So we’ve been looking at this Salon interview with Samuel Perry — “When evangelical snowflakes censor the Bible: The English Standard Version goes PC.” Perry describes how the ESV scholars have been translating the word “slavery” out of the Bible and argues that this seems to be an attempt to solve the “apologetics problem” caused by the presence of several texts that have a long history of use by enslavers. The ESV’s recent search-and-replace substitution, he says, is not mainly due to an attempt to prevent others from using scripture to defend injustice, but due to an attempt to defend the reputation of the Bible after centuries in which such passages have been infamously exploited in defense of atrocities.
I think Perry makes a strong case that this choice to substitute the odd word “bondservant” for “slave” has been primarily a defensive effort to “avoid charges that the Bible is socially regressive and condones oppressive relationships and is socially or culturally backward.” But I also think that’s incomplete.
What we also have here, I think, is a clumsy attempt to separate biblical “literalism” and it’s illiterate anti-hermeneutic of concordance-ism from the origins of those concepts as tools designed to defend the white-supremacist chattel slavery of the antebellum South.
People like ESV general editor Wayne Grudem are so thoroughly ingrained in this approach of concordance-ism that they instinctively rely on concordance-ist efforts to defend it. After centuries of insisting that the best way to understand “what the Bible says” about slavery is to look up every occurrence of the literal word “slavery,” they cannot imagine any way of avoiding a pro-slavery interpretation of the Bible that does not also involve looking up every occurrence of that same literal word and then replacing it with a different word.
This is not how translation is supposed to work because this is not how reading is supposed to work.
Grudem et. al. are the heirs and defenders of a white hermeneutic that was created explicitly to allow white Christians to treat the Bible as an authoritative and unambiguously pro-slavery text. This is the root and the cause and the design of everything espoused as “literalism” or “inerrancy” — the multi-generational work of reducing scripture to concordance-derived clobber texts that could serve as trump cards in theological arguments among white people about slavery. This was the paramount and preoccupying argument in white American Christianity for centuries and it still, today, shapes the boundaries of America’s Protestant denominations.
Throughout those centuries, the minority faction of antislavery white Christians repeatedly argued that the forms of slavery found throughout the ancient world were drastically different from the race-based, cradle-to-grave chattel slavery practiced in America (see part 1).
This minority of antislavery Christians argued, in other words, that the Bible could only be understood by reading it in context — both in the sense of the context of the world and culture in which it was written, and in the sense of refusing to allow clobber-texts to be excised from what the abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard described as “the whole scope of the Bible.” The argument against this from the pro-slavery majority of white American Christianity was to shout “literalism” and “inerrancy.” “Slavery” means “slavery.” Chapter and verse. God said it, I believe it, that settles it. Etc.
Grudem and the ESV translators are trying to keep that literalist, clobber-texting approach without it leading them to the conclusions it was designed to conclude. They’re trying to employ the proslavery white-supremacist hermeneutic of their human-trafficking forefathers while somehow avoiding the perception that they, too, are defending slavery and white supremacy. They’ve approached this impossible task by trying to appropriate one of the same arguments that their forefathers rejected for hundreds of years — but they have done so clumsily because their saturation in concordance-ist literalism still prevents them from understanding that argument. They cannot fathom or tolerate the notion that the Bible read in its ancient cultural context might mean something very different from what a culture-bound literalism would suggest. Nor can they agree with the notion — as one abolitionist put it — that “the Golden Rule is sufficient.”
So all they’re left with is literally changing the literal text of the clobber-texts.
Perry calls this rewriting “Bible modification” and sees it as a strategy for addressing the “historical, reputational problem” that comes from having spent centuries using the Bible to defend morally depraved atrocities:
There is a record of evangelical Christians using the Bible to condone and defend slavery as an institution, because it is obviously there and it’s easy to do, given that the New Testament authors didn’t condemn it in any way, and in many ways enabled and justified it as an institution,. That was readily used by pro-slavery advocates in the antebellum South, and under Jim Crow for issues like segregation. Even up to the late 1990s, Bob Jones University was citing biblical references for segregation or prohibiting interracial dating on campus.
Bible modification is a way that you can clean that up by saying, “You know what? These people were obviously misinterpreting scripture, because it’s right there. Look, it doesn’t say ‘slave,’ it says, ‘bondservant’!” You can point back at this group of conservative Christians in the past as people who misunderstood the Bible, rather than reading it in the plain language like we have it now. That is very important in this evangelical culture of biblicism: They want to interpret the Bible in plain language, and to be able to do that you have to adjust the language, to make it conform to exactly what you want to say.
Rewriting the literal text of the Bible to change its meaning seems like it would be anathema to people so loudly proclaiming their belief in its “inerrancy,” but this is something their enslavers’ hermeneutic leads them to do quite a bit.
The link there is to a 2012 post discussing the deliberate mistranslation of Exodus 21:22-25 in an effort to create an anti-abortion clobber-text from a passage that, in the original text and context, undermines any attempt to claim biblical justification for abortion-is-murder-ism.
This is why it’s frustrating to me when Perry says, “I haven’t detected any instances of Bible modification that are ‘pro-life’ angles.” I have. Anti-abortionist Bible modification has already happened. Most of our English translations post-Happy Meal have rewritten Exodus 21 to create an abortion-is-murder clobber-text out of a passage that says very much the opposite in the original language.
Perry goes on to say:
There are obviously instances in the Old Testament where you can argue that Yahweh formally commands [abortion], and you get this obviously selective reading of key texts. From there, I think it’s a pretty small step to, “OK, how do we how we get rid of these problematic verses? How do we make these verses conform?”
If I were to pay attention to where I think those changes might pop up, it would be passages where God in the Old Testament formally commands the wiping out of Canaanites, the putting to death of women with children or of young children. Those are particularly problematic, given the pro-life leanings of evangelicals.
Anti-abortionist white evangelicals haven’t yet recognized any need for “Bible modification” with such passages because their concordance-ism prevents them from realizing those passages might have anything to say about the subject.
Go to Bible Gateway and search for the word “abortion” and you won’t find any results instructing you to turn to Numbers 5 or to any of the passages commanding the slaughter of Canaanite infants. Concordance-ism hides such passages and such thoughts because it was designed to hide them. It was designed to obscure our understanding of texts and contexts, and to obscure even the fact of its obscuring.
That illiterate premise is a feature, not a bug. That’s what biblicism is for. That is how and why it was invented, adopted, and ultimately required for white evangelical American Christians.
Because slavery. See, if you read the Bible, the trajectory and its conclusion is unmistakable. But if you instead “look it up” in the Bible — turning to the entry for “slavery” in a concordance — you can compile a list of abstracted clobber-texts that can be weaponized as an “authoritative” defense of the opposite conclusion. It’s quite effective. That concordance search for “slavery,” after all, won’t ever turn up any of that “loose the bonds of injustice” and “break every yoke” business. Nor will it show you how Jesus made such a passage the mission statement for his ministry. Nor will it remind you of the freaking title of the second book of the Bible.
And whether consciously or unconsciously, it’s quite easy to tailor the terms of your concordance search to ensure that you get only the result you’re looking for while avoiding anything that would challenge, question or contradict your prior conclusions. (Make sure you do your word search for “slavery” rather than for “liberation” or “oppression” or “injustice.”) Biblicism — concordance-ism — thus allows you to seek and find whatever it is you want to say and then to claim you’re not the one saying it, but that God’s Word is saying it, and therefore it is incontrovertible.