They Changed My Bible Again . . and Again . . . and Again
A few times a week my computer tells me that one piece of software or another has been updated and that I need to download the new versions lest my computer start spewing sparks. I usually don’t notice the differences afterwards, but I’m sure that Big Brother has made sure that my computer is now safe from those who would trample truth, justice, and the American Way.
I did notice one recent update, though. I use Accordance for my Bible software, mostly because it uses the same Greek NT grammatical database tagging and search formatting that had been used by the old Gramcord software. I started using Gramcord somewhere around 1990 on an old DOS computer, and stuck with it for years until I converted to Appleism and had to find a mac-based language search program. So my Accordance update informed me that I would have the latest revisions of the ESV on my computer.
Apparently, no translation is perfect. Shock me.
The ESV, which appeared in 2001, has already been revised once, in 2007 (a convenient list of changes is available here). One passage that is of interest to those, like us, who think the Lord’s Supper is pretty important is 1 Cor 11:27. The 2001 edition read, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” In 2007 this was changed, however, to “. . . will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.” The latter is closer word-for-word to the Greek, but what does “guilty concerning the body and blood” mean? In other words, if people can’t make sense of it, is it still a “translation?”
It seems, however, that the 2007 revisions were insufficient, so a whole new set has recently been released, and are available here. While not as far-reaching as the changes made to the 2011 edition of the NIV, it has become standard practice for Bible translation companies to release “updates” software-style: tweak a few things here and there, release the update, and sort out compatibility issues later, release another update, repeat. Pretty soon we’ll have NIV 2011.1.2.3 and ESV 2011.4.2.
The ESV 2011 revisions are not huge; most are slight adaptations, a word here or there, and many seem to move closer to the Greek or in interpretive interest rather than aiming for a word-for-word correspondence style. A few things are worth noting, though. “Gender-neutral” issues have become quite the bogey-man in recent years; while the ESV 2011 revisions are by no means a wholesale shift to “gender-neutral” renderings, there are some in evidence. For example, the ESV 2007 at Mark 8:24 reads: “I see men, but they look like trees, walking” becomes “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Some alterations are interpretive. The strangest one may the translation of δοῦλος / slave. It seems that a large number of the occurrences of δοῦλος have been changed in the latest revision to “bondservant.” In 1 Cor 7, for example, the word “bondservant” replaces “slave” in all four examples. What on earth a “bondservant” is, I’d like to know. You won’t find it in any standard Greek-English lexicon. Even so, the revision is not consistent. There are about a dozen occurrences of the stem (δουλεύω δουλεία δοῦλος) in Galatians, but almost all of these are all left as “slave” or “slavery” – perhaps it would be to confusing to translate the verb δουλεύω (e.g. Gal 4:8: “do not be enslaved”) as “bondervanted” which, of course, is not a word in English. Or again, to translate δουλεία (e.g. Gal 5:1 do not submit again to a yoke of slavery”) as “bondservantness” or something would be nonsense – you’d have to make up a word to keep the textual links. But at Gal 1:10, where Paul calls himself “slave of Christ” the ESV chooses to use “servant.” Confused? So am I. The most egregious examples show up in Philippians – and this goes back to the original ESV and even the KJV. In Philippians 1:1 Paul and Timothy are δοῦλοι, but that is translated neither as “slaves” nor as “bondservants” but as “servants.” So there are three different words used in the ESV 2011 revision to translate a single Greek word. And when we get to the great Hymn of Christ in Philippians 2 Jesus Christ – the ultimate slave — is, weakly, a “servant.” Of course there are huge issues with how post-Civil War Americans hear the word “slave,” and there are shameful examples of slavery still practiced in our advanced and enlightened age. But I would prefer to let the vocabulary be used consistently, and then help the reader sort out what “slavery” actually entails in the ancient world. A great place to start is with John Nordling’s commentary on Philemon, BTW.
I’ve rambled on a bit, but I hope you see the problem. We now have revision upon revision, layer upon layer of translations, all with the same name. This causes several problems. First, you might want to brush up on your Greek (I didn’t check the revisions in the OT, but you’ll probably need to brush up on your Hebrew, too). At least sort out what a “bondservant” is supposed to be – I think the Apostle would be scratching his head, and your people probably will, too. Second, the ESV that I have on my computer is not the ESV that I have in my Lutheran Study Bible. Whether the revisions are good, bad, or indifferent, you might want to check before you cut-and-paste from your Bible program or website. The text you use might be different from what the people in your Bible study have in front of them, whether in hard copy or pulled up on their tablet. Third, get used to having plastic, malleable texts of the Bible. The online world is teaching us that notions of a “perfect” or “original text” are modern, industrial, mass-produced constructs which are impossible in our digital age. Texts change all the time, even texts of the Bible.
Yet this shouldn’t get us too worked up. Before the invention of the printing press a mere 550 years ago, the few people who could read and even fewer people who had access to a written biblical text were quite well aware that there were differences in the hand-copied manuscripts. Read through Jerome, Origen, Tertullian, or Augustine. All of them comment on differences in the manuscripts. Did Mark the Evangelist write Mark 16:9-20? Neither Origen nor Eusebius thought so, but you’ll find it in your Bible. Nevertheless, even with a biblical text that was different from manuscript to manuscript (or year to year as we have today), the church was able to hear the voice of the Shepherd, follow him faithfully, and preach Christ. Even with the manuscript mess. And we can do the same – KJV, NIV ESV and more, and all the revisions in between. Read the text. Hear the Shepherd.