Bible translation is not a subject that often makes the headlines – but it has made news in Israel.
A new Danish Bible has made ripples in the Jewish state because it avoids using the word “Israel”.
Where some translations use “Israel”, this new Danish Bible uses “Jews” or “the Jewish people”.
“Defending the deletions, the society said they prevent confusion with the modern-day country.”
There were strong reactions from groups such as B’nai B’rith International (a human rights and Israel advocacy lobby), which accused the Danish Bible Society of “whitewashing of history, identity, and sacred scripture”. But most stories repeated criticism from just one “Bible enthusiast” in Denmark.
The New Danish Bible 2020 is aimed at people who have not read the Bible before, or who are not familiar with it. It’s an easy-to-read version like the ones we have in English – such as the New Living Translation (NLT), the second best-selling Bible in Australia.
As in many fresh translations, the new renderings will stand out.
In the New Testament where some translations use the word “Israel”, this new Danish Bible uses “Jews” or “the Jewish people.”
“For the secular reader, who does not know the Bible well, ‘Israel’ could be referring only to a country,” the Danish Bible Society explains. “Therefore, the word ‘Israel’ in the Greek text has been translated in other ways, so that the reader understands it is referring to the Jewish people.”
In an example provided by the Danes: “When Jesus saw Nathanael arrive, he said, ‘There is a person one can trust, a worthy representative of God’s chosen people.'” (New Danish Bible 2020, John 1:47)
This is how the same verse is translated in the NIV version: “When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, ‘Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.'”
The NLT translates it like this: “As they approached, Jesus said, ‘Now here is a genuine son of Israel – a man of complete integrity.’” (NLT)
“Israel” is used in a complex way in the Bible. Many Christians are used to the multiple meanings, but the Danish Bible Society has a point – it is confusing to the new reader.
• God gives Jacob a new name, “Israel” (see Genesis 32), and he has 12 sons.
• The 12 tribes descended from Jacob’s sons take the name “Israel” for their nation.
• After the nation splits in two following King Solomon’s reign, the northern ten tribes are called “Israel”, the southerners “Judah.”
• But by the time of the New Testament, the southern tribes are called “Jews” (from Judah) – and are also called “Israel.”
• And as the Danish Bible Society points out, there is also the modern state of Israel, founded in 1948 as a homeland for the Jews.
For the sake of making things easy to understand, the Danes decided to use “Israel” to mean the nation until it splits (and uses “Northern Kingdom” and “Southern Kingdom” for the time they existed) and the word “Jews” in the New Testament. It’s plain and does have the advantage of simplicity.
The main charge against the decision is this is some form of “replacement theology”, substituting the Church for Israel.
As Paul puts it: “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself.”
Asked by Eternity‘s Kylie Beach – “Are there certain things Christians should do, ask, think, or be aware of when they read about ‘Israel’ in the Bible?” – theologian Michael Bird told her:
“Short answer: no. Long answer: there are all sorts of debates concerning the genetic and ethnographic continuity of peoples who inhabited Eretz Israel [Land of Israel] from the Bronze until the present.”
“Remember, this is a land that has experienced various patterns of migration, conquest, de-population, re-habitation, and colonisation during the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, crusader, and colonial periods.
“All sorts of people have lived in Israel, over the centuries, of different religions and ethnicities. Most importantly, the Israelite kingdoms that one reads about in the historical books of the Old Testament reflect something of a God-given kingdom that was important for God’s purpose in the Israelites at a particular time, place, and space in redemptive-history.
“However, the modern state of Israel, founded in 1948, is not a Davidic monarchy or a Zadokite hierocracy [a ruling body of priests]. Rather, it is a secular state closely aligned to various expressions of the Jewish religion. So the Israel of [Benjamin] Netanyahu is not the same as the Israel of Nahum!”
Politics of replacement
It is understandable that the Danish Bible Society wishes to make clear for new readers that the state of “Israel” is different from “Israel” the people, or the kingly state ruled by David.
Centuries of applying Bible verses to justify ill-treatment of Jews have given them good reason to be suspicious.
Does it imply a political viewpoint? Not necessarily. The link between the Abrahamic promises of the land of Canaan and, hence, the claims made for the modern state of Israel are actually preserved in the use of “Israel” for the people who receive the promised land.
Is there a replacement theology implicit in the Danish Bible?
Replacement theology says that the Jews’ place in God’s purposes has been replaced by the Church and God’s promises to the Jews have been transferred holus-bolus to the Christian Church.
Christians need to take seriously the charge of anti-Semitism – which lies behind the concern of Jewish people about this way of interpreting the Bible. We have no choice.
Tragically, centuries of applying Bible verses to justify ill-treatment of Jews have given Jews good reason to be suspicious of how the Bible can be used. But replacement theology is relatively rare in Australia.
For the Danish or any other Bible Society to support replacement theology would only be possible if the second half of the book of Romans had somehow been removed. It hasn’t been in the new Danish version.
In that part of Romans, the apostle Paul makes clear that promises to the Jews/the people of Israel still stand.
Mike Bird pointed to possibly the key verse: “I ask, then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.” That’s the NIV translation.
If we change “Israelite” to “Jewish”, the meaning is the same. “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am Jewish myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.”