The Language of Religion

By Nancy Jane Moore

bibleI got offended in church last Sunday.

I’d gone to hear my uncle and aunt sing in the choir at their church’s annual pre-Christmas lessons and carols service. The choir is excellent, and they always bring in additional musicians to make it very festive.

The music was wonderful, as it always is. It was the readings from the Bible that bothered me.

They were using the very popular New International Version of the Bible, which, according to the website BibleGateway.com “is a completely original translation of the Bible developed by more than one hundred scholars working from the best available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts.”

That may well be true, but it still shocked me when I heard the preacher read the New International Version of the Gospel of St. Luke, Chapter 2, Verse 14:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.

My objection wasn’t to the clunky language, but to the fact that the sentence seems to mean something quite different from the same verse in the King James Version:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

When I hear “peace, good will toward men,” I assume the wish for peace and good will is universal and aimed at all human beings (even an unregenerate feminist such as myself will accept that “men” means “people” in that context).

But when the preacher said “peace to those on whom his favor rests,” I heard “peace to those people we believe God has blessed,” and immediately started to wonder just who they were leaving out.

Such an interpretation strikes me as antithetical to the message of the Christmas season. It reminds me of those who preach against other religions, sometimes even other branches of Christianity. I’ve always found that offensive, though I know it’s not uncommon.

Once when I was in high school, I went to a large slumber party on a Saturday night. On Sunday morning, we all accompanied the hostess to the Baptist Sunday school, even though we represented several different Christian denominations. The teacher proceeded to lecture us on the evils of the Roman Catholic Church, only stopping near the end of her rant to take in the number of guests and say, “I hope none of you are Catholic.”

I’ve always regretted that I didn’t pop up and say that I was. In truth, I wasn’t, and I didn’t want to be rude in front of my hostess, but that teacher deserved to be shamed for her behavior.

I should say that I wasn’t the only person at church who heard the phrase “peace to those on whom his favor rests” as offensive and exclusionary. My aunt didn’t like it either, and she’s a member of that church.

Now it could be that the translators didn’t mean the phrase to sound the way I heard it, that it’s just bad drafting. Though I have to say, if there’s one place in a Biblical translation that I’d expect great care, it would be in the account of the birth of Jesus in Luke, which gives us so much of Christmas tradition.

It could also be that the New International Version is a more accurate translation of the meaning than the King James Version is. Maybe Luke intended to imply that the heavenly chorus was only wishing peace on some human beings, not all of them. I hope not, but I’m not qualified to opine on the accuracy of Biblical translations.

I happen to prefer the King James Version, partly because it, like Christmas music, evokes my childhood, and partly because the language is more beautiful than the newer versions, all of which read like they were written by committees. The King James Version uses the same English used by Shakespeare, and beautiful language is one of the reasons we still read Shakespeare today.

But it is hard to follow at times and often uses words that the average reader might not understand. It occurs to me that I was 17 or 18 before I realized that the phrase (also from Luke) about Joseph going to Bethlehem “with Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child” meant that Joseph and Mary weren’t married yet even though she was on the verge of giving birth.

However, I still think it sounds better than “Mary, his extremely pregnant fiancée” (which is not, as far as I know, the translation used in any Bible version).

Regardless of translations and language use, I’d still like to think those angels in Luke 2:14 are wishing peace and good will to all of humankind.

We all need it.

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The Language of Religion — 8 Comments

  1. I think you are letting your prejudices influence you about what the text is saying. While I agree that many Christians would choose to interpret this verse the way you heard it, not all of us do. I try to remind myself I do not have the answers, and that what is good in my sight is not the same thing that is good in God’s.

  2. I don’t see how “peace to those on whom his favor rests” could imply anything *other* than “and not to those on whom it doesn’t”. This is not a question of prejudice so much as grammar. A more inclusive alternative would be, ‘peace to all, on whom his favour rests’. I too am ignorant of the technicalities of the translation but it is a little heartbreaking to think that ‘good will toward men’ might ever have been a divisive sentiment!

  3. I regularly wrestle with exclusionary language in Hebrew prayers (and I am not alone; the Reform siddur uses inclusive language). So often do I do this, it is practically a religious obligation. Come to think of it, questioning and delving and arguing IS a religious obligation.

    When you consider that the original Hebrew and Aramaic is unpointed (that is, without vowels, so that more than one word can be made from the root consonants) and that for centuries wise and thoughtful people have been debating interpretations, it seems obvious that no one translation holds a monopoly on the precise meaning. (I believe that similar problems of context and the changes in usage over time apply to Greek as well.) Therefore, the process of study and understanding requires us to challenge any contemporary text.

  4. You should have a look at Robert Alter’s translations of the Bible, although so far I think he’s only been able to get around a few books of the Hebrew Bible… Overall, I think the translation of the Bible should be in the hands of those who are sensible to the language of literature, rather than the language of religious dogmas. People more like yourself 🙂

  5. As a linguist, with a lot of interest in translation theory, this is something I find pretty cool. After a little searching it seems like the word that is at issue is ???????? – good will/good pleasure/well favored. There is some debate over whether the word is genitive or nominative. If nominative then ‘good will toward men’ would be preferred, and if genitive then ‘men of good will’ seems to me a valid translation. This is what the Vulgate has as well. The Gothic bible has it too, with wiljins. All of these are genitive, so that does seem to be preferred.

    I’d need to see what evidence the translators are bringing to this, but it seems like the original is pretty ambiguous. (What would be really bad is if it were translated as ‘well favored men’ 😀 i.e. only the pretty ones.) It’s not ever entirely possible to discover the ‘true meaning’ of text, any more than it’s possible to discover which shore a bridge is on (there will always be two), since language is a bridge between minds, and no two are the same. But it is possible to figure out what the majority of people at the time interpreted it as, if there is enough data.

    I’m still a little distressed about Vatican 2, so I’d say stick with the latin.
    “Glory to the highest God, and peace to the land (and) to men of good intent.”
    Good favor is problematic because it sounds arbitrary, but in most of these languages ‘favor’ is equivalent with ‘purpose’. Is it less problematic if the people receiving peace are those who seek to do good?

  6. I’m going to preface this by saying I am not a biblical scholar. But I have heard of interpretations of the 10 commandments, for example, by scholars that explicitly noted that they only applied to the true believers. So, Thou shalt not kill, is really Thou shalt not kill other believers of the faith. Killing anyone else is ok, and if you think about it, it sheds a lot of light on some of the bloodier episodes in the Old Testament. In that line of thought, it seems to quite naturally follow that you would only wish “peace to those on whom his favor rests”.

    It’s literal translation that gets sticky in other parts of the Bible as well, like stoning homosexuals, adulterous women and witches. IMO it’s what you do with religion today that is important, not subscribing to a literal translation of a book that was shaped by the times it was written in.

    On a total tangent, the same scholars noted that the commandment, Thou shalt not steal did not apply to those who were truly in need of food and stole to keep themselves alive. It applied to those who already had and stole more.

    Is any of that true? I don’t know.

  7. The other true thing is that there are swathes of the Bible that in fact cannot be followed today. Just try keeping slaves, for instance. Or the bit in Leviticus about never associating with a menstruating woman. With every Biblical injunction, either the reader or some authority acknowledged by the reader (priest, church, scholar, etc.) gives it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Many of the more dicey injunctions everyone has agreed to classify as outdated; thus if you’re on the rag you don’t need to wear a red badge of Tampax. (I envision it as a lapel pin, like the flag pins only, y’know, red and shaped different.) It’s the ones people DON’T agree about that lead to endless heartburn.