Bible Editing Making People Cross

Monday, November 26, 2012

Editing is never comfortable work. Changing someone else's carefully-crafted words is a little like peeking into a parent's stroller and saying, "Well, your baby is okay, but it would be cuter if this dimple was over here, and we made the hair red..."

So imagine the poor wretch who showed up for work one day recently and got told, "Joe, got a little job for you. An old book we need to bring up to date and clean up a little. It's called the Bible. Try to have to it done by noon, willya?"

By pure coincidence, both U.S. Catholics and Protestants are being introduced to newly re-edited, separate versions of the Bible at the same time, just as the venerable King James Version celebrates its 400th birthday.

Change a book in which the trust and faith of millions and millions of Christians hangs in the blance? One that after 2,000 years is still a best-seller, still controversial, still examined and debated over every nuance? One in which entire churches formed or broke off from other denominations over clashing interpretations of a few words? One in which people can actually earn a college degree in just studying one book? Nooo, thank you. Whoever that editor was, he should have replied that he had some vacation time coming.

One aspect that has made the Bible so fascinating is the editing - from the choice of the books to originally include, to the way in which it has been re-spun to suit the goals of various societies and religions over the years, to the translations and re-translations based on what various scholars believed it meant.

The New International Version debuted in 1978, and is the most popular form of the Bible in the U.S., but it is far from the only one. It was challenged in 2005 by an updated version called Today's New International that was heavily criticized for being too liberal - another editor who should have taken early retirement instead.

In the new Bible Protestant version just coming out, the majority of the changes seem to be of the political correctness variety, making the Bible gender neutral.

For example, the word "forefathers" is changed to "ancestors." The word "men" is often changed to "people." Unlike the '05 version, this one restored the term "mankind," however, rather than "human beings." A few capitol letters on non-divine words get dropped.

The Catholic version seeks wording to modernize the interpretation to be true to original meaning.

For example, "booty" - which has a far different meaning today than it did in Biblical times - gets changed to "plunder" or "spoils of war."

While such things are upsetting purists - some Christian bookstores are refusing to sell the new versions - it is hardly without precedent.

In every translation and adaptation, there are changes made. The Bible we know today no doubt reads somewhat differently than in their original, ancient Hebrew or Greek texts. Going from one language to the next, not all words will ever translate 100 percent true, and people frankly do make mistakes.

As an editor, I can tell you that

the job description is less to worry about an exact word or presentation than it is to be true to

the meaning and the essence of the material.

Personally, I have no beef with choosing more gender neutral words. "Mankind" surely was never meant to indicate just men.

However, we're not dealing with a "Twilight" book or the latest self-help home improvement volume here - this is the Bible. One has to respect it as a historical document as well as attend to its readability.

What does bother me as an editor is the changing of quotes - a decided no-no. Whether people's quoted spoken words are politically correct or not, they are theirs, and should not simply be changed to suit the pulisher's sensibilities of what they "should have said."

Here's what I mean.

In the version of the Bible that you most likely have, in Mark 1:17 Jesus says, "Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men."

The new version says, "Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people."

As in a newspaper news story, the person either said something, or they didn't. Even though many translations have been made, rendering the perfect accuracy of a Bible quotation into question, it's not right to take our best source for the quote and intentionally change the words coming out of a person's mouth to suit us.

Of course, the headline-grabber of the process is the change made under the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, removing the word "virgin" to describe Jesus' mother Mary.

The intent is to "more clearly express the meaning of the original," it is said. Isaiah 7:14 now predicts that the messiah will be born to a "young woman," not to a "virgin." Critics say this undermines the miraculous nature of Jesus' birth.

The change, at least, is not for political correctness, but historical accuracy. The original Hebrew word ("almah") that has been translated to "virgin" in our Bibles is now thought to have meant something along the lines of "pure" or "maiden" - simply a description of young womanhood and not necessarily reflecting sexuality at all. This is not a new idea, either - the Revised Standard Version Protestant Bible reached the same conclusion way back in the 1950s. It doesn't mean she wasn't a version, just that the word didn't mean that.

Understandably, people take writings on their religion very personally. People had a fit a few months ago, when Harvard historian Karen King found that a newly-revealed scrap of fourth century papyrus translated from Coptic to read, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife ... she will be able to be my disciple.'" Religious scholars will likely be arguing that single sentence still when our great, great granchildren are old.

Jesus, married. Mary not being termed a virgin. These are ideas that are hard to fathom after a lifetime of thinking of the Word we know as unshakeable. Change comes even to the Biblical world, it seems- though it is best to edit with care, restraint and respect.

One thing is certain. Change as scholars will, people will believe what they believe. One thing you cannot edit, is faith.