Oh, I shouldn’t have . . .
I gave myself Bart Ehrman’s new textbook, The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, for Christmas. Here it is March, and I’m finally getting the chance to read it. I expect this overpriced volume has a pretty good chance of becoming the standard text in American undergraduate survey courses on the Bible. So it makes sense to find out what young students will be learning.
When I say young students, I mean the young ones sufficiently well off to be able to live on campus. As education costs here in the U.S. skyrocket, more and more first- and second-year university students are working at night and driving to junior colleges each morning. But this book speaks directly to first-year students living in dormitories. The audience is more likely Footlights College Oxbridge than Scumbag College.
Well done, Footlights! 10 points.
At the end of each chapter, Bart asks the posh kids living in dorms to “Take a Stand” on a few issues. Here’s a typical “Take a Stand” item:
Your roommate has not taken the class, but he is interested in the history of ancient Israel. He knows something (a little bit) about the time of the United Monarchy and asks which king you think was better, David or Solomon. What is your view, and how do you back it up? Give him way more information than he wants to know. (p. 112)
Which king was better? That’s a toughie. But not as tough as the questions on University Challenge.
Fortunately, when reading the core of the text, I can almost forget I’m reading a book targeted more at Lord Snot and Miss Money-Sterling than Mike, Rick, Vyvyan, and Neil. Unfortunately, it’s hard to overlook the mistakes I’ve found already in the early chapters.
I sweat the small stuff
It may seem inconsequential, and maybe things like this shouldn’t bother me. But I can’t help myself. On the spelling of the Hebrew word for God’s name, Ehrman writes:
Because God himself was thought to be holy, it eventually came to be considered improper, or even blasphemous, to call him by his personal name. And so, when the ancient Jews read the Scriptures out loud, and came to the tetragrammaton [YHWH], instead of pronouncing it they would say, instead [sic], the word Adonai, the Hebrew word for “Lord.” That is why, even today, English translations as a rule do not give the personal name of God as Yahweh when it occurs — as it does thousands of times in the Hebrew Bible — but instead translate it as LORD (with capital letters, to differentiate it from the translation of Adonai as “Lord”). (p. 49)
First of all, while it’s true that a few translations use all caps for “Lord” (especially in e-books and online) when referring to YHWH, it’s much more common for them to use small caps — Lord — rather than “LORD.” For example, in this image from the NIV, we see YHWH Elohim translated as Lord God.
The initial large capital “L” retains the notion that we’re actually reading a proper name. So in this case, the Hebrew text would have the word YHWH, with vowel points that indicate the reader should say aloud, “Adonai.” But what would happen if the original text had “Adonai YHWH,” which is very common, for example, in the books of the prophets?
Here we see what at first might look like a confusing hodgepodge. Sometimes God is in small caps with a preceding “Lord.” Other times, as in verse 3, Lord is in small caps. The rule is fairly simple: If the original Hebrew was written as “Adonai YHWH” (literally, “Lord Yahweh”), then the Masoretic vowel points around YHWH will indicate that it should be pronounced as “Elohim.” That is, rather than saying “Lord Lord,” they would say “Lord God.” In the case of the Oxford Bible, we know that any time we see a word in small caps (either God or Lord), YHWH is in the original text.
The NIV takes a different approach when YHWH comes directly before or after Adonai. For example, Exodus 34:23 ends with “pənê hā’āḏōn Yahweh ’ĕlōhê yiśrā’êl,” which the KJV translates as “before the Lord God, the God of Israel.” However, the NIV uses the word “Sovereign” to refer to “Lord (hā’āḏōn),” followed by Lord, and then “God.”
So when you see “Sovereign” in the NIV, you know that the actual word behind it is the Hebrew word for “Lord,” not YHWH. Unfortunately, we lose the flavor of the underlying spoken text for YHWH, which would be Elohim and not Adonai. On the other hand, the NIV gains consistency in that every occurrence of YHWH is written “Lord.”
Lost in translation?
We should note, though, that the NIV is a rare case. How rare? Well, I drew up a table that shows how YHWH is translated in Exodus 34:23.
|American Standard Version (ASV, WEB)||x|
|Authorized Version (KJV, NKJV, etc.)||x|
|Common English Bible||x|
|English Standard Version||x|
|New American Standard Bible||x|
|New English Translation||x|
|New International Version||x|
|Revised Standard Version (RSV, NRSV, etc.)||x|
As you can see, English translations follow different standards. By and large, though, when the Hebrew text contains YHWH, the English translation will have Lord in small caps. On some occasions a translation will give the reader a hint that YHWH would be pronounced “Elohim” by writing God in small caps. The latter practice is the norm for the KJV and most of its descendants.
In any case, Ehrman’s excursus on the tetragrammaton is misleading. Here’s what he got wrong so far:
- The ancient Hebrews did not always say “Adonai” when reading YHWH. Sometimes they said “Elohim,” so as not to say “Adonai Adonai.”
- Very few English translations of the Bible write “LORD” in all caps. It’s much more common for them to use Lord in small caps.
- Several translations don’t always use Lord for every occurrence of YHWH. When Adonai comes directly before or after YHWH they write God instead.
As we said above, the vowel points added by the Masoretes signaled to the reader how YHWH should be pronounced aloud. Ehrman writes:
But in order to make sure that ancient readers of the biblical texts did not inadvertently say the name Yahweh when they came to it, they provided it with the vowels that went instead with the word Adonai. This combination of consonants and vowels was very difficult to pronounce, and so readers would be alerted to the divine name, and would simply speak it as “Adonai.” (p. 49, emphasis mine)
Are we supposed to imagine readers of Hebrew “sounding out” words phonetically as they scanned the text and thinking, “Wow, that’s hard to pronounce“? It is inconceivable that anyone at the time who was sufficiently fluent in Hebrew to be able to read it would not immediately recognize the divine name — יהוה — with or without the vowel points. Further, they would know not only that the name of God should never be uttered, but that its true pronunciation had been lost centuries ago.
Ehrman’s difficulty-in-pronunciation theory is absurd. What the reader actually thought was this: “Here is the divine name. What word do I say instead? Let’s look at the vowel points.” And then he would say the alternate word associated with those vowels.
[Note: The practice of using vowels to indicate a pronunciation that is not reflected in the original consonantal spelling of the Hebrew word is called qere. See the inset to the right for more details.]
It was this strange conglomeration of consonants and vowels — keeping the consonants of the tetragrammaton but using the vowels of the word “Adonai” — that led to the invention of a new word in English: “Jehovah” (since JHVH is the English equivalent of YHWH). (p. 49, emphasis mine)
That’s incorrect. The English equivalent of YHWH is YHWH. The letters “JHVH” are a Latinization of יהוה (YHWH), which appeared at least as early as the 1278. A Spanish Dominican monk named Raymundus Martini translated a quotation from Bereshith Rabbah, in which God asks Adam, “And what is my name?” To which Adam replies:
יהוה Jehova, sive Adonay, quia Dominus es omnium.
[“Jehova, or Adonay, because thou art Lord of all.”]
It also appeared in Latin as Yehova. The article by George Moore quotes the Codex Majoricanus and Codex Barcinonensis:
“Cum gloriosus nomen de cunctis Dei nominibus, videlicet Yehova, vel Yod, He, Vau, He: vel nomen quatuor literarum.”
[“With the most glorious of all the names for God, namely Yehova, or Yod, He, Vau, He: or the name of four letters [i.e., the tetragrammaton]]
(see American Journal of Theology, Vol. 12, p. 35, bold emphasis mine)
The word Jehovah, then, showed up first in Latin texts and eventually made its way into German and English. Referring back to the article in the American Journal of Theology, we see that Martin Luther referred to the name “Jehovah” as the equivalent of “HERR” (LORD).
It is noteworthy that this passage occurs, not only in an academic lecture or a commentary addressed to the learned, but in a sermon, immediately published as a popular pamphlet. The name Jehovah is not introduced as something new; on the contrary, it is used as if it was familiar to the hearers or readers. (pp. 40-41)
You could argue that these are all small points, but Ehrman’s book is, after all, a textbook for university students. If it doesn’t matter whether we get things right here, then when does it matter?
Bigger problems: They still don’t read Wellhausen
In the same chapter (viz., Chapter 2: The Book of Genesis), while describing the Documentary Hypothesis (DH), Ehrman writes:
Julius Wellhausen . . . managed to convince an entire host of fellow scholars of [the Documentary Hypothesis’s] persuasiveness, starting with his major 1878 publication (in German), History of Ancient Israel [sic]. (p. 50)
That statement is incorrect. It doesn’t help the student much to refer to the name of a book that did not exist in English translation. Wellhausen did indeed publish a work called Geschichte Israels (“History of Israel,” not “History of Ancient Israel“) in 1878. However, the book was republished in 1882 with the more familiar title, Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels. It was this version that Black and Menzies translated into English in 1885, and is thus more commonly known to us as Prolegomena to the History of Israel.
Worse than getting the title wrong, Ehrman perpetuates a persistent myth about the sources with respect to the name of the deity. Specifically:
It is called E because it prefers the name Elohim (= “God”) for the deity. (p. 51, emphasis mine)
This priestly source, like E, prefers the name Elohim for the deity but uses a number of other names (such as El Shaddai, as we saw in Exodus 6:2-3). (p. 51, emphasis mine)
I can’t help but wonder where this misconception originally came from, because it’s so common, yet so far from what Wellhausen (or any DH scholar, for that matter) actually said. Wellhausen, explaining the difference between the Jehovist and Elohist documents writes:
Of what remains, the parts most easily distinguished belong to the so-called “main stock” (“Grundschrift”), formerly also called the Elohistic document, on account of the use it makes of the divine name Elohim up to the time of Moses . . . (p. 7)
And with reference to the Priestly author Wellhausen writes:
[H]e even goes so far as to avoid the name of Jehovah even in his own narrative of the pre-Mosaic period. Even when speaking in his own person, he says Elohim, not Jehovah, down to Exodus vi. (p. 311)
It makes no sense to say E or P “preferred” the name Elohim. After all, the law code in P is full of references to Yahweh. We read that the people should do this or not do that, “for I am Yahweh.” What’s important is the unique turning point in history when God appears to Moses in Exodus and reveals his true name, an event that has great significance in E and P. For the Elohist and Priestly writers, the revelation of the divine name occurs when God intervenes in history and establishes a special bond (a covenant) between himself and Israel.
The authors of E and P did not prefer Elohim. They simply wrote it in place of the divine name until the true, preferred, name was revealed. Moreover, saying that E and P used a different name for God misses the point entirely. Quoting Richard Elliott Friedman in The Bible with Sources Revealed:
This line of evidence is frequently described as a matter of terminology: namely, that different sources use different names for God. But that is not correct. The point is not that sources have different names of God. The point is that the different sources have a different idea of when the name YHWH was first revealed to humans. (p. 25, emphasis mine)
Misunderstanding the true significance of the usage of the divine name in the Pentateuch can lead to errors such as the common mistake concerning Genesis 7:1.
7:1 And Abram was ninety years and nine years old, and YHWH appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shadday. Walk before me and be unblemished,
7:2 and let me place my covenant between me and you, and I’ll make you very, very numerous.” (translation by Richard Elliott Friedman)
If you “knew” that P preferred Elohim or El plus an epithet (e.g., El Elyon, El Shadday), then the mention of Yahweh could look as if it violates the rule. But it doesn’t. The narrator and the implied reader know that God’s name is YHWH, but he is revealing himself to Abram as El Shadday. As Friedman puts it (in The Bible with Sources Revealed):
Those who misunderstand the matter of the name of God in the sources mistakenly think that the mention of God’s name, YHWH, in v. 1 is an exception to the hypothesis. This verse is precisely the point. The issue is not that the sources use different names for God. It is that the sources have different ideas of when God’s name was revealed to human beings. (p. 56)
In a series of blog posts on Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Ehrman rightly took the author to task on a raft of errors, both historical and New-Testament-related, concluding with:
Well, that’s enough to give the idea. Again, these may seem like unimportant matters to some readers. Still, others may feel as I do, that even though anyone on the planet is, of course, free to write a book about Jesus, they should not do so claiming either explicitly or implicitly to be an authority if they are going to make basic mistakes on the very sources that stand at the center of their investigation. (emphasis mine)
Responding to blog readers who attempted to excuse Aslan as a non-expert in the field, Bart said that observation “was both obvious and unfortunate.” Similarly, one could argue that Ehrman is a New Testament scholar, and not really an expert in the OT. On the other hand it’s highly unlikely that Aslan’s work will become the core textbook for any Historical Jesus course at any university. Yet we can be quite sure that The Bible will be a best-seller for years to come.
Aslan’s book will pass out of the public’s attention rather quickly, but Bart’s book, with its “basic mistakes on the very sources that stand at the center” will affect (or afflict) a generation of students. And while “anyone on the planet is free to write a book” on the Bible, only a handful of respected scholars will get the backing of Oxford University Press.
Later in the Aslan series Ehrman writes:
Someone who is not an expert makes mistakes – lots of mistakes, and often serious mistakes. And the problem is that the person doesn’t even know it. I don’t think Aslan knowingly wrote anything he didn’t think. The problem is that he doesn’t know the field well enough to know where there are gaps in his knowledge, or where he has accepted incorrect information that he has heard or read one place or another.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
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