New Bible Draws Critics of Gender-Neutral Language

March 18, 2011 - 11:47 AM

Nashville, Tenn. (AP) - In the old translation of the world's most popular Bible, John the Evangelist declares: "If anyone says, 'I love God,' yet hates his brother, he is a liar." Make that "brother or sister" in a new translation that includes more gender-neutral language and is drawing criticism from some conservatives who argue the changes can alter the theological message.

The 2011 translation of the New International Version Bible, or NIV, does not change pronouns referring to God, who remains "He" and "the Father." But it does aim to avoid using "he" or "him" as the default reference to an unspecified person.

The NIV Bible is used by many of the largest Protestant faiths. The translation comes from an independent group of biblical scholars that has been meeting yearly since 1965 to discuss advances in biblical scholarship and changes in English usage.

Before the new translation even hit stores, it drew opposition from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an organization that believes women should submit to their husbands in the home and only men can hold some leadership roles in the church.

The council decided it would not endorse the new version because the changes alter "the theological direction and meaning of the text," according to a statement. Similar concerns led the Southern Baptist Convention to reject the NIV's previous translation in 2005.

At issue is how to translate pronouns that apply to both genders in the ancient Greek and Hebrew texts but have traditionally been translated using masculine forms in English.

An example from the translator's notes for Mark 4:25 to show how the NIV's translation of these words has evolved over the past quarter-century.

The widely distributed 1984 version of the NIV quotes Jesus: "Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him."

The more recent incarnation of the NIV from 2005, called Today's New International Version, changed that to: "Those who have will be given more; as for those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them."

The CBMW had complained in 2005 that making the subject of a verse plural to convey that it could refer equally to a man or a woman "potentially obscured an important aspect of biblical thought - that of the personal relationship between an individual and God."

The NIV 2011 seems to have taken that criticism into account and come up with a compromise: "Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them."

While the translators' former grammar teachers may not like it, the translators offer a strong justification for their choice of "they" (instead of the clunky "he or she") and "them" (instead of "him or her") to refer back to the singular "whoever."

They commissioned an extensive study of the way modern English writers and speakers convey gender inclusiveness. According to the translators' notes on the Committee on Bible Translation's website, "The gender-neutral pronoun 'they' ('them'/'their') is by far the most common way that English-language speakers and writers today refer back to singular antecedents such as 'whoever,' 'anyone,' 'somebody,' 'a person,' 'no one,' and the like."

Randy Stinson, president of the CBMW and dean of the School of Church Ministries at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the changes are especially important to evangelicals.

"Evangelicals believe in the verbal plenary inspiration of scripture. We believe every word is inspired by God, not just the broad thought," he said.

So if the original text reads "brothers" - even if that word in the original language is known to mean "brothers and sisters" (such as the Hebrew "achim" or Spanish word "hermanos") - many evangelicals believe the English translation should read "brothers."

Stinson said a notes section would be the best place to point out that the original word could be read to include men and women.

It's not yet known if the Southern Baptist Convention will reject the new translation the way it did the 2005 version. The nation's largest Protestant denomination still sells the 1984 translation in its stores. If it chooses to condemn the new version, that would happen at its national convention in June.

The publisher says the NIV 2011 will replace both the 1984 and 2005 versions.

Even while panning the new translation, the CBMW thanked the Committee on Bible Translation for being open about the process they used to develop it. That included taking comments from all sides of the gender debate.

And the new version doesn't always use gender neutral language. It takes reader sensibility into account by not using inclusive terms for some of the most familiar verses where that might sound jarring. For instance, Matthew 4:4 is rendered, "'Man shall not live on bread alone."

That's a change from the TNIV, where the same phase read, "People do not live on bread alone."

"I think that clause has entered into standard English," translator Douglas Moo explained of the move back to the more traditional "man." "People know it who don't know the Bible."

Moo said the translators hope that the phrasing of the new NIV is so natural that the average reader won't be aware of any of the gender language concerns that are debated by biblical scholars and linguists.

The group's website says its goal is "to articulate God's unchanging Word in the way the original authors might have said it if they had been speaking in English to the global English-speaking audience today."

While the change to the generic "man" in verses like Matthew 4:4 is applauded by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, linguist Joel M. Hoffman, author of "And God Said - How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning," said it is simply incorrect.

"'Anthropos' (the Greek word in the original text) means 'person,' plain and simple," he said. "It's as much a mistake as translating 'parent' as 'father.'"

He doesn't buy the argument that "man" is understood in English to refer to men and women.

"If you walk into a church on Sunday morning and say, 'Will every man stand up?' I would be shocked if the women stood up, too."