x = x – 1

I said that in Biblical mathematics, 2=3, but this actually has more to do with cultural presuppositions and translation. More generally, the rule is that x=x-1 if you go from Hebrew to English, and x=x+1 if you go from English to Hebrew.

What I am saying is that the Bible uses inclusive counting as was common in the ancient world and as it is still used in many parts of the non-Western world today. We in the Western world use exclusive counting.

Let me start with an example from Act 7:8:

RSV: And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day.

NET: and so he became the father of Isaac and circumcised him when he was eight days old,

GNB: So Abraham circumcised Isaac a week after he was born

Of these translations, only GNB is correct in English. RSV is ambiguous, unclear and unnatural. If the boy is born on a Monday, he must be circumcised on a Monday, 7 days later. If he is a born on a Sabbath, he must be circumcised on a Sabbath.  In the Bible the date of birth is counted as day 1, the following day as day 2, etc.

I discovered this by accident one day in a town in Africa, when I asked someone for directions to a specific bank. He told me: Turn left on the third street and you will see it. So, I proceeded to the third street and turned left. I went all the way down the street, but there was no bank. So I turned left at the other end and went up the second street, and sure enough, there was the bank. Then it dawned on me. We had been standing on a street corner, and to the local person the street we were standing at was the first street, but stupid as I was, I only started counting from the next street. To me, the street I was at was considered to be street zero.

This topic has been covered in the UBS publication The Bible Translator (TBT 30 [3]: 340-343) and also in Notes on Translation (no. 108, 1985). The idea can be shown/proven from many passages in the Bible, but probably the most decisive is Lev 23:15-16:

NIV: From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath.

The starting day is Sunday and the closing day is Sunday, 7 weeks later. This is a period of 49 days, but since you count the starting day as day 1, you reach to 50 when you arrive at the closing day.

This inclusive counting is always used and that is why on the third day corresponds to two days later in normal English (and Danish).

There is a more tricky expression, namely for three days and three nights. The problem is that when you count inclusively, say, three days from Friday to Sunday, there can only be two nights in between. So, we are dealing with a Hebrew idiom here that most people get very confused about, because a literal translation in English is utterly misleading. In Hebrew tradition, it is very important to say more or less the same thing twice. It sounds better to say three days and three nights than three days and two nights. Likewise, Moses was on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights, just as it rained during the flood for 40 days and 40 nights, and Elijah travelled 40 days and 40 nights and Jesus was tempted in the wildernes for 40 days and 40 nights. To a modern, scientifically focused mind, it is difficult to understand that both of these expression refer to 40 days, day and night, or 40 days with the intervening nights or, to be exact: 40 days and 39 nights. No English Bible translation has as yet recognized and dealt with the problem, as far as I know. The whole expression is an idiom and must be understood as an idiom where the sum of the meaning of the words does not add up to the meaning of the idiom as a whole.

I think that is enough mathematics for now.

29 thoughts on “x = x – 1

  1. David Ker says:

    Terrific. This truly is a translation headache. In our part of Africa, Monday is “Second Fair” in Portuguese, and “The First” in Nyungwe. My wife and I have a long standing disagreement over whether Sunday or Monday is the first day of the week (I say Monday and I’m right of course).

  2. iverlarsen says:

    No, Jesus was killed Friday morning around 9 a.m. and was placed in the tomb late on Friday afternoon. The Jews also counted any part of a day as a whole day. Sunday was the third day.

  3. WoundedEgo says:

    But Jesus was already risen before dawn on Saturday:

    Mt 28:1 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.

    How does that add up to three days?

  4. Micah Schmidt says:

    Wounded Ego:
    The Jewish Sabbath lasted from Friday sundown to Sunday daybreak, just to make sure.
    Sunday is the third day if Friday is the first day, based on iverlarsen has stated.

  5. Peter Kirk says:

    Iver, when I saw this post title I thought you were going to look at the kind of parallelism found in Proverbs 30:15,18,24,29 etc. Do you have any comment on the strange Hebrew arithmetic in these places?

  6. Bill says:

    Actually, “on the eighth day” is perfectly reasonable in English, and a better translation. To remove all chance of ambiguity, a footnote could say “one week later”.

    We all deal with this when we say we’re gonna “go on three”, and then someone has to clarify “Do you mean ‘1,2,3,go’ or ‘1,2,go’?” Likewise on when does the decade begin – you’re never going to get 100% agreement on that – my point being that I think (at least in English/Western culture) we’re used to flexibility in counting.

    Also, Jr. High math teachers talk about the difference between the “Counting Numbers” {1,2,3,…} and the “Whole Numbers” {0,1,2,…}. We can handle it.

  7. Gary Simmons says:

    Bill, it wasn’t ambiguous to the original readers, so it shouldn’t be rendered ambiguously for us.

    Oh and side note: we do use inclusive counting in America: first floor, second floor, third floor. As opposed to the European exclusive: ground floor, first floor, second floor.

  8. Mike Sangrey says:

    Today is Monday. So, exactly when is next Wednesday?

    Ok, ok. Next question. Say today is Thursday. Now, when is next Wednesday?

    For me the first question is answered by a Wednesday that is a week and half away. The second question is a Wednesday six days (well, ummmm…about six days 🙂 ) later.

    The meaning of a specific instance of counting is intriguing because of it’s simplicity. Somehow or other I think we confuse simplicity with literalness.

    Thank you Iver for this posting. This translation issue of inclusive versus exclusive counting is a very good, concrete example of the large question of how to accurately transfer meaning from one language to another.

    It also underscores two other issues:
    1. The extensive misunderstanding that surrounds the inaccurate exegesis and the resulting translations of such texts. The discussion of “when did Jesus die” has been going on for centuries.

    2. The significant difficulty translators have in translating accurately and clearly without subverting their intent by being the catalyst for controversy. The enigma a translator is up against is if he/she were to produce a translation which was clear, accurate and natural, everyone would find a significant issue with it.

    The precision of mathematics brings these issues to the fore.

  9. iverlarsen says:

    WoundedEgo said:
    But Jesus was already risen before dawn on Saturday:

    Mt 28:1 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.

    How does that add up to three days?

    You are quoting from the KJV which is quite unclear.
    NIV: After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week,
    NLT: Early on Sunday morning, as the new day was dawning,

    This was probably Sunday morning after the Sabbath had ended at sunset on Saturday. There is some dispute about the meaning of the Greek word ἐπιφώσκω (dawning or “dusking”) so a few scholars believe that the visit here took place Saturday evening followed by another visit Sunday morning.

  10. iverlarsen says:

    Hi, Peter,

    The Hebrew arithmetic in Proverbs is a different topic but an interesting translation challenge. I see it as a rhetorical device which is intended to emphasize the second of the two numbers. Sort of: There are three things, no, really there are four things: a,b,c,d. (Somewhat like the NLT). According to the note in NET, some scholars believe the purpose is to focus on the fourth item, but I don’t see that supported by the context. In my view, it is just a rhetorical device that is foreign to us.
    GNB decided that it was too foreign to retain, so they dropped the stepping stone and went straight to the top stone.

  11. Trevor Jenkins says:

    You’re commment “… in Biblical mathematics, 2=3, but this actually has more to do with cultural presuppositions and translation.” May not be true. There’s a view amongst some linguists (paricularly Steven Pinker) that precision, which we presume is a mathematical fundamental, may not be innate afterall. The ability to count beyond (maybe three or possibly even just two) is learned and some cultures still to this day don’t have any theory of number. Perhaps the Hebrews were one of those cultures but thanks to people like Einstien we’ve been beguiled into thinking different.

  12. Mike Sangrey says:

    Given Trevor’s comment about the ability to count, let me give some support by citing Ellis Deibler, a Bible translator of considerable experience. This quote gave me thoughtful pause when I considered the practical issues that some Bible translators are up against.

    “[I]n our language area, if I were to give the expression for 7 it would be ligizani lugaloka asu oake lugaloka losi orio molago” which back translated into English is “fingers on one side being finished, on the other side two jumped over.

    Sentences like the one found in Matthew 18:22 take on a whole new challenge.

    He went on to say that they decided to use Arabic numerals, apparently introducing them to the culture.

  13. iverlarsen says:

    Hi, Trevor,

    The concept of precision is a somewhat different topic. I would say it is partly cultural and partly personal. Some cultures have developed a need for higher precision in a number of areas. One exampls is being on time which is valued in the industrialized world, but not in most traditional cultures. Within the same culture, you can have people who have a natural eye for details and precision, others do not.

    Concerning the ability to count, that probably depends on the perceived need for counting. In the languages in Africa that I am most familiar with, the traditional counting system was 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5+1, 5+2, 5+3, 5+4, 10, 10+1, … 20,.. 30,.. 40…50… “uncountable”. The dialects that had 5+1 have now developed by borrowing numbers for 6,7,8 and 9, so that a 5-based system was changed to a decimal system. What used to be the word for “uncountable” is now 100 and numbers have been constructed for 60 etc (6 tens, 7 tens…) A word for 1000 was constructed several years ago, and very recently they have decided on a number for 1.000.000. I don’t think they have settled on a billion and beyond yet. Language always develops on the basis of need. In these languages it is a taboo to count how many cows you own, but it is fine to give each cow its own name.

    For the Hebrews genealogies were very important, and they therefore developed numbers very early on so that they could specify how many years a famous ancestor lived.

    However, what I was talking about is not a matter of precision or ability to count, but different cultural traditions. It does have some relationship to the concept of zero which is not a natural number, but an artificial construct developed by mathematical theory (In ancient Greece, I think. I don’t know about ancient China). I don’t think any culture which has not developed the concept of zero would use exclusive counting, because in this kind of counting you start from 0. Does ancient Hebrew have a word for zero? Greek used τὸ οὐδέν which means “the nothing”, but this does not occur in the LXX or the NT. The English word “zero” (from French) was first attested in 1604 according to my Webster’s. The Danish word “nul” comes through German from the Latin “nulla” (nothing). I assume Latin got it from Greek. For the Western world, it appears that the Greeks invented it and many borrowed it.
    Arabic also had it early on, but I don’t know the history behind it. The French zero comes from Middle Latin which borrowed it from Arabic sifr. Our Danish word “ciffer” (English cipher) also comes from that, but it has changed meaning to “digit” (which is derived from finger.)

  14. iverlarsen says:

    I just asked my Sabaot friends how they would talk about zero, and they told me it was developed a couple of years ago when mobile phones became common. They needed it for telephone numbers with zeros. The word is “buch” which means “nothing”.

  15. Brad says:

    In seminary we were taught that the Fathers and theologians of every age found great meaning in the term “eighth day.” Excessive translation of the text in this instant (as well as most others) robs the English language reader of the opportunity to gain insight and understanding of the deeper things. I say stick with “eighth day” and stop trying to over translate.

    The point about inclusive versus exclusive counting is, however, a good one. But understanding this concept does not explain away the eighth day.

  16. Wayne Leman says:

    Brad wrote:

    I say stick with “eighth day” and stop trying to over translate.

    It’s a matter of accuracy of translation for English speakers. If “eighth day” communicates one day more than a week to English speakers then it is not an accurate translation. Translating accurately is not over translation.

    This issue can be easily resolved by asking a large number of speakers of English, from a variety of backgrounds, including those who are not familiar with Jewish inclusive counting, what “on the 8th day” would mean to them. Would it mean one week later, or 8 days later?

    We should never had to modify English to create accurate translations for English speakers. Each language is capable, on its own, of accurately translating the Bible, without having to be modified.

  17. Johannes Argentus says:

    The way Jews counted days in the Bible is crystal clear from the references in the NT to Jesus’ resurrection as taking place “on the third day”:
    – Friday (before sunset) = 1st day
    – Saturday = 2nd day
    – Sunday morning = 3rd day.
    Therefore, if from the resurrection “on the 3rd day”, we have to go back 2 days to arrive to the date of Jesus’ death, from the circumcision on the 8th day we have to go back 7 days to arrive to the date of birth.

  18. Johannes Argentus says:

    Additionally, I agree with Brad, because if we don’t tranlate literally “the eigth day” for circumcision, then if we want to be consistent we should start talking about resurrection “on the second day”, just breaking 2000 years of tradition.

  19. iver larsen says:

    Hi, Johannes,
    You are quite right that it will be a break with tradition to produce a meaningful translation of the Bible, but that tradition is gradually being broken anyway by a number of modern translations.
    You have a choice.
    You can honour tradition above good and clear communication or you can honour communication above tradition.
    You cannot do both.

    By the way, it would not be good to translate “on the third day” with “on the second day”. In most contexts, the correct translation would be two days later.
    As an example take the first time “on the third day” appears in the Bible, i.e. Gen 22:4.

    CEV says “three days later” – wrong!!!
    God’s Word says “Two days later” – right!!
    Most others keep to the tradition which is not English:
    “On the third day”.

    When you come to Gen 31:22, lo and behold, GW still says “two days later” – Bravo!
    NET, NLT, GNB, and CEV all say “three days later”. Why the change of heart?
    Why are so many getting it wrong? I guess because they honestly think that “on the third day” actually is supposed to mean “three days later.”

    Gen 42:17-18 is interesting. Here GW says:
    Then he put them in jail for three days. On the third day Joseph said to them,…

    This is a context where “on the third day” may be used, because it refers to the third day of a given period. “On my third day in hospital” does refer to two days after I was admitted. “My third day in prison” is two days after I was committed. But, the problem is the the previous sentence which says that he put them in jail for three days. That is not very clear to me. If they were to stay in jail for three days, then in terms of English they would be released on the fourth day, but in terms of Genesis and Hebrew, they would be released on the third day.

    In Lev 7:16 “the third day” can also be used, so it depends on context. For any translator “context is king”.

  20. iver larsen says:

    I should have mentioned 1 Samuel 30:1, because here we see the following:
    GNB suddenly decides to go for “Two days later” as GW has.
    NLT goofed and said “Three days later”.

    The Good News Bible is floundering, and it seems that the only one that got it right almost all the time is God’s Word. CEV also made a mistake in this place.

  21. Gary Simmons says:

    Perhaps a little off-topic, but I think I remember in high school learning that zero was originally invented by the Mayans. Their calendar may or may not have predicted this blog post, also.

    And just to be clear: I have met nonbelievers who consider the Bible illogical because they assume an exclusive counting, in which Friday to Sunday is not “three days.” So translating it as “two days later” is important. I just think Mack Powell of the Christian band Third Day may feel strange about this translation trend.

  22. Joel H. says:

    I say stick with “eighth day” and stop trying to over translate.

    But what if “eighth day” in English refers to a different day than it does in Hebrew?

    We find something similar in Modern Hebrew/Modern English. In Modern Hebrew, erev means “evening.” Because yom rishon means “Sunday,” erev yom rishon means “Sunday evening.” Most of the other days work the same way. But even though shabat means “Saturday,” erev shabat doesn’t mean “Saturday night,” it means “Friday night.” Surely a translation from Modern Hebrew into English shouldn’t translate literally, but rather should find English that refers to the right day, no? (“Saturday night” is motza’ei shabat, “exit of the Sabbath.”)


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