The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why it matters if your Bible was translated by a racially diverse group


For many Christians of color, the present is marked by wariness, not of Christianity itself but of our experience with it. Frederick Douglass spoke of the difference between hypocritical Christianity in America and the Christianity of Christ. He drew that distinction because early black encounters with the Bible were mediated. We were given enough of the text to keep us content in our plight. It wasn’t until black Christians began to read the Bible that we fully owned the Christian tradition.

The era of slavery is over. But centuries later, racial oppression remains a reality. Thus, some Christians of color have questioned how the Bible relates to the hopes of black folks, because some people at the source of our oppression were Christians. This has led to an explicit rejection of the Christian framework that informs some historic black social action.

For many black Christians, the distinction that Douglass made doesn’t always stand: The hypocritical Christianity of this land is Christianity. We are told the Bible encourages and justifies white oppression of black people and others because it was written with that intent.

As a New Testament scholar, I’ve discovered that people of color and women have rarely led or participated in Bible translation. On one hand, this doesn’t trouble me much. It is hard to mess up the story of the Exodus, distort the message of the prophets or dismantle the story of Jesus. It is all there in every English translation.

On the other, I believe it matters who translates the Bible, and that more diverse translation committees could inspire fresh confidence among Christians of color. Such a translation would allow black Christians and others to “know with certainty the things that you have been taught” (Luke 1:4).

I grew up in a black Baptist church that revered the King James Version (KJV). Whenever it was read aloud, the congregation rose to its feet. But the KJV was more than a book read on Sunday. It shaped the culture of Southern black Christianity. Its thees and thous permeated our parents’ extemporaneous prayers. It marked the rhetoric of our most powerful preachers. If Flannery O’Connor can say that the South is Christ-haunted, then we can say that black Christianity is haunted by King James.

But to someone whose week was filled with a much different English — namely, Southern soul and hip-hop — the King’s English was alien. My mother spoke the language of the KJV, but I spoke in the dialect of Outkast, the Isley Brothers and Goodie Mob. The stately prose of the KJV could not compete with the audacity of André 3000 or Nas. It was not that the Bible lacked power. I simply couldn’t hear it.

Did I need the Bible to come to me in the couplets and tenor of Southern rap? No. But I needed a word that could shout my name over the noise.

So when my pastor stirred up enough guilt within me to read and study Scripture, I was lost in a language meant for a different culture. I found myself with a Bible more honored in principle than in practice.

The Bible had one function in our home. Whenever my mother wanted to wring the truth out of us, she would have us place our hands on the KJV and declare to be telling the truth. Only the most brazen of sinners would dare speak falsehood in the presence of mom, Jesus and King James.

Today, much to my family and friends’ surprise, I do more than read the Bible. I introduce it to a group of undergrads who were taught to honor the Bible in much the same way that the black church of my youth taught me.

In the classroom, however, we are not of one translation. Some will have the trusty KJV, others the New International Version (NIV), the New Revised Version (NRSV) or the English Standard Version (ESV). Inevitably, students will ask which one is best, or wonder if they have been reading the wrong translation.

Teaching the New Testament can be a dangerous thing. Biblical scholars can do real spiritual harm by casually dismissing the texts that students hold dear. To ward this off, I have a standard statement for students: “Any translation of the Bible will tell us the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It will also tell you of the trials and struggle of Christian communities trying their best to live lives indicative of the king that they claimed to follow.” It is almost impossible to get that story wrong.

Nonetheless, language is a living, evolving thing. From time to time, Christians have created new Bible translations to communicate its meaning to a new generation. The translations that fill my classroom and the pews of America attest to the many attempts to do this.

If the various Bibles get the main story correct, how do we account for the differences among translations? Isn’t translation simply a matter of translating Greek and Hebrew words into English? Yes and no.

Translation is rarely the work of a single individual. It usually involves a committee that struggles to answer the following question: How do we communicate the truths contained in the Scriptures so that people will understand what the authors intended to communicate?

If the Christian Church recognizes that its very diversity testifies to the universal saving power of its message, then it stands to reason that the gifts and insights of various ethnicities can only be a boon to Bible translation. The insight, experience and skills of female scholars might open our eyes to nuances that a committee of all men might miss. Christians for whom English is a second language might highlight ways in which our word choice is unclear. Similarly, black Christians may call to mind neglected aspects of the text. Here is an example.

Exodus tells the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt. There is a powerful description of the crowd that is obscured by some translations. Below is a sample of various translations of Exodus 12:38:

KJV (King James Version)
ESV (English Standard Version)
NRSV (New Revised Version)
NIV (New International Version)
CEB (Common English Bible)
And a mixed multitude went up also with them.
A mixed multitude also went up with them.
A mixed crowd also went up with them.
Many other people went up with them.
A diverse crowd also went up with them.

Nearly all scholars agree that the original Hebrew meant to highlight that an ethnically diverse group of people left Egypt with the Jewish people. This group could have included Egyptians and other ethnic groups, such as the Cushites. This passage, then, highlights the African presence among the people of God from the beginning in a way that would be relevant to today’s Bible readers.

The translation “mixed multitude” isn’t necessarily wrong. It simply does not communicate the power of this simple verse in a way that would be understood by those reading today. If I were translating the passage, I would say that “an ethnically diverse crowd” went up out of Egypt, but the CEB’s “diverse crowd” gets close enough.

We can’t undo the past. However, most translation committees have ongoing groups that assess and make minor changes. Publishers should ensure that their committees bring all relevant voices to the table. Christians of color and women also need to remember that Bible translation belongs to us as much as to anyone else.

Therefore, we need to commit to developing the training and expertise in order to join in the heady work of bringing these Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew texts into an understandable and usable form of English. It’s not about asking for a seat at the table; we simply must do the work.

A particular witness would emerge if historic black churches took the lead and joined with other Christians of color and sympathetic white churches to call for a translation whose very creation would speak to the reconciling work of God in Christ.

The Rev. Dr. Esau McCaulley is an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and an Anglican priest who serves as the director of Next Generation leadership for the Anglican Church in North America. He is working on a book on African American biblical interpretation scheduled to be published by InterVarsity Press Academic in 2020.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article left out the fourth to last paragraph during the editing process. It has been added.