While trying to look up something else in my big Russian-English dictionary, I happened on the entry Вирсавия [Virsaviya] f bib Bathsheba. Well, that’s odd, thought I: Virsaviya doesn’t sound much like Bathsheba (who was King David’s wife and Solomon’s mother, in case you’re not up on your Bible references). I looked it up in my indispensible Dictionnaire Russe-Français (by N.P. Makaroff, Saint-Pétersbourg, 1908) and found it rendered as Bersabée, which is an older French version of Beersheba, which is an ancient site southwest of Jerusalem (the name means ‘well of seven [lambs]’) where Abraham spent a good deal of time. So which is it, the woman or the well? Turns out it’s both, and Russian didn’t invent the confusion but inherited it from Greek, where both are rendered in the Septuagint as Βηρσαβεε (/bhrsabee/ in the usual transcription where /h/ = eta, and pronounced by the Byzantines, and thus by the Russians, as /virsave/, giving Russian Virsaviya). The confusion was evidently borrowed by Latin as well, allowing Sir John Mandeville to produce the following supremely confused passage:

And when men pass this desert, in coming toward Jerusalem, they come to Bersabe [Beersheba], that was wont to be a full fair town and a delectable of Christian men; and yet there be some of their churches. In that town dwelled Abraham the patriarch, a long time. That town of Bersabe founded Bersabe [Bathsheba], the wife of Sir Uriah the Knight, on the which King David gat Solomen the Wise, that was king after David upon the twelve kindreds of Jerusalem and reigned forty year.

So what I want to know is how the two Hebrew words, which are after all distinct even if fairly similar, one referring to a person and the other to a place, got rendered the same in Greek. And I would also like to know, though less urgently, where the stress is in the Russian word; Makaroff has virsAviya and the modern dictionary virsavIya.

By the way, in the course of all this I ran across this excellent site, which has the entire Bible (divided into chapters) with the text in Russian, English, and Greek (the Septuagint text for the Old Testament). I love the internet.


  1. I always vaguely merge Bathsheba and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath in my mind…. and the Queen of Sheba too…. as well as a lot of photos of models in bubble baths…..
    There must be a list somewhere of misreadings which have become canonical. Moses or Abraham with horns (in Michelangelo?… Leonardo?) is also a mistranslation.

  2. Beer-sheba can mean ‘well of oath’ in addition to ‘well of seven’, right? The former is the basis of Genesis 21:31: ‘Wherefore he called that place Beersheba; because there they sware both of them.’ The Septuagint seems to actually translate (and decline) it. So, Φρεαρ ορκισμου and then a couple of verses later, επι τω φρεατι του ορκου.
    That still does not explain Βηρσαβεε μητερα σαλωμων (1 Kings 1:11), which sure looks to have come from Beer- and not Bath-sheba. It isn’t in Arndt and Gingrich, since that’s NT-oriented.

  3. Beer-sheba can mean ‘well of oath’ in addition to ‘well of seven’, right?
    Well, that is a traditional interpretation, but my Baker Encyclopedia of Bible Places says “The alternative interpretation, ‘The well of the oath’, arises through a misunderstanding of the use of the Hebrew word for ‘therefore’… and a mistranslation of the Hebrew particle ki by ‘because’…” I’m certainly not qualified to judge this stuff, and will be glad to hear from anyone who is.

  4. I should have been clearer that LXX does generally use it for both, just as LH says. So, Judges 20:1, απο Δαν και εως Βηρσαβεε.
    Interestingly enough, the Modern Greek translation has Βηρ-σαβεε and Βηθ-σαβεε.

  5. A bit more searching shows just how much Bible-related that we have in the old-fashioned book form is now online.
    An OT Hebrew lexicon for Beer-sheba and Bath-sheba, with nice hyperlinks to what it sees as a common root.
    Parallel Hebrew-English text where we can see בְּאֵר שָׁבַע vs. בַּת-שֶׁבַע.
    Still no answers to the basic question, though. Also it’s very hard to know what accords with modern linguistic scholarship without being influenced by other motivations.

  6. This page says, “The form of Bathsheba’s name here is not unusual in medieval sources. Manuscripts of the Vulgate used many different spellings, and two of the most common were Bethsabee and Bersabee.” (These are the same forms that the Douay uses for the two.) So that’s the same confusion, although it’s still not clear where it originates.

  7. Well, of course both words have always had more or less similar vocalizations: in ancient times they would presumably have been Shab`a and Shaba… but as for Be’er vs. Bath… you’ve got me. I guess they’re KINDA similar, so there may be no special reason. It would be cooler if there was though.

  8. Beersheba also fits into the besotted fratboy fantasy life pretty well. A slinky Queen of Sheba delivering beer from the Well of Beer……

  9. The Sheva in Be’r Sheba is definitely seven. I used to live close to this place, and even saw the supposed well of Abraham. The arabic name is quite similar and also refers to seven.

  10. Don’t forget George Peele’s play The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe. With the Tragedie of Absalon.
    Hot sunne, coole fire, temperd with sweet aire,
    Black shade, fair nurse, shadow my white haire.
    Shine sun, burne fire, breath, aire, and ease mee,
    Black shade, fair nurse, shroud me and please me.
    Shadow (my sweet nurse) keep me from burning
    Make not my glad cause, cause of mourning.
    Let not my beauties fire,
    Inflame unstaied desire,
    Nor pierce any bright eye,
    That wandreth lightly.

  11. The Peshitta (the other early translation) appears to have both ܒܪܫܒܥ and ܒܬܫܒܥ, just as you’d expect.
    Cheyne’s Encyclopaedia Biblica (scanned PDF), s.v. BATHSHEBA, says “in [LXX], by a strange confusion, [Βηρσαβεε] = Beersheba” (but with more varied fonts).
    Literary Blunders, by Henry B. Wheatley, says, “A writer in the _Notes and Queries_ confused Beersheba with Bathsheba, and conferred on the woman the name of the place.” as though the error crept up again independently in English in London in 1890.

  12. LH, the stress is on A: VirsAviya.
    Although, many things changed in Russia since I left, why not this one too?

  13. Stresses in Russian words of Biblical origin seldom if ever change, so I’d go with the much-respected Makarov.

  14. Although not fully my place, I’d like to put in my two cents. My name is Virsaviya so I’ve always wondered at the origins. My dad (who chose my name) said it is King David’s wife’s name, which I now know is true, but I also heard it is his grandmothers name. Does anybody know the validity of that?
    Also, to clarify a couple of things, in Russian, the stress is definetly on the A – VirsAviya (with a secondary stress on YA). As for the difference between bath and beer, one meens daughter while the other is well. Bath-Sheva is seventh daughter. I’ve always wondered about the difference and relationship the two names have. I had always thought Bath-Sheva is David’s wife, while Beer-Sheva is a place in Israel.

  15. “Bathsheba” is found in the Masoretic and Peshitta versions, whereas “Bersabee” is found in the Septuagint (at least the Vaticanus and Basilio-Vaticanus) versions. Also, “Bathshua” is used in the Masoretic version of 1 Chronicles 3:5. Perhaps the different name renderings simply represent different parallel traditions, rather than being a confusion or a misreading? Curiously, in English translation history, the form “Bersabee” is found in the Wycliffe Bible (late 14c), which I think is the first extant English translation of the passage. It probably did not appear again in English until Charles Thomson’s translation of the Septuagint in 1808 (as “Bersabe”).

  16. marie-lucie says

    The French name of King David’s wife is Bethsabée. I have never seen it written differently or heard of Bersabée. But I have never been a great Bible reader.

  17. I’ve seen claims that the city of Warsaw, capital of Poland, was named after this woman/well/town in Israel.

  18. Warszawa is from Warszowa, the genitive of the name Warsz, which is a shortened form of Wrocisław in its variant form Warcisław (which must be borrowed from a non-metathesizing Lechitic language).

  19. Trond Engen says

    a non-metathesizing Lechitic language

    I’ve never thought of that. This would mean that the regular correspondence between Germanic and Slavic, as observed even in loans both ways (varg -> vrag, Vladimir -> Valdemar), might be due to awareness of regular correspondences within the Slavic dialect chain rather than between Germanic and Slavic.

  20. Stefan Holm says

    As for wolf the Scandinavian word is ulv/ with regular loss of ‘w’ and ‘y’ in front of ‘o’: word > ord, worm > orm (snake), yoke > ok, young > ung etc. Ulf is still a common Scandinavian (male) first name. And so is Ylva (female wolf).

    But Swedes use the word varg for that particular beast. It has been explained as a way of not mentioning this evil creature by name but instead use a paraphrase (‘varg’ is in Icelandic attested to mean ‘killer’ or ‘culpit’).

    Going back to PIE however another story appears. The reconstruction says *wlkwos (sorry for the details). The liquid (‘l’) turns up as an ‘r’ in some dialects (not surprisingly). And – I unfortunately can’t find the source – I once saw that in the (Uralic) language Mordvinian, ‘wolf’ was ‘vrk’ (if so a probable IE loanword).

    Swedish being the most eastern of the Scandinavian languages could thus have got this ‘vrk’ instead of ‘vlk’ variety without religious ideas of not mentioning the devil by name. The connection to Russian враг (vrag – enemy) is of course interesting. No worse enemy could have appeared to our ancestors than this beast capable to kill their sometimes only cow.

  21. Vasmer rejects the comparison of враг/ворог ‘enemy’ with vargr ‘wolf.’

  22. Warszawa is from Warszowa, the genitive of the name Warsz, which is a shortened form of Wrocisław

    So, are you saying that Warszawa and Wrocław share essentially the same name? Wikipedia seems to agree…

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