Examining Translations of Genesis 1:1 in relation to Genesis 1:1–3 (Part Six)

In previous postings, I have examined three reasons commonly-advanced for favoring the two alternative translations to the traditional rendering of Gen. 1:1 as an absolute beginning (“In-the-beginning God created the-heavens [or heaven] and-the-earth). The arguments are based on grammar, style, and theology. In each instance I indicated why the arguments are not fully persuasive. In this post, I’ll address yet another area of inquiry: historical precedence in translation. This fourth area in my opinion tips the probability scales decidedly in favor of the traditional rendering of Gen. 1:1 as a grammatically independent statement, indicating an absolute beginning. 

The traditional interpretation of an absolute beginning has strong historical precedence in its favor. The earliest translation, the second-century B.C. Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), understood Gen. 1:1 as an absolute beginning: “In the beginning [Ἐν ἀρχῇEn archē] God made the heaven and the earth” (my translation). The Gospel of John likewise indirectly endorses an absolute beginning in a clear echoing of Gen. 1:1 in John 1:1, 3: “In the beginning [Ἐν ἀρχῇEn archēwas the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . 3 All things came into existence through him . . .” (my translation). Here the author clearly reworks Gen. 1:1 with Christ-centered content in the light of the ‘Incarnation’ (cf. John 1:14). (This is something that other New Testament authors do similarly: see Col. 1:16 and Heb. 1:2.) Aquila, mid-second century (ca. A.D. 140) Jewish rival translation to the Septuagint, rendered Gen. 1:1 absolutely, as a kind of introductory summary statement: “In summation [Ἐν κεφάλαίῳEn kephalaiō] God created [or founded] the heaven and the earth (my translation). {It is interesting to observe that Aquila represented the Hebrew [untranslatable] object markers [אֵתēt] of Gen. 1:1 with the Greek preposition σύν ([synnormally meaning “with”). {The Hebrew object marker is spelled the same way as preposition with.

Standard Hebrew lexicons distinguish between אֵת [ētI [an object marker] and אֵת [ētII [preposition].} Theodotion’s mid-2nd century translation and Symmachus’s late second century (A.D.) rendering followed the wording of Septuagint, as did Origen’s Hexapla (ca. A.D. 240). {The Hexapla was a sixcolumn compilation by the Alexandrian church father, Origen [ca. 185–ca. 254]. The six columns consisted of [1] the Hebrew consonantal text of the Old Testament, [2] a transliteration of it into Greek characters, and four Greek translations in the following order: [3] Aquila [2nd cent. A.D.], [4] Symmachus [late 2nd cent. A.D.][5] the text of the Septuagint [2nd cent. B.C.], along with editorial notes, and [6] Theodotion (mid 2nd cent. A.D.]. The term Hexapla, incidentally, is a transliteration of the Greek wordἙξαπλᾶ, meaning “six-fold.}  

The Aramaic Targums likewise attest the traditional rendering. {As noted in a previous post, targums were interpretive Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures for the benefit of Aramaic-speaking Jews.} The earliest, the third-century (A.D.) Targum Onkelos reads, “In-the-beginning [בְּקַדְמִיןbeqadmîn] the LORD created the heavens and the earth” (my translation). The fourth-century (A.D.) (Aramaic) Targum Pseudo-Jonathan offered, “At the-beginning [מן אוולאmin ’avvlâ’] God created the heavens and the earth” (my translation). The fourth-century (A.D.) Latin Vulgate adopted the absolute rendering too: “In the beginning [In principioGod created the heaven and the earth” (my translation). The similarly-datedAramaic Targum Neofiti, an expansive paraphrase, reflects this understanding too: From the beginning [מלקדמיןmlqdmyn] with wisdom the Memra [= Word] of the Lord created and perfected the heavens and the earth” (The Aramaic BibleTargum Neofiti 1: Genesis, trans. Martin McNamara, vol. 1A [Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992], Gen. 1:1.). 

In terms of English translation, as mentioned already in a previous post, the absolute rendering of Gen. 1:1 was adopted by the 1599 Geneva Bible (“In the beginning God created ”). The influential King James Version (1611/1769) followed this translation too. It was later adopted by several 19th century English translations like The Webster Bible (1833)The Darby Bible (1884/1890), English Revised Version (1885), and The Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition. The vast majority of early (e.g., JPS 1917), mid (e.g., RSV), and late century English versions (e.g., NASB, JB, NJB, NKJV, NIV 1984, NET, NASB 95, NLT, CJB, et al.) followed this translation. Several early 21st century versions do so as well (e.g., TNIV, ESV, HCSB, NIV 2011, LEB, CSB). There is plenty of justification for this rendering.

Our examination of three previous interrelated lines of inquiry—grammar, style, and theology—has indicated that the arguments on behalf of the two alternatives to the traditional rendering of Gen. 1:1 are lacking in persuasiveness. When this finding is coupled with our fourth line of inquiry—that is, historical precedence in translation—the probability scales become weighted heavily in favor of the traditional view that Gen. 1:1 agrammatically independent statement and hence an absolute beginning. Yet, while I do not find either of the leading alternatives preferable to the traditional interpretation and translation of Gen. 1:1, we can nonetheless appreciate the willingness of commentators and translation committees to pursue alternative translation options for the opening lines of Genesis. For such commentators and committees encourage readers to reflect more thoroughly on the meaning of the opening lines of Genesis than would otherwise be the case. And that is always welcome!  

James P. Sweeney, Ph.D.
J. Russell Bucher Professor of New Testament
Director of the Master of Divinity Program