Contemporary Units of Measurement in Bible Translations

| | Comments (13)

There are those who think there's something immoral about translating the measurements in the Bible into contemporary units (e.g. miles or gallons). They claim that it's anachronistic, because the writer of the passage wouldn't have had a clue what a pound or an inch is. I can accept this argument with respect to passages where the numeric values are clearly symbolic, as in the temple measurements in Revelation. Translations that remove that by using contemporary units and thus different numbers are removing a key enough feature of the text that it's worth keeping the original values and units. But some people think it's changing the Bible to use contemporary units anywhere.

When I was reading Andrew Hill's commentary on Chronicles, it occurred to me that the Chronicler does exactly the thing such people spend so much effort calling evil. He translates units used in the early Kings text into the Persian units of his own day. People who make this claim are almost all inerrantists. If they were to remain consistent, they would have to admit that the Chronicler was inspired by God to do something they think is immoral, and thus they'd have to give up inerrancy, at least about Chronicles, or give up their view that this kind of translation is always bad.

I came across an oblique reference to this while scanning my file of unblogged things that I've thought about blogging, but I don't have any references. I thought it was an interesting enough point that I figured it deserved a blog entry, even if I couldn't remember what part of the book this occurred in.


You are absurdly organized if you have a list of Unblogged Things.

I like the TNIV but I wished they would have used contempoary measurements.

Rey, it's just a text file where I save URLs or quick thoughts that I don't have time to write up but hope to get to when I get a chance. Most of the file is stuff I'll never get to, and occasionally I'll look back deeper into it. Yesterday I wanted something I could submit to the Christian Carnival and didn't have anything non-political (the host won't include politics because of how he interprets his non-profit status), so I quickly scanned through and found this several-line reference to Hill that I'd never followed through on. I wouldn't call it hugely-organized, though. It's a pretty haphazard method of trying to maintain a blog despite only having small snippets of time most days to write anything.

Jay, I don't mind either way. The TNIV method is fine, as long as there are footnotes giving the other. I'm happy with either, as long as both sets of information are there. You need measurements you can understand, so you need contemporary units, and you need the originals in case there's a point to the exact numbers. A good translation will have a policy decision of which goes in the text and why and then put the other in footnotes. What I don't like is any translation that only gives half the information, and I don't really agree with seeing either choice on this issue as bad translation, certainly not as perverting the word of God.

I'm with you ... I don't think that there's anything wrong with converting hin, cubits, and such into units that would mean something to current readers ... if you're translating something, the point is to have it understood.

By the way ... doesn't everybody have a list of unblogged things?

From what I've been able to find, you're probably thinking of II Chronicles 3:3, which parallels I Kings 6:2. If so, the Chronicler is doing just the opposite of what you're suggesting. He keeps the numbers the same and informs his readers that he's using cubits of the old standard. Ezekiel also makes mention of a different cubit (40:5; 43:13). If this is the same length as that used in Kings, then the cubit used during the exile had shrunk by about a handbreadth.

Rey, I use Google Notebook to jot down random ideas that would be useful for later blogging, so Jeremy's list doesn't sound that strange to me (and I'm not that organized).

Kevin, that's not it. This was an instance of the Chronicler using Persian units, I believe. At least that's what Hill was saying. Maybe I'll have to flip through Hill's commentary to see if I can find it, but I don't have access to it for the next several days.

I would be interested in knowing just where that is. Unless, I've overlooked one, all of the measurement units used in Chronicles also occur in Kings. Concerning your main point, I pretty much agree. Although I do have to admit a preference for having the original units in the text, I don't see any justification for making this an imperative (symbolic numbers excepted). While concern over anachronisms may be an issue for those who object to translating into contemporary units, it is not the chief one. If there are those who believe such translations are immoral based on this reason alone, their argument is pretty weak. The main objection against substituting 75,000 pounds for 1000 talents is that this isn't what the text actually says. The example you gave concerning the Chronicler, that “He translates units used in the early Kings text into the Persian units of his own day,” would not meet with the same objection. In this case, he is merely using Kings as a source text and then explaining what the units mean. He is not presenting a new translation of the Kings text itself.

You are right that almost all people making this claim of immorality are inerrantists, but there's more to it than that. [I consider myself an inerrantist, even though I acknowledge the existence of corruptions in some of the currently available manuscripts.] It goes to a rather elementary understanding of language and the role of syntax in translation. How many monolingual people, do you suppose, are there who believe that fluency in any given language will come as the result of mere word substitution? If each word is the object of inspiration, rather than what those words together mean, then the most moral translation is that which renders the individual words. And a pound is not a talent.

I'm studying 1 Samuel 17 right now for sermon preparation. I agree with you that giving me the 5000 shekel weight for Goliath's chain mail armor and 600 shekels for his spear head does not really make me feel all that afraid of him. Telling me that his chain mail armor was 125 to 150 lb, I know that is pretty heavy and I could not fight anyone if I was wearing that. I think the original human writer clearly wanted the reader (listener) to sense just how threatening this guy was, not stand in awe of the accuracy of the measurements. Talking about accuracy of the measurement there are two points we should remember. I assume the six cubits and a span measurement of Goliath's height is not accurate to the fraction of the inch but simply telling us generally how tall he was. I'm not saying it was inaccurate, but there is no sense that they were trying to conform to modern standards of modern measuring systems. Most of us today do not really wish to tell people our own height to the fraction of the inch. The other point about the measurements is that we do not know which shekel or cubit is being used in in some cases. So translating in the text by using a modern unit assumes we have a sufficient academic knowledge to say exactly what the measurement was. I'm not always convinced that we do. For that reason, I sort of like the modern unit of measurement put into the footnote. I suppose if you put the modern unit in the text and the ancient unit in the foot note I would be happy with that also. I think this position is close to what you propose. Looking up the shekel each time you get to it in a Bible dictionary would be tiresome but having a most likely unit of measure feed in a way that suggests accuracy beyond what is academically possible might not always be the most helpful.

Kevin, I can't help you with specifics until I get access to my commentary again, which will still be a couple more days.

You're right that the fundamental issue behind the complaint I'm criticizing is this view that translation can only be accurate if you focus on the level of words rather than larger units. It's this mindset that I think lies behind most criticisms of dynamic equivalence translations, and it is indeed hopelessly ignorant when it comes to the linguistic issues.

The reason I mentioned inerrancy is because the people making this argument are inerrantists, and that means they have to accept the Chronicler as divinely-inspired. So when he updates the language of Kings, he does so in an inspired way even though he isn't giving the actual words of the original text or the actual currency being used.

Terry, this is an issue of precision, not accuracy. It's 100% accurate given the level of precision that the author uses. Something can be fully without error while rounding off. You can't be fully precise anyway without giving ridiculous decimal expansions, which ancient Hebrew didn't even have. When the Chronicler estimates pi as a ratio of 3 to 1, it's fully accurate at the level of precision that it's using (which is the level of the closest whole number).

Kevin, it took me a few minutes to find it, but I've got it. It's I Chronicles 29:7. Here is Hill's paragraph on this:

The term daric (29:7) is a Persian loanword. The daric was a Persian coin in use at the time of the Chronicler's writing. The use of anachronism was an intentional practice at times on the part of ancient historians. This literary device allows the writer to bring greater clarity to a report by updating a later audience with contemporary equivalents. Today Bible translators often employ the same approach in expressing ancient measures in terms of modern equivalents. For example, the biblical measure of distances between sites is typically rendered in contemporary equivalents (cf. Luke 24:13 [NIV], where "sixty stadia" = "seven miles").

So I was right in remembering it as Persian. I'd forgotten that it was a Persian coin, though.

Thanks. I see how I missed it: I used a translation that did not write out the numbers to scan for instances of measurement. It also put them into contemporary units and, in this case, combined the talents and darics. This obviously stands as an example that anachronisms aren't always bad. Nevertheless, since it is not an example of translating anything from the earlier Kings text, how does it answer the charge that translating the biblical text anachronistically is immoral? It might for those whose objection is located solely in the anachronism itself; it will not for those whose objection is to changing the text. We've already touched on the linguistic issues involved in translating.

What it shows is that it's not immoral to represent a measured amount in terms of a different measure than the one that was actually used, and I think this is a particularly compelling case, because no daric coins were actually present. Yet the inspired author can say it, and it can be true. So inerrantists have no business claiming that it would be inaccurate to translate a text with contemporary units. This example shows that inerrantists have to accept the basic principle behind that as a principle that at least one biblical author uses.

Leave a comment


    The Parablemen are: , , and .



Books I'm Reading

Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently

Books I've Been Referring To

I've Been Listening To

Games I've Been Playing

Other Stuff


    thinking blogger
    thinking blogger

    Dr. Seuss Pro

    Search or read the Bible

    Example: John 1 or love one another (ESV)

  • Link Policy
Powered by Movable Type 5.04