What is a Bible Translation…really?
Two days ago, I got the 2022 NRSVue Bible (New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition). From a scholarly standpoint, many suggest that it is probably one of the best English translations we have. Translations are a tricky thing. It is not as simple as some people assume. There is not always an English word for every Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic word. The opposite is also true. Furthermore, there is not always an appropriate English context, phrase, analogy, or colloquialism for every Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic context, phrase, analogy, or colloquialism. The opposite is also true. One word can have a thousand meanings, and a thousand words can have one meaning with slight nuances. Therefore, translations have to work on a spectrum. The most “literal” translation is not always the best, nor is the most paraphrase-oriented translation always the best. Literal translations can easily miss the meaning of a word or phrase because they can subtract the culture and context. Paraphrase-oriented translations can miss the meaning because they can add unnecessary commentary to the author’s original intentions. However, if done in a scientific and scholarly way, both philosophies are legitimate translations. Not perfect, but good. There are translations that lean more “thought for thought” rather than “word for word” and vice versa. I think that the NRSVue has a great balance between these two philosophies.
I think the NRSVue is the most honest translation I’ve seen. Especially when it comes to some controversial texts like 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 and their use of the Greek terms malakoi and arsenokoitai. Some go further with their translations than what I think we can say with certainty. Even if I agree with the interpretation, I don’t think that is the job of a translation. Others stop short of clarifying nuance. That is not okay either. I think that the NRSVue balances that tension quite well. It is interesting, though, because the original RSV, in 1946, was the first English translation to use the term homosexual. The Germans did not follow that tradition until much later. That is also interesting because the Germans are the first that I know of to use the term homosexual for secular purposes. Until the 80s, their Bibles primarily used the word meaning boy molester or pederast (knabenschander).
Before 1946, most English translations simply said sodomites or males who bed with males. Sodomites is in reference to Sodom in the book of Genesis, which was more about hospitality, pride, and (frankly) gang rape than it was about homosexuality the way we know it today. Sodomite is how post-1946 versions of the classic RSV translated the term, and it is how the KJV translated it as well. Males who bed with males is technically accurate, but there’s more context to it than that, so I don’t think that is the best translation. It goes back to the weakness of a literalist philosophy of translation, as I mentioned above. That would be like us still saying “quick” (like, “he will judge the quick and the dead”) in our modern translations to mean “alive” and expecting our high school students to understand. The point is that a literal translation of this is not really a good translation at all because there’s more context.
We have pretty solid evidence that Paul is talking about things like male-to-male temple prostitution and especially pedophilia with young boys. But it isn’t something we can say with certainty. It is overwhelmingly persuasive, but we are not Paul. So, it’s better to just simply say we don’t know what it means than to read “homosexual” into the text in the way that we understand the term today. So, the NRSVue says “illicit sex” instead of homosexual or sodomite. Illicit sex could be any kind of sexual abuse, whether it is an abuse of the law or physical abuse of oneself or others. Then, the big kicker is that, in the footnote at the bottom of the page, it says the Greek is uncertain. This is absolutely true. This translation has great readability, and it’s relevant. But more than that, I think it’s honest and accurate. And that’s the point of the NRSVue, to be both as readable as possible and as literal as possible. They try to find harmony between the two translation philosophies mentioned above.
Also, another aspect of this is the word malakoi. Sometimes, it is also translated as homosexual, but it’s extremely complicated. Literally, it means one who is soft or weak. Sometimes translators lump it together with arsenokoitai and say “homosexual” or “sexual pervert.” But usually, malakoi is used to talk about male prostitution. Hence the reason why the NRSVue translation echoes that idea. The David Bentley Hart translation from Yale says feckless sensuality (indicates a weak character of a sensual nature). The term can even imply that one is a eunuch.
Fornication and Adultery
On a different note, some wonder how the NRSVue translates fornication and adultery. Fornication is translated as sexual immorality, and adultery is still translated as adultery. I don’t mind the translation of adultery or sexual immorality being there, but I do wish that they had a footnote about the nuance in Scripture. Usually, sexual immorality is in reference to adultery or prostitution. Specifically, temple prostitution. That’s almost always the case. We know that with pretty decent certainty. So, a footnote would have been nice. As far as adultery goes, it can simply mean covenant unfaithfulness, but it’s just as likely to literally mean adultery, so I don’t mind that translation as much. The David Bentley Hart translation literally says “whoring” instead of sexual immoral to emphasize the prostitution aspect of the Greek term. He goes on to still use the word adultery. So, aside from the complaint about the sexual immorality translation (how it needs a footnote), I think they handled this translation great in these areas. (It’s really more of an update regarding new evidence more so than a new translation, hence the name).
You’ll notice in Leviticus 18 and 20 that the language is still a little triggering, but it doesn’t use the word homosexual there. It doesn’t assume that it is that simple. This makes sense because the context was, again, temple prostitution and ritual purity. The same principle is true in 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2 regarding women being silent. The harsh language is still there, but it leaves it up to the reader to do their homework and see why Paul says this. That’s what translations are supposed to do. Not be a commentary. But tell us what the text actually says in a way that is closest to our semantics today. The NRSVue is not perfect, no translation is, but I think they did their job well. – Jesse