On the Theological Usefulness of a “Secular” Translation of the Bible

By Daniel A. Smith
Huron University College, London, Ontario
March 2012

As a professor who teaches about both the Bible and its interpretation in a Christian theological institution, and as an academic who attempts to interpret the biblical writings in a historical and context-oriented way, I find much of interest in Zeba Crook’s recent Bible and Interpretation essay, “Imagining a Secular Translation of the New Testament.”1 Crook raises a number of interesting questions both about the nature of the biblical writings and about bias in translation. For – unless I misunderstand his argument and examples – his plea for a “secular-critical” translation of the Bible really amounts to a critique of bias (both theological and cultural, though of course those categories overlap) in biblical translation.

In the opening paragraphs of the essay, Crook distinguishes between a “theological” translation, which would be a version of the Bible that is useful theologically, from a “secular” translation, which would be one that would reflect the biblical writings’ importance as artifacts of the times and cultures in which they were composed. In Crook’s view, a “theological” translation is forward-looking, having the purpose of creating a text that is useful in a contemporary theological or ecclesial context, where a “secular” translation would be backward-looking, having the purpose of bringing “modern readers back in time into the world of these ancient stories and characters.”2 The terminology is somewhat problematic, particularly because “secularism” is seen by some contemporary Christians as an ideology that is hostile to religion; Crook clearly does not intend that meaning, as the excerpt at the beginning of his essay indicates.3 Rather, Crook seems to intend the adjective to carry the sense of “critical,” “scientific,” possibly even “objective” – or at least, “historically sensitive” and “devoid of theological bias.” Crook’s descriptions are also somewhat problematic. Theological readings of the Bible often focus on the “original” meaning, or the “intended” meaning of the author, and so are backward-looking in that regard. Of course, in many circles Christian readers “hear” the Bible as God speaking directly to their own situation (sometimes without denying the importance of the “original” or “intended” sense, or considering the “original” or “intended” sense as timeless divine truth). For these and for other reasons, I don’t think it would be possible to create a translation of the Bible that could not be used theologically, because really that use resides in the purposes of the reader, not the inclinations of the translators. A secular translation might not be created with theological interpretation in view, but neither would theological interpretation be seriously compromised by such a translation. On the other hand, a translation produced with clear theological biases would be misleading to both backward-looking and forward-looking readers.

Crook points out a number of instances where theological bias has led to situations in which the plain sense of the original text is misrepresented, where the English represents a theologically “massaged” translation whose accuracy can easily be disputed with a little careful study of the original language text. Is it possible to avoid bias in translation? This is something Christian readers have been worried about for a long time, normally accusing other Christians – or in more recent centuries, non-Christian biblical scholars as well – of producing a defective, heretical, or watered-down form of the text. I recall conversations I used to have, when I was a graduate student, with a King-James-only neighbour who had an interest in textual criticism: Wasn’t it true, he asked me, that modern translations have removed a reference to the Trinity, in 1 John 5:7, when they omit the line “there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” (KJV)?4 It is always right to be suspicious of a translation: the translator is a traitor, as the old adage states. However, with the biblical writings, opportunities to suspect the “betrayal” of the original text abound, because of questions not only about the meaning of the original, but also about its wording (where text-critical problems complicate translation considerably).

It is also always right to be suspicious of a translation which claims to be accurate and faithful to the original, particularly when its translators share a single perspective on the nature of the biblical text. What about a translation created only by scholars committed to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy?5 The intent might be to target a particular religious group (or market, really) with a text which, at least it could be claimed, has been protected from the distorting influence of secularist or non-evangelical (Catholic, mainline, liberal) bias; but to anyone else, it raises suspicion of evangelical inerrantist bias, even if commitment to inerrancy often carries with it a heightened concern about accuracy.6 So also, a translation created only by scholars who take a specifically secular and non-theological (not even secularist and anti-theological) approach would be suspect to those who want to use the Bible theologically. Perhaps a panel of translators from diverse cultural, religious (including non-religious), and academic viewpoints could, through mutual criticism and peer review, produce an accurate translation of the Bible that could be unobjectionable. But probably not: possibly they would get nowhere; probably potential readers would say, like Paul, “A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough” (1 Cor 5:6, NRSV), or “What agreement does Christ have with Beliar?” (2 Cor 6:15, NRSV).

But it is not my intent to dispute the feasibility of a secular translation of the Bible, for Crook, after all, only “imagines” such a thing, as his title indicates. Nor am I interested in sniffing out theological or ecclesial (or anti-theological or anti-ecclesial) bias in various current translations, or in recommending one version over others. My interest here is in exploring briefly the theological usefulness of such an imaginary secular translation of the Bible, using two of Crook’s examples.

First, Crook refers to the classic example of a Christianizing translation of a Hebrew Bible passage, Isaiah 7:14, and he notes that a number of contemporary versions tend to follow Matthew and the Septuagint, rather than the plain sense of the Hebrew word ’almah. Crook says that a secular translation would opt for “young woman” rather than “virgin” (just as the NRSV and a few other versions do).7 Despite the reading found in the Septuagint, this translation simply renders the original Hebrew more accurately, and so it is a better translation for that reason; but there is, I think, a reason why this translation is theologically useful. It creates a healthy distance between the text and the way it has been used by Christians, the author of Matthew included (Matt 1:22-23). Quite often Christian readers assume that their reading or interpretation of a given text is somehow its “real meaning,” even if that meaning needs to be surfaced through exegesis or clever reading or cross-referencing. For centuries Christians have assumed that Isaiah 7:14 is straightforwardly about Jesus, a prophecy of the virgin birth. Matthew seems to assume this, but he probably was reading the Septuagint. But this text really is about something that happened during the lifetime of Isaiah himself and King Ahaz, at least when the plain sense of the passage is understood primarily in relation to its historical setting.

Practically from the beginning, Christian interpreters have thought that Scripture can have different “senses,” or levels of meaning; but it is theologically useful, I think, to see these senses as arising out of the needs and interests of readers, rather than as being somehow latent in the text itself. This reminds me of a question a student asked me recently, in a discussion of the episode in Gethsemane: Did Jesus begin to suffer for the sins of humankind in the garden, or only afterwards on the cross? The student was demanding that the text support a theological interpretation which it did not, on a plain-sense reading, have any interest in whatsoever. It would be better to look for an answer in the patristic writers than in the passion narratives of the gospels. The question was useful, however, since it gave me an opportunity (again) to reinforce the idea that an interpretation is something brought to the text, not something real and definitive that can be wormed out of it. To be clear: I don’t think that it is wrong, necessarily, to think theologically like my student did about the passion narratives; but it would be mistaken to think that such a “meaning” is somehow “in” the text itself, or excludes other possible readings as “the” meaning of the text.

Second, Crook refers to the typical English translation of the Greek noun charis as “grace,” and points out that the theological connotations which “grace” has carried since the time of Martin Luther prevent charis from being understood as it would have been understood in the time of Paul. Crook thinks “benefaction” and “gratitude” are better English renderings of charis, since these carry the connotations of patronage and reciprocity in our usage which charis carried in Paul’s usage.8 Grace – whether understood in post-Lutheran terms as God’s gift of salvation freely given, or using the handy evangelical acrostic “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense,” or in some other way – has become an almost exclusively theological term, where charis in ancient Greek meant (1) a benefaction from any of a number of possible sources, including (but not limited to) God or the gods, or (2) the appropriate response to such a benefaction. But benefactions were sought, and carried with them various social and sometimes religious obligations, where this is not the case with “grace” as commonly understood theologically. I think the problem really goes back to the Latin versions of the New Testament, which tended to translate charis with the Latin gratia, that is, the favour which one may find with (or in) another, or a favour which one may extend to another.9 Yet gratia is close to gratis (or gratiis) which means, out of favour or kindness, without recompense, gratuitously.10

So, for example, in Romans 3:24 Paul says, according to the NRSV, “they are now justified by his grace as a gift.” The Greek reads dikaioumenoi dōrean tē(i) autou chariti; and the Vulgate, almost redundantly, reads iustificati gratis per gratiam ipsius. Here is an interesting situation, in which Paul describes the divine charis which “justifies” as a gratuitous benefaction (that is, one that is a gift).11 This would seem to distinguish, at least in this context, divine charis (or this particular divine charis) from a charis as conventionally understood. Elsewhere we would have to look to the context to see whether Paul typically has a more conventional reciprocity-based idea of divine charis. Perhaps it is texts like these which have defined the classic theological ideas about “grace” – but it is always useful theologically to explore the ancient cultural and religious connotations which can clarify, or render foreign again, such theologically loaded terms.

A translation that reinforces both an appropriate distance between text and interpretation (as I have suggested about Isaiah 7:14), and a healthy sense of the text’s foreignness (as I have suggested about Romans 3:24) could be secular. It could also be theological. It could be used by both backward-looking and forward-looking readers – even those who look backward in order to look forward. But above all it must be accurate.


1 See Crook’s essay at www.bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/cro368005 (accessed March 20, 2012).

2 Crook, “Imagining a Secular Translation,” paragraph 7.

3 “The term ‘secular’ carries connotations in America that it does not carry in other parts of the world, so I cannot stress enough that a secular translation would not be anti-religious.” Crook, “Imagining a Secular Translation,” epigram.

4 Of course, this line is not found in an overwhelming number of Greek witnesses of varying antiquity and reliability, and it is included only in a few Old Latin versions and in the Vulgate, which clearly influenced the version of the text on which the King James was based. So this line was not omitted from the KJV, as my friend thought, but added to it!

5 One recent example is the English Standard Version (ESV). Its website makes that claim that it “is an ‘essentially literal’ translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer [sic],” and that “As an essentially literal translation . . . the ESV seeks to carry over every possible nuance of meaning in the original words of Scripture into our own language.” On the other hand, the translators are all Christian biblical scholars and pastors committed to “historic evangelical orthodoxy, and to the authority and sufficiency of the inerrant Scriptures.” See www.esv.org/esv/translation/about/, and www.esv.org/esv/scholarship/trusted-scholarship/ (accessed March 20, 2012).

6 Yet ESV renders Isaiah 7:14 as follows: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (emphasis added; see further below).

7 The NRSV relegates “virgin” to a footnote.

8 “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’” (Crook, “Imagining a Secular Translation,” paragraph 20).

9 Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1879), ad loc.; accessed at www.perseus.tufts.edu March 21, 2012.

10 Ibid.

11 I am avoiding the hornet’s nest of an appropriate translation of dikiaoō, etc.

Comments (2)

I've been rather puzzled by this secular translation idea. The cited arguments about Isaiah's prophecy and Paul's 'charis' are perfectly intelligible and acceptable to people who have theological beliefs. Maybe not everyone would accept them, but then it's quite possible for a person who is secular in the sense of having no religious belief to dispute them. An atheist might think that Luther had Paul's theology completely right.
If 'secular' means accepting an obligation to translate honestly then surely almost all translators, KJ's included, have been secular. Conscious falsification to accommodate prior beliefs has surely been quite rare.

#1 - Martin - 04/04/2012 - 15:50

In response to Martin's comment, the translation of Genesis 1:....-> is falsified at step one by translating "Elohim" -- which is a *PLURAL* -- as "God". While translating "elohim" as "gods" in other places where the context absolutely forces it.

This is present even in the best translations, and it is conscious falsification to accomodate prior beliefs; there's no other way to describe it.

Yeah. I'd like to see a secular translation of the Bible, untainted by over 2000 years of religious reinterpretation. In Genesis, the layers of interpretation may be too thick, but it's worth trying.

#2 - Nathanael - 11/11/2012 - 10:55

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