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Opinion

Translating the Bible is no joke. But what's in a political 'translation'?

The Conservative Bible Project aims to rewrite parts of the Bible to suit conservative needs: This won't be conducive to interfaith dialogue.

By James F. McGrath / December 7, 2009



Indianapolis

The Bible, it turns out, is too liberal.

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At least the Conservative Bible Project thinks so. The group has set itself the task of "translating" the Bible in a more conservative way, so as to eliminate liberal "misinterpretations" and prevent liberal "misconstruals."

This is not a joke. Consider Conservapedia, the conservative perspective Wikipedia site that features this translation project.

When it first started, it was difficult to tell if it was an authentic conservative phenomenon or a parody along the lines of "The Colbert Report." Attempts to parody an extreme group often simply end up resembling an even more extreme, possibly very fringe, but equally real group.

But it has become clear that what looks like an attempt at satire is a real project proposed by people who don't seem to grasp the irony of their endeavor.

Now, with similar irony, the Conservative Bible Project plans to replace text in the Bible, which is often open to more than one interpretation, with new text that will be in accord with how the members of the project interpret the text; in some cases, what they think it really ought to say even though it doesn't.

Don't get me wrong: "Rewriting" the Bible has a long and illustrious heritage, one that begins within the pages of the Bible itself.

The book of Chronicles retells the stories found in the books of Samuel and Kings. One Gospel retells stories found in another. There have been Midrashes that expand, Targums that paraphrase, and Gospel harmonies that combine multiple stories into one big story.

There is plenty of precedent for taking biblical material and doing creative things with it, and one could even argue that it is "biblical" to do so.

But when people set about to radically rewrite the Bible and call it "translating," or deny that what they really are doing is rewriting the Bible, it's misleading and dishonest. Where in the past we have seen debates over the meaning of the Bible, we may see less healthy and educational communication on it as various groups begin to forgo discussion and adopt a Bible "translated" to suit their needs. Of course, in one sense this has always been done – but not usually to the extent that the Conservative Bible Project proposes.

Perhaps most important is that the "Conservapedia Version" of the Bible isn't what it claims to be in one particularly important respect: It is not a translation. Translation involves rendering a text in one language into another, not rewriting existing translations so as to make them say what you want them to, without any knowledge of the languages in which the underlying texts are written.

A good example is the discussion on the Conservative Bible Project page about whether the manager in Luke 16:8 should be referred to as "shrewdly dishonest."

The discussion on the Web page suggests that he should rather be considered "resourceful," a "better conservative term, which became available only in 1851." No mention is made of what the actual Greek term might mean, much less of whether relevant linguistic parallels or cultural evidence might provide clarification of the Greek term's meaning.

The meaning of words in the underlying languages is simply ignored, and the "translators" make clear that their interest is to make the English text mean what they believe a conservative Bible ought to mean.

The fact that the Greek text in the same verse explicitly calls the manager "unrighteous" or "unjust" is likewise never mentioned. It seems that for a project like this, all one has to do is "translate" that word as meaning something else, and the problem is solved.

Why not go even further and add a parable in which Jesus praises employers who pay their workers as little as possible, or one that extols Caesar Augustus for not providing universal healthcare, while they're at it?

These "translators," if they are serious about what they are proposing to do, are exalting themselves above the Bible and, from the perspective of conservative Christianity, above God.

If nothing else, the project illustrates the fact that "conservative" and "Bible-believing" are not the same thing, despite what you'll often hear.

James F. McGrath is an associate professor of religion at Butler University in Indianapolis.

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