The Bible: Lost in translation?
By Paul Carline
“It is well to remember that, in the last analysis, there is nothing else in the universe beside consciousnesses ... Thus beings in various states of consciousness are the only reality in the world”. (Rudolf Steiner, Fifth Gospel).
Millions of Christians worldwide believe that the Old and New Testaments (“The Bible” in common parlance) are the ‘word of God’, committed to writing by people directly and divinely inspired, and that they can, therefore, be taken as the literal truth. The consequences of that belief have effects which go far beyond individuals’ personal religious convictions - influencing major areas of human affairs, including science and politics (for example, in the creationism/evolution debate, and in the belief of many that Christianity is engaged in an apocalyptic struggle for preeminence with Islam, justifying in some strange way the illegal invasions and occupations of predominantly Muslim countries and lending force to the global demonisation of Muslims based on lies about their involvement in major acts of terrorism).
Personal beliefs belong to that sphere of human activity (the sphere of intellectual life, culture, the arts, philosophy etc.) to which, in his proposed schema of a threefold division of human affairs, Rudolf Steiner attached the quality of freedom. People are free to believe whatever they choose - and their choices should be respected and protected. Freedom, however, has its limits and external actions based on a chosen conviction are not necessarily justified.
In the very nature of things beliefs can be erroneous. What if the Bible is not, after all, literally true - which does not imply that no part of it is true? There is one source of error in relation to the Scriptures which is rarely considered, but it is one which I am convinced has quite literally ‘bedevilled‘ certain core aspects of Christian belief. It is often forgotten - or people are perhaps simply not aware - that the ‘words of God‘ which have come down to us in the standard versions of the Bible (in all the modern languages in which the Scriptures are now known) are all second, third, or even fourth-hand. The Old Testament comes to those of us in the West by virtue of a two- or threefold work of translation: first from ancient Hebrew (and Aramaic) into Greek (in the 3rd century AD); then into Latin (completed in AD 405 by St. Jerome); then from either or both Greek and Latin into the various European languages. The first ‘vernacular‘ Bible (translated from Latin) was the 4th century Gothic Bible of Bishop Ulfilas, who had to create a new alphabet to transform the sounds of what until then had been a purely oral language into the “written word”.
The New Testament was written in Greek. The HistoryWorld website notes that: “During the 1st century AD/CE, Greek remains the language of the small Christian community, but with the spread of the faith through the Roman empire a Latin version of the Bible texts is needed in western regions. By the second century there is one such version in use in north Africa and another in Italy. These versions become corrupted and others are added, until by the 4th century - in the words of St Jerome, the leading biblical scholar of the time - there are ‘almost as many texts as manuscripts’”. During the first three centuries, there was also some judicious ‘editing’ and rejection of texts - such as various so-called ‘apochryphal’ gospels. More recently, long-hidden texts have emerged - including those in the Dead Sea scrolls - which have altered conventional biblical history
Speaking in particular of the very first book of the Old Testament, Rudolf Steiner said that “There is probably no account of human evolution so open to misinterpretation as this record known as Genesis. When the man of today calls to life in his soul, in any language familiar to him, the words “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”, they convey to him scarcely a faint reflection of what lived in the soul of an ancient Hebrew who allowed the words to work upon him.”
What is presented today as the ‘orthodox’ version - believed by many, as noted above, to be the literal truth - has passed through many hands and minds. It would indeed be a miracle if the original meanings had been preserved in all their integrity. In fact, Steiner’s point was that it is now scarcely possible to know what the original meaning of certain key words is. Older, and wider, understandings have been smudged, or even lost, in the multiple translations - with some seriously distorting effects.
To take just one example, the word elohim (which apparently occurs no less than 2602 times in the Old Testament) comes to us - through that third-century translation into the Greek theos - as the singular ‘God’, who in the first sentence of Genesis is credited with creating the whole cosmos (single-handedly, if we accept the standard translation). But elohim is a plural noun and the concordance at the excellent Biblos.com website gives no less than fifteen different meanings for the word - inluding ‘gods’, ‘divine being’, and ‘angels’. It is reasonable, therefore, to ask on what grounds the singular ‘God’ was chosen.1 It is also interesting to note here in passing that one of the 2602 uses of elohim occurs in the well-known passage in Psalms (8:4-5) which the standard translation gives as: “What is man that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour”, where elohim is translated as “angels”. Why the switch to “angels” for elohim? Did it seem impertinent to suggest that Man was only a “little lower” than God? And is this the same being (‘fallen’ Man) who was reputedly damned for disobedience - not “crowned with glory and honour”? Isn’t it clear that the Psalmist had a very different understanding of the nature of Man than the “hellfire and damnation” merchants who have struck fear into Christians for centuries? And which position is closer to the real Christian gospel (“good news”): the one based on the ‘positive’ admonition to love, or the one based on the ‘negative’ Mosaic catalogue of “Thou shalt nots”?
A later passage in Genesis (Chapter 1, verses 26-28), in which the problematic word Elohim occurs no less than five times in three sentences, has given rise to considerable contemporary criticism of the Bible and of the associated Judeo-Christian tradition. The offending words here are: “And God [Elohim] said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So Elohim created man in his [their] own image, in the image of God [Elohim] created he [they] him; male and female created he [they] them. And God [Elohim] blessed them, and God [Elohim] said unto them: Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
We have the same problem of plurals: “Let us ..”; “in our image, after our likeness”. The plural pronouns make no sense in terms of a singular god. The passage also reveals how in ‘filling out’ the very spare original Hebrew, the translators distorted the meaning. The original text actually says: “Elohim created man image; image Elohim created, male female created” - allowing, for instance, the interpretation that early Man (before ‘the Fall’) was androgynous, as embryology would appear to confirm.
Is it possible to ‘redeem’ this passage by identifying other distortions in translation - or is the criticism (that the Bible, and therefore Christianity, shares some blame for the destructive exploitation of the earth and the mistreatment of many of its creatures) valid? The key words here are “subdue” and “have dominion over”. The majority of English versions of this passage use the expression “have dominion over”; a few choose “rule” or “rule over”. The original Hebrew word (transliterated) is radah and the meaning is given (on the Biblos website) as “to rule”, “reign”, “dominate”, “have dominion over”. We do not seem to be dealing with an obvious mistranslation here. There remains the possibility that there has been a misinterpretation - that the “dominion” was to be that of a wise ruler, not a ruthless exploiter. But we should beware of applying our modern sensibilities retrospectively to a very different stage of human development. Man’s relationship with the natural world is an evolving one.
Nonetheless, my close examination of the whole passage2 persuaded me that there has been a possible mistranslation, which - if I am correct - would cast the passage in a very different light, one which would in turn shed light on an otherwise puzzling passage in one of St. Paul’s Epistles which seems to me to be of considerable importance for our contemporary understanding of nature and of our responsibility towards it - an understanding which links directly both to quantum physics and to the Bio-Dynamic method of farming and gardening introduced by Rudolf Steiner: an interesting linkage which bridges some three-and-a-half millennia of human history.
It will help to focus on just six key words:.. replenish the earth and subdue it ” (Genesis 1:28), corresponding to the original Hebrew " ... umilu et ha' aretz vechivshuha". The word umilu is preceded by two other words - peru and urevu - with similar endings, both translated as infinitive verbs with the sense of a command or injunction. But vechivshuha - also translated as a command: “to subdue” - seems to me to be different. Biblos gives a derivation from the word kabash which it translates as “subdued” i.e. a past-participle form which can be used as an adjective. As printed, the text has a semicolon after the words ha’aretz vechivshuha - followed by a new phrase beginning with another infinitive verbal form: uredu = ‘to rule”. This seems to me to confirm the adjectival sense of vechivshuha. A corrected translation would then be "the subdued earth", or, as I prefer, "the earth subjected to/forced into bondage".
If we take the adjectival sense, then, we have a very different meaning from an injunction to "subdue the earth". Instead, the whole phrase umilu et ha'aretz vechivshuha appears to belong together: “to fill the earth [which has been] subjected to bondage”. A further point which must be taken into consideration here is that the verb umilu, like so many Hebrew roots, has a range of meanings. Biblos lists the following: "accomplish, confirm, consecrate, be at an end, be expired, be fenced, fill, fulfill". We thus arrive at a range of potentially very interesting and very different translations. Instead of the divine license to “subdue” or “dominate” the earth, we can perhaps substitute an injunction to "accomplish, or fulfill [in the sense of fulfilling its appointed destiny], or consecrate, the earth [which has been] forced into/subjected to bondage".
Let me now turn to St. Paul and try to make the connection between that Genesis passage and the passage in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (8:19-22) about which the mid-nineteenth commentator Albert Barnes wrote: “Perhaps there is not a passage in the New Testament that has been deemed more difficult of interpretation than this Romans 8:19-23; and after all the labors bestowed on it by critics, still there is no explanation proposed which is perfectly satisfactory, or in which commentators concur”. The passage in question, in the King James Bible version (KJV), is as follows: “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected [the same] in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.”
Where KJV has “creature”, most other English versions have “creation”. Another 18th-century commentator, Matthew Henry, proposed the following understanding: "By the creature here we understand ... the whole frame of nature, especially that of this lower world - the whole creation. [...] The sense of the apostle in these four verses we may take in the following observations ... That there is a present vanity to which the creature, by reason of the sin of man, is made subject. When man sinned, the ground was cursed for man's sake, and with it all the creatures ... became subject to that curse, became mutable and mortal. Under the bondage of corruption”.
The word “bondage” makes the direct link to the first chapter of Genesis. But contrary to the standard interpretation that the "subjection to bondage" refers to the "fallen" state of creationafter "the Fall" resulting from the "sin" of Adam and Eve, my reading of Genesis, if correct, would indicate that the state of vechivshuha pre-existed that event, i.e. that it was the condition of the earth when Adam and Eve first appeared, so it could not refer to a "corruption" as a consequence >of the so-called "original sin" (the “eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” described in Genesis).
I believe it is vitally important to correct the disastrous misunderstanding of the so-called “Fall” which - like the mistranslation of elohim - >has literally bedevilled much Christian theology. ‘Sin’ - as in “original sin” or “the sin of Adam” - actually means “separation”. It is related to the word “to sunder” (‘sin’ in German is ‘Sünde’). The ‘sin’ was the separation from a former state of oneness with creation and with the spiritual world from which the material earth, including human beings in ‘physical’ bodies, emerged. The separation was entirely necessary - otherwise mankind would have remained in a state of dependency, like children with leading reins, unable to develop as free individuals. The Genesis story of the Fall is a myth (not in the sense of a fiction, but as a story with a deeper, possibly hidden, meaning) The eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil refers to the emergence in early humans of the ability to make choices - to decide between good and evil - without which no person can be free. The story is also about the emergence of self-awareness - indicated by the reference to Adam and Eve becoming ‘ashamed‘ of their nakedness. Shame is not possible without self-awareness.
But what can we make of the words “the bondage of corruption” if this is not, as I maintain, the result of “the Fall”? St. Paul's epistle offers some clues to an understanding of the ‘subjection to bondage’ of creation, though not a complete explanation. He writes: "For the creature was made subject to vanity not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope". The word ‘vanity’ is the translation given to the Greek word mataiotes.
Alternative translations for mataiotes - given as "futility" in King James - are: "vanity, emptiness, unreality, purposelessness, aimlessness (due to lacking any purpose or meaningful end), non-sense because transitory". In the widest sense, "creation" and "creature" refer to all forms of so-called "matter" or "substance" - the necessary 'substrate' for the existence in physical, bodily form on Earth of human beings. In fact, the term "creature" must also include humans, at least in their bodily nature. We arrive, therefore, at a conception of the primitive Earth (leaving aside the nature of the other entities in the solar system and beyond) as a place where what we term "matter" - in both its animate and inanimate forms - has been "subjected to bondage" against its own will, but in accordance with the will of "him who hath subjected the same in hope". Who might that "him" be? I suggest that the only suitable claimants for this 'monstrous' achievement are the members of the Trinity - though it might be argued that Paul's singular pronoun restricts the choice to God the Father (the Creator) and Christ (as the "Creative Word" or Logos, whom John says is the source of all things).
So the reading would be that God/Christ deliberately subjected living and non-living "matter" to "bondage". But it makes little sense, at least to our modern conceptions, to suppose that either the component parts - the elements, molecules and atoms - or even the whole organisms of plants, animals and mankind - ever had a "will" of their own, in terms of which one could say that they had been "not willingly subjected to vanity". Is this mere poetic speech? I think not. I think the answer to this conundrum lies in the understanding of the Greek word apokalupsin in Romans 8:19. The King James Version translates this as "manifestation"; alternative renderings include "revealing", "revelation", and "unveiling". The Biblos site explains that apokálypsis ("revelation", "unveiling") is principally used of the revelation of Jesus Christ (the Word), especially a particular (spiritual) manifestation of Christ previously unknown because "veiled" or "covered". The "unveiling" of Christ as Divine Spirit, previously "veiled" in the 'earthly-material' form of "Jesus the man", occurs on Easter Sunday morning, when the transfigured "spirit-body" of Christ appears first to Mary and then to others of His disciples - so changed that at first they do not recognise Him.
In the mid-1920s, quantum physics opened up the possibility of another "revealing" or "unveiling" - the "revelation" that "matter" or "substance" was not what it appeared to be; that in reality there was nothing 'substantial' about it at all: that it appeared to 'consist' of immaterial particles which appear out of nowhere, interact, and then disappear - regular "will o' the wisps" which yet 'conspire' in some mysterious way to produce and maintain 'visible' form. Quantum physics also demonstrated the primacy of consciousness over so-called "matter". More recent research confirms the non-dependence of consciousness from the physical brain. Other research brings us a picture of a universe saturated with evidence of life - in comets' tails, in the deep-sea "smoking" vents and other extreme habitats, including deep in the earth's mantle. Contrary to the "Big Bang" narrative, within which life emerges only relatively late and from inorganic precedents - a narrative that requires a substantial number of unsupported assumptions - all the evidence suggests a universe which began as "spirit-consciousness-life", from which what we perceive as "matter" in some way "condensed".
Based on the findings of modern science, therefore, and supported by evidence from other sources such as creation myths, including Genesis, we can with some confidence postulate an early universe filled with life: with forms of life having some form of consciousness (presumably very different to our own and to that of present-day organisms). We would be justified in referring to these as "beings" - which we could then imagine as having been involuntarily "enchanted", "transfixed" into "substance" in the way so often recounted in so-called fairy stories and folk myths. This, then, is the "creature subjected to bondage". Let us recall that mataiotes, translated for the KJV as "vanity", could alternatively be rendered as "unreality", or "purposelessness". We could then interpret the phrase "the creature waiteth for the manifestation" as referring to a waiting in expectation of its "real" nature being "revealed" or "unveiled" by "the children of God" i.e. humans. "Purposelessness" ... Isn't that what we often sense when we observe animals, especially those which seem to stare into infinity; or perhaps particularly insects such as the mayfly, which lives for but a single day in a seemingly futile existence?
A crucial aspect of the eventual, "eagerly expected" and long-awaited, unveiling of the true nature of substance is the acknowledgement of the debt we owe as humans to the reluctant acceptance of the "bondage of aimlessness" of those spiritual and other beings whose essentially immaterial "will o' the wisp" bodies mysteriously create the 'matter' of the visible universe (matter related to mater = mother?). This would be the 'liberation', the release from enchantment (typically through an act of loving sacrifice) which is again a frequent motif of folk tales.
Indeed, "the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now" ... and we may presume that the pain has greatly increased since the time of St. Paul, for not only has the unveiling still not occurred, but the Creation has been and continues to be subjected to appalling abuse in the pursuit of material comfort, thanks in some part to a misinterpreted Biblical injunction to exercise "dominion" over creation without the accompanying understanding of the human task of liberation through transformation.
And the link to bio-dynamics? A key component of the bio-dynamic approach - besides the sowing, planting and harvesting in tune with lunar and cosmic rhythms - is the use of special “preparations” which are normally sprayed onto the earth and the plants. These are not like conventional - even organic - fertilisers. They are not intended to work ‘physically-chemically’. They are, instead, offerings to the elemental beings which constitute what we call ‘matter’ - in effect “the earth subjected to bondage”.3 These beings allowed themselves to be “made subject to vanity”, but “in hope” of eventual deliverance, once their true nature has been “unveiled” and their sacrifice (for the sake of humanity) has been gratefully acknowledged. For they, too, like us, are part of the “great chain of being”. All of us - including even the lofty elohim - are part of the immense drama of spiritual evolution, one crucial stage of which is taking place on the Earth. Are we content to allow the whole creation to remain ‘groaning and travailing’ because we have failed to recognise its sacrifice and our purpose?
1 I will not here go into the many explanations by orthodox commentators which attempt to ‘explain away’ the incongruousness of the plural form; I would simply recommend readers to study the lectures given by Rudolf Steiner in 1910 and published as Genesis: Secrets of the Bible Story of Creation.
2 I have been greatly helped in this by the Biblos website which gives the original Hebrew, the transliteration, a link to Strong’s concordance and the favoured English translation (the passage in question is at http://biblos.com/genesis/1-26.htm)
3 This aspect was at the forefront of the pioneering bio-dynamic work of Hugo Erbe. Cf. the book: “Hugo Erbe’s Bio-Dynamic Preparations”, published by Mark Moodie (www.markmoodie.co.uk).