Salon on the ESV

Salon recently published a piece by Paul Rosenburg entitled When evangelical snowflakes censor the Bible: The English Standard Version goes PC, which interviews Samuel Perry concerning an article in Journal of the American Academy of Religion entitled Whitewashing Evangelical Scripture: The Case of Slavery and Antisemitism in the English Standard Version. (References to Perry with a page number reference the article). Perry’s article employs a methodology that is less reminiscent of scholarly lexicography than it is to popular level conspiracy theories, such as Gail Riplinger’s New Age Versions. To wit, he notes what is a preferred translation (the NRSV), and implies some nefarious reason for the alteration (this essentially engages in two fallacies, begging the question and argumentium ad hominem). For example, Perry implies that the ESV’s translation of Almah in Isaiah 7:14 as “virgin” is a dishonest attempt to make the text fit Christian theology, and that the RSV presents a more neutral and correct rendering. It is asserted, but not argued, that the NRSV is correct, and so the ESV, in reverting to virgin is unscholarly and nefarious. In reality, this particular issue and translation is the subject of millenia of debate, and the view Perry takes of the translation is no less partisan than that of a Christian thinker. He similarly ignores legitimate ambiguities in discussions of Romans 16:1 and 1 Timothy 3:11, etc.

               To be clear, there is a history of interpretation and thought that does underlie modern translations of the Bible. This is apparent in the large body of commentary and theological literature with which scholars are engaged. It should not be controversial to recognize that Evangelical scholars generally accept Christian interpretations of passages. It should be assumed (unless proven otherwise) that a Christian scholar has taken these positions after pondering the various interpretive options, and is attempting to be honest in their appraisal of the test. Perry however, following Brian Malley, appears to be interpreting this body of literature from a vantage point founded within a tradition of intellectualized antirational cynicism encapsulated in works such as Foucault’s The Archeology of Knowledge. Foucault, and the post-modern and critical theorists following his work, treats texts as artifacts, with much of their meaning found—not within the text itself—externally in the communities that read the text. Of course, those positing this view write as if their message can be understood, and Christian scholars have therefore rightfully dismissed these approaches as self-evidently absurd. A better view of the Christian paradigm is that the Scriptures are to Christian theology as an acorn is to a tree. I might add, an Evangelical scholar has good grounds to view the organic growth of Christian theology as distinctly different from the dialectical approaches that seek to substitute Biblical premises for those in modern theology and has further warrant to do so from the Bible itself (1 Corinthians 2:14).

               Good translation is more art than science. It is more than merely applying a simplistic gloss and calling it the “literal” meaning of the text. It requires sensitivities, not only to nuances in the texts within their original languages, but also to distinctions colloquial English and more accurate, scholarly English. It must be concise; otherwise, it ceases to be a translation and becomes a commentary. For example, Perry focuses on slavery, and his treatment of the Biblical terms is somewhat ham-handed. Historical scholars differentiate between slavery (which, in colloquial English, is termed “chattel slavery”) and indentured servitude, tenant farmers, and Corvee labor. The Hebrew term ‘ebed, in contrast can refer to a slave, an indentured servant, the devotee of Yahweh (or some false deity), royal officials, a king’s soldiers or vassals. Interestingly, Perry is unambiguously wrong in a discussion of Exodus 21:2, when he notes, “Although the context quite clearly demands that ‘ebed be translated ‘slave,’ the effect of the footnote pointing to a softer, less permanent term “servant,” as well as referring to the Preface where readers are reminded about the incongruence between biblical slavery and American slavery, is ultimately intended to subtly head off uncharitable interpretations of Exodus 21.”  (Perry, page 625); Exodus 21 is clearly and unambiguously discussing an indentured servant—not a slave—and the rendering of the term as “slave” should be considered an error, at least if the translation conforms to terminology as used by historical scholarship. Perry lists a number of places where the term “slave” is softened in the ESV in the Old Testament (Perry 624), none unambiguously refer to “slaves,” they may equally include indentured servants. The issues in the New Testament appear to be clearer, doulos is usually rendered as a slave (though it is also used of vassals), and I disagree with Grudem on these points. However, I cannot say that Grudem’s case lacks merit. Greek helots are described as douloi in various ancient documents, but the claim that helots were slaves is somewhat controversial in scholarship. Additionally, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (referred to as the Septuagint, or by the abbreviation LXX) translates ‘ebed with doulos or other Greek terms that usually describe slaves, even in locations where the ‘ebed must not be translated as slaves. During the first century, and given the nature of Koine Greek, it is not unreasonable to assume that doulos might have a broader usage in a first century context, particularly in places where Rome allowed local governmental bodies greater latitude. So Grudem’s discussion of doulos, agree or disagree with his conclusions, is better understood not as an attempt to make the Bible appear to be more PC, it is far more likely that a scholar of his caliber is trying to wrestle with the complexities for translating the text in the context of a culture that has little practical understanding of the institution as it has existed in the past, and draws heavily on imagery from fictionalized accounts.

               As to Perry’s other major argument (referring to a term referring to Jews), the ESV translators are substantially correct, and Perry engages in pointless quibbling. Yes, it is true that, “literally,” hoi Ioudaioi is glossed as “the Jews,” but it is also true the term is often used for smaller groups of Jewish leaders rather than the nation as a whole. We do not, for example, assume that “the Jews” calling for the death of Jesus or Paul included Peter, James, Mary, etc. Yes, there are concerns to avoid bad theological discussions such as the “blood libel” theories arising during the medieval period (theories that themselves seem to be rooted in a misunderstanding of the gospel), but this is ultimately not about making the Bible more PC, it is about making certain the meaning of the text is better represented.