God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Bible on Abortion – Part 1

Perhaps most relevant to the Bible’s view on abortion is Exodus 21:22, which is in fact relevant for two reasons.

According to the NRSV the text proclaims:

When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.

That is, someone who causes a woman to miscarry has to pay a fine.

But we’re not sure “miscarriage” is the right translation here. The NIV thinks this is about a woman who “gives birth prematurely” as a result of being hit.

This is a huge difference. Either the text is about causing an early birth or about causing a woman to lose her fetus.

The text literally refers to the fetus “leaving” the woman, without specifying the condition of the fetus, which is why it’s hard to know just from looking at the words which translation is right. (And the word for “fetus” is yeled, a fact I address below.)

If the NIV is right, then this passage doesn’t speak to abortions at all. But if, as seems likely, the NRSV is right, then Exodus 21:22 addresses what happens when someone causes a woman to miscarry, that is, causes an abortion. And the answer is that the person pays monetary damages.

Because the Bible specifically forbids monetary damages in the case of murder (in Numbers), we learn from this that, in the eyes of the Bible, a fetus is not a person.

In fact, this is a passage about fairness and lex talionis. In general, the biblical principle of justice is “an eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth.” But what happens if a man causes a woman to lose her fetus? The principle would dictate that he should lose his fetus, but he obviously hasn’t got one. This text, it seems, explains what to do instead. And the answer is that he has to pay monetary damages.

There’s another confusing aspect of the text, and that’s the clause “and yet no further harm follows.” Exodus 21:23-25 considers what happens if, by contrast, there is damage:

If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Some people think that the “damage” refers to the fetus, and, in particular, that the “life for life” clause indicates that the fetus is a life. But this doesn’t seem likely, because of the follow-up. In particular, “tooth for tooth” doesn’t seem to be a provision that could reasonably be applied to a prematurely born child. Infants don’t have teeth.

More likely, this is about further damage that occurs to the woman. That is, just to be clear, the text says, the monetary damage is only for the fetus, not for any other damage that the woman may incur.

This text is relevant for a second reason: Some people suggest that the phrasing of the text tells us about the status of a fetus. In particular, the text refers to a woman’s yeled that leaves her. And yeled means “child” (generally as opposed to adult, like the English “youngster”).

If — some people claim — the fetus is already a yeled, then a fetus must be a human.

But this reasoning is flawed. To see how, we can look at similar passages, such as Genesis 25:22, in which the newly pregnant Rebecca worries because her twin children struggled within her. God tells her that, “Two nations are in your womb.” Surely this doesn’t mean that a fetus is a nation.

Rather, we commonly disconnect a word from the time at which it applies. The “nations” in Rebecca’s womb are “future nations,” just as a fetus is a “future child.” Similarly, in English, we might speak of a parent who loved his daughter even before she was conceived, but that doesn’t mean that a plan to have a child is a daughter.

So we see two things in Exodus 21:

  1. The text does not tell us that a fetus is a child, in spite of the Hebrew word yeled.
  2. The text tells us that causing a miscarriage is different than killing (if the passage is about miscarriages) or it tells us nothing about causing a miscarriage.

So people who cite Exodus 21 as prohibiting abortions have misunderstood the text.

Equally, people who cite Exodus 21 as permitting abortions have misunderstood the text, because Exodus 21 is about what happens by accident, not about what people do on purpose or what a woman does to or for herself.

At most, then, we learn from Exodus 21 that a fetus is not the same a human.

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September 6, 2015 Posted by | biblical interpretation | , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Bible on Abortion – Overview

I’ve received a lot of feedback on my recent piece, “What Does the Bible Really Say about Abortion,” in which I make the claim that even though the Bible shouts the importance of knowing when life beings, it doesn’t offer much specific guidance, and, in particular, doesn’t tell us if a fetus is a human.

You can read the article here, and listen to a discussion on the same themes here:

(The full episode from which that clip is taken is here.)

I didn’t have room in the article for the kind of depth that many people want, so my next posts here go into more detail about some of the passages that commonly come up in the context of abortion and the Bible:

  • Exodus 21:22 — potentially about causing a woman to miscarry: “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage…”
  • Luke 1:41 — potentially about the status of a fetus: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.”
  • Numbers 12:12 — potentially about the status of a fetus: “Do not let her be like one stillborn,…”
  • Psalm 139:13 — potentially about the status of a fetus: “…you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
  • Exodus 23:26 — potentially about miscarriages: “No one shall miscarry or be barren in your land.”
  • The Ten Commandments — potentially about abortion: “You shall not murder.”
  • Leviticus 19:28 and Deuteronomy 14:1 — potentially about abortion: “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you” and “You must not lacerate yourselves.”
  • 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 — potentially about abortion: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple … and that you are not your own.”

September 6, 2015 Posted by | audio, biblical interpretation | , , , , | 3 Comments

How Does Your Bible Translation Measure Up?

I just had an interesting conversation with the AP’s Travis Loller about the new(ish) Bible translation The Voice. (Read her article: “New Bible Translation Has Screenplay Format.”) As we were talking, she asked me whether the new translation is better than the King James Version.

I think it’s a fascinating question.

The background is that I told Travis that I believe that The Voice is flawed, and I’ve told her in the past that I also believe that the KJV is flawed. (“The King James Version [KJV]: The Fool’s-Gold Standard of Bible Translation.”)

The Voice is a translation in the style of The Message, designed primarily to be modern, colloquial, and readable. And it has a few added quirks, like its screenplay-like formatting and use of “The Eternal” where most translations have “The Lord.” As with so many other modern Bible translations, I think the implementation falls short of the goals, though it’s not always easy to tell the two apart, because what I see as failed implementation could be my misunderstanding of the goals.

In the end, The Voice ends up related to the original text of the Bible in much the same way that a movie is usually related to the book it’s based on. The Voice contains roughly the same material as the Bible, though with some significant additions and omissions. But the experience of reading The Voice strays far from what the original text created. The Voice is sometimes straightforward where the original is nuanced, for example, and mundane where the original is poetic. And in some places the modern rendition is simply inaccurate.

But here’s where things get interesting, because — especially for modern readers — the experience of reading the KJV also strays far beyond the original. For example, the KJV is now perceived to be uniformly formal or archaic, while the original text of the Bible was often neither. And, like The Voice, the KJV is frequently inaccurate, either because English has changed (take the video-quiz: “Do You Speak KJV?“) or because the original translators got it wrong.

So which is better? A translation that oversimplifies the nuances of the Bible (The Voice) or one that over-complicates its accessibility (the KJV)? Which version’s mistakes do less damage to the original? This, really, is what Travis Loller was asking. In many places, I think The Voice comes out ahead.

We can extend the question to other versions. Like The Voice, I think The Message improves on the KJV in places, even as it suffers from significant drawbacks.

Certainly I think my recommended translation, the NRSV, improves greatly on the KJV.

What about the NIV, which I have often criticized? (I’m particularly frustrated with the latest version of the NIV, because the translators seem to have bowed to political pressure to move away from accuracy in some places.) I think that it, too, improves on the KJV.

So what do you think? Is your preferred translation better than the KJV? Why?

July 30, 2012 Posted by | Bible versions | , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (Or: Why Couldn’t the Egyptians Eat with the Hebrews?)

What do dinner seating arrangements, shepherds, and Hebrew sacrifices have in common? It turns out to be an important question with an interesting answer.

1. Genesis 43:32 has a curious observation about the meal that Joseph ordered to be prepared for his brothers during their second visit. Joseph, still masquerading as an Egyptian — he recognizes his brothers, but they don’t yet know who he is — has a meal prepared for his guests. But Joseph eats alone, not with his brothers, because for Egyptians to dine with Hebrews is “a to’evah for the Egyptians.”
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June 4, 2012 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Disaster, Unloved, and Unwanted: Hosea’s Children

The prophet Hosea, we read, has three children, named yizrael, lo-ruchama, and lo-ammi in Hebrew, but in Greek their names are Yezrael, Ouk-Ileimeni, and Ou-Laos-Mou. What’s going on? Normally Greek names are simple transliterations of the Hebrew sounds.

The answer is that the second two Hebrew names are actually phrases that mean “not loved” and “not my people,” respectively. The Greek translates the meaning of the words, rather than preserving the sounds. Ouk-Ileimeni means “not-loved” and Ou-Laos-Mou means “not-people-mine.” The first name, Jezreel in English, is taken from the disaster at the Jezreel valley — vaguely similar would be living in New Orleans and calling your daughter “Katrina” — and because that’s a place, not just a word, the Greek transliterates the sounds.

English translations, though, usually ignore what the words mean, as in the NRSV’s Jezreel, Lo-ruhamah, and Lo-ammi. The CEB and others take a different route, with Jezreel, No Compassion, and Not My People.

Some translations walk a middle ground, as in the latest NIV, which gives us, “Lo-Ruhamah (which means ‘not loved’)” and “Lo-Ammi (which means ‘not my people’),” explaining things for the English reader.

Though this is perhaps the most extreme example of names that are words or phrases, it’s not the only one. The famous passage in Isaiah 7:14 has a kid whose name is emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” When the name appears in Isaiah, it remains untranslated in English, though many versions provide a footnote with an explanation of the name. But when Matthew (in 1:23) cites the verse, he adds, “…which translates as ‘God is with us.'”

What should we do with these names in English translations? Certainly a story about “Jezreel, Lo-ruhamah, and Lo-ammi” paints a markedly different picture than one about, say, “Disaster, Unloved, and Unwanted.” Does it do the narrative justice if we strip it of the jarring names “Unloved” and “Unwanted”?

Is turning “Jezreel” into “Disaster” going too far? What about a translation that calls yizrael “Gettysburg,” which, like the Valley of Jezreel, was the site of bloodshed? Should we respect the fact that Hosea has one kid named after a place and two with phrases for names?

And what about Emmanuel? If we translate lo-ruchamma as “Unloved,” shouldn’t Emmanuel be “God-Is-With-Us?”

What do you think? How would you translate Hosea’s kids, Isaiah 7:14, and Matthew 1:23?

May 9, 2012 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Bible Translations Make News in 2011

According to the Religion Newswriters Association, Bible translation stories were among the top 10 religion stories of 2011.

The RNA singled out three events that contributed to the prominence of Bible translations in the news this past year:

  • Celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version. There’s no doubt that the King James Version (“KJV”) has had an unprecedented impact on English and on religion, as well as on the practice of Bible translation, though I insist that at this point its value lies less in what it tells us about the original text of the Bible — I did, after all, call it a fool’s gold standard — and more in its historical and cultural role. (For more on why I think the KJV is now inaccurate, take my “Exploring the Bible” video quiz: “Do You Speak KJV?“)

  • Criticism of the newest NIV. The NIV was officially published in 2011, but it was released on-line in 2010, which is perhaps why the RNA didn’t single out the publication of the NIV, but rather criticism of the gender decisions in it. Southern Baptists were especially vocal in this regard, and I don’t think this gender debate is going away. (Just a few days ago I was denounced by some Southern Baptists for my translation work, in particular for my suggestion in the Huffington Post that the Song of Solomon advocates equality between men and women.)

  • The completion of the Common English Bible (CEB). The CEB proved hugely popular, even beyond what its publishers expected, though I like it less than many. It’s not a surprise that the translation made news. It was reprinted twice within weeks of its initial run, and has over half a million copies in print. It also made some bold decisions, like changing the traditional “Son of Man” into “human one.”

Though all three of these news items seem to be about Bible translation, I think there’s more going on.

The gender debate, in particular, seems less about translation than about the role of men and women. As I told the AP, I think the NIV is a step backwards in terms of gender accuracy in translation. The loudest complaints this year were that it didn’t take a big enough step backward.

Similarly, I think the admiration (and sometimes reverence) that many people have for the KJV has a lot to do with keeping things the way they were.

And on the other side of the coin, part of the CEB’s appeal is tied up with specifically not keeping things the way they were.

Certainly one common theme here is how we deal with modernity. There seems to be a more specific message behind the stories, too, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

December 15, 2011 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Girl Animals, Boy Animals, and Neuter Animals

CNN’s belief blog has an interesting story about a request by PETA not to call animals “it” in Bible translations:

PETA is hoping the [NIV’s] move toward greater gender inclusiveness will continue toward animals as well.

“When the Bible moves toward inclusively in one area [human gender -JMH] … it wasn’t much of a stretch to suggest they move toward inclusively in this area,” Bruce Friedrich, PETA’s vice president for policy, told CNN.

Friedrich, a practicing Roman Catholic, said, “Language matters. Calling an animal ‘it’ denies them something. They are beloved by God. They glorify God.”

I think it’s an interesting and complex question, and I’ll try to post some reactions when I have time. For now, read the article.

March 24, 2011 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Adultery in Matthew 5:32

Adultery and Matthew 5:32

According to Matthew 5:32, divorcing a woman causes her to commit adultery.

But Peter Kirk notices that the new NIV (“NIV 2011”) translation has a new take on the verse. Peter writes:

One rather odd change I noticed, which some might attribute to political correctness: in Matthew 5:32 the “adulteress” (1984, TNIV) is no longer a wrongdoer but has become “the victim of adultery” (2011).

More specifically, the NIV 2011 translates:

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

It’s a fascinating and complicated issue.

What Victim?

At first glance, the introduction of “victim” seems uncalled for. The NRSV, for example, representing the usual translation of the verse, goes with (my emphasis):

I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife … causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

The usual translation makes the case look entirely parallel. A divorcee does the same thing as the man who marries a divorcee. They both “commit adultery.”

But the original is more nuanced.

Active and Passive Adultery

The original Greek uses the verb moicheuo (“commit adultery”) twice. It’s true that marrying a divorcee is moicheuo-ing, that is, committing adultery. But divorcing a woman is to cause her to be moicheuo-ed, or to have adultery committed against her. That is, the first verb is passive and the second is active. The man and the woman here do not do the same thing, according to the Greek.
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November 28, 2010 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , | 336 Comments

The Ten Commandments Don’t Forbid Killing

The Pope’s latest comments about condoms have again brought up the Ten Commandments, and, in particular, “thou shalt not kill,” which Catholics and some others number as the fifth commandment, while Jews and most Protestants call it the sixth.

Unfortunately, “kill” is a mistranslation of the original Hebrew, which does not say, “you shall not kill.”

The Hebrew verb here is ratsach, and it only refers to illegal killing.

We see this pretty clearly from Numbers 35, which deals with different kinds of killing — somewhat like modern murder vs. manslaughter laws.

For example, in Numbers 35:16, we learn that one person who kills another with an iron instrument has ratsached. Verses 17-18 expand ratsach to include killing by hitting someone with a deadly stone object or a deadly wooden object. The reasoning seems to be that iron is assumed to be a deadly weapon, while stones and wood come in both deadly and non-deadly varieties. Hitting someone with a deadly instrument is a case of ratsaching.

The point of these clauses is that there are lots of kinds of killing, and only some of them are instances of ratsaching.

Other kinds of killing — for example, killing the assailant from verses 16-18 — is not only allowed but required. That sort of required killing (capital punishment, as we call it now) is not ratsaching, and is not forbidden by the Ten Commandments.

Similarly, many other kinds of killing are not addressed in the Ten Commandments.

I go through much more evidence in Chapter 7 of And God Said, so I won’t repeat it here.

Much of this information, though, is not new.
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November 24, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Which Jews Opposed Jesus?

The latest incarnation of the NIV (“NIV2011,” released on-line in 2010) sometimes translates ioudaioi (“Jews”) as “Jewish leaders” because “the negative statements made about groups of Jews in the New Testament were clearly never intended to refer to every living Jew at that time….” (translators’ notes, available on-line as a PDF — emphasis from the original).

Even if the translators are right, I don’t think their translation is sound, for two reasons.

The first problem is that the English “Jews,” like the Greek ioudaioi, need not refer to “all Jews.”

Here’s an example, from the NIV2011 rendering of John 1:19: “Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was.” A footnote to “Jewish leaders” informs the reader, “The Greek term traditionally translated the Jews (hoi Ioudaioi) refers here and elsewhere in John’s Gospel to those Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus; also in 5:10, 15, 16; 7:1, 11, 13; 9:22; 18:14, 28, 36; 19:7, 12, 31, 38; 20:19.”

But I don’t think that the (more common) “…Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites…” means “every living Jew” or “every Jew in Jerusalem,” so I think the translators are addressing a non-problem.

Similarly, in John 5:10, the (more common) English translation “the Jews said…” clearly doesn’t mean that “all the Jews said….”

We commonly use group terms to refer to only part of a group. For example, “Americans voted for change in November 2010” clearly doesn’t mean “all Americans.” Similarly, there’s no reason to think that “Jews” means “all Jews,” just as ioudaioi need not mean “all Jews.”

So the English word “Jews” and the Greek word ioudaioi are similarly vague, making “Jews” exactly the right translation. Anything more is to make the mistake of “translating and improving.”

Secondly, though, I don’t even think that “Jewish leaders” is what ioudaioi refers to here. And I think we see this pretty clearly right in John 1:19. The priests and Levites were the Jewish leaders. So it’s not the Jewish leaders who sent Jewish leaders, but rather the Jews more generally who sent the Jewish leaders.

Again, we might by analogy look at English: “The Americans sent their president to high-level negotiations in Versailles….” It’s quite clear that (a) it wasn’t every American who supported the delegation; and (b) most Americans had no say in what their president did. But even so, to say that “The American leaders sent their president…” is not the same thing as “the Americans sent….”

Similarly, “the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites” clearly doesn’t mean that (a) every Jew supported (or even knew about) the delegation; or that (b) every Jew was involved in the decision. Rather, the point is that the priests and Levites were representing the Jews.

The political and religious diversity of the Jews as represented by their leaders, or as seen by the emerging Christians, may be an apt topic for commentary or a history lesson, or maybe even a footnote.

But I think the translation should present the text as it is.

November 21, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 17 Comments