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A single word switch in translating scripture can change much

I recently wrote here on the blog about a well-known translator of the Hebrew Bible, Robert Alter, and of his belief that many, if not most, modern English translations of the Bible are, as he put it, "execrable." Which I translated as "crap."

Haley-JacobToday I'm returning to the subject of scriptural translation because of something pointed out by Haley Jacob (pictured here), who teaches theology at Whitworth University, when she spoke recently as the Meneilly Visiting Scholar at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan.

Her overall subject was "The Hope of Glory? What is it? When is it? And have we got it all wrong?" But within that topic she happened to note what she thought was an unfortunate translation change from the 1952 Revised Standard Version of the Bible to the 1989 New Revised Standard Version. (There recently has been an NRSV updated version, but it keeps the same word Jacob questions that is found in the 1989 version.)

The verse in question is Romans 8:28 in the New Testament letter written by the Apostle Paul to the fledgling church in Rome. Here's the NRSV version: "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

Here's the earlier RSV version: "We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose."

Yes, the "in everything" of the RSV becomes "all things" in the NRSV, but that's really of no consequence.

However the change to "work together for good for those who love God" from "works for good with those who love him" is consequential, indeed.

Jacob noted that many Christians have found hope and comfort in this verse, particularly the NRSV version because they have seen themselves (or some other sufferer) as the (eventual) recipient of the (eventual) goodness. Even the worst evil, in this view, can produce good, an idea Jacob rejected as false hope: "There is no good that can come out of evil," she declared. Rather, good can come from working against evil, against suffering, against injustice.

But when "for" in this verse is replaced with "with," the clear implication is that humanity has a role to play in helping God make good triumph. Working "with" God means people have agency, a calling, a responsibility. They are called to work with the divine to stand against evil and help to relieve suffering, serving as the hands, feet and heart of Christ on Earth, in Christian terms.

In fact, she raised the stakes even higher than that. She insisted that we are called to live what she called a "cruciform" life, a life shaped by the cross of Christ, a life lived in anticipation of suffering that almost certainly will happen when we stand against oppressive earthly powers on behalf of the poor and oppressed.

The NRSV translation, she said, encourages people to "nullify evil" by thinking that eventually good will come out of it if we just wait long enough. That's the road to inaction. And when we are silent in the face of oppression, we take the side of the oppressor.

All of this is one more reason to remember that any translation of the Christian Bible from Hebrew, Greek and a little Aramaic into English is an act of interpretation. And it's one more reason to check one translation against another to try to get the clearest picture possible of what the original writers meant. The same, of course, goes for scripture in other faith traditions.

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Gift-of-MeaningIt's been 30 years since a siege at the home of the Branch Davidians outside of Waco, Texas, eventually resulted in the deaths of four federal agents and about 80 members of the Davidians. This article from The Conversation makes the good point that this event has given ammunition ever since to anti-government extremists. One reason is that the government badly botched this event, a point I made in several articles I wrote from Waco a year after the Davidians' home exploded with deadly fire. One mistake after another made the outcome almost inevitable and, in the end, gave fuel to such radicals as Timothy McVeigh, who was behind the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. You can find the articles I wrote about all of this in my first book, A Gift of Meaning, published in 2001 and sometimes still findable on the internet. A primary point of the piece is that none of this needed to have happened and could have been prevented had federal agents taken the time to speak with religious studies experts at the nearby Baylor University. They had been keeping track of the Branch Davidians for decades and understood what not to do to trigger them.


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