The Word is Vulnerable

(This is #7 in a series)

One of the things I have always wanted to ask a biblical literalist is this: How did you decide which translation of the Bible is the right one? 

Even the King James has five versions, spanning 160 years.  If you drop into Biblegateway.com to grab a verse or two, the menu has over 200 translations in many, many languages.

On one hand, all these versions which are mostly alike are proof of the power of the Holy Spirit at work. A few more books on the Catholic side (73), a few less for the Protestants (66), but overall, the—if I may—plot points are the same.

On hand two is this inescapable fact: the work was done by fallible humans. And as Barr says: “Translations matter”. If we think the bibles we have are a “plain reading of Scripture”(130) then we just aren’t paying attention.

To this point: Barr speaks mostly of gender inclusive language within the Bible, citing the 1997 Zondervan New International Version of the Protestant Bible, which caused scandal in evangelical circles: “Zondervan authors were supposed to avoid using masculine pronouns (mankind, man) as ‘generic placemarkers’ and instead use gender-inclusive terms like humanity and people” (130).  

I will shout down the PC cops on this one, especially since many of them are men who have never EVER had to tuck themselves under the umbrella of “womankind”.

The gender inclusive battle is as old as the Reformation, which brought new versions of the Bible, and a dodgy Protestant narrative about medieval Catholics to justify it: the medieval (Catholic) church was a “sit n’ git” proposition in which laypeople understood or had access to very little of Scripture or salvation. Barr points out the Reformation could not have happened if the layperson did not have enough access to their faith and Scripture to demand change . But since the crux of the Reformation was “new and proper understanding” of an existing text, the narrative was necessary:

To this day I grit my teeth over the church history series used by Capitol Hill Baptist Church. It paints a grim picture of a sordid, corrupt medieval church in which few people, except for a remnant of “scattered monks and nuns” found salvation. (I) will point out only this sentence from the online curriculum: medieval Christianity “reminds us what happens when people are illiterate of our Bibles—we drift from knowing what constitutes acceptance with God”. Medieval people did not know their Bible, this Protestant church history curriculum states, and consequently most of them were eternally damned” (138).

Barr lays out the proof that this was simply untrue, from famous medieval preachers who commanded great crowds, to the addition of gender-inclusive language to the Scripture as early as the Middle Ages. Barr writes “These changes were made in late medieval manuscripts for accuracy. The inclusion of “woman” and “every man and woman” had nothing to do with political correctness or a feminist agenda. Preachers were concerned that Scripture readings be taken to heart by all church members”(142). I laughed when I read this, as my cynicism got the best of me. I can just see a fussy monk somewhere in France translating “adam” as “human” (the correct translation) instead of “man” (140) to make sure women knew these rules applied to them as well.

Not so the Reformation Bibles. Barr writes “the early modern English Bible (post-Reformation) was translated in a context that politically, legally, economically and socially obscured women behind the identities of their husbands and fathers. The world of early modern England treated women as dependents on men and this cultural attitude was translated into the English Bible”(144).  

Whew. There it is again.

Barr is not the only scholar doing this kind of close reading of original biblical text, language and translation. I recently attended a virtual seminar as part of the “Women Erased” series through Future Church. It was led by Elizabeth Schrader from Duke University, and focused on very technical study of the earliest surviving transcripts of John’s Gospel and how they have been edited, especially Papyrus 66 (dating back to 200 AD).

In summary: Luke 10:38 is where we meet Martha and Mary of Bethany, in the famous scene where Jesus visits their home. Also, where there is no mention of any brother named Lazarus, in this Gospel.

But in John 11, we meet Lazarus, who is the one who Jesus loved (11:3). He is identified as the brother of Mary of Bethany, and  Martha her sister. As I wrote last week, Martha’s role in this story is one of unquestioning faith; but she also delivers one of the two confessionals in the Gospels—in verse 27 she proclaims Jesus is the Messiah.

You know who delivered the other one? Peter. And in Matthew 16:13-20, Peter’s confession prompts Jesus to name him as the rock upon which he will build his church, which is where the Catholic church finds the authority of the Pope. It’s kind of a big deal that we find this confession in the mouth of a woman. Also–Schrader discovered that Papyrus 66 has been edited. Originally, John 11 only referred to a “Maria” (Mary), sister of Lazarus and the one who perfumed Jesus’ feet; but then, on the original manuscript, it was changed to “Maria and Martha”.

Why is this significant? For one, it confuses the text. Lazarus who Jesus loved comes out of nowhere, especially in light of Luke 10. Also, it’s weird that Mary of Bethany would perfume Jesus’ feet and not the wealthy Mary Magdalene, who traveled with Jesus and would have had a better understanding of what was coming.

Let’s go back to the beginning of Barr’s book, and her idea that Mary Magdalene IS Mary of Bethany. If this is true, a Martha-less John 11 makes sense.  We would expect Jesus to be intimately acquainted with Mary Magdalene’s brother Lazarus and we would expect Mary Magdalene to feel comfortable enough to approach Jesus to anoint him.

Perhaps the Martha and Mary of Luke’s gospel were other women altogether, which would explain the absence of Lazarus. But it doesn’t explain why “Martha” is edited into John.

Schrader hypothesizes that it was because if Mary Magdalene, who was first to receive the Good News of Jesus’ Resurrection, is also Mary of Bethany, who perfumed Jesus and confessed him as the Messiah, this would make her a powerful, significant figure. Further—if she is Mary of Bethany, then the name Magdalene doesn’t refer to her home, but her importance—Magdala means “tower”. If Peter became the first leader of the whole church for his confession of Jesus, a strong argument could be made for the authority of Mary Magdalene, requiring a closer look at her work while Jesus lived and after his Resurrection.

Instead—perhaps in a nod to the cultural norms of the time–she is watered down to three women, and the confessional is placed into the mouth of Martha, a minor figure.

We may never know why the text was edited, but the implications are foundational to the role of women in the Christian faith. If Schrader’s theory is correct, then Mary Magdalene was stolen from Christian women.

Schrader calls this an “illness of the text” and connects it to a line from John 11: This sickness will not end in death No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it (4). She says:

This illness is not unto death. Jesus knows…if the text has been changed—of course Jesus knows…Maybe Mary Magdalene was too strong a female figure for her time; and the text knows, and Jesus knows, what has happened, and it’s temporary. The illness is not unto death but is to show the glory of God. My hope is that if this is correct, I think it would in the long run show…that the text is vulnerable. Just as Jesus’ body is vulnerable, the WORD is vulnerable. You can try to erase, you can try to delete, you can try to get rid of the woman. But God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

I feel like Schrader and Barr are saying the quiet part out loud, and I can’t help wonder why we don’t say it more often: it is impossible that the biblical texts have not been changed by human hands with human motivations. The truth will out, always but it starts with everyone admitting one thing:

The Word is vulnerable.