Friday, February 25, 2011

Translating the Scripture

People who know me and know that I use the Greek New Testament exclusively for preaching and teaching often ask me which translation is best. It’s a tough question in that translations are governed by multiple factors only one of which is accuracy and reliability.

In recent years perhaps no issue has been more of a factor in Bible translation than “gender-inclusivity.” Three recent translations, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), Today’s New International Version (TNIV) and the English Standard Version (ESV), were all motivated by concerns (supportive or otherwise) over gender-inclusivity.

Today, feminist biblical scholarship has entered the mainstream, as has the push for gender-inclusive translations of the scriptures. For example, the revision of the Revised Standard Version along gender-inclusive lines (1991) placed a gender-inclusive translation into mainstream Protestantism. The TNIV sought to do the same for mainstream Evangelicalism. Moreover, even the ESV, a self-described “conservative” translation makes some concessions and accommodations to gender-inclusive concerns.

To what degree should a translator accommodate gender-inclusive concerns? Let me articulate three principles I employ when translating the scriptures for preaching and teaching, seeking to be inclusive of all God’s people and also faithful to the original intention of the biblical writer.

First, the use of inclusive language when making references to persons when the referent is not specifically male or female is not only acceptable but desirable. The use of generic “man” or “mankind,” or “he” or “brethren” when what was originally intended was “persons” or “brothers and sisters” is not only unnecessary but indefensible. Though their conventions regarding gender were certainly different from our own, biblical authors did assume that they were addressing both men and women, and it is altogether appropriate for modern translations of the scriptures so to indicate. Therefore, when scripture clearly refers to both men and women, I employ gender-inclusive (“men and women” or “brothers and sisters”), or better, gender-neutral (“persons” or “human beings”), language in my translations.

Second, I avoid the use of gender-inclusive or gender-neutral language when it muddles the original intention of the biblical writer or eliminates the use of technical language without which the meaning of the text is obscured. An example is the NRSV’s translation of bar 'enash (“son of man” in Daniel 7:13) by the phrase “human being.” “Son of man” in Daniel 7:13 is a technical term referring to a heavenly, messianic figure. Jesus referred to this passage when He called Himself “Son of Man” at His trial before the Sanhedrin (cf. Mark 14:62). Inexplicably, the NRSV renders τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου in Mark 14:62 as “Son of Man” (the capitals indicating that technical language is used), but in Daniel 7:13 translates כְּבַ֥ר אֱנָ֖שׁ  (Son of Man) “human being,” thus severing Mark 14:62 from its Old Testament moorings.

Third, I do not employ feminine language for God in my translations. Indeed, to describe what we call God as an “inclusive language” issue is to confuse anthropology, sociology and psychology for theology. I understand that for some women to employ exclusively male language for God makes them feel as though they have been left out of the conversation, or worse, conjures up images of an abusive father or other male. However, maleness is not the issue. God is neither male nor female. Both women and men are made in God’s image, not God in ours. Moreover, how biblical language for God makes us “feel” is not the issue. The Bible’s subject is God, not my feelings. The issue is whether when we talk about God we are talking about the God of the Bible - the God of Abraham and Moses and Jesus and Paul, rather than some other “god” we happen to prefer to the Bible’s God.

To be sure, the Bible does employ feminine language for God, but only in the form of similes (comparisons using “like” or “as,” e.g. “As one whom a mother comforts, so will I comfort you" from Isaiah 66:13), never metaphors (e.g. “Our Mother who art in heaven”).

Let me quickly dispense with one objection, often cited, that has no merit. A former colleague once objected that she, having graduated an English major at a prestigious Baptist college, was not taught such a hard and fast distinction between “simile” and “metaphor.” She was taught, she said, that analogies are analogies irrespective of the particular language employed, suggesting that I was making entirely too much of this distinction between “simile” and metaphor.” My response was that I don’t really care what you call them – you may call them “simile” and “metaphor” or “tweedledee” and “tweedledum” for all I care – but that two different kinds of analogies are intended is obvious to anyone irrespective of the nomenclature employed or the relative academic credibility of the institution at which one studied. “Men are like dogs” – simile. “Men are dogs” – metaphor. “My love is like a red, red, rose” – simile. “My love blossoms with crimson, thorny passion” – metaphor. Any questions?

The reason Israel eschewed feminine metaphors for God was not because Israel believed God to be male; rather, it was because Israel wanted to distinguish its God from the gods and goddesses of its neighbors who believed that a female deity had given birth to the world – nature religion, “Mother Nature,” etc. This view was characteristic of the pantheistic fertility religions against which Israel defended itself throughout its history. An example was Artemis, Roman Diana (pictured above), who was the goddess of nature and the hunt and was the most widely worshiped of the nature goddesses in ancient Anatolia. But Israel’s God (YHWH) was different from these pantheistic nature goddesses, and to remind itself of that Israel never permitted its God to be referred to by means of feminine metaphors lest its God be confused with the nature deities of the pagan world.

Another objection, frequently cited but equally without merit, is the notion that Israel’s language for God can be explained merely by the fact that Israel was a patriarchy. “Of course Israel thought about God exclusively in male terms,” so the argument goes; “men were running things!” Sorry, all of Israel’s neighbors were patriarchies too, and most worshipped female deities.

And so, if we are talking about the God of the Bible and not some other god, we are not free to make the Bible’s God whomever we wish Him to be, or to describe Him with whatever language that happens to garner a majority vote at any given time. He is that very specific personality that is rendered in the Bible, the one whom Jesus taught us to call “Father.”

In short, I support the use of inclusive language in translation when the subjects being rendered are persons, unless it violates the intention of the biblical writer to do so. However, what we call the God of the Bible should not be decided on the basis of inclusive-language concerns. In Bible translation God-language should be chosen on the basis of a theology appropriate to the “God” about whom we’re speaking.

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