Everything is interpreted.
Some things are easy to translate and understand, others are not. The very act of literacy is interpretive action, letters form words which form phrases conveying ideas and propositions. We do this all the time. You are doing this right now. (And I thank you for it!)
The interpretive task is more challenging when we begin to peruse material from other cultures, generations or eras. I could not pick up a copy of Goethe’s Faust in German and read it; for one, I am not well-versed at all in German [effectively killing any future in the theological academy I might have had] and, secondly, it’s not just German, but German from about 300 years ago. Times change, phrases mean different things. I occasionally will slog through Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, which is written in English, but the stylistic flourishes of post-Enlightenment Western Europe make it very difficult to traverse.
So, when it comes to something like the Bible, what we have in English has to hurdle a number of very significant challenges:
1) The text ranges between being [very] roughly 6000-2000 years old.
2) What comprises the text is written based largely off oral tradition, which isn’t itself a bad thing, until we recognize that…
3) …not everything in the text is even supposed to be literally true,
4) …what was committed to paper was done by more than a few writers,
5) …and what was written down was revised, redacted and edited,
6) …over the course of the centuries,
7) …and then translated into English several times by teams of interpreters,
8) …from multiple texts in multiple languages in multiple life settings [sitz im leben]…
…you get the idea.
For all the hullabaloo in church circles regarding the sanctity of the scriptures, we absolutely, unquestionably take it for granted. (Something about taking the Lord’s name in vain seems apt here, but most people seem to think that to be a commandment against cussing. Which, incidentally, only serves to prove my point.) And when we take something for granted, the meaning of the thing is necessarily diminished.
So, with that in mind, let’s revisit a familiar text and, through peeking elsewhere, see how we’ve managed to mangle the text.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” [Romans 12.1-2, ESV, italics for emphasis]
I’m actually indebted to Tillich for this spark of curiosity; it was his work in The Eternal Now that pointed out something I had previously ignored: in the phrase ‘Do not be conformed to this world,’ the Greek word for ‘world’ here is aeon, which poses a problem.
The Greek word for ‘world’ is not aeon.
In fact, the Greek word is something that has been carried over into the English language today: eons, long units of time. Further, the actual Greek word for ‘world’ is another word that is not entirely uncommon in English: cosmos, matter, stuff. And the New Testament itself employs cosmos in the places where the writers intend it to mean the world around us. (Tanakh, too, has this same problem in translation, with two words being translated: a physical world or a day and age, but that’s another matter for another day.)
Frankly, it’s bad translation. The phrase should read something like this: don’t pattern yourself after this day and age. Instead, we get ‘do not be conformed to this world,’ which is only consonant with what I’ve reinterpreted if you were raised in church and assume that the world is a fundamentally bad, nasty place. Really, this isn’t a Christian line of thinking as it is gnostic or Platonist: what exists in matter is evil, what doesn’t is sacred. And, with all due deference to the forefather of all Western philosophy, this is as flawed as worldview as Zeno’s paradox. Be that as it may, this line of thinking, consistently considered heretical throughout church history, has managed to seep into and infect Christian culture today.
In the meantime, what is lost is that Paul is not writing to us, but to a colony of believers in Rome. His admonition is speaking to their time and socio-cultural location: their day and age. And exactly to what is it that Paul is asking for his audience to avoid conforming? It’s not a sinful, icky world, but how people treated one another in Roman antiquity; Paul’s admonition is for the believers there to treat one another–within the community of Christians–as equals. The entirety of the chapter is not speaking to a weird people to live weirdly apart from their neighbors so that they can be weird for weirdness’ sake in the hope that it might make people believe in their cause. It’s about avoiding a cult of personality, avoiding power plays and marginalizing some for the sake of elevating others, or exactly what the church has struggled with since the very beginning up to this very Sunday. In both removing the context from the verse and taking it literally–which is a misnomer because we’re taking the English translation literally, except when the actual literal word in the Greek makes perfect sense and we prefer the biases of previous translations–we have changed the meaning of the text to mean something Paul never intended to say.
We Christians never twist the scriptures to make them say what we want them to say, do we?
What’s even more bizarre about this example is that in reviewing a number of commentaries and lexicons in prep work for this post, it’s clear that scholarship–regardless of background–agrees with my proposition here, the word is clearly mistranslated. Why haven’t we changed the translation? Only two English translation comes close to getting it right, Young’s Literal Translation and the New Living Translation [full disclosure: I know and have studied under several of the scholars involved in the development of the NLT. My conclusion here is divorced from my prior academic relationship with them.] Even then, the latter can’t help itself: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world…” This is not faithfulness to sound textual interpretation, but demonstrative of a bias to prior English translations!
So why haven’t we seen this revised? The answer to that is as disquieting as it is simple: we don’t want to confront ourselves with the notion that our Bible is not absolutely inerrant. It is standard belief amongst many Christians to assume the Bible is God’s word, and God’s word cannot be wrong. As a result, we won’t rock the boat, except in academic texts that few laypeople will ever read and to which fewer academics and pastors will ever pay attention. You see, God’s word is living and active–gasp! a living document!–and sharper than a two-edged sword and it never returns void! We’re not really interested in anything else than upholding biblicism, even at the expense of hearing what the Spirit is actually calling us to do or be in the world.
Rather, we do nothing more than perpetuate a lie to perpetuate a lie. In Pyrrhic fashion, in so doing, we conform to the aeon.