Ears or Body?

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Body or ears? Ears or body? Just the ears or the whole body? Originally, did the verse say body? Or did the verse originally say ears? When first written, did the author write body or ears? That is today’s contentious theological question. What did the text originally say? 

“Which verse? Which text?” you may ask. The passage in consideration would be Psalm 40:6-8. The opening of which, in a currently popular English translation, is rendered as:

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have opened.

Psalm 40:6a New International Version

“My ears you have opened.” What does that mean? Does it mean that hearing has been amplified?

Whatever it means, the popular English translation (i.e., the New International Version or NIV) comes with this perplexing, muddy footnote:

Hebrew; some Septuagint manuscripts “but a body you have prepared for me.”

Huh? Does that variation not completely change the meaning of the second half of the sentence?

A reader curious enough or diligent enough to reference the footnote might lose all interest at (the unfamiliar word) Septuagint. And yet the same reader may wonder why the NIV translators chose to render the passage as ears when the word body was potentially an option.

So, which of the variations was it, is it? What a weird translational discrepancy! What explains the difference? Was it originally “… but my ears you have opened” or “… but a body you have prepared?”

Perhaps the same reader concludes the matter with a dismissive thought, “Well, whatever. Maybe it doesn’t really matter that much.” 

My hunch is that a lot of theological questions die a premature death when a reader acquiesces to frustration, quits trying, and dismissively thinks, “I dunno. This bothers and baffles me. This is beyond me. Well, whatever. Maybe it doesn’t really matter that much.”

But wait, because the boomerang could come back. A similar question could potentially recur elsewhere. It might recur while reading through the New Testament. An observant reader might later recall Psalm 40:6a when s/he reads through the New Testament book of Hebrews. In Hebrews 10:5, the text says,

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me…

Hebrews 10:5 NIV

Wait, wait, wait. Pause. Back in the Old Testament, back in the Book of Psalms, the NIV translators rendered the second half of that sentence as “… but my ears you have opened”; however, here in Hebrews 10:5 they render it as “a body you have prepared for me.” How come? Why, exactly? Which one is it? What explains the translational discrepancy? 

Dear reader, you are not the first person in the history of Bible study to notice this particular discrepancy and ask these questions regarding the obvious discrepancy between Psalm 40:6 and Hebrews 10:5.  

Your initial inclination might be to conclude that the NIV translators were incompetent. But no, they weren’t. The answer to the discrepancy is a bit complicated. The most simple, direct answer is that the NIV translators did the best they could with the seemingly contradictory historical and lexical information available to them. The original Hebrew of Psalm 40:6 maybe, probably did say something that sort of means “my ears you have opened.” And the original Greek of Hebrews 10:5 definitely did say, “but a body you have prepared for me.” 

The actual translators who made this confusing for us were not the NIV translators, but the translators of an ancient version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. Indeed, the real translation decision (resulting in today’s confusion) very likely occurred over 2,000 years ago when the translators of the Septuagint tried their best to translate the original biblical Hebrew into a now-archaic form of Greek, which was then the language most commonly spoken in the Græco-Roman lands surrounding the eastern Mediterranean Sea. 

One possible explanation for the translation discrepancy is that the translators of the Septuagint may have used a translation technique that we now call dynamic equivalence. Dynamic equivalence strives to help readers understand what a difficult text means. It often results not in a literal translation but in a version of what was (probably) meant.

In the case of Psalm 40:6a, the original Hebrew actually says something like “you have bored out (or dug out) my ears.” Over 2,00 years ago, this phrase may have sounded as bizarre to the translators of the Septuagint as it does to us today. The translators may have deemed it likely an idiom. And they may have thought it necessary to translate not just the literal Hebrew words, but the meaning of the idiom. This could explain the change from “ears” to “body.” But admittedly, this is all speculative. 

The Hebrew verb כָּרָה (pronounced karah) is frequently translated as “bore,” or “hew,” or “dig.” In other Old Testament contexts, the verb was used for the digging of pits, cisterns, and graves. It is somewhat unexpected and strange to apply this particular verb to someone’s ears, but is not strange when applied to a body or corpse. The translators of the Septuagint may have understood the significance of the dig-dug, hew-hewn Hebrew verb to require that the ears be understood as representative of something bigger than just a person’s ears. In other words, the ears were understood as a metonym or a synecdoche for the whole person. This is a further explanation for how “ears” in Hebrew became “body” in Greek.

There are other proposals on how the translators of the Septuagint settled on “body” rather than “ears.” But however it happened, it apparently did happen.

Another more nefarious possibility is that the Hebrew originally did say “body”; and the translators of the Septuagint diligently followed suit. If that were indeed the case, later Hebrew manuscripts are the problem, not the Greek manuscripts. But it would require that the Hebrew of Psalm 40:6a was somehow altered, or corrupted in later copies. If so, later Hebrew copyists had to transgress an ancient taboo against ever changing the letters and wording of a received scriptural text. What possibly might have motivated them to violate that taboo and alter their Holy Scriptures? Though it might seem an impossible stretch, it is a remote possibility because altering the text from “ears” to “body” would make the reading of Psalm 40:6a sound less like a prophecy regarding the body of Jesus Christ; and such an alteration would have been a desirable rendering for Jews who had rejected the possibility of Jesus being their Messiah. But again, I must emphasize that this is merely speculative and completely unsubstantiated. All we know for sure is that all our received Hebrew manuscripts say “… but my ears you have dug,” while most of the Greek manuscripts of the Septuagint and all the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament say, “… but a body you have prepared.” Therefore, based on the historical physical evidence, it is most likely that the change from “ears” to “body” occurred at the hands of the translators of the Septuagint. 

Okay, so where does this investigation leave us? Should we give up on the reliability of the Bible? Are there lots of other discrepancies and changes between the Hebrew Old Testament original and the Greek translation?

No, there are not lots of changes. There are relatively few differences. Most of the differences are entirely insignificant. But admittedly, some are significant.

Eventually, this becomes a matter of faith in God’s hand in history. This raises the question or issue of God’s providence in the transmission of Holy Scripture from one language to the next. When we see differences between the Old Testament Hebrew and the Greek of the Septuagint and the New Testament, we should ask ourselves if the differences are perhaps God intended, rather than just regrettable human error. Perhaps God wanted those translational differences to be passed along. Perhaps divine inspiration occurs not just in the original writing of the texts, but also in the translation of texts. 

For me, the most satisfying way to come to terms with this apparent discrepancy is through consideration of the convergent meaning of Psalm 40:6a and Hebrews 10:5. Ultimately, both passages converge meaningfully on obedience as acceptable sacrifice. Both passages emphasize obedience as personal sacrifice, which is what truly pleases God. The point of Psalm 40:6a in the original Hebrew is that what God actually desires (as a truly acceptable sacrifice) are unplugged, opened ears. Unplugged, dug out, opened ears are equivalent to hearing ears; and (in the Hebrew idiom) hearing ears always act in obedience — sacrificial obedience. The point of Hebrews 10:5-7 (which follows the Greek of the Septuagint) is that Christ voluntarily offered himself, that is, his own body, in obedience — sacrificial obedience. Notably, the author of Hebrews takes Psalm 40:6-8 as the pre-incarnate Christ’s own words of self-offering. In so doing, the author of Hebrews does not distort the meaning of Psalm 40:6-8; rather, he shows how it was perfectly fulfilled.   

To summarize, I do believe that the translators of the Septuagint made an interpretive move with this particular passage. When translating Psalm 40:6-8 from Hebrew into Greek, they did strive for a dynamic equivalent translation of Psalm 40:6a. And they understood “opened ears” to imply a body offered in obedience. Moreover and most importantly, they got that right. At least, they got it right enough.    

The Authentic It: The Veracity of V

Thursday, March 11, 2021

The Authentic It: The Veracity of V – Audio Version

But what if it is actually real? What if, in spite the skeptics’ scorn, it actually is the honest-to-goodness, authentic item? What if it is the real McCoy? The implications are simply staggering. It could overturn everything we were previously taught, everything we have ever assumed. To say that it is an absolute bombshell might be an understatement, in fact.   

So, what is the “it” to which I refer? I thought you might ask that.

Actually, I have more than one “it” in mind. The first it is something I read about yesterday while scrolling through the news.

The first it is a long-lost document — fifteen lost scraps of an ancient biblical text, to be more precise. The long-lost documentary scraps have even been given a helpful nick-name. The scraps are collectively known as V.   

The New York Times ran an article yesterday about the potential rehabilitation of V, this long-lost biblical manuscript. V is (or was) a portion of the Book of Deuteronomy; but V was deemed a forgery by the British Museum back in 1883 and thus rejected as a part of their collection. After that, V was auctioned off. No one currently knows where V ended up. It has probably been lost to history. Nonetheless, while we regrettably no longer have the original V, we do still have helpful records about it. And very significantly, those records from the 1880s reveal that V was substantially different than the Deuteronomy available to you in your nearest copy of the Bible. “Bombshell” might be a total understatement. One likely implication is that the Bible we received might have been quite different, if only V had been recognized as authentic. Cue three dramatic notes here.

But the stodgy British Museum once dismissed it as a forgery. And since then, V has been largely forgotten. Until yesterday’s news drop, that is.   

So interested news readers now have some questions to process, given the re-discovery and potential rehabilitation of V. What if V is or was actually real? What if, in spite of the skeptics’ scorn and the repudiation of the experts, it actually was the honest-to-goodness, authentic item?

From a theological standpoint, V amounts an interesting footnote, even if it can be proven to be authentic (which is next to impossible, given that it is lost). Even if V is authentic, it does not tell us anything more than what biblical scholars have long suspected: It tells us that our current version of Deuteronomy was once redacted. What does redacted mean?

A redaction is a literary work that has been subjected to a degree of revision by a later editor. Redaction is actually evident in many books of the Bible. That should neither surprise nor bother anyone. If you read the Bible closely, it is readily evident that redaction must have happened. 

The truly important question is whether the redaction was inspired, or not. Let me rephrase that a bit: The thing that really matters is whether God actively superintended a redactor’s decision-making. A number of Biblical authors claim divine inspiration. The same could be said about latter redactors. We assert that the revisions they made were in fact divinely inspired. So if we were to discover an authentic copy of a pre-redacted text, that would be a very interesting find. But it would not necessarily mean that the pre-redacted text is more authoritative than the recognized redacted text.  

But how then do we ascribe divinely-inspired authority to one ancient text and not another?

The shortest and most simple answer is tradition. Belief in the inspiration of Scripture requires a measure of confidence in God’s ability to transmit his Word through the tumultuous events of history. On the assumption that God must be a capable historical actor, God Himself ensured that the Scriptures were conveyed in the form He wanted through time and by means of tradition. And that is an assertion that cannot be proven. It is simply accepted or rejected. 

We have had Deuteronomy in the form we have it for over two thousand years. We know that for certain. We know it from two divergent and yet complementary sources: The Greek Septuagint and the Hebrew Dead Sea Scrolls. Because we have had Deuteronomy in the form we have it for over two thousand years, it stands to (theological) reason that God wanted us to have it that way. Therefore, if something comes along throwing into question whether the Deuteronomy we have is actually the “right” Deuteronomy, the underlying question is whether we really believe God inspired what have inherited from tradition or not. My answer is yes, I really do believe that God inspired what have inherited from tradition. The potential rehabilitation of V does not shake my faith in that. V is merely a historical curiosity. At most, it is a pre-redacted version of Deuteronomy, which, while interesting, does not make it authoritative Scripture.

As for the other potentially-authentic “its,” they will have to wait for another time.