Bible scrollThis post is third in a series. The other two are:
Wycliffe wades into wild waters
translating Father & Son

My passion for the Bible being translated as accurately as possible is not new-found. When I was training for the priesthood in the late 80’s, when the presumption still existed that stipended priests would train and be formed at St John’s College, Auckland, I organised a letter/petition that our NZ Prayer Book’s psalter not have the unsystematic removal of “Israel” and “Zion” from its text. St John’s, being where essentially all Anglican clergy went to be trained, had every hue and colour of the Anglican spectrum present – there was little we could all agree on. But every student signed the letter (except one or two overseas students who appropriately felt it was not their business). The non-Israel/Zion psalter went ahead, much to the hurt of the Jewish community who felt that their taonga (treasure) was being desecrated. I do not recall our letter even receiving an acknowledgement. General Synod’s reasoning: people misunderstand “Israel” and “Zion” in the Bible. The Anglican Church’s response isn’t to educate and help people to understand “Israel” and “Zion” – just alter it.

Wycliff, SIL, and Frontiers similarly see “Father” and “Son” in the Bible being misunderstood in Muslim contexts, so rather than translate these accurately with explanations in footnotes, they are altering the actual translated text.

What about liturgical texts with “Creator, Redeemer, and Giver of life”? I get asked. Great. Be creative in our public praying with new texts and new images, “Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver” (Our church found the original “Love-maker” in that prayer an image too far! Obviously, I’m not talking about translating historic Trinitarian texts, the creeds, or those used for baptism – there’s a whole series of posts here on that).

What about inclusive language in translations such as NRSV? Great. If the original is clearly intended to be gender-inclusive, the translation should be gender-inclusive (not the ESV nonsense of translating what they acknowledge to be gender-inclusive in intent with an English gender-specific translation).

Since the first post I’ve been asked privately what about a translation that rephrases the entire Bible to avoid gendered language for God and anything that excludes LGBT? Well, firstly, I don’t think that the biblical writers had the concepts of LGBT that we have, and so anything that appears to straight-forwardly address them is an anachronistic reading back into the text what isn’t there. The word “homosexual” dates from 1870. Using the word “homosexual” in an English translation of the Bible is very recent.

If we are going to “correct” the Bible on one set of criteria – where do we stop? Let’s correct its misunderstanding of Geology, Geography, Biology, Mathematics, Psychology, and the past and future of the planet – to name but a few…

My contention: leave the Bible alone.

That leads to a very important point. I am forever being bombarded by the next translation of the Bible that makes it read like a contemporary story. It isn’t! Such a translation may be safe, useful, and effective in the hands of someone with good training and formation – but generally it reinforces the colossal mistake that we can pick up the Bible and accept what it says at face value in the same manner that we would a contemporary reliable history book. This is not what the Bible is. The Bible is a complex collection of ancient documents from across a period of over a thousand years written in contexts and languages that are immensely alien.

It should be every Christian community’s joy to help people find their way into this magnificent collection, and to find in this collection ever-deeper insight into the meaning of our lives. Clergy need to be thoroughly trained and formed to enable this journey.

Sometimes we will encounter concepts and ideas that no longer apply. We have moved on. We need to move on. Having worked out what the original text really means, and been honest about what it means, we need to say, no, this is something we will no longer accept; this is something we will no longer follow. But to change the translation to fit in with our altered perceptions – I think that is dishonest.

Leave the Bible alone.

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