Translator Bias and the Error of Eisegesis

In fifteenth century Mexico, a slave woman was surrendered by the local Mayans to Hernan Cortés, El Conquistador responsible for toppling the Aztec empire, as tribute. In time, she became his closest companion, and even his mistress, bearing him a son. Her name, as she’s come to be remembered, is La Malinche (a.k.a. Doña Marina, her Christian name). In fact, Cortés himself once wrote “After God we owe this conquest of New Spain [i.e. Mexico] to Doña Marina.”

Why was La Malinche such a dramatic, influential person? What did she do for Cortés and the conquistadores that no one else could do?

She was their official translator and interpreter. By the time Cortés came to possess her, she was already fluent in two native tongues: Mayan and Nahautl; after some time with the Spaniards, she came to learn Spanish, as well. Being tri-lingual, she offered her services and helped overthrow Montezuma II’s regime.

Today, she is considered by many in Mexico to be a traitor to her people. In fact, the Spanish word malinchistas, refers to anyone in Mexico who prefers foreigners and their ways over their native culture and people. Essentially, her name has become a synonym for “betrayer”.

Stop and think about that for a moment. Think of the incredible power she had access to. Not only could she speak fluently with the reigning supreme monarch of the Aztec, one who was considered divine by the people (so much so that none were allowed to look upon him), she could also speak with the leading emissary of the most powerful nation of the world at that time: Spain. She was the only one who could communicate with both sides. All negotiations, treaties, settlements, plans for war, and etc. came across her table and, because she was a trusted translator and interpreter, had to go through her. Today, whether for good or for ill, she is considered the Mother of the Nation of Mexico.

Whether we realize it or not, many men hold such power over us. They are Bible translators. These men, many of them centuries dead, made choices in their work that, for the rest of time, have effected the eternity (both in the good sense and in the bad) for countless millions.

Probably the most famous Bible translation of all time is the King James Version, first published in England in 1611 A.D. Of all translations, even with its quaint, antiquated use of the English language, it is still revered by many, and is the de facto translation of choice for most preachers, teachers, and Bible educators in the Western world. Thousands of churches, if asked, would tell you that the old KJV is the Pulpit Bible. As the old joke goes, if the KJV was good enough for Paul and Silas, then it’s good enough for me.

But have you ever stopped to wonder what kinds of doctrinal, theological biases were brought to the translation (they were all Trinitarians, after all)? Ever wondered if they were as accurate as they could have been, but decided to add here, or take away there, or lead the reader in this direction so he or she would come to this conclusion instead of that one? I have. Let me show you something.

In the preface to the official 1611 addition, this note is written by the translators:

TO THE MOST HIGH AND MIGHTY PRINCE, JAMES BY THE GRACE OF GOD KING OF GREAT BRITAIN, FRANCE, AND IRELAND, DEFENDER OF THE FAITH, etc.

THE TRANSLATORS OF THE BIBLE wish Grace, Mercy and Peace, through JESUS CHRIST, our Lord. GREAT and manifold were the blessings, most dread Sovereign, which Almighty GOD, the Father of all mercies, bestowed upon us the people of ENGLAND, when first he sent Your Majesty’s Royal Person to rule and reign over us. For whereas it was the expectation of many, who wished not well unto our SION, that upon the setting of that bright Occidental Star, Queen ELIZABETH of most happy memory, some thick and palpable clouds of darkness would so have overshadowed this Land, that men should have been in doubt which way they were to walk; and that it should hardly be known, who was to direct the unsettled State; the appearance of your MAJESTY, as the Sun in his strength, instantly dispelled those supposed and surmised mists, and gave unto all that were well affected exceeding cause of comfort; especially when we beheld the Government established in Your HIGHNESS, and Your hopeful Seed, by an undoubted Title, and this also accompanied with peace and tranquility at home and abroad.

But among all our joys, there was no one that more filled our hearts, than the blessed continuance of the preaching of God’s sacred Word among us; which is that inestimable treasure, which excelleth all the riches of the earth; because the fruit thereof extendeth itself, not only to the time spent in this transitory world, but directeth and disposeth men unto that eternal happiness which is above in heaven.

Then not to suffer this to fall to the ground, but rather to take it up, and to continue it in that state, wherein the famous Predecessor of Your Highness did leave it: nay, to go forward with the confidence and resolution of a Man in maintaining the truth of CHRIST, and propagating it far and near, is that which hath so bound and firmly knit the hearts of all Your MAJESTY’S loyal and religious people unto You, that Your very name is precious among them: their eye doth behold You with comfort, and they bless You in their hearts, as that sanctified Person who, under God, is the immediate Author of their true happiness…

Ever wondered what idolatry looks like? You have to understand, King James commissioned this translation, hence it’s title. But there is more. At that time, the King of England was not just head of the secular state. He was also the head of the ecclesiastical order of the Church of England. His powers were far and wide-ranging. All subjects to the crown submitted not only to his earthly rule, but as head of their church, they had to submit to him in his so-called heavenly rule, as well, or risk ex-communication, imprisonment, and/or execution.

So now, it makes much more sense why the translators had to include this preface. King James held their souls in his hand.

And that, friends, is a recipe for disaster. Think of the pressure to conform to your king’s demands. Some may have done so willingly; I’m sure they loved his Majesty. But, if you were creating the preeminent Bible translation of all time, and you knew it had to meet or exceed your king’s wishes in order for it to receive his approval, and if you, knowing full well that such a translation, as commissioned, was going to be the officially sanctioned translation of England and the Church of England, what kind of bias might you bring into the work?

Here’s a good example: the word “obey”. Used dozens of times in the New Testament, it comes from the Greek word peitho. What does peitho mean? It means to persuade, i.e. to induce someone to trust in or believe something. No wonder it’s the root of the Greek word pistis, which we translate variously as both faith and believe.

So, if it means to persuade, where does the idea of obey come from? From translator bias. Instead of thinking solely in terms of command and obey, the Bible writers were looking more toward a leading of the people into coming under their own conviction as given by God to trust in the message of the Lord and the Scriptures.

It’s a word picture. Instead of just doing whatever you’re told or else, think of it as someone setting such a righteous, faith-building example, that the blessing on their life is sufficient to convince you to follow in their steps, and so, from that idea, you willingly submit to their counsel and lead as someone who has, through their righteous, faithful lifestyle, earned the right to persuade you in the first place.

See the difference? We are exhorted by Simon Peter to not act as lord’s over God’s heritage, i.e. His church (1 Peter 5:1-4). Jesus taught that the way the heathen operate and conduct business (i.e. by exercising dominion over each other) was not going to be the method employed by His disciples (Matthew 20:25-28, Mark 10:42-45, and Luke 22:25-28).

But a word like “obey” instead of “persuade” makes it very easy for someone “in charge” to command obedience upon threat of any number of ecclesiastical punishments, whether they merit the obedience or not (When I say jump, you say _________).

And this leads us to our second point: the dangers of eisegesis. Eisegesis is the mistake of reading into the text one’s one suppositions and ideas, and by so doing, finding “proof texts”, cherry-picked as they may be, to prove what the reader imagined was already there in the first place. Petitio principii, anyone?

This is a terrible abuse to the Scriptures. We are not to read between the lines of God’s Word. Rather, we are to rely upon the Spirit of Truth to lead us into (i.e. guide and teach us) all truth (John 16:13). But when we have translator bias, and we’re ignorant of it, we end up seeing things in the Word that just aren’t there, because THE TRANSLATOR(S) WANTED YOU TO SEE THEM!

(Or, vice versa: they exclude something so you don’t know it’s there.)

This is the case with the King James Version. Being subject to a king that held absolute, totalitarian power over his realm meant that the translators had to create a translation that helped the people want to subjugate themselves to James as Lord and King. So, when possible, a word that can just barely be translated as obey, gets translated that way with impunity most if not all of the time, to help the ministers of state and the clergy of the Church of England enforce royal policy to the High and Mighty James, then, well, it just gets translated that way, end of story. And hey, if you objected, they’d just turn to their new translation and threaten your soul with hell for not obeying. See the (abuse of) power here?

Scary! This is not the way, Church. Only Jesus Christ Himself is Head of the Church (Colossians 1:18). To Him alone do we owe complete allegiance and obedience. This doesn’t mean that He has not set leaders in His Church who, by lifestyle and example, have the authority to operate His power on earth. So don’t take this as an excuse to rebel.

Rather, use it as a means of understanding how important it is to critically examine and study the Word as a basis for your faith. As Paul, the apostle once wrote: prove all things; hold fast that which is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

Nor should we think that the translations we currently have access to are junk. The KJV is a good translation, perhaps still the best. But read it through the lens of the Spirit of God which inspired, not the translation, but the original text upon which the translation is based. Only the Spirit can give you true and lasting understanding, just as the Lord Jesus said.

But by all means, be aware of the human tendency toward eisegesis, and avoid it at all costs, even if it means questioning the translators of your version of choice. It’s not an easy process. Much time, effort, and sometimes even money will be involved. But don’t you want to know and understand more perfectly the Word of Truth? I don’t know about you, but as David declared, I hope in God’s Word. It’s my source for everything.

So, if you have the courage, are willing to reject eisegesis as an inauthentic method of hermeunetics, are willing to ask a few important questions, not let the quest scare you, and dive deeper into the Word and it’s history, I promise you, it will make a major difference in your faith (for the best), and could end up affecting your eternity, whether as teacher or student or both.

Peace and God bless,

Aaron

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~ by votivesoul on 12/08/2012.

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