Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Then are ye bastards and not sons": The Bible, Translations and Profane Speech

One of my acquaintances from seminary days wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and Its Environment. The cost of the published monograph is itself obscene, but my recollection from looking at a copy at SBL a couple years ago is that the book deals with instructions about profanity in the NT.

Also worthy of study is the way modern translations handle biblical profanity. Why, for example, do most modern translations tone down the language of Heb 12:8, which was meant to be shocking, by rendering νόθος as 'illegitimate' instead of 'bastard'? Is it merely because language has changed--"illegitimate" is today's equivalent to King James's "bastard"--or because NT translations have toned down the force of the original out of deference to modern sensibilities? I suspect the latter.

Here's how the KJV renders the whole verse: "But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons."

The RSV, NRSV, ESV, NET, NLT, NIV, NASB and even the NKJV all read "illegitimate."

Only the NAB and NJB get it "right":
  • NAB Hebrews 12:8 If you are without discipline, in which all have shared, you are not sons but bastards.
  • NJB Hebrews 12:8 If you were not getting this training, as all of you are, then you would be not sons but bastards.

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