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Branches or Citrons?

And ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days, Leviticus 23:40.

It is rare that the King James translators differed widely from the Orthodox Jewish translation of certain texts. The above verse is such a place. Christians tend to view the Old Testament through the prism of the New Testament. Jews tend to view the Old Testament through the prism of the Talmud or other long established rabbinical writings. The Orthodox Jewish Bible reads thus: And ye shall take you on the Yom HaRishon the fruit of the citron tree, branches of temarim (date palms), and twigs of plaited trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before Hashem Eloheichem shivat yamim.

It seems puzzling at first why our text and their interpretation of their text should diverge so widely here. The King James translators say the boughs of goodly trees whereas the Jewish interpretation is the fruit of the citron tree. Who is right here? Those who read this blog know that I rely heavily upon Jews in their care for the Old Testament. I am commanded to do so by the Apostle Paul. What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God, Romans 3:1,2. Nevertheless, when my King James Bible differs with the Jews, I shall stick with the King James Bible.

It is perhaps awkward and ungainly for me to delve into a minor dispute with Jews far more learned than myself in the matter of translation or interpretation. Like a little boy being bold on the playground because he knows that his big brother is right behind him, I am going to wade into this with the King James Translators behind me.

The King James translators inherited the learning of the Spanish Jews who frequently translated both Hebrew and Latin during the time of the Moorish Kingdoms of Spain. Many of those Jews fled to England upon the dissolution of those kingdoms. When Erasmus arrived in England in the early 16th century, he found the learning of the English scholars to be advanced beyond any other place on the continent of Europe. That opinion is best explained by the extra century of learning given to the English scholars by the refugee Jews and Anabaptists who fled and found refuge. They were not novices.

Unlike many commentators on translation issues, I am not prone to examine the original languages. I am not qualified to do so, that hasn't stopped the critics of the King James Bible whose sole rule for preferring deviant translations seems to be their whims or peer pressure. (I once asked my mentor about the theology of a preacher we both knew. He shrugged and said it depended on whatever book the man read last.)

Then how can I defend a translation that so clearly goes contrary to the Jews rendering? They have ancient pictures depicting citrons being used. Their traditions and writings back up their translation. I go to the text of my bible. Nehemiah kept the Feast of Tabernacles and his preparation for it is recorded in scripture. And they found written in the law which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month, Nehemiah 8:14.

What is interesting is what he told them to fetch. And that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written, Nehemiah 8:15. There can be no doubt that Nehemiah read Leviticus 23:40. When Nehemiah read the boughs of goodly trees, he interpreted that as olive branches and pine branches and palm branches. Even the Orthodox Jewish Bible agrees in Nehemiah 8:15: And that they should publish and proclaim in all their towns, and in Yerushalayim, saying, Go forth unto the hill country, and bring back olive branches, and wild olive branches, and myrtle, and palm branches, and branches of leafy trees, to make sukkot, as it is written.

The King James translators trusted Nehemiah's interpretation of Leviticus 23:40 more than the Jews extant in their kingdom. That did not happen often. Only a fool would lightly disregard a Jew's look at the Old Testament. At issue is whether the word that the King James translators rendered "boughs" should have been rendered "fruit" as Jews of today do. Nehemiah saw it as boughs.

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