that really say what I think it says?” You work up the courage do a double take, and to your great sorrow, you realize that you really did read something awful like “the one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places” (St Matthew 13:20, NASB) right there in God’s Holy Writ.
To honor the fallen victims of such tragedies, and to offer a space for communal catharsis, I have decided to inaugurate a new occasional feature entitled “When Your Bible Goes Clunk.” In this first installment we shall take a look at Isaiah 50:1, which reads as follows in the English Standard Version:
Thus says the Lord: “Where is your mother's certificate of divorce, with which I sent her away? Or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities you were sold, and for your transgressions your mother was sent away.
Er, say what?
My heart sank when I read this, because I knew that this impossibly convoluted bit must have been carried over into the ESV from its parent translation, the Revised Standard Version, which happens to be one of my favorites. A little research revealed that the situation was far worse than I had expected: this jarring little rendering was indeed present in the RSV, but it had actually originated in the KJV, and it has inexplicably survived every one of its revisions to date (ERV, ASV, RSV, NKJV, NRSV, ESV, and WEB). The sole exception to this is the NASB, which has, horribly, “To whom of My creditors did I sell you?”—another embarrassing grammatical fail for the beknighted translation.
I made another discovery that transfixed my heart with grief: what is perhaps my favorite English translation, the Revised English Bible, has “Which creditor of mine was there to whom I sold you?” I must admit that at this point I doubted myself. Perhaps there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this rendering, some sophisticated point of English syntax that I was missing. I quickly discarded this line of reasoning. For one thing, the REB’s predecessor, the New English Bible, has “Was there some creditor of mine to whom I sold you?” here. The change in the REB was clearly for the worse. And even if some obscure syntactical justification could be produced, this would still be no excuse for what amounts to sheer Bible clunk: when the obstinately latinate (and therefore often impenetrable) Douai-Rheims Bible is clearer at this point than the REB, we’re looking at a real problem.
So, which translations got it right? Well, the NAB and JB/NJB have the wonderfully laconic,”Or to which of my creditors have I sold you?” The NET and NIV/TNIV renderings are nearly identical, except that they have “did I sell” for the NAB and JB/NJB’s “have I sold.” That, and the entire tradition of English Bibles before the King James Version seems to have rendered this verse more clearly by comparison:
Wycliffe: ether who is he, to whom Y owe, to whom Y seeld you?
Coverdale: or who is the vsurer, to who I solde you?
Bishops’: or who is the vsurer to whom I solde you?
Geneva: or who is the creditour to whome I solde you?
Douai-Rheims: or who is my creditour, to whom I sold you?
Now that was a fun ride, wasn’t it? I will post new installments from time to time, as I encounter instances of Bible clunk in my own reading of Scripture. However, I will gladly accept submissions gleaned from your own reading and bathed with your tears, so feel free to send them along!