Biblical Love – Lost in Translation?

The dangers inherent in translating texts are obvious to anyone who has attempted to use Google Translate. Professional linguists and translators fo better, but difficulties remain, especially with literary and biblical texts. For LGBT people, the consequences have been profoundly damaging.

The widely held belief that the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality underpins both religious and secular opposition, but this belief is unfounded. The word does not exist in the original text, for the simple reason that in Biblical times, the word and concept as we understand them, were unknown. What we have, is a set of modern interpretations of a series of translations from what are now dead languages. It is now widely recognized, for instance, that the Greek words “malakoi” and “arsenokotoi” that occur in Corinthians, do not in fact simply refer to “homosexuals”, as some translations imply. There has been less attention paid to the Hebrew texts of the First Testament.

Love Lost in Translation, front cover

In a new book, “Love Lost in Translation“, the biblical scholar and linguistic specialist  Renato Lings argues convincingly that in fact, all of the damaging texts of terror that have been so widely used to object to homoerotic relationships have been similarly distorted, with their original sense badly corrupted. In a fascinating opening chapter, he describes how these difficulties have affected not only modern translators, but even the writers of the Gospels and Pauline letters, in their understanding of the Jewish scriptures.  These were written in a classical Hebrew over hundreds of years, so that by the time of the Second Testament, it was no longer the common speech, having been replaced by Aramaic and Greek. To make the Hebrew bible more widely accessible, it had been translated from classical Hebrew into Greek (the version known as the Septuagint).  The Second Testament itself was written directly in Greek – and for its quotations and  references to the Hebrew prophets, depended on the Greek translations in the Septuagint. A few centuries later, the Greek bible, both Septuagint and Second Testament writings, were themselves translated into what had since become the common language of the people – Latin, in Jerome’s Vulgate version.

 Compounding problems of translation were those of reproduction. In the many centuries before the printing press, the manuscripts could be reproduced and distributed only by laborious  hand copying, with each repetition opening up the possibility of introducing errors, and repeating the errors of earlier copyists.  Even by the time of Aquinas, scholars were working with texts that had suffered from both repeated translations, and corrupted by numerous copying errors.  After the Reformation, with the effort to use the printing press to make the Bible widely available in modern languages, the difficulties multiplied.

Serious translators are of course well aware of these difficulties, and immense pains are taken to consider carefully every nuance of meaning in the words used, to inspect careful original manuscripts, and weigh the judgement of earlier scholarship, But there’s an additional difficulty, inherent in any translation – balancing the competing demands of accuracy and readability. Scholars are primarily concerned with accuracy, but general readers, for whom most translations are published, want readability. Add in the natural tendency of scholars to depend more on recent work than older, and the inevitable introduction of some degree of personal bias in interpretation (no matter much the academics may try to avoid it), and it is obvious that any modern translation will suffer from a degree of accumulated distortions from the original sense. That distortion will be greater, for the oldest texts of all.

For his book, Lings has analysed the Biblical verses from the First Testament used to condemn homosexuality, and undertaken a close linguistic and textual analysis. He begins with an exhaustive study of the Hebrew language of sex and intercourse in the First Testament, then he compares and contrasts how the verses of the clobber texts, and key words in them, have been translated in a range of modern Bibles. To do so, he looks closely at how those key words are used elsewhere (especially in closely related passages), to gain insights into a more reliable understand of their sense.

The results are impressive, and often surprising. He disputes, for instance, the widespread translation in the creation story that Eve was created from Adam’s “rib”, which is so often used to justify a patriarchal view of the relationship between the sexes, and in discussing the story of Sodom, his analysis of the verb “Know” leads him to conclude that contrary to popular wisdom, the “biblical sense” of the word is not, in fact, primarily sexual. Although there are some biblical passages where the reference is sexual, this is not so In the specific context of the angelic visitors of Genesis 19.

This is a work of serious scholarship, and not easy reading for the general reader – but anyone with a serious interest in the subject will still find much that is valuable and thought provoking. I am neither a linguist nor a biblical scholar myself, and will make no attempt to assess the value of the scholarship. For that, I look forward to reading the verdicts of others, later. I suspect though, that there will be both admirers and strong detractors, just as there were for John Boswell’s groundbreaking work on homosexuality in church history (which included his own analysis of “malakoi” and “arsenokotoi”, one of the very first to appear). Like Boswell’s book, it is likely that agree or disagree, future writers on the Bible and homosexuality will find it impossible to ignore Ling’s work.

For my part, I plan to present a series of posts describing in summary, some of Lings’ conclusions concerning key texts. Watch this space.


Love Lost in Translation: Homosexuality and the Bible(Amazon,com)

Love Lost in Translation: Homosexuality and the Bible  (Extensive preview at Google Books)



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