Bias In Bible Translation?

What if God’s Word is too much altered by the culture wars it finds itself within?

Beth Allison Bar writes (sidenote: Patheos is the worst coded website in the whole world, right?! Friends don’t let friends on the ad-clogged, slow, Patheos! Lookin’ at you, D.G.) in “Deconstructing the ESV“:

…Samuel Perry (co author with Andrew Whitehead of Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States) published a fascinating article in the Sociology of Religion Journal (Volume 81:1, pp. 68-92).  Titled The Bible as a Product of Cultural Power: The Case of Gender Ideology in the English Standard Version, Perry analyzed 16 biblical passages often used in the complementarian/egalitarian debates, comparing the ESV with the RSV.  He found that while 7 of the passages were mostly unchanged, the remaining 9 were altered in the ESV to support a complementarian reading. As Perry writes, “nine of these gender passages were changed and each was altered in the direction of favoring a more complementarian, traditional gender interpretation.” For example, the RSV describes Phoebe in Romans 16:1 as a deaconess of the church at Cenchrea; the ESV describes her as a servant.

That’s an interesting and important claim. Is it true that there is cultural bias that might affect the way we read the Word of God? Let’s look at several Bible translations of Rom 16:1 down through time.

King James Bible (1611)
I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea:

New King James Version (1982)
I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea,

American Standard Version (1901)
I commend unto you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church that is at Cenchreae:

Revised Standard Version (1971)
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cen′chre-ae,

English Standard Version (2001)
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae,

It turns out that there IS cultural bias, but not in the direction that Barr or Perry allege. Romans 16:1 has faithfully rendered διάκονον (diakonon) as “servant” in nearly all the English translations of the KJV family, except for in the RSV. After the dawning of the sexual revolution, the rise of higher criticism, and a desire to mess with gender roles in the ’60s and ’70s, it was the RSV that showed a cultural bias. The ESV editors returned to the previous langauge used by all the earlier editions in this translation family tree.

Furthermore, it should be pointed out that one of the reasons for the existence of the ESV was the widespread acknowledgement that the RSV was culturally influenced. One of the most famous examples, Isaiah 7:14, is given below:

Revised Standard Version (1971)
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman′u-el.

What is so shocking about this translation is that every English translation of the Bible before this has rendered `almah as “virgin,” making Is 7:14 a prophecy of the virgin birth for Mary and Jesus. This translation, of putting the surprising term “virgin” and conceiving together agreed with the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Bible that Jesus and the apostles used), when the LXX rendered `almah as παρθένος (parthenos), which literally means virgin. One of the reasons Biblical scholars came together to form the ESV some thirty years after the RSV, was to correct some of the perceived liberal drift in that translation.

Oftentimes in sports, a player commits a foul and the other player retaliates. Unfortunately, the referee often misses the first infraction, and the player getting revenge is the one called for the foul. Barr and Perry fault the ESV for carrying water for conservative or patriarchal theology. That may be true, but in the case of Rom 16:1, it was the RSV that committed the foul, and now they are whistling the ESV for simply going back to faithful translations.

I’m not arguing that the ESV is perfect. Nor am I claiming that there are no impure motives on the part of complementarians today. In a plea for clarity, I think Romans 16:1 should be carefully evaluated and thoughtfully translated today. (I am not even claiming [here!] that “deaconness” is a bad or wrong translation!) What should not be up for debate, however, is whether the ESV editors erred in going back to “servant” in Rom 16:1. Whenever there are sweeping claims (“the Bible is a product of cultural power! Gender ideology run amok!”), it is worth getting down into the individual arguments to see if they support the claim.

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