Right now in our translation, we are focusing on the book of Romans. It has already been drafted, but we are revising the draft and getting it ready to be tested in the community to see if it’s easy to understand…hmmm…easy to understand. That might be a challenge in the book of Romans! It’s hard to understand no matter how good the translation is! In fact, I challenge you to read Romans and to try to restate each phrase or verse in a clear way in your own words. You may quickly realize that you don’t know Romans as well as you thought!
One of the key verses in Romans is Romans 1:16-17, which says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
When we arrived at this verse, I did the usual thing that I do for each new verse – I looked at it in multiple versions, and also looked at a few commentaries to make sure that I understood the meaning. As I looked at these different aids, I was surprised to find debate over the first line: “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” I first noticed it in the T4T, which is a translation specifically designed for translators. This version says, “That leads me to say that I very confidently proclaim [LIT] the good message about what Christ has done…” In this translation, words in italics are added to help explain information that is implied in the text. The [LIT] notation means they are calling this a figure of speech called litotes. Litotes is a figure of speech in which someone uses ironic understatement – in other words, to make a point, they say the opposite of what they mean in an understated way. So when Paul said, “I am not ashamed,” what he meant was “I am proud.” I looked at a translator’s commentary to see why this change was made, and the commentary also said it was a figure of speech, and suggested one might say, “I am proud of the Gospel,” “I have complete confidence the Gospel”, or even idiomatically as “I rest my whole weight on” or “I lean against completely.” While these sound nice, for some reason, “being proud” of the Gospel did not seem the same to me as being “unashamed”.
I dug a little deeper, and even looked into an online class at a seminary. Many of these theologians agreed – Paul had no reason to be ashamed, and never gave any indication of being ashamed, so he couldn’t possibly mean that he wasn’t ashamed. Instead, he had to mean that he was proud of or confident in the gospel. It still didn’t quite seem right to me – there was something about the word “shame” that seemed important in this context.
As I was pondering these things (and our translation was moving forward), I remembered a book that I had read that talked about honor and shame in Romans. It was the book “Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes” by Jackson W. This book looks at Romans through the lens of an honor/shame culture, which is most likely the culture of Paul and the New Testament writers.
What exactly is an honor/shame culture? Well, there are three categories that are used as a classification system for cultures. The first is guilt/innocence. This is the type of culture we have in the United States. The culture is centered around law and punishment – If you follow the law, you are innocent and receive no punishment. If you break the law, you are guilty and are punished. Right and wrong is based on the law. The second is honor/shame. This culture is often found in “the East”. It is centered around what brings honor to you and to your group. If you do things that bring honor to your family, they are “right”, while if you do things that bring dishonor, they are “wrong”, regardless of law. As an example, in an honor shame culture, if you cheat on a test and as a result you do well and your family is honored, that was the right thing to do. However, if you get caught cheating, you will be publicly shamed and only then does it become the wrong thing to do. Right and wrong are based on what brings the most honor. The third type of culture is fear/power. This is often found in animistic societies such as in Africa. In this type of culture, might truly does make right. Those with the most physical power keep others in line through fear of retribution. Right and wrong are based on what it takes to gain and maintain power. It’s important to note that no culture is completely one of these categories, but they are generalizations that help us understand the motivations driving different cultures.
So, what does that mean for Romans? We in the West read Romans through a lens of guilt/innocence. We see that Paul was guilty of nothing, therefore he had no reason to be ashamed, and we turn the verse around to say that he was confident in the Gospel. However, in an honor/shame culture, I think Paul was saying something different. In fact, in that type of culture, Paul had every reason to be ashamed. He had been a ‘Jew of Jews’ as he himself said (Philippians 3:4-6). He came from the most prestigious and most honored group. Everything he did brought honor to that group, and as a result, he himself was a highly honored person. But, he chose to leave that group. He left behind all his honor, and he chose instead to join a group that was shameful. This new group had nothing to bring honor – an uneducated leader with rag-tag followers, with the capstone being the shameful death of the leader. According to his culture, Paul should have been ashamed. He had everything to be ashamed of.
But Paul was not ashamed. And this is what he wanted to communicate to his Roman audience. The gospel is so powerful that it overcomes shame. The honor of being one with Christ and living eternally with God is much greater than any earthly shame we could ever feel.
The next question is, what does that mean for us, in a guilt/innocence culture, or for those here in Africa who live in a fear/power culture? Does the gospel not have a message for people who aren‘t honor/shame? The good news is that the gospel has a message for every culture. And though we have to be careful to understand the original context, we can take the principles that we learn and apply them to our own culture. So while Paul is talking from his culture perspective to say he is not ashamed, he is leading each of us to see that the gospel has a message of salvation and hope no matter what cultural context we come from. The gospel is “the power of God for salvation”. So, to an honor/shame culture, the power of God removes our shame and brings us to a place of honor. To a guilt/innocence culture, the power of God saves us from the guilt of sin so that we are innocent before him. To a fear/power culture, the power of God is stronger than any other powers, and it releases us from the fear of the retribution of evil spirits.
Now the question for us as a translation team is, how do we translate? Do we change Paul’s words to fit the culture? I think the answer to that question is “no”. There are times when we can clarify the text, but there are times when it is not appropriate to tweak it just a bit to make it better fit a cultural perspective. We must trust that even when the text is hard to understand, that the Holy Spirit will illuminate readers so that they can understand the message that God Himself wants to communicate. In our translation, we did choose to say, “I do not have shame”. May God use it to bring the power of His salvation to these people!