Wednesday, August 26, 2020

It Isn't About What Happened in 1946

In what follows I'll be reviewing the claims made in a trailer for an as-yet unreleased film about homosexuality in the Bible. I want to make two points clear at the outset: 1) this is not a condemnation of the lgbtq+ community. As a Unitarian Universalist I want to see lgbtq+ folks welcomed and affirmed in all levels of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and would be glad for them to be fully included and affirmed among the Christian denominations, and 2) I'm not attempting to interpret the Bible here with a view towards application in church life; rather I'm attempting to get at what the Bible means by what it says.

Often when I hear or read an interpretation of a Bible passage that diverges from what has long been considered the norm, I feel as though I'm being asked to stand on one foot, hold my breath, squint my eyes, and tilt my head at a 45 degree angle to see it. Among these disputed areas are women in ordained ministry, and the lgbtq+ community. It's this latter item that has lately had me twisted up trying to see another perspective.

'1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture' is a documentary movie project that, as of the date of this post, is still not completely funded. The premise of the film is that with the publication of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) in 1946, and specifically its translation of two Greek words as a single word in English, the term 'homosexual' was introduced to American theology and became a highly politicized issue. Here's a trailer.

This line of argument is problematic, at best. Let's look at the passages in question.

First, here's 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 as seen in the 1952 printing of the RSV. It says exactly what the trailer above indicates. To the best of my knowledge, they are correct that this is the first time that the word appeared in any mainstream translation of the Bible.
That said, it should also be noted that language does change. If you doubt it, try reading a few chapters in any book of the King James Version. Originally published in 1611, the KJV we have today is from a revision that happened in the 1800s...and it's still difficult to read due to the changes in English over time. If qualified scholars of Koine Greek look at a passage and translate it, they'll be using the language of our age, and not that of a century or more ago. The question we're dealing with here is whether 'homosexual' is an adequate translation.

Take a look at the footnote on this translation. They acknowledge that two words were combined into one to arrive at 'homosexual.' There's no further justification for it, and I wonder if this note was included in the original 1946 edition. 

A new translation came along in 1989 to replace the RSV. The New Revised Standard Version has been my go-to translation since university, although that was highly unusual for the conservative-to-progressive evangelical I was over the years. The New International Version is what I started out with when I left the Roman Catholic Church at 17, and it was long the most popular version among evangelicals. As I understand it the English Standard Version has been supplanting it ever since the NIV began engaging in gender neutrality where deemed appropriate.

Here's what my NRSV Bible has for 1 Corinthians 5:9-10.

No mention of 'homosexuality,' although we do have 'male prostitutes' and 'sodomites.' It seems like these two words should be fairly non-controversial for a sociological perspective, although it could be argued that the former stigmatizes sex workers. If we're going for an accurate translation, though, this at least seems like an improvement over what the RSV gave us. That's assuming that 'homosexuality' is indeed a bad translation, something I don't know because it's been over 22 years since I studied New Testament Greek. and I am not qualified to give an informed judgment on the matter. Like most other people, I have to rely on experts in the field.

For further comparison, have a look at these side-by-side texts from the KJV, the NIV, and the ESV.

The KJV sticks with two terms, 'effeminate' and 'abusers of themselves with mankind.' Those certainly seem to add up to 'homosexuals' or else 'transgender women' and 'gay men,' but again the ultimate meaning has to be about what the original Greek meant. Note that the NIV doesn't say 'homosexuals,' favoring 'men who have sex with men.' That sounds like the same thing. The really interesting thing for me is the ESV, which translates it as 'men who practice homosexuality.' The note on that phrase admits the translation of two words to come up with it, and indicates that the translators judged this to be referring to the passive and active participants in 'consensual homosexual acts.' That's pretty graphic for a footnote in a Bible, but there you go.

By wording it the way they did, the ESV translators managed to make this about 'practicing' homosexuals, not celibate homosexuals. Their note also emphasized the consensual nature of the acts in question, removing from consideration victims of sexual assault. Frankly, this all feels cobbled together, with contemporary evangelical theological considerations in mind. It's not unlike the balancing and squinting act the makers of the 1946 movie are calling for.

Speaking of that movie, the trailer has some problems. One in particular is the scene where it lists without quoting passages from the Bible that were purportedly made to say 'homosexual' that originally didn't. I did some comparing between the major translations, and the claim isn't entirely correct. 

At the top of the list is Genesis 19:18-20, which is confusing as hell because those verses make no mention at all of sex. The chapter is about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, a popular story among conservative Christians for denouncing homosexuality because allegedly 'all the men' of the area wanted to rape the two visiting angels (who they thought were also human males). Aside from the fact that rape is a far cry from consensual sex, being an act of extreme violence, that chapter at no point uses the word 'homosexual' in either the NIV or ESV, which again are the most popular translations among evangelicals. 

Here are screenshots of the other listed verses compared.

Leviticus certainly describes homosexual acts, but doesn't use the word in either translation.

Deuteronomy talks about sex workers in the employ of the religious establishment, but does not use any form of the word 'homosexual' to do so.

While there are plenty of people who argue that this isn't talking about consensual homosexual relationships, and they may have a point for all I know, neither the NIV or the ESV use the word 'homosexual' in the first chapter of Romans. 

Finally, we have 1st Timothy. The NIV and the ESV agree that the word translated here has to do with homosexual activity. Other translations like the NRSV have it as 'sodomites.' From what I've read over the years, the word translated was possibly coined by the writer, being rooted in the words for 'man' and 'bed.' It could relate to consensual sex or rape. There is some thought that it might be addressing the not entirely uncommon practice of wealthy Roman men raping their boy slaves. The clouds around the issue make me question whether something so certain as 'homosexuality' should be employed here to describe it.

It should be apparent by now that I have concerns about 1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture. The verses cited raise suspicions for me, and the sound bites in the trailer are so short that important context could be missing from what the scholars are saying. To be clear, I'm not arguing that the producers of the film are attempting to deceive anyone, so much as that they might have started with a conclusion (the Bible's cool with homosexuality) and now they're coming up with excuses for why and how that works. 

As I said at the outset, I am in full agreement that lgbtq+ folks should be welcomed and affirmed in all roles and at all levels of church life. Among Unitarian Universalists such as myself, a group that has no one canonical text, this isn't difficult to envision. It's among Christian churches that the problems arise, simply because of what their holy writ explicitly says about homosexuality. The history of interpretation within Christianity indicates that for most of church history, the anti-lgbtq+ stance (although that term wasn't available for centuries) has long been in the majority. Both the source text and the traditions are adverse to lgbtq+ folks.

Rather than keep dancing around passages like the ones discussed above, I'd like to see two things happen. One would be for honest, careful scholarship to be held up that is clear about what is known and what is not yet known. If a passage really says a thing, we should know that. If the translation is unclear, let the public know that as well. And this is precisely what the field of textual scholarship has been attempting to do for years. The problem is that lay people keep attempting to read themselves or their views into the text. That's all well and good with me, so long as everyone knows that's what they're doing. A second thing that is needed is an admission by the liberal church that the Bible says very ugly things, including about homosexuality. There's a lot that modern society has rejected that the Bible teaches, even among evangelicals. Among progressive Christians at least there should be a confession of the sins of scripture, including for what it says, and for how it has been used through the ages to exploit and oppress people. It feels like a lot fewer mental gymnastics would be required to do this, holding that the Bible is right except when it's wrong, than in attempting to justify current understandings with forced re-interpretations of parts of the Bible.

Consider what Community of Christ, a progressive variety of Mormonism, says about scripture in Section 163 of their Doctrine & Covenants, which they believe to be part of the continuing revelation of God:

7 a. Scripture is an indispensable witness to the Eternal Source of light and truth, which cannot be fully contained in any finite vessel or language. Scripture has been written and shaped by human authors through experiences of revelation and ongoing inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the midst of time and culture. 
b. Scripture is not to be worshiped or idolized. Only God, the Eternal One of whom scripture testifies, is worthy of worship. God’s nature, as revealed in Jesus Christ and affirmed by the Holy Spirit, provides the ultimate standard by which any portion of scripture should be interpreted and applied. 
c. It is not pleasing to God when any passage of scripture is used to diminish or oppress races, genders, or classes of human beings. Much physical and emotional violence has been done to some of God’s beloved children through the misuse of scripture. The church is called to confess and repent of such attitudes and practices. 
d. Scripture, prophetic guidance, knowledge, and discernment in the faith community must walk hand in hand to reveal the true will of God. Follow this pathway, which is the way of the Living Christ, and you will discover more than sufficient light for the journey ahead.

They've already confessed the sin of their scriptures and have a framework for moving forward that works within their tradition. Mainline Protestants and evangelical Christians would do well to come to terms as well with this reality. As for me, I won't be twisting myself into any knots for anyone's interpretations.