Growing up I remember being corrected on the spelling of Samson. “No ‘p’ in his name!” I would be told over and over. The interesting thing is not in that I was spelling the name incorrectly, but that so many people spell the name incorrectly. In addition, there are many people in our culture today whose surname is Sampson, which seems to reinforce the use of the letter “p” in the middle of the name.
This year, as I have been teaching through the book of Judges, I posed the question as to what is the cause for this phenomenon? Is this but a dialectical thing, or is there something in the original text that is not being carried over into our English transliteration? What I found was quite interesting.
The Hebrew spelling of Samson’s name is !Avm.v. (Shemshon). While there is some debate over the source of his name, it seems that it is derived from vm,v, (shemesh), which means “sun.” Since the Philistines worshiped the sun as one of their gods (the Mesopotamian god “Samsu” was revered as god of the sun), this seems to be a direct attack on their deity, much in the same way that the plagues in Egypt are attacks on the Egyptian gods of that day. Yet, this does not help us solve the mystery of the “p” in his name.
The “p” actually arrives from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. About 300 years before the birth of Christ, the Hebrews began translating the Bible into Greek. Greek was the “lingua franca” of the day and many Jewish people in the dispersion could no longer read Hebrew well. In addition, the Greek mind likes to engage in dialogue with other schools of thought and such a translation provided a medium for that discussion. This translation is referred to as the “Septuagint” or the “LXX.”
When the translators of the Book of Judges approached the name of Samson, they transliterated it as follows: Samyw/n (Sampson). This transliteration not only explains how the “Sh” transformed into a “S,” but also explains the importation of the letter “p” into the center of the word. Now, why they opted to use a psi (y) instead of a pi (p) is still clouded by the shadows of history, perhaps it was simply seen as an easier way to pronounce his name—there are a number of names that have been transliterated oddly both in the Septuagint and in our English translations.
Thus, the next time you happen to slip, and pronounce or spell Samson’s name with a “p,” and someone curtly corrects you, all you have to do is to put on as serious and scholarly a face as you are able and inform them that you simply favor the Greek spelling over the English one. That ought to get them scratching their heads for a while. :8)