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Translating early biblical texts from Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic into modern English is a perilous proposition for even the most skilled linguists and scholars. In their line of work, a muddled word or phrase can alter the meaning of what millions of Christians believe is the literal word of God.
Still, in the event of an unwitting mistake, theologians can always take comfort in Jesus' apology in Luke 23:34, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." There is, however, one amateur Bible translator from a prominent St. Louis family who intends to remove that timeless mea culpa from the Scriptures.
In August, Andrew Schlafly — son of right-wing political activist Phyllis Schlafly and first cousin of local brewer Tom Schlafly — began work on the Conservative Bible Project. He and a handful of like-minded revisionists are producing a version of the King James Bible that uses socially and politically conservative terms to "update" the original prose. The overhaul is necessary, Andrew Schlafly says, to remove a "liberal bias" that has crept into the Bible in recent years.
"The book itself is not liberal. It's the modern translations that are increasingly liberal," he explains. "We'd been looking at how the English language has grown since the King James Version came out in 1611. We noticed a lot of new conservative words available to us now that were not available in 1611. We also noticed how each new translation was increasingly liberal, and so we decided to do our own. "
The finished product is being published on Schlafly's website, Conservapedia.com. Similar to the Conservative Bible Project, Conservapedia counters what Schlafly perceives as a liberal bias in Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone. Work has been completed on 5 of the 66 books that comprise the Old and New Testaments. The changes he's made, Schlafly writes, now more accurately reflect the Bible's "free-market parallels," and utilize "conciseness over liberal wordiness."
Not surprisingly, Schlafly's efforts have upset some accomplished biblical scholars.
"I find this a very, very questionable approach," says Frederick Danker, the St. Louis-based author of A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, a book widely considered the definitive work on translating ancient texts such as the Dead Sea scrolls.
"To begin a project like that with an initial bias — it's supposed to be a secular and a scientific undertaking," complains the 89-year-old Danker. "This is based on emotional considerations, on feeling rather than on a sound linguistic basis. This is why I wrote [my book]. A so-called conservative might change all kinds of stuff instead of doing the brainwork necessary to clarify a matter."
Schlafly, though, is unwavering in his righteousness. In some cases, such as Luke 23:34, he's even willing to strip the Bible of well-known passages. "That particular verse is famous because liberals like it," he says. "Liberals like to pretend that there's forgiveness without repentance. That phrase does not appear in the early manuscripts. It's not authentic. It's a liberal insertion."
Steve Patterson, a professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, says Schlafly is correct that Luke 23:34 is not present in the earliest Greek texts. The passage, though, is hardly the work of such leftist stalwarts as MSNBC's Keith Olbermann or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Rather, Patterson points out, it originated sometime in the fourth century when it was common practice for scribes to alter or add phrases as they saw fit.
"If he's saying it's not an original part of the Gospel of Luke, then he's right," Patterson says. "But there are plenty of examples where Jesus preaches forgiveness without repentance. He's bucking against Jesus on that score, I'm afraid."
Schlafly, meanwhile, is particularly offended by the New International Version. First published in 1989, it uses gender-neutral language in place of the Bible's traditionally masculine style. "They put the 'it' in there because they don't want to say 'he,'" Schlafly says.
"Liberals want to confuse people," he goes on, "as to whether humans are different from animals. We refer to animals as 'it.' Liberals like that. They also refer to an unborn child as an 'it.'"
Asked who he believes is responsible for politicizing the Holy Scriptures, Schlafly is quick to respond: "Professors are behind these liberal translations. Most translations are done by professors at very liberal institutions. These are people who voted for Obama by an 80 or 90 percent majority. We all know what professors are like at schools these days."
The Bible has undergone more than 450 English translations since the seventh century. According to Patterson, translators employed by mainstream groups such as the American Bible Society come from "across the ideological spectrum" and engage in a rigorous review process. It can take years to reword a single phrase.
"They tend to be very conservative," Patterson says. "Mr. Schlafly might scoff and say they're liberal intellectuals, but you have to meet people who do text criticism to understand what I'm saying. They're not marching in the streets. They're purists. It's not that they don't make decisions that you or I would disagree with. But it's not because they're ideologically biased in the way Mr. Schlafly is."
Tom Schlafly, the cofounder of Saint Louis Brewery, the producer of Schlafly brand beer, says he has no involvement with his cousin's Bible work. "He never discussed it with me, and I've never seen it. There are probably few things in the world I know less about than this project."
The fifth of Phyllis and John Schlafly's six children, Andrew grew up in St. Louis and attended Saint Louis Priory School. He went on to graduate from Princeton and later earned his law degree magna cum laude from Harvard. Now 48, he lives in New Jersey, where, in addition to practicing law and revising the Bible, he teaches private "homeschool" courses to high school students.
A practicing Roman Catholic, Schlafly confesses that he did not consult his priest or church officials before beginning work on his Conservative Bible Project. Had he done so, he might have been sentenced to recite a litany of Hail Marys.
"The Church has always maintained that it is the word of God," says Father Kevin Schroeder, an associate pastor at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. "You have to treat it with dignity and not as a piece of literature or a weapon to be used in politics, whichever side you're on."