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.