Disability Studies and Bible translation

werner [at] forschungsinstitut.net



This essay is a short introduction to Disability Studies and Bible translation. What is on the first glance not obvious, becomes much clearer when the linguistic and social impact of historic Bible translations is in focus. Not just political correctness but also an Inclusivist rethinking of the church is needed to overcome existing hermeneutics of Ableism or Disableism.




Disability Studies (DS) originates from social studies in the 1960s concurrent with both the gay and feminist liberation movements and Latin American liberation theology. Since then, there has been an increasing awareness of DS in theology, but not so much in missiology (intercultural theology in Germany) or in the Science of Bible translation. Research on, by, and with people with physical or mental impairment is yet to be introduced in these disciplines. Within Disability Studies, the history, the needs (e.g., care, assistance), and the social framework of adults with physical or mental impairment have been investigated. Less so in missiology or Intercultural Theology, where neither Christian parents nor other Christian care providers for children, or those groups that focus on Christian care have been in focus.

In the light of expensive long-term (Bible) translation training, preparation in intercultural-linguistics, costly member care and administrative structures, as well as the high cost of medical or physical aid both on the field and at home, there is an obvious lack of research on DS in missiology. Out of an inclusivist approach, such a need opens up the potential for sending organizations. For one it will help

gathering information about the needs of their staff with physical or mental impairment, as well as
evaluating concerns regarding disability within people groups on the field, in respect of at least ten percent of an ethnicity’s population (12.8% in US, 2017 census; 10% in Germany, 2016 census).
DS emerged out of the social prejudices against people with disabilities (i.e., ableism or disableism), in the form of

isolation, and
the exclusion of disabled persons.
It was implemented by veterans of war with a disability, and those persons with physical or mental impairment, who

had to live in special-care facilities isolated from a normal environment,
were unable to study at universities, or
to manage the needs of daily life (e.g., shopping, cooking, dealing with officials), due to the sheer fact of the inaccessibility of the public realm to them.
In addition, one would add the refusal by officials to listen to the needs of parents of children with impairment, especially regarding education or assisted care at home instead of in special-care homes. Whereas in the US, the outcry against the discrimination against the disabled was regarding the (in)accessibility and (lack of) education, in the UK and Germany, the focus was on seeking/the need for independent assisted daily life. Radical insider movements such as the “cripple movement” (Krüppelbewegung in Germany) were recognized on not just the national, but also the international level (Fandrey 1990). In 2006, the UN chartered the “Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.” The US, the UK, and Germany ratified the convention in 2009; by March 2018 there were 175 ratifications globally (Online see https://www.un.org/).

The terms “participation” and “integration” became keywords of the early days, later replaced by the multifaceted term “inclusion,” expressing an Inclusivist environment on all levels of life such as accessibility, assisted independent living, language, social acceptance, and perception. Historically, terminology of popular Bible translations (e.g., King James Version, Luther Bible) was very influential. Later, when by language shift some terminology was used in colloquial language as terms of abuse, the translation tradition did not adapt to modern Inclusivist language, but became exclusive. Examples such as “cripple,” “idiot,” “invalid,” “lame,” “monster,” etc., have nowadays become ostracized from acceptable usage. However, out of pity or sym- instead of empathy, exclusivist terminology is sometimes still used (un)consciously in Bible translation. For example, the 2017 revision of the Luther Bible still uses einen Lahmen, “a lame [person],” instead of “a paralyzed person” (Matt 4: 24), following the “Lutheran tradition” as a code for revision. One reason for this is the lack of disabled Bible translators, exegetes, and theological hermeneutists, bearing in mind the adage, “Nothing about us, without us.” This parallels the development of gender Inclusivist or Feminist language in the 1980s that resulted in revision in the Luther Bible in 1999 from Weib, which carried then the meaning ”bitch”, to Frau, “woman”.

There are similar demands in Bible translation for political correctness regarding the translation of descriptions of persons with a handicap as well as an Inclusivist perception by the Church. Wynn Kerry was one of the first to address this issue (2001). He gave four recommendations to translators, the most helpful one being to move from generalization to descriptive terminology. Thus “a lame person” may become “a man/woman with a mobility impairment,” and “a blind person” may be expressed as “a person with visual impairment.”  Mark 8:25 reads, “his sight was restored” in most (more literal) Bible translations (so NRSV; cf. Ger. wiederhergestellt). This leaves the audience with the assumption that the healed man’s “blindness” was most likely an impairment caused by illness in later age, since the man’s sight was “restored” (“he saw again,” assuming he saw at one time in life).  In a best-case scenario, the audience will wonder, whether the man was born blind or became blind later in life. This uncertainty would be obvious mainly to sensitive exegetes, who would use Inclusivist language in their rendition. Beyond that, hermeneutics must take into consideration that the Biblical authors reflected their culture-bound perception of disability.

Over more than nineteen centuries, literal translation transporting the NT authors’ perspective on disability led to the exclusion, isolation or, since the 18 c., relegation to special homes, of people with impairment, out of the Church’s mandate of social welfare (Ger. Diakonat). Nowadays, politics force the Church, as a public player, to make possible the inclusion of persons with disabilities on all levels of society as leaders, pastors, and staff, and of course members and interested parties. In this way, hopefully, sympathy out of pity is replaced in the Church by empathy out of equality, thus performing an Inclusivist role in building diversity in the communion of saints (Reynolds 2008).


Additional reading: Kerry 2007a, 2007b.



Fandrey, Walter 1990. Krüppel, Idioten, Irre. Zur Sozialgeschichte behinderter Menschen in Deutschland. Stuttgart: Silberburg-Verlag. [Engl.: Cripples, idiots, lunatics. On the Social History of Disabled People in Germany.].

Reynolds, Thomas E. 2008. Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality. Grand Rapids: BrazosPress.

Wynn, Kerry 2001. Disability in Bible Translation. Bible Translator 52/4, 402-414. New York: UBS.

Wynn, Kerry H. 2007a. Johannine Healings and Otherness of Disability. Perspectives in Religious Studies 34, 61-75.

Wynn, Kerry H. 2007b. The Normate Hermeneutic and Interpretations of Disability within the Yahwistic Narratives, in Avalos, Hector, Melcher, Sarah J. & Schipper, Jeremy (eds.): This Abled Body. Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies, 91-101. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.