After seeing various verses cited in articles I’ve read, I recently purchased the First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament. It was released in 2021, the work of a twelve-member translation council from diverse tribal heritages and geographical areas, led by Terry M. Wildman (Ojibwe, Yaqui), a minister in the United Methodist Church. Wildman had been doing his own ad hoc translations for years and would share the rewordings in his travels to Native-led churches across the country. He reflected: ““They just loved listening to it because it didn’t have the church language. It didn’t have the colonial language. It had more of a Native feel to it—as much as possible that you can put in English.” More on the story behind the translation HERE, the source of the quote.
The FNV is what’s called a “dynamic equivalence” translation, focused more on thought-for-thought than word-for-word (The Message is another example of this style).
Aspects of 1st century Jewish culture are translated into Native cultural references. Here’s how the FNV translates Jesus being approached about paying taxes to Caesar:
“Wisdomkeeper,” they came and said to him, “we know you always speak the truth about the Great Spirit and represent him well, no matter what others may think or say. Tell us what is right,” they asked. “Does our tribal law permit our people to pay taxes to the government of the People of Iron (Romans)? Yes or no?” Mark 12:14-15
The last part of that verse represents one of the most striking features of the translation – proper names are translated with their meanings. The title of Paul’s letter to the congregation in Rome is Small Man to the Sacred Family in the Village of Iron. Jerusalem is Village of Peace. Jesus is Creator Sets Free. Peter is Stands on the Rock. The Pharisees are The Separated Ones. The name we’re familiar with is placed in parenthesis after its meaning. So a run of the mill gospel verse looks like this: Creator Sets Free (Jesus) continued to travel on to Village of Peace (Jerusalem). As he passed through the villages on the way, he would stop and teach the people. Luke 13:22
This method can also result in some of the clunkiest reading, like this opening passage from Matthew’s birth story of Jesus: It was during the days of the bad-hearted Chief Looks Brave (Herod) that the Chosen One was born in the village of House of Bread (Bethlehem) in the Land of Promise (Judea). After his birth, Seekers of Wisdom (Magi) traveling on a long journey from the East came to Village of Peace (Jerusalem). Matthew 2:1
Sometimes the translation evokes the Native experience so directly it takes your breath away.
The Beatitudes begin this way in the NRSV:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
They are rendered this way in the FMV:
Creator’s blessing rests with the poor, the ones with broken spirits. The good road from above is theirs to walk.
Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who walk a trail of tears, for he will wipe the tears from their eyes and comfort them.
Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who walk softly and in a humble manner. The earth, the land, and sky will welcome them and always be their home.
The FNV comes in a paperback which makes it feel more like a storybook.
The relationship of Christianity with Native peoples is rife with violence, missionary zeal laden with colonialism. There is no avoiding that the Christian sacred texts translated into the language of the settlers can be problematic. But, in keeping with the hope of its translators, it can also be an act of healing. And non-Native folks are also in need of healing from how our harmful ways have damaged our own humanity.
If you’re looking for a way to engage, or re-engage with the New Testament through a text that is mindful of all this, you may want to look into First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament.