Opinion

Did Bible Translators Retranslate a Bible Verse to Appease the Christian Right’s Pro-Life Message?

Jacob Shelton, writing for Weird History, claims that the translation of Exodus 21:22-25 was altered to support the GOP and the Christian Right because of its anti-abortion stance:

In the 1975 version of the New American Standard Bible, the verse read: “And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is not further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide.”

In 1995, the verse was changed to read: “If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury…

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The words were changed in the 1995 version in order to make it so the fetus doesn’t die in the verse, thus supporting the Christian Right’s pro-life message that killing a fetus is the same as killing a human, and the Bible says so.

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Shelton may be “a know it all when it comes to horror movies, serial killers, government conspiracies, comic books, and movies about comic books,” but he does not know much about the Bible and Bible translations.

The goal of translating the Bible into another language is to make it as accurate, readable, and as accessible as possible to people who can’t read the original languages. Every translation has gone through revisions, even the KJV. In fact, every new translation that is published is an attempt to make the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek a better translation. Some translations try to do this by smoothing out the original language to get the essence of meaning while others try to be as literal as possible without being wooden. That’s why you will see in some translations (e.g., KJV and NASB) words in italic to indicate that they are not in the original language. They are added to make a passage more understandable.

Let’s put Mr. Shelton’s claim that the NASB editors changed its translation of Exodus 21:22 for political reasons to the test:

First, Exodus 21:22–25 deals with a particular judicial case where two men struggle (fight) with one another. We are not told why they are fighting. A pregnant woman is standing near enough that she is affected by the altercation. She goes into premature labor. This case law covers all the “cases,” everything from no harm to the mother and her prematurely born children (plural) to harm resulting in death to the mother and one or more of her children.

Second, the woman is not deciding to have an abortion. At one level, it’s an accident that she goes into labor. At another level, however, the men should not have been fighting, so there is some liability. The woman could be the wife of one of the men.

Third, the text is clear, she is pregnant with at least one child: “And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child. . .” (Ex. 21:22). The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon defines hareh as a pregnant woman with child. It’s clear that she is not carrying around a mass of undefined tissue that becomes a human being when “it” exits the sanctuary of the womb.

Fourth, the Bible attributes self-consciousness to preborn babies, something that modern medicine has studied and acknowledged. Jacob and Esau “struggled together within” their mother’s womb (Gen. 25:22). The New Testament offers a similar glimpse into prenatal consciousness: “And it came about that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb” (Luke 1:41). “Struggling” and “leaping” are the result of consciousness. Jacob and Esau fighting inside the womb are indicative of their continued fighting outside the womb. John leaps in reaction to Mary’s pregnancy.

Fifth, some commentators claim that in Exodus 21:22 that the death of a “fetus,” either accidentally or on purpose, is nothing more than a property crime rather than the killing of a human being. The Bible teaches otherwise. The original Hebrew reads: “And if men struggle with each other and strike a pregnant woman so that her children [yeled] come out….” Notice that the text uses the word “children,” not “products of conception.” The Hebrew word for “children” in this verse is used in other contexts to designate a child already born. For example, in Exodus 2:6 we read: “When Pharaoh’s daughter opened [the basket], she saw the child [yeled], and behold, the boy was crying. And she had pity on him and said, ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children [yeled].’” Since in the Exodus case these are “children that come out,” they are persons, not body parts like an appendix or a kidney.

Sixth, if there is no injury to these individuals—the mother and her prematurely delivered child or children—then there is no penalty. If there is injury, then the judges must decide on an appropriate penalty based on the extent of the injury either to the mother and/or her children because both are persons in terms of biblical law.

Seventh, some translations have “so that she has a miscarriage.” As Shelton points out, the 1977 edition of the New American Standard Bible translated the text using “miscarriage.”

The 1995 translation is better (“she gives birth prematurely”), but it still does not capture the literal rendering. In a marginal note, the NASB translators recognize that the literal meaning of the text is “her children come out” (see below). It’s frustrating to read translations that include marginal notes telling us what it really says literally. Translate it literally, and then use the margin to offer an explanation if needed.

Other translations have a more word-for-word literal translation. Here’s one example:

“When men get in a fight and hit a pregnant woman so that her children are born [prematurely] but there is no injury, the one who hit her must be fined as the woman’s husband demands from him, and he must pay according to judicial assessment” (Holman Christian Standard Bible).

Notice that it’s “so that her children are born.” Here’s another example from Young’s Literal Translation (1898):

“And when men strive, and have smitten a pregnant woman, and her children have come out, and there is no mischief, he is certainly fined, as the husband of the woman doth lay upon him, and he hath given through the judges.”

Note the date (1898) of the translation, long before there was a Christian Right.

Eighth, there are two Hebrew words that fit the circumstances of miscarriage or premature birth: “There shall be no one miscarrying [shakal] or barren in your land” (Ex. 23:26; also, Hosea 9:14). The Hebrew word for “miscarriage” was available to Moses since it appears just two chapters later. Another example is found in Job: “Or like a miscarriage [nefel] which is discarded, I would not be” (Job 3:16). Meredith G. Kline offers a helpful summary of the passage:

This law found in Exodus 21:22–25 turns out to be perhaps the most decisive positive evidence in scripture that the fetus is to be regarded as a living person…. No matter whether one interprets the first or second penalty to have reference to a miscarriage, there is no difference in the treatments according to the fetus and the woman. Either way the fetus is regarded as a living person, so that to be criminally responsible for the destruction of the fetus is to forfeit one’s life…. The fetus, at any stage of development, is, in the eyes of this law, a living being, for life (nephesh) is attributed to it…. Consistently in the relevant data of Scripture a continuum of identity is evident between the fetus and the person subsequently born and Exodus 21:22–25 makes it clear that this prenatal human being is to be regarded as a separate and distinct human life.1

Umberto Cassuto, also known as Moshe David Cassuto (1883–1951), was a Jewish rabbi and biblical scholar born in Florence, Italy. In his commentary on Exodus, he presents an accurate translation of the passage based on the nuances of the Hebrew:

When men strive together and they hurt unintentionally a woman with child, and her children come forth but no mischief happens—that is, the woman and the children do not die—the one who hurts her shall surely be punished by a fine. But if any mischief happens, that is, if the woman dies or the children, then you shall give life for life.2

Ninth, the King James Version takes a different translation approach, but it is consistent with the text that “children” are “coming out.” The KJV reads, “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine” (Ex. 21:22). The use of the word “fruit” is a descriptive euphemism for a born child in the Old Testament (Gen. 30:2) and the New Testament (Luke 1:42).

Mr. Shelton needs to do a bit more investigative digging before he publishes fake history as real history and fake exegesis as real exegesis.

  1. Meredith G. Kline, “Lex Talionis and the Human Fetus,” The Simon Greenleaf Law Review, 5 (1985–1986), 75, 83, 88–89. This article originally appeared in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (September 1977). Also see H. Wayne House, “Miscarriage or Premature Birth: Additional Thoughts on Exodus 21:22-25,” Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Fall 1978), 108–123. []
  2. Umberto Cassuto, Commentary on the Book of Exodus (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, 1967), 275. []
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