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 …”

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