Tuesday, December 08, 2009


Givin' 'Em Ideas

James McGrath of Exploring Our Matrix ... oh, and a Professor of Religion at Butler University and a real Bible scholar ... has an Op-Ed piece in The Christian Science Monitor on the terminally lame Conservative Bible Project instigated by the incredibly dense Andrew Schlafly, son of the indescribably incoherent Phyllis Schlafly, being carried out at Andy's laughably cretinous Conservapedia. After noting:

When it first started, it was difficult to tell if it was an authentic conservative phenomenon or a parody along the lines of "The Colbert Report."

... Professor McGrath goes on to say:

[W]hen people set about to radically rewrite the Bible and call it "translating," or deny that what they really are doing is rewriting the Bible, it's misleading and dishonest. ...

A good example is the discussion on the Conservative Bible Project page about whether the manager in Luke 16:8 should be referred to as "shrewdly dishonest."

The discussion on the Web page suggests that he should rather be considered "resourceful," a "better conservative term, which became available only in 1851." No mention is made of what the actual Greek term might mean, much less of whether relevant linguistic parallels or cultural evidence might provide clarification of the Greek term's meaning.

The meaning of words in the underlying languages is simply ignored, and the "translators" make clear that their interest is to make the English text mean what they believe a conservative Bible ought to mean.

The fact that the Greek text in the same verse explicitly calls the manager "unrighteous" or "unjust" is likewise never mentioned. It seems that for a project like this, all one has to do is "translate" that word as meaning something else, and the problem is solved.

Why not go even further and add a parable in which Jesus praises employers who pay their workers as little as possible, or one that extols Caesar Augustus for not providing universal healthcare, while they're at it?

Now you've gone and done it, James! This is a two-way street. A lot of the same people can't tell when they are being parodied. Pretty soon we'll have the parable of the man who fell among thieves telling the Good Samaritan to keep his hands off Medicare.

But this is merely cousin, though with a political tendency I regard as deplorable, to Islamic scholars who earnestly assure us that martyrs are promised 72 raisins in heaven, to Biblical scholars who would have us believe the Bible, "properly interpreted", isn't homophobic, that the original writers in Greek and Aramaic didn't in fact write in any dislike of homosexuality.

Making the words mean and be what you want them to is both ubiquitous and (on the whole) acceptable practice in reading religious texts. How could it be otherwise? You can't exactly take the teachings of (say) a preacher who thinks the world will end in his lifetime, and make it apply over thousands of years as is.

I don't think this is even a particularly noteworthy instance of meaning-mangling. It's just politically icky.
James' article addresses that specifically:

Don't get me wrong: "Rewriting" the Bible has a long and illustrious heritage, one that begins within the pages of the Bible itself.

The book of Chronicles retells the stories found in the books of Samuel and Kings. One Gospel retells stories found in another. There have been Midrashes that expand, Targums that paraphrase, and Gospel harmonies that combine multiple stories into one big story.

There is plenty of precedent for taking biblical material and doing creative things with it, and one could even argue that it is "biblical" to do so.

The difference is that James is making the case that the CBP makes no attempt to address the meaning of the original text; it is simply manipulating the English translation to serve their ends irrespective of the text or other historical evidence of the authors' "original intent."
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