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. 


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

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

  1. The NABRE is a mushy version indeed. It’s used by no scholars. The Vatican uses the Revised Standard for English translations of Vatican documents. The dwindling number of mass attending Catholics are the only ones who hear it but it generates good income through royalties to the USCCB. When that’s considered, what matter that an expunged truth is presented?

  2. Thank you, Father. I am troubled by a couple of things relating to the use of Scripture at Mass as well as in the Liturgy of the Hours..

    1. Vague translations like the one you point out here. These translation do not seem “innocent” to me. That is, they seem to be the product of translators who have an ideological agenda. This is why I believe Liturgiam Authenticam was so important, and why I have been so disappointed to see it actively undermined, if not made into a dead letter under the current pontificate.

    2. I am also troubled by the abridgment of Scripture passages in the Lectionary and the Liturgy of the Hours. Often, key elements are left out, or the reading cuts off just before the “hard” part. At a minimum, I wish such abridgments contained elipses ( . . .) to clue the reader in to the fact that something has been left out. But that would not help “hearers” – i.e., the congregation. The rationale given for excising parts of the Scripture is that it is done to shorten it but to be honest it seems to me that it more often is done with an ideological purpose. Who are we to abridge or excise portions from God’s Word to make it more palatable?

    3. The many translations, not just in English but in so many languages around the world, have been a great boon in that they have made the Scriptures available to the common people. And yet, this has also created a kind of “Tower of Babel” situation where the different translations carry different meanings (often on purpose) and so our many versions of the Scriptures sometimes even contradict each other. This, to me, is a strong argument for retaining the Latin Vulgate (as revised) as the “official” version of the Church and the standard for all other approved translations.

    4. Finally, I am disturbed that some important passages are never read at Mass. For example, St. Paul’s warning against unworthy reception of the Eucharist at 1 Cor 14:33-35. Again, this exclusion seems to me to be part of an agenda. I cannot think of another good reason for its exclusion.

  3. Very insightful and illuminating! It definitely makes more sense. Thank you, Msgr. Pope

  4. The lector at the Mass I attended read it as “Avoid immortality” – read it that way at both points in the reading. “Flee fornication” would have been much clearer!

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