Good cause, bad method

National | A WORLD Easter report on Bible translation: Christians have a responsibility to fight anti-Semitism, but changing the Bible is not a legitimate option

Issue: "Tax man's terror," April 14, 2001

Our confidence in the economy may be shaken, but we can still be confident about most Bible translations. One reason for that is the diligent stewarding of biblical texts throughout the centuries. Sure, some minor errors may have dropped in as scribes worked away, but none of those mistakes is crucial. Sure, translators who kneaded the Hebrew and Greek texts into vernacular languages occasionally erred, but they always tried their best to report accurately the words of God's inspired writers.

Some translators in the past probably disliked the "patriarchal" nature of Old Testament discourse, but they preached or wrote about their concerns and did not try to insert them into the biblical text. When WORLD learned and reported four years ago that some trusted experts were taking it upon themselves to make the New International Version conform to some feminist biases, the fast and furious reaction of many Christians forced the revisionists to change course.

The key issue for WORLD in that controversy was not feminism, but the attempt to replace the words of God's inspired writers with words more acceptable in our culture. The doctrine of the "plenary inspiration" of Scripture-the faith that every word of the Bible is inspired-is and has been a central precept of biblical Christian thought. "All Scripture is God-breathed," the Apostle Paul wrote, and Louis Berkhof notes in his Summary of Christian Doctrine that "the inspiration of the Bible extends to the very words employed.... In many cases we are explicitly told that the Lord told Moses and Joshua exactly what to write ... the prophets speak of Jehovah as putting His words into their mouths."

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Plenary inspiration refers to the words in the original languages; words in English translation are not inspired. But believers translate biblical texts under a set of constraints that do not exist when they are translating noninspired works. They normally try to stick as close as they can to the equivalent of the original wording, while producing a readable translation.

Sticking to that principle is hard regarding some biblical passages that have been often twisted to foster hatred-and that's what this story is about. During the past five years two important new translations have offered radical innovations in Gospel passages once used to foster and justify riots, pogroms, and other murderous aggression toward Jews. Those translation changes have gone publicly unremarked upon, perhaps because the changes are in a very good cause, fighting anti-Semitism. But are we free to change God-breathed passages in that way?

Misuse of the Bible to promote anti-Semitism is obviously wrong. Merely listing the great heroes of the Old Testament shows how ludicrous it is for anyone who values Scripture to be anti-Semitic. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David, along with all the judges and all the prophets, were Jewish. As the ditty goes, "How odd of God / To choose the Jew, / But not so odd / As those who choose / the Jewish God / And hate the Jew."

Most significant, of course, was the Jewishness of the greatest hero of all: Jesus. He wept over His people, and all who aspire to follow in Christ's steps should do the same. The apostles were all Jewish, and Paul himself showed how to criticize Judaism theologically while still proudly identifying himself as a Jew. Since "Christianity is Jewish," as Edith Schaeffer put it in an excellent book by that name, anti-Semitism is also anti-Christian.

Anti-Semitism in America has certainly diminished over the past half-century; the favorable reception of Sen. Joseph Lieberman's candidacy last year is evidence of that. But many Christians, for good reason, are deeply sympathetic to attempts to root out anti-Semitism from our society so that in the next generation it does not return. We at WORLD, and many others, are sympathetic to the desires of Irwin Borowsky, a Jewish businessman and philanthropist, to fight anti-Semitism. The methods, though, we must question.

The 20-year goal of Mr. Borowsky, now 76, has been to convince Christians to put out "hate-free" texts of the Bible that would remove from the Jewish people of 2,000 years ago any responsibility for the execution of Christ. He has wanted numerous references to "Jews," particularly in the Gospel of John, to be changed to "people" in some places or "religious leaders" in others. By using the word "people," less emphasis would be placed on Jews specifically; by placing the onus on a few leaders, Jews generally would be absolved of responsibility.

Mr. Borowsky joined the Evangelical Christian Publishers of America as an associate member. He frequently laid out his case for retranslation and built good personal relations with many publishers. He was able to point out that translation of the Gospel of John, like all translation, is not a simple process. But Mr. Borowsky had a hard time convincing many translators committed to plenary inspiration that they should make the changes he desired. After all, in the case of the Greek word Ioudaioi (pronounced you-die-oi, with the last syllable pronounced like the oi in "oil")-which with its cognates appears in the New Testament scores of times-translators for two millennia have never doubted that it should be translated as "Jews."


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