Vol. XVIII, No. 3
Our Babel of Bibles
Scripture, Translation, and the Possibility of Spiritual Understanding
by David Lyle Jeffrey
From the perspective of one who values freedom of choice, individualism, and the market, the proliferation of new translations and paraphrases of the Bible must seem, on the whole, a good thing. From a perspective that places a greater value on theological probity, spiritual understanding in the laity, and coherence in the witness of the Church, however, the plethora of English translations and the Babel-like confusion of tongues they create is arguably a calamity. While every new translation is evidently a “market opportunity” and may express in some way the particular slant or voice of individual denominations on certain doctrines, the dissonance and “white noise” of competing Bibles tends to confuse rather than clarify discussion across denominational boundaries. In fact, the “Babel effect” intensifies the confusion.
In addition to new translations, we now have a plethora of “niche” editions, like the Revolve magazine-format Bibles, aimed at pre-pubescent girls, which includes marginal tips on how to put on makeup and deal with two admiring boys at the same time. There is the Veggie Tales Full Text Bible – New International Version, the NIV Faithgirlz Backpack Bible (in periwinkle blue with a green flower!), the NIV Bible for Busy Dads (or perhaps for dads who aren’t quite busy enough), or the Holman Christian Standard Sportsman’s Bible (in camouflage, natch). If you are tired of your mother’s old Bible, which printed the words of Jesus in red, you can choose a more trendy Green Bible, with all the eco-sensitive passages printed in green ink.
If you are a feisty woman unfazed by possibly misdirected allusions, then maybe you would like the Woman Thou Art Loosed edition of the New King James Version. If perchance you should be a high-end of the TV-channel charismatic, there are “prophecy Bibles” coded in several colors to justify your eschatology of choice. If you are a devotee of the US Constitution (the document, not the ship), Tolle Lege Press offers the 1599 Geneva Bible, Patriot’s Edition, complete with a frontispiece portrait of George Washington, a prayer by him, and facsimile reproductions of the Magna Carta, the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution of the United States of America (with the Amendments), and finally, a tract on Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior by George Washington.
All of these makeovers of Holy Scripture are at least in part market-driven. It is clear that most of them make money, but it is much less clear that they serve to enrich, let alone unify, the Christian Church. Even less is it clear that they assist even the most forbearing reader in seeing in what sense the Scriptures are given as “one Word of God”, pointing to Christ and not to us, or, as Saint Paul puts it to Timothy, “given by inspiration of God, and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (II Tim 3:16). Many of the niche editions seem rather to be packaged in such a way as to justify, in some measure, current fashions and practices of the sub-groups to which they are directed. This makes them profitable for the publishers, but not so “profitable”, at least in the sense intended by the Apostle, for the Church.
Of what underlying condition, we should ask, are these Christian market wares a symptom? Clearly, the cascade of “contemporary” biblical translations over the last six decades has a stronger whiff of mammon about it than the odor of sanctity. But not only that: in execution of the translations themselves, I would suggest, we see a symptom of an increasingly materialist rather than spiritual understanding of Scripture itself. Here, then, is one sign among many of the pervasive coloration of our secular age.
Some of the impetus in recent translation projects is transparently political; a recent example is designed to accommodate the demands of Muslims that Jesus not be referred to as the “Son of God”,1 but political motives are evident in other, more radically bowdlerized Bibles that have appeared since the Reformation. Though Luther was unsuccessful in removing books such as James and the other Catholic epistles from the canon, his “frenemy” Henry VIII was undeterred from attempting an edited version of his own: Henry published a Latin Bible that conveniently omitted such passages as the prophet Nathan’s exposé by parable of King David’s adultery.2 Thomas Jefferson famously produced a Bible that excluded elements from the Gospel accounts about Jesus, such as miracles and the casting out of demons, because they offended his deistical sensibilities. Jefferson could approve only a safer, more humanistic Jesus.3
In historical perspective, it is rather easy to see how selective editing of what all Christians regard as in some sense divinely authorized text can be done for the sake of redefining critical biblical concepts and, in the process, occluding the transcendent-to-immanent polarity of Scripture as the revealed Word of God. Succinctly, it is evident that many instances of what scholars might agree to identify as “bad” or “bowdlerized” translation are actually symptoms of a much more general, indeed systemic, modernist predisposition to elide both in Scripture and liturgy the vertical or transcendent axis. These efforts, even if they leave the canon intact, are a species of immanentizing, in the name of “humanizing”, biblical language, effectively making the reader the primary locus of meaning rather than Scripture itself.
Charles Taylor’s “Immanent Frame” certainly applies to this issue. I think Taylor is warranted in saying that postmoderns of all sorts tend to operate in a “discourse derived from Protestantism”, but also that this discourse is not less evident now in Catholic environments. Further, even in the language of biblical translation, both Protestant and Catholic, we may readily trace that contemporary secularist reflex that has tacitly assumed that, in Taylor’s phrase, “the human good is in its very essence sensual, earthly.”4
The spindrift of religious aspiration back downward to earth has actually been going on for some time: Hans Boersma pertinently reiterates Taylor’s observation when he says that “the Protestant Reformation was part of a shift that had been in the making for centuries, and of which the de-sacramentalizing of the cosmos was the most significant feature.”5 Yet the reach of this de-sacramentalizing impulse into the very language of the Church itself has recently accelerated. However counter-intuitively, much contemporary biblical translation is fully implicated in a more general and fundamental drift away from transcendence.
Realities beyond Our Ken
Laymen as well as liturgists have long debated visual analogues to such verbal redefinition of transcendent to immanent relationships. One familiar example would be twentieth-century debates among Catholics and Anglicans as to whether the priest should stand facing the altar or the congregation as he offers prayers on their behalf. Is the priest interceding with God on behalf of the congregation, or is he addressing the group that ultimately pays his salary? At stake here, as Matthew Levering has suggested, is whether the special office of the priest is conducive to unity in the body of the faithful, as in some opinions from the sons of Korah [Numbers 16] to our own time the priesthood seems not sufficiently egalitarian.6 The most recent English translation of the Catholic liturgy has occasioned analogous controversy precisely because it seems to reverse the democratization espoused in the earlier translation of the Novus Ordo Missal used by English-speaking Catholics for the last four decades.
It strikes me as telling that one flash-point of offense on the part of some critics of the new translation seems to be its more accurate translation of original Latin terms such as visibilium omnium et invisibilium in the Nicene Creed. Discomfort with the more accurate translation, “all things visible and invisible,” has been expressed largely by theologians trained in the 1960s and 1970s, who prefer “seen and unseen” (now you see it, now you don’t). This makes sense if one wants to project an immanentized, sociological understanding of the Creed. When we say that “God the Father Almighty” is maker of all things “visible” and “invisible”, we are presumably acknowledging something far more profound than any limit concerning our personal vision; indeed, we are confessing together, in the fashion of Scripture everywhere (cf. Job, Rom. 1:20), that there are spiritual realties beyond our ken altogether and that’s that. It isn’t just that we don’t see them; we don’t understand them either at least not in any comprehensive way.
All such spiritual realities or invisibilia the creedal Christian acknowledges by faith; this acknowledgment alone renders coherent the rest of what we affirm in our public confession concerning the Creation; Christ’s Incarnation, Resurrection, and return in judgment; and the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Everything of substance (in Aquinas’s sense) in the Creed requires a spiritual rather than merely historical referent; or to put it another way, it requires a vertical as well as horizontal reference for understanding. If we reduce our Creed (or confession) to a mere social construct or human agreement, tacitly or explicitly, we risk making baffle-gab of the words and a mere political or social construct of the Church itself, rather than something instituted by Christ. (Can we really imagine Jesus saying, “On the results of this latest survey I will build my church”?)
The Reduction of Sacral Language
Now, to raise these issues may seem like bringing coals to Newcastle. Why belabor the obvious? Well, because mistranslation calculated to obscure transcendent reference has, deliberately or otherwise, become a serious problem not only for doctrinal understanding in the laity generally, but for theological understanding (spiritual interpretation) specifically. Leaving aside the cultic translations of fringe groups, or even the gender-inclusive issues that have corrupted the sense and perhaps even distorted the Christology of such translations as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), New International Version (NIV), and New Jerusalem Bible (NJB), we ought to look more comprehensively at contemporary mainstream translation.
There is no need in this context to conjure with secondary manifestations of secularity in the churches, such as the colorful marketing strategies of the “emergent church,” the attempted disarming of the doctrine of the Trinity in books such as The Shack, the abolition of hell in Rob Bell’s Love Wins, or, for that matter, the abolition of heaven in Timothy Jackson’s The Priority of Love, though all of these are consistent, immanentist phenomena.
Our topic is more fundamental, namely, the widespread tendency in English-speaking Christendom to redefine the language of canonical Scripture itself, often in such a way as to undermine the spiritual character of critical theological concepts at the source. The editors of the 21st Century King James Bible claim in their introduction that “only in the late twentieth century does one find the use of secular English in Bible translations.” They may be pretty much right on this point, for intentionally or not, the reduction of inherently spiritual or sacral language to its material affect is now in fact widespread in modern translations of Holy Scripture. From there it infects liturgy, preaching, and catechesis more readily.
Let me, for the sake of brevity, offer just a few contemporary examples in which distinctively sacral language in Holy Scripture is misrepresented, and then move on to some suggestions about how we might begin to think constructively about this problem only a problem, of course, if we believe that a contemporary rewriting of Scripture so as to reconfigure it to the presuppositions of our secular age is in some respect transgressive of its claim to be divine revelation (cf. Boersma, 94-95). But that is precisely the point at issue: sacral acts and terms, as given in Scripture, are often offered explicitly as a divine gift, a naming of signs and things by the Lord Himself.
The Giftedness of a Wise Heart
About half of the Book of Exodus is devoted to God’s instructions to Moses concerning the erection and furnishing of a place for worship. The sanctuary, or “tent of meeting” as it is later called, will contain the Holy of Holies, the reserved inner sanctum, as we say, wherein God promises to reside to be present in a distinctive and mysterious way. The presence of the most holy God, clearly something invisible, was nevertheless to be signified and framed by visible signs of His holiness, visible signals of the invisible God. God tells Moses that he will need the services of an artist to render the tabernacle, in all of its furniture and adornments, suitably holy in this sense.
The association of beauty with holiness (later made explicit in I Chr 16:28-9; Ps 29:2) begins right here. Not just anybody can craft the altar, or the ark. Moses is told to call on “Bezalel, son of Uri,” who is said to be “wise-hearted” (chokma-lev: Ex 31:6). Bezalel’s name, as so often is the case in Hebrew, foreshadows the overall spiritual significance of the passage (it means “in the shadow of God”). God goes on to tell Moses that Bezalel has been called by God, and has been filled “with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works” (v 3-4). Moreover, God continues, “in the hearts of all those that are wise-hearted I have put wisdom” (v 6). This charism of giftedness is present in Bezalel’s chosen assistants as well: “all the women that were wise-hearted did spin with their hands” (Ex 35:25); indeed also “every wise-hearted man, in whom the Lord put wisdom and understanding” (Ex 36:1-2).
I have been quoting here, as my reader may have guessed, from the King James Version (KJV), which has translated the unusual term chokma-lev (for which there is no precise English equivalent) in a characteristically literal way. To make the heart the seat of wisdom is, of course, very Hebraic. But to distinguish in this way chokma-lev (“wise-hearted”), from chokma (“wisdom”), simpliciter is, in the Hebrew, to draw attention to spiritual giftedness and vocation. Those chosen to create the art of the tabernacle are deemed worthy not because they are known to be crafty, but because they have been Spirit-filled, gifted by God Himself for artistic work fitted to the beauty of holiness.
Now let us consider what happens to chokma-lev in representative modern translations. The NIV, NRSV, New American Bible (NAB), and New American Standard Bible (NASB) render chokma-lev as “skill”; the English Standard Version (ESV) has “ability”; the New Living Translation has “expertise”; The Message has “aptitude for crafts”. In all these cases, what has been lost in translation is nothing less than the main point the sacral, sacramental element of divine giftedness, which in this passage is presented as intrinsically necessary to a holy work and worship. In the Hebrew text, Bezalel, Aholiab, and their colleagues are chosen to build and adorn the tabernacle precisely because they have been granted the prerequisite spiritual gift. Any reduction of chokma-lev to a term of mere material affect muffles the spiritual significance of this special artistry in a particularly dismal way. If we may shift to Greek to say so, what we have left on the page of most modern translations is all techné and no logos.
Interestingly, the only other text in the Hebrew Scriptures that makes use of chokma-lev is I Kings 3:12, in which God honors Solomon’s wise request for the gift of wisdom (chokma) by granting him something greater, a lev chakam, a wise heart. Solomon, too, we should note, has been chosen to build a sanctuary for the Lord.
The Tonality of Holiness
Some loss of meaning in contemporary translations can seem almost innocuous: when, for example, a translation chooses “sanctification” (NASB) as a substitute for “holiness” (KJV, Revised Standard Version [RSV]) in translating hagiasmon as in “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb 12:14, KJV); we may not notice that the substitution of the latinate word “sanctification” subtly invokes a particular doctrinal elaboration in place of the simplicity of qodesh (“being completely set apart for God”), the Old Testament term reasonably translated by the Greek hagiasmon.
Here, adopting the doctrinal, process term “sanctification” more easily confuses than clarifies the biblical author’s evident meaning: the whole of the argument in Hebrews is about consecration, “holiness to the Lord,” made possible only through the singular holiness of Christ, and so a necessary condition of our salvation. In the more literal translation of the KJV and RSV, a reader’s recollection of the pervasive Hebrew concept of holiness as it so centrally appears in Exodus, Leviticus, and Psalms (e.g., Ps 15, Ps 24), is almost unavoidable.
It is not too much to add that an aura of holiness, of being set apart, is intrinsic to the tonality of biblical language with regard to worship in general. When we “hear” it and it seems to me that we hear it more readily in the KJV and RSV than in most of the more recent English translations we know that we are being called to something higher.
My purpose in these remarks is not, as some may imagine, to “defend” the KJV; there have been so many advances in our possession and understanding of the Greek text of the New Testament especially that we could not in conscience limit ourselves to it. My point is rather to ask what we may learn from this longstanding version in relation to the task of obtaining a sound translation for lay readership and worship now. In the KJV examples I have just given, a literal rendering of the Hebrew term for a spiritual quality preserves its plainest sense, which is essential to preserving spiritual understanding. Getting that right helps us see that spiritual interpretation is in fact the objective purpose of the entire text of this particular book of the Bible.
But this sort of distinction (in which, as the medieval exegetes would say, the spiritual sense is the literal sense of the text) is hardly unique to the book of Hebrews or Exodus. It is accordingly problematic that insensitivity to the spiritual register is pervasive in a wide range of modern translations.
Attunement to the Spiritual Sense
Strikingly, tone-deafness to the spiritual register of sacral terms can appear even in an otherwise excellent translator. In a recent talk celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Version, Robert Alter described as an unwarranted interpolation the “spiritualization” or “exaltation” of the KJV in translating the phrase from Psalm 19:4, “in them hath He set a tabernacle for the sun,” when the Hebrew word translated “tabernacle” is merely ‘ohel, “tent”.7 Now, among the KJV translators were some superlative Hebraists, so we should ask, why did they ignore the literal sense in this case, when they had stuck to it in the Exodus passage we have just considered? The answer, I think, is context and precedent.
The context of which our psalm is an echo is first found in Exodus and in Numbers, where the “tent of meeting” (‘ohel mo’ed) is frequently called also mishkan, translated appropriately as “tabernacle” in both the KJV and RSV. The KJV accordingly follows the Greek Septuagint (LXX) in Psalm 19, rendering ‘ohel here as “tabernacle” (skene and skenoma in the LXX). In short, the subject matter of Psalm 19 is the divine kavod the glory of God revealed in various manifestations.
I do not mean to suggest that these seventeenth-century translators always got it right: if they were thinking ahead to John 1:14, and the astonishing term eskenosen, “tabernacled,” as a verb for the presence of the Incarnate Lord, they do not show it oddly settling in that instance for “dwelt among us” instead. In the prologue of John’s Gospel, I would accordingly suggest, the KJV translators missed the mark.
But not in Psalm 19:4; here the KJV Hebraists almost certainly knew that the Ugaritic [early Semitic] cognates to the Hebrew ‘ohel and mishkan are likewise used of divine dwelling places. Anywhere else the word “tent” is posited in connection with the divine kavod, the glory of God, we may expect to see this spiritual understanding rendered explicit by the King James translators, simply because that is a context in which, to put it simply, a tent is more than a tent. Alter’s “made a tent for the sun” is acceptable literal Hebrew, but here a literalistic rendering is entirely inadequate to the transcendent focus of the poem, and so misses the spiritual register in a way the KJV translators did not.
Reduction to the literal or material misses the poetic context, which in Psalm 19 is clearly an allusion to pagan allegory: the Psalmist has borrowed a widespread ancient Near-Eastern version of the Phebus/Apollo myth of the sun-god to suggest that poetic language, like the natural language of creation, may also reveal the kavod, the glory of God. Arguably, this was more obvious to the King James translators than to some modern translators not only because they read the passage as borrowed poetry, but also and especially because they allowed spiritual interpretation of the psalms (as well as of the Pentateuch, from Augustine and Gregory through to the Glossa Ordinaria) to guide them toward a canonical, hence spiritual, sense of ‘ohel (tent) when it occurs in conjunction with kavod (glory of God).
In these examples I hope it will be clear that I am neither promoting nor slighting the literal sense universally, but rather suggesting that achieving the “spiritual sense” of Scripture in a target language is a task requiring both spiritual attunement and a rich canonical sense of Scripture in the original languages. I am also suggesting that many contemporary translations in English are not doing as well in these respects as the supposedly outdated KJV.
But there is more. A faithful translator must discern when the literal sense of the words in a passage intends a spiritual interpretation. Discernment philological, theological, and spiritual seems to me to be necessary at every step. Some translations labor to get the spiritual dimension right; others almost seem to ignore it.
In the next part I will offer two or three further examples of serious mistranslation of the sort that I take to imperil spiritual understanding of the biblical text.
End of Part One, Go to Part II: Our Babel of Bibles: Scripture, Translation, and the Possibility of Spiritual Understand — Conclusion
1 Collin Hansen, “Son and Crescent,” Christianity Today 55.2 (Feb. 2011): christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/february/soncrescent.html.
7 Printed in David Lyle Jeffrey, ed., The King James Bible and the World It Made (Baylor Univ. Press, 2011), 135-148; Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (W.W. Norton, 2007).
David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University and Guest Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Peking University. Among his recent books are The Bible and the University (Paternoster Press/Zondervan), and Luke: a Theological Commentary (Brazos). He and his wife have five children, and are members of Our Lady of the Lake parish in the Diocese of Fort Worth (ACNA).
This essay originally appeared in Touchstone magazine (March 2012). It is reprinted here, slightly edited, with the author’s kind permission.