Book – A Commonly Perpetuated Mistranslation

In my recent reading, I have come across a commonly occurring mistranslation of the Hebrew of the Old Testament. It involves the word ספר (sorry, have not figured out how to add vowels without creating problems). This word is commonly translated “book” as in the NRSV, ESV, NASB, NIV, and KJV renderings of Deut. 30.10, i.e. “book of the law.” The problem is that this word does not mean “book”; it means “scroll.”

One might not think that this mistranslation is significant; however, it seems to me that this would affect one’s overall views concerning the Hebrew Bible. A “book” sounds like something that is readily accessible and handy. If one wants to find out something in a “book,” one can simply open up and flip to the correct numbered page. A “scroll,” however, must be unrolled. And, there are no “pages”; it is just one scroll. One’s view moves from handy and accessible to not readily accessible and likely unrolled and read in the context of a community if the word is translated “scroll.” One word can make a great deal of difference.

Having studied cognitive linguistics, it is hard for me to imagine that modern readers would encounter “book of the law” and not have a modern image of a book activated in their minds, unless they had some explicit background instruction on what this word means in the context of the Ancient Near East. The only translations I found that get this issue correct are the NET Bible and the LEXHAM Hebrew-English Interlinear.

If you are interested in learning more about ancient “books,” consider taking this audio course on the Dead Sea Scrolls:

Modern Scholar DSS