Imagining a Secular Translation of the New Testament
The term “secular” carries connotations in America that it does not carry in other parts of the world, so I cannot stress enough that a secular translation would not be anti-religious.
By Zeba Crook
Carleton University, Ottawa
“The translation isn’t as good as the original” opine worldly aficionados of fiction and film, those who can read Umberto Eco’s monastic thriller The Name of the Rose in its original Italian (1980), and who turn their noses up at the film adaptation starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater (1986). But despite their draw-backs, translations serve an important purpose: they make the writings of other cultures and periods accessible to us. For better or worse, we can’t do without them. The same holds true for translations of the Bible.
The New Testament has been translated almost since its creation: into Syriac and Coptic in the second century, into Latin in the third century, the Vulgate in the fourth century, and then starting in the Reformation, into English, French, and German. Translation of the Bible continues still, and not only in the major modern languages: the Bible continues to be translated into the languages of small Aboriginal communities from Southern Russia to North America to Africa. The Bible has even been translated into Ebonics (the language of African American ghetto communities) and into LOLCats. The humorous value of both is questionable. And last but not least, there is a project underway to produce a “conservative” translation of the Bible, one that seeks to avoid “corruption by liberal bias” and to bring out the “free-market meaning” of Jesus’ parables.”1
The literally hundreds of translations of the Bible all exist for the same purpose: to give Christians (or would-be Christians) access to writings they would not otherwise be able to read. Christians are unique in this regard among the Abrahamic religions, as Jews and Muslims can typically read their scriptures in the original languages.
So, translation of the Bible is absolutely essential for Christian readers: they come to their scripture in order to understand their God and their God’s role in history; they come to their scripture for consolation, for guidance, for communion. These are all, of course, theological interests, so it goes without saying that translations of the Bible must be theological, intended for theologically interested readers with theological needs.
In other words, the intended readership of the Bible (believing Christians) shapes the translation of the Bible. This is entirely justified, but Christians are not the only people who read the Bible. The Bible can be studied as an important and interesting object apart from its status as Scripture: as a cultural artifact in the history and development of Western culture, or as a collection of evidence in the history of religion. The study of the Bible occurs not only in seminaries and living room Bible-studies, but also in the classrooms of secular universities, where the writings of Homer, Aristotle, and Sigmund Freud are also studied in translation. Of course, one could read Homer, Aristotle, and Sigmund Freud from a Christian perspective, in translations intended for a specifically Christian theological readership, but one tends not to (for obvious reasons). One tends to read these texts in translations that strive to honor the original language and context solely, regardless of the potential readership, regardless of any investment in the question of whether the texts are right or wrong, and regardless of how the texts might be used to address contemporary faith.
What if one were to translate the Bible according to the same principles as we translate Homer, Aristotle, and Freud? What if we were to translate the Bible regardless of the faith of its potential readership, regardless of any investment in the question of whether the texts are right or wrong, and regardless of how the texts might be used to address contemporary faith? This paper does not seek to answer this question in full, but only to initiate a conversation on the matter.
For the sake of convenience, I must work with two categories of translation here: the theological and the secular. It is important to point out immediately that neither of these categories carries pejorative connotations; one is not worse than the other. A theological translation is one created with the intent of serving a theological readership, and one that is perhaps meant to uphold the theological ideas of a living religious community. In other words, a theological translation is forward-looking in that it attempts to bring an ancient text forward into the contemporary world for theological reflection and application by a living faithful community. A secular translation, in contrast, might be backward-looking: it might seek to bring modern readers back in time into the world of these ancient stories and characters.
Let me not, at this point, say more than that. Let the rest of this paper be an exploration into what a secular translation might do, and how it might differ (if at all) from a theological translation. Let me say at the outset: there are no easy or obvious answers to the question of what might distinguish a theological from a secular translation. In what follows, I shall draw attention to several biblical passages and translation issues that provide some opportunities to think about potential differences between a theological and a secular translation.
Before we do this, however, I must address a critical question: Is it possible to make a secular translation of the New Testament, an explicitly religious text?
This question invites a counter-question: What is it precisely that makes the New Testament a “religious” text? One might think that the New Testament is in essence a religious text because its writers were religious, writing about God and such. By extension, one might also think that the New Testament is therefore not susceptible to a secular (or secularizing) translation. This, however, is an anachronistic view of the Bible and the period in which it was created. “Religion” was not a stand-alone phenomenon in antiquity, but an embedded phenomenon (embedded in politics, embedded in kinship structures). Therefore, the New Testament writings (and Hebrew Bible writings) were never originally “religious” in the modern sense of the word: they were the products of political religion and/or kinship religion.2
Further, since religion was embedded in politics (political religion, like the Jewish Temple, like emperor worship) and kinship (generally, when the head of the household took on a god, so too did the whole household), and since politics and kinship are structures of this world, and are thus fully secular, we are forced to admit that the New Testament texts were originally every bit as secular as they were “religious.” Thus, one cannot use the “religiousness” of the original New Testament, or the religious motivations of the original New Testament writers, to repel a secular translation.
But as with all things, it is more complicated than that. I am actually willing to allow that the New Testament writings are religious, but in a different sense from that outlined above. They are “religious” because they serve current living religious communities and people. But then so too were the Homeric epics and Hesiod’s Theogony, and many other Greek and Roman texts also once “religious.” These were religious texts, in the sense that they too once served living religious communities. That they no longer and fulfill that historical role and the New Testament (and Hebrew Bible) do, does not allow us to treat them differently. When we translate other ancient Greek texts in a secular fashion, with no eye towards a living religious community, no one objects, for obvious reasons. So even in this way, the answer to our first question – can we translate a “religious” text in a secular manner? – is yes, and this is so regardless of how one defines “religious.”
There are many passages and translational issues and decisions that could serve as examples of what might distinguish theological and secular translation. Here are a few.
1) The perfect example of a translation governed by theological interests relates to Zechariah 11:13 in Christian Bibles, which is often forced to corroborate Matthew’s fourteenth fulfillment formula. Matthew 27:3-10 relates the story of Judas trying to return the money he took for betraying the location of Jesus. After Judas hangs himself, the priests take the money and buy “the potter’s field” as a place to bury foreigners. All this happened, according to Matthew’s fourteenth Fulfillment Formula, because “Jeremiah” foretold it: “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded.”
This is one of the more challenging of Matthew’s Fulfillment Formulae. We search in vain in Jeremiah for the prophesied details to this story: in Jeremiah 32:8-10 we find a field being purchased, and some silver pieces (though 17, not 30); in Jeremiah 18:1-3 we find a potter working at his wheel. Perhaps, some have surmised, Matthew had Zechariah in mind despite naming Jeremiah, and indeed at Zechariah 11:12-13 we find thirty pieces of silver, a price being set on someone, and the money being thrown somewhere. The where, in this instance, is the crux of the problem. Matthew claims that the where is “the potter’s field.”
The key term in Zechariah is yotzer. The noun derives from the Hebrew verb yatzar, the most common meaning of which refers to the act of shaping something, often clay, and metaphorically to God’s identity as Creator (or “shaper”). Another metaphorical usage is the process of melting metal in a foundry (which also involves creating something by shaping it). And finally, the analogical use of yotzer reaches its most extreme limit when it comes to refer to the treasury, as the place where “shaped” coins are kept. The latter is clearly its meaning in Zech 11:13. As Mitchell, Smith, and Brewer say so forcefully, “there is no discoverable reason why the money should be thrown to the potter in the temple or elsewhere.”3 They argue, quite logically, that the command refers to the temple treasury in this passage.
There is only one explanation then, for why some English translations go with “potter” when translating Zech 11:13: to make it confirm Matthew’s fulfillment formula. Matthew claims that it has been prophesied that money would go to a potter, and though it is found in Zechariah, not Jeremiah, something no translator can change, translators can salvage Matthew’s claim by translating Zechariah in a way that makes no sense in Zechariah, but in a way that supports Matthew’s claim.
There are a number of modern mainstream translations that translate Zechariah so that it corroborates Matthew’s claim (with “potter” for yotzer): American and New American Standard Bible, English Standard Version, King James Version, New English Translation, and New International Version, and Today’s New International Version. I draw your attention to the fact that these are not “fringe” Bibles: they are mainstream Bibles. So in this instance, a “secular” translation would go with “treasury” because it makes the most sense in its literary context and because a secular translation cannot be concerned with corroborating Matthew’s fulfillment formula. In other words, the secular translator cannot be concerned with upholding the “truth” of some religious idea.
Precisely the same thing occurs in Isaiah 7:14, which is too well known to detain us for long: Matthew’s first fulfillment formula (1:22-23) relies on the Greek Septuagint version of Isaiah 7:14, which has parthenos, which means unambiguously “virgin,” whereas the Hebrew of Isaiah has almah, which unambiguously means “young woman.” Of course, in this culture, one hoped that a young woman was a virgin (which possibly explains the Septuagint translator’s decision), but there was a Hebrew word for virgin (betulah) that was not used by Isaiah here, which presumably he would have done if that was what he meant to say. At any rate, my point is not to argue about what Isaiah meant, but to point out that many translations of Isaiah 7:14, like the translations of Zech 11:13, do so in a way that confirms Matthew’s Septuagint-derived fulfillment formula. They go with the Septuagint’s and Matthew’s “virgin” when translating Isaiah 7:14 rather than with “young woman” as it is in the Hebrew original (again, these include mainstream bibles like American Standard Version, New American Bible, New American Standard, and New International Version).
2) Another example of a clearly theologized translation is the universal tendency to translate charis as “grace,” especially when it occurs in an “of God” phrase. Charis is an extremely common word in ancient Greek; its lexical context is ancient Mediterranean patronage and reciprocity, sometimes referring to patronage and reciprocity between humans and sometimes between humans and their gods. The context of patronage and reciprocity accounts for two of the most common uses of charis: to refer to the thing that is given (benefaction or favor), and to refer to the response of the recipient (gratitude). Thus the two most common ways of translating charis ought to be “benefaction” and “gratitude.” Frederick Danker calls charis “a t.t. [technical term] in the reciprocity-oriented world dominated by Hellenic influence.”4
In other words, there is nothing unclear about the meaning of this term in its original context: it has to do with ancient patronage.5 But modern translations are more interested in the theological weight of the term and less in its original usage. And here, the theological context is a post-Lutheran understanding of God’s grace, and the central position it comes to have (which came to affect Catholic theology as well). And what is at stake is not just the word one has chosen: the contemporary theological (post-Lutheran) understanding of Grace is that it comes to people from God free of charge, without merit, and with no strings attached. But this could not be further from the Greek meaning and context of charis.
In terms of ancient patronage and reciprocity, a benefaction could be earned, could be sought out. It might have at times been unearned, spontaneous, but that quality is not part of what makes it a charis. What makes it a charis (whether it comes from a god or from a human) is that it comes at all, and that the recipient could not have attained it alone. And benefactions do come with strings attached: the recipient is expected to honor and praise the benefactor or patron loudly and publicly. Anything less would be construed as ingratitude: ranked, by Seneca, among the most egregious social diseases.6
Here then, a secular translation would not allow the translation of the ancient Greek term charis to be colored by a post-Lutheran theology of grace.
3) Another modern translation challenge has to do with gender inclusivity. As a rule, translating for gender inclusivity recognizes the very high likelihood that men and women were present in certain situations. So a translation of adelphoi (which means, literally, “brothers”) that has “brethren” or “brothers and sisters” when a large group is being addressed is entirely fair: since surely there were men and women present. This is surely the case in most of Paul’s uses of adelphoi to address the people hearing his letters. We know there were women in his communities; it is inconceivable that Paul did not think he was addressing them too. This was Schussler-Fiorenza’s seminal point, and I think it is unassailable.7
On the other hand, the point of translating for gender inclusivity and neutrality is rarely solely for historical accuracy. For example, the NRSV does not consistently translate adelphoi as “brothers and sisters.” Several times in Galatians, the NRSV uses “friends” for adelphoi. Is this because they felt it was unclear whether Paul wrote adelphoi because that is what he meant? If so, then the translators have not felt comfortable adding “sisters,” but have nonetheless avoided the patriarchalism of the text. One example can suffice: in 1 Cor 11:9, Paul claims that when he was among them in need, he was not a burden because his needs had been met by the adelphoi from Macedonia. Perhaps Paul uses adelphoi because he means adelphoi. It is certainly not as clear here as in other places that Paul would have in mind both men and women. And yet the committee still avoids making Paul look dated and irrelevant by avoiding the androcentric language Paul uses by translating adelphoi as “friends” there.
Thus, gender inclusive and gender neutral translation is also useful, theologically, because it hides the strong patriarchalism and androcentricity of the New Testament writers. I think it is a fair guess that the goal of gender inclusive and neutral translations is theological, and not historical: it is to avoid making Christian women feel alienated from their scriptures.
So, how might a “secular critical” translation respond to this? On the one hand, gender inclusive translation makes the text more historically accurate, for it recognizes the almost certain presence of women. On the other hand, it also makes the text less historically accurate, for it hides the androcentricity and patriarchalism of the biblical world. In this way, the motivation of gender inclusive translation is almost certainly theological. Perhaps a secular critical translation ought to have as a modus operandi retention of cultural realism. For example, gender inclusive language, even where the concern is historical, still operates in the service of modern liberal concerns, not ancient ones. If we “correct” the ancient text on issues of sexism, then we would be obligated to correct it as well on issues of factual inaccuracy (such as Mark naming Abiathar as High Priest in 2:26). Modern concerns, whether theological or social, cannot be the concern a secular translator.8
4) My final example pertains to the issue of sexuality, and it revolves around to terms found in 1 Cor 6:9: malakos and arsenokoites. It is the issue I find most challenging to address. It is by far the norm for translation to relate these terms to homosexuality or homosexual behavior in one way or another. Sometimes, translations conflate the two terms, as the old Geneva Bible does colorfully with “buggers.” In addition, the 1985 RSV does so with “sexual perverts”; 1992 Good News with “homosexual perverts”; 1995 God’s Word with “homosexuals”; 2001 English Standard Version with “nor men who practice homosexuality”; 2011 NIV with “men who have sex with men.” As a rule, however, most translations distinguish between the two terms by referring to active and passive homosexual roles: 2004 New Living Translation and 2005 Today’s New International Version with “male prostitutes, or those who practice homosexuality”; 2005 New English Translation with “passive homosexual partners and practicing homosexuals.” The 1989 NRSV has “male prostitutes and sodomites.”
How to translate these terms, the extent to which these translations are theological, and how a secular translation would differ are each complex questions. On the one hand, concerning the first two questions, I would say only this (necessarily briefly): malakos refers to softness. While “softness” includes the act of being penetrated, it is a much broader term than that, including any male who lives extravagantly (Xen, Hiero 1.23; Plutarch Moralia 831B, 136B), who cannot handle hard work (Xen, Memorabilia 1.2.2), who reads too much (Dio Chrysostom Orations 66.25), who has sex with women too much or who seduces other men’s wives or who dresses up in order to attract women (Plautus, Truculentus; Chariton; Pseudo-Aristotle; P. Hibeh 54.11). In other words, most of the things malakos refers to are not in the slightest bit “homosexual.”
The problems with how to translate arsenokoites are well-known, owing to the fact that it is a neologism, containing the words for “male” and for “sleeping”: apparently “sleeping together” is a euphemism in many languages in addition to English! It is also clear that many translations of these terms seek to be polite, but perhaps they over-sanitize the language. The possibility should not be overlooked that Paul had no desire to be polite here. Donald Harman Akenson has argued that Paul intended this neologism arsenokoites to carry all the rhetorical force of “butt-fuckers.”9
So here is the difficulty I am faced with. On the one hand, people are correct to object to the claim that malakos refers solely to men penetrating men, and people are right to point out that arsenokoites is a neologism, and thus its exact meaning is difficult to know. But some translators and scholars make these points in order to avoid having Paul condemn modern homosexuality. It is a theological agenda meant to disarm Paul, meant to disarm homophobes who use the Bible to justify acts of hatred, prejudice, and violence against homosexuals. It is hard to disapprove of such an agenda, but it misses one very important point: I think it is beyond debate that Paul would have found homosexual behavior extremely objectionable and immoral. Paul was not a 20th century liberal, open-minded metrosexual. Translations that work too hard to hide or deny Paul’s objection to homosexual behavior risk anachronism. For example, I think Dale Martin’s contention that arsenokoites refers not to homosexuality per se but to male homosexual extortion has many historical-critical merits, but I wonder if its intention is to make Paul more pleasing, less alarming, and less alienating to a diverse and modern Christian readership.10
To translate these terms as if they pertain to “homosexuality” exclusively might not be quite accurate, but it surely comes close to Paul’s own opinion (as a man socialized in the ancient Mediterranean where to be penetrated was a source of shame, even for women), and arguing about whether homosexuality as we know it existed then is, I think, just a way of distracting our attention from the fact that Paul could have opinions that are distasteful to modern liberal ears, as he does concerning slavery (1 Cor 7:2111), women (1 Cor 14:34-3512), and Jews at times (Gal 5:12; I Thess 2:14-15). So here I think a secular translation ought to admit that Paul held many views that most enlightened modern ears find dated at best, offensive at worst, and his views of homosexual acts must be included among these. Simply put, he disliked effeminate men, which certainly included men penetrated by men but was not limited to them, and he disliked arsenokoitai, almost certainly referring to men involved in homoerotic acts of some sort.13 These views were common place in Paul’s world (among Greeks too, contrary to popular opinion); he was hardly unique in holding them.
In other words, the secular translator cannot be concerned with rescuing the Bible from itself; it cannot be concerned with the ethics of translation. Having tried myself for many years to disarm the Bible on the question of homosexuality, I find myself in the novel and uncomfortable position of having to admit that Paul and the New Testament, the products of a fiercely patriarchal and androcentric Mediterranean honor and shame complex, would have disapproved deeply of homosexuality, but I think the secular translator must retain what is original in a text, even if it is offensive and even potentially dangerous to minority communities.
So, what principles for a secular translation of the Bible might we draw from these examples?
1) That a secular critical translation should follow as closely as possible the wording and language and the texts we have, even where that meaning is unclear. This means avoiding the addition of words aimed at gender inclusivity, and it means retaining words or language that might offend modern sensibilities.
2) It means retaining the foreignness of the text, its cultural otherness, its strangeness. A secular translation should not try to make a pre-modern pre-enlightenment ancient collectivistic Mediterranean rural text sounds like it is a modern post-enlightenment individualistic North American/Northern European urban text. The latter is only in the interest of retaining the attractiveness of the text to modern readers, which falls more into the domain of the theological translator than the secular translator.
3) I have not even raised textual critical issues, so let me offer them here: a secular-critical translation would start with a shorter text. The NRSV is to be commended for leaving out individual verses (e.g., Mark 9:44, 46), and for clearly marking the textual uncertainty of the ending of Mark; the only reason for the inclusion of the Story of the Adulterous Woman, set apart with nothing more than a single set of small square brackets, is that the story is too dear to its readership to dump entirely. And yet it ought to be, since the manuscript evidence is clear that the story enters the tradition in the fifth century. Therefore, a secular text would eliminate material that was clearly textually unoriginal, even if that material is important to modern Christians.14
4) A secular translation would not have as its goal the thwarting of theological thoughts, for even that is thinking about theology too much. It is important to emphasize that a secular translation would not seek to de-theologize theological texts (and thus, popular notions that “secular” is tantamount to “anti-religious” do not apply here). It would not remove the word “God,” but it might impress upon readers that the Greek noun ho theos is never a proper noun in the Greek: it is never capitalized, as proper names are (e.g., David, Jesus, John, etc.). A secular translation would translate kurios as “Lord” where it is clearly being used in a highly Christological manner (for the sake of argument, 1 Cor 1:2), or to allude to the tetragrammaton (Matt 1:20; 4:10; and throughout the LXX), but might translate it as “Sir” where it is being used as an address of respect (Mark 7:28; Luke 14:22, and others).
5) The term “secular” carries connotations in America that it does not carry in other parts of the world, so I cannot stress enough that a secular translation would not be anti-religious. In fact, it might in places come up with the very same translation as the NRSV or the NIV (or, as I have shown, even the conservative and evangelical Bible Project). I do not imagine that a secular translation would alter every word. The closest analogy I can provide for the secular translation of the New Testament is to refer to the way the texts of Greek and Roman religions are translated by classicists. They do not translate out the religiosity or religious claims of the ancient writers, but neither are their texts translated with a living religious community in view. A secular translation of the New Testament would seek to do nothing less, and nothing more.
accessed Feb 8, 2012.
2 Bruce J. Malina, “Religion in the Imagined New Testament World: More Social Science Lenses,” Scriptura 51 (1994): 1-26.
3 H.G. Mitchell, J.M.P. Smith, and J.A. Brewer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, and Jonah (Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark, 1912), pp. 309-10.
4 F.W. Danker (ed.), A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 1079.
5 Zeba Crook, Reconceptualising Conversion: Patronage, Loyalty, and Conversion in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), pp. 132-48.
6 Seneca writes: Error! Main Document Only.“Homicides, tyrants, thieves, adulterers, robbers, sacrilegious men, and traitors there always will be; but worse than all these is the crime of ingratitude” (Ben 1.10.4).
7 Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: Crossroad, 1995).
8 This is a point lost on the creators of the co-called Conservative Bible (see note 1 above). Like other translations, they have in view a contemporary living community (in this case, political and theologically conservative Christians). But interestingly, they are in line with what I am suggesting a “secular” translation might do. This is an important point, for it illustrates that a “secular” translation will not always be at odds with (or in direct opposition to) translations with conservative religious interests. Sometimes, they might come to the same conclusion, even if for different reasons.
9 Donald Harman Akenson, Saint Saul: A Skeletal Key to the Historical Jesus (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2000) p. 13.
10 Dale B. Martin, “Arsenokoitês and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences,” in Robert L. Brawley (ed.), Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), pp. 117-36.
11 And if one accepts the Pauline authorship of Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, 1 Timothy 6:1, Titus 2:9-10, then these texts can also be considered Pauline endorsements of slavery (which they were by many American slave-owning Chrisitans: see J. Albert Harrill, Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social and Moral Dimensions (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).
12 See Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New International Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987], pp 698-708) for the case that this is a non-Pauline interpolation. If one accepts the Pastoral Epistle as Pauline, then 1 Tim 2:11-15 illustrates Paul holding views most modern readers find troubling.
It goes without saying that the Conservative Bible Project concurs: (http://conservapedia.com/1_Corinthians_1-8_
(Translated) #Chapter_6, accessed Feb 8, 2012).
14 Here is another point at which my suggestion echoes the suggestion of the Conservative Bible Project. Somewhat comically, however, for them it is not enough to state that the story is missing from the earliest manuscripts; they betray their explicitly political and theological agenda by claiming that the passage needs to be removed because it serves liberals who wish to argue against the death penalty.