nonfiction

Book Review: The Bible Doesn’t Say That: 40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings by Joel M. Hoffman

Language is complicated. Translation is often far more of an art than a science, and it’s easy to get things wrong- wayyyyyyyyyy wrong- and even more so with documents that are ancient and don’t conform to today’s standards of grammar, syntax, and punctuation. Nowhere is this more evident than in matters of Biblical translation, and when I learned about the existence of The Bible Doesn’t Say That: 40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings by Dr. Joel M. Hoffman (Thomas Dunne Books, 2016), my curiosity was piqued. What else could I learn about the foibles of improper translation and the misconceptions that have become canon?

In the tradition of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, though written in a much less academic style, Dr. Hoffman shines light on forty separate biblical ideas that aren’t quite what the general public (and often the very religious) think they are. Sometimes the translations are wrong. Sometimes there’s no direct translation, so something gets a little lost and the meaning is vague or unclear. Occasionally, ideas have been twisted (sometimes to fit an agenda, sometimes due to being passed down the line like a game of Telephone- remember that one?). The most famous Psalm paints a picture of God as a shepherd, but it’s not quite the gentle minder that we think of today. Mistranslations of the Ten Commandments hang in public spaces across the US. Most Jews know that the complete laws of kashrut (keeping kosher) don’t come from the Bible, but a lot of Christians are apparently unaware of that. Forty separate chapters illustrate how difficult and contentious parsing out the true textual meaning can be, and how easy it is to get things wrong.

Never stooping to talk down to his audience, Dr. Hoffman explains the hows and whys of Biblical translation and the shortcomings of language in a way that will have readers questioning what else they’ve misunderstood or been misinformed about. While some of his examples may seem just this side of nitpicking in terms of translation, most chapters show more serious transgressions. Both Hebrew and Greek contain concepts that English doesn’t necessarily have easy translations for, and time and time again, the best attempts of multiple translators have led to serious misunderstandings. This is nothing if not a fascinating study in how mistranslations can shape civilizations and cause others to shape their own lives in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise.

If you’re interested in the subject of Biblical translation, The Bible Doesn’t Say That is likely right up your alley. On a personal level, there wasn’t a *ton* I hadn’t come across in my previous reading, but his style is open and friendly and presents the information in a way that challenges the reader to think, which is something I appreciate in an author. He’s never confrontational in tone, merely informative- hey, when we’ve been wrong, we’ve been wrong, and it’s important to admit that!- and that makes this a really enjoyable read.

Visit Dr. Joel M. Hoffman’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

One thought on “Book Review: The Bible Doesn’t Say That: 40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings by Joel M. Hoffman

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