Biblical Translation and Theological Bias

[This is the first in a series of posts about controversial biblical translations. Let me know if you have topics you would like us to discuss.] Image from The Brick Testament

Isaiah 7:14 is the single most controversial verse in the Bible. The KJV version says, "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." In 1952, the Revised Standard Version dropped a theological bombshell when they translated, "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel."

When the RSV translators altered the KJV's translation of "virgin" to "young woman," they touched off a storm of protest that eventually led to the burgeoning market for conservative translations today. Of course, this single verse was not responsible for all of the negative reaction to the RSV, but it became the main showpiece for critics who charged that the RSV had rejected Christian orthodoxy and embraced modernism.

The interesting thing about this controversy to me is that
the arguments put forward for "young woman" were primarily historical and literary, and to a lesser degree, theological. Those who responded with an argument for "virgin" made primarily theological arguments, and only later offered historical or literary rationale for their reading.

In 1953, C.P. Lincoln of Dallas Theological Seminary offered the following denunciation of the RSV's translation on the basis of the theological leanings of its translators:

It is well established that the membership of the Revision Committee which produced this translation belongs to the liberal school of interpretation with very few exceptions. This is acknowledged without question even by those who favor or defend the new Version. If it were necessary, this could be established by quotations from the writings and pronouncements of most (if not all) of the Committee. It is not claimed that each member of the Committee holds to each of the errors in the following list. This may or may not be true, but it is affirmed that on the basis of their books, magazine articles and known declarations the following is a correct, composite picture of the liberal views of the Committee. They depart from the true doctrine in:

(1) The denial of the verbal, plenary inspiration of the original Scriptures of the Old and the New Testaments.

(2) The denial of the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus.

(3) The refusal to concede the full deity of Jesus Christ.

(4) The questioning of the true Messianic character of the Old Testament prophecies and Psalms.

(5) The contradiction of the truth of the divine Trinity.

(6) The refusal to accept the fact that the religion practiced by Israel in Old Testament times is a revelation from the one true God.

(7) The acceptance of the critical hypothesis as to the origin of the Old Testament writings.

(8) The denial of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, the unity of Isaiah, the historicity of Job and Jonah, and the acceptance of other features of modern criticism.

(9) The questioning of the authenticity of the Gospel of John and of the Synoptics, the Pauline authorship of some of his known epistles, the conservative dates of the writing of certain of the New Testament and Old Testament books, and kindred denials common to the higher critical school.

What strikes one now, reading this list 60 years later, is how accurate it is. Modern critical scholarship on the Bible has taken a thoroughly historical approach that places each text in its own social, political, and cultural context. Rather than emphasizing the theological unity of the Bible, scholars have examined it as the product of changing historical forces over time. Religious practices and beliefs change over time. Scholars have investigated those changes through historical analysis.

The Virgin Birth is a theological tenet reflected in Matthew, and so we should not expect to find it in Isaiah. The Trinity is a doctrine that developed through great controversy well after the New Testament was written; we should not expect to find it in Genesis 1.

The question is whether critical scholars have taken positions 7-9 as a result of their acceptance of 1-6. Have they taken a critical view of biblical composition and authorship because they reject the Trinity and the Virgin Birth?

Lincoln could be correct with regard to number 1. Most theories of "verbal, plenary inspiration" envision a Bible that is static, and consistent all its parts. In recognizing the influence of historical forces and diachronic change, scholars encounter a Bible that is a human artifact, not a divine dictation insulated from all human influence.

The problem with this argument is that there are many scholars who take a historical approach and who also believe in the deity of Jesus and the Trinity. Does one have to reject the Trinity because they find more convincing mythological explanations for the "let us create humankind in our image" in Genesis 1:26? Just because the young woman in Isaiah 7 is not (in its original meaning) Mary, does that undermine the power of the story of Jesus' incarnation?

The RSV committee, and all critical scholars since, have insisted that translation is a task of historical grammar, undertaken by historians with extensive language training. Words mean what they mean, and whether the translator is a Christian, atheist, or socialist matters not.

That sounds good, but it isn't quite true. All translation is interpretation. Both the conservatives who argue for "virgin" and the scholars who argue for "young woman" have presuppositions and biases. No translation is objectively correct. The question is which presuppositions are the most appropriate for translators of the Bible. Where Lincoln was wrong is that the presuppositions of the RSV committee were not primarily those of modernist theology but rather those of critical historiography.

To embrace the theory of verbal, plenary inspiration is to reject the possibility of critical historiography, and vice versa.