The Bible and Culture

The Bible and Culture

The Conservative Bible Project

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Just when we thought it was safe to assume that we already had enough Bible translations, and even some decidedly ‘conservative’ ones ot note that have appeared recently (see the ESV) we now have, thanks to the efforts of Andy Shlafly, the son of Phyllis of conservative polemics fame, ‘The Conservative Bible Project’. Now this Bible project reflects a concern that the Bible might not actually support major pillars of conservative theory in America, pillars like free market economics and the like, unless that is it is translated by people who don’t have the dreaded disease— ‘liberal bias’. Here are the listed ten so-called guidelines for avoiding liberal bias in translation—As of 2009, there is no fully conservative translation of the Bible which satisfies the following ten guidelines:[3] 1. Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias 2. Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, “gender inclusive” language, and other feminist distortions; preserve many references to the unborn child (the NIV deletes these) 3. Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity; the NIV is written at only the 7th grade level[4] 4. Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms: using powerful new conservative terms to capture better the original intent;[5] Defective translations use the word “comrade” three times as often as “volunteer”; similarly, updating words that have a change in meaning, such as “word”, “peace”, and “miracle”. 5. Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction[6] by using modern terms for it, such as “gamble” rather than “cast lots”;[7] using modern political terms, such as “register” rather than “enroll” for the census 6. Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil. 7. Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning 8. Exclude Later-Inserted Inauthentic Passages: excluding the interpolated passages that liberals commonly put their own spin on, such as the adulteress story 9. Credit Open-Mindedness of Disciples: crediting open-mindedness, often found in youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John, the authors of two of the Gospels 10. Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word “Lord” rather than “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” or “Lord God.” And who, you may ask, will be doing this translation??? We are told by Andy that it will be and is ‘the best of the public’ (read arch conservatives who are rather ticked off with translations that tend to challenge some of their cherished conservative economic and gender theories and principles). Shoot, anyone can pull this off just by clicking on the ‘Strong’s Concordance’ button and understand instantly the Greek or Hebrew background to various English terms. Thus far the project has completed the following books—Old Testament:Genesis • Obadiah • HaggaiNew Testament:Matthew • Mark • 1 Timothy • Philemon • Jude • 2 John • 3 JohnRevelation.You can see in the clip I have posted above what some ‘liberal’ media may think of this project. But I wish to raise objections to it on a whole different series of grounds. If you are following along with the new series I am doing on my book Jesus and Money, you will already realize that reading modern economic theory back into the Bible is not only anachronistic, its historically impossible. Jesus and friends are not advocates of free market capitalism as we know it today. They lived in a world which largely involved a barter economic system, and literal ‘slave labor’. Secondly, the attempt to eliminate gender inclusive language entirely from the translation of the Bible ends up falsifying the various passages where both men and women are addressed, since of course in modern English brothers refer to men, and sisters to women. Exclusively male language is no longer all inclusive language as it was in a more patriarchal era of the English language. If the goal of translation is to translate the sense of what is said into the receiver language which is a living and ever-changing language then the translation need to be regularly revised to suit the state of ‘modern English’. I call this the incarnational principle— namely the notion that God speaks to us where we are in our cultural and human history. God does not address us as if we lived in 1611, thank thee very much. But perhaps the most troubling notion about this whole project is the belief that people without knowledge of the sender languages— Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek can provide us with a good, accurate modern English translation. This project could be relabeled– the Bible for Amateurs. But the biggest elephant in the room of course is that whilst replacing certain kinds of so-called liberal bias in this process, what has been substituted for that is a modern western patriarchal conservative bias— and frankly the Bible doesn’t fit neatly into all those pigeonholes. It challenges the very foundations of various aspects of both modern liberal and conservative thought— over and over again. The last thing we need about now is a Bible translation that baptizes all American conservative person’s tendencies and biases and calls them good and Biblical. We need this even less than we need a ‘liberal-bias’ Bible. Why? Because especially conservative Christians above all, need to be reminded over and over again that their cultural preferences are not necessarily identical with the Biblical absolutes. They need to be reminded that critical scrutiny, self-evaluation, and judgment begin with the household of God.Which brings me back to Andy Shlafly….he seems to believe that ‘vox populi, vox Dei’. I do not believe this. I believe that a good translation involves scholars, and more to the point scholars from various traditions and points of view precisely so bias in translation can be avoided. I believe the voice of God is what comes and critiques all of our biases, whatever they may be. And when you begin to whittle off the hard and challenging bits in the Bible that accost some of your fundamental assumptions in life, even some of your conservative economic assumptions, you are in fact censoring and muting the Bible so that you do not have to change your culture-bound preconceptions and ways, so you can just say ‘God bless my standard and way of living’. And this friends is not necessarily the voice of God at all. It is the voice of ingrained cultural bias, in this case conservative American cultural bias.

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posted January 4, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Here’s some of what they’ve done:
Mark 10:23
King James Version
And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!
Conservative Translation
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How unlikely it is that those who worship riches will enter the kingdom of God!
Mark 10:25
King James Version
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
Conservative Translation
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a man who cares only for money to enter into the kingdom of God.
Conservative Analysis Section for this revision (where they explain why changes have been made)
very nice improvement on the imprecise term “rich”
So, they don’t like the word “rich”, but instead of using a different word for STATUS, they substitute language of DESIRE. But that’s not justified.
BW3 is right to call this sort of thing amateur hour. In addition to a failure to appreciate the early texts in a scholarly manner, the idea that economics is being addressed is bizarre. But, as you can see from the above examples, they are in a mad rush to exonerate the rich (and I would argue, also the powerful).
What puzzles me is this: There are many Christians that are liberal and who embrace a liberal reading of the Bible (e.g. social gospel types). Why haven’t they spoken out more forcefully against the CBP? As far as I can tell, the only challenges to it are from secular types.

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Ben Witherington

posted January 4, 2010 at 1:21 pm

Err, Quiddity, have you forgotten Moi, who just challenged it?? So far as I can see the only two Christians thus far to challenge it in print are me, and that Roman Catholic Sunday school teacher… Stephen Colbert.

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posted January 4, 2010 at 1:55 pm

BW3: No. Sorry if I gave that impression. I’m aware that serious scholars like yourself have been critical of the CBP. I should have made that clear. You have a solid understanding of the texts, their origins, and interpretations (most recently evident by your book suggestions, plus you are an author too!). My apologies.
I meant to emphasize, from a real-world “political” perspective, that there is no major challenge from self-described liberal/social-gospel groups. At least as far as I can tell. I was wondering about the political impact of the CBP. Would it be effective in establishing policy? And how would those of opposing views react?
I had forgotten that Colbert was a Roman Catholic Sunday school teacher, but that explains why he – clearly familiar with Bible study – would be interested in having the Shlafly guy on the show.

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posted January 4, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Another apology. That last comment by me was absurd with me telling you that you know your stuff. Like you – or readers here – need me to certify your expertise. That’s ridiculous. It just came out awkwardly as I was trying to agree that you had been critical of the CBP.

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posted January 4, 2010 at 2:50 pm

Sure that’s a good idea leave out God’s name from the bible he inspired. The name Jehovah identifies a particular individual as distinctive as his name is. The word God is just a concept, while the name Jehovah distinguishes the one true and almighty God from all the other pretenders.

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Kendell Cameron

posted January 4, 2010 at 3:09 pm

I simply have not figured out why there has not been more repudiation of this. Where are all the King James only folks? I have been surprised there has not been serious questioning of this in scholarly Evangelical circles. Along with Dr. Witherington, I saw where Dr. Tony Cartledge from Campbell University Divinity School wrote about this a month ago and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Timothy Paul Jones wrote about it, but I have seen little else. I suspect many conservative Evangelicals are loathe to question Phyllis Schafly’s son, but this idea is just nutty. Thanks Dr. Witherington for talking about this!

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posted January 4, 2010 at 4:11 pm

Talk about making god and the bible in your own image…
I suppose this is just another attempt to justify their beliefs and why they do as they do.
This is on par with those making Jesus a republican.

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posted January 4, 2010 at 4:40 pm

Is it me, or do “ten guidelines” themselves show signs of serious disorganization and poor English? – Ray

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Jeff Doles

posted January 4, 2010 at 6:33 pm

Perhaps critics have not given it much attention because they think it will not get much attention. I saw a press release for it a month or so back, and though I am a conservative, I was not impressed with it. As a student of Scripture, I do not think we need a translation designed to cater to a particular political philosophy (same reason I ignored the Green Bible a few years back).
If somebody wants to write a book about, for example, what texts like Mark 10:23-25 mean, I’m okay with that. I file that under “commentary.” But I am not interested calling that a translation.
I think it will not get much traction.

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posted January 4, 2010 at 9:31 pm

I thought this was an onion spoof until I saw the videos. It just shows where these people’s first loyalty lies. They obviously see God as a means to an end.

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Ben Witherington

posted January 4, 2010 at 10:54 pm

In regard to the name Jehovah, most of you will know that strictly speaking it is not A Biblical name for God but rather the combination of two of the Hebrew names for God— Yahweh, and Adonai. The reason for the combination was to avoid the mispronunciation of the sacred name in any form.

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posted January 5, 2010 at 12:44 am

I find it sad that in #10 it is stated that the use of the true name of the Creator YAHWEH, is liberal wordiness, compound negatives, and unnecessary ambiguities. To be accurate would be much more serving to mankind.

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JR Dienner

posted January 5, 2010 at 10:07 am

Thanks for your critique of this “Bible Project” Dr. Witherington. I personally wonder how the monarchical “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS” fits into their sacrilegious translation.
Nathan Ketsdever did a short critique of this admittedly opinionated translation back in October at his “Compassion In Politics” blog.

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posted January 5, 2010 at 11:42 am

Andy Schafley certainly is making an idol out of conservatism.

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posted January 5, 2010 at 1:03 pm

My totally cynical take on this is that is is about one thing and one thing only…..cashing in! “All things conservative” sell and what better way to cash in is too have a “Conservatives” Bible on the market. I do not know anything about Mr Schafley except who his mother is but what is it in his background that would say that this is something he would undertake? Is he a theologian, is he a Pastor, what does he do that makes this endeavor a natural fit for him?

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Todd H

posted January 5, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Over at the more liberal Religion Dispatches site, they took on this issue back in October:
Some good analysis as well over there by a couple of scholarly-types. I like BW’s take as always.

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posted January 5, 2010 at 1:59 pm

I’ve got to agree with Jeff. I think the reason that this has not been more broadly repudiated is that few people know about it, and fewer care. Hopefully it will remain that way.
Pennoyer, I was thinking the same thing. Are we to make the Bible more wordy (after all, the NIV is only at a 7th grade level), or avoid “liberal” verbosity (darn left-wingers like Bill Buckley and all of their fancy words!)?
The bottom line is that a project like this (or the green Bible, or the patriot’s Bible) makes Christianity subservient to a particular worldview. That isn’t just misguided, it’s idolatrous.

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posted January 5, 2010 at 2:44 pm

I think that any translation that begins with the premise that a certain socio-economic viewpoint must be presented, as opposed to a sincere desire to faithfully convey the meaning of the ancient texts, is inclined to force scripture to say what it doesn’t say.

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posted January 5, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Names change according to language, but they still identify an individual, likewise with Jehovah. It doesn’t matter how it is pronounced as long as it serves to identify the one intended and is consistant in the language you are using.

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Bill Barnwell

posted January 10, 2010 at 9:32 pm

I critiqued this silliness in a piece back in October for The American Spectator:

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David England

posted March 19, 2010 at 8:35 pm

Dr Witherington, after reading this piece I got to thinking about different versions of the Bible, and recently heard from a fellow student at my university about the translation called “The Source” by Dr Ann Nyland that apparently shows some differences with other translations, so I wanted to ask which translation you think is the best representaion of the original?

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posted November 24, 2010 at 5:49 pm

The idea is absurd – if people want to be conservative, they don’t need to make their own version in order to to inject their ideas into Scripture; they need only interpret it in a way that suits their POV. So why go to all that trouble ? If only for that reason, this cannot be a serious project.
There’s another reason it has to be joke: the preachers on the Religious Right would make an almighty fuss about it. They don’t agree on many things, but one thing they have in common is a very sgtrong emphasis on the very high place they give the Bible. If this project were even thought be a serious undertaking, there would be a massive outcry from the preachers; so where is it ? If there has not been one, either the preachers don’t keep up with news that could be of interest to them, or this is a joke, just as Landover Baptist Church is a joke (something that its site makes clear).
There was a huge fuss when the Revised Standard Version was published – a self-interested distortion of the Bible such as this supposed version would be, could not possibly pass without being furiously denounced. If it were thought tolerable by preachers, that would imply that they were prepared to tolerate the distortion of the very book they profess to venerate as Holy & Divine. There is no way they would stand idly by and let such a thing happen, for they are extremely vocal on just about any other issue.
If this project were serious, conservatives would be distorting the one book that is all-important to Evangelicals; & Evangelicals are not in a negligible part of the population. To make such a version would be political suicide: it would send out the signal that the Bible is not safe from being messed around for mere political advantage. Conservatives may long to be in power – but they could not possible be stupid enough to attack a book so ce tral to so many of their supporters.
US conservatism is extremely unattractive in many ways – but “even” US conservatives are not stupid enough to embark on a project so likely to harm them in many ways as this is.

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