Bible Secrets Revealed, Episode 1: “Lost in Translation”

Dr. Robert Cargill provides a summary of the second episode of the new History Channel series

The History Channel’s new series Bible Secrets Revealed tackles the mysteries of the Bible over the course of six weeks. Bible Secrets Revealed airs on Wednesdays at 10 pm EST on the History Channel. Live tweet the show at #BibleSecretsRevealed.

Consulting producer Dr. Robert Cargill, who is an archaeologist and assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa, has responded to Bible Secrets Revealed viewers’ questions throughout the series. Read the questions and answers here.

Episode 1, “Lost in Translation,” aired on November 13, 2013.

Click here to learn more about the show and to see a list of other episode summaries.


Dr. Robert Cargill, professor and consulting producer

Summary of Episode 1 by Dr. Robert Cargill

At its core, History’s new series Bible Secrets Revealed could easily be titled “How Scholars Read the Bible.” This is because the secrets revealed in the series are not secrets to most Bible scholars, professional archaeologists working in Israel and the West Bank, or to those students enrolled in credible graduate seminary programs. The show examines issues pertaining to the Bible that might not be as well known to those who have not attended a seminary or majored in religious studies at a university.

“Lost in Translation” Act 1: The Oldest Biblical Text

Act 1 of the first installment in the series, “Lost in Translation,” begins at Qumran, the site associated with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The discovery of the scrolls fundamentally transformed the way in which we read the Bible because it offered us copies of the Hebrew Bible (aka Christian Old Testament) that were 1,000 years older than the previously oldest copies of the Bible. Why is this important? Because the text of the Biblical books discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls (which represent every canonical book in the Hebrew Bible with the exception of Esther) do not always match the text of the “official” Hebrew Bible we have today. In fact, different copies of the same Biblical books from the Dead Sea Scrolls don’t often match, demonstrating that at the time of Jesus, the Hebrew Biblical texts existed in different versions and traditions that were still being sorted out.

What this means is that it is very difficult to argue that the Bible is the verbatim “Word of God,” especially when all of the ancient manuscripts contain different words. So, people of faith throughout the years have relied on any number of known and unknown scholars and authorities to judge and translate the texts and decide which textual variants would be preserved and which would be discarded. And it is this very messy, often contentious process—evident simply by laying the ancient manuscripts of both Old and New Testament side-by-side and comparing them—that gives us the Bible we have today. But the overarching point should not be missed: for over two millennia, whether they know it or not, people of faith have relied upon scholars to translate and make judgments upon Biblical texts and to interpret them so that those who do not read ancient languages can get an idea of what the ancient scriptures say.

And it is for this reason that we have a classic saying in Biblical studies: “There is no such thing as translation without interpretation.” Every act of translating requires a judgment to be made regarding what the author of the original text meant to say, and this evaluation is often a theological judgment of the scribe or scholar making the translation. This is how we get such different English translations today.

Act 1 reveals what scholars have known for centuries: Despite claims that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible were actually composed by several authors and a number of literary sources. And with regard to the New Testament, the Gospels are all anonymous, with the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John not being attributed to their respective Gospels until the 2nd century C.E. And so not only do we not always know who wrote the Bible, but many of the meanings of the Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic words often get lost in translation.

One specific example offered in Act 1 is the translation of the simple Hebrew word םדא, “man.” Of course, this word can be transliterated as “Adam,” but the word can also mean “humankind.” The translator must make a judgment regarding when to translate םדא as “Adam,” as “man” and as “humankind.”

Read Bible Secrets Revealed consulting producer Robert Cargill’s responses to viewers’ insightful questions by clicking here.

Another translational issue arises in the story of Goliath. Put simply, there appear to be multiple traditions of the story of the death of Goliath, and some of these were included in the Bible. In 1 Sam. 17:50, the text reads:

“So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, striking down the Philistine and killing him; there was no sword in David’s hand.” (NRSV; emphasis by author)

The text makes very clear that Goliath was killed by David’s sling, and that no sword was used in Goliath’s death. However, in the very next verse, we find that it reads:

“Then David ran and stood over the Philistine; he grasped his sword, drew it out of its sheath, and killed him; then he cut off his head with it.” (Emphasis by author)

In 1 Sam. 17:51, we read that David killed Goliath with Goliath’s own sword—an ironic literary twist that rivals the story of the boy underdog killing the great warrior with a simple sling. Thus, those that collected the ancient stories of David and Goliath and committed them to writing appear to have simply joined the two stories into one. Thus, Goliath is reported as having been “killed” in both verse 50 and 51. (The Hebrew literally says “and he killed him” in both verses, except that verse 50 says it is the result of the sling, while verse 51 says it was the result of the Goliath’s own sword.)

But this is only one of the problems with the story of the death of Goliath. There is another question about who actually killed Goliath, which was solved (at least in the King James Version) with some clever interpretive liberty taken by the translators.

In 1 Sam. 17, David is reported as having killed Goliath. But in 2 Sam. 21:19, it is one of David’s men, Elhanan, who is reported as having killed Goliath:

“Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.” (Emphasis by author)

So in the Bible itself, there is a question about who actually killed the giant Goliath. The authors of the Books of Chronicles (which was written long after the Books of Samuel and Kings) attempt to clean this problem up as best they can. Remember that the Biblical books of 1 and 2 Chronicles rewrite the Biblical books of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. They retell the same stories, but often with slight differences—differences that are usually designed to explain away potential problems in the books of Samuel and Kings (like who actually killed Goliath).

So, when 1 Chron. 20:5 retells the story of Elhanan, it reads like this:

“Again there was war with the Philistines; and Elhanan son of Jair killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.” (Emphasis by author)

Notice that the book of 1 Chronicles adds “Lahmi, the brother of” to the account, thereby resolving the issue of who actually killed Goliath: David killed Goliath, and Elhanan killed Goliath’s brother, Lahmi. But we must remember that this is merely how the Book of 1 Chronicles retells the story in order to fix the problem. The death of Goliath’s brother is not how it originally appears in 2 Sam. 21:19. But (!), that didn’t stop the translators of the King James Version from using a sneaky little scribal trick to resolve the problem back in 2 Sam. 21:19. If we read the KJV’s translation of 2 Sam. 21:19, we read:

“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.” (Emphasis by author)

Do you see what the KJV did there? The KJV translators supplied the words “the brother of” when the words for “brother of” absolutely do not appear in the Hebrew text. The Hebrew 2 Sam. 21:19 reads:

ויך אלחנן בן-יערי ארגים בית הלחמי את גלית הגתי ועץ חניתו כמנור ארגים
“Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, a Bethlehemite, slew Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.” (Emphasis by author)

The underlined Hebrew text above states that it was, in fact, Goliath who was killed by Elhanan, and not his brother. The words “brother of” (יחא) nowhere appear in the text. The KJV translators simply supplied the words “brother of” into the text. But why? They did it because they knew of the problem regarding who killed Goliath, and they knew that 1 Chron. 20:5 solved the problem by adding the words “the brother of” to the text. So, the KJV translators simply copied the word for “brother of” from 1 Chron. 20:5 back into 2 Sam. 21:19, even though the Hebrew text of 2 Sam. 21:19 nowhere possesses the word for “brother.” Thus, the KJV authors fix via translation a known problem in the text by supplying words into their translation that do not exist in the original text. They took words from one text (1 Chron. 20:5) and copied them from there into the translation of another text (2 Sam. 21:19).

We call this scribal activity “conflation,” or the merging of a claim in one version of a story into another version of the story in an attempt to resolve problems with one of the versions. This is theologically motivated translation technique, and it attempts to fix or “lose” in translation problems present within the original text.

Act 1 ends with a return to the anonymous authors of the New Testament and introduces the concept of “Pseudepigrapha,” which are anonymously written books attributed to influential authors to increase their credibility among a community of believers. The act ends with the adoption of Christianity by the Romans.

The free eBook The Holy Bible: A Buyer’s Guide guides you through 33 different Bible versions and addresses their content, text, style and religious orientation. Updated Fall 2013 with brand-new reviews on six new Bible versions by Leonard J. Greenspoon.


“Lost in Translation” Act 2: New Testament Translations

Act 2 examines some issues with the text of the New Testament. For instance, the episode addresses the conflation of the two different birth stories of Jesus. While the Gospel of Luke has Jesus being born in a manger and visited by shepherds, the Gospel of Matthew depicts Jesus as being born at home and visited by Magi. But when we see nativity scenes in the mall, we see three shepherds and three wise men, along with a bunch of animals and a manger. It’s another example of a conflation of different stories.

Act 2 also addresses the notion of the virgin birth of Jesus. The story is rooted in a prophecy from Isaiah 7. At issue is the word for virgin, almah (עלמה), used in Isa. 7:14. In the Septuagint (or LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that became the normative version of the Hebrew Bible among Jews in the late Second Temple period), almah gets translated as parthenos (Greek: παρθένος), which means “young woman,” or “maiden,” or “virgin.” However, in other instances of the word almah in the LXX, the word gets translated as a synonym of “young woman,” like neanis (νεανις) in Exodus 2:8, or neoteti (νεοτητι) in Proverbs 30:19, both from the feminine of the root neos (νεος), or “young woman.”

Interestingly, in Genesis 24:43, almah gets translated as “whomever of the θυγατερες των ανθρωπων,” or “daughters of men.” (Note my explanation with Bart Ehrman of the Aramaic phrase bar enosh (בר אנש) as a simple way to say “man.” In Gen. 24:43, the Hebrew word almah gets translated again as “young woman” (“daughter of man”) in the LXX. So in Isaiah 7:14, the LXX uses the word parthenos (παρθένος), which is simply another synonym for “young woman” of marriageable age. However, since parthenos can also mean “virgin” in the sense of not having had sex, the New Testament translators interpreted the text in that fashion, understanding and implying a miracle. Thus, in Matthew and Luke, the authors used the verse from Isaiah 7 to describe Mary, who they believed was giving birth to Emmanuel, or “God with us.” Interestingly, there is some debate over (especially) Luke 1:35, where the Holy Spirit was said to be “coming upon” and “overshadowing” Mary. Some suggest that rather than seeing this as an example of “sexless” conception (i.e., the “virgin birth”), but rather divine conception, with the Holy Spirit representing the power of God, that has come upon Mary and caused her to become pregnant. The same root, episkiazo (ἐπισκιάζω), is used in Acts 5:15 regarding Peter’s shadow, which the text says possesses the power of God to heal. But as for the text of Isa. 7:14, the choice of the word parthenos allowed the New Testament writers to interpret the passage as a virginal conception (and not just the conception of a young, marriageable woman), and the result is the virgin birth.

Act 2 also addresses the mystery surrounding the claim in Mark 2:27–28 that “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” The episode demonstrates that the Aramaic simply stated that “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In Aramaic, the phrase “son of man” is the common way one says “man” (or “a dude”). In any number of Aramaic documents that do not mention Christianity, Jesus or a Jewish Messiah, the Aramaic phrase bar enosh (בר אנש), or “son of man,” is simply used to represent “a person.” That is, there is nothing inherently Messianic about this very common Aramaic phrase. However, because Mark 2:27–28 uses the common phrase “son of man” in a simple aphorism encouraging readers to enjoy the Sabbath and not to let it dictate one’s activities, and because “Son of Man” also came to be Jesus’ self-designation of choice, the moral of the story—that humans have priority over the Sabbath as it is written, “man is lord of the Sabbath”—suddenly came to be interpreted as, “the Son of Man [i.e., Jesus] is Lord of the Sabbath,” and the verse came to be interpreted as Jesus doing away with Sabbath regulations.

The show also examines the transition from the literary format of a scroll to a codex, or book. It may have been a way to distinguish between Judaism and Christianity in later texts.

Act 2 ends by examining the ending of the Gospel of Mark and reveals how the Gospel of Mark originally ended at Mark 16:8 with the women followers of Jesus coming to the empty tomb and being afraid. Later redactors, likely unsatisfied with the sudden ending of Mark, composed a new ending that was more in line with the endings of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s earliest traditions with the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context.


“Lost in Translation” Act 3: The Bible in English

Act 3 open by examining John Wycliffe’s translation of the Latin Vulgate into English. Wycliffe was judged a heretic after his death and was subsequently exhumed from his grave and what was left of him was burned at the stake. The show suggests that the church didn’t like unapproved, vernacular translations of the Bible and punished those who did so.

The episode also examines Henry VIII and how the schism between the new Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church was made more credible, in part, by the commissioning of a new version of the Bible. William Tyndale is discussed as someone who made an unauthorized English version of the Bible in 1529 and was executed for doing so in 1536. And despite Tyndale’s execution for his English translation, Henry VIII would authorize his own English version of the Bible three years later in an effort to exert more control over his new church.

Another English language version of the Bible, the King James Version, was commissioned in 1604. This version has become the de facto English version of the Bible for many religious conservatives for centuries.

One interesting note during the KJV segment came during a discussion of the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery in John 7–8, the so-called “Pericope Adulterae.” While the KJV version includes the story at John 7:53–8:11, scholars note that this story never appears in any of the earliest copies of the Gospel of John. It is not found in the two third-century C.E. papyri of John (P66 and P75), nor is it found in Codex Sinaiticus or Codex Vaticanus, both dating to the fourth century C.E. It is not until Codex Bezae, dating to the late fourth/early fifth century C.E. that we find this story in a copy of the Gospel of John. Thus, scholars conclude that it was included in the text because it was such a beautiful story and was consistent with the teachings of Jesus. Most modern Bibles use brackets or footnotes to note that this story was, in fact, not included in the earliest copies of the Gospel of John.

“Lost in Translation” Act 4: The Consequences of Modern Bible Adaptations and Interpretations

Act 4 opens with the pervasive influence of the King James Bible on English idioms that derive from the KJV. The episode also notes the irony of people fleeing England for America, but taking with them the Bible of the Church of England. The show then goes on to highlight some Americans who made their own translations and redactions of the Bible, including Thomas Jefferson, who removed the miracles and turned Jesus into a moral philosopher, and Joseph Smith, who composed the Book of Mormon, which would give rise to the Church of Latter Day Saints, commonly called Mormonism.

Act 4 then looks at how the Bible was used to condone many American social practices, including slavery. The “Curse of Ham” in Genesis 9 was commonly cited to argue that “God’s will” cursed those races of darker skin, therefore making the enslavement of Africans in America somehow “God-ordained.” The show warns against attempts to pick and choose certain verses from the Bible to support modern day civil legislation.

“Lost in Translation” Act 5: Ancient Texts and New Horizons

Act 5 concludes the episode by noting the oral tradition and transmission of the stories that ultimately made up the Bible. Because the Bible is constantly being updated to new formats using new technologies, people are always curious about the original versions of these Biblical stories. The episode concludes with a return to the Dead Sea Scrolls, asking whether there are additional manuscripts that might shed more light on the earliest versions of the Biblical stories. The possibility of the discovery of more ancient copies of these Biblical documents underscores the importance of translation of the Biblical texts, as the discovery of new texts will not likely change the beliefs held by billions of people overnight.


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  • VICTOR says

    I like that rule. Seems to me we could apply the same idea to many aspects of our lives. I have recently become very interested in David and Goliath. I want to use this story in my attempts to help veterans with PTSD. I suffer from this as well. Now the complete Biblical Archiological bug has gotten a hold of me. I have even woven a sling and I am teaching myself to use it. A word of caution if you should try this. Make sure that you have plenty of space.

  • Kate says

    If you read 2 Sam 22:18-22, you will realize this is not saying someone else other than David killed Goliath, but that in another confrontation with the Philistines, it is Goliath’s sons which are killed now by David and his brother and servants. First rule of translation and/or interpretation: Context. Don’t pull one brick out and decide what the whole house looks like when you haven’t seen the house. “Cut the word of God straight.”(2 Tim 2:15)

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