A Concern for a Vague Translation in the Lectionary and a Missed Moment for Teaching

This past Sunday featured a reading from 1 Corinthians 6 that was unfortunately vague in its English translation.  The text said, “Avoid immorality,” (1 Corinthians 6:18) hides the more specific meaning of the text. “Avoid immorality?” It may as well have said “Do good and avoid evil.” Nothing could be more vague.

For the record the Greek text is Φεύγετε τὴν πορνείαν (Pheugete ten porneian) which is accurately and easily translated: Flee fornication (sexual immorality). It is a powerful admonition in the Greek, and just about every other English version of the Bible, except the Revised New American Bible (RNAB). I checked twenty other translations, and they all say “Flee fornication” or “Flee sexual immorality.”

It is a clarion call to chastity that is so necessary to hear in this sex saturated culture? Sadly our vague lectionary translation misses a teachable moment.

Fundamentally there are two problems with this translation.

In the first place, πορνείᾳ (porneia) (which is a specific reference to sexual immorality) is translated vaguely as “immorality.”

Immorality can mean practically any sin. If I were to say, “That group is immoral,” I could mean almost anything from it being greedy, or racist, or violent, or just promoting some sinful activity. Frankly sex is not the first thing that comes to mind when the word immorality is encountered.

But πορνείᾳ (porneia) is a specific word referring to sexual immorality. Usually it refers to pre-marital sex (fornication), but sometimes it may be used to refer to other sexual sins, depending on the context, like incest or adultery.

So problem one is that “immorality” is so vague as to be inaccurate.

In the second place “avoid” (as in “avoid immorality”) is profoundly weak as a translation of Φεύγετε (pheugete) which means, quite simply, “Flee!” It is a present, active, imperative verb in the second person plural. As an imperative it is thus a command, and merits the exclamation point: You (all) flee!

Strong’s Greek dictionary of biblical terms defines the verb as “to flee, escape or shun.

One might argue that “avoid” captures the word “shun” which is the third meaning. No it does not. “Shun” is a strong word, “avoid” in English is exceedingly more vague. “Avoid” says, “other things being equal, you ought to steer clear of this, if it is not too much trouble.”  “Avoid” is friendly advice. “Shun” indicates a strong detestation.

Flee, which is the first first meaning is an unambiguous command of warning, one which calls for immediate action due to something that is more than a small threat.

This Greek verb φεύγω (pheugó) is used 29 times in the new Testament (see here) and in no case is “avoid” the best or proper translation. In fact to use “avoid” would yield often times unintelligible, sometimes comical results. Consider some of the following verses and mentally try to substitute the word “avoid”

  1. The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream saying Arise and take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt (Matt 2:13)
  2. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism he said unto them O generation of vipers who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come (Matt 3:7)
  3. And they that kept [the pigs] fled into the city and told every thing and what was befallen to the possessed of the devils (Matt 8:33)
  4. When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet stand in the holy place whoever reads let him understand  Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains (Matt 24:16)
  5. the disciples left [Jesus] and fled. (Matt 26:56)
  6. the woman fled into the wilderness (Rev 12:6)

In other words “fled” or “flee” is the first, and best translation of the Greek verb φεύγω (pheugó), followed by “escape.” “Avoid,” just doesn’t capture what is being said.

Pastorally, this is a lost moment for Catholics with the translation “Avoid immorality.” Not only is the meaning obscure, but the imperative voice of the Greek is almost wholly lost by the vague and suggestive “avoid.” Who will follow an uncertain trumpet? (cf 1 Cor 14:8). The clarion call of this text is to get way as far, and as fast as possible, from fornication. This trumpet-call is reduced to barely a kazoo by the translation, “avoid immorality.” And even if a listener does finally get that “immorality” here means “sexual immorality” he or she will hardly be moved by the word avoid.

The bottom line is that 1 Corinthians 6:18 (Φεύγετε τὴν πορνείαν. πᾶν ἁμάρτημα ὁ ἐὰν ποιήσῃ ἄνθρωπος ἐκτὸς τοῦ σώματος ἐστιν· ὁ δὲ πορνεύων εἰς τὸ ἴδιον σῶμα ἁμαρτάνει) is better and correctly translated as:

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. 

OR:

Flee fornication. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but the fornicator, sins against his own body.

In other words, Run! Flee! Head for the hills! Get as far and as fast away from fornication as you can.

Do you get it? Probably not if you heard the Lectionary version last Sunday: Avoid immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body. Not exactly a clarion call.

This is surely something to bring to the attention of the Bishops as a new Lectionary is prepared. Rest assured I will surely bring it to the attention of a few bishops I know. I pray you might do the same.

Painting at top: St. Paul Writing at his Desk by Rembrandt

13 Replies to “A Concern for a Vague Translation in the Lectionary and a Missed Moment for Teaching”

  1. If you know anything about the occult forces running our world, you will suspect that this was done intentionally. One of the worst so-called “mistakes” in Bible versions is where it says “This kind [of evil spirit] can only be driven out by prayer AND FASTING,” but in many translations the “and fasting” part was dropped. I wonder why?!

    Msg. Pope, I hope you’re reading/watching Joshua Charles, Charles Fraune, Daniel O’Connor, James Perloff, Dave McGowan, Jesse Romero, Altiyan Childs (video on Rumble exposing Freemasonry).

    Thanks for your consistent, holy leadership and wonderful Bible exegesis. Happy New Year! Lord Jesus, please guide and strengthen us. Blessed Mother Mary and St. Joseph, pray for us.

  2. Flight. It is not just a term for S. Joseph of Cupertino nor only for the Apostles at Gethsemane.

    I think of the various occasions during Christ’s preaching when he fled, still unscathed, much as did the Israelites teach drill into their children annually how to dine with their loins girt and ready to take flight from Pharoah under the light of a full moon.

    But I think, also, of the occasion where Christ taught elsewise: to stand one’s ground against false accusers, and, moreso, to set one’s face like flint towards certain sacrifice for the sake of others.

    It is a helpful article you share with us today, Msgr. Pope. More than a century of psychoanalytic theory based on the root of the human psyche in libidinal desires has informed the most reductive of understandings of human dignity. It must needs be uprooted and turned to ashes by the furnace.

    What are we if but mere subjects to our lower appetites? No more than animals who have abadoned the gift of intellect, if even that much.

    And, yet, there the first response is to flee. Until that fortification in prayer by which one is called to choose that hill on which one is prepared to die for the sake of turning back that ideological reductive perspective, all too widely imposed in our age, which Freud begat.

    Ecce Crucem Domini …

  3. As far as I am concerned, the Bible is the main cause of problems with Christianity, especially between Catholics and Protestants. Why can’t some Catholic publisher come up with the most literal translation of the Greek and publish it as such. The same holds true for the liturgy and the Creed. For instance, where the Creed says “ Jesus descended into Hell” as opposed to “ the dead”. Too many people get the wrong impression without proper explanation.

  4. Spanish lectionary had fornicar (verb infinitive), fornicacion (noun) and fornica (3rd person singular verb). And, yes, it is a missed opportunity.

    Also, 1 Cor 6:9-12b is only read every other year on a weekday.
    I started my homily simply by “reading from the Bible” this passage as it drives the point home.

  5. Thank you Msgr. Pope,

    I printed this out for my Greek/Latin students here at Our Lady of Walsingham Academy. A wonderful analysis and a great reason to keep educating students in Latin and Greek!

  6. The spiritual, but not religious, translation of St. Paul–unfortunately for English speaking Catholics, in the United States.

  7. Here in Canada, we use the New Revised Standard Version as the scripture translation for our lectionary. The word in 1 Corinthians 6.18 is ‘fornication’ in that translation. Perhaps the USCCB should consider getting a better translation for the lectionary used in Catholic Churches in the U.S.

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