Biblical Archaeology Review 8:6, November/December 1982
Special Bible Section

What Does the Bible Say?

Translations speak in many tongues

By Dewey M. Beegle

Bible translations are nothing new.

As early as the sixth century B.C. Babylonian Jews may have listened to translations (targums) of the Hebrew Toraha into Aramaic. While Ezra read the Torah to the returned exiles in Jerusalem, the Levites “read from the law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8).

How should we understand this verse? Did the Levites translate Ezra’s reading into Aramaic or did they make interpretive comments in Hebrew? The rabbis and a number of more recent scholars have understood this incident to be the first record of an oral targum, or paraphrasing of the text, either in Hebrew or Aramaic.

Whether the Levites were translating or making interpretive comments—or both—we know that they were helping people understand the meaning of the Bible—a task that continues in our own day. But today when we translate and interpret the Hebrew Bible, we do so without benefit of the original scrolls; through use and decay they all perished. All we have today are copies of copies made over centuries. In this process of transmission, the copyists made mistakes; many mistakes were repeated in later copies because the scribes did not catch the earlier errors.

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