Translating the Bible: The Problem of Omitted Words

Bible Translations

The Old Testament is the result of the work of many scribes who labored diligently in copying manuscripts by hand. But everyone knows, past and present, that when one copies from a manuscript or from a book, it is easy to skip words. When copying from one source to another, it is also easy not to copy correctly what was written in the source material.

The scribes, or the Sopherim, labored hard to preserve the accuracy and the integrity of the biblical text, but because they were humans such as we are, at times, the scribes made mistakes in copying from one manuscript to another.

The biblical text was written in scrolls made of leather or papyrus. These manuscripts were reproduced manually. There were two methods of reproducing a manuscript. The first method, which I mentioned in a previous post, was one scribe would dictate from a manuscript to a group of scribes who would then copy what they heard the master scribe read.

The second method, one scribe working alone to produce a new manuscript, would copy word for word from a manuscript that was in front of him. Copying word for word from a long manuscript eventually produced errors of omission.

In copying a manuscript over many hours, the scribe would get tired with the work of copying. He would then take a break to rest. Upon his return, the scribe would continue copying, but instead of beginning with the last word, the word with which he was working before the break, he would begin with another similar word a few lines down in the text.

In establishing a standard text of the Hebrew Bible, the Masoretes corrected the omission the scribe had made in copying from the manuscript. The Masoretes were scribes who were assigned to preserve the integrity of the biblical text and to determine the accuracy of every new manuscript.

The Masoretes corrected new manuscripts from older and more authoritative manuscripts. This means that, at times, different readings of the text were extant at the same time. One example of this problem is found in 1 Samuel 14:41 where the scribe omitted several words when copying from one manuscript to another.

This is the reading of 1 Samuel 14:41 in the KJV: “Therefore Saul said unto the LORD God of Israel, give a perfect lot. And Saul and Jonathan were taken: but the people escaped.”

This is the reading of 1 Samuel 14:41 in the ESV: “Therefore Saul said, ‘O LORD God of Israel, why have you not answered your servant this day? If this guilt is in me or in Jonathan my son, O LORD, God of Israel, give Urim. But if this guilt is in your people Israel, give Thummim.’ And Jonathan and Saul were taken, but the people escaped.”

The Hebrew word for a perfect lot in the KJV is tmym. The Hebrew word translated Thummim in the ESV is tmym.

1 Samuel 14:41 in the KJV reads: “Therefore Saul said unto the LORD God of [Israel], give tmym. And Saul and Jonathan were taken: but the people escaped.”

1 Samuel 14:41 in the ESV reads: “Therefore Saul said, ‘O LORD God of [Israel], why have you not answered your servant this day? If this guilt is in me or in Jonathan my son, O LORD, God of Israel, give Urim. But if this guilt is in your people [[Israel]], give tmym.’ And Jonathan and Saul were taken, but the people escaped.”

This is probably what happened. When the scribe came to the word Israel [in brackets], he paused to rest (to drink water, to get more ink, etc.). When he returned, he began with the word Israel (in double brackets). Thus, the scribe jumped from one Israel to the other Israel, thus omitting a whole sentence which gives better meaning to the text.

A classical example of a scribal omission of words is found in 1 Samuel 13:1.

The Hebrew text of 1 Samuel 13:1 reads:

“Saul was one year old when he began to reign and he reigned over Israel two years.”

It is clear that as written, the text is not right, for Saul had grown children when he became king of Israel. It is evident that the numbers are missing in the text.

Scholars have made different attempts at restoring the text, but their efforts have created more confusion. Below are some attempts made by translators to restore the text.

The New International Version (NIV) translates 1 Samuel 13:1 as follows: “Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years.”

The New American Standard Bible (NASB) translates as follows: “Saul was forty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty-two years over Israel.”

The New English Bible (NEB) translates as follows: “Saul was fifty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel for twenty-two years.”

The Modern Reader’s Bible, a translation done by Richard G. Moulton translates as follows: “Saul was thirty years old when he began to reign and he reigned two years over Israel.”

The American Standard Version (ASV) translates as follows: “Saul was forty years old when he began to reign; and when he had reigned two years over Israel….”

The King James Version translates as follows: “Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel….”

In the New Testament, Acts 13:21 says that Saul reigned forty-years over Israel.

A good explanation for the length of Saul’s reign is found in John Tullock’s book, The Old Testament Story, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliff, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1981), p.123. Tullock wrote:

The length of Saul’s reign is uncertain since a number is missing in the Hebrew text, which simply says, “he reigned . . . and two years” (13:1). Most scholars would say he ruled about twenty-two years. If one takes the biblical evidence, twelve years might be more logical. The ark was captured by the Philistines some time before Saul began to reign. According to 1 Samuel 7:2, it was kept in Kiriath-jearim “some twenty years.” It was taken to Jerusalem in the early part of David’s reign (2 Sam. 6:1-15), but David reigned for over seven years at Hebron before Jerusalem was captured (2 Sam. 5:5). If this twenty years is to be taken literally or even as meaning around twenty years, it would seem to limit Saul’s reign to no more than twelve years.

The different readings for the length of Saul’s reign in the translations are only possibilities. Thus, if a translation says that Saul was 30, or 40, or 50 years old when he began to reign and then says that he reigned 42, 32, 22, or 2 years over Israel, that translation is not teaching biblical truth but educated possibilities. The fact is, that since the numbers are contradictory, then one or all of the translations may not be presenting the right information.

This, I believe, is the biggest problem in trying to guess the numbers missing in 1 Samuel 13:1. Since most students of the Bible only use one translation and never compare one translation against another, they believe that what the translation they are using is saying is what really happened, when in reality the translation may not reflect historical reality.

For instance, take the translation proposed by the KJV: “Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel.” People reading the KJV may believe that what follows in 13:2 happened two years after Saul became king. Other translations, such as NIV and several others, try to harmonize the Book of Acts with the text in Samuel by saying that Saul was king for forty-two years, when the length of his reign probably was much shorter.

Thus, 1 Samuel 13:1 must be reread in such a way that it preserves the dignity of the text and the historical realities related to Saul’s reign. Lately, several translations are leaving the numbers in the text blank.

For instance, the NRSV and other translations translate as follows:

“Saul was . . . years old when he began to reign; and he reigned . . . and two years over Israel.”

This translation is not elegant and is not what most people want, but it is better to leave the numbers blank than to convey false information to the reader, even when that information is based on an educated guess.

Many skeptics will use the problem of omitted words in the Bible to discredit the Bible or to cast aspersions on God, Christianity, and people of faith. The reality is that omission of words in the biblical text does not change the real message of the Bible.

The real message of the Bible is that human beings have rebelled and continue to rebel against God and that God is at work through Israel and through Christ to redeem fallen humanity and bring them back to the God who loves them.

The textual omission in 1 Samuel 13:1 does not change this truth and does not affect the true message of the Bible. Humans are sinners and God loves them whether Saul was 30, 40, or 50 years old when he became a king. And that is the truth that the Bible taught to people in the past and continues to teach to people today.

For other studies on translating the Bible, see my post, Studies on Translation Problems in the Old Testament.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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This entry was posted in 1 Samuel, Book of 1 Samuel, Hebrew Bible, Old Testament, Saul, Translating, Translation Problems and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Translating the Bible: The Problem of Omitted Words

  1. Brother says:

    Your messages are well thought-out and craftfully delivered. I am enriched and quite often learn something, or find a new way to appreciate something already known. I believe our God is smiling from East to West at how your work glorifies His name. Praise the Lord our God.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival #198 (August 2022) – The Amateur Exegete

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