The Conservative Bible Project: Looking for Conservative Diamonds in a Liberal Dung-Hill

In 2006, Andy Schlafly, best known as the son of notorious anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, launched a wiki site called Conservapedia as an alternative to Wikipedia. The nation’s sixth most frequently visited Web site had, he felt, become dominated by liberal and anti-Christian bias. 

Now Schlafly has a new project: rewriting the Bible to free it from liberal bias. The new translation will be free of “emasculated” and “dumbed-down” language as well as “liberal wordiness.” So-called “later-inserted liberal passages” will be deleted entirely. All of these changes will be made by amending the King James Version of the Bible through an online wiki format.

While the Conservative Bible Project (CBP) has so far been regarded largely as a joke, it does raise some interesting questions. The idea of writing a sacred text through a wiki is largely unprecedented. The CPB also marks an escalation in what Robert S. McElvaine has called “Grand Theft Jesus”—the appropriation of the Christian tradition for political ends. Is Schlafly a profoundly cynical politician, attempting to manipulate religion in a way that would put Machiavelli and Karl Rove to shame? Or does he truly believe that the Bible has been tainted by “liberalism” for over a thousand years?

The Jefferson Bible as Precedent

Curiously, the CBP is reminiscent of The Jefferson Bible, written in 1820 by our nation’s third president. Thomas Jefferson felt that the teachings of Jesus had been abused and corrupted by Christians, but that the “genuine” teachings of Jesus were “as easily distinguished as diamonds in a dung-hill.” Jefferson removed passages referring to the supernatural, as well as what he considered to be misperceptions by the Gospel writers. Critics accused him of paraphrasing the Bible to suit his own ends. Is Schlafly simply a modern day Jefferson, seeking conservative diamonds in a liberal dung-hill?

Not exactly.

The CBP differs from The Jefferson Bible in at least three respects. First, although Jefferson used religious language in the Declaration of Independence and other writings, his revision of the Bible was a private pursuit: He never allowed The Jefferson Bible to be published during his lifetime. Second, Jefferson recognized that his views were highly unorthodox. By contrast, Schlafly identifies as a practicing Catholic and argues that his reading of the Bible is, in fact, orthodox. Finally, the nature of the revisions is fundamentally different. The Jefferson Bible rejects supernaturalism as well as the tenets of Calvinism.

However, Schlafly’s projects—Conservapedia and the CBP—do not seek to combat specific ideologies so much as a species called “liberals.” Conservapedia defines a “liberal” as “someone who rejects logical and biblical standards, often for self-centered reasons.” In this world, liberals are incapable of understanding the Bible, or even logical thought. Where Jefferson excluded doctrines from his Bible, the CBP seeks to exclude words. “Accountability,” for instance, is a conservative word that enriches understanding of scripture. “Laborer,” on the other hand, is a liberal word and has no place in the Bible.

Young girl? How about floozy, bimbo, or temptress?

So how is the new translation proceeding? As of October 11, the completed “translations” on Conservapedia include Mark 1-8, Matthew 1-9, Luke 1-2, John 1-3, Philemon, and a few verses from Genesis, 1 John, Jude, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians. As for the Hebrew Bible, only Genesis appears to be slated for translation. Calling the works in question “translations” may be a misnomer since work with Greek originals seems to be intermittent at best. For the most part, the changes are simply re-phrasings of passages from the King James Version.

Where commentary has been made on the Greek, it typically reflects a rudimentary and sometimes distorted understanding of the language. For example, the only mention of any Greek in the translation of the Gospel of Mark 1-8 comes in verse 6:22, where the “translators” have argued that korasion, which means “young girl” or “maiden,” should be translated as “floozy,” “bimbo,” or “temptress”—despite the fact that this translation has no historical, philological, or textual basis. In fact, Mark uses the same word in 5:41, in reference to a young girl whom Jesus raises from the dead.

Such an open approach to translation will likely offend conservative and fundamentalist proponents of “biblical inerrancy,” the theory that the Bible is God’s inspired word and that only the literal meaning of the text is valid. Some comments on the talk pages for the project already reflect a tension among conservative readers along these lines, with the critics referring, for example, to Revelation 22:19’s injunction not to “take away from the words of the book of this prophecy.” One comment from the blogosphere said of the CBP, “Let them rewrite the Bible. It is deemed a sin to add or take away from the Good Book, so those wanting to rewrite will find their own brimstone and hellfire soon enough.”

In their interpretive procedures and principles, however, participants in the CBP do not reject biblical inerrantist or originalist rhetoric. On the contrary, they see themselves as restoring the text to its original state. The project’s authors maintain, for example, that there are three “sources of error” in modern translations of the Bible. Along with bias in modern translations and the “lack of precision in the modern language,” they point to the inadequacy of the original language of the texts in rendering the “powerful new concepts” introduced by Christianity.

This can result in the somewhat paradoxical claim that the meaning of the text is insufficient to convey its clear meaning. Hence, for instance, the following conversation between a critical commentator, who takes issue with the historical and philological accuracy of the translation of “korasion,” and Andy Schlafly:

The trouble with that example is, we already know what “κορασιων” means—it means “little girl,” the diminutive of the bog-standard Greek word for girl, κοραι. And we know that because people used it on funerary inscriptions (among others) to describe their dead daughters, who they (presumably) didn’t want to call temptresses. Ancient Greek had a rich, complex vocabulary, including a complete vocabulary of sexual terms—they had words for temptress, slut, prostitute, dancer, etc. The author of the Gospel of Mark chose to use the word that unequivocally means “little girl” instead of one of the many less savory words he had available, and yet you think you know better what he meant to say? That’s not creating an unbiased translation, that’s shoehorning your own belief structure into the Bible. Does that honor God?
—Jere7my 20:41, 6 October 2009 (EDT)

Fine, κορασιων means “little girl,” but that obviously does not fit the context of the story. What is missing from your analysis is that Mark himself was a young boy at the time also. The underlying event was almost certainly a provocative dance by a young woman, and the best translation should reflect the obvious truth. Fisherman Mark may not have been familiar with the “rich, complex” Greek vocabulary to which you allude, and we’re not about to change the Greek term Mark used. But let the finest English be used to convey the likely meaning accurately.
—Andy Schlafly 22:33, 6 October 2009 (EDT)

Since the text does not say that the dance was provocative, Schlafly’s argument that the author’s intended meaning is “obvious” begs the question, “obvious to whom?” On the talk page, one contributor offers an answer, of sorts, to this question: “THE BIBLE IS CONSERVATIVE,” he writes, and, as such, “conservatives” will know what it originally meant.

Pharisee = Liberal

Whether or not Biblical inerrantists accept the idea that Andy Schlafly and other like-minded individuals are the true guardians of the original meaning, the CBP is sure to strike historically-minded scholars and readers as problematic. In addition to making unfounded claims about the author of the gospel of Mark’s feelings about young girls, the translators maintain that “unclean spirit” should be translated as “Satan,” that “cast lots,” should be translated as “gambling,” that “holy spirit,” should be translated “divine guide,” and that logos, or “word,” should be translated “truth.”

Some of the translators have even suggested that the title “Pharisee” should be translated as “elite,” “self-proclaimed elite,” “intellectual,” or “liberal.” On the main page of the project, the guidelines suggest that translations should insist on the “logic of Hell… as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell,” ignoring the fact that the modern concept of Hell is a post-biblical conflation of motifs from a number of sometimes conflicting biblical and apocryphal notions of sheol, gehenna, Hades, judgment in the end-times, etc.

More starkly anachronistic are claims that Jesus taught parables about the “free market” (a late-medieval concept at best), and that the Bible includes “later-inserted liberal passages.” In describing the project, Schlafly has repeatedly cited two such “liberal” passages: the story of Jesus saving an adulteress from being stoned in John 7:53-8:11, and Luke 23:34, where Jesus asks God to forgive his crucifiers, “for they know not what they do.”

Schlafly is right to point out that neither passage is unanimously attested by the earliest ancient manuscripts. Many people don’t realize that the New Testament that they can read today (in the NIV or KJV, for example) is actually based on a collation of diverse ancient texts. During the course of copying and transmitting the gospels, Acts, letters, and Revelations throughout antiquity, scribes made small errors and “corrections,” including additions to and subtractions from the texts that they copied, resulting in sometimes markedly different versions of what are now well-known passages.

In addition to Luke 23:34 and John 7:53-8:11, other famously disputed passages include the “only-begotten God” or “only-begotten son” of John 1:18, the “bloody sweat” of Luke 22:43-44, the number six hundred sixty-six in Revelation 13, and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (which enjoins women to be silent in church). One of the main reasons for differences between newer translations of the Bible and the KJV is that the latter does not consistently reflect what scholars now believe to be the earliest and best ancient manuscripts. Conservative Christian groups usually oppose text-critical analysis of the manuscripts that make up the New Testament, so it is somewhat surprising that the CBP has embraced it.

It’s all Greek to Him

Still, Schlafly’s belief that “liberals” added John 7:53-8:11 and Luke 23:34 to the Bible is manifestly ludicrous from a historical point of view. Both texts are already attested by manuscripts in the fourth century, long before modern liberals—or conservatives—were around to pen them. A history of reception of either passage would undoubtedly show that, like every other Bible passage, they have been used by a variety of different groups with different interests in different times and places over the last seventeen centuries or so. Here, as elsewhere, Schlafly displays a remarkable lack of historical knowledge about the Bible for someone who has undertaken to oversee a Bible translation project. He does not appear to personally know any relevant ancient languages, or even what ancient languages make up the Bible. When one commentator on the talk page suggested that the translators should “go back to the Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic etc.,” in translating the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, for example, Schlafly retorted that the Bible was written in Greek, adding that the commentator seemed “unsure in identifying the original language.”

Even leaving aside the question of historical or linguistic accuracy, however, this project presents serious problems for those scholars, ministers, and lay-people concerned with the ethics of intepretation. One would have to question the grounds of understanding young girls to be “temptresses” or “bimbos,” for example, or of excising a passage in which Jesus defends a woman from being stoned to death for adultery because it is too “liberal.” The CBP’s approach stands in stark opposition to that of feminist and other exegetes who have sought to reconsider possible readings of the text on ethical grounds. Such interpreters have typically rejected the positivist search for a unique, original meaning while maintaining a strong degree of philological and historical-critical rigor in their development of ethical interpretations.

The members of the Conservative Bible project have moved precisely in the opposite direction, insisting that they are restoring the original, authentic meaning without having any historical, linguistic, or ethical justifications for their interpretive choices.

The Future of Wiki Translation

Nevertheless, the content of the translations may well change over time, due to the nature of a wiki project. It is conceivable that more knowledgeable readers of the Bible will ultimately contribute to the translation. Already, on the talk page for the project’s home page, certain critical, but sympathetic, commentators have questioned the CBP’s approach to “later inserted liberal texts” on text-critical grounds. In the translation of Mark, some critical contributors appear to have won out in arguing that Pharisee should be “translated” as Pharisee, rather than being changed to “intellectual,” “liberal,” or “elite.” Assuming the editors and contributors respond to such criticisms, the CBP’s transformation could prove interesting for tracing the evolution of a wiki “translation” project of the Bible; it might even wind up, in the far-off future, being the medium for a sophisticated, conservatively-oriented version of the Bible.

Whether it does or not, however, the use of wiki technology suggests a new, and potentially more democratic, medium for other translation projects. The CBP could act as a model for any of those communities, Christian or otherwise, who feel that their interests are not sufficiently represented by current editions of the Bible. 

One could easily imagine anarchist or Satanist “translations” of the Bible, or sophisticated translations of the Bible by groups who have been marginalized by mainstream Christianity. It could also act as a model for forms of literary experimentation, for a “translation” of biblical texts into the genres of science fiction or fantasy, for instance. As it stands right now, the only other wiki Bible translation project of which we are aware (which preceded the CBP by a few years, and which follows the same practice of rephrasing modern, English editions of the Bible) is the LOLCAT Bible Translation Project, which aims to translate scripture into “lolspeak” or “Kitty Pidgin English.”

Ceiling Cat would no doubt approve.