Opinion: International outrage over Denmark’s fake Bible omitting Israel – time to discard it

Above all, the Danish Bible Society separates Israel from its Land.

By Petra Heldt, Gatestone Institute

The misrepresentation of Holy Scripture by the Danish Bible Society (DBS) has been met with a crescendo of international protest demanding the withdrawal of the falsified Bible.

The March 2020 Danish Bible, for the secular Danish reader’s easy reading, has omitted or replaced the word “Israel” in all but two places of the more than 60 Greek occurrences in the New Testament and in 9% of the Hebrew Bible.

Protests started on April 21 with the Danish author Jan Frost, who, in a video, first revealed the changes and took the Danish Society to task for them.

On April 26, the Bible Society of Israel (BSI) issued a gracious but unambiguous statement asking to “take measures to correct” the translation:

“The local body of believers as well as others in Israel and beyond were very surprised by and disappointed with the approach that the translators took regarding the term Israel and in its implementation in this translation…..We believe that the Danish Bible Society, as our fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord, will seriously consider our feedback, which echoes the voices of many, and will take measures to correct their translation as necessary.” (Emphasis added.)

BSI said it was “troubled” by what it found when researching the translation. Amongst the analyses it presented were:

Matt. 2:21: “and he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.” [speaking of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus’ return from their time in Egypt] ➡ the phrase “land of Israel” is changed to simply “home”.

Another example from the New Testament

Luke 4:25: “many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah” ➡ “many Jewish widows in the time of Prophet Elijah.” [This is an anachronism: the word “Jewish” was not in use in Elijah’s time, and he was a prophet in the northern kingdom, not in Judah.]

In the Hebrew Bible, BSI counted the term “Israel” 2,521 times, of which in 205 cases the word was omitted/replaced, for instance

Isa. 43:1: “But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.'” ➡ “O Israel” and “O Jacob” have been removed.

Jer. 33:7: “I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel…” ➡ “Judah and Israel” changed to “all my people”.

It is difficult not to see an intentional technique that eliminates the homeland of Israel and replaces it with a home for others; and that replaces the God of Israel with the God of you.

Unlike the Bible Society of Israel presentation, the Danish Bible Society statement of April 22 exemplifies a crafty method of misleading the reader. It seems simply a further example of its technique of distortion.

The Danish Bible Society statement comes with the headline, “Fake news about the Danish Bible.” The subheading reads:

“Is the word ‘Israel’ omitted from the Contemporary Danish Bible 2020? Get your facts straight with this Q&A so you can identify the fake news.”

This sets the tone for the Danish Bible Society’s rejection of the international outcry against its version of the Bible. The Danish Bible Society seems to regard the international outcry as a gross injustice.

The Danish Bible Society, disagreeing with those who criticized it for eliminating Israel from its Bible 2020, did not “take measures to correct” its mistranslations. Instead, the Danish Bible Society doubled down and insisted upon its bowdlerization. It claims, for instance, in its first paragraph:

“False information about the new Danish Bible Translation The Contemporary Danish Bible 2020 has been going around. Some news media state that the word Israel and the words Jew and Jewish have been omitted from the translation and also claim that the reason for this would be political and antisemitic. Nothing could be further from the truth. The words Israel and Israelite occur in the translation more than 2000 times and the words Jew and Jewish occur more than 500 times.” (Emphasis added.)

Later on, the Danish Bible Society’s response has a Q&A section, that begins:

Q: Have you omitted the word “Israel” in The Contemporary Danish Bible 2020?

A: No. In The Contemporary Danish Bible 2020 “Israel” and “Israelites” are mentioned more than two thousand times.

This misleads the reader twice. Once, the Danish Bible Society statement dodges the truthful assessment that the word “Israel” was omitted or replaced in the Hebrew Bible in 9% of its occurrences and in the New Testament nearly completely. By omitting any distinction between the two parts of the Bible the statement claims that it mentions “Israel” scores and scores of times in the translation.

Second, the statement inflates the word “Israel” with “Israelites.” Again here, the analysis of the critique has been side-stepped. The accusation has not been against the replacement of “Israel and the Israelites,” but against the replacement of “Israel.”

Conflating one word with a second is an interpretative method to make the first word appear less significant and thus ducking the accusation. The word “Israel” has an extended history of three thousand years, the word “Israelites” of less than one thousand years. These two words are of unequal measure and had not been joined together in the critique.

The second paragraph of the statement, though, has a surprise. Carefully embedded into the elucidation on its translation method, the statement, finally, does admit the omission of “Israel”:

“The Contemporary Danish Bible 2020 is a special kind of Bible translation directed at secular readers with no or little knowledge of the Bible and of its history and traditional church and Bible language. This means that many things are translated differently than in traditional Bible Translations. For instance, it doesn’t use the usual Danish words for sin, grace, mercy, covenant and many other typically biblical words, which an average Danish reader wouldn’t be familiar with the meaning of. In the translation of The New Testament it uses The Jewish People, The Jews, God’s chosen people or simply The People to translate Israel since the majority of Danish readers wouldn’t know that Israel in The New Testament at large refers to the people of God with which he has made a covenant.” (Emphasis added.)

After a spectacular denial of the crime of which the Danish Bible Society has been accused internationally, it finally admits to it. But it does not sound like repentance. It comes at the end of some astonishing methodological considerations. While any translation has to wrestle with the transportation of the meaning and culture of the text from one language to another, the extraordinary decision of the Danish Bible Society staff to deprive their readers of some of the key points of the Christian faith is mind-boggling.

Above all, the Danish Bible Society separates Israel from its Land. Apart from other key issues of the faith, it denies the reader the knowledge of the intrinsic connection between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and between Israel and its Land. It falls in the trap of which the Apostle Paul warned, “It is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you” (Romans 11: 18). Its version of the Bible robs the Christian faith of its Jewish roots. It presents a new story of the Christian faith. Its maker is the Danish Bible Society.

Finally, the last paragraph of its statement reads like a self-denigration of its own work

“The Contemporary Danish Bible 2020 is not a Bible translation authorized for use in the Danish Folk Church – it is for supplementary reading. The Danish Bible Society also publishes the authorized version in which Israel is translated traditionally as Israel.” (Emphasis added.)

Is this really a recommendation, not to take this translation seriously? If so, it is trivializing the charge and will not stop the international outrage. For Christians and Jews, the Bible is serious. Any tampering with its words, above all with the word Israel, is unacceptable and rejected, unequivocally. The attempted murder of Israel, from time eternal until our day, is too real to let people play, whimsically, with its land, its people or its name.

The statement itself is rather fanciful. It goes from rejecting the charges, to avoiding the critique, to admitting to the crime, and finally to self-denigration. What a strange disorder.

If the Danish Bible Society gives the impression of not functioning clearly, could the Church not lead it through the muddle, or, at least, could the Church not rescue itself from being identified by this Danish Bible with divestment from Israel? For this, we turn to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark (ELCD) and to the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).

The Danish Lutheran Church has established the “The Council on International Relations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark.” The Council is “responsible for the contact of the ELCD to other Christian Churches… and… for the Evangelical Lutheran Church’s membership of national and international organizations”.

On 23 April, two days after the Danish Bible Society statement, the Council on International Relations of the ELCD published its own statement with the headline:

“No, the the (sic) word ‘Israel’ is not omitted from The Contemporary Danish Bible 2020. Fake news is circulating online about the new Danish Bible Translation. Read here to get your facts straight.”

In other words, the Council on International Relations of the ELCD actually endorses the Danish Bible Society’s misstatements. Even worse, the Council further adds to them by quoting, in support of the Danish Bible Society, the former Chief Rabbi in Denmark, Bent Melchior:

“Then, when Jesus lived, the region was not called Israel, it was called Judea. We are called Jews, because our ancestry lies in Judea, not Israel. Thus, in that respect I would say it is a fair correction, because it is not a geographical concept when Israel is mentioned in the Bible.”

If this is what the Rabbi really said about the omission and replacement of Israel in the New Testament, then we must assume that his knowledge of the Hebrew Bible outshines by far the one of the Greek Bible, where both terms Israel and Judea are of great importance. Jesus and his followers walk through and gather adherents from the two parts of the one Land of Israel, given to Abraham. During and beyond the time of Jesus, Jews refer to this Land as Eretz Israel. So does the Gospel (Matthew 2:21). Rabbi Melchior’s quotation looks strangely out of place.

The Council on International Relations of the ELCD states in the declaration that “The Bible Society is an autonomous ecumenical organization and is member of United Bible Societies.”

So here we are. The Danish Lutheran Church’s Council defends removing Israel from the Danish Bible 2020 — but the Danish Bible Society is autonomous? No relation between the Church and the Danish Bible Society? Really?

Just how autonomous is the Danish Bible Society from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark? The Board of Directors of the Danish Bible Society “is the highest responsible body of the Danish Bible Society’s ongoing activities… The president is always the Bishop of the Diocese of Copenhagen (currently Peter Skov-Jacobsen).”

Archbishop Peter Skov-Jacobsen is the “first among equals” of the Church in Denmark. He is the highest ecclesiastical authority of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark. As the President of the Board of Directors of the Bible Society in Denmark, how much responsibility for the Bible 2020 does the Archbishop of the Danish Lutheran Church have? Does he not have, at least, a word of explanation to the faithful Christians and Jews in their joint international outcry?

On 28 April, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), of which the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark is a member, issued “A word of clarification”:

“The Contemporary Danish Bible 2020 is published by the Danish Bible Society, an interdenominational organization that is independent from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark.”

In its short “Word” the LWF refers any questions regarding Bible 2020 to the Danish Bible Society and justifies itself — preemptively? — by claiming:

“… Lutheran churches reject anti-semitism and affirm the integrity and dignity of the Jewish faith. This was stated at the LWF Assembly in Budapest in 1984, where the LWF member churches also distanced themselves from the writings and expressions of Martin Luther against Jews.”

So, clearly, the LWF wants to keep a distance from the anti-Israel Danish Bible Society translation. But can this work? If the Lutheran World Federation has no formal responsibility towards the Danish Bible Society and its translation, what about a responsibility towards a member Church whose ecclesiastical head is institutionally also the head of the Bible Society that is accused of parting from Israel?

Does the accusation not call the spirit of the declaration of the LWF Assembly in Budapest in 1994 to stand against Luther’s anti-Semitism? Even if the LWF does not have a juridical responsibility for the Danish Bible Society, is there not a moral responsibility for the aberration of faith of a Bible Society that serves one of its member churches? LWF refers to the statements of the Danish Bible Society from April 22 and the Council on International Relations of the ELCD of April 23.

The Lutheran Church, neither in the form of its local Danish Church Council nor in the form of its international umbrella organization, the Lutheran World Federation, wishes to correct a gross error in a Bible translation that is meant for the use in churches, including the Lutheran churches. The Lutheran Church does not accept responsibility for the kind of Bible rendition that their faithful employ? Does it mean that anything goes regarding the Word of God?

The Danish Bible Society is a member of the United Bible Societies. What does the United Bible Societies have to say about the issue? We take a hint from the statement of the Bible Society in Israel which reads:

“As a national Bible Society, the Danish Bible Society did this project using their own budget and team and not under the supervision of the United Bible Societies. The Bible Society in Israel had no knowledge of the project prior to its publication.”

Also, here as well, the umbrella organization of the Bible Societies was apparently not in the picture when the translation was made. No one seems to be in the know about this translation of the Bible. Is it possible that the superfluous mistranslation of the Bible was an initiative of the General Secretary of the Danish Bible Society, Birgitte Stoklund Larsen? Did her office raise the money? Where from? Who profits from this initiative? If not her, who, then?

While the international protest against this Bible translation grows, while the Danish Bible Society of which the Archbishop of the Danish Lutheran Church is the president, cannot be far off the Danish Lutheran Church, and while the reputation of the Danish churches that will use the Bible 2020 is at stake, together with the trust in the Christian faith by Christians and Jews in Israel and worldwide, Denmark really does need to discard its fake Bible.

Rev. Dr. Petra Heldt is Director of the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity, Jerusalem.