A recent argument involved two passages from Iasiah, 20:1 and 36:2:

When looking at the most modern translations and comparing them with older ones there is – as a tendency I presume – a glaring shift in translating two words:

תַרְתָּן and אֶת-רַבְשָׁקֵה

The KJV version renders the first as:

In the year that Tartan came unto Ashdod, (when Sargon the king of Assyria sent him,) and fought against Ashdod, and took it;

Whereas NIV – as an example – has:

In the year that the supreme commander, sent by Sargon king of Assyria, came to Ashdod and attacked and captured it--

Again an apparently similar phenomenon is found in 36:2. KJV:

And the king of Assyria sent Rabshakeh from Lachish to Jerusalem unto king Hezekiah with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field.

And NIV:

Then the king of Assyria sent his field commander with a large army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. When the commander stopped at the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer's Field,

So the tendency to observe is that an Assyrian/Akkadian word for a function or title was left untranslated, in my view, in the Hebrew text and in the old translation, like KJV.

But why do modern translations go for the translation of the function into modern language, when it seems as if the Hebrew text did no longer know about the specific function and seems to treat both words like proper names?

That these words are treated as proper names is claimed plainly, without proper citations, on this Wikipedia page: "In the Bible, the title is used as the proper name."

My reasoning within this translation issue was that the more literal translations are preferable than more modern (intended as helpful?) translations. תַרְתָּן in Hebrew is also rendered Tartan in the JPS version or here. I conclude from that that the textual composition history might give a clue: that by the time the text was finalised the functional title (like in 36:2) had lost its prior understanding to the then authors/redactors (of Isaiah, not KJV) and that thereby this transformed the word: crystallising it, into a proper name. Also compare this. ‎ Further research yielded me just fundamental etymology and the like but not real information on translation choices.

  • "But why do modern translations go for the translation of the function into modern language, when it seems as if the Hebrew text did no longer know about the specific function and seems to treat both words like proper names?" How do you know that in the Hebrew text they are treated like proper names?
    – bach
    Aug 15, 2018 at 19:06
  • @Bach First, it is my impression from he text in Hebrew and the older translations. Second, this Wikipedia article states it flat out (without citations). Third, I do not know for sure, and ask here ;) Aug 15, 2018 at 19:12
  • Ok. Was just checking that this is indeed the case. I don't know why Wikipedia says that it is treated like one. Perhaps because their real name is never mentioned in the bible so they assume that the bible treats it like a proper name. It is highly unlikely that the redactors were not aware that these were Assyrian titles, so I would say that the bible was well aware of it. on the other hand, it is likely that that they were known to the Israelites by their nickname only, and their real names were never recorded and forgotten.
    – bach
    Aug 15, 2018 at 20:30
  • @Bach The lack of the definite article might be the reason for saying it was treated as a proper name
    – b a
    Aug 15, 2018 at 21:59
  • @Bach The words are Akkadian, not translated into Hebrew.
    – Perry Webb
    Aug 16, 2018 at 8:01

1 Answer 1


Maybe, the following details can be useful for LangLangC.

The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary (CAD) is helpful to give some light on this subject.

As regards Tartan, we read in it: "TURTANU (tartanu, turtannu, tartannu) […] a high military official". This term was mentioned in texts by Mari, in Standard Babylonian, Neo-Assyrian, and Neo-Babylonian. "The word designates an Assyrian official and is only rarely applied to foreigners." (CAD XVIII-489-490)

Other sources add:

The Companion Bible (E. W. Bullinger, on Isa 20:1): “Tartan. A title = commander in-chief.” (similarly, The Expositor’s Bible)

Giovanni Pugliese Carratelli (Scritti sul mondo antico, 1976, Naples, p. 153): “generalissimo”.

Gesenius (Thesaurus Philologicus, vol. III, p. 1521): “praefecti militum Sargonis”.

Moreover, we may have - roughly – a clue about the military rank of a tartan perusing the classical text Ancient Near Eastern Texts (1974 edition, edited by J. Pritchard):

Later on, the position of the official within the hierarchy was decisive for the sequence, the highest official (tartanu) following the king immediately, while important palace officers [...] and the governors of the foremost provinces took their turn in well-established order.” (p. 274)

I became very angry on account of these happenings, my soul was aflame. I called the turtan-official, the governors, and also their assistants and gave immediately the order.” (p. 296, inscription by Assyrian King Ashurbanipal, now in the British Museum)

We may conclude that - possibly - the title Tartan – possibly - applied to an officer of high rank, probably second only to the king.

As regards Rabshakeh, CAD wrote: “RAB-SIKKATUTU/RABI SIKKATI/RAB SIKKATI [...] A high military officer”. The term was mentioned in texts of Ur III (after, also in Old Babylonian texts). “In early ref[erence]s (Ur III, Old Assyrian, and Old Babylonian) the rabi sikkati serves chiefly in military capacities. Later texts give no indication of his official functions.” (CAD XIV:6 e XV:252-254)

In this case, also, the source Ancient Near Eastern Texts (pp. 282, 296) gives some clues:

I sent an officer of mine, the rabsaq, to Tyre.” (inscription of Tiglath-Pileser III)

I ordered to add to my former (battle-) forces (in Egypt) the rabsaq-officer.” (inscription of Ashurbanipal)

In conclusion, it seems to me these terms were clearly titles and not proper names, though I’ve noted that people unaccustomed to a foreign language incline themselves to switch the title-function of a name into a proper name. It is an anthropological-linguistic constant.

  • Excellent answer. +1.
    – Dottard
    Jul 10, 2023 at 22:02

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