God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Bible on Abortion – Part 2

Many people point to Luke 1:41 (“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.”) as evidence that, in the view of the Bible, a fetus is a child. But these people have misinterpreted the verse.

On one hand, the reasoning behind the flawed claim is straightforward: If it was a “child” that leaped while still in Elizabeth’s womb, whatever is in a womb must be a child. So a fetus is a child. And, in turn, abortion must be the same a killing a child. But though straightforward, this reasoning is misguided.

Language commonly disassociates a word from the time at which it applies. For instance, in Genesis 25:23, God tells Rebekah that “two nations are in your womb.” Surely this doesn’t mean that a fetus is a nation (and that, therefore, a single abortion is identical to genocide). Rather, the “two nations” are “two future nations.”

Similarly — as I explain in my Huffington Post piece, “What Does the Bible Really Say About Abortion?” — this is why in English a drawing of George Washington at age two might be captioned “The Founding Father as a Child” even though he wasn’t yet the founding father. And it’s the reason a mother might say that her motivation to get married and have children was that she pictured her life with her children and liked what she saw. “Her children” here — like “the founding father” and the “two nations” — represent the future. This is also why we might talk about “Mark Twain as a young child,” even though he wasn’t Mark Twain yet, not having yet assumed that pen name.

It might perhaps be clearer in all of these cases to specify the time. So, “the future Mark Twain as a young child,” a woman’s “future children,” or “the future founding father,” but language doesn’t require it. In just the same say, the Bible doesn’t need to specify “two future nations are in your womb” or “Elizabeth’s future child leaped in her womb.”

People are generally able to recognize this linguistic pattern, but when it comes to abortion and the status of a fetus, people are sometimes driven to read more into the text than was originally there.

So while Luke 1:41 is consistent with a fetus being a child, it is equally consistent with a fetus not being a child. Luke 1:41 does not tell us anything about the status of a fetus, so it doesn’t tell us anything about abortion.

[You may also want to read part 1 of this series.]


September 16, 2015 Posted by | biblical interpretation | , , , , | 13 Comments

Babies, Fetuses, Stomachs, and Wombs

At Hebrew and Greek Reader, the question is asked whether the NLT’s rendering of Ecclesiastes 11:5 is politically motivated. The issue is the image of …ka’atzamim b’veten ha-m’lei’ah, that is, “like etzems in the beten.” The NLT’s rending is:

…a tiny baby [etzem] growing in its mother’’s womb [beten]

(I’m ignoring maleh here, because it’s not relevant to my current point.)

Every translation I know renders beten here as “womb.” But the same Hebrew word (in Proverbs 13:25, for instance) is clearly “stomach,” because it’s associated with food. And we know from Judges 3:21 that men have a beten, too. Even though we have two words in modern English — “womb” and “stomach” — is seems that Hebrew had just one, which we might translate “belly.”

The translator’s question here is whether the translation should reflect the ancient world view or the modern one. The good news with beten is that not much rides on the decision. It makes little difference whether it is the mother’s “womb” or “belly” that is the seat of pregnancy.

Exactly what is in the beten, on the other hand, is enormously important. Is it a “fetus”? An “embryo” (NJB)? “Bones” (KJV)? A “human frame” (NAB)? Is it a baby (NLT)?

The theoretical issue in this second case is almost the same as the first: does the translator use a modern term (“fetus” or “embryo”) or an ancient one? But, unlike with beten, the implications of the theoretical approach to translation end up with much more widespread consequences.

December 4, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 6 Comments