by David Bivin

Scholars are familiar with what are known as "scribal errors;" however, to ordinary Christians this term has an ominous sound.  One doesn't like to speak about errors in connection with the Bible; nevertheless, in the Hebrew Scriptures there are about 1500 scribal errors.  Perhaps a few examples will illustrate the nature of scribal errors and help alleviate some of the anxieties that accompany the term.

If, for example, a scribe happened to make the letter vav (ו) of hu' (הוּא) (he) a little too short, then the scribe who next copied that text might read hu' (he) as hi' (היא) (she).  Or, conversely, if a scribe made the י (yod) of hi' (היא) a little too long, then the next copyist might read hi' (היא) (she) as hu' (הוּא) (he).
[mi is who,
hu is he,
hi is she.]
However, scribes were not permitted to alter the sacred text, even if they discovered an obvious mistake.  They could correct the mistake only by noting it in the margin of the manuscript.  Thus, there are approximately 1500 such scribal corrections or errors in the Hebrew Bible.

As with hu' and hi', most scribal errors do not change the meaning of the text and are of little consequence.  However, they can sometimes be of significance.

Psalm 100:3 contains a well-known scribal error: veLO' [‎וְלא‎], (and not) instead of veLO [‏וְלוֹ‎] (and his).  The King James Version translates this verse, "Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves."  Literally, the second part of this verse reads: "He has made us and not (veLO') (ולא) we."  But if one translates according to the scribal correction (veLO) (ולוֹ) in the margin, one gets, "He has made us and his we are."  Therefore, the Revised Standard Version renders, "Know that the Lord is God!  It is he that made us, and we are his."  And the New International Version follows closely with, "Know that the Lord is God.  It is he who made us, and we are his."

Should this verse be translated as the King James translators translated it -- "And not we ourselves" or should it be translated "And we are his"?

The first translation contains nothing that is not fairly obvious: if someone else created us, then we did not create ourselves.  Even beyond this, the choice makes little sense.  Not even the pagans surrounding the Israelites--in all their elaborate mythology--believed that they were self-created, so the wording doesn't seem to fit.  The second translation, on the other hand, presents something new and vital: We belong to God.  We are his possession because he created us.  "We are his people, the sheep of his pasture" (Ps. 100:3).  In fact, this truth might be one of the Bible's most life-changing concepts.

Another example of scribal error is found in II Chronicles 11:18, "And Rehoboam married Mahalath the son of Jerimoth..."  Somehow, as the divine text was copied generation after generation, a scribe substituted ben (son) for bat (daughter).  Perhaps this happened because of the similarity of the two words or because the scribe's eye jumped to the word "son" two words later in the text.  The scribal correction "bat" in the margin is certain.  Only if we assume that Rehoboam married a man is it possible to hold that there is not an error in the transmitted text.

Much more crucial than scribal errors for a reader unlearned in the biblical languages is the way the biblical text is interpreted by scholars and translators.  There are many Hebrew and Greek words that only appear once or twice in the Bible.  Often the meaning of these rare words is unknown and translators can only guess at how to render them.  Furthermore, most biblical words have more than one meaning or nuance and translators must choose the correct one.  It is easy for a Bible translator to make mistakes.

Psalm 118:24 reads zeh haYOM 'aSAH 'adoNAI naGI-lah venismeHAH vo, this [is] the day made [{by} the] LORD let us rejoice and be happy in it.  The last part of this verse could also be translated, "let us rejoice and be happy in him."  Which translation is correct?  Should the last two words of this famous verse be translated "And be happy in it" or "And be happy in him"?

The King James Version translates this verse, "This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it."  The Revised Standard Version has, "This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it."  The New International Version reads, "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it."  All three versions agree on "in it."

While working on a new translation of the Bible into Finnish, Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research member Miriam Ronning-Ronen was faced with translating this verse.  She knew that vo was ambiguous and wondered whether the traditional translation, "in it," could be right.  How does a translator decide between two possible meanings of a word?  Usually this question is settled from the context, but also the way the word is used elsewhere in Scripture, called the word's profile, sheds light on the probable meaning.  Checking the profile of a word is slow, tedious work using a concordance, but when her study was completed, Miriam had decided that "in him" was right and not "in it."

Here the word's context did not help, but Miriam discovered that usually in Scripture, and almost always in the Book of Psalms, the phrase saMACH be- (be happy in) is followed by "the LORD," "God," or a pronoun referring to God (Ps. 104:34, 9:3, 33:21, 63:12, 64:11, 149:2, 66:6, 85:7, 40:17 = 70:5, 32:11, 97:12, Joel 2:23).  In fact, this expression is so common in Scripture that one would naturally understand it to refer to God unless there were strong reasons for not doing so.

This passage, relatively mundane as it is usually translated, is a powerful force when understood in this new way.  Here we have, perhaps, another life-changing concept--rejoicing in the LORD.

Are we to rejoice and be happy in today, or should we rejoice and be happy in the God who has made it?  You be the judge.  Whatever your decision, this expression illustrates the importance of understanding the linguistic background of the Bible text.  If the lay person is presented with all the options, he can choose the correct translation just as intelligently as the scholar.

Yavo Digest Vol. 3, No. 6, 1989

Bible Scholars - Question the Answers

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Posted June 18, 2007
Last update 28 April 2020