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."
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."
Few people know, however, that Mr. Borowsky's campaign gained success with two new translations, the Contemporary English Version (CEV), put out by the American Bible Society, and the New Living Translation (NLT), published by Tyndale. "We were in close contact with the American Bible Society as they developed the CEV and they were very receptive to our views," Mr. Borowsky told WORLD. "They continue to be supportive of our work." Mr. Borowsky also reported that he was "in contact with Tyndale a number of years ago," and that Tyndale also "listened to our suggestions" and "showed interest."
The results of the CEV and New Living processes are evident when they are compared with standard translations. Typically, John 10:31 reports that "the Jews picked up stones to stone" Christ. The CEV, though, reports that "the Jewish leaders picked up stones in order to kill Jesus." That places the sin on a few people rather than many, but it may also suggest that redemption is for the few and not the many.
At other times, the CEV drops entirely the specific mention of Jews. In John 18:20, the CEV Jesus does not say (as both the King James Version and the New International Version have him saying), "I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together." Instead, he says, "I have always taught in our meeting places and in the temple, where all of our people come together." But God made Jews his chosen people and synagogues (not just meeting sites like the Elks hall) places where they yearned for the Messiah.
The New Living Translation follows the same pattern: Some four dozen times its translators substitute "Jewish leaders" and "people" for Jews. For example, in John 10:31 translations such as the New American Standard, the King James, the New King James, and the New International Version note that "the Jews picked up stones to stone him." The New Living Translation, however, specifies that "Once again the Jewish leaders picked up stones to kill him."
The most significant change comes in chapter 19 of John. Its familiar story, which has shaped not only biblical interpretation but all of Western culture, has the mob (representing all of us) howling for the blood of the brave man who is willing to stand alone for what is right. The standard translations note in verse 12 (here, from the New International Version), "Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, 'If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar.'" The New Living Translation changes the verse to, "Pilate tried to release him, but the Jewish leaders told him ..." The scene has changed from mob action to quiet discussion among elites.
This is theologically significant because John's criticism parallels the Bible's critique of Adam. Schoolchildren used to learn "In Adam's Fall, We Sinned All." The same could be said about Jewish failure at the time of Christ. God chose Israel to receive his revelation and to reveal the inadequacy of the law to save sinners. Adam represented all individuals, and Israel represented all nations.
When we read in the Gospels that Jews demanded the crucifixion of Jesus, we need to understand that all of us in their place would have done the same. Biblical teaching about the universality of sin, summed up perfectly in Paul's phrase that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," is compromised if we start thinking that some had not.
Remember: Every type of person in Jerusalem turned against Jesus. Jewish leaders plotted against him and Jewish followers formed a mob demanding crucifixion. Since the Jews of Jerusalem had no legal right to take such matters into their own hands, the hatred of Roman leaders like Pontius Pilate and ordinary Roman soldiers like those who mocked Christ was essential.
Think about this for one moment more: Since Roman legions at this point were made up of soldiers from many lands, and since at Passover time Jews from many countries came to Jerusalem, a virtual united nations was demanding the blood of Christ. Just about everyone living on earth today probably has at least one ancestor personally involved in tormenting Christ on that terrible day in Jerusalem. That's why it's important to realize that not just Roman or Jewish leaders attacked Christ. If we merely blame the bigwigs, maybe we can acquit ourselves and our ancestors. But we are genetically connected to Adam's sin and probably to the sin at Jerusalem 2,000 years ago as well.
Such an emphasis on the unity of the human race and the universality of sin is the best defense against anti-Semitism. Some ministers, including some evangelical ones, do not talk about sin for fear of alienating some listeners. But if we don't emphasize our own sin, then "Jews as Christ-killers" ugliness might return, with bigots saying, "They, Jews, are sinners, but folks in churches would have done better." That is a different gospel, and an evil one.
David Burke, head of the American Bible Society's CEV translating team, emphasized to WORLD that the traditional translation has caused problems: "Those words left
un-nuanced can feed uncontexted and not-thought-through these sorts of anti-Jewish sentiment that we have seen erupt. [Mr. Borowsky wanted] a translation that minimizes that."
Mr. Burke sent Mr. Borowsky a copy of the proposed CEV translation and he "sent back marked pages.... He and a number of scholars that he is in touch with were part of the wide review group that reviewed the text of the CEV, and based on their reviews we looked again at what we had done, and rethought some of those [translations]."
Mr. Burke stressed that this was not an unusual procedure regarding comments from many different reviewing groups: "We do pay attention and study the reviewers' comments because this may lead to reassessment."
He observed that while "The literal translation [from the Greek] is 'the Jews,' it refers contextually to certain leadership groups.... What translators are trying to do is to bring the meaning of the words, phrases, and sentences in those ancient language texts into the clearest possible meaning for today's readers."
Mark Taylor, president of Tyndale House Publishers, also acknowledged that Ioudaioi is traditionally translated as "the Jews." But he noted, "Our translation team felt it referred in different instances to different groups of people: sometimes leaders, sometimes people in general." He stated, "Wherever the NLT translates 'the people,' there's a footnote that says 'Jewish people.'"
No such footnote provides warning about the "Jewish leaders" translation, however. Concerning the key passage in John 19, Mr. Taylor observed that "part of the conversation was in private," and that New Living translators were allowed and even encouraged to give their sense of how the interactions of Pilate, Jewish leaders, and the crowd proceeded.
Mr. Taylor, arguing that the word Ioudaioi has different nuances of meaning (sometimes leaders, sometimes people), said, "I believe we are respecting the way the term was used in the original context." Perhaps, but given that all Scripture is inspired-God-breathed-the question remains: If the Holy Spirit wanted John to write "Jewish religious leaders" and absolve from responsibility those who were not "scribes and Pharisees," why didn't He God-breathe that?
The impact of the CEV may grow: Mr. Borowsky has campaigned to have hotels use the CEV, and he told WORLD that the Loew's, Hilton, Rittenhouse, and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Philadelphia have done just that. But overall, the NLT has larger sales than the CEV and holds a more honored place in evangelical circles, so its move to "Jewish leaders" or "people" is more significant. "We wanted to make sure that our translation didn't wrongly fuel fires of anti-Semitism," Mr. Taylor said. "We had a letter from Borowsky-he's been in touch with all translation groups-and we listened carefully to the concern that he has."
The difficulty here is that Irwin Borowsky is right: The Gospel of John can be dangerous in the hands of bigots. So can many other parts of Scripture. And if we change "he" to "they," as in feminist Bible translations, or "Jews" to "Jewish leaders," as in the CEV and NLT, what's to keep translators from showing political correctness in their other tasks? For example, why not retranslate Scripture to remove its indictment of "homosexuality"?
That is probably the next shoe to fall, particularly because of our contemporary tendency to nuance clear-cut biblical divisions. David Burke wrote three years ago in a book co-edited by Mr. Borowsky, Removing the Anti-Judaism from the New Testament, "the poorly informed modern reader ... is not equipped to be able to sort out that 'the Jews' who seem constantly to be opposing Jesus and the Jesus movement (and are even viewed as seeking evil purposes) are in fact in so many cases just other Jews who happen not to have accepted Jesus' identity as Messiah.... It is very difficult for the modern reader to think this through in terms of the kinds of real-life ambiguities that would have applied then as now; that is, to consider that many of these 'enemies' or 'opponents' may have been acting ... as best they knew how to be responsible and faithful to the tradition as they understood it."
Ministers should fight anti-Semitism by preaching and teaching about Scripture, not by changing it. Christians generally should fight anti-Semitism by learning more about Christianity's Jewish roots, by working alongside Jewish leaders in America's continuing culture war, and through many other efforts-but not by changing God's Word.
Regardless of ideology, Christians should not go with the flow of politically correct translation. Piggybacking on what C.S. Lewis writes concerning Aslan, his Christ-figure lion in the Narnia tales, we should remember that God has not inspired a tame Bible. Those who would root out biblical phrases that could lead to bias ask, "Is the Bible safe?" Christians should respond that it's not safe, but it's good.