by John Dart
Formerly religion religion writer for the Los Angeles Times, John Dart is news editor of the Christian Century magazine.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, February 13-20, 2002, pp. 10, 11. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Every new version of the Bible brings controversy, this time over a “gender neutral” version. The author discusses the recently published New International Version (TNIV).
Publishers of America’s best-selling Bible, who a few years ago retreated when the Religious Right scorched their first gender-inclusive version, have unveiled another try with a New Testament endorsed by evangelical supporters and backed by a six-figure marketing campaign.
Today’s New International Version (TNIV), expected to be in bookstores by the end of March, is being touted by Zondervan and the International Bible Society (IBS) as a “thoroughly accurate, fully trustworthy” Bible in contemporary English. As a part of its ad campaign, Zondervan is giving away 50,000 free copies of TNIV’s New Testament to pastors and key figures, according to Zondervan officials.
Publicists and officials are not calling it gender-inclusive — an adjective associated with feminism and liberals. Some opted briefly for “gender-neutral,” but IBS and Zondervan spokespersons now label the new version “gender-accurate.”
Within days of the January 28 announcement, however, a small clergy-professor group rejected the translation as inaccurate and driven by the desire to be politically correct. Also, William Merrell, a Southern Baptist Convention media spokesman, told the Washington Times “No one is authorized to treat the Bible like Silly Putty”
The earlier controversy was slow to erupt. In 1995, an inclusive-language NJV Bible was published in the United Kingdom. In 1996, David Scholer, who teaches New Testament at Fuller Seminary, in an article in an evangelical feminist publication praised the new translation but thought it was “mysterious” to keep it quiet. Scholer later published a letter from the then-IBS president saying that Zondervan and IBS would release an inclusive version in the U.S. by 2000. World magazine then wrote about the “Stealth Bible” amid heavy criticism from Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and others. IBS withdrew its publishing plans at that point, but a translation committee quietly continued its work.
The IBS and Zondervan reassured folks this time that the NW Bible, which holds a 4.3 percent North American market share of Bible sales, will remain available even when the TNIV Old Testament is published in a few years. Among people lauding the TNIV New Testament in press releases were popular evangelical author Philip Yancey, Pastor Ted Haggard of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, and Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, one of the fastest growing congregations in the denomination.
Hamilton volunteered a story about his daughter reading her new Bible and asking when he put her to bed, “Daddy, why is the Bible only written to boys?” Hamilton said he tried to explain how male pronouns are sometimes used to refer to both men and women. “She was utterly perplexed by this,” he said. “I am very excited about this revision that will allow the NIV to speak to an entirely new generation,’ said Hamilton.
Inasmuch as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) Bible sponsored by the National Council of Churches has been out since 1989, the TNIV is playing “catch up” on avoiding male terms when gender-inclusive words are valid translations or when humans in general were meant. Ever careful, IBS and Zondervan officials said there is only a 7 percent change between NIV and TNIV wording, and much of that in using modern language — for example, Mary is “pregnant” instead of “with child.”
As for the inclusive wording, the TNIV has Paul addressing not just “brothers” but “brothers and sisters.” In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” — not “sons of God.” Instead of “he who” used twice in John 6:35, Jesus declares “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
In the Jesus saying about seeing a speck of sawdust in “your brother’s eye” yet not seeing the plank in your own eye, Luke 6:41-42 in the NIV text uses the word “brother” four times. But the TNIV leaves “brother untranslated once and otherwise renders it “someone else,” “Friend” and “the other person.”
While labeling the translation changes neither specks nor planks, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, based in Louisville, Kentucky, contended that the TNIV contains more than “100 examples of inaccurately translated verses.” Some 26 evangelical scholars said they could not commend the new translation to churches.
Besides R. Albert Mohler and Paige Patterson, presidents of Southern Baptist seminaries in Louisville, Kentucky, and Wake Forest, North Carolina, respectively, the signers included Harold O. J. Brown of Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte; R. C. Sproul of Lingonier Ministries in Florida; and Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. of First Presbyterian Church, Augusta, Georgia. “Thankfully, no gender-neutral language is used for God,” Mohler said. But he added that translation deficiencies in the TNIV “will add to confusion in evangelical circles.”
TNIV’s 12-man, one-woman translation committee — six of them Baptists — was chaired by John Stek of Calvin Theological Seminary and included Gordon Fee of Regent College and Ronald F. Youngblood, who chairs the IBS board of directors. “Because the NIV was introduced about 30 years ago, the translation needed to be refreshed to reflect advances in biblical scholarship and changes in English usage,” said committee member Karen H. Jobes, associate professor of New Testament at Westmont College near Santa Barbara, California. While acknowledging that “not everyone may agree with our exegetical and translation decisions,” she said the committee was “faithful to the translation principles that produced the much-loved NIV.”
Fuller Seminary’s Scholer said he was happy to see that the new edition often substitutes “the Jewish leaders” for “the Jews” in parts of the Gospel of John where the Greek word could mean either. In John 9:22, for instance, the TNIV translators decided that the Greek word referred to religious authorities.
The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood particularly took aim at the frequent removal of male pronouns and “man.” Whereas the Greek word anthropos can be translated “person” “human” or “humankind,” the Greek word aner normally means “man” or “husband,” according to New Testament concordances. But the TNIV often changes aner as well into “whoever,” “person” and other substitutes in places where translators decided that was the meaning, the council noted.
But to accuse TNIV translators of altering the Bible is “ridiculous,” Scholer said. “This translation strikes me as an avant-garde work sensitive to changes in English and sensitive to the original sense of the text.”