Love thy neighbor
Interfaith group asks publishers to erase anti-Jewish language from children's Bibles
June 30, 2001
BY DAVID CRUMM
Some versions of the Bible may be teaching Christian kids to mistrust Jews, says a new campaign by a national interfaith group aimed at removing anti-Jewish phrases from children's Bibles.
The effort by the Philadelphia-based American Interfaith Institute targets Bible publishers nationwide, including three in Grand Rapids: Zondervan, Eerdmans and Baker Book House.
"Our sole motive in this is to help rebuild bridges between Christians and Jews," said Irvin Borowsky, the institute's founder. "And we are concentrating on Bibles for children, because we have to start by making sure that we aren't teaching our young people to hate their neighbors. Hatred violates the basic concepts that Jesus preached."
The campaign is sparking a larger debate over the way the world's all-time best-seller, the Christian version of the Bible, treats Judaism.
The effort has drawn fire from a leading activist in evangelical Christianity, Texas-based writer Marvin Olasky, who helped inspire President George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism."
Recently, Olasky attacked the idea of revising children's Bibles, calling it a misguided attempt at political correctness. If publishers agree to alter the Bible's ancient references to Jesus' Jewish critics, they would be violating a longstanding practice in Bible translation, he wrote in World, a Christian magazine he edits.
At the core of the debate is the dangerous, ages-old claim that Jews killed Jesus. The claim, which contributed to the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, has been rejected as an incorrect understanding of the Bible since the 1960s by the Catholic and most mainline Protestant churches.
"It's not historically accurate at all to say that Jews killed Jesus," said Donald Strobe, an independent Bible scholar in East Lansing who has no ties to Bible publishers or the interfaith group. "It was Romans who killed Jesus."
Most contemporary church leaders and Bible scholars agree and point out that Jesus and all of his close followers were Jewish.
Nevertheless, in the Gospel of John and the Book of Acts, some English translations still include dozens of references to cruel actions taken by "Jews" against Jesus and his followers.
The Zondervan "Kids' Study Bible," for ages 6-10, contains many references to Jewish hostility to Jesus. At one point, the book says Jesus avoided traveling near Jerusalem because "He knew that the Jews there were waiting to kill him." The interfaith institute urges Zondervan to rephrase it to: "He knew that the authorities there were waiting to kill him."
"When you think about it, it's absurd today for anyone to blame the Jews for Jesus' death 2,000 years ago," said Borowsky, a Jewish philanthropist in Philadelphia and longtime interfaith activist.
Borowsky, once the publisher of magazines such as Q and Sailing World, 18 years ago became the founder and chief donor of the American Interfaith Institute. Among the leading Christian Bible scholars supporting his group's efforts are Howard Kee, a professor emeritus at Boston University, and David Burke, director of translations for the American Bible Society in New York.
"We're concentrating on children's Bibles because most of them are not direct translations of the Bible," Borowsky said. "They're stories rewritten for children from the Bible."
Borowsky speaks from experience. He launched the public phase of his campaign in the current issue of the institute's newsletter, Explorations, by publishing examples from nine Bibles. The article urges concerned Christians and Jews to write the publishers, asking for revisions.
In the last decade, Borowsky played a quiet role in advising the American Bible Society to remove virtually all anti-Jewish references from its popular new Contemporary English Version of the Bible. And in the early 1990s, many publishers, including Eerdmans, agreed to discontinue objectionable children's Bibles.
"When we started this, we reviewed 150 children's Bibles page by page," said Borowsky. "We were pleased to find that about half of them had nothing negative in them. Of the other 75, there were references that were inaccurate, blaming Jews for the crucifixion, so we began contacting the publishers privately. Most of them agreed to change or discontinue future editions."
In 1994, Eerdmans dropped "The Child's Story Bible," partly because of Borowsky's lobbying.
Now, Borowsky's group is concerned about only a single passage in one Eerdmans edition, a storybook called, "The Blessing of the Lord" by Gary Schmidt, a Calvin College English instructor in Grand Rapids.
In the passage, a Roman centurion narrates the scene at the crucifixion and describes a group of gloating bystanders: "The laughter was coming from a group of Jews who had come up from the city to watch the rebel die."
The interfaith group suggests that some other word be substituted for "Jews," because the story is not a direct translation of the gospel. Schmidt declines to change the text or to discuss it.
"Of course, I would affirm Christian-Jewish dialogue -- any thinking person would," Schmidt said. "But I just don't ever reply to these sorts of criticisms."
Baker Book House is discontinuing two children's Bibles targeted by Borowsky's group, said Richard Baker, head of the publishing house.
Referring to Borowsky's group, Baker said, "They're good people and I certainly am in tune with what they're doing.... But it's sometimes a difficult balancing act ...having to be sensitive to so many needs of so many people."
Baker's "Heroes of the Bible," a comic-book version of biblical stories, and "The Precious Moments Children's Bible," an easy-to-read paraphrase of the Bible, soon will disappear from store shelves and will not be reissued, Baker said.
The largest remaining barrier the institute faces is the New International Version, an English translation that is usually referred to as "the NIV" and is hugely popular with evangelical Christians. The NIV's New Testament was issued in 1973, decades before scholars began widely discussing the interfaith issue.
Zondervan is the main publisher of the NIV, and some of its Bibles for young readers are based on its text. Borowsky's group objects to those editions while praising most of Zondervan's Bible storybooks that are freely paraphrased.
Bible scholars in the interfaith group approve of the neutral wording in "The Beginner's Bible," a Zondervan storybook edition that has sold more than 4 million copies and usually ranks as the country's best-selling children's Bible. The group does not like Zondervan's "Read With Me Bible," which has sold more than 400,000 copies. It's also a storybook, but it so closely parallels the NIV that it contains problematic references to Jews.
"The NIV is a traditional translation that has enjoyed a lot of popularity," said Tim Beals, associate publisher of Bibles for Zondervan. But Zondervan has no authority to change the NIV text, he said.
In Colorado Springs, Colo., the International Bible Society, sponsor of the NIV translation team, declined to discuss the issue. "We are committed to accuracy and that's going to dictate what comes out in any rendering," said spokesman Larry Lincoln.
However, many Bible scholars now question the accuracy of English translations like the NIV that include language hostile to Jews in John and Acts.
"The question in these passages is: How do you translate the Greek word 'Ioudaioi' from the original Greek of the New Testament into English? Translating it as 'Jews' is misleading," said Strobe, the independent Bible scholar.
"In recent years, New Testament scholarship has unearthed more than we knew before about the various forms of Judaism present in the First Century," Strobe said. "Judaism wasn't monolithic. What happened in the gospels was a squabble between various groups within Judaism. When the Gospel of John was written, it reflected that heated struggle."
For centuries, English translators rendered the Greek word often used by John as "Jews," but Strobe said, "We know that John didn't use the word 'Ioudaioi' to mean all Jews. Jesus was Jewish. His followers were Jewish and the writers of the gospels were Jewish."
John sometimes used the term to refer to Jewish authorities who collaborated with the Romans or to Jews from other sects who were hostile to Jesus' followers.
The original readers understood that context, but the nuances are confusing to today's readers, Strobe said.
Revising Bibles for kids is especially important, he said, "because understanding this kind of historical context is hard enough for adults. Children have no sense of historical nuances. We don't want them going to Sunday school and remembering for years the lesson that Jews were the bad guys."
Borowsky said focusing on children has won his group the sympathetic ear of most publishers.
"We should all be joining together to make each new generation aware that they are their brothers' and sisters' keepers," he said. "That's what both of our faiths teach people."
Contact DAVID CRUMM at 313-223-4526 or email@example.com.