Martin E Martin – Lost in Translation

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682)
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682)

“Religion in American (etc.) Public Life” is our rubric and we sight references to it at least weekly. So what business do we have lifting up, from a single magazine, two reviews of books about ancient Hebrew prophets and New Testament parables? What ever happened to ‘focus’ and ‘relevance’!?

Our first book review this week is by a favored contemporary Christian professor of Hebrew Scriptures, Walter Brueggemann, of a work of translation by a Jewish professor with the same calling, Everett Fox.

The other is by a Christian pastor, James C. Howell, reviewing a book of interpretation by a Jewish scholar (“and clever raconteur,” says Howell), Amy-Jill Levine, who writes about Jesus.

Whoever ponders the reviews or, better, cracks the books, will easily see how urgent such writings are. In Olde England, early translators of the Bible into English were, on occasion, burned to death for their putatively subversive efforts.

Today, as Brueggemann says, and shows, many inherited, traditional, cherished English translations can lead to enduring misunderstanding. “In the book of Joshua, [translator] Fox recognizes that at face value the text reports on a ‘genocide’ in which Israel seeks to obliterate the resident population.”

Whoever engages in theological dialogue with Muslims is reminded of that in the first minute or two, and it gets more complex from there.

Brueggemann shows how Fox’s translation and footnotes throw some different light on the many such stories in Scripture. Thus the violence in the Book of Judges raises for Fox the question “Why does the God of Israel still stand by this people?”

“The answer is in the divine promise that leads to the ongoing ‘resiliency of Israel,’” traceable through careful study and reflection.

As I read that, I thought of the light such reflection can throw on non- and anti-Muslim charges that divinely sanctioned violence in passages in the Qur’an fairly represent Islam when it is described as nothing-but-violent. We find scholars in “our” cultures just beginning to hold up more lights than one on this question.

Meanwhile, reviewer Howell helps readers learn in highly condensed form some lessons from Levine about interpreting Jesus’ parables in new and more accurate (and thoughtful) ways.

I’ve heard Levine enthrall hundreds of pastors at a Southern Baptist based university, and doubt whether any of them found her talk to be polemically against Jesus and Christianity. Her mission is to do more justice to the text than Christians (or Jews, for that matter) often unreflectively offer.

Levine opened to us in the audience the so-called “lost” parables in Luke 15, in ways that knocked many, include this listener, off-balance. She had, and in this book, has readers mentally rewriting some things they have said or taught or preached, e.g., once they pick up the clue that the Prodigal Son’s father and the woman with the lost coin (Luke 15) were wealthy.

Levine’s deep insight? “If you only have five sheep, you’ll notice one missing, but if you have a hundred? ‘Perhaps it is those who ‘have’ who are more likely to fail to notice what is missing.’”

Howell: “What made me shudder,” as he read, was “discovering that many of us have unwittingly been passing along anti-Jewish stereotypes.” He realized that he had misinterpreted the texts, Judaism, and Jesus, because he had not been alerted to the world in which the words recorded of Jesus were first spoken and pondered.

Shudder or not, many serious believing members of one religious community will deal more fairly with others through reading books like these two. Who, on the inter-cultural scene in which we live today, could possibly remain uncurious, or get bored?

So, it’s “back to the books,” such books—or “forward” to them.


Brueggemann, Walter. “Found in Translation.” Review of Everett Fox’s The Early Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings (vol. 2 of The Schocken Bible). The Christian Century 132, no. 6 (March 18, 2015), 38-39.

Howell, James C. “Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.” Review of Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. The Christian Century 132, no. 6 (March 18, 2015), 41-42.

Image: “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Source: Web Gallery of Art / Wikimedia Commons.

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit


Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

NOTE: The book by Amy-Jill Levine mentioned above could be read HERE.

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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