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Thy word have I conservatized

Andy Schlafly's "Conservative Bible Project" has been getting far more attention than it deserves already, but its agenda is worrisome enough to deserve comment nonetheless.

Schlafly, the son of arch-conservative political activist Phyllis Schlafly, is an acorn who didn't fall far from the tree. He's probably best known for starting Conservapedia, a user-written alternative to Wikipedia that is designed to cover all subjects from a conservative point of view -- an approach that inherits all the potential problems of the wiki approach while eliminating the advantages.

Now Schlafly has decided that politically conservative laymen who know nothing about the Bible's original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) can do a better job of translating the Bible than those people who devote their lives to the study of language and the intricacies of translation.

The effort is a prime example of hubris on parade.

Schlafly takes as his point of departure the assumption that all modern Bible translations are tainted by liberal bias, so he's begun a project to produce a new "translation" of the Bible that with an intentionally conservative bias.

The problems with this are myriad. In the first place, Schlafly's contention that all modern translations have a liberal bias is simply unfounded. Part of the problem has to do with vocabulary: Schlafly's brand of conservatism brands anything to the left of a radically right-wing political approach as "liberal." In this, Schlafly and other supporters of the ill-conceived project have already shown a willingness to distort and redefine the English language: why should anyone think they can do better with Greek?

I take Schlafly's point that some modern translations have sought to be more "politically correct" by inserting specifically gender inclusive language when it's not specified by the text, but his barely-veiled implication that such translations promote Communism by occasionally using the term "comrade" are just plain ridiculous (while other translations are certainly possible, his comparison of usage for "comrade" and "volunteer" is ridiculous).

To see just how over the top Schlafly's project is, take a look at his "ten guidelines" for biblical translation. Schlafly instists there should be a "thought for thought translation without corruption by liberal bias" that is neither "emasculated" by gender-inclusive language or "dumbed down" for the masses. Furthermore, Schlafly wants contributors to "utilize powerful new conservative terms" in the translation, adopting code words that have been redefined by the right.

A suitable translation, Schlafly says, should "combat addiction" by using words like "gamble" instead of "cast lots" -- though how he'll do that with relation to the Old Testament priests casting lots to determine God's will is a mystery. Also, even though the Old Testament has no concept of hell as a place of torment, Schlafly says contributors must "accept the logic of hell" and not downplay "the very real existence of hell or the devil." What this will do to the Hebrew Bible's references to Sheol and to "the satan" character in Job 1 is obvious.

As if that weren't enough, Schlafly wants to interpret Jesus' parables "with their full free-market meaning," imposing a modern economic theory on stories that were told for an entirely different purpose. If anything, Jesus' parables intentionally undermined the notion that believers should be motivated by the accumulation of wealth, but in Schlafly's version Jesus will be a strong proponent of free-market capitalism.

In a bit of a surprise, Schlafly wants to excise from scripture "later inauthentic passages" such as the story of the adulteress to whom Jesus offered forgiveness in John 7:53-8:11, which Schlafly thinks is too soft on sin. The amazing thing is that Schlafly quotes responsible translators like Bruce Metzger to support the late inclusion of the text, while accusing him and other scholars of corrupting modern translations with liberal bias.

Since the project takes a narrow-vision approach, it's even more surprising that Schlafly says translators should "credit open-mindedness" to "youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John" -- until you realize that he's using "open-minded" as the opposite of "skeptical."

Schlafly's last guideline calls for conservative "conciseness" as opposed to "liberal wordiness," a straw man apparently constructed so he could have ten guidelines, rather than nine -- and in some tension with his earlier insistence that translations not be "dumbed down."

What's even worse is Schlafly's method: when would-be translators go the wiki, they can click on a word and get the "Strong's number," supposedly allowing them to understand the underlying Hebrew or Greek word, before submitted their proposed "translation" of a text. Strong's numbering system was  developed first published in 1890. Developed by James Strong, it assigns a number to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words, then keys them to the words of the King James Version of the Bible. The system has allowed countless preachers who don't know Hebrew from a hole in the ground to pretend that they are scholars. The irresponsibility of such a system can be seen in the work of a Florida pastor who used Strong's numbers to support his ridiculous idea that Jesus identified Barak Obama as the antichrist, sparking a wave of fear-mongering email forwarding.

It should be apparent to anyone with a modicum of intelligence that Schlafly's project will produce nothing more than a radically biased rewriting of the Bible slanted toward an extremely conservative political point of view and designed to reinforce that particular worldview.  The One who inspired the scripture needs no re-interpretation of divine revelation.

Pardon my liberal wordiness.

Reader Comments (5)


You said,

"Also, even though the Old Testament has no concept of hell as a place of torment......"

First, let me say that I totally agree that the "Conservative Bible Project" is linguistically ridiculous and would add that it is a moral abomination.

But since you Baptist left wingers like to claim that Jesus is the criterion by which you interpret the Bible, I would like to know how you reconcile your assertion that the Old Testament does not mention hell as a place of punishment with Jesus' applying a passage from Isaiah to His doctrine of hell and especially His assertion that "Moses and the prophets" were sufficient to warn a man about the danger of hell fire? His words are:

"Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched."


"Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: for I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."

You don't think it could be that you liberals have allowed your no eternal torment doctrine to color your "understanding" of the Hebrew a little, do you?

Mark Osgatharp
Wynne, Arkansas

Dec 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMark Osgatharp

I was wondering when you would get to this. Thanks for the post. Although, I'm surprised you didn't mention that one of the "liberal" passages Schafly dislikes is Luke 23:34 - "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." As I told one Divinity school professor: I think they are teasing us by making it too easy.

Dec 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua Brown

If you haven't already, check out Stephen Colbert's interview with Mr. Schlafly.

Dec 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTodd Blake

If there's a bright side to this project (and I'm having great trouble finding one), speaking as a conservative, at least he's being completely honest with his motives and methods.

We all have bias of one sort or another. Phyllis' boy is at least putting his out there for all the world to see. It ain't a pretty baby.

Dec 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDC

This the kind of "scholarship" or "theology" which continues to plague my faith tradition. Anything that is labeled 'conservative' must therefore be 'true' without any thought to the true theology and scholarship.

Let us let God speak and not the agenda of book sellers...

Dec 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFire27865

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