The Shem Conspiracy

Shem Conspiracy

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2014 Lee Karl Palo


Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the Common English Bible (CEB).


          As a former Christian bookstore manager, there were several common requests that I would get from customers. Sometimes it would be as simple as, “I am looking for the new book by N.T. Wright (or some other prolific popular Christian author).” Other times I would get requests like, “I don’t remember the title, author, or publisher, but the cover was red and it was on spirituality.” When it came to Bibles, the most famous request about choosing an English translation was, “I want a literal translation.” I would always do my best to find a Bible translation that would work well for any given customer, but a request for the “literal” Bible translation is impossible. In that vein, I would like to discuss a couple of the issues that make the concept of literal translation something problematic at best. One of these difficulties with Bible translation is rather benign, but the other is a bit more malevolent. Both of them have to do with the translation of names.

Translating Names in the Bible

          As it happens, the character “Shem” is a good place to start. Names in the Bible are typically transliterated as best as possible from whatever the original language was. The idea is to maintain some resemblance to the spelling and, or, pronunciation of the original biblical name. But what do you do if a name in the Bible has a translatable meaning? It is evident that many Biblical names have meaning that can be translated. Sometimes this is hinted at in English translations of the Bible. Take for example Genesis 5:28-29, “When Lamech was 182 years old, he became the father of a son and named him Noah, saying, ‘This one will give us relief from our hard work, from the pain in our hands, because of the fertile land that the Lord cursed.’” The verses imply that Noah’s name means something like “rest.” However, if you translate the meaning of a name, it can obscure the fact that it is a proper name. Thus it is possible to say something like “the son of Noah who is the ancestor of the Israelites is name.” That translates rather than transliterates one of the names in the sentence, but what happens when you translate all three names? “The son of rest who is the ancestor of God rules is name.” A sentence like that sounds pretty funny. Even better, the name “Shem” additionally has a range of meaning that could allow for the sentence to read as “The son of rest who is the ancestor of God rules is famous.” That can make for some pretty confusing sentence structure when it isn’t made clear that the meaning of the proper names are being translated. As can be seen, there may be some meaning that is lost without translating the names. That Noah’s major life events happen in numbers divisible by Jubilee years may be significant given that his name means “rest” (Noah becoming a father at 500, the Flood coming when Noah was 600, and how old he was when he died: 950).

Here there is no grand conspiracy on the part of Bible translators to hide truth from people who can only read the Bible in English versions. There is simply no easy way for them to make some decisions about how to render the original languages into English. A choice must be made about what to do with proper names, and it is the consensus of Bible translators that transliterating names is the best option.

That some meaning is always is lost in translation shouldn’t lead people to despair. There is plenty of good scholarship out there that can help people understand more of the meaning behind the words of the Bible. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary is a good example of one such resource. There are Bible dictionaries and various “who’s who in the Bible” books that can help with understanding the meaning and significance of many Biblical names. Aside from resources like that, what I recommend is more of an attitude of humility when reading the Bible. All too often, claims of “Biblical inerrancy” can trick people into thinking that their interpretations are without error. The previous example of the etymology of names in the Bible clearly implies that there is more going on in scripture than is obvious to a casual reading. Meaning can be a bit more complicated. Beyond the problem with names, there are also wordplays and puns in the original languages that can’t always be rendered into English. Some translators, like Everett Fox in particular, have done quite a service in this regard. In his work, Fox has attempted to convey many of those puns and “plays on words” in English (see his fantastic translation of Genesis and Exodus, for example).  Let’s look at another interesting name challenge of Bible translation.

The Shem [name] Conspiracy

          Unfortunately, there is occasionally a dark side to Bible translation. Sometimes the theological biases of the translators have overly influenced the rendering of the original languages into English. The issue of women serving in ministry is not universally agreed upon among the various Christian denominations. In this regard Romans 16:7 is a battleground. There is reference to a woman, “Junia,” who is prominent among the apostles. This is to say that she was an apostle of some significance in the early church. Could it be that women held leadership positions at that time?

Certain denominations do not ordain women, and some go so far as to not even allow a woman to publicly speak to men on religious matters. So what has been done by translators coming from that specific bias against women in ministry with a verse that reads, “Say hello to Andronicus and Junia, my relatives and my fellow prisoners. They are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me?” The 1984 New International Version (NIV) reads, “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Junia, it seems, received a sex reassignment in that translation. To be fair, it isn’t the only English translation that did this, and you may wish to look up the passage in your favored Bible translation. The problem is that there isn’t credible evidence to support the reading of Junias rather than Junia (the fact that the masculine “Junias” is nowhere attested in ancient Greek sources contemporary with the New Testament is a case in point). Certainly a masculine “Junias” does not challenge denominations that do not ordain women, but the feminine “Junia” can pose such a problem.

Bible translation is an ongoing reality, and as the evidence for translating the name as “Junias” has dissolved, other tactics have been employed in the defense of the bias against women being ordained. The English Standard Version (ESV) reads, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.” The maintenance of the gendered term “kinsmen” can still imply that Junia was a man, but it need not necessarily do so. Additionally the phrase “well known to” implies that Andronicus and Junia may not have been apostles at all. The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) reads similarly to the ESV, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow countrymen and fellow prisoners. They are noteworthy in the eyes of the apostles, and they were also in Christ before me.”

On a more positive note, the inheritors of the NIV legacy, when updating the English translation for the Today’s New International Version and later for the 2011 update of the NIV, have the text read, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” One notable feature of the revised NIV text is that the phrase “my fellow Jews” is employed, which is both inclusive and can potentially help mitigate against Christian anti-Semitism by reminding the reader that Paul was a Jew. Of course the updated NIV text also allows for the reading that Junia was in fact an apostle. Lastly, there is the Inclusive Bible, which reads, “…and to Andronicus and Junia, my kin and fellow prisoners; they are outstanding apostles, and they were in Christ even before I was.” Clearly there is no ambiguity there as to what the translators thought about how to render the passage into English.

Of course those publishing houses that produced the ESV and the HCSB translations respectively have also published study Bibles to accompany their respective scripture texts. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they spend some effort in the attempt to justify a reading that eliminates Junia’s status as an apostle (see notes to Romans 16:7 on page 2184 of the ESV Study Bible, and the notes to the same verse on page 1952 of the HCSB Study Bible respectively). If you want a more thoroughgoing examination of this issue that defends Junia’s apostleship you can check out the book, “The Lost Apostle: Searching for the Truth about Junia” by Rena Pederson. What all this means is that Bible translation is not free from bias, and that there are a lot of problems with producing a “literal” translation of the Bible into English.

What about Shem Himself?

          I chose to call this phenomena of Bible translation, like the Junia/Junias controversy already discussed, “the Shem conspiracy” largely due to the fact that the name “Shem” means “name.” There is also something of a Bible translation “conspiracy” with regard to Shem himself. In this case there is uncertainty as to the birth order of Noah’s sons. When you compare the numbers with what the Genesis texts say about the relationship of the brothers there is ambiguity. Some translators and commentators have attempted to resolve this discrepancy in the Hebrew text, but this stretches the evidence farther than the text warrants. We simply don’t have a definitive answer to that question, but it isn’t a matter of any significance for either Jewish or Christian faith. Better to leave the issue open in the hope that perhaps there is another Cairo Geniza or Qumran type of discovery waiting that may perhaps be able to shed more light on the subject, than attempt to arbitrarily resolve the contradictory information.

In Conclusion

          As Biblical scholarship is continually advancing and the needs of the church are ever evolving, there will always be a need for new Bible translations. They will never be perfect, and disciplines like textual criticism engage with variant readings of the original language texts themselves. When I was a Christian bookstore manager, I recommended Bible translations to people based on their backgrounds. If someone identified themselves as Southern Baptist I’d recommend the HCSB, and if someone identified as a Mainline Protestant I’d recommend the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) or the CEB. If you want to be more aware of “conspiracies” like the one above, it would be a good idea to own more than one Bible translation, and even better if you own study Bibles in those versions (see below for some recommendations). If you are really a “glutton for punishment” you can wade through many of agnostic Bible scholar Bart Ehrman’s works (like him or not, he knows his stuff). Personally, I primarily use and wholeheartedly endorse the Common English Bible because I believe it best reflects the two important values of meeting the needs of the church today and utilizing the latest scholarship that has achieved a broad amount of acceptance.


Study Bible Recommendations

CEB – The CEB Study Bible

NRSV – There are a few good NRSV Study Bibles…

–        The New Interpreter’s Study Bible

–        The New Oxford Annotated Bible

–        The HarperCollins Study Bible

NIV – Unfortunately the TNIV and the 1984 NIV Study Bibles are out-of-print, but you may be able to pick them up on the secondary market (at a Half-Price Books bookstore, for example)

–        The NIV Study Bible (this one has the 2011 update text)

ESV – The ESV Study Bible

HCSB – The HCSB Study Bible

The Message by Eugene PetersonThe Message Study Bible

The New Living Translation (NLT) – The NLT Study Bible

By Biblical scholarship standards, the King James Version is obsolete and the language is archaic, so purchasing a study Bible in that translation or the New King James Version is a waste of time if you ask me. It is worth having a copy of the King James Version text in your library though. Other translations are generally not popular enough to make a study Bible recommendation worthwhile in my opinion.


© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

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