The National Catholic Review

I took a course on law in high school. In a mock trial, I was haranguing a witness, and I can still remember my teacher blurting out, "John, you’re flogging a dead horse." I thought I might be flogging a dead horse with my first entry on the Conservative Bible Project (CBP), but I think there is more to say of value. I did also wonder over the wisdom of using the word "stupid" in the title, especially in light of Vatican suggestions with respect to blogging, but it seems to me still to be the best and clearest word to describe what is going on in this project. Clarity is of great value in dealing with a project that would instill ideology as the driving measure of a text rather than truth, especially when we are discussing the interpretation and translation of the word of God.

In my first entry I responded to the principles which are informing the CBP. Today, I want to look at the "scholarship" which is on display. It is not a pretty picture. It will only be possible to examine some of the arguments made for a conservative Bible translation, and I will attempt to be judicious in the examples I choose.

The editors argue for a number of "possible approaches to creating a conservative Bible translation," including the identification of liberal terms such as "government." Initially the project sees itself building upon existing English translations, while "alternatively, a more ambitious approach would be to start anew from the best available ancient transcripts." That would not be the "more ambitious approach" that would be the only approach to a new translation. In the meantime, the editors suggest that "in stage one, the translation could focus on word improvement and thereby be described as a "conservative word-for-word" translation. If greater freedom in interpretation is then desired, then a "conservative thought-for-thought" version could be generated as a second stage."

What, apart from the omission of the liberal word "government," are the concerns of this conservative project? One is the presence of Jesus’ words in Luke 23:34, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." The editors write that "the earliest, most authentic manuscripts of the Gospel According to Luke lack this verse fragment." Whether the earliest always indicates "most authentic" is a matter for text critics and translators to decide, but Luke Timothy Johnson does write that "the verse is missing in important MSS," yet fits thematically in its context (The Gospel of Luke. Sacra Pagina, 376). Apparently, however, this verse is a favorite of "liberals," for reasons which are unstated. What this overlooks, though, is that even if the verse is missing in some early and important MSS, it is found in other early and ancient MSS. This verse is not a product of modern liberal bias, but either the ancient author or, perhaps, an ancient editor. It has nothing to do with a liberal or conservative split in modernity, but the ancient Church.

The editors are also concerned with the translation of the Greek word phronesis in the parable of the "Dishonest Steward" in Luke 16:8, which the translators of the NIV (and NRSV for that matter) translate as "shrewdly." The better translation, the CBP editors argue, is "resourceful," for being "shrewd" is very different from being "dishonest." What this omits, however, is that Jesus has described the steward, or manager (oikonomos) as adikia already. Adikia, which means "unjust," has a distinctly negative tone. Yet, it is true he is praised for being phronesis, which could also be translated as "prudent," which it is in Luke 12: 42 by the NRSV and as "wise" by the NIV. This is simply a matter of translation, however, and has nothing to do with a liberal or conservative divide amongst translators. Is the "unjust manager" (or "dishonest steward") shrewd, wise or prudent? Each of these translations would be seen as positive in the midst of a complex parable for the master "commended" him for being phronesis.

What is most troubling, however, for the editors of the CBP is the socialism that is rife in modern translations. For instance, "volunteer" is a conservative word, and appears rarely in translations, while words such as "laborer" and "fellow-worker" appear numerous times. Apparently, "work" and labor" reflect socialism, which strikes me as a place that conservatives might not want to go. Are they truly opposed to work? Philemon, which is a "completed" "translation" on the website, works from the KJV, not the original Greek MSS. The editors object to the translation of synergo by the KJV in Philemon 1 as "fellow-labourer" because it has false connotations of "socialism," as apparently does verse 2 in which systratiote is translated with "fellow-soldier." Yet, these are fine translations of the Greek, which the NIV maintains as "fellow-worker" and "fellow-soldier" and which the NRSV has as "co-worker" and "fellow-soldier." What is simply bizarre is that "work" and "labor" are seen as words denoting socialism. I do not think the CBP should blame this on translators, though, I think they need to take it up with God, if indeed they believe the Scriptures have a divine author.

There are numerous other issues on which one could raise substantial concerns. The CBP editors are unwilling to grant that Jesus is talking about wine, you know, the stuff with alcohol, in Mark 2: 22, and instead suggest "fresh grape juice" for oinos. It is hard to know how this ancient Welch’s will "burst the wineskins," thereby destroying the point of the parable, and even harder to know why there were prohibitions on drunkenness amongst early Christians if they were only drinking grape juice. Best of all, though, is the new translation of Mark 3:27, where "the strong man" of the KJV (also in NRSV and NIV) becomes the "well-armed man" of the CBP. I can just see the "well-armed man" now, ancient rifle in hand, defending his turf, against wine, socialism, and co-workers. There is a little problem here for the CBP: in Jesus’ parable, the "strong man" is Satan. Hmmm…labor on my fellow-workers, labor on, we will disarm him yet.

Comments

Richard Mathis | 12/3/2009 - 8:58am
Isn't ironic that people calling themselves conservatives want to so liberally change the Bible to fit their ideologies (or should I say idols)? As someone responded to me once when I'm told him that something he claimed was not in the Bible, "well, it should be." Excellent post and thank you for sticking to the facts so well. By the way, sometimes I think these modern so called conservatives are so jealous of indignations they have perceived to be committed by liberals that these conservatives feel compelled to outdo their opponents. Godspeace.