Ten Commandments Translated Wrong, Claims Scholar
New York, June 17 — The Ten Commandments don’t forbid coveting or killing, claims Dr. Joel M. Hoffman, a noted Bible scholar and linguist who has applied modern translation techniques to the Bible.
Hoffman reports that the commandment commonly quoted as “thou shalt not covet” is more accurately translated as “do not take,” and that the commandment applies only to actions, not to states of mind.
“We now know that the Ten Commandments take no position on how you feel, only on what you do,” he says.
Hoffman claims that flawed translation techniques led to the familiar but inaccurate rendering of the Hebrew in this case. His evidence comes from how the Hebrew verb in the commandment is used elsewhere in the Bible.
“Perhaps more than any other part of the Bible, the Ten Commandments have shaped Western culture,” Hoffman suggests. “The good news is that most of the commandments have been translated accurately. The bad news is that two have not.”
According to Hoffman, the other mistranslated commandment is the one that concerns killing. (It’s the sixth commandment for most Protestants and Jews, the fifth for Catholics.)
One familiar rendering, “do not kill,” is too broad, he says, because the original Hebrew did not prohibit all kinds of killing. So recent high-profile political claims that the Bible categorically forbids killing are in error, says Hoffman.
But the other common variation, “do not murder,” is too narrow, because the commandment included not just murder but also the equivalent of manslaughter and other illegal homicide.
The Ten Commandments are not the only parts of the Bible to be misrepresented in translation, Hoffman argues.
The well-known opening of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” is misleading, Hoffman says, because shepherds in the Bible were “brave, strong, valiant,” and “regal,” while the modern shepherd is “a marginalized loner who spends more time with sheep than with people.” Hoffman explains that using the word “shepherd” to translate Psalm 23 “suggests all of the wrong images and none of the right ones.”
Other translation gaffs include the prophesy of the virgin birth in the book of Isaiah — Hoffman translates the word there as “woman,” not “virgin” — and the exhortation from Deuteronomy (quoted in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul,” which is considered theologically central by Christians and Jews alike.
The words “heart” and “soul” there are mistranslations, Hoffman says. The first Hebrew word refers to all of the intangible aspects of life, including emotions and intellect, while the second connotes the physical flesh, blood, and breath.
Unlike most others who study the Bible, Hoffman’s training is in linguistics and translation. “English speakers who read Ovid or Aristotle or Pushkin in translation have a better sense of the original texts than do readers of any existing English translation of the Bible,” claims Hoffman, who has taught graduate-level translation courses in both religious and secular university settings.
Most Bible translations are produced by theologians, not translators, and their training doesn’t generally include modern translation techniques.
Hoffman published his findings in his latest book, And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning (www.AndGodSaid.com). The book, released in February by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, is already in its second printing.
About Dr. Hoffman
Joel M. Hoffman, Ph.D., has held faculty appointments at Brandeis University and at Hebrew Union College, and lectured at universities on four continents. He is the author of And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning (2010, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press) and In The Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language (2004, NYU Press), and the chief translator for the 10-volume series My People’s Prayer Book (winner of the National Jewish Book Award). He also moderates the popular Bible-translation blog “God Didn’t Say That.”
He can be reached at Joel@Lashon.Net.