Monday, December 7, 2009

Christmas Interrupted

Well, my Christmas spirit has been interrupted by something a friend pointed out to me via Facebook. Then I saw a news story about it at It's appeared on MSNBC, too, I think. I feel I need to address this issue.

Led by Andy Schlafly, son of the anti-feminist leader, Phyllis Schlafly, a group of amateur Bible scholars (and I emphasize "amateur" while using "scholar" loosely) have set out to create a modern Bible translation free of the "liberal" biases they see in translations today. They read liberalism into such famous passages as Jesus' prayer for his executioners in Luke 23: 34 (which appears in the KJV--I bet there were some liberals on that translation team) and Jesus' forgiving the woman taken in adultery (another text in the KJV). Acts 2: 44 is right out as it clearly endorses socialism, so it must be retranslated in a way that makes no sense of the rest of the Acts narrative that culminates in chapter 5 with the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. You start to get the idea of why I emphasize "amateur" and use "scholar" loosely.

This project is free and anyone can contribute. It's a wiki project, similar to wikipedia. No advanced competency in the languages or textual criticism is required. There seems to be an emphasis on the ability to spot deceptive liberal wordings in the text and correct them with "powerful conservative terms" ( This is so obviously an agenda driven translation project as should require no rebuttal, but the press had latched on to this thing and given it legs with its reporting.

I am not going to address the particulars of the project. Rather, I want to say a word about the textual transmission of the Bible, textual criticism, and translation theory. But I must qualify all that I say with the caveat that, on this, I am an amateur, too. My specialty is Church History, not biblical studies, and while I've studied Greek, Hebrew, and Latin for my degrees, I'm by no means a scholar in those fields.

When you pick up a Bible, you hold in your hands the culmination of thousands of years of work, from the writing of the "autographs", the originals penned by the biblical authors, to the centuries of hand-written copies, the translation work of scholars through the ages, and much careful study. No book is as closely proof-read by publishers as is the Bible. Why? Because so many of us consider it to be the very word of God written. Therefore it is treated with special reverence and care.

When biblical scholars work on what is called a "critical" edition of the Greek New Testament or the Hebrew Bible they have certain guidelines they follow to sort through a variety of "textual variants", minor discrepancies that appear here and there in the text as a result of centuries of hand-copying by scribes in various circumstances. They do this, not to include or eliminate specific readings because of an agenda, but to determine what was most likely the original wording of the text as it appeared in the autographs. With regard to the New Testament, scholars have over 5,000 manuscripts to work with, and the level of certainty is above 99% recovery of the original text. Our level of confidence in the Hebrew text is similarly high, though I don't have an exact figure for that.

Next comes the matter of translation. This is where there is more potential for bias. There is a saying among translators: Traduttore traditore--"the translator is a traitor." What this means is that no translation from one language to another is ever entirely complete. Something is lost or added in every translation attempt. The question is, are there intentional changes taking place due to translator bias? Has translator bias impacted some translations? Yes. Still, most of the popular translations today (I'm not speaking of paraphrases, which are a separate issue) seek to remain faithful to the original thought or wording of the Greek and Hebrew texts. Given that, you can have confidence that the Bible you own, whether it is a King James Version, New American Standard, New International Version, or English Standard Version (or some other--there are so many today) is substantially the Word of God written and is reliable to communicate to you God's message of redemption.

Here a quote from the 18th century English Baptist leader John Gill is in order: "The Scriptures in our English translation, have been blessed of God, either by reading them in [the original], or by explaining them according to it, for the conversion, comfort, and edification of thousands and thousands. And the same may be said of all others, so far as they agree with the original, that they are the rule of faith and practice, and alike useful" (Body of Divinity, Baptist Standard Bearer ed., 13b).

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