There are things in the Bible that are hard to understand and difficult to believe, and there are two methods for solving this problem. This is going to be a difficult essay for some of you, but hear me out until the end.
The First Method
The first method takes a lot of time and effort, and it is often a frustrating experience. With this method, we approach the text as a student. We acknowledge that that the writer had access to information that we do not have. We understand that the writer does not share our background and concerns. We try to resolve the problem through research, study, thought, and prayer. If something offends us, we wrestle with it. If we do not like the results, we retrace our steps. We sometimes don’t get an answer, but sometimes when we do, it’s not the answer we’d like. What matters to us is that we get the message the writer intended to convey.
The Second Method
The second method takes little time or effort, and it is always a pleasant experience. With this method, we approach the text as its master. We assume that we have access to information that the writer did not have. We assume that the writer shares our background and concerns. We try to resolve the problem through research, study, thought, and prayer. If something offends us, we snip it out. If we do not like the results, we change them. We always get an answer, and it is always the answer we’d like. What matters to us is that we get the answer that is relevant to us.
Marcion and the Second Method
Marcion, who lived during the first half of the second century, was the earliest and most prominent person to use the second method, and with it he managed to disrupt the whole church. His problem was the Jewish background of the New Testament. He did not like Jews, and he was uncomfortable with the image of God in the Old Testament. Instead of studying in depth, he simply discarded the Old Testament and revised the New Testament. He threw out Matthew, Mark, and John. He retained Luke, Acts, and some Pauline epistles—but he didn’t stop there. He edited what remained of the Scriptures to his taste.
If you write me a check, and I modify it to increase the amount, it is forgery. If someone names me in their will, and I change it to benefit myself, it is forgery. Modifying documents to change what they say is forgery. Forgery is a felony, and if I do it, I go to jail. I know of a case where a man forged another man’s signature and was sentenced to jail for ten years. If Marcion had modified a check or a will to benefit himself, it would be forgery. So what was it when he modified Holy Scripture to suit his needs and his taste? It was forgery. If forgery is not a felony when it does not result in financial gain, it is at the very least dishonest.
Accidental Marcionism Today
The study of ancient heresies, such as Marcionism, is very important today, because they are still current, even though they are mostly unintentional. By studying them, we can sail our ship of faith more accurately and avoid crashing into the rocks by mistake.
How is what Marcion did any different from what follows? Mind you, this is a very mild case, because there is no wholesale malicious butchery of Scripture, only minor well-intended edits with unintentional side effects. However it is symptomatic of a current trend to modify the Bible to suit our taste. Both liberal and conservative Christians are doing it.
Pay attention to the words that I have emphasized.
Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,
It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:
The difference is that the NRSV changed the singular nouns and pronouns to plural. The NIV accurately represents the underlying Greek text. Why did the translators of the NRSV make this change? Their stated intent is to use inclusive language in ways that do not change the meaning of the text. They wanted to make sure that women who read the Bible do not feel excluded from it. That is a laudable goal that we can all applaud, because the Bible text does not exclude women, even though some translations may give that impression.
However, in their enthusiasm to get to their goal, they knocked over a few valuable things along the way.
An Unintended Side-Effect: Changing the Nature of Human Beings
In the NRSV text, human beings are temporarily lower than the angels. We have been crowned with glory and honor, and God has put everything at our feet. Since everything is subject to us, everything is under our control. We don’t see this yet, but we see it in Jesus.
In the NIV text, Jesus was temporarily lower than the angels. He has been crowned with glory and honor, and God has placed everything at His feet. Since everything is subject to Him, everything is under His control. We don’t see everything as under His control, but we do see Him resurrected and victorious over death.
There is a complete change of meaning, because the NIV text is all about Jesus, but the NRSV text exalts human beings. The implication in the NIV is that we are lower creatures being exalted; in the NRSV, we are exalted creatures being restored. The NRSV’s wording does not allow us to interpret this passage as referring to Jesus, which means it eliminates the interpretation that has been more or less standard for the last 2,000 years! The NRSV did not intend to change the meaning, but they did. It is as if they attempted a harmless remodeling job and accidentally removed a load-bearing wall.
When a person engages in forgery, even for the good and laudable purpose of making the text clearer and easier for the reader, there are untoward side-effects—and the root cause is that the forger presumes that he understands the text better than the author did!
Was the issue of inclusive language on the writer’s mind? Probably not. That issue that didn’t come up until the second half of the twentieth century, and it is mainly an issue in the English language, in which gender is no longer a grammatical category. Would the writer feel that women are less included in the gospel than men? No. The ancient Church had female clergy! Female deacons were regulated in Canon 15 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in 451. It wasn’t until after the fifth century that the Church stopped ordaining women—long after the epistle to the Galatians was indisputably part of the New Testament canon.
But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
—Galatians 3:25-29, NRSV
Notice the difference between the NRSV and the NIV:
Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
—Galatians 3:25-29, NIV
Again, the NIV more accurately represents the underlying Greek text. The NRSV changes the word “son” to “child” in every case where it applies to us. Again, are they justified in this change?
Sons and Children in Ancient Times
No, they are not justified in making translating both “sons” and “children” to “children,” because there is a difference that has nothing to do with sex.
In the New Testament era, the word “son” meant more than just “male child.” In that era, a household was a business as much as it was a family; the father owned the business, but the sons conducted it. A son, by virtue of being a son, had what we would call the father’s power of attorney and could bind the father contractually. Daughters could not. By translating both υιος and τεκνον as “child,” the NRSV removes what was for the writer an important distinction. We would certainly not use the word “son” to refer to a woman, but we did not write the original text. In those days the word also had the meaning of “business agent.” While muddling the difference might smooth our initial sensitivities, it makes it impossible for us to discover, through Bible study, the passages that tell us that women are not just equally beloved, but are also equally empowered.
The lesson is that it is not possible to make a Bible translation that removes the need for study; nor is it possible to make the text inoffensive to our momentary sensitivities without leaving valuable things behind. In this case, the NRSV achieves the opposite of its goal. In their attempt to include women, they remove their empowerment!
Even if the NRSV translators did not know the legal context, they could have learned about it from this passage—in which they did not change “son” to “child” because they correctly perceived the difference:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, holy partners in a heavenly calling, consider that Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses also “was faithful in all God’s house.” Yet Jesus is worthy of more glory than Moses, just as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that would be spoken later. Christ, however, was faithful over God’s house as a son, and we are his house if we hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope.
—Hebrews 3:1-6, NRSV
In this passage, the NRSV renderse “brothers” as “brothers and sisters,” and they are justified in doing so because that is how the word “brothers” was used in Greek.
We see that the New Testament makes a clear distinction between “sons” and “children.” The word “sons” emphasizes that we have responsibilities now and an inheritance later, and that our share of the inheritance depends on our stewardship of those responsibilities—as in the parable in Matthew 25:14-30. The word “children” emphasizes how beloved we are, as in Mark 10:24. The New Testament calls us both sons and children of God, but the two words are not synonyms. Since we are the sons of God, we have been given a distributorship of His mercies and providence. We should not ask, “Why doesn’t God answer the prayers of those people in distress?” We should get up and be the answer to their prayers, because God has made us, both men and women, His sons. We are His agents in the world. It is through us that God answers many prayers. But since we are also the children of God, God loves us deeply and cares for us.
Here is another clue they missed in their own translation:
The Jews insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”
—John 19:7, NRSV
Why would anyone stone Jesus for claiming to be the Son of God? Because the Son of God is the agent of God; His actions and agreements are binding on God and are thus divine acts. If Jesus had claimed to be the child of God, they might have said, “oh, how nice that you feel God’s love,” but since He claimed to be the Son of God, they say:
“We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”
—John 10:33, NIV
Notice the difference, which I brought up before: Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, while we are adopted. Jesus intrinsically possesses the authority of God; that means, He is God, and He uses this authority to cause us to be adopted as sons. In the NIV translation of Hebrews 2:5-9, Jesus exalts us, but in the NRSV, Jesus restores us. The important theological difference is that in the NIV, we have no claim on God, because we receive more than we could ever deserve, but in the NRSV we have a claim on God, because we are being restored to our rightful heritage.
The NRSV and most other recent translations are unaware that the word “son” has legal as well as genealogical force, so they unintentially muddle this further by translating μονογενης as “only” or “one and only” instead of as “only begotten.” It is true that μονογενης can mean “one and only,” but in this case, since the writers are using this word to make a distinction between a person who is a son by birth (Jesus) and people who are sons by adoption (us), the translation of μονογενης that conveys the writer’s meaning is “only begotten.” Translators who jettison the word “son” from the Testament can’t see the writer’s distinction.
The Greek word for “adopt” literally means “make into a son.” Women who become Christians are adopted, that is to say, made into sons. Since sons are business agents, adoption does not mean that Christians are some sort of privileged leisure class. Adoption means that God has given Christians the responsibility of being the agents of God’s providence in the lives of all the people around us.
The only problem with the word “begotten” is that we don’t use it much today. In contemporary usage, men do not “beget” their children, they “father” them. “Begotten” might be a hard word for the reader, but it’s better for the reader to ask someone a question or look something up in a book to get the right understanding, than it is to make the Bible an easy read and leave them with the wrong impression. Again, there is no way to translate the Bible that eliminates the need for study.
An Unintended Side-Effect: Lowering the Status of Women
Now we go back to Galatians 3:25-29. The NRSV renders the Greek word “son” as “child” in order to include women, but in effect the NRSV removes their empowerment. In its attempt to include women, the NRSV actually demotes women to a lower status than what the original text gives them—which is ironic, because that is the very thing they wanted to avoid.
Don’t go away thinking the NIV is superior! Later editions of the NIV have fallen into the same trap.
The First Method, the Second Method, and the Status of Women
From all this, we can see the value in paying attention when we study the Bible. Certainly the Bible is relevant to our modern issues, but are we truly intent on getting the ancient meaning out? Are we so intent on addressing a modern issue that we are inserting it into the text and defeating our own purpose? If the writer does not seem to be concerned about our issue, shouldn’t we do research to find out why not?
The NRSV shows us some very mild cases of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot accidental Marcionism, but it teaches us an even more valuable lesson—how paying more attention to modern needs than to the ancient text’s actual meaning can backfire very badly.