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Monday, January 27, 2014

Let's Not Try to Pretty-up the Bible

Although I will comment on timely issues that affect the LGBT community, mostly I flatter myself by contributing what might be called (at least by some) "think pieces." These are efforts to reframe or clarify issues of importance. By providing a different angle or detecting a nuance, we might be able to rethink a formerly held belief or position. At the very least, I hope to generate comments from other thinkers for our mutual benefit. Today's post is a case in point.

Ever since translating the Bible began, from the Septuagint to modern translations, translators have obscured certain passages for a variety of reasons. Euphemisms abound. In the Hebrew Bible, the penis is referred to as "thigh," and of course, we're all familiar with "knew" as the substitute for sexual intercourse. In the New Testament, you'd never know that menstrual rags or castration are meant by "filthy rags"(Isa. 64:6) and "I would they were even cut off which trouble you." (Gal. 5:12)  The NRSV actually says, "castrate themselves."

There has always been a sensitivity by translators to tone down for propriety sake the very earthy parts of the Bible. But when it comes to actually changing the meaning of the texts, I will protest.

Inclusive language, that is, the intentional use of "gender neutral" language, has generally been around since the 1960s. It first showed up in the churches as efforts to take the masculine meaning away from the concept of God. So instead of "God, when he...," for example, we hear "God, when God...," and the like. This is a very important move as we know that 1) God has no gender, and 2) worlds of meaning are created by words. The world created by "God, he..." easily became a world in which the male is elevated over the female. I am all for the use of gender neutral terms for God in all church settings including sermons, liturgies, and conversations. But when it comes to inclusive language in Bible translations, I must object.

Inclusive language efforts try to take the offending aspects of gender and neutralize them. This goes beyond pronouns for God and includes "Parent" for "Father", substituting "members" for "brothers" when the entire congregation is meant, "they" replaces "he or she," and the like.

Certainly this is a wholesome effort, but it actually makes the Bible less understandable and much less useful. How can that be?

Since these efforts generally come out of the more progressive side of the church, the interest goes much farther than merely inclusive language. They recognize that Jesus' message of a God of love often gets lost in the mix of competing images. So they go about "helping" the Bible represent good theology. We'll see how the Inclusive Bible does this in a moment, but first here's 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: (New American Standard Version)
The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. (NASV)
I chose the NASV here because it is a well-known word-for-word translation to the point of being wooden. Anyone reading these verses would come face to face with biblical patriarchy (the family/state system of male dominance and subjection of women). Patriarchy is a biblical fact that runs "from cover to cover." Occasionally there is pushback such as Galatians 3:28, yet patriarchy is the dominate setting. Elders and deacons must be the husbands of one wife, making women ineligible to hold church offices in the "Pastoral Epistles." When the original 12 disciples had to replace Judas, the qualifications made sure a man was chosen. On and on we could go, but you know all this.

So, in an effort to combat the patriarchy of the Bible,and especially its negativity toward women, the Inclusive Bible takes it head on. Here's their translation of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:
Only one spouse has permission to speak. The other is to remain silent, to keep in the background out of respect, and to wait his or her turn.
Surely this is the way we wish the Bible really had it, but it isn't. This is not how the original audience heard this text. Paul explicitly demands that women remain silent in church; this says exactly the opposite  Even though the original sense offends many modern sensibilities, it's the real Bible. The Inclusive Bible is merely wishful thinking. Unfortunately, most of the recent translations offend in this regard to one degree or another. The intention is honorable, but the result is devastating to biblical understanding.

Perhaps a couple more illustrations of how some translations obscure troublesome passages would be helpful. Here's Matthew 18:15-17 from the New Revised Standard Version:
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (NRSV)
"Member" here is literally, "brother." "Member" suggests that Matthew's church made no distinctions in disciplining males and females. This is, of course, how many would like for the church to conduct itself in all things. However, "brother" displays the actual situation where men stand in judgment of men. The disciplining of women fell to their fathers, husbands or brothers. But all of this is lost in the cleaned up version.

One more. One of the arguments that literalists make to oppose the Theory of Evolution is that Genesis 1 uses a phrase meaning reproduction is "after their kind," which is correctly translated. They take this to mean that all the species were created at once and that there could be no evolving of one into another. (Which, by the way, segregationist used "after their own kind" to argue that the races shouldn't intermarry.) So the NRSV translates it as "of every kind," which opens the door for natural selection.

We don't want to leave people with the impression that the Bible is not a worthy companion to help us find God and lead worthy lives. But we do want to warn that reading the Bible is not an easy thing, like reading the morning newspaper. We must learn to differentiate between the culturally derived aspects of the Bible that made sense in that day, but no longer makes sense for us. Someone once said that reading the Bible is like eating watermelon: you have to spit out a few seeds along the way.

When Paul said to "greet one another with a holy kiss," it's perfectly fine to give a hug or handshake today, instead. When in their culture women were subordinated, they are now free in ours. We are living into Paul's inclusive vision of Galatians 3:28 that
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 
So, let's not try to pretty-up the Bible.

First, it's always better to deal with reality than what we would prefer reality to be. Sweeping the problems of the Bible under the rug accomplishes nothing. If you think that cleaning up the offending passages will cure literalists from enforcing patriarchy in their churches, think again. There will always be the King James Version.

Second, if we don't know that the Bible encourages patriarchy, tolerates slavery, subordinates women, and generally represents an outdated worldview, scientifically and otherwise, we lose the fact that it is the product of human beings. Yes, human beings who wrestled with what it means to be human in the presence of the Divine, but human nevertheless. That we can stand in judgment over the Bible comes from listening to all of it, warts and all, and learning to pick the wheat from the chaff. It doesn't take much to see that the "inerrant Bible" is a fiction, but not if it's cleaned up before we get there.

Third, the answer to the problem is not rewriting the Bible, it's in doing good theology. Perhaps knowing that even the original didn't always get it right will help us to understand our human attempts are also fraught with error and subject to revision as others look over our shoulders and make our paths straighter.

So let's live with the Bible as its authors intended. We can handle the seeds just fine.


Unknown said...

Recognizing that the oldest Greek manuscripts have no punctuation, and knowing that Paul was exchanging letters with the churches he was writing to, what happens if you change (only) the punctuation, capitalization, and paragraph breaks? Well, with the Revised Standard Version, 1 Corinthians 14:20-40 becomes:

Brethren, do not be children in your thinking. Be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature in the law. It is written, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord. Thus, tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church assembles and all speak in tongues and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? But if all prophesy and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed and so falling on his face he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.
What then, brethren? [Well,] when you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation – let all things be done for edification. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silence in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent, for you can all prophesy, one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged and [that way] the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.
“The women should keep silence in the churches for they are not permitted to speak but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home, for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
WHAT!? Did the word of God originate with you or are you the only ones it has reached? If any one thinks that he is a prophet or spiritual he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord! If any one does not recognize this he is not recognized!
So, my brethren, earnestly desire to prophesy and do not forbid speaking in tongues, but all things should be done decently and in order.

I'm not sure what would happen with the Greek, but I bet something similar. And this totally changes the meaning of how the church has interpreted Paul's issue with women in the church.

Steve Kindle said...

This is one more piece of evidence that we need to be humble in our exegetical outcomes. Not only are they often influenced by what we'd like them to be, so are the results of the translations we depend upon. The way out is not to despair, but to give one another lots of room, and loving companionship along the way. Differences of opinion are not reasons to find fault or opportunities to distance ourselves from one another. They are opportunities to discover why we are the way we are. Thanks for commenting.

Henry Neufeld said...

As a follow-up to your comment on my blog, let me post a link to my reply posted there. At over 2000 words it is a bit lengthy for a comment! On Prettying-Up the Bible. Thanks for opening this discussion!

Charles Stanley said...

Here in Indiana, it is clear that the attempt to place a same-gender marriage ban in the state constitution is also related to how we view and interpret the Bible. Some assume the Bible is as homophobic as it is patriarchal. I don't see that. I see the Bible condemning homosexual promiscuity, (and we should, as much as we criticize heterosexual promiscuity)pedastery, and cultic sexual practices. I do not think the Bible speaks to same sex couple who want to live in permanent monogamous relationships. I place this position to the right of Christian fundamentalists, whose interpretation of scripture is overly-influenced by a fear of modernity, and thus is strangely a form of theological liberalism. Not that labels matter, but I am tired of granting to fundamentalists the idea they are defending the historic Christian faith. Fundamentalism is a very novel form of being a Christian, not yet even 100 years old. yet somehow they are able to convince a lot of people Including certain Republican state legislators in Indiana) they are the true Christian faith.

Steve Kindle said...

I appreciate your observations, Charles. They point to a reality seldom considered by modern readers: the cultural gulf of 2000 years creates huge opportunities for misunderstanding what we read in the Bible. You are pointing to a major one...what we understand today about sexuality is a far cry from that of the NT era. Thanks for weighing in on this. I hope to hear from you again.