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Wette faces

November 17, 2011

I have just read this recent National Geographic article on the King James Bible by Adam Nicholson. The publication date is December 2011, but I suppose we should be used to this kind of dating. Future dating.

After a lengthy discourse on what the Bible has meant to different people, communities and cults, from “loving authority” to “oppression,” Nicholson concludes,

The King James Bible has always cut both ways. It had its beginnings in royal authority, and it has been used to terrify the weak. It has also brought an undeniable current of beauty, kindness, and goodness into the lives of rich and poor alike. Its origins were ambivalent—for Puritan and bishop, the great and the needy, for clarity and magnificence, to bring the word of God to the people but also to buttress the powers that be—and that ambivalence is its true legacy.

Pain and beauty, forever and ever, amen. I agree.

I do have a pragmatic question, however. What would be the origina of the translation of Ecclesiastes 11:1 in the Bishop’s Bible?

Lay thy bread vpon wette faces,

Here are a few other translations for comparison,

Sende thi breed on watris passynge forth Wycliff

Cast thy bread upon the running waters Douay Rheims

Sende thy vytayles ouer the waters Coverdale

The Hebrew seems to be uncomplicated,  שַׁלַּח לַחְמְךָ, עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם  using the same phrase as is found in Genesis 1:2, usually translated “the face of the waters.” However, the Latin Vulgate, mitte panem tuum super transeuntes aquas,  appears to be translating a different Hebrew original, while the Bishop’s Bible translation remains obscure. Any thoughts?


5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2011 5:35 pm

    I can see how the Bishop’s Bible got the words: פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם = faces of waters > wet faces.

    But while “Lay your bread on wet faces” may suggest some sort of medicinal practice I can’t see its relevance in context any more than I can the now traditional “cast your bread upon the water” unless Q is advocating feeding ducks in the park as a good investment of time 😉

    I suspect the NET has it right and summarises the reasoning well in its defence. But any way you look at it it is a puzzling passage…

  2. November 17, 2011 5:49 pm

    Geneva’s grounded form of language (“Cast thy bread upon the waters”) was abandoned by the bishops in favor of obscure pomposity: They translated that phrase as “Lay thy bread upon wette faces.” Surviving copies of the Geneva Bible are often greasy with use. Pages of the Bishops’ Bible are usually as pristine as on the day they were printed.

    Maybe there’s a parable here, a proverb for Bible translators perhaps, not too unrelated to the puzzle of the passage itself.

  3. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 17, 2011 8:59 pm

    11:1 Send1 your grain2 overseas,3

    for after many days you will get a return NET Bible

    Thank you, Tim!


    Yes, Nicholson was making that point!

  4. November 18, 2011 12:55 pm

    It was problems such as this very one that led Hugh Broughton to so severely criticize the Bishops’ Bible. Of course, he also famously complained about the KJV:

    Not all was smooth with the translation’s reception, either. One brilliant Hebrew scholar of the day, Hugh Broughton, had seen that a new translation was needed, but his abrasive manner apparently kept him off the six committees of scholars to whom the work was assigned. He took his revenge in a pamphlet in 1611. The work was “so ill done,” he wrote, that “I had rather be rent in pieces with wilde horses, then any such translation by my consent should bee urged upon poore Churches.” He added, “I require it be burnt.”


  1. Biblical Studies Carnival 69 (November 2011) | Remnant of Giants

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