For example in Genesis 1:

元始{はじめ}に神{かみ} 天地{てんち}を創造{つくり}たまへり

Why are the kanji 元始 and 創造 given the interesting readings? Moreover, they seem to be given the readings of the less specific words 始め and 作り. Why not do this:

始めに神 天地を作りたまへり

I understand the motivation of giving a technical kanji compound to denote a special concept, but usually when that happens an ad-hoc 和製漢語 or existing 音読み compound reading is given. So why not

元始{げんし}に神 天地を 創造{そうぞう}したまへり

Is this practice of using kanji compounds imported from China but instead giving the reading of the closest Japanese word more common in Classical Japanese?

  • Never seen this version of the Bible.
    – istrasci
    Aug 15, 2013 at 22:09
  • bible.salterrae.net/meiji/xml
    – ithisa
    Aug 15, 2013 at 22:10
  • 1
    Man, how can anyone read that? That's crazy!
    – istrasci
    Aug 15, 2013 at 22:29
  • Well, the overspecific kanji helps a lot in my case since I know Chinese. Which means I can basically get what it means, though the total lack of punctuation and the habitual 文語 は and が dropping is annoying (It is too easy to read 神天地を... as a compound rather than 神が天地を... lol). I really can't get how somebody listening to it can get the full meaning though.
    – ithisa
    Aug 15, 2013 at 22:35
  • 2
    The non-standard, classical kanji of the Japanese Bible seems very analogous to the non-standard, classical words and phrases of the English Bible :) Aug 15, 2013 at 23:52

3 Answers 3


This is one of the neat things about Japanese, and actually can shed some light on [音]{おん}[読]{よ}み・[訓]{くん}[読]{よ}み.

One can think about the whole Japanese writing system as just using the 漢字 that have similar meaning for the Japanese word, and "reading" it as Chinese or Japanese.

It started out by being just literal Chinese ([漢文]{かんぶん}). Then, instead of reading it as Chinese, it was read as Japanese (i.e., 漢文[訓読]{くんどく} with [片]{かた}[仮名]{かな} markup). However, after a while, the verbs started being moved to the end (matching Japanese grammar), and then, there was a shift to using the 漢字 for their "sound" instead of actual meaning (i.e., [和文]{わぶん}). Having to write so many strokes just for sound was cumbersome (i.e., [萬葉]{まんよう}[仮名]{がな}); so, [平]{ひら}[仮名]{がな} was invented. It was difficult to understand text written only in 仮名 without the 漢字 to convey meaning; so, after a while, both 漢字 and 仮名 were mixed together (i.e., [和]{わ}[漢]{かん}[混淆]{こんこう}[文]{ぶん} and [仮名]{かな}[交]{ま}じり[文]{ぶん}).

That is a grossly over-simplified history of the Japanese writing system.

So, 漢字 and Japanese sounds have always been loosely coupled, which has allowed for authors to pick-and-match 漢字 and reading.

An example of this is the word つくる—there are different 漢字 used to convey different meanings/nuances.

  • 作る
  • 做る
  • 創る
  • 造る

The author(s) of your Bible decided to use 元始 for the meaning of "はじめ", and 創造 as the meaning of "つくる".

  • This is the only answer that actually answers my question. +1
    – ithisa
    Aug 24, 2013 at 12:46

Meiji-yaku is influenced from chinese bible(聖經).


創造天地萬物 1 起初, 神創造天地。 2 地是空虛混沌;深淵上一片黑暗; 神的靈運行在水面上。 3  神說:“要有光!”就有了光。 4  神看光是好的,他就把光暗分開了。

Many kanji notations are same as that of chinese version, but the reading are that of japanese. here becomes the deviations between the representations (kanji) and the readings.


The 文語 translation of The Bible was made before WWII when written Japanese was undergoing a huge revolution.

文語 is the written Japanese. Before Meiji, all written Japanese used a type of written Japanese called 文語体. 文語体 developed during 中古日本語, which was developed in Heian.

And during Meiji there was a reform which suggested that written Japanese should be the same as the oral one. This perfectly explains why the 文語 version of the Bible is so different compared with the modern ones.

At that time, Japan also had a 'diglossia'.

  • I know about the 文語 diglossia thing. I'm more interested in the interesting kanji usage, which seems not to occur in actual Heian-period texts, or other 文語 texts such as Hirohito's surrender edict.
    – ithisa
    Aug 16, 2013 at 12:33
  • I don't exactly know why were they given such unique 読み, but actually many old (or ancient) Japanese text were written in such a weird way.
    – hello all
    Aug 17, 2013 at 1:29

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