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Why are there different translations of the very first words of Genesis?

Why are there different translations of the very first words of Genesis?

William Blake's Creation of the World
William Blake’s Creation of the World

Q. What is the correct vocalization and translation of the first word of the Hebrew Bible in Gen 1:1?

A. Hi. I’m Chris Hooker. I’m the font coordinator for the Society of Biblical Literature. Today’s question comes from a user of the Bible Odyssey website who would like to know why the vocalization of the first word in Hebrew was changed and what the relationship is between Gen 1:1 and the verses that follow.

At issue here is whether or not the first word in Hebrew contains a definite article, the equivalent of the word “the” in English. The Masoretic vocalization, bereshit, does not contain a definite article. But rather than regarding the Masoretes as having changed the text here, most scholars prefer the Masoretic vocalization for several reasons. One, it is difficult to understand why a scribe would have changed the text to remove the definite article and make it more difficult. According to textual criticism, this more difficult reading is preferable. So text critics prefer the reading without the definite article. Likewise, other ancient versions like the Septuagint and Origen’s transliteration of the Hebrew also preserve the tradition that lacks a definite article. So most scholars regard that as the preferable reading.

In terms of the relationship between Gen 1:1 and the verses that follow, one may notice that various English translations treat these versions differently. For example, the New International Version and the King James Version treat Gen 1:1 as an independent clause (“In the beginning God created…”), while the New Revised Standard Versions and the New Jewish Publication Society version treat Gen 1:1 as a dependent clause (“When God began to create…”). The issues that cause scholars to understand the grammar and syntax differently are too many to describe here in any sort of detail, but I encourage you to look to the resources listed at the bottom of this page for more information about this discussion.

Thanks for your question and for your interest in Bible Odyssey.

  • Christopher Hooker

    Christopher Hooker is the font coordinator for the Society of Biblical Literature and a PhD candidate in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary.