We don’t typically think of the Bible as a product of culture. We might consider the cultural context in which the authors of the Bible produced the texts that eventually were collected into what we now call the Bible. We might even be happy to wrestle with the complex world that informed and shaped the authors and how that world is carried through in the text. But very little attention is given to the fact that the Bible we use in our personal devotional lives or hear being preached on a Sunday is a product of our culture.
Whether we’re talking about the NRSV, NIV, or whatever other translation, the translations we have of the Bible are always more than translations of the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts with which Bible translators work. Translation work is an interpretive exercise. As such, it involves making decisions and judgments about the meaning of ancient languages. And while those decisions are typically informed by deep learning and understanding of morphology, syntax, and semantics, the truth of the matter is that, at best, what we offer with our translations are an approximation of the meaning.
Moreover, the very act of translation is further complicated by the fact that the translator doing the work is located within a particular moment in time, removed from the ancient text and its world, and allied to one ideology (theological position) or another. In other words, translators belong to interpretive communities, and those communities are framed by a set of commitments and traditions that are superimposed onto the text being translated.
That translations embody the commitments and traditions of the interpretive communities which bring them into being or interpret them was recently brought home to me in a brilliant piece of scholarly work by Samuel L Perry, a sociologist at the University of Oklahoma, USA. The article, The Bible as a Product of Cultural Power: The Case of Gender Ideology in the English Standard Version, argues that to think of the Bible as uniform, static, and exogenous (i.e., that the Bible has an external point of origin removed from the interpretive community, for example, the church) misses the truth by a mile. Perry demonstrates, convincingly, that the interpretive community plays a significant role in shaping both how the text is translated and how it is interpreted.
To support his argument, Perry analyses key gender texts in the Bible, favoured by complementarians. He makes the comparison between the RSV (Revised Standard Version, published in 1952) and the ESV (English Standard Version, published in 2001), which uses the RSV as its source, and shows how the translators of the ESV made significant changes to the RSV. Here’s a helpful summary of his findings, taken from the article (Perry 2019, 77):
Perry’s analysis is on point and clearly demonstrates the interpretive agenda of the translators of the ESV. Those involved in this translation, like all translators, have specific ideological/theological commitments that inform their decision-making, and the translation bears the marks of those commitments. Perry concludes,
I have shown the complementarian interpretive project dominant within American evangelicalism has been facilitated by the intentional manipulation of the biblical text itself. Indeed, the influence of “literalism” on Americans’ gender views takes on new meanings when one considers that different Bible translations―interpreted literally―could yield completely different understandings regarding gender roles in the church or home (2019, 86).
In the end, the translators of the ESV produce a translation that reproduces their ideological commitments and underwrites their complementarian theology, making the interpretive exercise so much more straightforward. Of course, the ESV translators are not the only ones engaged in reproducing an ideological/theological position. Not all translations are equal. Some are better than others, but making the call on which translation to use and which to avoid, while somewhat confusing, nevertheless reminds us that there is a lot more going on when we open our favourite Bible translation.
Perry, Samuel L. 2019. “The Bible as a Product of Cultural Power: The Case of Gender Ideology in the English Standard Version.” Sociology of Religion 81 (1):68-92. doi: 10.1093/socrel/srz022.