Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

Suing Bible publishers for bad translations

July 12, 2008

Via Language Log and Religion Clause and a whole lot of other places: the story of Bradley Fowler, who is suing Bible publishers Thomas Nelson and Zondervan “on the grounds of malicious negligence, breach of duty, duty of care, intentional torts, malice, strict liability, and violating [his] civil right according to the U.S. Constitution, 14th amendment.” Specifically, he objects to the use of the word “homosexual” in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and related passages, and appears to think the publishers are engaged in some sort of conspiracy to change the translation capriciously, I suppose with the intent of causing him further confusion and heartbreak.

The post at Language Log has oodles of great stuff, both in the body and in the comments. Religion Clause has links to the hand-written complaints. For rather less useful commentary, here‘s a discussion of the suit in the context of an anti-Barack Obama screed (really!). [My own commentary will also be rather less useful than LL and RC, but in a different way.]

In no sane world could this case have any merit. I would say “it should be laughed out of court,” but really it’s more sad than funny. Mr. Fowler is clearly a disturbed and desperate individual. He might benefit more from anti-depressants than from frivolous lawsuits.

Fowler’s complaints are seriously confused and confusing. His notion of what publishers do seems somewhat muddled. From the Zondervan complaint:

Zondervan Publishing House knowingly implemented the term — homosexual — to its 1982 and 1987 new edition Bibles. Yet elected to revise that text and remove the text from the 1994 editions. Ironically, the 1989 edition didn’t include the term either. Still, Zondervan Publishing neglected to inform the public of their changes.

You get the idea. Earlier in the complaint he cites the New King James version, but the 1982/1987/1989/1994 “editions” he quotes are actually the NIV, the Amplified Bible, the NRSV (you can find it here), and the King James.

As far as the translation itself, the Greek words in question are μαλακοι and αρσενοκοιται, malakoi and arsenkoitai, the “soft” and the “man-bedders.” No one is really sure what Paul meant by the terms—well, plenty of people are very sure, but they’re sure of different things—so the translation is necessarily tricky. “Arsenokoitai” is particularly interesting, as this passage is its first known use (and for all I know all the other uses are quoting Paul). He may have been referring to Leviticus 18:22, literally something like “Thou shalt not lie with a man in beds of woman; it is an abomination.” Or not. See the comments at the Language Log post for much better-informed commentary.

My own ill-informed opinion, for what it’s worth, is that “homosexuals” is a lousy translation, as it carries anachronistic cultural connotations. I prefer the King James’ “abusers of themselves with mankind” just for its pungency. But “homosexuals” isn’t obviously completely wrong either. I’m pretty certain Paul would not have approved of homosexuality as we understand it, either as a sexual preference, or as a “lifestyle,” or simply in terms of sex acts themselves. He only barely tolerated sex at all, and then only in marriage.

In any case I doubt this is the most egregious mistranslation in the Bible. Nor is it the most portentous—my nomination for that would be Isaiah 7:14. I think that one goes back to the Septuagint, whose translators would be difficult to sue.

Oral Cultures and Us

May 17, 2008

On their respective blogs, April DeConick, Mark Goodacre, and Loren Rosson are having a discussion of orality, “secondary orality,” oral and literate cultures, and how our era of chaotic electronic communication might compare to the world that produced the New Testament (the area of study of the aforementioned scholar/bloggers). It’s pretty interesting stuff, so I won’t let my complete ignorance of the subject keep me from making a few random semi-related comments. Please do bear in mind that my only claim to expertise here is that I, you know, read and talk, so I’m pretty sure I’m way out in left field here. Oh, and I think my most interesting point as the last one, so you might just skip to that.

It’s not entirely clear to me that Professors DeConick and Goodacre and Rosson don’t actually more or less agree—Goodacre says so, respecting DeConick’s first post—and that the apparent disagreement is really over terminology and nuance and emphasis. Is that typical of oral or literate cultures? 🙂 . Insofar as I understand the issues here, I’m entirely with April DeConick (always a safe bet, as far as I can tell).

Rossen, citing this, argues “that our hypertext/internet subculture shares remarkable similarities with oral biblical culture.” I don’t buy it. The analogy is certainly interesting, but I don’t think it’s more than, well, an interesting analogy. It would be at the very least misleading to draw conclusions about the culture that produced the New Testament. Maybe when I have more time and energy I’ll respond to all the points there in detail, but for now I’ll just mention two very obvious things:

  1. Our pseudo-oral electronic communication shares one crucial feature with good old books, and not with truly oral culture—you can always look up sources. You can click on those links above and see what I garbled in this post. You should, actually, if you have the slightest interest. Then you can go to a library and read the references they cite. I should do that myself.
  2. As April DeConick comes close to pointing out, people in oral cultures had skills we don’t—our memories suck. We have no need to remember very much; we can look up anything we need, and just haven’t needed to practice memorizing things. The internet has made looking stuff up even easier, come to think of it, moving us still further away from truly oral cultures.

This does have me thinking about “oral transmission” and what it means for various ancient texts. How do the gospels compare in that respect to the Pentateuch, or to the Iliad and the Odyssey?

Homer seems a very different case from the Bible here—the Greek epics were (apparently) pretty direct transcriptions of oral versions of the story. Hence all the mnemonic devices and stock phrases: “strong-greaved Achaeans,” “bright Achilles,” “gray-eyed Athene,” “wine-dark sea.”

The gospels and the Old Testament, at least the part of the OT I find most interesting—the J sections of the Pentateuch and the story of David—also strike me as fundamentally different in origin. The gospels were apparently written down in part to preserve circulating oral tradition, and although (unlike the Homeric epics) they were certainly not mere transcriptions, their authors presumably thought of themselves much more as reporters than as poets or novelists. On the other hand, I tend to think that the Yahwist and the “Court Historian of David,”—who may have been the same personwere essentially novelists. They used oral (and maybe written, for all we know) tradition as source material, but just as modern fabulists and historical novelists do they turned them into new, creative works. I think the Court History of David (including one of its prequels in I Samuel) is in fact best characterized as the first historical novel. Or at least the first one that survives.

Back to the modern world. I think the only example of an actual oral culture that we modern Americans are exposed to is that of elementary-school children. All of you out there sang “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells,” “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, I bit my teacher’s toe,” and “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school,” didn’t you? In the days before Bart Simpson those spread (mostly) orally, all over the country, with all the attendant versions and variations that you’d expect. “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes“—maybe New Testament scholars should consider visiting some elementary schools…

A little more about Hitchens, and a lot about Hell

April 10, 2008

Previously in this space, I mentioned that there were interesting points embedded in Christopher Hitchens’ explanation of Martin Luther King’s patent atheism. Specifically, in this passage:

…it is only in the reported observations of Jesus that we find any mention of hell and eternal punishment. The god of Moses would brusquely call for other tribes, including his favorite one, to suffer massacre and plague and even extirpation, but when the grave closed over his victims he was essentially finished with them unless he remembered to curse their succeeding progeny. Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing the dead.

HellThat is surprisingly close to being correct. The New Testament, and Christianity, are indeed much more focused on the afterlife, as both reward and punishment, than are Judaism and its scriptures. Search for the word “Hell” in the NIV, and you’ll only find results in the New Testament.1

The early Israelites do not seem to have had much concept of individuals’ survival after death. Having their progeny succeed and multiply was a far more meaningful “life after death.” But there are obvious exceptions, most strikingly the summoning of Samuel’s spirit for Saul by the witch of Endor.2

And there is an abode of the dead in the Hebrew scriptures. Sheol is very much the equivalent of the Greek Hades (which is how the Septuagint translates it), a sort of gloomy half-world, where all the dead go, whatever they were in life. It is not a place of punishment, and indeed can provide a welcome (if metaphorical) rest from the woes of earthly life. From Job 3:13-19:

For now should I have lain still and been quiet, I should have slept: then had I been at rest, with kings and counselors of the earth, which build desolate places for themselves; or with princes that had gold, who filled their houses with silver: or as an hidden untimely birth I had not been; as infants which never saw light. There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary be at rest. There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. The small and great are there; and the servant is free from his master.

In older translations of the Bible “Sheol” is often rendered as “Hell”; in newer ones, as “the grave,” or “the pit.” (Hence the specification the NIV, a translation I don’t particularly like, in the search above.) It appears most frequently in the more poetic books—Job, and the Psalms—or in the allegorical prophetic books, and hence may have been more a literary device than a statement of belief.

The Inferno, by BarolomeoThe Gospels do (apparently) introduce another version of Hell. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus refers to “Gehenna,” the exact nature of which is not clear, but which seems very bad indeed. It’s a place of fire and torment, where not only bodies but souls are destroyed. It is the negation of the Kingdom of Heaven. The word is derived from the valley of Hinnom, just outside Jerusalem. According to the historical books of the OT, and the prophet Jeremiah, human sacrifices were performed there, an practice that was ended by King Josiah. By Jesus’ time it had taken on a more abstract and otherworldly meaning, no longer an earthly abomination but a place of endless torment.

That is one manifestation of a more general phenomenon: in general the New Testament is abstract where the old is concrete. Compare, for example, the Magnficat with its original, the Song of Hannah. We should perhaps be cautious in extrapolating from the texts themselves to their authors’ and adherents’ beliefs, as concrete language can be interpreted abstractly and abstract language interpreted concretely. This is especially true of Jesus, who (very much in the early rabbinical tradition) spoke figuratively and taught in parables. He certainly went into no detail about the nature of Gehenna3, and may well not have meant to imply a literal eternal punishment.

What Christopher Hitchens—he got us here originally, remember—gets wrong is that this use of Hell, even assuming it means what later Christians think it means, was new with Jesus. It certainly was not. Jesus was after all a first-century Jew, who lived and worked entirely among other first-century Jews, and used language and ideas that were familiar to them. These could vary considerably from the language in the Old Testament, most of which (the apocrypha and the book of Daniel being the exceptions) was written hundreds of years previously, before the arrival and infusion of Hellenistic culture and ideas, in a language that few common people of Jesus’ time knew.

When Jesus4 used the term Gehenna he was quoting early versions of the Targums, translations of the Hebrew scriptures into Aramaic (see this article by Frederica Matthewes-Green and this by Craig Evans; in the second you should probably ignore the top part of the page completely and scroll to the quoted article). And the concept of an afterlife, including eternal punishment for the wicked, was certainly not foreign. Josephus ascribes such beliefs to the Pharisees (Jewish War II.8.14): “They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies,—but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.” In this he was probably wrong—the Pharisees more likely believed in the resurrection of the body, a belief long metaphorically associated with the rebirth of the nation of Israel5—but his citation is at least evidence that the belief was not unheard-of.

SatanHow Satan—previously a senior member of God’s court—came to be the ruler of Hell is story for another time.


1 See this handy chart for all the “Hell words” in the Bible, excluding the apocrypha.
2 Here is an article by James Tabor about the afterlife in the Bible.
3 unlike some of his later followers, who so delight in the details of how the God of Love will burn, dismember, impale, and otherwise torture the apostate and the heretical.
4 Or rather, the evangelists, who wrote decades after Jesus’ death. And we can’t even be sure of what the evangelists themselves wrote, as the earliest extant copies of the Gospels are from later still, and may represent considerable editing. See this blog post by April DeConick.
5 See Daniel 12:2, and that most vivid of prophetic visions, Ezekiel 37.