As I was reading through Psalms 139, I realized that one of the verses I knew well in English didn’t quite read the same way in Hebrew. The Hebrew was a bit broken and the translators had to smooth it out a little in order for it to make sense in English. In the English of the KJV, and similar to most English translations, Psalms 139:14 reads “I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.” but the Hebrew text reads “I will thank you because fearfully, I was wonderful. Wonderful [are] your works and my spirit knows [it] well (or “you know well my spirit”).” Sometimes, these kinds of textual difficulties are resolved when we look at another Hebrew text, like the text of the Dead Sea Scrolls, where a variant reading might read a little more smoothly, but in the case of Ps. 139:14 it only deepened the questions. In the primary Psalms scroll from the DSS (11Qpsa) there is a shift from the first person to the second person making this verse more about God and less about me. The text from the Dead Sea reads “I will thank you because you are magnificent. Wonderful and amazing [are] your works and you know well my spirit.” In my quest to understand which reading was original, I began by looking at some of the Ancient translations, beginning with the Greek Septuagint (2nd Century BC) and the Latin Vulgate (4th Century AD). These two texts were the primary texts used by the church during the first sixteen centuries and both texts followed the reading found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In translations of the Psalms the current reading of Ps. 139:14 doesn’t seem to have appeared until the Reformation period.
So why did the text change?
For centuries leading up to the reformation period, the primary text used by the church was the Latin Vulgate (a text that few understood). Often even the priests who were teaching the text could not read the text of the bible themselves. This opened the door to serious abuses of Scripture because few could challenge the claims made about its contents. In the 16th century, some of the few men, like Luther, Calvin, etc…, who could read the Scriptures became increasingly concerned with the disparity between what the church was teaching and what the Scriptures really said. In their quest to truly understand the Scriptures they began looking at the original Hebrew and Greek texts as well as the Latin text of the Vulgate. And they began to produce new translations for the people from these Greek and Hebrew texts in much the same way as St. Jerome had produced a Latin version in the common language of the people many centuries earlier based on the Hebrew and Greek texts he had.
The Hebrew text
In the 16th century, the earliest Hebrew manuscripts came from the 9th century; however, because of the strict controls the Jewish scribes who were producing these scrolls had developed, copies of the Hebrew text were remarkably accurate. Scholars generally considered variant readings of the Hebrew text in Greek and Latin translations to reflect mistranslations by earlier translators and readings from the Greek or Latin were usually only considered when the Hebrew text was difficult or vague. The translations produced in the 16th century reflect a reasonably accurate translation of the Hebrew texts that scholars had access to at that time. For centuries, very little changed with respect to the Hebrew texts to which scholars had access and the opinion that the LXX was a poor translation of the Hebrew prevailed. As we entered the 20th century, we began to discover ancient texts, like those found near the Dead Sea but it was not until the late 20th before these new discoveries began having an impact on bible translations. As scholars began to examine the Dead Sea scrolls, they began to have a deeper respect for the translation work of translators of the LXX because these scrolls revealed a Hebrew base text for many of its variant readings, like those in Ps. 139:14. In many cases these were not mistranslations but accurate translations of a variant text.
Is it “My spirit knows” or “You know my Spirit”
One of the translation differences in this verse doesn’t reflect any “textual variant” but only a change in vocalization. Hebrew was originally written without vowels and vowels were added to the text many, many centuries later. These are the dots and dashes that can be seen in the text of the MT below. The Masorites (who added these vowels) did so in a way that kept the parallelism from the first half the verse i.e. “I have been fearfully and wonderfully made” and “My soul knows it.” However, if we accept the authenticity of the earlier text then we would expect the vocalization to reflect the 2nd person i.e. “You are fearful and your works are wonderful” and “You know my soul.” Letter for letter, the text of this ending phrase is the identical, it is only the pronunciation that changes.
Does this mean that our bibles are unreliable?
Sometimes it is claimed that our bibles today reflect a text that has been translated from a translation of a translation of a translation, etc… and that the texts we have today no longer reflect the writings of the original authors. However, despite the variant readings found in these ancient witnesses, the overall picture we see in these ancient texts demonstrates that the text of Scripture has been remarkably well preserved. In fact the text of Scripture has been so well preserved that many scholars doubted the authenticity of these ancient witnesses for decades. To accept the authenticity of these ancient manuscripts meant these scholars had to abandon their theories about how Scripture had developed because these ancient manuscripts demonstrated that the text was far better preserved than their theories would permit. While there are occasions, like this one, where we need to re-evaluate our understanding of a verse, these are the exceptions and not the rule. And while some variants like this one do introduce slight nuances into the text, the overall message of the whole passage remains unchanged.
NET Notes (Psa 139:14)
22 tc Heb “because awesome things, I am distinct, amazing [are] your works.” The text as it stands is syntactically problematic and makes little, if any, sense. The Niphal of פָּלָה (pala’) occurs elsewhere only in Exod 33:16. Many take the form from פָלָא (pala’; see GKC 216 §75.qq), which in the Niphal perfect means “to be amazing” (see 2 Sam 1:26; Ps 118:23; Prov 30:18). Some, following the LXX and some other ancient witnesses, also prefer to emend the verb from first to second person, “you are amazing” (see L. C. Allen, Psalms 101–150 [WBC], 249, 251). The present translation assumes the text conflates two variants: נפלאים, the otherwise unattested masculine plural participle of פָלָא, and נִפְלָאוֹת (nifla’ot), the usual (feminine) plural form of the Niphal participle. The latter has been changed to a verb by later scribes in an attempt to accommodate it syntactically. The original text likely read, נפלאותים מעשׂיך נוראות (“your works [are] awesome [and] amazing”).
23 tc Heb “and my being knows very much.” Better parallelism is achieved (see v. 15a) if one emends יֹדַעַת (yoda’at), a Qal active participle, feminine singular form, to יָדַעְתָּ (yada’ta), a Qal perfect second masculine singular perfect. See L. C. Allen, Psalms 101–150 (WBC), 252.