What if one were to translate the Bible according to the same principles as we translate Homer, Aristotle, and Freud? What if we were to translate the Bible regardless of the faith of its potential readership, regardless of any investment in the question of whether the texts are right or wrong, and regardless of how the texts might be used to address contemporary faith? Link
I find the article written by Zeba Crook of Carleton University, Ottawa very good. I think the author is not correct in everything but at least it's clearly written. I wonder if Loftus' definition of "Secular" matches what the author of the article defines as secular. I agree with the author's definition so let's use it:
A secular translation, in contrast, might be backward-looking: it might seek to bring modern readers back in time into the world of these ancient stories and characters. Let me not, at this point, say more than that. Let the rest of this paper be an exploration into what a secular translation might do, and how it might differ (if at all) from a theological translation. Let me say at the outset: there are no easy or obvious answers to the question of what might distinguish a theological from a secular translation.
I would argue that all the good translations attempt to give you what the original text says without bias, but none of them does this perfectly. This is why it's important to consult many translations. The majority of the article attempts to raise examples of how theological concerns trumps good translation in today's main English translations.
1) The perfect example of a translation governed by theological interests relates to Zechariah 11:13 in Christian Bibles, which is often forced to corroborate Matthew’s fourteenth fulfillment formula. Matthew 27:3-10 relates the story of Judas trying to return the money he took for betraying the location of Jesus. After Judas hangs himself, the priests take the money and buy “the potter’s field” as a place to bury foreigners. All this happened, according to Matthew’s fourteenth Fulfillment Formula, because “Jeremiah” foretold it: “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded.”
This is one of the more challenging of Matthew’s Fulfillment Formulae. We search in vain in Jeremiah for the prophesied details to this story: in Jeremiah 32:8-10 we find a field being purchased, and some silver pieces (though 17, not 30); in Jeremiah 18:1-3 we find a potter working at his wheel. Perhaps, some have surmised, Matthew had Zechariah in mind despite naming Jeremiah, and indeed at Zechariah 11:12-13 we find thirty pieces of silver, a price being set on someone, and the money being thrown somewhere. The where, in this instance, is the crux of the problem. Matthew claims that the where is “the potter’s field.”The key term in Zechariah is yotzer. The noun derives from the Hebrew verb yatzar, the most common meaning of which refers to the act of shaping something, often clay, and metaphorically to God’s identity as Creator (or “shaper”). Another metaphorical usage is the process of melting metal in a foundry (which also involves creating something by shaping it). And finally, the analogical use of yotzer reaches its most extreme limit when it comes to refer to the treasury, as the place where “shaped” coins are kept. The latter is clearly its meaning in Zech 11:13. As Mitchell, Smith, and Brewer say so forcefully, “there is no discoverable reason why the money should be thrown to the potter in the temple or elsewhere.”3 They argue, quite logically, that the command refers to the temple treasury in this passage.
There is only one explanation then, for why some English translations go with “potter” when translating Zech 11:13: to make it confirm Matthew’s fulfillment formula. Matthew claims that it has been prophesied that money would go to a potter, and though it is found in Zechariah, not Jeremiah, something no translator can change, translators can salvage Matthew’s claim by translating Zechariah in a way that makes no sense in Zechariah, but in a way that supports Matthew’s claim.
There are a number of modern mainstream translations that translate Zechariah so that it corroborates Matthew’s claim (with “potter” for yotzer): American and New American Standard Bible, English Standard Version, King James Version, New English Translation, and New International Version, and Today’s New International Version. I draw your attention to the fact that these are not “fringe” Bibles: they are mainstream Bibles. So in this instance, a “secular” translation would go with “treasury” because it makes the most sense in its literary context and because a secular translation cannot be concerned with corroborating Matthew’s fulfillment formula. In other words, the secular translator cannot be concerned with upholding the “truth” of some religious idea.
I would not agree with this point. A secular translation should agree with thoughts and ideas that the original readers would have understood it. From this context, the problem disappears.
"While commenting on what happened to Judas Iscariot and his blood money, Matthew introduces a reference to the prophets as part of his favorite theme of the fulfillment of Scripture. He clearly cites Jeremiah as the prophet who gave the saying, but the saying itself is from Zechariah 11:12–3. Did Matthew make a mistake?
The quotation is not entirely a quotation of Zechariah. The majority of the quotation does come from Zechariah 11:13, but there is a change from the first person singular (“” to the third plural (“hey”. Furthermore, there is no field mentioned in Zechariah (in fact, in Matthew the NSRV follows the Syriac translation and has “he treasury”instead of “he potter”because Matthew clearly is not quoting Zechariah about the location). Finally, Zechariah does not include the phrase “s the Lord commanded me.”
Second, Jeremiah is also involved with potters (Jer 17:1–1; 19:1–3—n this second passage he purchases something from a potter). Furthermore, Jeremiah purchases a field (Jer 32:6–5), although the price is seventeen pieces of silver rather than thirty. Finally, Jeremiah 13:5 has the phrase “s the Lord commanded me”(RSV) (which also has to do with a purchase).
In the first century the Old Testament did not come as a bound volume with chapters and verses. Instead, the work was a series of scrolls. Shorter books were often put together on a single scroll. For example, Zechariah would be part of “he Book of the Twelve,”a single scroll containing all twelve minor prophets. There were paragraph divisions, but they were not numbered. It would be after a.d. 1500 before chapter and verse divisions and numbering were introduced. That means that Jesus in Matthew would have cited an Old Testament passage simply by the name of the author.
When it came to interpreting the Old Testament, it was common to bring passages together based on words they had in common (this is the second of Hillel the Elder’ seven rules of interpretation). In this case, it is clear that Jeremiah and Zechariah have several words in common, especially potter and shekel. Probably potter is the key term. As even the English reader might suspect from the information above, the quotation in Matthew is really Zechariah mixed with several phrases taken from Jeremiah. Again, we need to remember that while this may not be an acceptable way of citing Scripture today (although it is still done by accident!), it was a perfectly acceptable technique in the Palestine of Matthew’ day. (Matthew was probably written in Syria or northern Palestine; he is certainly focused on the Jewish community. Thus he reflects the usage of Scripture in such communities.)
What we have, then, is Matthew pulling together at least two texts in Jeremiah with one text in Zechariah to show that there was a type of biblical prefiguring of Judas’ actions, down to the amount of blood money and the fact that it was given to a potter and was used for the purchase of a field. While the logic of this type of exegesis is strange to the modern Western way of thinking, it would have been viewed as quite normal in Matthew’ time. Likewise it was normal for Matthew to cite the more important prophet, Jeremiah, despite the fact that most of his material came from Zechariah. Thus judged by first-century standards, Matthew is quite accurate and acceptable in what he does. [Hard Sayings of the Bible]
The article then brings up Isaiah 7:14 as a further example.
Precisely the same thing occurs in Isaiah 7:14, which is too well known to detain us for long: Matthew’s first fulfillment formula (1:22-23) relies on the Greek Septuagint version of Isaiah 7:14, which has parthenos, which means unambiguously “virgin,” whereas the Hebrew of Isaiah has almah, which unambiguously means “young woman.” Of course, in this culture, one hoped that a young woman was a virgin (which possibly explains the Septuagint translator’s decision), but there was a Hebrew word for virgin (betulah) that was not used by Isaiah here, which presumably he would have done if that was what he meant to say. At any rate, my point is not to argue about what Isaiah meant, but to point out that many translations of Isaiah 7:14, like the translations of Zech 11:13, do so in a way that confirms Matthew’s Septuagint-derived fulfillment formula. They go with the Septuagint’s and Matthew’s “virgin” when translating Isaiah 7:14 rather than with “young woman” as it is in the Hebrew original (again, these include mainstream bibles like American Standard Version, New American Bible, New American Standard, and New International Version).
No Dice. The Greek Version of the Isaiah found in the Septuagint was translated by Jewish Rabbis couple centuries before Jesus Christ who had no interest in trying to show that Jesus was born of a virgin but that the Messiah would be. Further, look at the Hebrew for Isaiah 7:14. The word translated "sign" denotes a miraculous quality - something out of the ordinary thereby leading to a conclusion that "virgin" is an acceptable translation not based on theology.
2) Another example of a clearly theologized translation is the universal tendency to translate charis as “grace,” especially when it occurs in an “of God” phrase. Charis is an extremely common word in ancient Greek; its lexical context is ancient Mediterranean patronage and reciprocity, sometimes referring to patronage and reciprocity between humans and sometimes between humans and their gods. The context of patronage and reciprocity accounts for two of the most common uses of charis: to refer to the thing that is given (benefaction or favor), and to refer to the response of the recipient (gratitude). Thus the two most common ways of translating charis ought to be “benefaction” and “gratitude.” Frederick Danker calls charis “a t.t. [technical term] in the reciprocity-oriented world dominated by Hellenic influence.”4In other words, there is nothing unclear about the meaning of this term in its original context: it has to do with ancient patronage.5 But modern translations are more interested in the theological weight of the term and less in its original usage. And here, the theological context is a post-Lutheran understanding of God’s grace, and the central position it comes to have (which came to affect Catholic theology as well). And what is at stake is not just the word one has chosen: the contemporary theological (post-Lutheran) understanding of Grace is that it comes to people from God free of charge, without merit, and with no strings attached. But this could not be further from the Greek meaning and context of charis.In terms of ancient patronage and reciprocity, a benefaction could be earned, could be sought out. It might have at times been unearned, spontaneous, but that quality is not part of what makes it a charis. What makes it a charis (whether it comes from a god or from a human) is that it comes at all, and that the recipient could not have attained it alone. And benefactions do come with strings attached: the recipient is expected to honor and praise the benefactor or patron loudly and publicly. Anything less would be construed as ingratitude: ranked, by Seneca, among the most egregious social diseases.6Here then, a secular translation would not allow the translation of the ancient Greek term charis to be colored by a post-Lutheran theology of grace.
I wonder why the article does not give an example of scripture where an understanding of reciprocity between God and man is shown to better explain what the New Testament says. I can't think of a single Bible text that can be spin this way. The reformers did not make this up. Luther got this teaching from the Bible not the other way around.
3) Another modern translation challenge has to do with gender inclusivity. As a rule, translating for gender inclusivity recognizes the very high likelihood that men and women were present in certain situations. So a translation of adelphoi (which means, literally, “brothers”) that has “brethren” or “brothers and sisters” when a large group is being addressed is entirely fair: since surely there were men and women present. This is surely the case in most of Paul’s uses of adelphoi to address the people hearing his letters. We know there were women in his communities; it is inconceivable that Paul did not think he was addressing them too. This was Schussler-Fiorenza’s seminal point, and I think it is unassailable.
On the other hand, the point of translating for gender inclusivity and neutrality is rarely solely for historical accuracy. For example, the NRSV does not consistently translate adelphoi as “brothers and sisters.” Several times in Galatians, the NRSV uses “friends” for adelphoi. Is this because they felt it was unclear whether Paul wrote adelphoi because that is what he meant? If so, then the translators have not felt comfortable adding “sisters,” but have nonetheless avoided the patriarchalism of the text. One example can suffice: in 1 Cor 11:9, Paul claims that when he was among them in need, he was not a burden because his needs had been met by the adelphoi from Macedonia. Perhaps Paul uses adelphoi because he means adelphoi. It is certainly not as clear here as in other places that Paul would have in mind both men and women. And yet the committee still avoids making Paul look dated and irrelevant by avoiding the androcentric language Paul uses by translating adelphoi as “friends” there.
We know that historically women helped to support Churches by service and finances. I see no reason to think that Women are not included in 1 Cor 11:9. And just because some translations translate it differently doesn't mean that they have some kind of theological ax to grind or trying to play up or hide patriarchalism.
Thus, gender inclusive and gender neutral translation is also useful, theologically, because it hides the strong patriarchalism and androcentricity of the New Testament writers. I think it is a fair guess that the goal of gender inclusive and neutral translations is theological, and not historical: it is to avoid making Christian women feel alienated from their scriptures.
I think it's hard to argue that the New Testament is strongly patriachialistic and man centered given that the New Testament upholds the ontological equality of men and women.
So, how might a “secular critical” translation respond to this? On the one hand, gender inclusive translation makes the text more historically accurate, for it recognizes the almost certain presence of women. On the other hand, it also makes the text less historically accurate, for it hides the androcentricity and patriarchalism of the biblical world. In this way, the motivation of gender inclusive translation is almost certainly theological. Perhaps a secular critical translation ought to have as a modus operandi retention of cultural realism. For example, gender inclusive language, even where the concern is historical, still operates in the service of modern liberal concerns, not ancient ones. If we “correct” the ancient text on issues of sexism, then we would be obligated to correct it as well on issues of factual inaccuracy (such as Mark naming Abiathar as High Priest in 2:26). Modern concerns, whether theological or social, cannot be the concern a secular translator.8
While the ancient world was patriarchal in the culture of the first Christians, you can't really argue that this is the attitude to be picked up from the Bible. Instead of trying to "correct" the ancient text, we should try to "correct:" our attitudes and presuppositions on the text. As an aside, Mark 2:26 was cited by Dr Bart Ehrman as the first text the lead him to doubt the reliability of the Bible because he thought Mark made a mistake, as if in 2000 years no one had ever thought there was a problem and people just threw up their hands and there was no solution. Read Did Jesus make a crucial historical blunder in the Gospel of Mark?
4) My final example pertains to the issue of sexuality, and it revolves around to terms found in 1 Cor 6:9: malakos and arsenokoites. It is the issue I find most challenging to address. It is by far the norm for translation to relate these terms to homosexuality or homosexual behavior in one way or another. Sometimes, translations conflate the two terms, as the old Geneva Bible does colorfully with “buggers.” In addition, the 1985 RSV does so with “sexual perverts”; 1992 Good News with “homosexual perverts”; 1995 God’s Word with “homosexuals”; 2001 English Standard Version with “nor men who practice homosexuality”; 2011 NIV with “men who have sex with men.” As a rule, however, most translations distinguish between the two terms by referring to active and passive homosexual roles: 2004 New Living Translation and 2005 Today’s New International Version with “male prostitutes, or those who practice homosexuality”; 2005 New English Translation with “passive homosexual partners and practicing homosexuals.” The 1989 NRSV has “male prostitutes and sodomites.”
I think this is an example of how translations can become biased. In this section, the article discusses how homosexuality in the Bible. I think that the problem is that people go to extremes. Either to demonize homosexuality as if it is the worst possible thing you could ever do or try to excuse it as just another lifestyle or way living your life. Both are wrong. Even the article's author agrees, reluctantly.
How to translate these terms, the extent to which these translations are theological, and how a secular translation would differ are each complex questions. On the one hand, concerning the first two questions, I would say only this (necessarily briefly): malakos refers to softness. While “softness” includes the act of being penetrated, it is a much broader term than that, including any male who lives extravagantly (Xen, Hiero 1.23; Plutarch Moralia 831B, 136B), who cannot handle hard work (Xen, Memorabilia 1.2.2), who reads too much (Dio Chrysostom Orations 66.25), who has sex with women too much or who seduces other men’s wives or who dresses up in order to attract women (Plautus, Truculentus; Chariton; Pseudo-Aristotle; P. Hibeh 54.11). In other words, most of the things malakos refers to are not in the slightest bit “homosexual.”The problems with how to translate arsenokoites are well-known, owing to the fact that it is a neologism, containing the words for “male” and for “sleeping”: apparently “sleeping together” is a euphemism in many languages in addition to English! It is also clear that many translations of these terms seek to be polite, but perhaps they over-sanitize the language. The possibility should not be overlooked that Paul had no desire to be polite here. Donald Harman Akenson has argued that Paul intended this neologism arsenokoites to carry all the rhetorical force of “butt-fuckers.”9So here is the difficulty I am faced with. On the one hand, people are correct to object to the claim that malakos refers solely to men penetrating men, and people are right to point out that arsenokoites is a neologism, and thus its exact meaning is difficult to know. But some translators and scholars make these points in order to avoid having Paul condemn modern homosexuality. It is a theological agenda meant to disarm Paul, meant to disarm homophobes who use the Bible to justify acts of hatred, prejudice, and violence against homosexuals. It is hard to disapprove of such an agenda, but it misses one very important point: I think it is beyond debate that Paul would have found homosexual behavior extremely objectionable and immoral. Paul was not a 20th century liberal, open-minded metrosexual. Translations that work too hard to hide or deny Paul’s objection to homosexual behavior risk anachronism. For example, I think Dale Martin’s contention that arsenokoites refers not to homosexuality per se but to male homosexual extortion has many historical-critical merits, but I wonder if its intention is to make Paul more pleasing, less alarming, and less alienating to a diverse and modern Christian readership.10
I doubt that the author would agree that Paul and the rest of the New Testament is factually correct and should be used as a guide for living, but at least the author seems willing to let text speak for itself without bias. That is a goal I can get behind.
Debunking Christianity: What Would a Secular Translation of the Bible Look Like?