Over the past couple years, the NLT Bible Translation Team has labored for hours and hours refining the footnotes at the bottom of the page of the translation. I have to admit that every once in a while I have thought to myself: “Why bother? No one reads them anyway!” I really doubt a large percentage of readers do read them, but perhaps one problem is that people really don’t know why they are there or how to understand them.
There are a number of different types of footnotes and I would like to explain a some of them with the hope that people will pay more attention to them as they read and study the Bible closely.
A translation involves interpretation. Indeed, I like to tell my students that a translation is a commentary without explanations why the translators made the decisions that they make. Most modern translations (the best and most reliable ones) are a team effort by a group of biblical scholars who serve as checks and balances on our own individual scholarly idiosyncratic ideas. Thus, when a controversial or difficult passage comes down to a final vote on occasion it is a split vote. The translation that makes it into the body of the text won a majority of votes (say 8) while the one that lost got one or two less votes. On these occasions a footnote is added. Granted the difference is not so great as to change the fundamental message of the passage, but the fact that a sizeable group of scholars went with another translation means that readers ought to be aware of it and the really serious student can follow up the debate in a good commentary.
Example: In 2 Kings 2:21 Elisha announces that the bad water will become good by saying “It will no longer cause death or infertility.” The footnote informs the reader that the Hebrew could be rendered “It will not longer cause death or make the land unproductive” as well as say that the Hebrew reads “…cause death or barrenness.” This indicates that the scholars split over whether barrenness refers to people or to the land.
Probably the largest number of footnotes, though, have to do with variant texts. Usually the footnotes indicate where the translators have departed from the main text which they are translating (in the OT, the Massoretic Text in particular the Codex Leningradensis as it is found in the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia). Even though this text is considered vary reliable, it is not infallible and again on occasion scholars will opt to go with a variant text (say in the Greek Version). Again, attentive readers should be aware of this when it happens.
Example: In 1 Samuel 13:1 there is a definite problem. The Hebrew says Saul was one year old when he became king, and he reigned for two years. However, we rendered the verse to indicate that he was thirty years old when he became king and reigned for forty-two years. The footnote indicates how we come to these numbers. (Hebrew reigned . . . and two; the number is incomplete in the Hebrew. Compare Acts 13:21.)
In the NLT we also added footnotes which give a more exact rendition of the Hebrew. We do this when we offer an easier to understand translation in the text.
Example: In Leviticus 5:11 we render the Hebrew for the quantity of choice flour to be brought for the sin offering as “two quarts.” The footnote gives the measurement in the Hebrew unit as 1/10 of an ephah, with the added bonus of a metric equivalent (2.2. liters).
Besides showing measurements in both modern and ancient equivalents, the footnotes of the NLT do the same for dates.
Example: 2 Kings 25:3 is translated: “By July 18 in the eleventh year of Zedekiah’s reign…” The footnote informs the reader that the Hebrew says “By the ninth day of the [fourth] month [in the eleventh year of Zedekiah’s reign]” as well as saying that this is July 18 586 BC. The translation in the body and the footnote combine to give the ancient date and its modern equivalent.
These are some of main things we learn in the footnotes. Readers are well advised to keep an eye on them when doing close study of the biblical text.