Adventures in Bible Translations: Sirach 26:25 and female dogs

You know how there’s the Apocrypha? I mean, have you heard of that? Do you, like, even know what I’m talking about? Here’s the deal: if you’ve ever looked at a “Catholic” Bible, you might have noticed there are extra books inside. You might’ve thought, ‘What’s with these weird books? 1 and 2 Maccabees? What the heck? Tobit? Bel and the Dragon? There’s a dragon??? What is this, the Hobbit? Wisdom of Solomon? What is that? Is it like the sequel to Proverbs? What is going ON here?? I feel like I’m sinning even looking at this.’ at which point you put the Bible down and prayed for forgiveness.

I know that, to a lot of people, the Apocrypha (or the “deuterocanonical” books as Catholic and Orthodox Christians call them) seems like basically the Quran or Book of Mormon. It feels that out of place.

However, early Protestants would not have been strangers to these strange books. Indeed, the earliest Protestant Bible translations included these books. Even the famed King James Version originally contained the Apocrypha. BTW – Cambridge sells a beautiful calfskin edition of the KJV with Apocrypha. It’s expensive, but it will last a lifetime. There are other, more affordable options I’m sure, but that’s a great one to pick up if it is important to you. ISBN # 9781107608078.

The point is this: these books were in the earliest versions of the complete Bible, and, though they were never universally viewed as being canon on quite the same level as the standard 66 books, they were at least viewed as important for gaining wisdom and life advice. They were secondary canon (hence the name deuterocanonicals).

“But Grant, you haven’t even explained why these books were ever put into the Bible in the first place LOL!?!”

Is that a question or a comment? I don’t understand my own satire. Here’s why the Apocrypha ever ended up in the Bible: a couple hundred years before Christ, the Jews were scattered all throughout the Hellenistic world amongst people who spoke Greek as the lingua franca if not as an outright first language. As a result, many eventually lost their grasp of Hebrew and instead spoke Greek.

So, a group of Jewish scholars decided it was necessary to translate the Tanakh (what Christians call the Old Testament) into Greek. There were seventy scholars, so the resulting translation was called the Septuagint. Long story short: the Septuagint, for whatever reason, included the Apocrypha, and though those books weren’t viewed as being on the same level as the rest of the Tanakh (they came after the era of the prophets had ended), they were still being read and used during the time of Christ and the early church (indeed, it seems that some of the New Testament writers might have used the Septuagint as a primary source of scripture. Check out this article on how New Testament quotes of Old Testament passages often make a lot more sense when reading a translation of the Septuagint).

When the church began growing in Roman areas, the need for a Latin translation became paramount, and when Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, he translated the New Testament PLUS the Old Testament as found in the Septuagint (including the Apocrypha), and that became the standard Catholic (and indeed catholic) text until at least Martin Luther. Though Catholics still maintain the same list of books, said list is hardly catholic any longer.

NOTE: the Orthodox church also includes the Apocrypha in its canon. In fact, the Orthodox Apocrypha is more extensive than that of the Catholics! And – some Orthodox denominations hold one or two random books to be canonical that no one else does (including other Orthodox branches). Fun fact: the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church has the largest canon in all of Christendom with about 81 books depending on how you count them. Cray cray. Isn’t this canon stuff wildly interesting? Yes, yes it is.

ANYWAY. I say all that to make sure you know what the Apocrypha is because the rest of this article is about a shocking passage I found in a book in the Apocrypha. Okay, so here’s the whole point of this whole article.

A couple of years ago, I decided to read through Sirach (a book in the Apocrypha that goes by different names: Sirach, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom of Ben Sira) in a month much like I do with Proverbs. It has something like 50 chapters, but I thought I’d be able to knock it out super easily. It wasn’t that easy.

I cracked open my trusty New English Bible and was off to the races. I read and read and read and read and read and read and encountered many bizarre things along the way. However, I encountered nothing more surprising than Sirach 26:25.

Here’s the page as found in my NEB:

Why is half of the font smaller? I don’t get it. Wait, I know – let’s see if there’s an explanation!

Ah okay – I guess this is one of those things where some sources have these verses and others don’t. Let’s see what the verses say just for kicks. La de da de da:

WHOA!!! Hold the fort – that is NOT an okay word! What is that doing in my Bible?? I knew they should never have put this book in the Septuagint, but did they listen to me? No! Nobody ever listens to me!

But seriously, I was really surprised to see that. Of course, the English word “bitch” has a neutral, non-profane definition as “a female dog” (though it is rarely used neutrally these days), and, at first, I tried to rationalize this verse as using the word in a non-profane  manner (similar to how the KJV has the word “ass” all over the place to indicate a donkey). However, the more I looked at it, the more I was struck by the fact that the word is basically being used as people use it today: to indicate a not-nice woman.

Dang.

Knowing that the NEB has some really strange translations, I decided to check the passage in some other translations. Here it is in the New American Bible: Revised Edition (a standard Catholic translation not to be confused with the New American Standard Version):

Geez, there it is again.

Okay, so those are two weird translations*; let’s see what the venerable KJV says:

Okay, see? That’s so much better! Leave it to the Catholics to have the b-word in their heathen translations!!** I knew that a real translation wouldn’t have that word.

But, in all sincerity, the KJV has “dog” instead of “bitch”. Forsooth, those words are almost exactly the same except that “bitch” is highly profane today and indicates female gender. Let’s look at some others to see what they say. How about we run through the translations based on the KJV? Here’s the RV edition:

 

Okay, so the RV doesn’t even include those verses. Fair enough. How about the RSV?

“Dog” again. Okay, so it’s pretty well established that a headstrong wife is regarded as a dog. Since she is female, it would make sense for her to be a female dog, thus the use of “bitch”. Let’s see if the crazy left-socialist fruitcake nutjob*** NRSV has “bitch”; I bet it will if for no other reason than to push some peoples’ buttons:

Nope – “dog” again. Boy, was I wrong! Okay, so what about the new ESV Apocrypha? That’s, like, the newest, most Evangelical edition. I’m guessing it will say “dog” like all the rest:

Bingo.

After looking at all these translations, I began to wonder what the original Greek/Hebrew said (Sirach is believed to have been written in Hebrew and translated to Greek). Since I don’t read Greek or Hebrew and have not Bibles in those languages, I decided to check a couple of Spanish translations that have the Apocrypha because sometimes checking passages in other languages can shed new light on challenging readings. Here’s the passage in the Biblia de Jerusalén:

You know, my Spanish is far from perfect, but I know enough to know that that is the word for a female dog. It’s basically the b-word! But you know what? The Biblia de Jerusalén is a Catholic translation, so I decided to check Dios Habla Hoy, a more ecumenical translation. Here it is:

The plot thickens: this version has the male version of the word “dog”. I wonder if any of my other foreign-language translations can help.

(Checks his French Bible)

Nope, the French Bible Crampon translation doesn’t help; it doesn’t even have the passage. How about my super random An Bíobla Naofa Catholic Irish-language translation? (Checking…) It has the passage! Here’s what it says:

That’s really helpful. I know even less Irish than I do Spanish or French. I do know that madra is the Irish word for “dog”, but I don’t know if there are any indicators to suggest a female dog. BTW I like that this version has the extra verses contained in subtle parentheses.

Okay, so, to recapitulate: this passage undoubtedly says that a headstrong wife will be regarded as a dog, and it’s possible that the correct translation is that she will be regarded as a bitch. I still want to know what the original text said and whether or not the woman is called a female dog, but I won’t have time to look that up before posting this. I will have to solve that mystery at a later date.

In the meantime, since we’ve come this far, why not look at every single translation I have? Here are the rest.

NLT Catholic Edition:

The Douay Rheims (the classic Catholic English translation similar in stature to the KJV) doesn’t have it. It should be in the highlighted box. Also, I like the word huckster:

The Knox Translation (another Catholic translation) makes mention of the extra verses without including them. Interesting:

What about the REB, the revision of the NEB? It often softens a lot of the wacky elements of the NEB:

Well I will be a monkey’s uncle – it has “bitch”. Huh.

Here’s the Jerusalem Bible (the English version of the above-shown Biblia de Jerusalén):

Now this is interesting; where the Spanish Jerusalem Bible says “perra” (or “bitch”), the English just says dog. Also, this version’s footnote suggests that some Latin versions have the passages. I’m bemused; I guess I thought this passage was exclusively found in Greek or Hebrew manuscripts. Whatever.

Here’s the GNT:

That’s a great illustration of the bold look of an unfaithful wife, and there’s the b-word.

Here’s the CEB:

Do you see the “LXX” in the oval at the bottom? That is the abbreviation for Septuagint, and the footnote seems to indicate that the extra verses are from the LXX (and not any other sources). In that case, why did the Jerusalem Bible reference the Latin? I’m guessing that the Latin must include these verses, and the JB mentions that because the Latin translation is of critical importance in Catholicism. Oh, that reminds me: I have a Latin Bible for some reason! Let’s take a look at it to see what it says:

Bo-ring. It doesn’t even have the passage. What in the world is the Jerusalem Bible talking about?

Here’s the CEV:

It says dog.

Okay, so I have one more to look at (actually, I have another Spanish translation, but I don’t think I’ll have a scan of that one because I don’t want to walk into the other room right now. I also have two other English translations, but they don’t even have the passage, so I’m not going to mess with them). This is the Orthodox Study Bible, a modern translation straight from the Septuagint! This is bound to be GREAT! Let’s take a look:

Lame – it doesn’t even have it! For some reason, this version of chapter 26 only goes to verse 20. Odd.

Okay, so that’s it; we’ve looked at a lot of Bible translations, some with the b-word and some without. So what’s the point? I guess the main takeaway is that we should start calling women the b-word and justify it by saying “It’s in the BIBLE LOOOOOOL!!”

No. I am just kidding. Please know that I am kidding.

In the end, other than the simple shock value of seeing “bitch” in the Bible (or, at least in the Apocrypha), I am reminded that we lose important information and/or feeling in translation if we avoid certain words because we are scared of causing offense or because words fall into disuse (see this article I wrote about how I was misunderstanding a passage in Luke because of the disuse of classic English 2nd-person pronouns). For example, the passages that describe the woman as a “dog”, though insulting in theory, aren’t really that powerful because NObody gets upset for being called a dog. In fact, it’s a term of endearment many times. What’s up, dawg??

But seeing “bitch” – with that word, there is no getting around the power of that passage. So, let’s agree to translate the texts as they are, not as we would like them to be. I think it would do us a lot of good.

Okay, that’s it. On to the next wild Adventure in Bible Translations…

*not really, though; the NABRE is pretty similar to many major Protestant translations
**the NEB is not a Catholic translation
***Jkjkjkjk

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