09 May 2020

When translations of the Bible
betray the translators’ prejudices
are they rejecting old truths?

Bibles on a shelf in Easons in Dublin … which translation would you recommend? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Many weeks ago, I must have realised the lockdown was looming, and as thoughts about a pandemic were in the back of my mind, thoughts of panic-buying must have been to the fore. I was aware of a number of book tokens accumulating in my pockets, many of them given as thanks for talks to various local history groups.

I was in Dublin and passing Easons. What would I spend them on?

Easons is wonderful for its wide range of magazines and newspapers, and I particularly appreciate their shop in Limerick for this. But I would seldom choose Easons for book buying, and prefer the idiosyncrasies of locally-owned shops in provincial towns, the erudite choices found in shops like O’Mahony’s or Quay Books in Limerick or Alan Hanna’s, or the comprehensive range in shops like Hodges Figgis in Dublin.

My idea of indulgence is spending hours on end in the bookshops – new and second-hand – in Cambridge, and I still miss the old Staffs Bookshop in Lichfield, once my favourite second-hand bookshop.

But, as I navigated my way through the aisles and shelves of Easons in Dublin, I was taken aback by the very limited range of Bibles on the shelves. I had no intention of buying a Bible – my shelves are stacked with a variety of translations and versions, usually known by their Initials (NRSV, NRSVA, JB, RSV, NIV, AV … ), and with Bibles in many languages, including English, Irish, Greek, Hebrew, French, Italian, Latin and Chinese – bought in Shanghai … I once had a version in Xhosa, bought in South Africa.

Bibles, commentaries and old prayer books (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Some of these Bibles are bruised and battered, torn and dog-eared. I still have a King James Version that I think I was given during my school days.

There is a Living Bible, paraphrased by Kenneth Taylor … this version was printed in 1972 and sold for £1. It is heavily marked and stained, having endured being packed into rucksacks and travelling with me as I hitched around Ireland and England at the age of 20.

My copy of the New English Bible has a note of where and when it was bought almost 50 years ago: ‘Lichfield, 10.9.1973’ … I still remember that day, because the coup against Allende was staged in Chile the following day. The art nouveau illustrations by Horace Knowles are still a pleasure to come across.

Patmos in Horace Knowles illustration of the Book of Revelation in the New English Bible

I bought my first version of the Common Bible, with its ecumenical presentation of western and eastern canonical books – when I was working in Wexford in 1974. It was a paperback edition that fell apart through years of use, and the version I now have is a later edition.

A range of translations and commentaries is important for anyone who is interested in Biblical scholarship. And so, I was a little surprised at the very limited range of Bibles available on the shelves in Easons: four stacks of the King James Version, and one copy of the English Standard Version … and that was it.

‘Ezra reads the law to the people’ … one of the many illustration by Horace Knowles in the New English Bible

The translations of the Bible we favour indicate a theological bias even before we start reading it.

The beauty of the English language in the King James Version is beyond question. Its influence on literary English places it alongside the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare and the Book of Common Prayer.

But, apart from historical, dramatic, poetic or comparative reasons, there are limited reasons for using the King James Version today, and if this was given to someone today as their first Bible, I would not expect them to continue reading it for very long.

The single, sole alternative of the English Standard Version in Easons took me aback.

There is a saying in Italian that I learned in Ealing Abbey while studying patristic and liturgical Latin: Traduttore, traditore – ‘The translator is a traitor.’

‘In the beginning’ … the opening words of Saint John’s Gospel in Greek

Every translation of the Bible is an interpretation as well as a translation, and the new text always betrays the old prejudices of the translators.

There was an interesting debate in the letters columns of the The Tablet last year after the Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales approved the use of the English Standard Version for a revised Lectionary.

The Irish-born historian Eamon Duffy, Emeritus Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge and author of The Stripping of the Altars, finds the ESV reflects ‘a deep-rooted dimension of Anglophone culture.’

He finds the Jerusalem Bible ‘is often woefully flat-footed, most painfully-obvious in Passiontide and at Christmas, when what is read in our churches falls so far short of versions given familiarity and valence by their presence in cultural touch-points like Handel’s Messiah or the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.’

Sarah Parvis of the University of Edinburgh was generously kind when she described the ESV as a ‘low-church evangelical Protestant translation.’ Neil Xavier O’Donoghue, who lectures in systematic theology at Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, conceded that the ESV ‘was produced by conservative Evangelical scholars in the United States and is often described as Calvinist in philosophy.’

In fact, the ESV is deeply ‘fundamentalist,’ unnecessarily imposing the translators’ extreme ‘conservative evangelical’ views and dogmas on the text and on the reader.

The ESV’s general editor, Wayne Grudem, argued in paper published in 2016 ‘Why Voting for Donald Trump Is a Morally Good Choice.’

In recent years, Grudem and his colleagues have challenged the consensus on the Trinity, arguing that Christ is eternally subordinate to God the Father and that this provides a pattern for how men and women should relate to each other – that is, women should be subordinate to men.

This is a radical departure from what the Church has taught for more than 1,500 years, and a serious misunderstanding of a core Christian belief that needs to be rejected by anyone concerned for biblical orthodoxy.

The concept of the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) has been created by Grudem and the Neo-Calvinists. Grudem, Bruce Ware of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Owen Strachen, and other Neo-Calvinists believe that Christ submitted to God for all eternity, a concept that reflects the teachings of Arius of Alexandria. Arianism is the belief that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not equal, instead Jesus was created by God and is eternally subordinate to the Father.

Grudem and his supporters have been challenged by some leading evangelicals, including Carl Trueman and Liam Goligher, who have asked whether he is creating a new deity. Liam Goligher of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, a Scot, is pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. He contrasts statements from Grudem and Ware with quotations from the historic creeds.

He concludes: ‘It comes down to this; if they are right we have been worshipping an idol since the beginning of the church; and if they are wrong they are constructing a new deity – a deity in whom there are degrees of power, differences of will, and diversity of thought. Because, mark this, to have an eternally subordinate Son intrinsic to the Godhead creates the potential of three minds, wills and powers. What they have done is to take the passages referring to the economic Trinity and collapse them into the ontological Trinity.’

Grudem also drafted the ‘Guidelines’ of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (1997) that reject gender-inclusive approaches. This is due to their patriarchy-based objective of excluding women from leadership in the Church. But it may explain why the ESV, again and again, uses masculine pronouns and male gender-specific words that are absent from the Greek original, where other translations do not.

For example, although the ESV in its preface claims that ‘people rather than men is regularly used where the original languages refer to both men and women,’ this is not so. A good example would be when the generic Greek ἄνθρωποι (anthropoi), ‘human beings,’ is used to refer to a mixed group containing both women and men. To translate the term ‘men’ in such a case is in fact to misrepresent the meaning of the word since women were also present and were not mere ciphers or appendages of the men present.

But there are at least 100 instances in the ESV New Testament where ‘men’ translates the Greek ἄνθρωποι.

In some places the word ‘men’ is even added unnecessarily. For example, πρῶτοι τοῦ λαοῦ (protoi tou lao), ‘leaders of the people’ (NRSV and RNJB) or, more literally, ‘the first in rank among the people,’ in Luke 19: 47, becomes ‘principal men of the people’ in the ESV.

Earlier, the ESV translate Luke 18: 27, ‘What is impossible with man is possible with God.’ The NRSV renders this as, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’ The original Greek says, Τὰ ἀδύνατα παρὰ ἀνθρώποις δυνατὰ παρὰ τῷ θεῷ ἐστιν.

The ESV translates I Corinthians 1: 25 as ‘For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.’ The NRSV says, ‘For God’s foolishness is wider than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’ ‘The RNJB says, ‘God’s folly is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’ The original Greek says, ὅτι τὸ μωρὸν τοῦ θεοῦ σοφώτερον τῶν ἀνθρώπων ἐστίν, καὶ τὸ ἀσθενὲς τοῦ θεοῦ ἰσχυρότερον τῶν ἀνθρώπων.

When I am asked to recommend ‘versions’ of the Bible, I say without hesitation, ‘read the original.’ There is nothing to compare with wrestling with the original texts in Hebrew and Greek. But if I must recommend a translation to students and readers then it is the RSV and NRSV, for their scholarship and despite all their weaknesses.

Have I ever recommended the ESV? Never.

Why? Traduttore, traditore.

I always recommend reading the Bible in the original texts … bookshelves in the synagogue in Porto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Praying in Easter with USPG:
28, Saturday 9 May 2020

An icon of Saint Nicholas in a church in Crete … throughout this week, the USPG Prayer Diary has been inspired by the work of Saint Nicholas Seminary, Ghana (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am using the USPG Prayer Diary, Pray with the World Church, for my morning prayers and reflections throughout this Season of Easter. USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is the Anglican mission agency that partners churches and communities worldwide in God’s mission to enliven faith, strengthen relationships, unlock potential, and champion justice. It was founded in 1701.

Throughout this week (3 to 9 May 2020), the USPG Prayer Diary has been inspired by the work of Saint Nicholas Seminary, Ghana, and the theme of ‘Enhancing Church Growth in West Africa.’ This focus was introduced in the Prayer Diary on Sunday.

Saturday 9 May 2020:

Lord, we thank you once again for church growth across west Africa.

The Readings: Acts 13: 44-52; Psalm 98: 1-5; John 14: 7-14.

The Collect of the Day (Easter IV):

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life:
Raise us, who trust in him,
from the death of sin to the life of righteousness,
that we may seek those things which are above,
where he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow