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Southern Baptist Bible Translation as Resistance: An Example in the Bible Belt

October 15, 2012

When it comes to our histories of the Septuagint, we have legends and speculation.  Not infrequently here at this blog, I’ve imagined and postulated with others that this is Jewish Bible Translation as Resistance, and I’ve tried to give an example or two in the Diaspora.  The Greek translation of the Hebrew contains at times what expert Albert Pietersma calls literary sparks and translational spins.  I’ve tried to show my readings of what these might be.  Above all, they seem personal, political, rendering of common language among the highly educated and the highly holy to subvert the dominance of the powerful over the other.

When it comes to our histories of the New Testament translation of a certain Southern Baptist, then we have amnesia.  It’s only been 100 years since the births of Florence Kroeger and Clarence Jordan.  It’s been fewer than four score years since they met at Southern Seminary and married there, and it seems that current president of the school, Albert Mohler, would just as soon they have never been; the prolific blogger ( and public speaker has not remembered them.  Nonetheless, four hundred people or so, including President Jimmy Carter, did honor the Jordans this summer.  “Life has been transformed — secular life and Christian life — because he lived,” said Carter of Clarence Jordan, and it is reported that the one keeps the New Testament translation of the other on his desk.

The translation by Dr. Jordan, a Southern Baptist, Southern Seminary Ph.D. in New Testament Greek, was personal.  It was political.  It was the 1930s.  It was the Bible Belt, where whites and blacks were segregated, in church, by church goers.  It was a coming alongside the efforts of American Baptists Martin England and Mabel Orr England and, later, of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  It was an effort to change.

So here’s a snippet from the gospel of Luke, his retelling in Greek of that story of the Good Samaritan that Jesus presumably told in Hebrew Aramaic.  Here’s the Southern American pre-Civil Rights era English, the conclusion of the parable:

“Now if you had been the man held up by the gangsters, which of these three—the white preacher, the white song leader, or the black man—would you consider to have been your neighbor?”

The teacher of the adult Bible class said, “Why, of course, the nig—I mean, er … well, er … the one who treated me kindly.”

Jesus said, “Well, then, you get going and start living like that!”

And here’s a bit of Dr. Jordan’s own story, his practice, which seems to have some intersected with that bit of translation above.  Sara M. Owens remembers:

In 1946 Clarence led a week of Study and Renewal at the Woman’s College in Greensboro North Carolina where I was BSU Secretary. The students, as always, were mesmerized -he was so clear and honest. I shall always remember a story he told out of his experience with peaceful non-violence. There was a large group of young black men who were justifiably angry because some white man had raped one of their sisters. They were on their way to “kill some white man”. Clarence asked if they knew who was guilty. They said “No, we are just going to kill somebody” Clarence said, “I understand how you feel and if any white man will do, here is one.” Whereupon he knelt before them with his head bent to receive their blow. Of course their anger came under control. Some of the students asked “But what if they had hurt you?” Clarence: “But they didn’t”.

And here’s a little note of the translation philosophy, the political personal practiced philosophy, of this New Testament Greek translator:

I readily admit, then, that my attempts to find present-day equivalents to many New Testament expressions and concepts are often strained, crude, and even inaccurate.  For example, there just isn’t any word in our vocabulary which adequately translates the Greek word for “crucifixion.”  Our crosses are so shined, so polished, so respectable that to be impaled on one of them would seem to be a blessed experience.  We have thus emptied the term “crucifixion” of its original content of terrific emotion, of violence, of indignity and stigma, of defeat.  I have translated it as “lynching,” well aware that this is not technically correct….

Likewise, there is no adequate equivalent of “Jew and Gentile.”  My translation as “white man and Negro” is clear evidence of super-imposing my own personal feelings, which is the unpardonable sin of a self-respecting translator.  But in the Southern context, is there any other alternative [for me]?

Read more here of the history of the Jordans, the translation, their integrated farm in segregated America.  And hear Jordan read from his translation here.


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