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?
Buses in Israel have the following written over the priority seating reserved for the elderly: mipnei seivah takum. Though the first two words sound esoteric to adult Israeli speakers and are often incomprehensible to children, the line is, in my opinion, a beautiful nod to the holiness code of Leviticus: “Stand before the elderly.”
Unfortunately, even if we wanted to (and even if it were legal), we couldn’t do the same thing in the U.S., because everyone has a different (often bad) translation. The KJV “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head,” would prompt more than a few laughs but it wouldn’t do the job. The ESV, “you shall stand up before the gray head” is only a little better. (Why aren’t these heads attached to bodies?) The NAB “stand up in the presence of the aged” is much better, but those who grew up with the KJV might not even recognize it as Leviticus.
Relatedly, I was recently at a Jewish funeral. Some 1,000 people came to mourn, and there were no prayer books, bibles, or printed guides of any sort available. “Please join me in reciting Psalm 23,” the rabbi nonetheless instructed. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures…” the whole group responded, basically quoting the NKJV. This even though most people in the room had been studying from a different translation (the 1984 NJPS) for over 20 years. That translation renders the Psalm “…I lack nothing.”
I understand that proponents of the ESV try to keep “the Bible” from changing precisely because of issues like these, but it’s worth keeping in mind that neither the (N)KJV nor the ESV would help with the buses.
It seems as though, in many cases, we have to choose accuracy or standardization; we can’t have both, even though they both have merit.
And unfortunately, beyond lamenting the situation (or foolishly suggesting that everyone should learn Hebrew and Greek), I can’t think of a solution.