Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Case of the Missing Nun (נ)

Not all variations in Bible translations invite theological debate. Using different synonyms for certain words, for instance, are certainly acceptable providing the English usages adequately reflect legitimate meanings inherent in the original words. Other translation differences, however, are more striking and demand explanations even if the theology poses no difficulties. Psalm 145:13 illustrates this type of translation variation.

At the present time the New International Version (NIV) Bible is prominent among evangelical Christians. One can count on its presence in church and Bible studies. Also one can count on the appearance of the missing nun (נ), which may cause some consternation.

In the New American Standard Bible (NASB),and many other translations, Psalm 145:13 reads, “Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, And Thy dominion endures throughout all generations.” The NIV reads, “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations. The LORD is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made.” One can easily see that the NIV in this verse is twice as long as the NASB.

The footnote found in the NIV reads, “This psalm is an acrostic poem, the verses of which (including verse 13b) begin with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.” Of the 22 Hebrew letters, in this Psalm only 21 are represented in the Hebrew Bible. The question naturally arises, “Has the transmission of the text accidentally or intentionally omitted the verse beginning with the letter nun?”

The textual apparatus of the Hebrew Bible gives the absent nun text as well as the manuscript support for reinserting it into the text: insert the nun strophe to agree with one Hebrew manuscript, the Septuagint, and the Syriac manuscripts. Compare verse 17 (my translation of the apparatus note). Upon comparing verses 13 and 17 it is easy to see that only the first word differs. Verse 17 begins with the tsade (צ) letter of the Hebrew alphabet (צַדִּיק, “righteous”), and the disputed text (13b) begins with the word “faithful” (נֶאֱמַן), producing a verse beginning with the letter nun ((נ)). After the first word in these two verses the texts are exactly the same.

What happened in the manuscript transmission of Psalm 145:13 is unknown. The Psalmist may not have included a nun verse; or the copyists may have inadvertently dropped the nun text out; or the copyists may have intentionally dropped out the nun text, although this is highly unlikely since there is no apparent reason why the text would be considered unsuitable.

But, evaluation must be done since the English Bibles differ on this verse and people will want some answer for this very-visible difference. First, the fact that the poem is intentionally acrostic favors an inadvertent omission. Although it is not unique to discover a missing letter in an acrostic poem (cp. Psalm 25, et al), the intent of the author surely began with the idea of representing each of the 22 Hebrew letters. Second, repetition is a common poetic feature so that the similarities between verses 13 and 17 are not unique. Third, the contents of the debated portion fits admirably both with verse 13b and 17, The LORD is
[ faithful/righteous] to all his promises and loving toward all he has made

Based tentatively on the above evaluation, the longer reading of verse 13 should be granted legitimacy. The only theological addition to the poem is an emphasis on God’s faithfulness. Surely no one can find fault with this inclusion!