Critiquing the Queen James Bible
As the ongoing battle between those in favor of gay marriage and those promoting traditional marriage continues in the background, many people of faith who support the LGBT cause – or believers who themselves identify as LGBT individuals – are stuck in the crossfire. Especially in the case of Christianity, while some liberal bastions of faith exist and embrace these individuals, other more hard-line elements of the Church still frequently refer to core aspects of Scripture and tradition when making their case. Now, one group has come forward with an alternative to what they believe to be homophobic interpretations of Scripture: the Queen James Bible.
The Queen James Version, or QJV, was named after King James, who purportedly had so many gay lovers during his time on the throne that many in his royal court began referring to him as a “Queen” instead. (You can get a quick, dirty review of that history here.) The editors, on the bible’s main web page, are very explicit in their purposes for releasing this edited version of the King James Bible text.
Anti-LGBT Bible interpretations commonly cite only eight verses in the Bible that they interpret to mean homosexuality is a sin; Eight verses in a book of thousands!
The Queen James Bible seeks to resolve interpretive ambiguity in the Bible as it pertains to homosexuality: We edited those eight verses in a way that makes homophobic interpretations impossible.
Given that their entire project comes from a very biased starting point – to make it impossible to use the bible in anti-gay arguments – I was slightly skeptical as to the veracity of their arguments. So, I decided to look at the editors’ explanations for their translation choices to see if their work held any merit.
While some of their work was valuable and thought provoking, the majority of it I found to be extremely problematic. I have reviewed the first three verses here, as I believe them to be emblematic of the good and bad parts of the QJV Bible translation.
Before I continue, I will issue this disclaimer: this is not intended to be an anti-gay piece. This is a critique of a specific Bible translation, the QJB, that engages in scriptural interpretations that happen to focus on homosexuality. It is open for academic critique just like any other work of its kind, and critique is what I intend to do.
1) Genesis 19:5
The Sodom and Gomorrah episode is a well-known tale: Lot, Abraham’s nephew, is visited by two angels at the end of his time living in Sodom. The angels have come to rescue them from the impending destruction God will direct towards the cities; however, before they are able to leave, the denizens of Sodom gather in front of Lot’s door and demand that Lot send them outside.
And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where [are] the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them. (Gen 19:5, KJV)
The associations between this episode in Sodom and homosexuality are deep, hence the term “sodomy.” However, the QJV editors wanted to undo that focus as much as possible.
We side with most Bible scholars who understand the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to be about bullying strangers. Strangers were not well-treated or well-regarded at the time of Bible (hence so much of the Word urging the love and acceptance of others).
We know Lot asks that the men do not “know” the angel visitors “wickedly,” (Genesis 19:7), in other words “brutally,” which we understand to mean “rape.” We know from Leviticus that one is not allowed to have sex with a beast, and angels are not human. Plus, the passage mentions the men of the city; Obviously women and children aren’t going to be invited to a dominating and public rape, but we know there were women and children in Sodom because Lot had daughters. Rapes such as this one are common between men in prison; they aren’t sexual acts, they are power-dominating acts.
Therefore, we changed the verse to the following:
And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? Bring them out unto us, that we may rape and humiliate them. (QJV) (Page 21)
The QJV editors seem to clearly be reaching by connecting sex with angels to prohibitions against bestiality. I am also somewhat skeptical of their reference to “most Bible scholars” as a source of authority, when they never actually cite any scholars. However, by drawing attention to the ongoing biblical theme of good treatment of neighbors and strangers, and by pointing out the differences between rape and sex in general, the editors have lifted up some interesting questions.
Thinking about the story not strictly in terms of sexual depravity, but rather in terms of good treatment of guests and the dominating nature of rape, opens up a whole new range of questions and potential messages the passage could offer to the modern reader. What are we to do about protecting those in our communities that might be ostracized for whatever reason? How do we respond in the face of massive opposition to good moral sense and decency? These are questions that would never be asked if the interpretive mode stayed strictly in the “no gay sex” vein of thinking.
This passage, the first the editors wrestle with, does a good job of highlighting the benefits of critically reviewing a Biblical text. Leaving the Bible in a simplistic framework, where only a narrow number of interpretations are commonly accepted, deprives us of the richness that it can offer: not only on the literal level, but in its historical setting, metaphorical value, analogical qualities, and dozens of other potential frameworks. For this reason, I think the QJV editors did a good job with Genesis 19:5.
2) Leviticus 18:22, 20:13
The Levitical code is one of the first moral and legal codes in the Bible. Tradition holds that the text was written by Moses, and that it outlines the laws of moral and ritual purity that must be upheld by Jewish Communities before their entrance into the Promised Land of Canaan. Christians arguing against gay marriage have deployed certain passages of Leviticus in their Biblical arguments, arguing that while Christians are no longer bound to obey the law, Jesus’s own words affirm that their moral teachings were not abolished (see Matthew 5:17).
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination. (Leviticus 18:22, KJV)
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. (Leviticus 20:13, KJV)
The QJV editors spend quite some time dealing with this. While they are quick to point out that the Levitical moral code is outdated and therefore irrelevant to modern readers (directly attacking the justification I outlined above), they still seek to find some way to make the passage not primarily focused on homosexuality. This is difficult, as the Hebrew word for “lie” carries specific sexual overtones as one of its possible definitions, and the translation of the Hebrew word for “abomination” also yields few alternatives. They instead turn to a solution that they believe is “more elegant” and less ambiguous:
…Leviticus 18:20 switches to the important topic of pagan idolatry: “And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.” Again we must leverage the historical context in which Leviticus was written: Molech is an ancient pagan god, often referred to as “the [the] false god.” Leviticus mentions Molech in several places. Archetypal pagan rituals for worship of Molech included child sacrifice (literally referenced here in verse 20, and which we know was a “zimah,” punishable by death), as well as sex with male temple prostitutes. In fact, having sex with these male prostitutes in a pagan temple was the most popular form of Molech worship and therefore of “abominable” pagan idolatry.
We assert that Leviticus 18:21 refers to “lying” with these pagan male prostitutes as a form of pagan idolatry. This fits in with the story order of Leviticus, and with the other offenses punishments punishable by death within Leviticus. We therefore change Levticus 18:21 and 20:13 to read as follows:
Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind in the temple of Molech: it is an abomination. (QJV) (Page 75)
If a man also lie with mankind in the temple of Molech, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. (QJV) (Page 76)
Unlike the Genesis passage, I have more serious reservations about this alternate translation.
While the inclusion of Molech in their argument does figure importantly in the concern of the Biblical author to prevent idolatry and ritually impure forms of worship, the author is equally concerned with the pure behavior of the Jewish people against the society at large:
Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you. And the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants.Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit [any] of these abominations; [neither] any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you… (Leviticus 18:24-26m, KJV)
The Jewish belief in God’s just punishment for their iniquity is a major concern throughout the entire Old Testament. Here, we see that further defined in terms of cultural contrast. To paraphrase: “The other nations do XYZ, and these actions are impure. Therefore, you should not do XYZ.” If we take this concern seriously, it is not legitimate to add in mentions of Molech to these two passages; doing so completely skips over the matter of purity both before God and in contrast with the other nations.
The QJV editors are trying really hard to come up with a viable alternative. In this case, they go too far in adjusting the original passage by assuming context that, while present in surrounding passages, was not explicitly there to begin with.
3) Romans 1:26-27
In Paul’s opening to the book of Romans, he highlights the path that the people took in their defiance of God and collapse into sinfulness. He specifically highlights sexuality as part of that process.
For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against their 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, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. (Romans 1:26-27, KJV)
Romans 1 is one of the more commonly cited New Testament passages in the LGBT debate, as it specifically cites both gays and lesbians in its descriptions of sin. The QJV editors, realizing this, first argue the following:
…In historical context and with knowledge of ancient pre-Bible idolatry, we know that women were treated as less than men, and even less so in pagan ritual of the time. It is much more likely that Paul meant to express that women were ritually defiling themselves (sexually or otherwise). After all, these women weren’t “lying” with women, language one would expect from Paul, a devout follower of Leviticus. We can’t be exactly sure what Paul meant by the natural use of a woman, but we can be pretty sure he wasn’t talking about lesbian sex.
Right there, the QJV editors have a problem. Going into the Greek root, “use” here specifically refers to the sexual use of women. (Sorry to any feminists reading this; ancient languages weren’t always egalitarian.) While idolatry figures elsewhere in Romans 1, that translation seems fairly explicit. The editors, however, continue:
We know Paul was a Jew and steeped in the purity tradition of Leviticus. Leviticus, as we know, is intended to condemn ritual impurities associated with pagan idol worship. It would not be unreasonable to assume a connection, especially since Romans 1:24 mentions “uncleanness.” We know sex, both heterosexual and homosexual sex (not distinguished from each other at the time), was an extremely major component of pagan ritual. Most scholars (us included), agree that the sin in Romans 1 isn’t being gay or lesbian or having gay sex. The sin was worshiping pagan idols instead of God, as it was in Leviticus, as it is everywhere in the Bible.
To reflect our more examined understanding of what is “natural” and to clarify the subject matter of Romans 1, we have changed the verses to the following:
Their women did change their natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, left of the natural use of the woman, burned in ritual lust, one toward another; (QJV) (Page 545)
Men with men working that which is pagan and unseemly. For this cause God gave the idolators up unto vile affections, receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. (QJV) (Page 545)
Romans is our most major editing, but also one of our most powerfully free of interpretive ambiguity; it has been made very clear, yet retains all of the content of the original.
As I pointed out previously, the QJV editors’ re-interpretation of Leviticus specifically includes a context of idol worship that isn’t explicit in the original text, and also ignores concerns about cultural and societal purity that were very important to the author. By using that same argument here, the QJV editors are perpetuating the same sorts of misappropriated themes in their interpretation. Not only that, but the mention of the mysterious-yet-still-unnamed “most scholars” gives me further reason to be skeptical. I really can’t buy into this argument.
The editors of the Queen James Bible leave a great deal to be desired. Not only do they have several very problematic interpretations of the original text, but they also tend to manipulate the context and content of the passages to achieve their desired results. This is partially due to the commitment they established at the outset to edit in a way that ” makes homophobic interpretations impossible.”
However, there is one good thing that this bible does, as I observed with Genesis 19:5. It makes us think outside the box.
Christians on the whole tend to look toward faith as a source of ultimate answers, either through scriptural authority as a literal divine guidebook or sometimes at respected leadership groups as having special insight. The answers, quite literally, are there in black and white (and red, depending on if your copy of the Bible prints Jesus’s words in red text). However, God didn’t give us a world that was so very neatly packaged. The responsibility for making moral judgments falls upon each individual believer in concert with God.
This makes questions of gay marriage and the church so extremely difficult: because while Scripture and tradition have maintained the sanctity of marriage as between a man and a woman, we are faced with equally pressing Biblical concerns to love our neighbors as ourselves. Taking up only one of the two moral imperatives and abandoning the other is not an adequate solution, as both ends of the issue have moral value. How then do we reconcile the two?
The starting point comes from critically engaging our history and roots as Christians. Luke Timothy Jackson, a professor of New Testament at Candler School of Theology, wrote the following in 2007 in a piece advocating for a responsible pro-homosexual position within the Church.
…And something sacred is at stake. The authority of Scripture and of the church’s tradition is scarcely trivial. A real challenge confronts those of us who perceive God at work among all persons and in all covenanted and life-enhancing forms of sexual love. That challenge is to take our tradition and the Scripture with at least as much seriousness as those who use the Bible as a buttress for rejecting forms of sexual love they fear or cannot understand.
The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself.
It is my belief that a similar challenge presents itself to Christians of a more traditional conservative bend. Rather than merely grasp at a handful of verses deemed to be all-powerful on a particular issue, arguments for traditional marriage must be made taking the entirety of scripture into account. This includes the exhortations of Christ to love our neighbors, including the despised Samaritan.
If we abandon the call to love and understand our neighbors, focusing instead on only opposition to what is perceived to be un-Biblical, then we reject a huge portion of our Christian mission, becoming little better than Westboro Baptist Church in the process. A move in the right direction, rather, can be found in the work of Father Pontifex on YouTube.
The Queen James Bible is, in my view, not an accurate or honestly-approached attempt to translate or interpret scripture. (And it seems that most Amazon.com users agree.) However, it does serve a valuable function by forcing us to think critically about the Biblical and cultural origins of the Church’s position on LGBT issues. And that is a significant accomplishment.
David Giffin | Emory University | @D_Giffin