About the Author(s)

Philip Suciadi Chia Email symbol
Faculty of Biblical Studies, Evangelical Theological Seminary of Indonesia, Yogyakarta, Indonesia


Chia, P.S., 2022, ‘Why do the ancient texts differ in their translations of אמצים in Zechariah?’, Verbum et Ecclesia 43(1), a2568. https://doi.org/10.4102/ve.v43i1.2568

Original Research

Why do the ancient texts differ in their translations of אמצים in Zechariah?

Philip Suciadi Chia

Received: 23 Apr. 2022; Accepted: 29 June 2022; Published: 04 Aug. 2022

Copyright: © 2022. The Author(s). Licensee: AOSIS.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Throughout history, the holy scripture has been translated into different languages. One of the purposes of Bible translation is to give readers who do not have knowledge of Hebrew or Greek access to the biblical text. Translators of the Bible are often faced with problems of interpretation, especially when there are Hebrew words that are used only once. Ancient translations of the Hebrew text can assist translators in understanding how their translators understood a problematic word. The ancient translations, however, leave some challenges, especially when they render problematic words differently. These variants may derive from different purposes while translating or a different vorlage. This article argues that the different translations of ‘אמצים’ in Zechariah 6:3 and 6:7 among ancient texts – LXX, Peshitta, Targum and Vulgate – are because of different purposes.

Intradisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary implications: This research is a combination of textual criticism with translations.

Keywords: Zechariah; ancient translations; lexical studies; textual criticism; comparative languages.


In Zechariah chapter 6, the word ‘אמצים’ has been translated differently by the ancient translators. The translators of the Vulgate translate ‘אמצים’ as fortes or ‘strong ones’. The translators of the Septuagint, the Syriac Peshitta and the Aramaic Targums differ from the translators of the Vulgate. They translate ‘אמצים’ as ‘dapple-grey (horses)’. In short, one Hebrew word ‘אמצים’ has been translated differently by the ancient translators: some translate it with emphasis on the characteristic of the horse: ‘strong’, while others translate it with emphasis on the colour of the horse: ‘dapple-grey (horses)’. This article argues that there is a different purpose behind these differences; for example, the Latin Vulgate’s translation focuses on the target language or the readers, while the rest of the translations focus on the source language. To examine the purposes of various translations, this research will present four different ancient texts, namely, Vulgate, Peshitta, Targum and LXX. Afterwards, this article will compare these texts and give evaluations on these variants (cf. Chia 2021b for the methodology). As the word ‘אמצים’ appears only twice in the entire Hebrew Bible, Zechariah 6:3 and 6:7, this research will only analyse these two verses.

The problems: Different interpretations

The interpretation of ‘אמצים’ in the ancient translations

In this section, this article presents the readings of Zechariah 6:3 and 6:7 from ancient texts such as the Hebrew (Gelston 2010), the LXX (Thompson 1999), the Vulgate (Weber & Gryson 2006), and the Targum and Peshitta (Gelston 1987) (the comprehensive Aramaic lexicon).

In Zechariah 6:3, the word ‘אמצים’ is translated into the character and the colour of the horse. The Latin Vulgate and the Masoretic text speak of the character of the horse, et in quadriga quarta equi varii fortes and וּבַמֶּרְכָּבָה הָרְבִעִית סוּסִים בְּרֻדִּים אֲמֻצִּים, respectively. The Latin Vulgate and the Masoretic text vocalise ‘אמצים’ with hataf patah under the aleph ‘אֲמֻצִּים’. The other translations, on the contrary, reveal the colour of the horse. The LXX, Peshitta and Targum vocalise ‘אמצים’ with patah under the aleph ‘אַמֻצִּים’. Therefore, they speak of the colour of the horse. The LXX has dapple-grey horses: ἐν τῷ ἅρματι τῷ τετάρτῳ ἵπποι ποικίλοι ψαροί. The Peshitta communicates parti-coloured horses: ܘܒܡܪܟܒܬܐ ܕܐܪܒܥ ܐܘܪܓܐ ܪܟܫܐ. The Targum pictures shining ash horses: וּבִרתִיכָא רְבִיעֵיתָא סֻוסָוָון פַצִיחִין קִטמָנִין.

In Zechariah 6:7, the word ‘אמצים’ is translated in three different ways rather than two (compare Zch 6:3). Again, both the Latin Vulgate and the Masoretic text speak of the character of the horse, qui autem erant robustissimi exierunt and וְהָאֲמֻצִּים יָצְאוּ, respectively. They vocalise ‘אמצים’ with hataf patah under the aleph ‘אֲמֻצִּים’. The LXX and Targum, on the contrary, keep vocalising ‘אמצים’ with patah under the aleph ‘אַמֻצִּים’. Thus, they speak of the colour of the horse. Although the Syriac Peshitta still discusses the colour of the horse, the Peshitta changed ‘אַמֻצִּים’ from Zechariah 6:3 to ‘אֲדֻמִּים’ in Zechariah 6:7. As a result, the colour ‘red’ appears in the Syriac Peshitta’s translation.

The interpretation of ‘אמצים’ in Zechariah 6:3 and 6:7 in Biblia Hebraica Quinta

An anonymous reviewer of Verbum et Ecclesia shares critical apparatus notes of Zechariah 6:3 and 6:7 in Biblia Hebraica Quinta (BHQ) to capture the difficulty of the word ‘אמצים’ through different translations. The apparatus notes of Zechariah 6:3 argues that ‘אמצים’ means ‘strong’, while the LXX and Targum mistakenly assumed that ‘אמצים’ refers to the colour of the horse. Both the LXX and Targum continue to choose the colour’s translation in Zechariah 6:7. The Syriac translation, however, omits ‘אמצים’ in Zechariah 6:3 but translates it as ‘red’ in Zechariah 6:7. The apparatus notes opine that this omission in Zechariah 6:3 might be accidental, or it was felt to be unintelligible in this context. The ‘red’ translation in Zechariah 6:7 might be triggered by the difficult reading in the Hebrew text, and the Syriac chooses the fourth colour from Zechariah 6:2–3 (Gelston 2010:126).

The interpretation of ‘אמצים’ in Zechariah 6:3 and 6:7 in Hebrew lexica

The difficulty of the meaning ‘אמצים’ is also revealed in Hebrew lexica, as they propose two different meanings. The following lexica were used: Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB), the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT), Holladay and the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew.

A pure consonantal text of ‘אמצים’ raises problems both in ancient translations and modern Hebrew lexicons, because it could be either אֲמֻצִּים or אַמֻצִּים. The difference is on the first vowel: ḥaṭaf pataḥ (translation: strong) and pataḥ (translation: skewbald). Brown-Driver-Briggs, for example, has ḥaṭaf pataḥ of ‘אמצים’. Thus, the translation is ‘strong’ as an adjective masculine plural absolute from the word ‘אָמֹץ’ for both Zechariah 6:3 and Zechariah 6:7 (BDB 1996). The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Koehler, Walter & Richardon 2000), on the contrary, translates from pataḥ of ‘אמצים’. This word is derived from an adjective masculine plural absolute from the word ‘אָמֹץ’. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (2000) mentions that this word appears only once in the Hebrew Bible. Therefore, the colour of the fourth chariot is reflected in their translation as ‘skewbald’ (fresh-coloured). Holladay (1972) also has a colour description in its translation. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Botterweck & Helmer 1974) and the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew volume 1 (1994) are aware of the difficulty of the word ‘אמצים’. Although they translate ‘אמצים’ as ‘skewbald’ and ‘dapple-grey’, they recognise that the very same word could have a different meaning, namely ‘strong’.

In summary, the word ‘אמצים’ seems to have two meanings. The first meaning focuses on ‘strength’. This translation is attested by BDB only. The second meaning focuses on the colour of the fourth chariot, thus ‘skewbald’ and ‘dapple-grey’. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Holladay, TWOT and the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew support this second meaning.

Analysis of the word ‘אמצים’

From the word ‘בְּרֻדִּים’

The word ‘בְּרֻדִּים’ appears right before the word ‘אמצים’ in 6:3 and four Hebrew words before ‘אמצים’ in 6:6. This word appears four times in the Bible (Gn 31:10; 31:12; Zch 6:3; 6:6). It is always translated as ‘spotted’ or ‘marked’. In Genesis 31:10 and 31:12, three ancient texts – the Hebrew Bible, Latin Vulgate and Syriac Peshitta – are rather ambiguous about the colour of the flock. Those ancient texts only describe the characteristic of the flock’s appearance, such as spotted, speckled and variegated (highly decorated). The Targum Jonathan describes furthermore the colour of the flock, which is white. The LXX, on the contrary, is obviously communicating the colour of the sprinkled (spotted): the pale grey colour of ash. In summary, Genesis 31:10 and 31:12 reveal that the Targum Jonathan and the LXX’s translations connect ‘בְּרֻדִּים’ with colour, while the Peshitta and the Vulgate remain unclear.

In Zechariah 6:3 and 6:7, the Targum and the LXX consistently translate the ‘בְּרֻדִּים’ with colour, just as in Genesis 31:10, 12: the shining (dazzling) with the ash horses and the variegated ones with the dapple-grey horses, respectively. The Latin Vulgate and the Syriac Peshitta, on the contrary, have different translations, while their translations are ambiguous in Genesis 31:10, 12. The Latin Vulgate has ‘the strongest ones’, while the translation of Peshitta ‘ܣܘܡܩܐ’ has no counterpart to the Hebrew text at all: ‘the red ones’.

From geographical study

Nogalski (2011:877) argues that geography plays important role in these verses. Because of the geography of Palestine, all of Israel’s enemies came against her from the north or south. Towards the east of Israel and Judah are the Arabian deserts. On the western side is the Mediterranean Sea. The appellation of north and south is related to geography. Old Testament prophetic texts display an ongoing tradition of the threat from the north. The north is the place from which attacks come from Assyria and Babylon (Is 14:31; Jr 1:14–15; 3:18; 6:1, 22; 10:22; 15:12; 16:15; 23:8; 25:9; 31:8; 46:20, 24; Ezk 26:7; 38:6; 39:2; Zph 2:13). Jeremiah 50–41, however, denotes that the phrase ‘the land of the north’ can also refer to the ascendant or ascending ancient Near Eastern power of the day, because there it refers to those who punish Babylon (50:9; cf. 50:3; Boda 2016:259–269).

The identity of the land of the south is ambiguous. Daniel 11 juxtaposes the kings of the south and the north, referring there to the post-Alexander Hellenistic kingdoms of the Ptolemies in Egypt (south) and the Seleucids in Syria (North). Another possibility is Edom, because it is often associated with the ‘south’ (Jos 15;1; Jr 40:20; Ob 8–9) and given the significance of Edom elsewhere in the Book of the Twelve as an enemy of God’s people (Am 9:12; Ob 1:1; Ml 1:4). While Babylon is the dominant nation linked to the destruction of the former kingdom of Judah and to the tradition of retribution for this destruction, Edom also is regularly associated with this disaster and retribution associated with it (Ps 137:7; Is 34:5, 6; 63:1–6; Jr 49:7–22; Lm 4:21; Ezk 25:12–14; 35:15; Ob; Ml 1:2–5; cf. Ps 83; Am 1:9; Ezk 21:1–5 [20:45; 49]. Boda (2016:259–269) argues that Teman regularly features in prophecies of retaliations (Jer 49:7, 30; Ezk 30:26; 25:13; Am 1:12; Ob 9). In this way, then, the two major nations linked to the destruction of Judah would be punished. One interpretation is that this suspected nation is probably Egypt (Is 43:6). Petterson states that Egypt was an implacable and long-term enemy of the people of God, and Egypt was also the place to which some from Judah fled after the destruction of Jerusalem (Jr 44; Petterson 2015:178). As Baldwin (1972) offers a helpful summary of the passage’s main emphasis:

[S]o far as the prophet’s message is concerned the only group of importance is that which goes to the north, where the struggle for world domination had for centuries been concentrated. Egypt was still an important power, hence the mention of the south also, but to the wet there was nothing importance going on to warrant special mention. From a stylistic point of view the prophet gains by leaving the other two directions vague. It is enough to know that the Lord is triumphant over the dominant world powers. The lesser are included with the greater. (p. 197)

Another interpretation is that the land of the south is merely used as a balance to the land of the north to indicate the universal scope of Yahweh’s rule, and although the land of the north represents an allusion to Babylon and Assyria, the land of the south has no specific nation in mind (Boda 2016:259–269). In short, it was from the north and the south that the traditional enemies came into their land. It is these directions in which the horses and chariots go out.

All the ancient texts concur that both the black and white chariots go to the north – Assyria and Babel – to execute God’s judgement, and the spotted chariots go to the south. The black horses and their chariot head north to assault Assyria and Babylon. Following the black horses, the white horses also head in a northerly direction. Note that no chariot travels to the east. Two reasons can be supplied why no chariot heads to the east. Firstly, east of Israel and Judah are the Arabian deserts. Secondly, the Temple faced the east because the Old Testament figuratively viewed the east as the direction from which the Lord would approach when he comes to establish his kingdom. One may then surmise that Zechariah understands that the Lord will come from an eastward direction (Klein 2008:512).

From ancient texts

Although TWOT supports the reading of the LXX and the Targum because the first three chariots are given colours and it seems incongruous to call the last pair ‘strong’ (Klein 2008:512), we cannot just claim that the Latin Vulgate’s translation and the Peshitta text in Zechariah 6:7 are erroneous.

As this research has listed, the LXX, Syriac Peshitta and Targumic Aramaic consistently keep the depiction of the fourth chariot both in appearance and colour. Those translations see that the black ones were seen to issue forth to the north land, while the white ones came behind them and the dapple-grey came to the south (Didymus & Hill 2006:112). Although the Aramaic Targum, Septuagint and Syriac Peshitta reveal the colour of the fourth chariot in Zechariah 6:7, the translations of Targum and LXX consistently use the colour of ‘the shining (dazzling) ones’ and ‘the variegated ones’ in Zechariah 6:3 and 6:7, respectively. Although their consistency in these translations raises a problem (what happens to the red horses in Zechariah 6:2?), they seem to be content in omitting ‘אֲדֻמִּים’, just as in the Hebrew text. Briefly, translators of both the Targum and LXX are looking for consistency in the given colour for these horses – just as in the Hebrew text – without seeking any further explanation.

The Syriac Peshitta translates the Hebrew word ‘אמצים’ as ‘the parti-coloured ones’ in Zechariah 6:3. In Zechariah 6:7, however, the Peshitta translates ‘אמצים’ as ‘the red ones’ instead of ‘the parti-coloured ones’. The Peshitta’s translation is nowhere near to either the LXX and the Targum translations of ‘the shining (dazzling) or the variegated’ or the Vulgate’s translation of ‘the strongest ones’. The word ‘the red ones’ or ‘ܣܘܡܩܐ’ also has no counterpart to the Hebrew text at all in Zechariah 6:7. It seems that the vorlage of ‘the red ones’ or ‘ܣܘܡܩܐ’ is אֲדֻמִּים. The Hebrew word ‘אֲדֻמִּים’, however, appears in Zechariah 6:2. Therefore, it is obvious that the translation of ‘the red ones’ in 6:7 reveals the purpose of the Syriac Peshitta’s translator, which is to match or to be consistent with the text of Zechariah 6:2. The other ancient texts above faithfully follow the Hebrew text in ignoring the information of the red horses in verse 7. The red horses appear in 6:2, but there is no further information in 6:7. This missing information about the red horses could raise unresolved question(s) to the readers. The translator of Peshitta, therefore, is driven to explain the destination and activity of every chariot by including the missing red ones which went and patrolled the Earth (6:7). The red horses went and patrolled the Earth (6:2 cf. 6:7). The black horses headed to the north (6:2 cf. 6:6). The white horses followed the black ones to the north (6:3 cf. 6:6). The dappled horses went to the south (6:3 cf. 6:6).

The last ancient text to analyse is the Latin Vulgate. This text follows the Hebrew Bible, the Targum and the LXX in respect to omit the red horses in 6:7. Also, the Vulgate consistently uses the word ‘strong’ for both 6:3 and 6:7. The difference, however, is that verse 3 uses a normal adjective ‘fortes’, whereas verse 7 employs the superlative form in the verse 7 (‘issimi’ in Latin). Whether the usage of the relative pronoun qui in the beginning of verse 7 modifies the fourth chariot only or the whole chariots, this superlative form is unique because it is not attested in any ancient texts (Chia 2018). As Boda believes that ‘אמצים’ should be considered an additional descriptor for all the teams of horses rather than being an additional descriptor for the spotted horse, this final descriptor accentuates the different functions of the horses when pulling a chariot for military offense in 6:1–8, rather than when carrying a human mount for military reconnaissance in 1:1–17. The horses here are all described as powerful, emphasising their function as offensive military weaponry (Boda 2016:359–369). It seems that the translator of Vulgate is driven to remind and encourage the reader that Yahweh is the true king over all the earth (14:9); he will judge his enemies (1:21; 2:9; 6:8–9) and save his people (2:11; 8:20; 9:7; 14:16); and he is in control. The presence of war horses already symbolises the Lord’s omnipotence and dominion over all creation (Klein 2008:512). The historical background of the book of Zechariah is the prophet served in the latter half of the 6th century (in 520 B.C), 20 years after the first Jews returned from exile in Babylon. Although the Jews were not in bondage anymore, the exiles fell far short of promising the return and restoration of Israel’s glory (Petterson 2015:91). God’s people were disheartened after their fortunes had not been restored, and Jerusalem was only partially rebuilt because of a continuous threat from surrounding nations. It seemed that God did nothing for their restoration. Zechariah kept calling the people to trust and obey God’s word regardless of their situations. The Vulgate captures Zechariah’s exhortation and encouragement, and it is reflected in its translation. Although the people of God fall short of promising and restoration of Israel’ fortune, the imagery of the strong chariots (verse 3) – even the strongest chariot(s) of God (verse 7) – that go and patrol the Earth confirms Zechariah’s message: God is in control and God is more powerful than their situation. Therefore, the translator of the Vulgate is driven by a psychological and theological purpose (cf. Aquila and Theodotion’s translation in Field 1875:1021).


The different translation of the word ‘אמצים’ in the Hebrew text is not only because the word may have two different meanings but also because there is a purpose behind the selection of the meaning. Klein (2008:512) states that the Targum and the Septuagint, for example, consistently and faithfully, maintain the harmony of colours of all horses (6:2–3): red, black, white and spotted-grey (ash). Then, when the red horses are missing from the Hebrew text, they faithfully omit the red horses (6–7). These translators are driven by a Hebrew text purpose. The Syriac Peshitta, on the contrary, consistently preserves the harmony of colours like the Targum and the Septuagint (6:2–3), but it does not faithfully commit to the Hebrew text. Rather, the Syriac Peshitta has the word ‘red’ as a substitute of ‘אמצים’ so that the Peshitta could be consistent to verses 2–3 and provide clearer information about the red horses that is missing in all ancient manuscripts (6:6–7). This translator is influenced by the context of the text’s purpose (cf. Didymus & Hill 2006:112). The Latin Vulgate is the only ancient manuscript that employs the word ‘strong’ (6:3). This uniqueness continues to verse 7, when the Latin Vulgate uses the superlative form that is not even attested in Hebrew text. This research conveys that the Latin Vulgate is probably eager to encourage the people of God amid their unpleasant situation (theological implication). The Vulgate is driven by a psychological and theological purpose (cf. the translation of Aquila and Theodotion in Origen Hexapla in Field & Origen 2005).


Competing interests

The author declares that he has no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced him in writing this article.

Author’s contributions

P.S.C. is the sole author of this article.

Ethical considerations

This article followed all ethical standards for research without direct contact with human or animal subjects.

Funding information

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

Data availability

Data sharing is not applicable to this article as no new data were created or analysed in this study.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any affiliated agency of the author.


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