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Saturday, July 12, 2008

every word of god?

I'm not a Bible scholar, by any stretch of the imagination. In college I considered majoring in religion and philosophy, and took two semesters of New Testament Greek, but that hardly qualifies me to speak with authority about Bible translation and interpretation. Still, I try to be as informed as I possibly can, so I often read blogs of people who actually do something about the Bible.

And so, I've seen a lot of commentary this week responding to a post by one Tim Challies, who apparently is no more a scholar than I am, but who does presume to speak with some authority about Bible translations. Specifically, Challies prefers the English Standard Version translation (ESV) over the New Living Translation (NLT) or the Contemporary English Version (CEV), two translations which Challies describes as "less literal". In Challies' own words:

What I mean to show in these examples is that anything other than an essentially literal translation of the Bible may work to subtly undermine the Christian’s confidence in the Scriptures.

The key to choosing a good translation, according to Challies, is this:

We cannot overestimate the importance of ensuring that what we study is the clearest, best, most accurate translation of God’s Words that we can possibly find.

Challies gives some examples of how the ESV translates a couple verses, and how these other Bibles translate the same verses. Let's see how the "less literal" translations undermine our confidence.

The first example is from Romans 13:4. Here's the ESV:

But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

Now the NLT:

But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for you will be punished. The authorities are established by God for that very purpose, to punish those who do wrong.

And the CEV:

If you do something wrong, you ought to be afraid, because these rulers have the right to punish you. They are God’s servants who punish criminals to show how angry God is.

For good measure, Challies also includes The Message paraphrase:

But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it.

The issue, for Challies, is the word "sword".

The translators have seen fit to provide what they feel is the main idea of the passage, that the civil authorities have the right to punish those who do wrong. But this is a verse that has long been used to discuss the Christian view on capital punishment. It is an important verse in this context and in others. But in these three translations there is nothing to discuss, for the “sword” has been removed and punishment, which may be imprisonment, fines or community service, among other things, has been substituted.

This is Challies' first mistake: He doesn't understand the context of this verse. Paul is not writing instructions to the civil authorities on how to handle wrongdoers; he's encouraging the Christians in Rome to do what's right and not get themselves into trouble with the law. If they obey the law, they will have nothing to fear. (History has proven Paul wrong about this; in the year 64, the Emperor Nero had some 7,000 Christians killed as scapegoats after a fire swept through the city, though the Christians had no part in setting the fire. It's likely that Paul himself was one of those who were executed.)

To turn this verse on its head, though, and say that capital punishment is justified, is the same mistake pro-slavery advocates made two centuries ago.

Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.

That's 1 Peter 2:18, in the New Revised Standard Version. A less literal translation might say "servants" instead of "slaves".

Here's the same verse in the ESV:

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.

But I digress.

Clearly, this verse is not saying that it's OK to own slaves, or to treat them harshly if you do -- or even to be unjust to your servants. The instructions in this passage are written to those who are in a position of indentured service. At the time, some Christians were slaves. That should not be taken as a justification of the institution of slavery. Likewise, the word "sword" in Romans 13:4 should not be used as a justification of capital punishment. That's not what the passage is about. To understand a Bible passage, we have to begin by understanding its intended audience.

Surely Challies, the author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, ought to know that much.

Here's Challies' other example, Psalm 32:1. First, he quotes the ESV:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Then The Message:

Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be—you get a fresh start, your slate’s wiped clean.

The NLT:

Oh, what joy for those whose rebellion is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight!

And the CEV:

Our God, you bless everyone whose sins you forgive and wipe away.

Here, Challies' concern is for the word "covered". In the "less literal" translations,

It has been replaced by "wiped clean," "put out of site," or "wipe away." But is "covered" not one of the words God breathed out and wrote in His book?

In a word, no. The members of the ESV translation committee are listed on its web site, and God's name is not among them. If you like the ESV translation, then by all means use it. But don't try to claim that every word of the ESV is identical to every word of God. That's putting too much confidence in the translation committee.

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At 7/13/2008 10:37 AM, Blogger Steve Hayes said...

And of course now cops don't carry a sword, but usually a pistol -- would Challies then say that they are entitled to act as judge, jury and executioner on those they apprehend in wrongdoing?

At 7/13/2008 7:57 PM, Blogger John B. said...

A couple of things:

1)In a recent interview or essay (I can't remember now which), Antonin Scalia specifically made reference to Romans 13:4 as offering justication for the state's right to put people to death--he, too, took "sword" literally.

2) I wonder if Challies' approval of the ESV has anything to do with Mark Driscoll's adoption of the same translation? Also, a bloggy friend of mine and I had a discussion of Driscoll and the ESV (using a bit from your post as the starting point) here.

At 7/14/2008 1:46 PM, Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I'm a great fan of the ESV myself, I usually use either it or the NRSV and often compare both of them to the NIV and KJV (those two of course being the most widely-used). I think I would agree with your conversation partner that VERY loose "translations" such as the NLT or the Message can simply be misleading or misrepresent the potential meanings in the text by including so much editorial gloss. If for example the word "sword" was supposed to conjure up an OT allusion in the passage mentioned above then it would be missed. (This is also why the NRSV's omitting the words "Son of Man" from Daniel 7 for reasons of 'gender inclusibity' is HIGHLY troubling, since Jesus was appealing to that passage, but in the NRSV this is now totally hidden from even a thoughtful reader).

As I wrote on a blog a while back, I think the ESV has the best balance of literary beauty, strict accuracy of translation, and readability. So it is the one I recommend (I hear there is a version coming next year that includes the Deutercanonicals!) However, it is not without flaws. Sometimes the KJV's word order is preserved when (however lovely it may sound) it really is archaic usage.

Also, sometimes traditional "Bible words" are not used when I wish they were (such as translating "episcopos" as bishop) and sometimes they are used when I wish they weren't (compare the ESV's "propitiation" with the NRSV's "atoning sacrifice" in 1 John 2:2).

Most of my friends who are really strict about a "every word has to be the word God picked" approach to Bible-picking prefer the NASB, but I find it highly un-readable.

At 7/14/2008 8:36 PM, Blogger BruceA said...

Steve -

But the police would never abuse their power like that, would they? Or if they do, they'll at least issue a written apology, won't they?

John -

There seems to be a contingent that wants the ESV to be the new KJV-only. I don't think either Challies or Driscoll is a leader of this group; however, they both seem to have swallowed the Kool-Aid.

Daniel -

You raise some very good points. I'll have more to say in my next post.


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