Bowdlerizing the Bible

July 1, 2001


Bowdlerizing the Bible

My comments this morning have an unusual title so I would like to begin by explaining why I chose it. Early in the 19th century an English gentleman by the name of Thomas Bowdler decided to clean up some of the language not meant for children in the works of William Shakespeare. His 4-volume Family Shakespeare in 1804 cut out anything he thought might “raise a blush on the cheek of modesty,” and he expanded his sanitized version to 10 volumes a few years later (1816), omitting all expressions which, as he put it, “cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” His tidied-up version of the plays was popular throughout a 19th century dominated by the prim and proper Queen Victoria, but his name has since become a synonym for a certain kind of censorship. To “bowdlerize,” dictionaries tell us, is “to expurgate a play, novel [or other literary work] by removing or modifying passages prudishly considered immodest.”
I doubt that Mr. Bowdler’s laundered version of Shakespeare’s plays is actually used on a college level, but I taught my first literature classes in a Christian school where the Dean, who had a lock on the Shakespeare course, used his own bowdlerizing technique for staying out of trouble with students whose parents wanted them protected from any language less delicate than what their children might find in the Bible. I soon learned that the Dean’s plan had been backfiring on him for years. He read aloud a great deal, which is especially good in teaching Shakespeare, but if he came to a passage with a bawdy pun he would simply skip past it. He might as well have held up a sign saying NAUGHTY JOKE LEFT BEHIND, because year after year the kids quickly found him out, so that while he read on they all stayed behind to see if they could interpret the censored joke. The good, gentle Dean whom our choir director and his wife remember very well, never caught on.
So what does this have to do with Hebrew and Christian scripture, and how millions of Jews, Catholics and Protestants read it? The answer, which may sound surprising at first, is that the Bible itself is always being bowdlerized. It’s done in two different ways. The first is a kind of passive censorship in which people who claim the Bible to be divinely inspired simply ignore huge parts of it. Despite the fact that their faith says God dictated it word for word, they find nothing useful in the long boring genealogies and quaint dietary and sexual laws, in the tedious speeches of Job or the tangled historical details of Ezra and Nehemiah , and in most of the prophetic books like Ezekiel, Jeremiah, andLamentations . I grew up in a church that stressed the inspiration of every single verse of scripture, but like other believers we were highly selective: it would have been impossible on any given Sunday morning to find a single one of us who had the faintest notion of what Joel, Obadiah, Nahum and Malachi said in words which our faith insisted came directly from the mind of God. If we had dared be honest, which I think is the first commandment in one’s religious life, we would have had to admit that what we really found useful in the Bible were a couple of hundred prooftexts that supported our own particular approach to faith.
I think it’s worth considering this morning that while millions of us own Bibles we are remarkably selective in reading them. It’’s actually a kind of censorship by neglect and it happens, let’s be honest, because so much of the Bible has little relevance to life in the 21st century, a fact almost everybody knows and almost no one cares to admit in public. Sunday School teachers wisely skip over vast areas of the Bible, adult churchmembers do not bother to read them, and ministers do not preach about them. There are, of course, passages so inspirational, so comforting, and so beautiful that we hear them and read them over and over, but there are thousands of others which bore or puzzle the common reader who may try at least once to plow doggedly through every single page from Genesis to Revelation.
It is one thing to read the rich and provocative parables of Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount, or seek comfort in his promise that “in my Father’s house are many mansions.” But what possible use can we make of learning that an enemy soldier in one of Israel’s countless wars had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot (2 Sam 21), or that God gave Moses the following cure for fungus in a house: A priest takes a piece of cedarwood, a red string, and a certain plant and then catches two small birds. He kills one of the birds and dips the wood, plant, string and other bird in its blood, after which he sprinkles that blood over the house seven times and turns the living bird loose to carry the fungus symbolically off on its wings. It’s no wonder that after introducing seminary students to Scriptures like that their professor said recently: “By the time we had finished, most of us had to admit that our faith has been shaped by a [Bible] considerably smaller than the official one.”
As I said earlier, ignoring stuff as stange as this is a form of passive bowdlerizing, a way people have of simply skipping what they find dull or irrelevant in the Bible. What I’m more interested in this morning is active censorship, the kind that has bowdlerized the Bible by simply leaving parts of it out of a printed version, or what is much more common, translating something deemed offensive in such a way as to obscure or even change the meaning. More than 400 years ago (1568) a popular English version called the Bishop’s Bible marked genealogies and other non-edifying passages so readers could easily skip them, and openly admitted that it had chosen to express any language that offended good taste “with more convenient terms and phrases.” Christian fundamentalism was not in vogue in those days or they would have banned that Bible for daring to suggest that not all of it is equally inspired. As they would have done, had they been a power in early America, when our versatile and brilliant third president, Thomas Jefferson, did a version of the New Testament in which he simply left out sections he considered non-essential or potentially harmful to unskilled readers.
But decisions about how to translate certain Scriptures choices have bowdlerized the Bible far more often than such radical steps as leaving things out altogether. Any serious student of the Bible knows how often the text has been sanitized for family study and public readings. The famous King James Version of 1611 does it in a story about David’s final days which begins, “Now King David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he gat no heat.” So what does this wonderfully quaint phrase mean, that even though they heaped piles of cover on the old gentleman he “gat no heat”? Is the staff simply trying to keep him from shivering? Not at all. They shared a popular belief that if a country’s king became impotent the land and its people would also become less fertile.
So when warming his body did not help, the staff conducted a kind of Miss Israel contest and brought David the most beautiful young woman they could find, but he flunked the crucial test again. The translators of the most popular Bible ever printed knew exactly what was going on with these odd experiments in David’s court but they favored dignity above plain sense so they opted for the phrase “gat no heat” to describe a problem about which Bob Dole has been much more plainspoken. The simple truth is that in many other places the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible are sometimes cruder than publishing houses feel consumers will find palatable. Several years ago a scholarly essay in the journal Bible Review used a banner headline to ask if there is “coarse language in the Bible,” answered its own question with a resounding Yes, and then and went on to provide the kind of specific proof one would not care to use in a public sermon.
I continue to admire and use on occasion a translation by an English vicar named J. B. Phillips, but he also bowdlerizes the Bible at times. I was so puzzled years ago by the way he rendered a savage remark from the Apostle Paul that I wrote to ask why he had decided to reject modern versions of that particular passage. To put it in context, Paul is extremely angry about certain Jewish Christians for insisting that Gentile men had be circumcised before they could be accepted into the church. The King James version of 1611, dominant in England and America for over 300 years, chooses to have Paul say of this faction in the early church, “I would they were even cut off which trouble you” — a rather innocuous comment which sounds as if Paul would simply prefer to have the troublemakers separated from the church.
But this is grossly misleading. Paul, in fact, is absolutely furious, and what he really says is that he wishes these men who are so fixated on cutting would go even further and castrate themselves. Modern versions, which are more interested in accuracy than in guarding Paul’s reputation make his meaning perfectly clear without worrying about how it will sound in the pulpit. A typical example, from Goodspeed’s excellent translation of the New Testament: “I wish the people who are upsetting you would go on, and mutilate themselves. From the New English Bible : “As for these agitators, they had better go the whole way and make eunuchs of themselves!” And from the great Catholic version known as the Jerusalem Bible : “Tell those who are disturbing you [ that ] I would like to see the knife slip.”
But Mr. Phillips was a devoted admirer of the Apostle Paul, and I think he could not bear to have him say something that crude and vindictive. So, ignoring modern scholarship he goes all the way back to the King James euphemism and translates: “I wish those who are so eager to cut your bodies would cut themselves off from you altogether.” But is not what Paul meant, so I wondered respectfully in a letter to Mr. Phillips’ home in Dorset, England what had made him decide to follow the old King James version instead of agreeing with contemporary Biblical scholars. His response was gracious but not persuasive, and I could only conclude that he loved Paul too much to present him accurately in such a bitingly nasty moment.
Mr. Phillips did a milder kind of bowdlerizing when he came to those four different letters in which Paul urges his new Christian friends to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” The good English vicar probably knew how that custom had gotten embarrassingly out of hand in the early church, so he makes Paul say “Give each other a hearty handshake all around for my sake.” Less risky, but not what the apostle actually said, and a strict fundamentalist might logically shudder at someone’s daring to change words supposedly dictated exactly as God meant them to be written. .
I might have challenged that dictation theory much sooner in my life if I had stumbled across an obscure section of Ezekiel (23) which sounds so much more like pornography than sacred literature that I would be embarrassed to read it aloud on a Sunday morning. The old traditional King James version did its best to obscure the coarseness of it, but modern versions translate so explicitly that this section of the Bible is never going to appear in the lectionary texts that preachers often use on Sunday mornings. One sentence of it, in fact, is so lurid that the Living Bible, a version done for fundamentalists which sold 20 million copies in the first five years and millions more since, simply left that verse out without a word of explanation, not even in a footnote. Probably not a bad idea if the publishers hoped to sell to parents who think their high school children will be morally damaged by reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
You can understand why fundamentalist Christians who believed God dictated each word of the Bible were perplexed, sometimes angry, when early 20th century translations began to give us the vocabulary of daily life that was actually used in the New Testament. The King James had been their Bible forever, and because that committee dressed up the street Greek in the glorious language of Shakespeare it was easy for them to believe that God was the direct author of those elegant words and stately sentences. After all, it sounds much more like God dictating if the judge in Luke’s gospel says of a persistent widow that he will grant her request “lest by her continual coming she weary me,” than if he says “I will give in to this nagging plest before she gives me a black eye,” but the second is much, much close to the flavor of the original text. Which means that H. L. Mencken had a point when he claimed that if the English-speaking people had never had the King James they might never have produced a Bible Belt of fundamentalism. The French didn’t, he said, because their version of the Bible lacked the magnificent poetry that would lead people to view every single word as infallible.
One of the finest preachers in America, the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor, has confronted seminary students with the Bible’s occasional coarseness and irrelevant passages, asking them whether God is to be blamed or whether (in her words) it is “the fault of those who have written God down” — an explanation which I hope might be comforting to those of you who take the Bible seriously and have been puzzled at times by how its usefulness can change so radically from book to book.
I would say to anyone who wants to understand Judaism, Christianity or English and American culture that it’s essential to know the Bible, but I would caution as I do this morning that it is a disservice to any decent notion of God and to one’s religious life to claim equal value for every line of it. What a world of harm has come, and will yet come, from those who do not know its history. Bless you for being open to knowledge. Amen.

We have been here today in the name of one who promised that
knowing the truth would make us free, and have found it so. May
we use the gift of freedom with wisdom and compassion. Amen