The Bible and Textual Abuse: The Case of “malakoi” and “arsenokoites”.

Sane and rational discussion of the Bible and same-sex relationships are bedevilled by difficulties with language, arising from problems with translations on the one  hand, and vastly different cultural conditions which make it difficult sometimes to make sense of the applicability of the words, even where the literal meaning is clear. This is especially important in the case of two obscure Greek words which, in poor translation, appear to say clearly that the Biblical teaching is opposed to homosexual activity.

Several notable scholars (Boswell, Countryman, and those that followed) have shown that these translations are faulty, casting doubt on a large chunk of the case for biblically based homophobia. Michael Carden, an Australian biblical scholar, has a post up which first notes that Christianity is unique in depending on translations for its scriptures, and then goes on to a lengthy, detailed discussion of the problems presented by translations of these two troublesome words.

From the opening of a much longer discussion at Michael Carden’s Jottings:

Christianity is rather unusual in the family of Abrahamic/Middle Eastern religions in the role of scripture and language. For Judaism and Islam, and I suspect traditionally for Zoroastrianism too, the language of scripture, i.e. the language in which it was written, is also the language in which it must always be read. So countless Jews and Muslims have grown up learning something of Hebrew and Arabic and not just any Hebrew and Arabic but the Hebrew of the Torah and Tanakh and the Arabic of the Qur’an, even if it means just memorising slabs of text (as a pre-Vatican 2 Catholic child I have a resonance with this because I remember being taught the responses of the old Latin Mass, which I regard nowadays as a valuable bit of rudimentary childhood second language teaching). For Jews and Muslims too any translation of scripture is counted as an interpretation, it does not share in the authority of the ‘original’ text. Christians, on the other hand, have always read their scriptures in translation.  Christian bibles are comprised of two parts: an Old Testament comprising texts originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek; and a New Testament comprising texts originally written in Greek. Early Christians used as their Old Testament the Greek translation/version of the Hebrew and Aramaic texts known as the Septuagint, together with those texts Protestants term apocryphal that were written in Greek. Just about all of the ancient Christian translations of the Old Testament were from this Greek text. Only the Syriac and Jerome’s Latin Vulgate included translations from (some of) the Hebrew version shared with Rabbinic Judaism. So from the very beginning Christians have been involved in the project of translation. For many cultures too, ancient and contemporary, their first body of written literature  has been a translation of one canonical version or another of the Christian Bible.

So for Christians, unlike Jews and Muslims, linguistic questions of meaning, equivalence and translation, can become highly fraught theological and political questions.

- Jottings: Homophobia and the Politics of Biblical Translation.

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3 comments for “The Bible and Textual Abuse: The Case of “malakoi” and “arsenokoites”.

  1. Mario
    January 24, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    A long time ago, I had original Greek and Hebrew translations of the bible. Even then, I was astonished at how some passages became determined.

    Now, my real issue first is not with translations, but with the view that the bible is the word of God, rather than the bible is a historical document where we see God at work. It is this first view, that relates to Rome’s power not as men whose intention it is to experience God, but men who speak for God.

    It is very difficult to move past our difficulties because of these views. Nonetheless, I enjoy information on the new developments of the translation of the bible.

    Thanks.

    M

  2. February 21, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    I remember my Catholic catechism about the Bible – The Bible was inspired by God but written by man.  This helps me work through a lot of issues, including the idea of using translations, instead of original text.  

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