What should we think of new or trendy Bible translations?
Communication versus Accommodation
On the BBC news website, Stephen Tomkins offers an item titled, “The Bible, but not as you know it”, in which he names and discusses a handful of recent “translations” of the Bible and Christian reaction to them.
The word “translations” is perhaps not appropriate in some cases, though. “Versions” might be more precise, but even that word in some cases may give some of those he names too much credence.
We can all agree that a good number of “versions” of the Bible, such as some of those presented by Tomkins, are gratuitous or in some cases even blasphemous. For example, one popular misotheistic website, the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible, goes to great pains to disrespect the biblical text by decorating it with insulting graphics and amateurish commentary (for a thorough refutation, see The Skeptics’ Overrated Bible).
That said, Tomkins’ article raises interesting questions. There can be little doubt that God intended for His Word to be accessible to other language groups. The very fact that Jesus’ original words, spoken in Hebrew or Aramaic, were revealed in the Gospels by the inspired authors in Koinē Greek—the language of the common people of the Roman Empire—makes it clear that translation for the sake of enabling understanding is an essential part of the Great Commission. More than that, Paul’s profession to “become all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:19–23) speaks to a certain degree of accommodation in evangelism.
But how much accommodation? It is one thing to do as Paul did, and, e.g., become “as a Jew” to be able to reach his fellow Jews. In practice this likely meant that Paul would eat kosher food, and follow other Jewish laws, while in the presence of other Jews. Today missionaries will undergo extensive training before being sent to cultures foreign to them, precisely so that they can present the Gospel in a way that will not unnecessarily offend their hosts.
But as some of the versions noted by Tomkins show, there can be too much accommodation as well, such that the Gospel is compromised, or at the very least seriously distracted from in the service of some other misplaced ideal, such as not being “boring” or “offensive” to others. Paul can become as a Jew, or as a Gentile; but he would not become a burglar in order to be able to present the Gospel to burglars; or he would not seek to preach his message while juggling and riding a unicycle in order to keep the attention of his hearers.
The issue is more relevant than we might think. In today’s church, the ‘emergent church’ movement—represented by teachers like Brian McLaren — base a great deal of their theology and teaching on the premise that we should strive to avoid being “offensive” or “boring”. (These, incidentally, are peculiarly modern notions. Boredom, as we know it, was essentially unknown in the biblical world; and there was hardly such a serious degree of sensitivity towards the feelings of others—indeed, an insulting remark would just as well be taken as an opportunity to enjoy a good verbal joust, or an opportunity for challenge-riposte, as occurred when Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees [Matthew 23]. One must also wonder whether Jesus would fail a typical homiletics course because he sometimes insulted his hearers).
And yet, at this very time of year, we are reminded that God did descend to take the nature of a human—to live, to breathe, to sweat and toil with us. The creation of Adam from dust reminds us simultaneously that we are God’s creation, subject to Him; yet He also did reach down and breathe into dust in the process. The selfless service of Jesus Christ, who took the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7), and who said that he came not to be served, but to serve (Matthew 20:28), was such that he allowed himself to be subjected to the most degrading form of death known in the biblical world. Following that example implies that we must have a willingness to “descend” to some extent in our own outreach.
So, what are the limits of accommodation in evangelism and communication? Our answer may be found in two very similar situations encountered by the Apostle Paul as he performed two seemingly quite contradictory actions which, contextually considered, reveal a clear policy for us to follow when it comes to accommodation.
Timothy and Titus were two young men for whom Paul had a particular affection, treating them almost as sons. They were both Gentiles, and uncircumcised. Paul dealt with this particular matter between them in two different ways:
Acts 16:3 Him [Timothy] would Paul have to go forth with him; and took and circumcised him because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek.
Galatians 2:3 But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised…
Biblioskeptics have claimed that a contradiction lies here, and that Paul’s act of circumcision upon Timothy reflects a denial of the Gospel of grace that Paul is supposed to be supporting in the case of Titus. But there is far more to each circumstance.1
The circumcision of Timothy was a gesture of concession to the Jewish community, Paul’s way of “being all things to all men” so that he could save a few. Timothy, whose father was Greek (as Luke points out), would be considered an apostate Jew, and so the circumcision was performed to facilitate missionary work among the Jews. This is what the circumcision was about: Showing respect for the traditions of one’s missionary subjects so as not to cause unnecessary offense.
In contrast, Titus was not called to do missionary work among Jews; as far as can be seen from the Bible, his missionary area was his own native Crete. He went to Judaea with Paul, rather, as part of a team intending to show that God’s grace had been extended to Gentiles, and Paul’s appeal shows him to be an example of how that grace was extended apart from adherence to Jewish law.
Paul’s differing practices with regard to circumcision here give us an analogy whereby we may regard accommodative missionary efforts. Accommodation may be used to avoid offense, but not at the expense of doctrinal truth. Any accommodation which presents a false view of who God is may be questioned. Thus, translation into another language or dialect (as is frequently done by missionary societies) is acceptable. Versions that are filled with gratuitous pictures intended merely to entertain, or to concede to some misplaced ideal of political correctness, are not.
Arguments may be had by others over how specifically a test of acceptability may be applied to a given or proposed accommodation. Nevertheless, we have our example in the actions of Paul. Certain sectors of professing Christendom would do well to remember that one of the Beatitudes was not, “Blessed are the entertained, and the easily offended.” Jesus did not fear offending his contemporaries with the truth, and we should not fear doing so either.
- For more on the controversy in Galatians, which is quote frequently misunderstood by biblioskeptics as reflecting enormous theological division in early Christianity, please see Robbing Peter and Paul to Pay Baur: What’s Really Going on in Gal. 2:11–16? Return to text.