Some say our political beliefs stem from our religious beliefs. Some point to Sharia law and, in their fear and mortification, justify their racism and xenophobia as an opposition to a barbaric set of strictures.
But, is this really the way things are? Could it be that your politics inform your religion? Could it be that your religious beliefs stem from your political beliefs. Could it be that these cannot exist, and never have existed, without each other, that they are inextricably linked and intertwined, feeding back upon each other?
Let us consider the case of Exodus 21:22–25, wherein we see a microcosm of the divisive issue of abortion played out within a context in which objectivity is truly not possible. There are Christians who accept abortion as a woman’s ethically sound choice to make, and there are Christians who do not. Many on both sides of this quarrel point to Exodus 21:22–25 to bolster their claim of adherence to God’s word. How can so many millions of people not agree? Before we turn to one Willard Van Orman Quine for the answer, let us first look at the passage.
But, which version? That is a fair question. What even is “The Bible,” and how do we know which version to read? Let’s see what Wikipedia lists as the most popular translations:
The New Revised Standard Version is the version most commonly preferred by biblical scholars. In the United States, 55% of survey respondents who read the Bible reported using the King James Version in 2014, followed by 19% for the New International Version, with other versions used by fewer than 10%.
Let us appeal first, then, to the New Revised Standard Version, as that is the choice of scholars, and we are at least attempting scholarly objectivity here:
22 When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
Now, let’s turn to the most popular translation in the United States, the King James Version:
22 If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.
23 And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,
24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
25 Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
How about the New International Version?
22 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
And, just for fun, I will include the Good News Translation, which is the version I remember from Sunday school classes as a kid:
22 “If some men are fighting and hurt a pregnant woman so that she loses her child, but she is not injured in any other way, the one who hurt her is to be fined whatever amount the woman’s husband demands, subject to the approval of the judges. 23 But if the woman herself is injured, the punishment shall be life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
There are many ways to interpret each of these passages, let alone all of them. It is not entirely clear in some versions if the passage is talking about miscarriage or a premature birth. In some versions, either a miscarriage or a premature birth is specified. In some translations, we do not know if “further harm” or “further mischief” is talking about harm sustained by the child, the woman, both, or either, but in the Good News Translation, it is specified that the consequences of further harm are in specific regard to the woman, and that the punishment for the miscarriage is a fine according to the woman’s husband’s demands.
Christians who are in favor of legalized abortion would say it is clear the fetus is not treated as a full-fledged human being, because the death of a human requires punishment of the “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” variety, not a fine. Christians who are in favor of making abortion illegal either ignore the passage or choose to interpret it as saying that a premature birth is not an abortion, and that the further harm is in reference to the child, such that if “her fruit depart from her” but no further “mischief” befalls the child, that it’s just an accident, and “no harm, no foul.”
Atheists, of course, don’t care either way, and would rather just have ancient religious doctrine relegated to museums.
The Indeterminacy of Translation
W.V. Quine, in his 1960 book, Word and Object, put forth the idea that it is not possible to determine which of two or more translations of a word or phrase is correct or, stated another way, that there may be no unique interpretation of a translation that is correct. In fact, there may be perfectly valid translations that appear to have wildly different meanings. We can see this just by trying to describe a scene. Multiple viewers could look at the same event and see the same thing, recording it different ways:
“The boy threw the ball at the wall.”
“The boy threw the ball in the direction of a wall.”
“There was a wall where the boy threw the ball.”
“A child threw a round object at a flat surface.”
“A boy threw a white ball.”
“A child played in front of the setting sun as I gazed across the park.”
These may seem like trivial differences, but for those with at least some knowledge of at least one language besides English, it becomes obvious how far and wide the translations of these sentences could diverge. Even just the subtle difference between “a boy” and “the boy” can be bewildering to translate into a language devoid of definite and indefinite articles. These differences, compounded across passage after passage, lead to entirely different books in English, let alone any language into which the final product is translated.
So, which of the above translations of the section of Exodus 21 is right? How does a denomination or pastor or parishioner choose which one to use? You could say all, none, or some are right. Any given Christian will probably believe that the translation of the Bible he or she uses is the correct translation, if not, at least, a correct translation. Conversely, any Bible with which he or she does not agree cannot be the correct one, can it?
In truth, there are so many Bibles, because, like all writing, they, too, are political products. These were all translated by people, and every person has his or her own biases and beliefs. So, if one version doesn’t appeal to a group of Christians, someone can just whip up another one that does. No one who believes that women should be subjugated by men is going to accept any version of the Bible — or any holy text — that suggests women are equal to men. Anyone who prefers the notion that being gay is an abomination surely does not want to see tolerance and acceptance being espoused in his or her scripture of choice; he or she will need a “faithful” translation of Leviticus 18:22 that delivers maximum hate.
Your choice of Bible is not so different than your choice of cable news outlet. Do you want to hear what they’re pushing on CNN, or do you want to hear what Fox News is peddling? They both cover the same stories, but the words they use to communicate to the viewer are often quite different. Indeed, the news and the Good News are not so different in that regard, and the skeptical agnostic who scours multiple media sources across several formats for objective, independent information may think of it all as Fake News.
What you believe is on you, because the set of beliefs you choose to heed or ignore is on you. If you believe one Bible even while another contradicts it, that choice is on you. If you believe the passages in the Bible you want to believe, and either ignore the ones you don’t believe, think of them as metaphorical, or just find an inventive way to interpret them that isn’t technically wrong, that’s on you, because words are imprecise, and we can always find ways to interpret them in different ways to fit with our beliefs or agendas, just like the translators did.