Mischief follows in partisan Bible translations

Remember Junias? He was the imaginary male apostle with the unique and implausible name. “Junias” was invented by patriarchal Bible translators and inserted into the text of scripture because those translators didn’t like what the text actually said.

The text in question, Romans 16:7, says:

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.

Junia is a woman’s name and it just wouldn’t do to have people reading about a woman who was an apostle — let alone one who was “prominent among the apostles.” For patriarchal Christians who insisted on a male-only hierarchy, Junia was intolerable. So they got rid of her. They translated her into an imaginary man with an imaginary name.

Politics — specifically, the political desire to control women — shaped the translation of that text. The translators changed the words of the Bible to make it seem like it supported their political agenda. They changed the words of the Bible so that others reading it would not be able to see that its actual words challenged and contradicted their political agenda.

This is something that happens sometimes.

Let me share another, more recent, example. Junias was invented and inserted into the Bible a long time ago, but this alteration of the text occurred in my lifetime. As I noted earlier, this change in the words and meaning of the Bible is more recent than the introduction of the Happy Meal.

The New American Standard Bible is a popular English translation, a revision of the American Standard Version of 1901. It was completed in 1971 and then revised and updated in 1995. I want to highlight one major change in one passage of the NASB — a case in which the 1995 update alters — and is intended to reverse –  the text of the 1971 NASB.

Those dates are important in understanding the reason for this change.

The text in question is from the book of Exodus, chapter 21. This section of the chapter — Exodus 21:12-27 — outlines various laws regarding deadly violence.

“Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death,” verse 12 says. That’s pretty clear — if you strike a person and kill them, you get the death penalty. That’s the baseline for the rest of the laws that follow. For instance, what if you strike a person and they’re injured, but not killed? Verses 18-19 address that:

When individuals quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or fist so that the injured party, though not dead, is confined to bed, but recovers and walks around outside with the help of a staff, then the assailant shall be free of liability, except to pay for the loss of time, and to arrange for full recovery.

OK, so those are the rules for hitting people — but what if you hit a slave? Do the same rules about hitting people apply to hitting slaves?* Verses 20-21 and 26-27 have got that covered. Basically, they say that if an owner kills a slave, “the owner shall be punished.” If the slave survives, but loses an eye or a tooth, then the slave goes free.

The punishments for violence against slaves were different from the punishments for violence against free persons because slaves were regarded as a separate category. There was one set of rules regarding violence against “a person” and another set of rules regarding violence against a slave.

That brings us to the text I want to highlight here as another example of politicized distortion via translation: Exodus 21:22-25.

Here is how Exodus 21:22-25 read in the New American Standard Bible’s 1977 revision of its 1971 original translation:

And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is not further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

You can see how this fits in the context of the chapter. Here is another category of victim for which another set of punishments for violence is given. If a pregnant woman gets struck “so that she has a miscarriage,” but is not herself injured, then the man who struck her must pay a fine. But if the woman herself is injured, then the same rules and punishments for striking any other (non-slave) person apply — “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc.”

But here’s the same passage in 1995 in the updated current version of the NASB:

If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

“So that she has a miscarriage” has been replaced with “so that she gives birth prematurely.”

That’s new. That’s not at all how this passage was translated for centuries. Consider, for example, the Wycliffe Bible from 1382:

If men chide, and a man smiteth a woman with child, and soothly he maketh the child dead-born, but the woman liveth over that smiting, he shall be subject to the harm (he shall be subject to a fine), as much as the woman’s husband asketh (for), and as the judges deem (appropriate).

Or the King James Version from 1611:

If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.

The KJV’s “her fruit depart” is a literal, but ambiguous rendition of the original Hebrew. If we ignore the context of the surrounding verses, then we could interpret that as meaning either what the 1977 NASB or what the 1995 NASB says. It could mean “she has a miscarriage” or it might mean “she gives birth prematurely.” Right?

Well, not quite.

It turns out that English-speaking Christians aren’t the very first people ever to read the book of Exodus. The Jews got there way, way before we did. It seems Jews actually wrote the thing. Plus they’re pretty good at reading Hebrew.

So Wycliffe and the majority of English translators who followed him all read this verse the way that it had been read for centuries before there ever existed such a thing as the English language into which it could be translated. (Plenty of examples of this at the bottom of this post, where — following Ross’ example in the comment that sparked this post, I’ve copied his list and added a few more.) They translated it to mean what it had long been understood to mean, and in the only way that it makes sense to translate it in the context of the rest of this chapter.

The New American Standard Bible translated this passage that same way up until 1977. But something changed between 1977 and 1995 — something that had nothing to do with scholarship, language, accuracy, fidelity or readability.

American politics had changed between 1977 and 1995. It had polarized and radicalized millions of American Protestants, rallying them around a single issue and thus, as intended, rallying them behind a single political party.

In 1977, the sort of American Protestants who purchased most Bibles couldn’t be summed up in a single word. But by 1995, they could be: “abortion.”

And for anti-abortion American evangelicals, Exodus 21:12-27 was unacceptable. It suggested that striking and killing an unborn fetus was in a separate category from striking and killing a “person.” Strike and kill a free person, you get the death penalty. Strike and kill an unborn fetus, you get a fine.

And so in 1995, like those earlier translators who invented and inserted “Junias,” the translators of the NASB reshaped this passage. “She has a miscarriage, yet there is not further injury” would, in consideration of the changes in American politics since 1977, henceforth be transformed into “she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury.”

Politics — specifically, the political desire to control women — shaped the translation of that text. The translators changed the words of the Bible to make it seem like it supported their political agenda. They changed the words of the Bible so that others reading it would not be able to see that its actual words challenged and contradicted their political agenda.

This is something that happens sometimes.

The 1971 NASB stuck with the traditional English translation of Exodus 21:22. Here — picking up from Ross’ comment — are many other similar examples:

Wycliffe Bible (1382): “If men chide, and a man smiteth a woman with child, and soothly he maketh the child dead-born, but the woman liveth over that smiting, he shall be subject to the harm (he shall be subject to a fine), as much as the woman’s husband asketh (for), and as the judges deem (appropriate).”

Douay-Rheims (1899): “If men quarrel, and one strike a woman with child and she miscarry indeed, but live herself: he shall be answerable for so much damage as the woman’s husband shall require, and as arbiters shall award.”

Bible in Basic English (1949): “If men, while fighting, do damage to a woman with child, causing the loss of the child, but no other evil comes to her, the man will have to make payment up to the amount fixed by her husband, in agreement with the decision of the judges.”

Revised Standard Version (1952): “When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.”

The Jerusalem Bible (1966): “If, when men come to blows, they hurt a woman who is pregnant and she suffers a miscarriage, though she does not die of it, the man responsible must pay the compensation demanded of him by the woman’s master; he shall hand it over, after arbitration.”

New Life Version (1969): “If men fight with each other and hit a woman who is going to have a child so that she loses her baby but no other hurt comes to her, he must pay whatever the woman’s husband says he must, as agreed upon by the judges.”

The Living Bible (1971): “If two men are fighting, and in the process hurt a pregnant woman so that she has a miscarriage, but she lives, then the man who injured her shall be fined whatever amount the woman’s husband shall demand, and as the judges approve.”

New English Bible (1971): “When, in the course of a brawl, a man knocks against a pregnant woman so that she has a miscarriage but suffers no further hurt, then the offender must pay whatever fine the woman’s husband demands for assessment.”

Amplified Bible (1987): “If men contend with each other, and a pregnant woman [interfering] is hurt so that she has a miscarriage, yet no further damage follows, [the one who hurt her] shall surely be punished with a fine [paid] to the woman’s husband, as much as the judges determine.”

New Revised Standard Version (1989): “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.”

Good News Translation (1992): “If some men are fighting and hurt a pregnant woman so that she loses her child, but she is not injured in any other way, the one who hurt her is to be fined whatever amount the woman’s husband demands, subject to the approval of the judges.”

Contemporary English Version (1995): “Suppose a pregnant woman suffers a miscarriage as the result of an injury caused by someone who is fighting. If she isn’t badly hurt, the one who injured her must pay whatever fine her husband demands and the judges approve.”

Complete Jewish Bible (1998): “If people are fighting with each other and happen to hurt a pregnant woman so badly that her unborn child dies, then, even if no other harm follows, he must be fined. He must pay the amount set by the woman’s husband and confirmed by judges.”

The Message (2002): “When there’s a fight and in the fight a pregnant woman is hit so that she miscarries but is not otherwise hurt, the one responsible has to pay whatever the husband demands in compensation.”

Common English Bible (2011): “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that she has a miscarriage but no other injury occurs, then the guilty party will be fined what the woman’s husband demands, as negotiated with the judges.”

Numerous other translations followed the vague literalism of the King James Version (1611). Variations of “her fruit depart from her” can be found in:

Darby Translation (1890): “… so that she be delivered, and no mischief happen”

Young’s Literal Translation (1898): “… and her children have come out, and there is no mischief”

American Standard Version (1929): “… so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow”

English Standard Version (1971): “… so that her children come out, but there is no harm”

21st Century King James Version (1994): “… so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no misfortune follow”

New Century Version (2005): “… causing the baby to come out”

The 1995 New American Standard Bible was not the first translation to change a miscarriage with no harm to the woman into a premature birth with no harm to the baby. The New International Version did so back in 1978, albeit with a footnote allowing for the option of the more traditional translation. Here are several other translations following that new approach.

Note that all of these translations were produced post-Happy Meal.

New King James Version (1982): “If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.”

GOD’S WORD Translation (1995): “This is what you must do whenever men fight and injure a pregnant woman so that she gives birth prematurely. If there are no other injuries, the offender must pay whatever fine the court allows the woman’s husband to demand.”

World English Bible/Hebrew Names Version (1997): “If men fight and hurt a pregnant woman so that she gives birth prematurely, and yet no harm follows, he shall be surely fined as much as the woman’s husband demands and the judges allow.”

New International Reader’s Version (1998): “Suppose some men are fighting and one of them hits a pregnant woman. And suppose she has her baby early but is not badly hurt. Then the man who hurt her must pay a fine. He must pay what the woman’s husband asks for and the court allows.”

Easy-to-Read Version (2006): “Two men might be fighting and hurt a pregnant woman. This might make the woman give birth to her baby before its time. If the woman was not hurt badly, [a] the man who hurt her must pay a fine. The woman’s husband will decide how much the man must pay. The judges will help the man decide how much the fine will be. But if the woman was hurt badly, then the man who hurt her must be punished. The punishment must fit the crime. You must trade one life for another life. You must trade an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.” (Footnote [a]: Exodus 21:22 hurt badly Or ‘killed.’)

New Living Translation (2007): “Now suppose two men are fighting, and in the process they accidentally strike a pregnant woman so she gives birth prematurely. [a] If no further injury results, the man who struck the woman must pay the amount of compensation the woman’s husband demands and the judges approve.” (Footnote [a]: Exodus 21:22 Or so she has a miscarriage; Hebrew reads so her children come out.)

Holman Christian Standard Bible (2009): “When men get in a fight and hit a pregnant woman so that her children are born prematurely [a] but there is no injury, the one who hit her must be fined as the woman’s husband demands from him, and he must pay according to judicial assessment.” (Footnote [a]: Either a live birth or a miscarriage)

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* Yes, slavery. This passage is appalling: “If the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment, for the slave is the owner’s property.” That’s the sort of thing that would give me a crisis of faith if I were attached to the biblicistic fundamentalism that surrounded me as I grew up, in which the Bible is viewed as the inerrant, infallible, uniform, authoritative and unquestionable Word of God.

If that’s what you believe about the Bible, then doesn’t this passage mean that you ought to approve of slavery? Of course it does — because that’s precisely why this form of inerrant, infallible, etc. biblicism was invented here in America. It arose in defense of slavery — slavery of an even more appalling and more brutal sort than that which this biblical passage describes. So, yes, a biblicistic, proof-texting approach to scripture designed in defense of slavery does, in fact, compel those who accept it to defend slavery.

But those defenders of slavery weren’t the only ones reading the Bible. Nor are those who learned to read the Bible from those defenders of slavery the only ones reading it now.  “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God …”

  • Jon01

    Just for the record, the greek is ambiguous:  ‘Yunian’ could well be Junias or Junia and most modern translations footnote the alternative because of this. Recent studies have shown that in other greek literature the feminine version is overwhelmingly more common though the masculine is still possible. Early extra-biblical sources are mixed, which makes the the process more difficult especially when combined with Paul’s theology about women in leadership. So to suggest that Biblical scholars invented the name and “inserted into the text of scripture because those translators didn’t like what the text actually said” is just not true, or at least you cannot give any shred of proof that it is.
     As far as I can see, all you have shown is that of all the versions you have quoted, only the NASB changed the meaning (which, by the way, still fits within the possible interpretations of the original language). So my conclusion from your article is: For over 600 years (1392-2009 – the range of translations you provided) very little has changed in the way interpreters translate the Bible. Most are not evil political schemers as you make them out to be but genuinely wrestle with the complex process that is translation work.  

  • Anonymous

    Actually, coming from a former Mormon, the Joseph Smith translation is used — it’s in the footnotes and in the back of the Bible. Before the mainstream LDS church used it, there was widespread paranoia that that splinter group had edited JS’s original words. After a church official examined the original manuscripts and the reformed church’s Bible, it turns out they hadn’t, so the main church started using it. But again, only in the footnotes and in the back of the book.

    THOUGH I might like to add something. When I was in high school, we read parts of Job for my literature class. We all brought our own translations of the Bible, and I was quite content with my Mormon KJV. But as I was reading along while my teacher was reading from /his/ KJV, I was startled to find that some of my verses said completely different things from what he was reading, even though we were supposedly both reading the KJV. I was horrified, and looked it up online — turns out my version had been conveniently modified to exclude any mention of a sort of a non-Christian underworld type thing that I can’t quite recall the name of, and I really don’t want to have to read the KJV and our Mormon Bible side by side to see where they diverge.

    Anyway, point is I was scandalized.

  • Elsao

    This does seem to be the case. One reason is that now he can let loose because she is far more vulnerable and less likely to be able to leave him. Also, her attention is now less focused on him and directed towards her baby and herself. Abusers have an intense need to be the centre of attention and the focus of their partner’s life.

  • Kaiyoti

    It’s totally amazing to me that persons of this ilk will not let God be God. Faux-christian and Muslems, who claim that God(Allah) is all-powerful won’t let their God handle things Himself. If He wants hae someone killed He can do it Himsef, He doesn’t need pitiful human creatures to do it. If He can bring the Flood what need does he have of his little creatures to carry out His wishes. It’s like Christ said “Beware of wolves in sheeps clothing”!

  • Phrather

    nb : http://www.jesusisbuddha.com  and : Gina Cerminara, “Insights for the Age of Aquarius”, ( a handbook for religious sanity) a questbook from the theosophical publishing house.  Ill. USA 1973. still in stock. best book ever; using the “laws” of General Semantics on religions. ISBN 0-8356-0483-7 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=590555919 Craig Pippen

    mistake, sorry.

  • http://queeroncampus.blogspot.com.au/ Student

    It’s an oversimplification for the blogger to portray American Protestants of 1977-1995 as all rallied behind “a single political party”. Many of that period would have been Republican supporters, but we know that that was not the case for all. Even some Protestant heroes of the era such as Billy Graham were Democrats. 

    Likewise, reviewing Wikipedia’s entry on the Junia of Romans 16, suggests that this entry on this blog oversimplifies the situation, and that politics might have had nothing to do with translators differing in their understanding of Junia’s gender. 
    And so too, I have to wonder whether the accusation of politics being the fuel for the changing translation of Exodus 21, is an over-simplification. Do we know whether new transcripts were found last century leading to new insights into the original languages, resulting in NASB translators re-evaluating what the passage meant?

  • John

    I
    40 And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth.
    41 And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:
    42 And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed [art] thou among women, and blessed [is] the fruit of thy womb.
    43 And whence [is] this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
    44 For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.
    n the new testement we have a more sure word of prophecy. here is a couple of scriptures from the Gspel according to Luke chapter I

  • John

    just to shed a little more light on the subject. I think that scripture in Luke points toward the life in the womb being a baby. another verse in the same cahpter says that she was in her 6th month.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=810714650 Joe Cogan

    “It turns out that English-speaking Christians aren’t the very first people ever to read the book of Exodus. The Jews got there way, way before we did. It seems Jews actually wrote the thing. Plus they’re pretty good at reading Hebrew.”
    Please share this with the way-too-many American Christians who seem to believe that if the King James Bible was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for them…

  • jwalker_cht

    I don’t have any references to add, just a perception from some general reading I’ve done over the years.  In the prevailing culture of the ancient Middle East, weren’t women’s health issues treated as some sort of great mystery that  men were quite happy not to know much about or participate in?  It shouldn’t surprise us that the Bible or any of the sacred writings it came from (all written by males) have little or nothing to say about menstruation, conception, pregnancy, mis-carriage, abortion, mid-wifery, etc.  In their culture, those were all things for women to be concerned with except as they pertained to the “value” of a man’s “property” and the guarantees of his inheritance.  I recall reading that mid-wives in biblical times knew of and utilized abortifacient herbs, but we have no references to this in the Bible at all.  It’s possible that some of the passages against “witches” (which in some cases could be translated as “poisoner”) could be talking about mid-wives who’d administered these herbs to a woman and were suspected or caught or gave too much, causing injury to the woman.

    All of this is an attempt to say that reading the Bible or any other religious text without  understanding the cultural context is a foolish exercise.  Trying to apply those texts directly to modern life without first understanding the context is beyond foolish to the point of dangerous presumption.

  • Meiyoi13

    But you know what that seems like it’s saying (and quite possibly why they don’t mind “mispeaking” His word) is because it says the words of _prophecy_, not the words of the laws.

  • Meiyoi13

    It’s been mentioned in one of the previous comments –try reading Numbers 5 the test for the unfaithful wife.

  • Jubal Bayer

    Here are some of the early Christians’  thoughts on abortion and exposure.  This is pre Protestant, Catholic, and angry white Evangelical.
    And the second commandment of the Teaching; you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. Didache (A.D. 80-140) ch. 2

    And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it. Athenagoras (A.D. 137) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.2 pg.147

    And though maintaining parrots and curlews, they do not receive the orphan child; but they expose children that are born at home, and take up the young of birds, and prefer irrational to rational creatures. Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 195) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.2 pg.279

    How many even of your rulers, notable for their justice to you and for their severe measures against us, may I charge in their own consciences with the sin of putting their offspring to death? As to any difference in the kind of murder, it is certainly the more cruel way to kill by drowning, or by exposure to cold and hunger and dogs…our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one. Tertullian (A.D. 198) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.3 pg.25Let us follow Jesus.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I note that the only time the pregnant person appears in any of that is to charge her with murder. Which, at least Athenagoras is more ideologically consistent than Ginny Bain Allen?

  • http://www.facebook.com/fred.kohn.3 Frederick Jacob Kohn

    I just finished writing a blog about this very subject. It seems to me that the Darby translation indicates a live birth (“be delivered”). Nevertheless this was not published until 1890, very late for the first instance in an English Bible of a live birth. The next English Bible that refers to this as a live birth isn’t until 1960.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    On the thread Ross linked this one to,

    mcwilson40 (?) said:

    “I find it interesting that for so many who claim an atheist position, there is such concern over the Biblical view of abortion.”

    My response:

    I should think it understandable when one considers that Christianity in some form is professed by >50% of the population in the USA and Canada.

  • David Starner

    The problem is, there’s many perfectly good sentences in any language that when spoken from one native speaker to another native speaker are absolutely clear, that will be completely opaque in any translation. Overly literal translations can obfuscate things that should be perfectly clear to anyone fluent in the language.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Not to mention we run into a handful of hapax legomenons, where we can, at beast, guess the meaning of a word by context but have no exact translation of it.

  • http://twitter.com/thenatschos Carlos Esperanza

    This text part seems to say that when he strikes the pregnant woman and causes harm or injury or death TO EITHER THE CHILD OR THE WOMAN, he should be paid back the harm in an equal, just manner. But if no injury happens, he ought to pay a fine.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage [...] the one responsible shall be fined

    I’m failing to find this interpretation in the text. There is no either/or in here. It’s quite plain, “if a man strikes a pregnant woman and causes a miscarriage, he will pay a fine.”

  • mrkkk

    bible says, if your daughter gets pregnant out of wedlock you are supposed to stone her to death, lets start that one

  • SocraticGadfly

    The real way to get nearer the bottom of this issue would be to ask what the Talmud does with these verses.

  • EllieMurasaki

    My understanding is that Jewish tradition mandates abortion in certain circumstances. Which automatically negates Jewish tradition as a valid source of wisdom for pro-forced-birth people.

  • http://drzach.net Zachary Moore

    FWIW, the JPS publication of the Tanakh also translates it as “miscarriage.”


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