“Whitewashing Evangelical Scripture: The Case of Slavery and Antisemitism in the English Standard Version,” looks at how successive translations have changed in the English Standard Version of the Bible, for which Grudem serves on the oversight committee.
In revisions from 2001 through 2016, Perry shows, the word “slave” first gains a footnote, then moves to the footnote and then disappears entirely — in some contexts, like Colossians 3:22, though not others — to be replaced by the word “bondservant,” which could be described as a politically correct euphemism. A similar strategy is used to handle antisemitic language as well, Perry shows.
It’s one thing for politicians to hypocritically switch positions mid-air, or hold contradictory positions simultaneously, but it’s quite another thing for theologians — or at least it’s supposed to be. Evangelical Christians in particular are supposed to revere the literal truth of the Bible, not fiddle around with it to make it sound better to contemporary audiences. So Perry’s findings deserve much wider attention, which is why Salon reached out to discuss what he discovered and what to make of it. The interview has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.
Your paper examines how a recent Bible translation was successively revised to tone down and ultimately erase language supporting slavery and antisemitism — in effect, to make the Bible more “politically correct,” more in tune with contemporary moral sensibilities, although those doing so would surely object to that characterization. How would you characterize their work?
It’s a fascinating story. All Bible translations have to navigate these waters, so the English Standard Version is really just an example of it, and they’re kind of a fascinating example because they have marketed themselves as an essentially literal translation that resists the PC push. The general editor, Wayne Grudem, had for years denounced contemporary Bible translations, like the New International Version, for doing those kinds of things: becoming PC, changing the language to conform to modern sensibilities, that kind of thing, especially with regard to gender.
So for years they have said, “Hey, we’re not going to translate certain things in a gender-neutral fashion, because we want to be as literal as possible, and if you like that it’s capitulating to the feminist PC culture.” So ESV has marketed themselves as a very popular evangelical translation that is used most faithfully by complementarian Protestant Christians for that reason: because it’s conservative and because it’s supposed to be literal.
But at the same time, the fact that that the “slave” language in the New Testament is so obvious creates a real apologetics problem, because of all this talk about “slaves obeying your masters,” and how slaves should subject themselves not only to good masters but bad masters, and how slaves should stay in the station of life where they were called. It creates this really ugly impression of the New Testament, and especially Paul advocating for slavery.
So what you can see in the English Standard Version is that with each successive wave, from the 2001 revision of the Revised Standard Version to the 2011 revision and then finally in 2016, our most recent revision, was that they started by introducing a footnote in 2001 to the “slave” word, and then in 2011 they replace the slave word and put it in a footnote, and then they said, “We’re going to call this a bondservant. So it’s different from a slave.”
By 2016 they didn’t use slave language at all. If you read that translation you would have no idea that the original translation — and I think the most appropriate translation — would be “slave.” All you see is this kind of Christian-used churchy word “bondservant,” which you never hear outside of a biblical reference. Nobody knows what that means, but it’s a way that the English Standard Version and other Bibles like it can kind of say, “Hey, these are slaves, but they’re not real, real slaves. They’re not really bad slaves like we think of in the antebellum South, like chattel slavery. It’s something different.”
So they’re changing the text on one hand, while pretending to be more faithful on the other?
Yes. What I write about this in this article is an example of the way evangelical Bibles try to do both things. On the one hand they’re trying to appeal to people within their community, and to say, “Hey, we interpret the Bible faithfully and consistently,” but at the same time there also trying to translate such that they can avoid charges that the Bible is socially regressive and condones oppressive relationships and is socially or culturally backward. So this is kind of an example of that.
In previous studies, I showed how the English Standard Version, in particular, had actually taken the Revised Standard Version of 1971 and made the gender language more conservative. So what they did with the slave language, they did the opposite with the gender language. They actually made gender language more complementarian, more about men’s and women’s roles, and that kind of thing.
So ultimately this is a broader project of mine on demonstrating how really Bibles are constructed by individual choices by groups who have incentives. I don’t mean incentives monetarily, though sometimes money is involved, like the consumer market. All these Bibles have to sell. But oftentimes there are culture-war issues going on. They want to be able to demonstrate, “Hey, the Bible is not culturally regressive. Look, there’s no slave language at all!” Or they want to be able to say that the Bible endorses women submitting to their husbands: “Look how clear it is right here!”
So what you can do is just adjust the language here and there in the translation and make it back your own theological preference, or the preference of the people you’re trying to market that Bible to. And this is fascinating thing. It’s so interesting when you think about how fluid the language can be, based on whatever purposes you need, whoever you’re marketing that Bible to.
But that’s part of a much broader phenomenon, isn’t it? I mean, you specifically say that it’s not unique.
Let me give you another example. This is one I don’t talk about in the article. The English Standard Version has been adopted recently by the Gideons — you know, the people who put Bibles in hotel rooms. So for years, the King James Version was the Gideon Bible. They later moved to the New King James, but since 2012 the Gideons weren’t going to use the King James anymore, they were going to use the ESV.
They worked out a deal with Crossway, the makers of the ESV, to adjust some of the language in the ESV to conform to the preferences that the Gideons wanted, because they had always had the King James Version and they liked that. So certain verses and texts in the ESV were modified to conform to the preferences of the Gideons, who were going to buy massive amounts of Bibles and wanted to bring it into greater conformity with the KJV. They’re not drastic changes, yet the ESV folks were willing to compromise on the language. It was like, “Hey, if this is what your group needs, sure. We’ll move some stuff to footnotes, we’ll change stuff around here and there.”
There’s all kinds of things that go on like that, but in the example I’m talking about here it’s about how this particular Bible which has a reputation for being anti-PC is pretty clearly moving toward greater political correctness, so that they can avoid the charges of promoting slavery.
What about the issue of antisemitism? That was handled differently but along similar lines, was it not?
Again, Wayne Grudem is a culture warrior. Within the last five years he became kind of a shill for Donald Trump. He went on record several times to talk about why Christians should vote for Trump, and wrote a shocking, breathtaking article where he argued that he didn’t think Trump had ever intentionally lied. He said, like, Trump may bend the truth or may not know all the facts, but he never intentionally lied, which makes my head explode.
So Wayne Grudem is a culture warrior, politically active, a very conservative anti-PC guy. He had for years argued against any change. Especially in the Gospel of John, there’s lots of instances where John talks about this group that literally is translated as “the Jews.” That’s exactly what he’s saying, he’s saying “the Jews.” But if you actually read the things that he’s saying about this group called “the Jews,” it’s really ugly. They are chasing the apostles around, they’re persecuting Jesus, they’re scheming, they’re looking for an opportunity to kill him. They just look like murderous, scheming people. Paul does this several times as well. So most modern New Testament translations have modified that language. They don’t translate that word as “the Jews” anymore because it sounds blatantly antisemitic. What they do is they translate it, like, “Jewish leaders” or “religious leaders” or something like that, so they specify, these are the bad ones, these aren’t all the Jews.
But the ESV and Wayne Grudem have for years said, “Oh, you guys are PC wimps for doing that.” But the editorial committee of the ESV has realized over time that it looks really, really ugly. So what they’ve had to do is to introduce footnotes over time, where they can qualify when they use that word “the Jews.” They do it strategically, because it’s not every time you see the word “the Jews.” But every time you see the words “the Jews” and the context is “Hey, this is a really bad group of people,” they put an asterisk there, and a footnote that says, “Hey, no, John is not referring to all the Jews. This is probably just a group of religious leaders who are persecuting Jesus and his followers.”
These are just examples of how Bibles get modified and adjusted in order to make them more palatable and attractive, and by extension make Christianity more palatable and attractive. That’s the end goal, and part of it is about making that Bible more usable and user-friendly. In a broader scheme, these people are Christians and they want people to find Christianity attractive too. They want to be able to guard against accusations that Christianity is OK with slavery and antisemitism. So you’ve got to head that accusation off by helping your people out a little bit, putting a footnote in there, changing the language.
You begin your article by saying, “Religious communities in pluralistic societies often hold in tension the task of reinforcing core identities and ideals within the community while negotiating public relations among those outside the community.” You add, “Christian communities have sought to accomplish both projects materially through Bible modification.” The first task is accomplished via what scholars have called “transitivity.” What does that mean?
Transitivity is not my word. That was come up with by a scholar named Brian Malley, who is a cognitive anthropologist. About 20 years ago he wrote a great and, I think, very underrated book called “How the Bible Works.” One of the things he writes about is how evangelical Bible study isn’t really an attempt to get meaning out of the text, as if people were coming to it like blank slates. What happens within a group context is that groups come to the Bible with theological presuppositions. They already have an idea what the Bible is. What they do together is they basically try to explain how the text that they are reading affirms what they already believe.
So they’ll come to the text and they’ll find a verse and they’ll try to fit that verse within their broader scheme. “OK, this is what we think God is all about, this is what we know he likes and prefers, this is what we believe.” This is why you end up with so drastically different readings of the Bible. This is why when Democrats come to the Bible, Jesus ends up looking like a Democrat and when Republicans come to the Bible, he sure does look like a Republican. We oftentimes just bring our own biases and lenses and interpret a passage of scripture with that. So transitivity, and how Bible translations really reinforce this transitivity project, is because they can adjust the content of the Bible to support what the community already believes.
This is a more general process, right? It’s not just the ESV?
This isn’t just the English Standard Version, this is all of these translations. Really blatant examples would be things like the 1995 project called “The New Testament and Psalms, An Inclusive Version.” This translation team took the New Revised Standard Version and said, “You know what, we don’t believe that God would want to translate anything that would support racism, antisemitism, ableism or any kind of gender identity at all.” So they went through that Bible and they removed all traces of gendered language — God is no longer “father,” he is “a parent” or “father/ mother,” Jesus is not “the son,” he’s “the child.” So they made the Bible conform to their own beliefs of what they felt God would like and God would want. That was an example of a transitivity project. They were making the Bible conform to their own views, and ESV has also done that with respect to gender. They made the gendered language of the RSV more conservative, so that it would back up their own theological and cultural preference.
You have coined a new term, “intransitivity.” What does that mean, and what’s a good example?
The gendered language of the ESV is a transitivity move, making the text conform to your own tribal or cultural positions. “Intransitivity” refers to the idea that you’re trying to eliminate the possibility of a negative evaluation of your own group or the Bible by translating a passage in a more culturally acceptable way. Establishing intransitivity means you’re trying to cut off the possibility of a negative social interpretation.
So retranslating those passages about “the Jews” to be about “religious leaders” or “the Jewish leaders” or that kind of thing is an intransitivity project. It is a move to be able to cut off outsiders who say, “Hey Christianity is antisemitic and the Bible is antisemitic.” They can say, “No, that’s not how the verses read.” The same with the slavery example. You cut off the negative social interpretations by saying “No, these are ‘bondsmen,’ not slaves.”
You go on to say that this study examines the ways evangelical translation teams seek to accomplish both agendas simultaneously — the transitivity and intransitivity agendas — creating a “materialized instantiation of engaged orthodoxy.” What does that mean?
“Engaged orthodoxy” is the sociologist Christian Smith’s term. A little over 20 years ago he talked about evangelicals as this unique group, in that they hold two ideas in tension. One is that they want to be different from the culture and they want to have distinct theological identities, so they value theological conservatism. It’s self-policing. You can see this now, it’s the most obvious thing in the world. All the debates are about, you know, are we leaving our orthodox theological roots by coming to be more culturally adaptive or “woke” or whatever?
So evangelicals want to be orthodox, and they desire that aggressively. And yet a part of evangelical identity is also that we are not retreating from the world, we are engaging the culture. You can call it culture warfare, and that’s part of it, but there’s a mandate to transform the culture with the gospel. So engaged orthodoxy is this idea that we are fighting for cultural distinctiveness and orthodox theology, yet at the same time we are engaged in the fight, we are trying to influence people who are outsiders with the gospel, with the Bible and with our culture.
So when I say a “materialized instantiation of engaged orthodoxy,” what I mean is that through both of these moves with the Bible — they’re trying to modify the Bible to make it conform to their own theologically conservative faith, while at the same time modifying other parts of the Bible to avoid negative characterizations of the Bible and their faith — they’re engaging in this process of engaged orthodoxy. They’re trying to be orthodox and conservative, while at the same time not trying to put up unnecessary barriers to people finding the faith attractive. So they want to be conservative, but they don’t want to be blatantly racist or blatantly oppressive, that’s just too far, that’s too much.
Yes. That sounds tricky!
They really find themselves in a pickle sometimes because of examples like Wayne Grudem, who trashes PC Bible modification, and says, “Hey, we need to be conservative and literal,” yet at the same time they don’t want to translate things too literally, because it ends up looking pretty negative if you’re talking about slave language or antisemitism. So they have to be subtle, which is one of the reasons why they don’t necessarily announce all the changes that they make. They just change stuff sometimes. Sometimes they announce it, sometimes they explain it. Other times they just kind of do it. They make changes and don’t really broadcast that, because they want to make people feel like “Hey, this the Bible, not something that is our little project that we keep on modifying.”
You draw attention to the fact that changes were made to the ESV in 2001 without being talked about, but then in 2011 they actually announced it in the preface. What did they say in that preface, and what did that accomplish?
In the preface they started to telegraph that they’re going to change some of the slave language and gave a little bit of the reasoning. But the reasoning they provide is intended to support the change that they wanted to make for, I think, more politically correct kinds of reasons. So they’re trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to be characterized as a literal translation that is faithful and they don’t want to come across as capitulating to the culture or being politically correct, Grudem really backs them into a corner that way.
They don’t sell to their target audience of conservative evangelicals on the basis of being politically correct; they sell because they’re literal or because they’re faithful. So what they were trying to do in that preface was explain that these words for slave in the Old Testament and New Testament—in the Old Testament it’s ebed, and in Greek, in the New Testament, it’s doulos. So what they’re arguing in the preface is that, hey, in the Old Testament and the New Testament, sometimes that slave language, those words, could be used to define a broad spectrum of relationships. Sometimes it describes people who are legitimately like slaves, and other times it describes something more like a servant or a bondservant, somebody who’s not necessarily volunteering for it, but who could benefit from the relationship and earn money, and even get their freedom someday.
So they’re trying to set the reader up to say, “We sometimes translate these words differently depending on the context,” because sometimes what they feel the authors have in view is not “slave” like we talk about in the South, where you are a slave on the basis of race, you are a slave for life and so are your children.
So that’s their theory. How good a theory is it?
The only problem with that is that most scholars that I’ve read and respect on these issues would argue that what both the Old and New Testament authors have in mind really is a slave. It’s not like this weird, churchy word “bondservant,” which is intended, I think, to create some rhetorical difference between what a slave really was and this kind of nice version of slavery that Christians would like to pretend the Bible talks about.
But it doesn’t really exist. It was still dehumanizing. It was still somebody who, like your children, was property. You were still owned by people and you couldn’t just leave if you wanted to. That wasn’t the deal. So it kind of attempts, on the part of evangelicals, to introduce an idea that, like, slavery wasn’t so bad sometimes, rather than just saying, “Hey, it’s a slave.”
What happened in the preface in 2011 was that the ESV said, “We need to change these words so that we can make these relationships a little bit less offensive.” Ultimately they’re saying, “We don’t want you to think, every time you hear the word ‘slave’ in the New Testament or the Old Testament, about Southern Dixie slavery, because that’s really ugly. That sounds really bad.” If the New Testament is saying “slave, obey your master,” that sounds really horrible, and it is really horrible. That creates a problem that they try to solve with this translation.
You’re focused on the key process of biblical revision. But there’s a larger cultural process and historical record to consider. Historically, biblical references to slavery played a central role in justifying it, especially as abolitionist sentiment increased from 1830 onward. All the distancing in the world can’t change that history. More recently, anti-abortion evangelicals have tried to claim the abolitionist mantel for themselves, likening Roe v. Wade to the Dred Scott decision, while also ignoring their own historical indifference, if not acceptance, to Roe when it was decided, given the Bible’s silence about abortion. How do you think your analysis should be seen in terms of this broader framework of claiming spiritual, moral and political authority?
I think the strategy of Bible modification is actually a way to solve some of that historical, reputational problem. As you say, there there is a record of evangelical Christians using the Bible to condone and defend slavery as an institution, because it is obviously there and it’s easy to do, given that the New Testament authors didn’t condemn it in any way, and in many ways enabled and justified it as an institution,. That was readily used by pro-slavery advocates in the antebellum South, and under Jim Crow for issues like segregation. Even up to the late 1990s, Bob Jones University was citing biblical references for segregation or prohibiting interracial dating on campus.
Bible modification is a way that you can clean that up by saying, “You know what? These people were obviously misinterpreting scripture, because it’s right there. Look, it doesn’t say ‘slave,’ it says, ‘bondservant’!” You can point back at this group of conservative Christians in the past as people who misunderstood the Bible, rather than reading it in the plain language like we have it now. That is very important in this evangelical culture of biblicism: They want to interpret the Bible in plain language, and to be able to do that you have to adjust the language, to make it conform to exactly what you want to say.
What about the anti-abortion side of this?
I haven’t detected any instances of Bible modification that are “pro-life” angles, though I think you see gestures toward that. For example, Andy Schlafly, the founder of Conservapedia, said in 2009 that he was going to start something called the Conservative Bible Project, where they say explicitly, “We’re going to going to retranslate the Bible to conform to conservative political leanings. We’re going to fight the liberalism that has crept into Bible translations.” They said on the front end that they were going to translate the Bible such as to highlight the pro-life implications of certain texts. They’re transparently saying that they want to elevate this kind of cultural interpretation, this political interpretation, that is more squarely biblical. They’re reverse-engineering it.
I was just looking at the phenomenon of proof-texting pro-life verses this morning. I was reading over Focus on the Family verses that they have put together to argue for pro-life positions. It is interesting how selective those texts end up being — texts about how “God does not punish the children for the sins of the parents.” Using that as a response to, “Well, what what about abortion in the case of rape or incest” by pointing to those verses is a pretty selective reading, given that God explicitly commands the wiping out the Canaanites, including children, including women who were with child, including children who in the womb.
So there are obviously instances in the Old Testament where you can argue that Yahweh formally commands [abortion], and you get this obviously selective reading of key texts. From there, I think it’s a pretty small step to, “OK, how do we how we get rid of these problematic verses? How do we make these verses conform?”
If I were to pay attention to where I think those changes might pop up, it would be passages where God in the Old Testament formally commands the wiping out of Canaanites, the putting to death of women with children or of young children. Those are particularly problematic, given the pro-life leanings of evangelicals.
What’s the most important question I didn’t ask, and what’s the answer?
I would like to underscore that this isn’t just a problem with the English Standard Version. The ESV is a really explicit example because they’re relatively young and you can see how they’re revised the text over time pretty clearly. So they end up being a really fascinating example of this.
But I think you can also see examples of the New International Version cleaning up its translation over time to become, in some ways, more politically correct. It’s a fascinating story in itself, because in the mid 2000s you have all this controversy about gendered language, and the NIV feels pressured to say, “OK, we won’t do this, we won’t make the language inclusive,” because all these evangelicals spoke out against it.
Well, eventually they did it anyway, in the form of what’s called Today’s New International Version in 2005. Well, that gets panned by evangelicals, nobody buys it, it’s a sales failure. So they pull Today’s New International Version off the shelves, and they no longer sell it. But then they did a revision of the NIV where they basically just snuck in all the translations they did in 2005, except now it’s called the “New International Version, 2011 edition.”
So that’s an example of how the NIV translation team, the Committee on Bible Translation at Zondervan, wanted to appeal to evangelicals because that’s their primary consumer market, while at the same time adjusting the text to be more user-friendly for those outside conservative evangelicalism. That’s another example of this tendency toward Bible modification in the direction of both trying to appeal to one subculture while also trying to appeal to those outside the culture.