Saturday, June 2, 2012
The Shock of Recognition: Reading Another Translation of the New Testament
Reading another translation of an old classic often leads one to new recognitions of meaning in that work, if not something as momentous as that "shock of recogition" to which Edmund Wilson referred in the title of his famous anthology. After almost six decades of reading the New Testament in the King James Version (KJV), I have begun recently to read the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), itself rather different from the Revised Standard Version (RSV). In the midst of the gospel of John, I was struck by the appearance of an unfamiliar word in the following passages:
" And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. " John 14:16.
" When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. " John 15:26
" Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. " John 16:7
What is noteworthy is the use of the word Advocate to translate the word transliterated from the Greek as Parakletos or Paraclete. The KJV uses the word Comforter. Martin Luther in his German translation follows this, using the term Troester. The RSV uses Counselor, somewhat similar to Advocate. What a great difference there is between a Comforter and an Advocate! Elsewhere in the New Testament, advocates (i.e., lawyers) are condemned. C. I. Scofield in his gloss on the term Parakletos explains that " Christ is the believer's Paraclete with the Father when he sins; the Holy Spirit the believer's indwelling Paraclete to help his ignorance and infirmity and to make intercession. "
Reading these passages without trinitarian preconceptions, reading them as accounts of three separate entities, leads one to a radically different perspective. Here Christ is promising a revealer of the truth who will follow him, yet another prophet. These are the passages in the New Testament which, according to Henry Preserved Smith in his fascinating little book The Bible and Islam (1897), are cited by the Moslems as evidence that Christ foretold the advent of the prophet Muhammad. The relevant passage in the Koran, quoting the translation by Marmaduke Pickthall, is as follows:
" And when Jesus Son of Mary said: O Children of Israel! Lo! I am the messenger of Allah unto you, confirming that which was (revealed) before me in the Torah and bringing good tidings of a messenger who cometh after me, whose name is the Praised One. " Surah 61:6
It may be protested that anyone reading the passages in the gospel of John would know that the Paracelete is the Holy Ghost. The trinity, however, is not as obvious in the New Testament as one might suppose. Consider another change in translation. The following passage in the first epistle of John in the KJV affirms the trinity: " For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. " This passage, 1 John 5:7, is given a completely different, non-trinitarian translation in the NRSV: " There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree. " The trinitarian phrase in the KJV is a late interpolation, as late as the Fifth Century A.D.
Believers in Islam are, then, speaking in good faith when they make the claim that the New Testament foretells the advent of Muhammad. Christians should at least give them credit for making an honest error in their reading because the doctrine of the trinity was not as evident in the original manuscripts as is commonly supposed. A more tolerant understanding of Islam is particularly important at this historic moment when so many fundamentalist Christians are being led to believe that we in the West should undertake another crusade against the whole of Islam, a crusade which would not benefit either the USA or the world of Islam, but only Zionist Israel. We should be grateful to Jimmy Carter for having the courage to speak up on this issue. President Carter may be able to undo a little of the damage that has been done by the so-called Christian Zionists. Readers of the Bible also should be aware that a primary source of Christian Zionism has been the tendentious interpretation of a dual covenant theology which C. I. Scofield, for some reason, conveyed via the commentaries in his famous reference Bible.