On biblical translations: “what is lacking” vs. “the number of fools”

Scholasticism was the system of theology and philosophy taught in medieval European universities, based on Aristotelian logic and the writings of the early Christian Fathers, and emphasising tradition and dogma.

Humanism was a Renaissance cultural movement which turned away from medieval scholasticism and revived interest in ancient Greek and Roman thought. The fundamental feature of Renaissance Humanism is summed up in the concept of ad fontes, a Latin expression meaning to the sources. It epitomises the renewed study of Greek and Latin classics in Renaissance Humanism.

Similarly, the Protestant Reformation called for renewed attention to the Bible as the primary source of Christian faith.

The idea in both cases was that sound knowledge depends on the earliest and most fundamental sources, whether classical or biblical.

In particular, the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus (circa 1469-1536) was the foremost Renaissance scholar of northern Europe, and paved the way for the Reformation. In 1516, he produced Novum Instrumentum, including the first published edition of the Greek text of the New Testament, accompanied by a revision of the traditional Latin New Testament and by his annotations explaining how in specific passages, study of the Greek text clarified the meaning of the Latin text. The second edition of 1519 was used by Martin Luther in making his German translation of the New Testament.


There can be some astonishing differences between the biblical texts belonging to the scholastic tradition and those belonging to the humanist movement. For example, in the Authorised (King James) Version (1611), the Book of Ecclesiastes, 1:15, is:

That which is crooked, cannot bee made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbred.

But, in the Douay-Rheims Bible (which belongs to the scholastic tradition), this verse is:

(1635 edition)
The perverse are hardly [= hard to be] corrected, and the number of fools is infinite.

The Douay-Rheims Bible is the foundation on which nearly all English Catholic versions are still based. This translation of the Bible into English from the Latin Vulgate was chiefly made by Gregory Martin (circa 1542-1582), an Oxford-trained scholar working in the circle of English Catholic exiles on the Continent. It appeared in France, the New Testament at Rheims (now spelt Reims) in 1582, and the Old Testament at Douay (Douai) in 1609.

The Douay-Rheims translation of Ecclesiastes, 15:1, corresponds to the Latin text of the Vulgate:

(1994 edition)
perversi difficile corriguntur et stultorum infinitus est numerus

The Vulgate, completed in 405, is the Latin version of the Bible produced by the doctor of the Church St Jerome (circa 342-420) partly by translating the original languages and partly by revising the earlier Latin text. It was recognised as authoritative during the Council of Trent (1546) and became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church.

But a distinctively Reformed Latin translation of the Old Testament, the Tremellius-Junius Bible, was published in 1579. In this Latin Bible, the verse is:

Perversum non posse corrigi, & defectum non posse in numerum venire.

(The verse in the Authorised (King James) Version corresponds to this new Latin translation.)

Franciscus Junius (François du Jon – 1545-1602) was a Reformed scholar and theologian. The Hebraist Immanuel Tremellius (Giovanni Emmanuele Tremellio – 1510-80) was an Italian Jewish convert to Christianity. Their translation was very influential on Reformed principles. The Tremellius-Junius Old Testament was often paired with the 1556 Latin translation of the New Testament made by the French Protestant theologian Theodore Beza (Théodore de Bèze – 1519-1605).

During the reign (1553-58) of Mary I, a number of Protestant scholars fled from England to Geneva, where the French Protestant theologian John Calvin (1509-64) and, later, Theodore Beza, provided the primary spiritual and theological leadership. Among these scholars was William Whittingham (circa 1524-1579), who supervised the English translation of the Bible known as the Geneva Bible (1557-60). In this translation, the verse from Ecclesiastes is:

(1560 edition)
That which is croked, can none make straight: & that wͨ [= which] faileth, cā not be nōbred.

A marginal note explains the verse:

Man is not able by all his diligence to cause things to go other wise then [= than] thei do nether [= neither] can he nombre the fautes that are committed, muche lesse remedie them.

In 1862, the Scottish biblical scholar Robert Young (1822-88) produced an extremely literal translation of the Bible that attempts to preserve the tense and word usage as found in the original Greek and Hebrew writings. In Young’s Literal Translation, the verse is:

A crooked thing [one] is not able to make straight, and a lacking thing is not able to be numbered.

Cf. also The meaning of ‘temptation’ in the Lord’s Prayer.

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