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Saturday, December 05, 2009


There has been a bit of a buzz about the new Conservapedia Bible Project. This is an attempt at a new Bible translation, a translation with a bold purpose, to boldly go where no man (gender exclusive language is preferred at Conservapedia) has ever gone before: to eliminate the "liberal bias" in the modern Bible.

Here is an outline and summary of the project, taken from the website:

Liberal bias has become the single biggest distortion in modern Bible translations. There are three sources of errors in conveying biblical meaning are, in increasing amount:
lack of precision in the original language, such as terms underdeveloped to convey new concepts introduced by Christ,
lack of precision in modern language,
translation bias in converting the original language to the modern one.
Experts in ancient languages are helpful in reducing the first type of error above, which is a vanishing source of error as scholarship advances understanding. English language linguists are helpful in reducing the second type of error, which also decreases due to an increasing vocabulary. But the third -- and largest -- source of translation error requires conservative principles to reduce and eliminate.
(accessed on 12/4/09; bold type not added, per website)

The first thing I notice is that the attempt here is to eliminate "liberal bias" and thereby eliminate "distortion" of the Bible. This "liberal bias" is "the single biggest distortion in modern Bible translations." Such bias is one of three "errors in conveying biblical meaning."

Presumably the Conservapedia project has the honorable goal of eliminating distortions in translation to get at "biblical meaning." It is also presupposed that the "conservative" perspective will get us closer to "biblical meaning" than would a "liberal" perspective.

The first question, of course, is how do we define "conservative" and "liberal." There is much nuance in these political views. But even beyond this, why must we choose between these two perspectives? Are there not other political perspectives that do not fit neatly into such categories? Simply debating the terminology of these two terms is enough to make one realize that the Conservapedia project is based on a very tenuous foundation. But even if one were able to establish the definitions of "conservative" and "liberal," I think it remains difficult to establish that a "liberal" bias distorts the original meaning of the text, while (by implication) a "conservative" perspective unlocks the keys to the kingdom, so to speak, and gives one access to the original meaning of the text.

But let us set aside these methodological flaws, because I believe that there are far more interesting and important issues. There is an underlying assumption made by Conservapedia that I think many modern folk have: the idea that we can get at some "original meaning" of the Bible if we can only eliminate our modern biases. My position is that such an attempt is absurd.

When interpreting the Bible (or any text), one always has a certain "perspective" or "bias" that we bring. That is, one of the most fundamental things that makes us human is that we are "historical." How we think, how we take in the world, and the opinions and perceptions we have are all influences by our position within history: our social situation, economic situation, geographical situation, the traditions that we inherit, the philosophies that shape us, the stories that we are told, etc. For example, we take it for granted that the earth goes around the sun. When we look into the sky, we see the earth going around the sun. For the pre-Copernican peoples, the sun went around the earth. When they looked up at the sun, they believed that the sun was literally moving around the earth. This then is a matter of perspective.

Because we are historical, we are biased. And this is not necessarily a negative thing. The 20th century philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer points out that our historicity makes any thought or discernment possible. And he is surely correct on this.

For Gadamer (and many others), there is no neutral ground, no unbiased perspective. That's okay. We are historically conditioned. No problem. We just approach interpretation with humility. But this is precisely the point that the Conservapedia folks seem to miss. They are looking to unlock the biblical meaning via a conservative perspective.

But....then again.....most people when they approach the Bible are trying, naively, to unlock the original meaning. That is, we so often assume that we can shed our historicity and somehow unlock this original meaning. Once we do so, we lament that so many other unfortunate fools remain trapped in their historicity, unable to see what we have seen with our undistorted vision.

Gadamer (and many others) suggest that we stop being so naive. Accept the fact that we are never going to have an "undistorted text." Gadamer goes so far as to suggest that every interpretation is a new work. Every translation is a new work. If we viewed the Bible this way, this would give us a bit of humility when we put forward our own interpretations of the Bible. It would also, perhaps, allow us to be more open to the perspectives of others. Perhaps we could recognize that each interpretation tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the text.

Now, one objection to this goes as follows: Why not just give up and say, "well, anything goes!"? Why not just let all interpretations have equal validity? It's all relative, so why even care? Why even interpret at all?

This is a good objection. But in reality, this conclusion does not logically follow. Quite the contrary, the fact that when we interpret we learn as much about ourselves as we do the text seems to make the task of interpretation more interesting and engaging. It also makes interpreting the Bible a community activity. As such, interpretation done in groups can help us grow in a more dynamic way. The interpretive task can be taken up in a serious way. The text should be respected, but equally so, we should respect each other. Gadamer calls this a dialogical approach.

The Conservapedia folks are in the unfortunate position of recognizing the bias of others, but not their own. This is something of a hermeneutical hypocrisy, but it is something that many of us are guilty of as we approach the biblical text. Had the Conservapedia gang recognized that the "conservative" perspective (whatever that it) is as equally biased as the "liberals," then there would be consistency. As it is, their attempt seems contrived and quite random to me. It appears presumptuous to suggest that a so-called "liberal bias" would result in distortions. But it is even more naive to assume that we can ever completely get at the original meaning of the text. Yet this naivety is something that most Biblical interpreters seem to be guilty of. The folks at the Conservapedia Bible Project have done us the favor of presenting an exaggerated example of the mistaken mindset that many of us take when we approach the Bible, or any other text.

We cannot eliminate our modern biases, and we cannot ever completely get at the original meaning. But that's okay. It's what makes us human.


Cynthia said...

Good post!

I don't have a problem when "conservative" and "liberal" leaning groups are sincere and humble about their desire to understand historical biblical text. I do, however, see a problem when people become so engrossed in the persuit of academicly proving themselves right that they miss the whole simple point of the bible to begin with (love God, love people). In cases such as what I just mentioned academic theology should rightly be condemned alongside of aspects of American culture and church which are actively condemned in this blog.

tamie said...

What you wrote here reminded me of a poem by Ezra Pound, called "The River Merchant's Wife." His poem is a translation of a Chinese poem by Li Po. Actually, Pound translated from a Japanese translation of the Chinese poem! Pound translated it into English. But the interesting thing is that the English poem is actually attributed to Ezra Pound. When you ask, "Who wrote, 'The River Merchant's Wife'?" the answer is "Ezra Pound." You do *not* answer, "Li Po wrote the poem, and Ezra Pound translated it."

The reason for this is that artists recognize that sometimes, especially in poetry, a translation is actually an entirely new creation. If you have a particularly skilled translator, that person can have an ear for both languages, and know what will sound particularly beautiful in the translated language, perhaps even more beautiful than the original, or beautiful in an entirely different way. A Japanese poem from a couple centuries ago is very different from a Chinese poem of many centuries ago, which is very different still from an English poem written in the 1920s. Isn't it clear when we consider the contexts, the languages, the cultures?

Anyway....that is what your post reminded me of.

Jonathan Erdman said...



Good point.

Jonathan Erdman said...


That's a great illustration. I did not realize that poetry translations are often credited to the translator and not the original poet.

Should we do this with the Psalms???

tamie said...

I'm not sure how often it happens, but I know it happened in that one case. It's a great poem, by the way. A very beautiful poem. As for the Psalms....yes, perhaps we should!

Oh, I know another case where it's done. Certain translations of Rumi, or maybe it's Hafiz. Apparently, literal translations of their poems sound dull to our ears. But poetic translations, like the kind of translations that get at the *meaning* of the poems get much more at the feel of the original Persian. Anyway, there is a poet--I can't remember his name--and he does translations of either Hafiz or Rumi and he is quite famous because his translations are so beautiful.

Cynthia said...


This is also why it is good to have several good versions of the bible on hand. Word for word translations, essence for essence- that sort of thing.

You know, I am not opposed to a version of the Bible that omits all highly disputed text, are you? Maybe one that makes it clearly obvious what the text was that was omitted and why. I think that would actually be a good thing.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I think it would be valuable to have a Bible that takes out the disputed texts. Personally, I'll keep them, and I like what the NIV does. They have footnotes that clearly describe disputed texts. For example, in the Luke 23:34 text it says, "Some early manuscripts do not have this sentence." This is clear enough, I think. Because the fact is that some manuscripts do have the sentence, and a vast majority carry it forward from their. It is possible (though perhaps not highly likely) that a sentence is not in the early manuscripts but that it was in the original. This may be somewhat unlikely, but still possible. Piecing together the text is a science of probability.

The fact is that even the earliest manuscripts (from third and fourth centuries) probably have additions of some sort. Probably minor but nonetheless, my point is that there is an element of just taking the text as it is, for better or worse.

Cynthia said...

I spent some time really looking through conservapedia and I can say without a doubt that the whole site is crap. The only people that will really buy into this are the blind followers of Glenn beck and Fox News. No scholar is behind this, nor would any serious student of the Bible buy into their version. This is not a translation in any real sense and they should be ashamed of calling it one.

Jason Hesiak said...

My favorites in the list of guidelines, lol:

7. Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning...

10. Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word "Lord" rather than "Jehovah" or "Yahweh" or "Lord God."

Number 7 is downright my favorite, because its so obviously hypocritical. Number 10 is a favorite, because of its complete and utter randomness. Outside of its obvious American utilitarianism, and thus a bit of the same hypocrisy; but I appreciate it more for its randomness, lol.

Jason Hesiak said...


Here are possible approaches to creating a conservative Bible translation:identify pro-liberal terms used in existing Bible translations, such as "government", and suggest more accurate substitutes


In stage one, the translation could focus on word improvement and thereby be described as a "conservative word-for-word" translation. If greater freedom in interpretation is then desired, then a "conservative thought-for-thought" version could be generated as a second stage.

and LOL...."Advantages of a Conservative Bible On Line"....

the ensuing debate would flesh out -- and stop -- the infiltration of churches by liberals pretending to be Christian, much as a vote by legislators exposes the liberals.....this would debunk the pervasive and hurtful myth that Jesus would be a political liberal today.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Jesus would have voted the straight Republican line....Reagan, George W., etc.!

Jonathan Erdman said...


Yes, I am not impressed either.

Jason Hesiak said...

screw it, Jesus for President, lol

john doyle said...

"When we look into the sky, we see the earth going around the sun. For the pre-Copernican peoples, the sun went around the earth. When they looked up at the sun, they believed that the sun was literally moving around the earth. This then is a matter of perspective."

This passage from your post might point to a difference in our outlooks, Erdman. When we look into the sky, we still see the sun going around the earth, just as the pre-Copernicans did: we see it rise in the east, go across the sky, and set in the west. However, the earth was already moving around the sun even in pre-Copernican days, just as it is today.

daniel hutchinson said...

It is quite a privilege to have so many English translations of the original Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible. Most other languages only have one translation, even major languages like French, Spanish and German. I wouldn't mind adding the Conservapedia to my E-sword collection if it were possible.

Truth is often found in the abundance of places to look for it, the best way to study scripture is with a concordance and to get deeper into Greek and Hebrew and the cultures / mindsets.

Whether liberal or conservative, the assumption that you allow others to do your thinking and translating for you is the problem, whether of the Bible or of any other aspect of life for that matter.

Interesting post Jon, glad I popped in... and bonus, a reference to a poem by Ezra Pound amongst the comments, and lots of old posters all surfacing!

Trust you are doing well and in the Word, amidst all that other novelistic reading.

Is "Watt" by Samuel Beckett on your list? I read that this year and was very impressed.

Well, best wishes to all for the holidays.


Jonathan Erdman said...


No, Watt is not on my list. What is it that lends itself a good read?

And, yes, I agree. It is helpful to look at the many translations of a passage, as well as the commentary, I might add....this reminds of Derrida, actually.....One thing that many people do not realize about Derrida is how closely he reads commentary. He advocates a thorough familiarity with not just the literature but also with the ways in which we have been accustomed/trained to read it. So, deconstruction (whatever it is) has to start out with a deep understanding of the received tradition along with a close reading of the text.

daniel hutchinson said...

Hi Jon,

Watt is a very innovative novel on a number of levels, I found the use of language really interesting with lots of repetition, accumulatively in narrating the obsessive compulsive thought life of the main character but also in terms of the structure, which folds in on itself at certain moments.

It is nakedly existential but also quite dreamy and at times fantastic, almost pre-empting some aspects of magic realism.

You may want to look into it, I must check your list again to see if you included Camus or any other of that generation maybe there is a gap there you'd like to fill?

It's an ambitious project of yours but now that you are going with it I'm really full of admiration for you and will be gunning for youto keep going along the way! Let's hope God keeps us here that long, mind you it's probably more exciting on the other side of this life anyway - truth is stranger than fiction as they say.

daniel hutchinson said...

Oh I must also mention that Watt is really funny!

Jonathan Erdman said...

I am hesitant to add Watt to the list, though I am open to it. There are a few obstacles, however.

First, will the novel have some substance for discussion? I already have Joyce on the list (twice), so I already have an Irish writer in the style of (obscure and technical) high modernism. One reviewer at Amazon had only a one sentence review of Watt: "Formally impressive, but devoid of content or meaning."

Second, we would have to bump someone else off of the list....and it would have to be a white male. I kind of want to keep both Joyce works (Portrait as well as Ulysees), but maybe we could bump one of the Camus novels? I have two on the list.....

tamie said...

OH no! Don't get rid of Camus!