What the Bible Says about Abortion - Part 2

Submitted by Ken Watts on Thu, 05/07/2009 - 20:50

IN MY FIRST POST ON THIS TOPIC I over-reached myself. It was written in the heat of discovery, and I forgot a few things about the fundamentalist mind-set, and about the nature of translations, that I should have remembered.

I presented a passage from Numbers, which I had just stumbled upon, and which seemed to me make an unanswerable case against the fundamentalist anti-abortion stance. The very fact that it seemed so unanswerable should have warned me, but it didn't.

So I'm going to proceed a bit more cautiously with the rest of this series. To begin with, I'll explain where the loophole was in my first post. Then I'll backtrack to some of the other points I only hinted at there—the points which convinced me, when I was still a very conservative Christian during the Reagan years to become pro-choice.

But first, the loophole.

It's ridiculously simple. Back in my religious days, when I was teaching New Testament Greek at a relatively conservative seminary, I did quite a bit of research into the various English translations of the Bible with an eye to choosing the best one for purposes of teaching.

After comparing a lot of translations and weighing the pros and cons of each, I settled on the New English Bible, and used it through the rest of my religious life.

Consequently, to this day it sits on my shelf, and it's the one I consulted when I first heard of this passage.

Unfortunately, it does not word the passage the same way as the translations favored by conservative Christians. So, in that respect my post fell on deaf ears.

I won't defend the NEB translation of those particular verses in detail because I no longer have the skills necessary, but I will make one point about the NEB in response to some of the criticism I've received.

It's very common for those at the conservative end of the church to think that the more "literal" a translation is, the more accurate it is. This is nonsense.

I'll give one brief illustration before moving on. Suppose you were translating a sentence like, "He thought he could get out of the dog house by offering her an Eskimo pie," into a language which didn't use the phrases "dog house" or "Eskimo pie" the way we do in English.

You could translate it literally, as "He thought he could escape the canine living quarters by offering her a native Alaskan pastry," or you could translate it on a thought for thought basis as "He thought he could get her to forgive him if he offered her a treat made from chocolate and ice cream."

Which would be more accurate? Obviously the less "literal" one. This, in general, was the philosophy behind the NEB, and was one of the reasons I liked it so much at the time.

But it is also an extra reason for my conservative readers to reject the NEB. And I should have anticipated that.

After all, when I was even younger I had been one of them.

Next time: how a young Bible-believer became pro-choice...