Why There’s No Such Thing as a “Permanent Text” of the Bible

Why There’s No Such Thing as a “Permanent Text” of the Bible September 12, 2016

It’s often said that “all translations are interpretations.”

By Jesus Solana [CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
By Jesus Solana [CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Scot McKnight draws our attention to the “New Stealth Translation of the ESV” (Crossway Pubilshing’s English Standard Version of the Bible), thereby indirectly raising the problem of politics and presuppositions in Bible translation.

Yes, “all translations are interpretations.” And interpretations are human endeavors.

Crossway recently announced that their 2016 edition of the ESV will be a “Permanent Text” from henceforth unto eternity (well, they don’t actually specify “unto eternity”).

The “new ESV Permanent Text” of 2016 includes 52 words that were changed from the previous, Non-Permanent Text of the ESV. But with these 52 changes, the ESV translation committee has given us their version of “Yes, this is my final answer” to every vexing interpretive and text-critical dilemma raised by theologians and Bible scholars since the canonization of Scripture.

But New Testament scholar McKnight urges the ESV translators to reconsider their translation of one passage in particular, before finally ascribing Absolute Permanence to  their “Permanent Text.”  That text is Genesis 3:16.

The previous (non-Permanent) translation reads:

“Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

The newly revised, Permanent translation reads:

“Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”

McKnight explains:

The “desire” of the woman in Genesis 3:16 is understood, as the result of the fall and God’s curse on them, to be a desire to rule or dominate. They want to usurp the man’s authority. The man’s task — as part of God’s prescriptive design — is to rule, guide, and lead the woman. I do hear at times softer versions: women desire to be with men and it is the man’s job to mentor and rule women. Either in the harder or softer form, this is God’s design for women and for men during at least the Fall period of human history. Hierarchy of some sort and patriarchy of some sort are designed by God for fallen human beings.

This translation turns women and men into contrarians by divine design. The fall means women are to submit to men and men are to rule women, but women will resist the rule. This has moved from subordinationism to female resistance to subordinationism.

In my circles, which do not generally affirm the prescriptive view, there is found instead a descriptive view of fallenness: women and men as sinners will at times be in a war of wills. The woman will desire the man and the man will want to rule — suggesting then that “desire” might have some sense of desire to rule the man. In other words, for the descriptive view this is not a divine command, this is not divine order, but instead a sad prediction of what life will be like now that humans — males and females — have chosen to be gods and goddesses rather than servants of God.

Which means Gen 3:16 describes how fallen humans may/will behave at times. This is not what God wants; but this is what will happen. It is not a necessity (and doesn’t history absolutely prove that not all men and women fight?). It is not God’s design.

The “desire for / he shall rule over”  is precisely the theology that I learned back in seminary and in my “complementarian/patriarchal” days. The assumption was that husbands, by God’s design, are naturally supposed to “rule over” their wives (in a loving, sacrificial way, of course).

As a result of the Fall, however, women resist that natural, loving, self-sacrficial, God-given authority of their husbands, and try to dominate the husband (usually the sexist assumption was that the resistance of the womenfolk would occur in the form of emotional manipulation).

Again, McKnight summarizes:

The ESV here is mistaken in over translating Genesis 3:16 and the mistake is the assumption emerges from the belief that this is prescription and not description. As description it needs some nuancing; as prescription it turns the male against the female, the wife against the husband, and it means the male partner will rule by God’s design.

Now, we can’t legitimately (even though we may want to) excise all patriarchy and male authoritarianism out of the Bible. Patriarchal assumptions are present and they reflect the times and places in which biblical texts were written.

But notice what happens in this rendering of Gen. 3:16, with this not-so-subtle shift in choices of words. What could be taken in a much more neutral way–with respect to the complementarian/egalitarian debate–and what could be seen (as McKnight) notes as descriptive ends up supporting a particular, normative, complementarian reading of male/female relationships.

I have long been aware of the extent to which our present contexts and theological presuppositions shape our readings of Scripture as well as our interpretations of the original languages.  But my eyes were opened to that problem in a new, visceral way when I watch a video segment of a discussion of the Crossway translation group back in 2011.

The segment (below) captures a brief discussion of whether they should render “doulos” (in 1 Cor. 7:21-22) as “slave,” servant,” or “bond-servant.” The conversation focuses on the best rendering of “eved,” the primary Old Testament terms for male slave/servant.

Look, obviously these are intelligent, earnest guys who have done a lot of homework and I’m not suggesting there’s some conspiracy at play. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to think about a group of Euro-American white men (nothing against us Euro-American white guys, per se) with basically the same theological perspective sitting around making final decisions about what ends up being, for countless readers, the “inspired, inerrant” Bible  (“slave” or “servant”? and “desire for…” or “contrary to”?).

This video, and the discussion McKnight raises, suggests that there really is no such thing as a “Permanent Text” of the Bible.



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