I always loved the Torah – and now I feel lied to (a complaint about translation)

Worn used NIV Study Bible

I’ve always loved the first five books of the Bible (aka the Torah).

I don’t feel lied to because suddenly I’ve opened up and noticed the gory bits. I had already noticed the bits prejudiced against women, disabled people, homosexuals and people with different ethnicities. Oh, and the slavery and the retributive violence. And the honour-shame culture.

I’m not opening up my Old Testament every day thinking “This is the text that’s unadulterated goodness and will show me show to live my life with absolute clarity.” I always knew it was more complicated than that.

Yes, I have approached the text from my earliest youth with a presumption that it is inherently good, but I’ve not been so naïve as to think that everything it describes is good. Including the bits that the authors and compilers don’t seem to be flinching at.

Now I know that this makes me an outlier and I’m prepared to own that. I’m not about to inflict the genealogies of Numbers or the sacrifices of Leviticus on people who simply don’t have the stomach for it. Struggling with the Pentateuch does not make someone less of a Christian or less of a human being. If anything, struggling with it shows you’re actually exercising your God-given faculties of thought. Good. Do that.

So why do I feel lied to? Well, loving the Torah is something I felt as a child and as a teenager and as a student.

And you wanna know what else I was doing all that time? I was reading my New International Version translation of the Bible.

And the NIV translators don’t like the Torah.

The New is the Old explained?

It’s not their translation of the Old Testament that was the problem for me – rather, it’s how the New Testament speaks about the old. Because it doesn’t matter what weirdness appears to be mandated in the Old Testament laws, if the post-Jesus testament says Moses’ covenant is all abolished now, then we can forget about it, right?

Except if you’re one of the weird ones like me, then the Torah is something that you can’t erase out of your life after you’ve read it. So ever since I’ve had a sliver of a chance to understand the New Testament, I have been wrestling with its words. I have winced my way through Galatians, through Romans 3, feeling the words mis-fitting with me but unable to put my finger on it.

I remember years ago I was ready to go all-out and argue that the New Testament and Paul were flat wrong about the law. So I opened up Romans looking for a suitable verse that I could pull apart. Instead I found Romans 7:22 “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law.”

Delight?

Wow, there were times Paul spoke so plainly that not even a translator could twist the words away from their meaning!

So, if Torah isn’t bad, if maybe I’m not trying to undermine the saving work of Christ – why did I grow up feeling like I was?

Well, I discovered yesterday that my translation is badly flawed.

And I’m ANGRY.

I feel LIED TO.

I feel CHEATED.

Romans 3:27 – principle, ‘law’ or Torah?

The verse that has got under my skin is Romans 3:27. This is what it looked like in the 1984 version (the one I grew up with):

NIVUK (1984): Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith.

They’ve gone closer to the text in the 2011 NIV, but notice that the word “law” is in quote marks:

NIVUK (2011): Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the ‘law’ that requires faith.

Newsflash: this is not what that verse says. This is what a translator says when they’re trying to de-Judaize the New Testament and hammer sola fide home so hard they forget what’s meant to come after a person puts their faith in Jesus Christ.

What the text actually says is this:

NTE: So what happens to boasting? It is ruled out! Through what sort of law? The law of works? No: through the law of faith!

To put it another way:

Who gets to boast of a better calling within God’s saving purposes? No one. It’s excluded. And let’s be clear: this boast is not excluded by a Torah of works, but by a Torah of faith. Because God’s vindicating declaration over his people is done on the basis of faith. Or are you going to tell me that God is only the God of the Jews? Of course not – of course he’s also the God of the Gentiles. And make no mistake: faith doesn’t abolish Torah, faith establishes Torah.

[My paraphrase of Romans 3:27-31, leveraging p185 and other pages of Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, by Tom Wright, SPCK: 2009]

If this churning over of Romans seems a bit abstract and Greek to you – apologies. I don’t have time or words yet to really convey why what might appear to be subtle variation in wording is so revelatory to me. This justification stuff does matter, but it doesn’t matter if you fail to be inspired by reading a theologically dense statement out of context.

Leaving all that theology aside, my point here is this: the translators had their agenda and it’s evident even in their most recent revision of the NIV.

Use more than one translation people!

I heard the joke growing up that the NIV was the Nearly Infallible Version – and I laughed, but I believed it. I believed it was nearly infallible. I was prepared to put stock in it. I was incapable of reading a word of Greek (actually not true, I could read a few) but I was still confident that this translation was as good as it gets.

I was wrong.

And I’m not going to pretend that Tom Wright’s NTE translation (“New Testament for Everyone”) is nearly perfect.

But I am going to read more widely. I am going to balance different perspectives. As best I can. With what knowledge I can.

Because when you read the same words enough times they imprint on you.

I read the NIV so many times that when I heard Johnny Cash’s audio book of Romans, I didn’t believe what he said. His sonorous voice read these words from chapter 3 verse 27:

NKJV: Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith.

I just thought he was using ancient King-James-style language when he said “law” and thus meant “principle”. I never thought Paul might mean Torah.

I never thought he might mean Torah.

I never thought there might be a Torah of faith.

I had read the wrong words so many times that I couldn’t recognise the right words when I heard them!

I couldn’t even recognise the right words when I heard them! What the…?

Timeliness for change

I’ve got a thing coming up at my church soon where I’m going to be presented with a copy of the Bible. For a long time I was thinking I’d rather have a hymn book or at least something that I didn’t own already. After all, I’ve got plenty of Bibles, big and small, acquired for a variety of reasons over the years. Still, I was told (gently but clearly) that I could only be given a Bible. So I went and bought an Amplified translation. It had some interesting things in the notes that told me things I didn’t know. It also had accurate notes on one of the most mistranslated verses of the New Testament (1 Corinthians 15:44).

But learning about Romans 3:27 yesterday has made brought me to a point where I’m thinking maybe it is the right time to have a new Bible. I’ve taken my NIV out of its carrying case. It served me for a time and it wasn’t all bad and I did grow reading it, and probably there’s been a lot of thought and prayer and academic research that’s gone into it. And the mistranslations are probably symptomatic of wider macro trends in theological Christian thought, not just the individuals who worked on the text. And I don’t believe for a minute that the translators were actively trying to lie to me. But I’m done now.

Time for a new perspective.


About Tom Wright:

This post is now the third consecutive post written in an emotional outpouring as a result of reading Tom Wright’s book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. None of this was planned – I just had to write. The first post was a brain dump (I was very excited) about purity and theology and the second is a better-structured stringing together of how Wright’s new perspective on Paul is consistent with my (developing) theology of purity.

About my love of the Torah:

If you’re wondering what the stick is in my banner picture – it’s the staff of Aaron. Here’s the story behind that. For anyone who’s curious, I also spoke about my ‘outlier’ experience of loving the Torah in a speech (now turned blog post and video) about the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting in June 2016.

About Bible translation:

For all my objections about the NIV, they pale in comparison next to the problems I have with the English Standard Version. When I was browsing for my new-Bible-to-be, I saw an information card inserted amongst the ESV Bibles; it was an endorsement from the Acts 29 Network praising the translation for its accuracy. I shuddered. I walked away.

The ESV renders Genesis 3:16 to imply that men rule over women by God’s design; that is, the effect of the fall is prescriptive rather than descriptive. Last year, the translators even compared their work to the King James Version and said the text would never again be revised. They later rescinded this decision but, unsurprisingly, there are those who see the ESV translators as using the Bible to further their own interests – namely preventing women from positions of leadership within the church. Ian Paul blogged about it on his blog Psephizo.

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