Thursday, December 14, 2006

Angels We Have Misinterpreted On High

It was nearly 12 am on Saturday night, and I'd just remembered I had yet to write the nativity play to be rehearsed the following morning at Sunday Club. So there I was, in bed, in pajamas, with my laptop open and my trusty ESV (Especially Sanctified Version*) Bible beside me. I know the story by heart, but it was late and I was tired and I didn't want to have to think too much. I started typing up narration and dialogue, using my Bible as a guideline to keep me straight with the old familiar story. An angel appears to Mary and then Joseph, Caesar decrees the entire world to should be registered, Mary and Joseph saddle up and head to Bethlehem, but there's no room in the inn, so they sleep in a stable, Jesus is born and wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Nearby there are shepherds in a field and the angels come to them declaring 'Glory to God in the Highest and on earth, peace and good will towards men--'



Luke 2:14: 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!' (ESV)

Peace among those with whom he is pleased? Suddenly, my Especially Sanctified Version seemed Especially Soteriological (in the Reformed way). I had never heard such a translation.

So, like a good little wanna-be theologian, I went downstairs and pulled down my New American Standard Bible (NASB), another word-for-word literal translation. It said, '...And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.'

I scratched my head. So where did I get that line 'peace and good will towards men'? It dawned on me: Ah-ha! I only recently switched to ESV and NASB; it must be from the old NIV (New International Version - a looser, more colloquial 'thought-for-thought' version) days, my old favourite (before I knew better, snicker.) So I pulled my old beloved NIV study Bible from the shelf and turned to Luke 2.

'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.'

I'm puzzled. And feeling slightly duped.

Who taught me 'peace and good will towards men'? It may not sound like a big difference, but it actually changes the 'Christmas message' significantly. Even the innocent Baby Jesus Lying in a Manger story is now swaddled (ha) in theology. Was he born to bring peace and good will to men (in general) or just to those whom God favours?

It was now very late, and I had to finish the play. Not wanting to be controversial (being one of only approximately four Calvinists in my church, I didn't want to be accused of indoctrinating), I kept the 'good will towards men' line and finished off the story - careful to note that the wise men (however many there were) arrived much later and not at the stable.

The following Sunday, I discussed this issue with Jeff and Scott. We pulled down a few more translations to inspect. We found our culprit(s): King James Version (KJV) and New King James Version (NKJV). Both say, '... and on earth peace, good will toward men.'

After discussing the magnitude of this change (and Jeff, might I add, is not a Calvinist), I realised I couldn't, with good conscience, leave the line so skewed. I changed the script to say 'peace to those with whom God is pleased'. Though it felt controversial, who was I to change or add to the Word of God?

The implications of this have been really mind-boggling. Not that I didn't already believe that Jesus came only for the Elect, but to find evidence of this in the 'Christmas' story was really surprising - and eye-opening - to me. The angels essentially told us that the Baby Jesus was born to bring peace to only a select group: those with whom God is pleased or even perhaps those whom God favours. What a radical difference that makes!

What a difficult difference that makes.

On the back of my ESV Bible, there is a blurb about the translation process. It states something to the effect of 'The translators agreed to put aside doctrinal differences in order to render a translation that is true to the original text'. I wonder what translators must think when they come across passages in the original text that make them think of something differently than they always thought before? I wonder how hard it is to put aside personal doctrines in order to render a true translation? I wonder if people of all different doctrines change their minds on several points after an undertaking like this?

Which sort of unintentionally brings me to the other issue I came across while writing this children's play. Some translations blatantly do not put aside doctrinal differences in order to render a true translation. I don't know what scribes and translators were doing with the KJV/NKJV, but that was a long time ago and they were also the first English translations, so I won't be too hard on the old King. But take, for instance, The Message's take on the verse (and ooh, I'll try hard not to get all up on my soapbox about The Message...): 'Glory to God in the heavenly heights, Peace to all men and women on earth who please him.' (Similarly, the Contemporary English Version says, 'Praise God in heaven! Peace on earth to everyone who pleases God.')

The subtle change in the verse passed right over me upon first read. Jeff actually had to point it out to me. I was just surprised that The Message didn't follow the traditional catch-phrase and not a bit surprised that it added 'women'. Did you see what else I'm referring to?

What's the difference between 'Peace among men with whom He is pleased' (NASB) and ' Peace to all men and women on earth who please him' (Message)?

Syntax, semantics, rhetoric.

The point of this entire post is how drastically those things formulate our beliefs and theology. What else, I can't help wondering, are we being spoon fed that is subtly yet fundamentally wrong?

*I think it was Bryce who dubbed it this, though I could be wrong. At any rate, I stole this moniker from someone and love using it. ESV actually stands for English Standard Version.

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