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First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament

by Kimberly Dickson | March 22, 2022
Cover of First Nations Version

The First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament presents the orthodox Christian faith in a new and vivifying manner. The translators, representing more than twenty North American tribes, and assisted by established translation organizations, sought to reclaim the colonial English language, “to serve our people in a good way, by presenting Creator Sets Free (Jesus) in a more culturally relevant way.”1 Their methodology specifically centered their oral storyteller tradition, culminating in a beautiful translation that highlights Christian spirituality in ways that are easily overlooked in other English translations. In fact, it has the effect of uncovering the work of the Spirit in ways unaccustomed to a western reader.

There are several unique aspects to this translation. The most obvious is the naming that follows the Native system, using the meanings of names for people and places. So as not to cause confusion, the traditional Biblical names are put in parentheses next to the name. This is carried into the naming of God as well, such as Creator Sets Free (Jesus). The Great Spirit aligns with the Native understanding of God the Father, but the translation employs many other names that reflect the Native understanding of the Great Creator as well. Another prominent aspect of this translation is the use of italicized insertions for “reasonably implied statements.”2 This aligns with their intent to prioritize meaning in a thought-for-thought translation, rather than a word-for-word translation. Similarly, they occasionally insert “comments about the history, culture, and geography within the story to add depth and understanding” for those who come to the text without this background.3

This translation provides a prologue to the New Testament that, in storyteller form, succinctly covers creation to the Messiah. This provided an opportunity to honor both the men and women of this historic tale, but unfortunately focused only on the men. This was most obvious in the case of the Abrahamic promise, attributing its fulfillment to Abraham’s descendants. However, scripture is more specific, identifying these descendants as heirs of Sarah rather than Abraham’s other two wives. Genesis 17:16, “I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (NRSV). Instead of naming her, they refer to Sarah as “his wife,” despite God renaming her Sarah, which means “chieftess or princess.” Considering the translation’s emphasis on names, this was surprising and a missed opportunity to honor both sexes, causing me to worry that patriarchy would be embedded in the New Testament translation.

I found the New Testament translation to have an undercurrent that maintained this male perspective, despite the shockingly strong stance it takes against the objectification and abuse of women. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:27-31 provides a prominent example of this strong stance against abuse. The section begins with a bold capitalized heading, Honoring Our Women. It then inserts a short, italicized explanation that describes the low status and disrespect common to women in that era as a precursor to explaining Jesus’ instructions against a man “who looks at a woman and wants his way with her.” While, this translation exemplifies good use of everyday language, this version goes further. It prefaces verse 29 with an italicized explanation, “This is not how the Great Spirit wants us to see our sisters” and then applies the following verses to the objectification and abuse of women, “If your right eye sees her in this way, gouge it out…if your right hand does harm to her—cut if off…” This unique grouping of verses 27-31 under “Honoring Our Women” provides a much needed, but generally missed, context of condemning abuse against women.

The translation deals with the difficult Pauline passages through nuanced language different than we are used to in other English translations. Regarding the issue of mutual respect in the household codes of Ephesians 5:21–22, the translation is more faithful to the Greek than the ESV by keeping both verses together under the bold subheading, ‘Wisdom for Husbands and Wives.’ It then states these verses as, “If you have respect for the Chosen One, then have respect for each other.” However, rather than carrying the verbal phase “have respect” to the next clause, as the Greek intends, the First Nations Version continues, “Wives, honor your husbands in the same way you honor the Great Spirit.” Further, in looking at the restrictions that silence women in 1 Corinthians 14:45–36, an egalitarian hermeneutic considers 1 Corinthians 11:5’s instructions for women’s public prophecy, as evidence that Paul could not have meant women must be silent in church. However, the First Nations Version avoids using the word “prophecy” in the context of women, instead saying, “but any woman who prays or speaks for the Great Spirit with her head uncovered” (1 Cor. 11:5). Yet in the general context of 1 Corinthians 14, “prophecy” is used repeatedly. This causes the reader to wonder why the translation uses different language for “prophecy” as it relates to women. However, the text seems to soften most of the difficult Pauline passages and promote honor between men and women. Still, I would argue that the translation problematically approaches the text from a male perspective. This is even evident in the previously discussed passage on abuse through the heading, “Honoring Our Women.”

I recommend this Bible translation for the many reasons outlined above. It brings a fresh perspective to our scriptures that is both orthodox and illuminating, as is often the case when we have the opportunity to see God’s heart through a different lens than our own. And despite my critique of the undercurrent of the male perspective, overall I think it promotes an attitude of respect between men and women, while severely rebuking abuse against women. Finally, the power of the Holy Spirit seems to flow through the whole translation, bringing new life to the reader.

Notes

1. First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament, Dedication.
2.  First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament, xii.
3.  First Nations Version, xii

Book info
Publisher:
InterVarsity Press
Year:
2021
ISBN:
978-0830813506