The NAB: Round Three

I have pleaded with our bishops to inject the New American Bible and the American lectionary with the deadly morphine they so richly deserve. I offer now a third category of objections (for one and two, click here and here): dishonesty about sex.

I was looking at 1 Corinthians 6, for quite a different kind of error, and noticed the NAB’s rendering of Paul’s reproof of the church in Corinth for admitting a man who had taken his stepmother to wife.

“It is widely reported that there is immorality among you,” say the NABers.  The abstraction renders the Greek porneia, meaning fornication, prostitution; a porne is a whore, a pornos a fornicator, and a porneion a brothel.

Does that occur to you when you hear the word immorality?  Me neither.

I grant that the NABers are not alone in the limp translation.  The RSV has immorality.  My modern Italian Bible, itself a poor version, has immoralitá.  But Jerome has fornicatio, King James and Douay have fornication; my French Bible has debauche; the classic Welsh has godineb, adultery; Luther has Hurerei, whorishness.  What’s with the sudden delicacy?  Immorality is not a charged word in Scripture.  Fornication – besides naming via metonymy the kind of sin we are talking about – is.

Ezekiel inveighs against Jerusalem for opening her legs to all passers-by: “Thou hast moreover multiplied thy fornication in the land of Canaan unto Chaldea: and yet thou wast not satisfied herewith.” (16:29)  And in Revelation, the kings of the earth commit fornication with “the great whore that sitteth upon the waters,” who holds a golden cup “full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication.” (17:1-4)  Does that treachery against the Lord occur to you when you hear the word “immorality,” or that apocalyptic abyss of worldliness and avarice and lust?  Me neither.

It gets worse.  Paul warns the Corinthians how dangerous it is to admit into their midst, without reproach, a sinner of such sort.  “Be not deceived,” he says.  “Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” (6:9-10).  The NABers could not let that stand.

The Greek malakos, cognate with Latin mollis and English melt, suggests what is soft, mild, gentle.  In a bad sense, it suggests the effeminate, which here means men or boys who accept the passive role, that of the catamite, in homosexual affairs – the eromenos.  That was what the rhetor Lysias wanted Socrates’ friend Phaedrus to be.  Such was Antinous to the emperor Hadrian.  Julius Caesar was accused of playing that part to Nicomedes, king of Bithynia.  Cicero accused Antony of playing that part in turn to Caesar.

In all these cases we are speaking of what is consensual and not for hire.  So the NABers translate as if it were not fully consensual and as if it were for hire: “Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.”


The annotation is deliberately misleading:

The Greek word translated as boy prostitutes may refer to catamites, i.e., boys or young men who were kept for purposes of prostitution, a practice not uncommon in the Greco-Roman world. In Greek mythology this was the function of Ganymede, the “cupbearer of the gods,” whose Latin name was Catamitus. The term translated sodomites refers to adult males who indulged in homosexual practices with such boys.

     Notice the weasel-word may.  Notice the learned deflection from the main point: the etymology of the Latin word catamite has nothing at all to do with the meaning of the Greek malakos.  Notice the suggestion that the etymology of catamite limits the meaning to boy prostitutes.  But not all catamites are boys, and not all are prostitutes.

Then there is the note on sodomites.  It is a lie.  The Greek is the compound arsenokoitai.  It means, simply, men who bed down with males.  Paul may have coined the word himself, to convey the idea in Leviticus: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.” (20:13)  Those males do not have to be boy prostitutes.  Indeed, the form of incest that the Corinthians have winked at is condemned in the very same place in the law.  Accept the one, accept the other; condemn the one, condemn the other.

The NABers refer us to “similar condemnations of such practices” in Rom. 1:26-27 and 1 Tim. 1:10, but do not bother to tell the reader that in Romans, Paul inveighs against what violates nature itself – created being; so that “even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly.”

The fall of man corrupts his imagination and his passion.  He then makes foolish and horrible exchanges: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things” (Rom. 1:22-23).

How to sum it up?  Paul delivers the hammer: Pheugete ten porneian. (1 Cor. 6:18)  The verb is powerful: Fleefornication” (KJV), Fly fornication (Douay), Fliehet die Hurerei (Luther), Fugite fornicationem (Jerome), Fuyez la debauche (French), and so forth: we are to fly from it as from death.  And the NABers?  How do they convey this soul-threatening urgency?

“Avoid immorality.”

Ah, thanks for that bit of wisdom!  What does it mean, literally, more than, “Don’t do bad things”?

The annotators say that Paul’s paragraph contains “elements of a profound theology of sexuality.” I will give them the benefit of the doubt, that “elements” does not mean “rudiments.”  Then why not be clear and forceful about what he is saying?


*Image: The Whore of Babylon by William Blake, c. 1810 [British Museum, London]

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.