“Elohim is a plural, do not translate it with God,” says Mauro Biglino, a prolific and controversial author who has spent the last decades of his life translating ancient Biblical Hebrew for the Edizioni San Paolo, one of the leading publishing houses in Italy and Europe in religious subjects.
Mauro Biglino is a passionate and friendly scholar, although he cannot show off any academic credentials. It is his personal passion and interest for the ancient texts that led him to become one of the most renowned translators of the Bible in Italy. San Paolo Edizioni published seventeen books of the Old Testament literally translated by Mauro Biglino from the Masoretic text, which have been included in their edition of the Hebrew Interlinear Bible. Everything went fine until Mauro started publishing his books to explain what he was really reading in the ancient text. If you speak some Italian he explains his relationship with Edizioni San Paolo in this video. In sum, what Mauro was reading in the Bible was completely different from what 2,000+ years of theological elaboration have been producing.
“We can be certain of one thing about the Bible, — Biglino says — that what we read today is not the text that was written originally”. Biglino argues that the Bible does not talk about God. It sounds like a very harsh provocation just conceived to make the followers of the Three Religions of the Book jump from the chair, but the Bible “simply tell the history of one Semitic family, the family of Jacob, and its relationship with Jahvè, their commander-in-chief”. Ok, but isn’t Jahvè God?
Photo by Tanner Mardis
Our idea of God — argues the Italian scholar — came to us after 2,000 years of theological elaboration and was forged through the filter of Greek-Hellenistic thought and philosophy. It is because of 2,000+ years of theological exegesis that we describe God as immortal, transcendental, omniscient, omnipotent, and so forth and so on… but the stories we read in the Bible tell us something different. Jahvè doesn’t seem to possess any of these idealistic features. He gets tired, he gets dirty, he gets upset, he gets thirsty, he gets jealous, he gets fierce, he gets cruel — really cruel. Most importantly, “he is not the only one”.
In fact, “Jahvè is just one individual belonging to the group of the Elohim”. The Hebrew term Elohim is the one that has been traditionally translated with “God” in the Bible, despite the fact of being plural, while God is obviously singular. Why? This is just one obvious sign of millennia of monotheistic misrepresentation of the beautiful ancient text that is the Bible.
“Since we don’t know what Elohim means exactly, I would suggest to leave it as it is. Let us not translate the word Elohim,” the Italian Biblist recommends. It is hard not to see a reasonable suggestion in this, especially when you think that not always in the Bible the same term “Elohim” is translated with God. It is also translated with “kings” when they seduce women (Genesis 6) or “judges” when they gather together and their boss would tell them they would die (Psalm 82).
Photo by Kiwihug
Mauro Biglino has become very popular on the web, and his hours-long talks are followed by thousands of people — and for the whole time of the talk, you would not see one person playing with the smartphone or get half-sleepy, which is what you usually get at any other conference of dusty scholars about the Bible. You sit at the edge of the chair and you would not one miss a word coming out of this charismatic little man.
A scholar of the Pontifical Biblical Institute I spoke to, told me that a public dialogue with Mauro Biglino could be difficult to organize because Biglino’s ideas about the Bible are “nothing more than science fiction”. And yet, some interesting questions he poses remain unanswered. If Elohim is plural, why do we translate it with God, which is singular? Why we keep overlapping our Western idea of God with stories coming from the ancient Semitic culture? Why does Adam, Seth and Enosh live more than 900 years (Genesis 5), while Abraham and Moses live less than 200 years? And so forth and so.
Considering Mauro Biglino a charlatan is an understandable thing to do for anyone who has devoted his/her life studying the Bible on the assumption it is a book about a spiritual, omniscient Being. Yet, it is just too easy to dismiss his objections about the Bible with ad personam arguments. Truth is, I smell fear in this attitude — not just fear of Mauro Biglino, not that —, I smell the ancient existential fear to actually have to admit there are cracks, however small, in the monotheistic dam built in 2,000 years of theological restless work.
Photo by Aaron Burden
What would just happen, I wonder, if the academic world stopped for a second taking for granted that the term “Elohim” is singular for God when, in fact, there is substantial evidence, grammatically and diegetically speaking, that “Elohim” is a plural term to describe a group of individuals with diverse and different roles, characters and motivations? The Bible goes as far as mentioning the names of many other Elohim, other than Jahvè.
If anything Mauro Biglino has the merit of posing legitimate questions. On the other hand, the attitude of orthodox scholars deployed in order in anxious and alerted defense of a theological fortress seems to be a bit suspicious, if not plainly narrow-minded. It is a fun scene to watch: one single unarmed man sieging the gigantic city walls of monotheism — and all those inside terrified. Why can’t they just let him, what do they fear, I wonder, if God is on their side?
Luckily enough some scholars, like famous Princeton Theological Seminar professor Mark Smith, are coming to acknowledge that polytheism was common practice at the beginning of the history of Israel. “Monotheism emerged only midway through Israel’s history. It was a reaction to a long tradition of Israelite polytheism” (M. S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, Oxford University Press 2001). According to professor Smith, a lay catholic, the Deuteronomists have rewritten the polytheistic origins of Israel so as to make them appear monotheistic (these concepts are to be found in Smith’s work The Early History of God).
After all, theology is the only academic discipline whose object of study — God — is a sheer act of faith. It’s a discourse nobody can ever silence, no matter how many questions you ask about a book written 2,500+ years ago. The Bible has been written by men. And like all human things, inspired or not, it came to us through the centuries not without flaws and gaps. The stories of the Bible are so ancient and also rooted in other cultures like Sumerian and Akkadian literature, that nobody can claim to know the truth of it. Because one thing is to believe in God, one thing is to know. Nobody knows anything when it comes to a spiritual, transcendental, omniscient Being. Isn’t it so?