plant / gourd / ivy

The Hebrew term for the plant that is translated in a variety of ways in English, including “vine,” “gourd,” or simply “plant” or “bush” has a long history of controversial translations.

Law (2013, p. 170) quotes from one of the letters of Augustine (354-430 AD) who was a strong defender of the Ancient Greek Septuagint translation: “In Oea [ancient city in present-day Tripoli, Libya], a bishop read from Jerome’s translation of Jonah, and because of the strange new rendering he almost lost his congregation. The [Greek] Bible of the church had ‘gourd’ (kolokýnthi / κολοκύνθῃ) in Jonah 4:6, but Jerome had changed it to the Latin word for ‘ivy’ [hedera]. The congregation in attendance fumed upon hearing the new translation and accused it of being ‘Judaized.’ Jews were called in to explain the rendering, and they claimed that Jerome was wrong and the Septuagint was right all along. Whether this actually happened is irrelevant. Augustine has either reported a real event or has created a literary fiction, but either way he provides a window into the struggle of parting with the church’s Bible in favor of Jerome’s new translation.”

This divergence in opinion can be seen up to the present day. Older Catholic versions that are based one the Latin Vulgate (for instance the English Douay-Rheims or the translation by Knox) will use a word for a climbing plant such as “ivy” or “vine,” other translations use a large variety of translations, including the “safe” choice “plant.” In the UBS handbook Plants and Trees in the Bible, Koops (2012, p. 127) says: “The identity of Jonah’s qiqayon plant has been debated since the days of St. Jerome and St. Augustine. [Several scholars] advocate the castor oil plant (Ricinus communis) as the qiqayon. But the King James Version’s ‘gourd’ has a long history, including its use in the Septuagint. The Vulgate translated qiqayon as hedera (‘ivy’) but that rendering has not had further botanical support. In 1955 an in-depth study of the literature going back as far as St. Jerome was made and its author votes hesitantly for the gourd (colocynth). Some scholars even suggest it could be an Assyrian word inserted in the story just to make it sound foreign, or even a made-up word.”

See also cucumber and melon.

sycamore, sycomore

The Hebrew and Greek that is translated as “sycamore” in English is translated in Chichewa as mkuyu or “fig tree.” (Source: Wendland 1987, p. 72)

Note that the tree referred to in these instances is the “Sycomore Fig (Ficus sycomorus), also called the “Mulberry Fig” (compare German Maulbeerfeigenbaum), is a type of fig that is found especially in low-land areas in the Mediterranean region. It was known in Egypt as early as 3000 B.C. but also in the Indus Valley in India. (…) The sycomore fig is not a tall tree (up to 10 meters [33 feet]) but has large low, spreading branches.” (Source: Koops 2012, p. 67)