When Your Bible Goes Clunk: Isaiah 50:1

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!


8 responses to “When Your Bible Goes Clunk: Isaiah 50:1

  1. We love your humility but even more your writing style! Thanks for sharing both.

    Speaking of “laconic,” you must love the LXX. ἢ τίνι ὑπόχρεῳ πέπρακα ὑμᾶς;


  2. Yeah but it’s a “word for word” translation just as the marketing material says.

    I marvel at how the KJV or in this case the Geneva Bible can be more understandable than the ESV in places. Maybe the committee needed some couches or bean bag chairs or something.

    I have no right to poke fun. They all have clunkers.


  3. Hmmm…. Interesting. I will be sure to look up Isaiah 50:1 next year when the revised NAB OT is allegedly going to be published to see if there is a change.


  4. Esteban,
    I followed your ‘grammatical fail’ link and should like to make a comment on it. (But, the comment space there being closed, it behoves me to do so here.) You quoted Psalm 5.12 in the NASB:

    For it is You who blesses the righteous man, O LORD,
    You surround him with favor as with a shield.

    The text is grammatically incorrect, but not for the reason you gave. The subject of the sentence is ‘it’ and not ‘you’. The verb is therefore correctly given as ‘is’ and not ‘are’. The defining relative clause as given, however, being introduced by ‘who’, does not agree with ‘it’, but with ‘you’. Herein lies the error. The clause is defining the subject of the sentence, ‘it’, and so should agree with it and be introduced by ‘that’ rather than ‘who’. Of course, the verb in the clause should then also agree with ‘it’ and be in the third person.

    Another error is that the sentence has two independent clauses separated by a comma. It can be corrected by changing the comma after ‘Lord’ to a full stop or semicolon. Alternatively, using some poetic licence, the second independent clause can be made dependent: ‘…[and] you that surrounds…’ My fully edited Psalm 5.12 then would appear as follows:

    For it is You that blesses the righteous man, O LORD,
    You that surrounds him with favor as with a shield.


  5. Kurk> Our Humility is most pleased indeed with your kind praise. And yes, the LXX takes the cake! I didn’t mention it, well, because it was a post about English translations.

    Jeff> Well, to be fair, the ESV committee only failed to change their base text here — just like every other revision committee of translations in the KJV tradition. Still, there are a few places where the ESV has been inexplicably archaized; I can’t fathom what’s up with that.

    Tim> I most certainly hope that there isn’t a change there! I mean, they have plenty of other things of actual import to change in the NAB (“God-Hero,” anyone?), so I hope they don’t waste time “fixing what ain’t broke,” if you know what I mean. Anyway, I think the NAB translation of this verse is indebted to the Douai-Rheims, which as we saw renders this verse more clearly than the KJV. It’s at points like this that you can tell that the NAB is really a revision of something else.

    Nick> Really? If that’s what they speak at your church, I’m sure hearing your pastor preach must be a trip! Do you all still wax Jacobean during coffee hour, or is it just a liturgical practice? ;-)

    Schmendrick> Thanks for the great comment! I regret that you were unable to post it where it belongs, but as you probably saw, the discussion there quickly plummeted. Maybe I’ll clean up the combox there at some point and open it up again.

    I understand what you’re saying, but I disagree with your ultimate assessment. What we have here is an instance of a so-called “cleft sentence” — an “it-cleft,” more specifically. “It” functions as the subject, as you note, but the only thing that agrees with it in this type of construction is the conjugated form of the verb “to be” that immediately follows. The relative pronoun (in our case, “who”) and the rest of the subordinate clause rightly modify the emphasized predicate nominal (in our case, the pronoun “You”), and therefore the verb in the subordinate clause ought to agree with “You,” not with “it.” The illustrious Modernizing Editor botched the sentence by failing to recognize the syntactical pattern of an it-cleft construction, which the older NASB had gotten right.

    As for punctuation, you are exactly right! I missed it in the verbal agreement frenzy. One could well do as you suggest, but I would probably go with a semicolon, myself.

    Nathan> Indeed — and in this case, the clunker is that of the entire KJV tradition!


  6. Esteban: No, it’s an all-the-time thing, like seriously. I can’t tell you how often I hear, “This is what thus saith the Lord” or “We want to hear what thus saith the Lord” in regular conversation. It’s maddening! I tried to point out the ridiculousness of such expressions (they’d be wrong even if we spoke the King’s English all the time!) during a Bible study I taught, but alas, it fell on deaf ears. And now my perfectly fine ears still have to hear it! :-(


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