The Bible Does­n’t Say That: 40 Bib­li­cal Mis­trans­la­tions, Mis­con­cep­tions, and Oth­er Misunderstandings

  • Review
By – February 29, 2016

The most reprint­ed book in the his­to­ry of the world, read and reread by mil­lions each year, the Bible con­tin­ues to inspire the lives of many. Nev­er­the­less, many of its core ideas are misunderstood.

Joel Hoffman’s new book, The Bible Doesn’t Say That: 40 Bib­li­cal Mis­trans­la­tions, Mis­con­cep­tions, and Oth­er Mis­un­der­stand­ings, seeks to clar­i­fy some of the thorni­est mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tions, which the author sug­gests are the prod­ucts of igno­rance, acci­dent, cul­ture gap, mis­trans­la­tion, and mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion.” Hoff­man, who has authored two oth­er books on bib­li­cal inter­pre­ta­tion, uses his third book on the Bible to tack­le sub­jects in both the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and the New Tes­ta­ment — such as evo­lu­tion, Jesus’s death, keep­ing kosher, and homosexuality.

Each chap­ter of The Bible Doesn’t Say That is devot­ed to an expla­na­tion of a bib­li­cal idea and involves a close read­ing of the text as well as par­al­lels to con­tem­po­rary life. For exam­ple, a chap­ter on slav­ery wres­tles with what might appear to be the Bible’s sup­port of this insti­tu­tion. Hoff­man cites the sto­ry of George Wash­ing­ton and the cher­ry tree, con­tend­ing that just as we would nev­er sug­gest that this sto­ry advo­cates emu­lat­ing Washington’s destruc­tion of cher­ry trees, so should we not assume that the Hebrew Bible’s dis­cus­sion of slav­ery indi­cates an endorse­ment of the insti­tu­tion. On the con­trary, this Bible’s var­ied state­ments on slav­ery most like­ly sug­gest that slav­ery was rec­og­nized as a real­i­ty of the times, which required rules to pre­vent it from going unchecked. In the New Tes­ta­ment, state­ments about slav­ery exist for sim­i­lar reasons.

In anoth­er chap­ter, Hoff­man con­sid­ers the ori­gin and pro­nun­ci­a­tion of God’s name. To do this, the chap­ter takes the read­er through a brief his­to­ry of the devel­op­ment of the Hebrew alpha­bet, con­clud­ing that the four-let­ter name for God (tech­ni­cal­ly called the tetra­gram­ma­ton) is a col­lec­tion of Hebrew vow­els, the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of which is impos­si­ble to deter­mine. How­ev­er, mis­un­der­stand­ing of Hebrew gram­mar led to the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey as Yah­weh, and ulti­mate­ly led to its Ger­man pro­nun­ci­a­tion as Jeho­vah. The Jew­ish tra­di­tion side­stepped this error by assign­ing pro­nounc­ing Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey as Ado-nai. 

The Bible Doesn’t Say That chal­lenges the read­er to think dif­fer­ent­ly about many of the Bible’s core ideas. The book’s greater mes­sage — which is that the Bible must be read in con­so­nance with the times in which it was writ­ten and with sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the nuances of its orig­i­nal lan­guage — is Hoffman’s most pow­er­ful point. Despite his aca­d­e­m­ic back­ground, the author writes in an acces­si­ble style that requires only an open mind and will­ing­ness to chal­lenge long-held assump­tions. A read­er comes away under­stand­ing that while some of our mis­con­cep­tions about the Bible are rel­a­tive­ly minor, oth­er mis­con­cep­tions have led to sig­nif­i­cant mis­un­der­stand­ings, and even con­flict, between peo­ple of faith.

Relat­ed Content:

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

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