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Issue Date:  December 9, 2005

By Wilma Ann Bailey
Liturgical Press, 94 pages, $10.95
'You shall not kill' revisited

How a biblical commandment has been translated over time


The Decalogue commands, “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17). When I worked in law enforcement, I wrestled with how to interpret this commandment. Was this a general prohibition against all forms of killing? Or did it allow for exceptions such as capital punishment, self-defense, a just war? In other words, might the commandment be interpreted as “You shall not murder”? Understood in this way, the commandment would prohibit only intentional killings of innocent persons. In this perspective, although all murders involve killing, not all killings necessarily are considered murder.

Wilma Ann Bailey, an associate professor of Hebrew and Aramaic scripture at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, has written a short book explaining how the commandment “You shall not kill” became “You shall not murder” in many widely used English Bible translations and why she thinks the verse should still be read as “You shall not kill.” The translations that changed the wording to “You shall not murder” include the TANAKH (1962), the New American Standard Version (1971), the New International Version (1978), the New King James Version (1982), the New Revised Standard Version (1989) and the Revised English Bible (1989). In Dr. Bailey’s view, the word change is problematic because Christians will continue to assume killing is sometimes a justified action to take.

First, she tackles one of the main reasons often given for the change -- that the word used in Exodus 20:13, rtsh, means “murder” everywhere else in the Bible. The word occurs in the Bible 13 times in verb form, 32 times in noun form and two times as an adjective. By examining the places where it appears, Dr. Bailey persuasively demonstrates the ambiguity of this Hebrew word. Though it does at times mean murder (for example, Deuteronomy 22:26), sometimes it extends beyond murder and includes other forms of killing, such as the action of the court ordering the execution of a person (for example, Numbers 35:29-30).

Second, Dr. Bailey -- not entirely convincingly -- disputes the claim that because in other biblical texts killing is allowed and perhaps even demanded by God, this commandment cannot be interpreted as a general prohibition against killing. Following modern biblical criticism, she notes that the Bible is a collection of literary materials exhibiting diverse sociological and theological perspectives. Therefore, she warns that attempts to harmonize texts should be carefully scrutinized if not rejected.

Third, Dr. Bailey suggests that the change in wording occurred because Bible translators are influenced by personal, political and cultural commitments with which the translation “You shall not murder” is most compatible. Indeed, Chapters 2 through 4 provide narratives of how “You shall not kill” became “You shall not murder” in the main translations used by evangelical Protestantism and mainline Protestantism and in Judaism. Evangelical Protestants came to accept the change because it fit with their growing support of American nationalism and militarism. Mainline Protestant denominations with state-church roots that historically justified capital punishment and just wars have also accepted the “murder” translation. Judaism, with its relatively recent acquisition of political power and the creation of the state of Israel, also has come to interpret the command as “murder.”

In contrast, Roman Catholic translations of the Bible during the second half of the 20th century -- the Jerusalem Bible (1966), the New Jerusalem Bible (1985) and the New American Bible (1970) -- retain the wording “You shall not kill.” Dr. Bailey attributes this to the way that all of scripture for Catholics is to be interpreted through “the Word,” the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. She believes Catholics place more emphasis on tradition and consistency in translation, which makes them more resistant to changes in wording. Moreover, in recent years the Catholic church has taken a stronger stance on such issues as the death penalty.

This third step in Dr. Bailey’s argument I find to be the least convincing. Since the fourth century, Roman Catholicism was closely associated with empire and the state, justifying capital punishment and just wars even when the commandment was translated as “You shall not kill.” Moreover, even with their translation as “You shall not murder,” most mainline Protestant denominations today officially espouse a stricter view of what constitutes a just war and reject the death penalty like Catholics. The correlation that Bailey proposes is oversimplified.

A couple of other items detracted from the book’s quality. For one, I find it odd that Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, the former a major theologian and the latter a bishop in the United Methodist church, are included in her section on evangelicals rather than mainline Protestants. Also, in such a short book, I was distracted by typos on several pages.

Nevertheless, I also learned some interesting things, such as that Southern Baptists, who are counted among evangelical Protestants, regarded war during the earlier part of the 20th century as incompatible with the will of Christ even though they were not entirely pacifist in their position. Even more staunchly opposed to war earlier in their history were Pentecostal churches such as the Assemblies of God. The prior stance of these major evangelical groups stands in striking contrast to their fervent support of militarism today.

Tobias Winright teaches Christian ethics at St. Louis University, St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, December 9, 2005

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