Interestingly, even though the description of the sin offering in Leviticus say to use turtledoves as part of the sacrifice, Numbers 6:9-12 specifically says “turtles” in the KJV. Modern translations, on the other hand, say “turtledoves.” Now, don’t get me wrong, turtles and turtledoves are practically the same thing, I mean, they do both have the word “turtle” in their name, so this is just minor nitpicking on my behalf, but why the difference?
When we take a look at the untranslated Biblical Hebrew we see the word as towr, the exact same word used in Leviticus, the same thing that was previously translated to “turtledoves.” So what’s the deal here? Why did the KJV translators decide to print just “turtles?” Surely they would know how confusing this would be to biblical literalists?
First, we need to consider our source material. When the KJV was written, the earliest copies of the Old Testament were from a copy of the Masoretic Text dated to around 1000 CE. Not that this matters, because the translators didn’t even use it. Instead they looked to the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 CE and the Geneva Bible of 1560 CE, both already translated into English by prior scholars, neither of which was approved by the Vatican. However, the bulk of the Old Testament came from the Ben Hayyim edition of the Mikraot Gedolot from 1525 CE, which had literally thousands of errors. It kind of goes without saying, but if you’re looking to get the most accurate translation possible from an ancient text, you should do the exact opposite of what the church did!
Despite its errors, the Mikraot Gedolot would serve as the primary source for all major Old Testament bibles until fairly recently. In the mid-1900s, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Among the many uncovered scrolls were found some copies of Old Testament books dating around 300 BCE. From these we learned that the Masoretes were exceptionally good at preserving the copies. While there were more than enough differences to ruin the hopes and dreams of any biblical literalist, the majority of the books remained unchanged for over 1,300 years, an impressive feat! However, a controversial point to make is that the people who stashed the scrolls were in strong disagreement with modern Christians, as most of the stashed books are not among the modern biblical canon.
The end result is that early translations, like the KJV, come from an unknown number of copies, modifications, and translations from their source while modern translations, like the NIV, come from slightly fewer unknown copies, modifications, and translations from their source. Because of this, even though the KJV is more poetic and artistic in style, the NIV should always be preferred for accuracy.
How does this relate to the whole turtles versus turtledoves conflict? It probably doesn’t; I just wanted to expose the folly of the KJV translators. The word turtle at the time, was understood to be synonymous with turtledove when in such a context. The inconsistency appears to be a stylistic choice of the translators.