AKA Mistranslated Bibles and Errant Theology
[This ramble brought to you by seeing one too many misrepresentations of the Isaian passage, sparked by this morning seeing an anon—ostensibly Christian—troll* citing it while haranguing a Tumblr with farcical “arguments” about the beliefs of anon’s patchwork theopoeia. Hat-tip, Renée. (*Which is just another mangled myth, since traditionally trolls are supposed to eat Christians!)]
As a translator, I am accustomed to encountering passages where someone has slipped in our craft, and I have been as culpable as any; these are sometimes embarrassing, sometimes amusing, but sometimes a translator so misses the mark as to change the entire meaning of a passage and confound those who, unacquainted with the original material, rely on that translation. Perhaps the most pernicious example of this can be found in the “translations” of the Christian editions of the Tanakh‘s book of Isaiah, cap. 14, verse 12, which has endured so long as to become part of their theology.
איך נפלת משמים הילל בן־שחר
How you are fallen from heaven, Hêlēl ben-Šāḥar!
The problem lies in that single bolded phrase, the name Hêlēl ben-Šāḥar. The figure as a whole is most likely a survival from Canaanite myth, and scholars have found parallels in the larger story in that Isaian passage to some of the texts uncovered at Ugarit, such as that of Athtar attempting to usurp the Most High Baal. But the first name, Hêlēl, meaning “bright” or “shining”, was an epithet of the planet Venus rising as the morning star. This was still understood by the translators of the LXX (working between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE in Alexandria):
πῶς ἐξέπεσεν ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ὁ ἑωσφόρος ὁ πρωὶ ἀνατέλλων
They rendered the name as Heosphoros, the morning star, also classically understood to be Venus, and was discussed as such from Homer to Plato and Hesiod among others, called Ἀφροδίτης ἀστήρ, the star of Aphrodite (whom the Romans called Venus). But nearly 500 years later, when Jerome was commissioned by the 37th pope, Damascus I, to produce the Vulgate Latin “translation” of the canonical Biblical texts, the error arises. For הילל and ἑωσφόρος, he chose to use the Latin lucifer. While הילל is an hapax legomenon and we cannot compare the translations of it in other parts of the text, the more accurate Greek translation appears in six other places in the Tanakh passages of the LXX.
In the first of these, I Samuel 30:17, the Hebrew is מהנשׁף ועד־הערב—”from before sunrise to after sunset”—rendered correctly in the LXX as ἀπὸ ἑωσφόρου ἕως δείλης, but mistakenly rendered by Jerome as a uespere usque ad uesperam, “from evening to evening”.
In Psalm 109:3, “from the dawn” is in Hebrew משׁחר, which the LXX gave as “before dawn”, πρὸ ἑωσφόρου and Jerome gave as “before the morning star”, ante luciferum.
In Job, where we find the largest concentration of this term, the first, in 3:9, is simply dawn, שׁחר in Hebrew, ἑωσφόρον in the LXX, but this time Jerome opted for auroræ, which still means dawn (or the goddess of the dawn). In 11:17, “like the morning” is in Hebrew כבקר, ὥσπερ ἑωσφόρος in the LXX, but here Jerome went back to his other term, with ut lucifer, “as the morning star”. In 38:12, we have dawn again, the Hebrew שׁחר, the LXX‘s ἑωσφόρος, and Jerome vacillates back to aurorae. Finally in 41:10, the Hebrew once more offers שׁחר for dawn, the LXX sticks to ἑωσφόρου and Jerome… came up with yet another word, diluculi. It can still mean dawn, though usually meant the earliest or first rays of sun in the morning.
We can see that the most common term here in the Hebrew is שׁחר, yet for that single term, Jerome offered lucifer, aurora and diluculum (and elsewhere in his text used mane to translate the same word), and is inconsistent even in the use of those. For instance, in Psalm 109:3 he used lucifer for שׁחר, yet in Isaiah 14:12, it is הילל that he translated as lucifer while rendering שׁחר as qui mane oriebaris, “who rose early in the morning”. In Job 11:17, he used lucifer for another term altogether (בקר); in Job 38:32, he “translated” מזרות as lucifer, which seems to be intended for מזלות—the constellations—as used in II Kings 23:5, which Jerome there translated as duodecim signis, the “twelve signs”! The LXX gave the transliterated μαζουρωθ in both places. In Job 38:12, he used both diluculum and aurora in the same passage, writing diluculo for בקר, “morning” (which word he translated as lucifer in Job 11:17) and auroræ for שׁחר. In Job 24:17, he decided בקר could then be… aurora. Elsewhere (Psalm 73:16) he also used aurora to translate the Hebrew word אור (light). Diluculum is easily his favorite of these, however, as it occurs some 41 times in his text, as translations of these Hebrew terms and some others as you might have come to expect.
These are not examples of translating a text’s meaning idiomatically into another language as he varies these terms haphazardly even when the meaning and context remains the same; it’s just bad translation. But the point of this article is to focus more particularly on the consequences of his bad translation, especially as concerns Isaiah 14:12. There, despite having used lucifer in five places in his text, he chose to treat the word in only that one place as a proper name—despite that the context in which he’d used it in every other passage should also make it a proper name in Latin. That is, if not a name, the word only means “light-bringing” and was used in Latin to refer to everything from lightning (lucifera lampade) and meteors (luciferas faces) to the moon, and sometimes, as a feminine adjective, referring to the goddess of the moon, Diana (as Cicero writes in de Natura Deorum, 2.68). But when used in Latin to refer to the morning star, it is a masculine proper noun, the name of a mythological figure who appears in the works of Ovid, Lucretius, Pliny, Propertius, Cicero and many others. Awkwardly, for Jerome, Lucifer the Morning Star was mythologically the son of Aurora, though he seems to use the two synonymously. Lucifer, the Roman god’s myth, was well enough established to root him firmly in the Greek and Roman genealogies. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, XI, 266, we meet Ceyx, king and son of Lucifer, who tells the story of his brother Dædalion. Dædalion had a daughter, Chione, who gave birth to a son, Autolycus, by the god Mercury. In Homer’s Odyssey, we find Odysseus the son of Anticleia, the daughter of that same Autolycus, making the hero Odysseus the great-great-great grandson of Lucifer. Which is simply to say, each time Jerome used Lucifer as a translation of the morning star, it should have been a personification, and not just in the one place.
The problem is not just one of vocabulary but interpretation, as it seems clear Jerome, if not the whole early (and subsequent) church, misunderstood the meaning of the entire passage. The original is an allegorical reference to the predicted fall of the King of Babylon, casting him in the role of the mythological figure of Hêlēl, and yet, for some reason, Jerome and the early church fathers, perhaps, particularly Tertullian and Origen, have tried to make the passage out to be about their imaginary devil, and Jerome’s choice to personify this one reference has had the consequence of creating the immense error that “Lucifer” is the name of “the devil”! They seem to choose to ignore the significance of the other occurrences of “lucifer” in the text, including, singificantly, in Jerome’s version of the Christian “New Testament” books, for he uses it in II Peter 1:19, where they talk of the time when the morning star will rise in their hearts as if it’s a good thing—yet Jerome, correctly for once, translates the Greek φωσφόρος as lucifer: donec dies inlucescat et lucifer oriatur in cordibus uestris, “until the day dawns and Lucifer rises in your hearts”. (Ἑωσφόρος and φωσφόρος were synonymous, both being translated as lucifer by the Romans; e.g., in Apollodorus’ Library, I.7.4, “Ἀλκυόνην δὲ Κῆυξ ἔγημεν Ἑωσφόρου παῖς“—Alcyone was married by Ceyx, son of Lucifer—Ἑωσφόρος was used, while in Cicero, de Natura Deorum, 2.53, we find stella Ueneris, quæ Φωσφόρος Græce Lucifer Latine dicitur, “the star of Venus, which is called by the Greeks Phosphorus is Lucifer in Latin”.)
Mythologically, Lucifer’s a nice fellow; he heralds the new day, ushers the darkness away, and helps the lost find their way back home. So, Christians, you’ve been picking on and blaming the wrong guy for nearly two thousand years. Isn’t it time you leave him alone and get your own Bible right?