Bible Politics and Theological Bias

My friend and colleague Scot McKnight has written a thought-provoking post in which he discusses the politics of biblical translation. In his post, “The Politics of Bible Translations,” Scot wrote: “The Bible you carry is a political act. By ‘Bible’ I mean the Translation of the Bible you carry is a political act.”

What Scot is saying is that the theological (and political?) view of the translators influences the way a specific translation of the Bible is done and where that translation will be used. Below is how Scot classifies some of the most popular translations of the Bible:

The world in which we live, however, has turned the Bible you carry into politics. So here goes for my politics of translation at the general, stereotypical level, and it goes without having to say it that there are exceptions for each:

The NIV 2011 is the Bible of white conservative evangelicals.
The NLT is the Bible of white conservative evangelicals.
The TNIV is the Bible of white egalitarian evangelicals.
The ESV is the Bible of white complementarian conservative evangelicals.
The NASB is the Bible of white conservative evangelical serious Bible students.
The NRSV is the Bible of white Protestant mainliners.
The RSV is the Bible of aged white Protestant mainliners.
The CEB is the Bible of not as white Protestant mainliners.
The KJV is the Bible of African Americans (in my experience at TEDS, NPU and Northern) and, of course, others.
The Message is the Bible of those who are tired of the politics (and like something fresh).

Scot could also have included the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), a Bible translation done by Southern Baptists for Southern Baptists.

In the present post, I want to go one step beyond what Scot said in his post. Before I proceed, I want to emphasize two things.

First, I agree with Scot that “each of these translations is a very good translation.” I have used most of these translations in my own work. When I teach I generally use the NRSV (and at times I still go back to the RSV). When I was a pastor, I preached from the NIV and recommended this translation to the members of my church because it was easy for them to read and it was easy for them to understand what they read.

Second, I also agree with Scot when he said that “Each group has its Bible, has its translation.” But it is here where I find problems with some Bible translations. A translation of the Bible is addressed to a specific group and when that happens, the bias of that group may influence the way a specific text is translated.

Below I will provide two examples of theological bias in translating the biblical text. However, let me emphasize that most people in the pew will seldom, or may never, notice these biases. This bias will not affect their love for God, their devotion to Christ, or their commitment to the Bible as the word of God.

The reason for this is because most people have no clue that when they read these translations that they are reading the bias of the translator. But, those who are familiar with the original text will realize that a specific translation may not correspond to what the original text says.

Theological Misinformation

One of the problems of translation that I think is not good is when a translation misinforms the reader. In this study I will use four translations as a test case: the NRSV, the RSV, the NIV, and the KJV. I will use 2 Samuel 21:19 as an example.

NRSV: “Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.”

RSV: “And there was again war with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan the son of Jaareoregim, the Bethlehemite, slew Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.”

According to the NRSV and the RSV, it was Elhanan, the son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, who killed Goliath the Gittite. Goliath was a Philistine warrior who threatened the army of Israel.

But, the NIV and the KJV read the same verse differently:

NIV: “In another battle with the Philistines at Gob, Elhanan son of Jair the Bethlehemite killed the brother of Goliath the Gittite, who had a spear with a shaft like a weaver’s rod.”

KJV: “And there was again a battle in Gob with the Philistines, where Elhanan the son of Jaareoregim, a Bethlehemite, slew the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.”

Both the NIV and the KJV say that Elhanan killed the brother of Goliath. The KJV uses italics to indicate that the words the brother of are not in the Hebrew text. The NIV puts that information in a footnote.

The reason the NIV and the KJV add the words “the brother of” is because the translators do not accept the fact that there are contradictions in the Bible. Thus, they harmonize 2 Samuel 21:19 with 1 Chronicles 20:5 which reads: “Again there was war with the Philistines; and Elhanan son of Jair killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.”

The problem is that 1 Chronicles was written about 400-500 after 2 Samuel. Thus, for 400 years the text simply read that Elhanan killed Goliath. When the Chronicler wrote his history of Israel, he tried to solve the problem by adding “the brother of.”

Did the NIV and the KJV solve the problem by adding words to the Bible? No. To the contrary, the addition creates more problems. Here is the problem. 1 Samuel 17:50 says that David killed Goliath, whose “shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam” (1 Samuel 17:7). Now we have:

David killed Goliath, whose “shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam.”
Elhanan killed Goliath, whose “shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam.”
Elhanan killed the brother of Goliath, whose “shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam.”

Anyone reading 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, and 1 Chronicles cannot solve the contradiction. However, if the Goliath Ostracon proves to be true, then there were more than one Goliaths (you can read my article here). And if this happens, both the KJV and the NIV will be proven wrong by adding to the Bible words that are not in the Hebrew text.

The irony in all of this is that the NIV changed a good translation to one that is not so good:

NIV 1984: “Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.”

NIV 2011: “In another battle with the Philistines at Gob, Elhanan son of Jair the Bethlehemite killed the brother of Goliath the Gittite, who had a spear with a shaft like a weaver’s rod.”

Once in class, a student asked me why did the NRSV change the text “in order to confuse me.” I told the student that it was not the NRSV that changed the text. If that student was confused, the blame should be placed on those people who changed the text. In my view, no one has the right to change the biblical text by adding words which the translator thought should be there in the first place.

Theological Bias

When I began this post I said I was going to give two examples of theological bias in some translations, but space will not allow me to give the second example. In my book Rereading the Biblical Text: Searching for Meaning and Understanding I have presented many more examples where the NIV changes the text because of theological bias. You can get a copy of my book at Amazon.com.

In his review of my book, Scot McKnight discusses my treatment of how the NIV deals with Genesis 2:19. Read his post, “Let the Bible be the Bible.”

In his post on the politics behind biblical translation, Scot wrote: “Each of these Bibles is good. Let’s use them all, and rejoice that we have such wonderful access to the Bible.” I agree with him.

Let me finish by paraphrasing 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

“All scripture is inspired by God. Any translation of Scripture is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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