God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How Not To Talk About Homosexuality in Romans 1

A New York Times article yesterday titled “Christians Debate Verses From Bible on Homosexuality” presents, among other things, two views of what Paul says about homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27. Unfortunately, both positions depend on translation inaccuracies.

Romans 1:26-27

“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

Caleb Kaltenbach, the lead pastor of Discovery Church in Simi Valley, CA, claims: “The word that Paul uses for `natural’ is not referring to what is natural to a specific person, but rather what is natural in light of God’s intent for the sexual design of humanity.” In other words, he says, no one can be naturally homosexual.

Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, counters: “While Paul labels same-sex behavior `unnatural,’ he uses the same word to criticize long hair in men in 1 Corinthians 11:14, which most Christians read as a synonym for `unconventional.'” That is, it’s not that homosexuality is unnatural, but rather, like hair styles, a matter of conventionality.

I can’t find linguistic support for either view.

As issue is the Greek word fusis (“nature”) and its adjectival cousin fusikos (“natural”). According to Romans 1:26, “women exchanged natural [fusikos] intercourse for that which is against nature [fusis].” Pastor Kaltenbach thinks this refers not an individual’s nature but rather to a universal divine intent. Mr. Vines thinks this refers to conventionality.

Galatians 2:15 suggests that Pastor Kaltenbach is wrong about the word fusis. There, Paul writes that “we are Jews by nature [fusis]” even though (2:16) “we have come to believe in Christ Jesus.” Recognizing the obvious role of fusis in this passage, most translations render the text “we are Jews by birth.” In this case, fusis means precisely “that which is natural for a specific person,” namely, the person born a Jew. If Pastor Kaltenbach were right, Galatians 2:15 would mean that the new Christians were going against “what is natural in light of God’s intent for … humanity.”

We see that, contrary to Pastor Kaltenbach’s claim, fusis can in fact refer to what is natural to a specific person.

Turing to Mr. Vines’s position, 1 Corinthians 11:14 does use the word fusis, in the context of men growing their hair long, but the long hair isn’t against nature. Rather, the long hair is “degrading,” a quality conveyed by a different Greek word, atimia. (In other contexts, atimia ranges in meaning from “disgraceful” to “ordinary.” Romans 1:26 uses this word to describe some lusts as “shameful.”) That is, the role of “nature” here is not to describe the long hair. Rather, it’s “nature” that teaches that men’s long hair is atimia. It’s not quite true, in other words, that “Paul uses the same word [fusis] to criticize long hair in men.”

We see that even though Romans 1:26-27 shares vocabulary with 1 Corinthians 11:14, the long hair on men in 1 Corinthians is not parallel with the unnatural intercourse in Romans 1.

More generally, the linguistic nuances in Romans 1 offer little insight into whether Paul was speaking out against homosexuality. All we really know is that Paul was of the belief that there are two kids of sex, natural and unnatural. He doesn’t say whether homosexual sex, like heterosexual sex, admits of both categories.

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June 9, 2015 Posted by | translation applications, translation practice | , , , , , , , | 33 Comments

How Were Jesus’s Followers Armed?

Newsweek reports on Dr. Dale Martin‘s claim that Jesus was killed because his followers were armed.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all agree that crowds supporting Jesus carried weapons of some sort, usually translated “swords.” (Curiously, the Newsweek article omits Matthew.)

But Dr. Paula Fredriksen is quoted in the article as arguing that “the Greek word used in the Gospels that Martin interprets as sword really means something more akin to knife.”

She’s almost right. The word, machaira, means both “sword” and “knife.”

In Genesis 27:40, Abraham raises a “knife” against his bound son. In Hebrew, that’s ma’achelet and in Greek translation, machaira. Though etymology is notoriously unreliable, the root shared between the Hebrew words ma’achelet (“knife”?) and ochel (“food”) suggests some connection between the knife and food. But even if there is a connection, a ma’achelet is surely not a butter knife. It’s a sharp blade that’s deadly enough to slaughter with.

Furthermore, we also find machaira used to translate the Hebrew word cherev, “sword.”

Returning to the New Testament (which offers better evidence about Greek, because the Greek in the Septuagint is often a poor translation), we find that machaira is metaphorically the opposite of “peace,” in Matthew 10:34, for instance. And in John 18:10 — the passage about Jesus’s armed followers — one thing we know is that the weapon, a machaira, was carried in a sheath of some sort from which Simon Peter drew it.

Again, the machaira isn’t a butter knife, or (because it hadn’t yet been invented) a switchblade.

I think it’s misleading to say that the word doesn’t mean “sword.” It clearly does. The question is what kind. Perhaps we should call it a “dagger” in English, or perhaps there’s a better specific word, but it was certainly a violent weapon.

Jesus’s followers according to the Gospels were armed.

October 15, 2014 Posted by | translation applications | , , , , | 13 Comments

When the Liturgy and the Bible No Longer Match

I got a great question during a lecture I gave last week in Washington, DC: Quotations from the Bible frequently appear in prayers. What should we do when a better understanding of the Bible’s text forces a new translation that no longer matches the prayers?

For example, in And God Said I argue against the translation “The Lord is my shepherd” for Psalm 23. (The reasons why are involved and not really relevant here.) The questioner in Washington agreed that “shepherd” is the wrong word. But he was troubled, because my lecture followed a worship service, and Psalm 23 had been part of the service. “Do we have to change our prayers, now, too?”

The problem stems from potentially conflicting goals. I think a translation of the Bible should be accurate. But for liturgy, I think accuracy should be subservient to prayerfulness. What good is an accurate translation at a prayer service if it doesn’t make for good prayer?

This is a particularly vexing problem in strong liturgical traditions — the Catholic Church and most Jewish traditions, for example — but I think it applies to anyone who wants some degree of correspondence between prayer and Scripture.

So what do you think: When a better understanding of the Bible creates a non-prayerful translation, what should we do?

May 28, 2010 Posted by | translation applications, translation theory | , , , , | 8 Comments