Sugarcoating the Bible

Steven James, writing a post for CNN Belief Blog, urged Christians to stop sugarcoating the Bible.   In his post he said that “Christians are uncomfortable with how earthly the Bible really is.  They feel the need to tidy up God.”

In order to show how Christians sugarcoat the Bible, James provides several examples taken from both the Old Testament and the New Testament.  After presenting two examples of how Christians mistranlate the biblical texts, James wrote:

“God’s message was not meant to be run through some arbitrary, holier-than-thou politeness filter. He intended the Bible to speak to people where they’re at, caught up in the stark reality of life on a fractured planet.”

In this post I will deal with two passages from the Old Testament that James discussed in his post. After discussing these passages, I will offer my evaluation of James’ criticism.

The first text James discussed was Isaiah 64:6.  James wrote:

For example, look in any modern translation of Isaiah 64:6, and you’ll find that, to a holy God, even our most righteous acts are like “filthy rags.” The original language doesn’t say “filthy rags”; it says “menstrual rags.” But that sounds a little too crass, so let’s just call them filthy instead.

James is right in his translation of Isaiah 64:6.  The Hebrew expression בֶ֥גֶד עִדִּ֖ים literally means “garments of menstruation.”  James is correct in saying that English translations of the text do not convey the meaning of the original language.

For instance, the ESV translates the Hebrew expression as “polluted garment.” The KJV uses “filthy rags” and the NRSV as “filthy cloth.”

What James does not say is that several translations of the Bible are faithful to the original text.  For instance, the Complete Jewish Bible uses “menstrual rags,” the Douay-Rheims translation uses “the rag of a menstruos woman,” and the NET Bible uses “a menstrual rag.”

The question that must be asked is why do the versions differ in translating Isaiah 64:6?  At issue here is the concept of holiness and the preoccupation with uncleanness in ancient Israel. Ancient Israelites believed that bodily discharges, including menstrual flow, produced uncleanness.

In Israel, a woman’s menstrual discharge was a source of uncleanness: “When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening” (Lev. 15:19).

Since menstrual flow was a potent source of uncleanness, Isaiah compares human sin as something unclean and the righteousness that comes from an unforgiven sinner with the dirty garment that is stained with the menstrual flow.

Since most readers of the Bible do not understand how seriously people in ancient Israel viewed the uncleanness caused by bodily discharges, they would not understand the concept of a menstrual rag.  Thus, translators try to use an expression that conveys the idea of something repulsive, such as a “filthy rag.”

The other example that James used in his post is the expression “pisseth against the wall,” an expression that appears six times in the King James Version, but none in most modern versions of the Bible.

James erred in his evaluation of the sentence by saying that “the Jewish writers referred to Gentile men as those who ‘pisseth against the wall.’” The fact is that those who use this expression are Israelites referring to Israelites.

I will not go into detail explaining the expression “him that pisseth against the wall.”  I have written two posts on this expressive Hebrew phrase (read Part 1 here; Part 2 here).  I concluded by saying that the expression is a vulgarism designed to convey a mild obscenity.

The problem with the expression is that it does not convey much to a modern reader.  If one would ask ten people the meaning of the expression “him that pisseth against the wall,” it is possible that one would have twelve different explanations for the meaning of these words.

Take the English expression “he gets my goat.” In his poem “He Gets My Goat,” Stevie Mccabe wrote:

This old man he really gets my goat
Something in the way he does his thing
Whenever he’s around i’m in misery
can’t put a foot wrong without feeling cheated.

How would one explain the English expression “he gets my goat” to a Spanish speaking person?  There is a translation of this expression, “Me pega el chivo,” but both the English and the Spanish translation are referring to herding goats which is not the intent of the English expression.

Thus, in order to convey the expression in the language of the reader, it becomes necessary to use an expression that conveys the real meaning of the original sentence.  Thus, “him that pisseth against the wall” in Hebrew becomes “every male” in one’s household in English.

This process of translating the message of the Bible into the language of the reader is a complicated process because the goal is not to offer a literal translation of the original, but one that can be understood by the reader while preserving the real intent of the original writer. This is not sugarcoating the Bible.  It is an attempt at offering an intelligible translation that conveys the real message of the Bible.

This problem is not original with the translators of the Bible.  The biblical writers themselves and the scribes who copied and transmitted the biblical text used euphemisms to sugarcoat embarrassing situations and offensive statements about God.

For instance, instead of using the words for human sexual organs, out of modesty the biblical writers used the word “feet.”  Thus, the biblical writer can speak of “the hair of the feet” (Isa. 7:20). Now, this is sugarcoating the Bible since the writer deliberately refused to use a word that should not be mentioned in public.

Even the scribes were reluctant to use statements that, in their eyes, diminished the character of God.  Thus they emended the text and used words that removed the offensive expressions.  In the Hebrew Bible there are eighteen of these Tiqqune Sopherim, the emendations of the scribes.  I have discussed the emendation on Habakkuk 1:12 here.  This also could be considered sugarcoating the Bible.  Thus, if Christians sugarcoat the Bible, they are following a tradition that is thousands of years old.

In conclusion, let me say that I agree with the point James is making in his post. Most Christians believe that the Bible was written by human beings, under the inspiration of God, in order to present a written witness of their experience with the divine.  In the process of writing about their encounter with God, they used language that reflects their culture and even social mores.

However, in the process of communicating their message to the present generation of readers, it becomes imperative that the message be communicated in a language that people can understand.  This is the reason the King James Bible is not used as much as it was just half-a-century ago.  The king’s English has become unintelligible to most readers today.

In addition, we cannot blame Christians for sugarcoating the Bible.  We must blame the translators of the Bible who think that most readers will be offended by some of the raw language we find in some of the books of the Bible.

In previous posts I have argued for translating the biblical text as literally as possible and as readable as necessary.  I rather prefer that the reader struggle with the text as it is than to offer a reading that is more of an interpretation than a translation of the text.

I agree with James: stop sugarcoating the Bible.

Note:

If you are unable to see the Hebrew letters in the essay, download the Biblical fonts and install them on your computer. Download the fonts here.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary.

This entry was posted in Translating, Translation Problems and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Sugarcoating the Bible

  1. Busi says:

    No mention of Paul’s use of σκύβαλα (Ph 3.8); a strong word which has a nearly perfect English equivalent (4-letter) word, although, it does fall out of the scope of the Old Testament.

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    • Claude Mariottini says:

      Busi,

      In my post, I addressed only the sections dealing with the Old Testament. To discuss the New Testament passages would take another post.

      Claude Mariottini

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      • Monte says:

        Dr. Mariottini
        Please tell me? for one that cannot read the Hebrew or Greek language, what is the best English translation bible?
        Thank you,
        Monte

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      • Monte,

        This is very difficult question to answer because every translation of the Bible has its own problems. If you have an opportunity to read my book (it is announced on my blog), you will discover that I deal with this problem throughout the book.

        Every translation is good for edification and for presenting God’s will for our lives. However, when it comes to representing the Hebrew and the Greek of the original texts, some Bibles are better than others. In teaching, I use the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) because I think they reflect the original language better. But they also have their own problems. Probably, for someone who does not know Hebrew and Greek I would recommend the English Standard Version (ESV). This version is based on the RSV.

        As I said, there is merit in every translation of the Bible. For most Christians, the goal is to discover God’s will for one’s life. This can be done using almost any translation of the Bible. In interpreting the Bible, scholars and professors need to go a little deeper, thus, they need a translation that reflects a better translation of the Hebrew and the Greek.

        I hope this information is helpful. I try to clarify the Old Testament in all my posts. If you subscribe to my blog, you will receive all my posts by email. This way you can gain a better understanding of the Old Testament.

        Claude Mariottini

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  2. Greg Hill says:

    Hello my name is Greg Hill .Thank, you so much for being so true about the word of God. I guess what they say about the adulterate truth . Is the real truth and you cant make the bible fit ore life.style . I would like to read more on your blog about Hebrew text .Thank you so much for your Enlighten mint . Your’s in Christ Brother Greg Hill.

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    • Greg,

      Thank you for your nice words. The Bible tells an amazing story, the story of God’s love. If you visit the Archive Page on my blog, you will discover a series of studies that may be of interest to you. I hope you enjoy those studies.

      Thank you for visiting my blog.

      Claude Mariottini

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  3. Thank you for this, I agree that most don’t even understand anymore than just an hour a week of what is taught to them from the bible. Like Galatians 5: 12 that is translated many ways such as ;

    Aramaic Bible in Plain English But I would also that those who trouble you would be cut off.

    Jubilee Bible 2000 I even desire that those who trouble you would cut themselves off.

    King James 2000 Bible I would they were even cut off who trouble you.

    Douay-Rheims Bible I would they were even cut off, who trouble you.

    Darby Bible Translation I would that they would even cut themselves off who throw you into confusion.

    Young’s Literal Translation O that even they would cut themselves off who are unsettling you

    English Revised Version I would that they which unsettle you would even cut themselves off.

    Webster’s Bible Translation I would t hey were even cut off who trouble you

    When in trurh Paul said, “I wish you would emasculate themselves(or castrate themselves)!” And in the hood that plainly means that Paul was wishing they would of just cut their own ba**s (scrotum) off…but to be real is to uncomfortable for many…so the true effect and seriousness of the statement is lost…thus we get what the Bible warns aginst…a waterd down gospel …truly how sad is that???

    We are to STUDY to show ourselves apporoved….

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    • Thank you for your comment. Some translators of the biblical text follow the practice of the rabbis by using euphemisms whenever dealing with controversial texts. There are many euphemisms in the Hebrew Bible. The rabbis believed that since the text was to be read in public, they should be sensitive to those who would listen to the reading of the text. Thus, translators today follow the same practice.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Claude Mariottini

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      • Absolutely, I completely understand why it is done. But in doing so emphasis is lost. If we could be trusted to have the truth given in the way it was meant that would be one thing but the verses get further waterd down in such a way they tickle the ears. And the serverity of the message is lost. Thus the importance of why the language was used to begin with and that leaves the door open to wrong choices to be made because it just doesn’t seem that bad any more. Then you end up with a church like we have now, not following a book of black and white but just different shades of grey. Perhaps that is another reason we have 41000 denominations of of different translations. Sometimes we need to be offended to understand the importance of a situation…there is a reason drill sargents aren’t cuddly…perhaps there wouldn’t be so much pain in the body. Just how I see it after teaching it for decades. We do things amiss and the bible warns aginst that.

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      • I think you and I are on the same page. But there is an ancient precedent for what the Rabbis and translators do. The biblical writers themselves used many euphemisms to communicate their message to their readers. If the biblical writers themselves used euphemisms to write their books, then we have to assume that they did not want to be blunt in communicating their message to the general public.

        Claude Mariottini

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      • Indeed I think we are on the same page. To me though the irony that caused the ancient translators to copy the words of God to treat his name with such reverance that they would use a new quill only once and discard it, would take it upon themselves not to treat his words just as holy and instead change them. To me it borders on a form of hypocrisy. But it saddens me that preachers and bible teachers of today, with all that is at our finger tips…will still teach changed words. The bible warns us well. Brother Claude (if I can address you so personal) I enjoy your wisdom!!! You state the truth folks are sillyily afraid to speak. It is like in todays age the fear of being “negative” books like Lamintations are passed over…stygma will be the death of many…I encourage you my Brother!!!

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  4. Pingback: Filthy Rags and Maxi Pads – jamiebonsall

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