Whose Bible? Which version?

· Bible

A lot of criticism has been thrown at the First Nations Version (FNV) of the New Testament. The FNV was written by Terry M. Wildman, an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church of Ojibwe and Yaqui descent. Wildman developed the manuscript with the support of a Translation Council representing dozens of Indigenous tribes across North America. The aim of the FNV is to “capture the simplicity, clarity, and beauty of Native storytellers in English, while remaining faithful to the original language of the Bible.”

But the criticism focuses not on the “indigenizing” of the scripture. Rather, it is that the publisher claims the FNV is the product of a “rigorous five-year translation process” (emphasis added). And Wildman is named the “lead translator.”

The word “translation” is misleading, and its use in FNV promotional materials is unfortunate. While the “translation process” included some interaction with the original Greek vocabulary, there is no indication that the writer or the Translation Council knew Koine Greek. There were consultations with a former Wycliffe translator, but not for the
purpose of ensuring every word is accurate. Like Eugene Peterson’s The Message, the FNV is a paraphrase of scripture.

I remember feeling a lot of snobbery when The Message was (slowly) published. While Peterson consulted the original Hebrew and Greek texts, his purpose was not to offer a word-for-word translation. At the time I thought, “What good is it? Why are we encouraging church members to read it? Why are we using it in worship services? Isn’t an accessible update of canon liable to lead us away from its truth? Shouldn’t we all try to mine the scriptures for their meaning(s)?”

I imagine you anticipate that my views have since changed. (However, I did take in a year of Koine Greek and still appreciate what I remember.) It may be poor judgement to call the FNV a translation. But a paraphrase is not a violation of scripture. It helps the living word live up to its name.

We who are powerful, white, English-speaking Christians exist many degrees away from the cultures that shaped the authors’ writing—so much so that we struggle with ideas that don’t seem clear to us. After all, who really knows what “blasphemy against the Spirit” means and why it is the only unforgivable sin? Who really knows if the condemnation made by Paul in reference to arsenokoitēs (sexual intercourse between two men) is morally applicable to what we consider today to be gay relationships?

And who knows what to do with the problematic parables that Jesus told? Remember that one where the king indiscriminately invites good and bad people from the street
corners to his son’s wedding banquet? No, I’m not talking about Luke’s account. In Matthew’s narration, Jesus tacks on an epilogue: The king questions a guest, ties him up and throws him “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Why? Because he was one of the so-called bad guests? No. Because he was not properly dressed. This is what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus says.

We don’t dismiss these texts as arcane or irrelevant. (Or we shouldn’t.) Instead, we read them. We hear them read. And we get uncomfortable. We ask, “Why is this in the Bible? What is the intention behind the text?” And when a text keeps us up at night, some of us research the dozen or so meanings of an obscure Hebrew or Greek word.

This is interpretation. Every time we receive scripture, whether reading or hearing it, we interpret it. We are trying to shape it in faithful ways that speak to our own context. But
there is always bias involved. Even when we identify the overarching themes of scripture—themes like love that appear throughout its texts—and use them to orient our interpretation of confounding passages, we do this with a bias. What is love? What does it look like in action? What does it bring to confounding situations? These are questions to which every generation of Christianity has provided different answers. And there certainly is disagreement in our own generation.

So, when it comes to the FNV, let’s remember that its purpose is not to change the meaning of the Bible or to pretend scripture is something it is not. Rather, the truths of scripture can be discovered when people who are not white are doing the interpretation. God’s Spirit breathes through the whole of creation.

The story of Peter and Cornelius illustrates this unfettered Spirit. Cornelius, a Gentile centurion (thus not part of Israel), receives a vision from God. While he has never met Jesus, his life is marked by prayers and good works: evidence of his faithfulness to God. And now, he is told to invite Peter for a visit.

The next day, Peter receives a vision from God that teaches him there is no reason to separate food according to its cleanliness—a metaphor that points to God’s universal love, a love that extends beyond those who claim Jesus as Messiah. (It takes God three visions to get this through Peter’s head.) Then, God tells him to expect some unknown men and travel with them. Peter obeys; he does this out of obedience rather than a full understanding of what will come.

Note that God chooses to meet the outsider, Cornelius, first. Cornelius may fall prostrate before the evangelist, but God gives Peter no special privilege when it comes to knowledge. Instead, Peter admits that it is only now that he realizes something that Cornelius and the other Gentiles in the room already know: There is no need for division. And when Peter tells them about Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes to them all. The Gentiles are baptized.

There were plenty of growing pains when it came to accepting Gentiles into the fold. Only
a few chapters later, Peter has to convince the assembly of elders that these newbies
don’t need to be circumcised to follow Jesus. (Ouch!) The truth is that Christians don’t have to look the same and do the same things as long as they follow Jesus. If we actively love God and our neighbours as we love ourselves, we belong to Christ’s body. The finer points of living on earth as in heaven must be wrestled with throughout our lives. But they don’t change the fact that God’s Spirit is alive throughout creation.

So, I’m going to read the FNV. And I’m going to do so keeping my mind open to its new
ideas and fresh descriptions of what it means to follow Jesus. It is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.