New “Conservative” Translation Of The Bible the Bible is not conservative enough for some people.

The folks who brought us Conservapedia – the alternative online encyclopaedia free from all that pesky liberal bias and concern for what’s actually true – have started a new project. It’s the imaginatively-titled Conservative Bible. Presumably Deutronomy 13 wasn’t conservative enough for them.

In reaction liberal Christians and some more knowledgeable atheists have been enthusiastically quoting all those “Don’t change the Bible” verses. One favourite being:

“You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” – Deuteronomy 4:2

The many comments in response to’s article on the new translation are along the same lines: “Leave the Bible alone”.

No doubt the conservatives behind this project will argue that theirs is the more accurate translation, while liberals have, over the years, polluted the original meaning of the Bible.

They’re not the first and will probably not be the last. For example, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, translated and authorised by the Jehovah’s Witnesses includes some subtle but important changes. When I spoke to them last year, the JWs played down the differences and claimed it was just a slightly more accurate translation. Here are a couple of examples – what do you think?

In the KJV of the Bible, 1 Chronicles 16:30 reads:

Fear before him, all the earth: the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved.

While the same verse in the New World Translation favoured by Jehovah’s Witnesses reads:

Be in severe pains on account of him, all YOU people of the earth! Also the productive land is firmly established: Never will it be made to totter.

It looks like the NWT was translated with an intention of making the Bible say what they’d like it to say. In the first case, the original KJV translation “stable… not moved” is clearly at odds with modern science which tells us that the Earth not only rotates on its axis once every 24 hours, but orbits the sun once a year. The NWT tries to hide this glaring inaccuracy by translating the Hebrew to “productive land” rather than “earth”.

In the KJV Isaiah 45:7 reads:

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

Which the NWT translates as:

Forming light and creating darkness, making peace and creating calamity, I, Jehovah am doing all these things.

Again, the idea of God creating evil is completely at odds with other parts of the Bible and subsequent theology which describes him as good in every way.  I’ve even heard that “god” and “good” have similar etymological roots. The NWT use the alternative translation of “calamity”, which is still not exactly benevolent, but not quite as clear cut as “evil”. Ebonmuse discusses this discord in detail as part of his Little Known Bible Verses series.

I’m not claiming to know what the original authors of the Bible really intended. But whatever the truth about these kinds of claims there’s a danger inherent in any kind of investigation, be it scientific or linguistic which aims to “discover” a particular, predetermined outcome, rather than work out what is true. It’s a kind of wishful thinking. I can imagine Conservapedia translators saying, “We’d like the Bible to be more conservative, so when we re-translate it, we’ll make sure that is what we find!”.

Preaching the gospel to animals

A post on Clark Bunch’s blog recently included Biblical quote indicating that the gospel is to be preached to “every creature“. Naturally, this conjured some amusing images of Christians talking to rabbits, so I could hardly resist commenting.

lonelypilgrim replied to me, explaining that the interpretation was not reasonable, because early Christians apparently did not preach to animals.

Of course this isn’t the only strange or ambiguous passage in the Bible. For a few examples, see Ebonmuse’s article on Biblical absurdities, in which it becomes apparent that God is also “against pillows”. I’m sure that many Christians are aware of some of these oddities, but it doesn’t seem to bother them. In cases where more than one Biblical interpretation is possible, they simply assume the one which fits with their opinions must be correct. They don’t all agree, either; for instance, some Christians think there is a literal hell, others don’t.  In cases where one interpretation would be completely impractical, nonsensical or doesn’t fit with the way they see their religion, they simply ignore that interpretation.

To be fair to lonelypilgrim, he’s done a bit more than that. He’s also considering the actions of early Christians. Because there is apparently no evidence of early Christians preaching to animals, he argues that the author must’ve meant something different. On the face of it, this might be a reasonable way to understand an ancient text. The earliest readers of scripture would probably have read something closer to the original author’s words, with fewer hops, skips and jumps in the form of copying and translation. So their understanding might well be better than ours. This still leaves a few problems, however.

Firstly, can we be sure of what early Christians understood about the Bible – if some of them did believe they should preach to animals would we necessarily know about it now? Accounts of their lives must have been translated and copied with at least as much chance of error as the translation and copying of the Bible.

Secondly, if modern Christians must rely on historical evidence to interpret the Bible, that makes the Bible no better than any other historical text. In any case, most people reading the Bible don’t consider the opinions of early Christians – except when asked facetious-sounding questions on the Internet.

Thirdly – although I haven’t researched this thoroughly – let’s assume that early Christians didn’t preach the gospel to animals – even if it is a great image. I don’t think that would solve the problem entirely for Christians. As I responded to lonelypilgrim,

“…If we do have evidence that “creatures” meant “only humans”, then presumably the fact that we ended up with this English wording is the result of naive translation – by people not aware of this evidence. In this case, as you pointed out, it’s fairly obvious which interpretation makes most sense, so the error introduced at some point has no effect (at least I doubt anyone has tried to preach to animals as a result of this). But if errors or misunderstandings like this can creep into the text through the copying or translation process it casts doubt on the accuracy of the rest of the text. In other areas such changes might not be so obvious…”

It seems that they’re working from the assumption that the Bible makes sense and contains sensible advice relevant to modern readers. This could be seen as an appeal to consequences. If something in the Bible is nonsensical, that would make Christian beliefs seem flawed and Christians would no doubt consider that a bad thing. Therefore the whole Bible must make sense.

On the other hand it could be a form of the argument from incredulity. Christians find it impossible to imagine that any part of the Bible might be nonsense. The word of God, the holy book of the one true religion contains things which sound completely ridiculous? Unbelievable. There must be some other explanation.

They’re not just putting their faith in the Bible being accurate, but that their interpretations of the Bible are the right ones. I think the assumption that the Bible makes sense is unwarranted.

Not Scaring Them Off

I was visited a few months ago by some Jehovah’s Witnesses. They don’t actually introduce themselves as JW’s, perhaps because of the reputation they’ve gained as pushy porch preachers. Instead they simply ask if you’ve read the Bible and indicate how important they think it is.Watchtower Buildings in Brooklyn, New York

Most of the people I’ve told about their visit respond with imaginative suggestions for getting rid of Jehovah’s Witnesses, such as pretending to be part of a completely different and obscure religion or opening the door stark naked. I can see some of these being quite amusing, but unnecessary. I think if I politely asked them to leave, they would. In any case, I’d like to try to understand what they believe and why. I don’t want to scare them off.  Luckily for me, JWs are only too keen to talk about their beliefs and debate theological questions.

They seemed a little surprised when I invited them in and offered them a hot drink. I noticed that while they are trying to get their message about the Bible across, they are also happy to make friendly small-talk and ask questions. It’s pretty clear they’ve been coached in witnessing (evangelism), so I found it interesting to try and work out the thinking behind their methods. My guess is that asking questions of the householder makes their visit seem less preachy and more like a conversation, which people are generally more responsive to than receiving a sermon.

Secondly, it allows them to assess their host to see what chance they might have of being convinced by the JW’s message. For example, it came up in conversation (I think they saw a photo) that my wife and I were recently married. Not long after, the woman asked if we’d lived here for long. I replied that we’d been here a couple of years. Only later did I wonder whether premarital cohabitation is something they disapproved of and that her indirect question might have been a way of working out how sinful we were. I could’ve been reading too much into it, but Jehovah’s Witnesses are quite professional and deliberate in their actions, so maybe not.Awake! magazine

We chatted for well over an hour about their beliefs. I tried to ask as many searching questions as possible. I expected to get somewhere as they are Biblical literalists. However they have a variety of justifications for the contradictions and immoral statements in the Bible. For instance the old testament law books are “Mosaic law”. Apparently this is not about the moral implications of arranging coloured tiles to form a picture, but the law from Moses’ time. Their reasoning is that when Jesus said, “I fulfil the law” he wasn’t mis-quoting Judge Dredd – what he meant was, “All that really nasty stuff from Deuteronomy and Leviticus (Mosaic Law) doesn’t apply from now on”.

How could anyone have misunderstood that? Well, quite easily. Which leads them neatly into their central doctrine that no one can properly understand the Bible without the official interpretations of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower Society. They are apparently the sole (self-appointed) authority on such matters, and their regular publications (Watchtower and Awake!) are seen as infallible.

Unlike Christians of many other stripes, the Jehovah’s Witnesses do know the Bible very well, and will quote their subtly reworded version at every opportunity. So my unprepared questions didn’t worry them. Likewise they seemed quite satisfied with their fairly unconvincing responses to the traditional arguments against religion such as the argument from evil or from religious confusion.

On a later visit, I was more prepared and had refuted an article from the Awake! magazine they had left with me regarding the respect for women as found in the Bible. They seemed to apreciate the effort I’d gone to, and while most of it seemed acceptable to them, I was satisfied that my questions about Genesis 19:5-8 (In which Lot allows a mob to rape his daughters) were something for which they’d have to get back to me.

The one thing I pointed out to them which really seemed to throw them was my commentary on their publications. One issue had said clearly that nothing in the Bible contradicts science, while a subsequent issue had a long article explaining how evolution was not compatible with the Bible. This seemed to worry them and they were at first uncharacteristically lost for words. After a few moments the woman said, “I wouldn’t call evolution science.”. I disgreed and told her that it wasn’t enough to redefine what you consider science to suit your argument, but they were unable to offer a proper explanation and seemed genuinely unsettled.New World Translation

So I think this approach might be the best one with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their publications are something very important for their beliefs. They are carefully worded and accessible if tiresome in their preaching message. They also contain enough factual errors or inconsistencies that a thorough read could pick a few out, particularly when compared against current scientific knowledge or previous publications.

They’ve now visited three times, and left me with a copy of their New World Translation of the Bible. Each time I’ve been better prepared and made more effort to show the problems with their beliefs. They haven’t returned recently, so I hope I haven’t scared them off. I have plenty more (awkward) questions for them.