Translating the Bible: The Emendations of the Scribes

Tiqqûnê Hassôperîm
Isaiah 9:3 (Hebrew 9:2).

In a previous post on the issues translators face in translating the Old Testament from Hebrew into English, I mentioned several problems that complicate rendering the intent of the original writer to today’s generation of Bible readers.

In this post I will deal with another issue, the problem of homophones. “A homophone is a word that is pronounced the same as another word but differs in meaning. A homophone may also differ in spelling. The two words may be spelled the same, for example rose and rose, or spelled differently, as in rain, reign, and rein.”

Homophones in the Old Testament occurred when scribes misunderstood what was being said and wrote a different word with the same sound. Take for instance the English words to, two, and too. These three words are homophones. They have the same sound, but different meanings.

In ancient Israel, scribes came together to copy a manuscript. Copying a manuscript was expensive and time consuming. Let us suppose that to save time and money, a manuscript had to be copied. Three scribes were assigned to make a copy of the book of Isaiah. To save time and money, one scribe would dictate from one manuscript and two other scribes would write down what was being dictated by the master scribe.

Using the English words to, two, and two, the master scribe would dictate this (poorly composed) sentence, “Two people came too to harvest.” Three words with the same sound that make sense in the context in which the words are used, two people also came to harvest.

But now, let us suppose a different situation occurred. The master scribe would dictate, “they tried to harvest.” The sentence makes sense as dictated, but the two scribes understood what the master scribe had said differently.

The first scribe wrote, “they tried to harvest.” This is what the master scribe dictated.

The second scribes wrote, “they tried two harvests.” The second scribe understood that the people harvesting tried, not one, but two harvests. The words sound the same, but the meaning is different from what the master scribe had dictated.

The problem of homophones also happens in the Old Testament. This problem creates what is called tiqqûnê hassôperîm. Tiqqûnê hassôperîm refers to emendations the scribes made in the Hebrew text to correct scribal mistakes, to remove anthropomorphisms, or to preserve the honor of God.

One of these scribal emendations is the qere/ketiv. The word qere means “what is read.” The word ketiv means “what is written.” In the case of the qere/ ketiv, in copying a manuscript, the scribe made a mistake and wrote a wrong word (the ketiv). Another scribe, noticing the scribal error, corrected the reading by putting on the margin of the manuscript the correct reading of the words (the qere).

There are eighteen emendations due to homophones the scribes made in the Hebrew text. In this post, I will deal with the tiqqûnê hassôperîm in Isaiah 9:3 (Hebrew 9:2). In future posts, I will deal with some of the other tiqqûnê hassôperîm.

The reason I selected Isaiah 9:3 (Hebrew 9:2)  is because the versions differ when translating this verse into English. This is how Isaiah 9:3 (Hebrew 9:2) read in the Hebrew Bible:



Below are two translations of Isaiah 9:3:

King James Version:

“Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.”

The Jewish Publication Society:

“Thou hast multiplied the nation, Thou hast increased their joy; they joy before Thee according to the joy in harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.”

I have used bold letters in quoting the text to emphasize the section of verse 3 where the versions differ. As can be seen above, one version (the KJV) is negative, “and not increased the joy,” while the other version (the JPS) is positive, “Thou hast increased their joy.” The question is: why the difference?

The answer to this question and the explanation as to why the two versions differ in their translation of the text is found in the Hebrew Bible and in the notes provided by the Masoretes. Let me begin by identifying the Masoretes.

The Masoretes were Jewish scribes who copied the ancient Hebrew manuscripts. They added the vowels to the consonantal text, marked doubtful passages, and divided the text into sections for liturgical use. One of the greatest contributions of the Masoretes was the marginal notes they added to the manuscripts. These notes provided alternative readings of the texts which they believed represented a more correct reading than those found in the manuscripts.

These notes are called the ketiv/qere. The ketiv, “that which is written,” is the form of the word which appears in the Hebrew Bible. The qere, “that which is to be read,” is the correction made by the scribes, which in their opinion represents an ancient and better reading.

In the Hebrew text above, the word in parenthesis (לא) is the Ketiv, “that which is written.” The word in brackets [לו] is the Qere, “that which is to be read.”

The proposed emendation  in Isaiah 9:3 and the issue here is a homophone. Homophones are words that when read, they are pronounced alike but have different meaning or are spelled differently.

The homophone in Hebrew is לא and לו. The two words sound alike when they are pronounced in Hebrew, but they have different meanings. The first word לא, lo’, means “not,” and the second word לו, , means “to him,” “his.”

The Hebrew text of Isaiah 9:3 reads as follows: לֹא הִגְדַּ֣לְתָּ הַשִּׂמְחָ֑ה.

The King James translates the text as: Thou hast not increased the joy. This is the ketiv or what is written in the text. However, the Masoretes said that this is not the best and original reading. Thus, they put a note on the margin of the text to indicate that instead of reading לא, lo’, the text should read לו, , “Thou hast increased their joy.” This is the qere, what should be read.

Now, when it came time to translate Isaiah 9:3 into English, of all the translations of the Bible, only the King James Version adopted the ketiv reading, the reading of the Hebrew text. All the other versions, including the New King James Version followed the qere, or the reading proposed by the Masoretes.

A closer look at the context of the passage demonstrates that “Thou hast increased their joy” is the better reading. According to the text, the Lord enlarged the nation and increased their joy. In addition, the people rejoice before the Lord in the same way they rejoice at harvest time and when they divide spoils.

It is unfortunate that the King James did not follow the qere in translating Isaiah 9:3 since the negative translation adopted by the King James contradicts the message the prophet was trying to convey to his audience. The mood of joy and celebration that will be demonstrated by the people affirms that the qere reading, “Thou hast increased their joy,” is the correct reading of Isaiah 9:3.

Win a Free Copy of my Book Divine Violence and the Character of God.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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7 Responses to Translating the Bible: The Emendations of the Scribes

  1. Wise Hearted says:

    I like your post because a study of different translations can bring confusion or clarity. Context is everything I am told by our mission translators.


    • Wise Hearted,

      Thank you for your nice words. In translating the Bible from Hebrew into another language requires a lot of context. The issue is that an expression in one language does not say the same thing in another language. For this reason, a translator has to find a local expression that reflects what the biblical writer tried to communicate in his own language.

      Thank you for reading and commenting on the post.

      Claude Mariottini


  2. Stephanie Pringhipakis says:

    Language is fascinating- and rendering an accurate translation requires so many considerations. Your explanation of homophones and translating the Bible was illustrative of the perils in translation. Hence the expression “translator/traitor”. Thank you for illuminating the path leading to what was intended in the original language.


    • Stephanie,

      Most people do not know how difficult it is to translate the Hebrew of the Bible into another language. Many times an expression in one language does not have the same meaning in another. Then there are other issues. The problem of the homophones is one of them. I am glad you enjoyed reading the essay.

      Claude Mariottini


  3. Pingback: Translating the Bible: The Problem of Omitted Words by Claude F. Mariottini | Crossmap Blogs

  4. Pingback: Bible Linguistics and the Problems of Translating the Bible by Claude F. Mariottini | Crossmap Blogs

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