From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Close Up: New translation rekindles debate over Bible

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Thu, 27 Jun 2002 14:27:58 -0500

June 27, 2002   News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert7(615)
742-54707Nashville, Tenn.  10-21-71BP{272}

NOTE: "Close Up" is a regular UMNS feature that takes an in-depth look at
issues of the day. Photographs are available with this report.

A UMNS Report
By Ray Waddle*

The Bible still matters.

The book with the greatest market penetration in history, the enduring
symbol of religious truth and tradition, still manages to raise a ruckus.

Just ask the committee that is releasing a new revision of the beloved New
International Version of the Bible. The new revision, called Today's New
International Version, was quickly denounced by one conservative
organization as inaccurate and PC-driven because it tries to be "gender
accurate" in contemporary English.

The TNIV New Testament hit bookstores this spring. The whole Bible will be
ready around 2005, and Cokesbury stores will be among those stocking the
book, according to the United Methodist Publishing House, which operates the
retail chain.

A battle of point-counterpoint has erupted on the Internet about the new
translation. Recently, TNIV sponsors posted a list of explanations and
rationales for their work at In like fashion, a leading
opponent, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood offered arguments
against it at

"We are saddened by what we have found in this translation," according to a
statement from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an
organization that tracks gender issues. The council produced a petition of
evangelical scholars who voiced their dismay.

The revision's translators, the Committee on Bible Translation, and its
publisher, Zondervan, say their labors have produced the most accurate Bible
possible. They hope to improve on the readability of the vastly popular NIV
for a new generation. One example of text change: "Sons of God" becomes
"children of God" whenever the original text intended no gender preference. 

Masculine references to God remain unchanged.

Scriptural scrimmage

This latest scrimmage over Scripture dramatizes the Bible's continued
potency in a society at odds with itself over gender politics, pluralism and
the nature of truth. The Bible can't stay out of the crossfire. Each new
translation is an invitation to new debate about the accuracy of God's Word,
a jostle for position to be its chief custodian.

"The Bible is still central to American Christianity," says James Byrd, a
lecturer in American religious history at Vanderbilt Divinity School in
Nashville, Tenn.

"People aren't necessarily reading it, but they still buy it and give it as
a gift and make sure there's one at home. Every home has to have a Bible."

Biblical images and authority course through the nation's bloodstream. A
Gallup poll in 2000 said six out of 10 Americans read the Bible at least
occasionally. In the last 100 years, the Bible had a starring role in
national debates about human destiny and science, whether it was the Monkey
Trial in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925 or at school board showdowns in the 1990s
over the teaching of evolution. After the terrorist attacks last September,
bookstores reported Bible sales up 20 to 30 percent.

But hot accusations over Bible translation underscore another truth about
society today -- the splintering and decentralization of religious life. No
one Bible translation can command authority like the King James Version once

"If there is a news trend here, it has to do with the fragmentation of
American Christianity generally," says the Rev. Scott Jones, who teaches
evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, a United Methodist-related
seminary in Dallas.

"At stake is the unity of the church."

Bible translations today are undertaken in a religious milieu of declining
denominational loyalties and increasing numbers of independent churches, he

Rival squadrons of seminary outposts and scholarly outlooks on biblical
texts generate a diversity of translation styles and philosophies.

One result: Bible readers tend to divide into camps loyal to one Bible
translation or another. Public relation campaigns for each new translation
-- and campaigns by its opponents -- rev up with money and media play as
never before. 		

Cultural changes

In the old days, up to the 1960s, the Protestant Bible buyer's menu of
choices usually boiled down to two translations -- the King James Version or
the Revised Standard Version. The American Standard Version had its
supporters too. It was a limited, uncluttered field of Bible consumerism.
That was before exponential prosperity, niche marketing and culture wars
over the moral direction of the nation changed American public life and
consumer expectations too.
The seemingly quiet, cloistered world of scholarly Bible translation changed
with it. New discoveries of ancient Mideast texts led scholars to fresh
insights into translation and accuracy. An increasingly multicultural social
scene sped up the rate of change in English language usage, ever renewing
the challenge to convey biblical languages in the current idiom.
Another factor was the decline of Bible literacy: Several new Bibles have
been produced as simplified Scripture paraphrases and aimed at populations
that never had exposure to the biblical story at all.
Yet another driving force to market new and publicly accessible Bibles was
the anxiety felt by many religious leaders after the U.S. Supreme Court, in
the early 1960s, struck down state-sponsored Bible reading in public
Today, dozens of translations compete with the old King James Version. The
1970s were a watershed. The New English Bible came out in 1970 (New
Testament in 1961). The New American Bible was released in 1970 as well. The
New American Standard Version arrived in 1971 (New Testament in 1963). The
Living Bible, a paraphrase rather than a translation, was produced in 1971.
The Good News Bible was released in 1976 (New Testament in 1966).
The most popular of all, the New International Version, was completed in
1978 (New Testament in 1973). By now it has sold 150 million copies.
Riding this proliferation of translations is a crowded market of hundreds of
Bible editions to choose from, packaged for every conceivable niche group
and potential consumer. There's the New King James Extreme Teen Bible, the
NIV Share Jesus Without Fear Bible, the God's Word Angel Bible, the End Time
Bible. There's a growing list of books just on how to choose a Bible.
"It bears witness to the continuing interest in the Bible, and that's a good
thing," says David Bauer, chair of the biblical studies department at Asbury
Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.
Which translation is right?

But the grab bag of translations reflects a lack of consensus about which
Bible translation is authoritative.
Modern conflict over Bible translation erupted after World War II when the
National Council of Churches and the group of 32 scholars that produced it
released the Revised Standard Version.
The Revised Standard Version was praised as a worthy successor to the King
James Version, but it was also quickly dragged into the politics of the Cold
War. Conservative critics called it communist-influenced and a document of
liberal bias. One hated citation was Isaiah 7:14. Striving for better
accuracy, the Revised Standard Version reads, "Behold, a young woman shall
conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." That's a change
from the King James, which says, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive..."

Conservatives interpreted the Revised Standard Version's translation of
Isaiah as a strike against the virgin birth and the divinity of Christ, and
some never forgave that. It marked a turning point in the politics of Bible
"Evangelicals realized that translation is also interpretation -- that the
Bible isn't self-evident, and they needed to do their own translation," Byrd
"They realized they had to play the game and get in the business of
translation or allow others to have a monopoly on what the Bible says."
The NIV, produced by the Committee on Bible Translation in the 1960s, earned
its place as a remarkably successful evangelical alternative to the Revised
Standard Version. (In Isaiah 7:14, the NIV says, "The virgin will be with
That sense of ownership of the NIV by evangelical Protestants explains the
outrage of some conservatives over this new revision, the TNIV.
"They are credentialed scholars, but we still think good and godly people
can be influenced, even unwittingly, by cultural influences ... and even
capitulate to a feminist agenda," says Randy Stinson, director of the
Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, based in Louisville, Ky.

Delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in June, expressed
"profound disappointment" with the translation and passed a resolution
against its use. "Although it is possible for Bible scholars to disagree
about translation methods ... the TNIV has gone beyond acceptable
translation standards," the resolution stated.
TNIV spokesmen defend their new product as linguistically accurate and
doctrinally sound.
"There is a growing need to reach today's generation with language they can
understand and relate to," a TNIV statement says.
"As English language usage changes, the Scriptures must be presented with
unwavering accuracy in a way that clearly and accurately communicates in
today's language. ... The translators are determined to produce a Bible that
does not include any denominational or regional bias. As such, the scholars
come from not only the United States, but also Great Britain and Canada. To
safeguard the translation from sectarian bias, the group represents a wide
spectrum of denominations."
The new revision changes only about 7 percent of the NIV text, and the
sponsors have assembled their own lengthy list of endorsements from
evangelical leaders in the church world. Also, Zondervan will continue to
publish the NIV, which has a nearly 50 percent share of the annual Bible
sales market.
Regarding revisions in the New Testament, TNIV sponsors say:
7	Word changes were made to render more precisely the meaning of the
original text and improve accuracy. For example, "Christ" is changed to
"Messiah" when the underlying Greek word functions as a title.
7	References to "the Jews" are described more specifically, such as
"the Jews there" or "the Jewish leaders," when the context indicates a more
precise group of people.
7	Mary is said to be "pregnant" rather than "with child," reflecting
language more commonly used today.
7	Generic language is changed where the meaning of the text was
intended to include both men and women. "Sons of God" becomes "children of
God," and "brothers" becomes "brothers and sisters."
7	The TNIV sometimes uses a generic plural pronoun in the place of a
masculine singular pronoun, making it more consistent with contemporary
English practice.
7	The TNIV retains male terminology, as present in the original text,
for all references to God without exception.
7	More than 70 percent of the changes made were not related to gender,
TNIV sponsors say.

On its Web site, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood gives various
examples of what it called mistranslations. One example: In the TNIV,
Revelation 3:20 says, "I will come and eat with them, and they with me."

The council complains about the use of "them" and "they" in the new
translation: "The removal of 'him' and 'he' completely drains the passage of
the individual nature of the relationship between a person and Christ."

Controversy nothing new

The NIV's custodians have been on the hot seat before. Five years ago,
controversy flared up over proposed NIV revisions, a debate so furious that
translators at that time backed down because of evangelical opposition to a
gender-inclusive Bible.

Meanwhile, defenders of the new TNIV take comfort in noting that the King
James Version itself, produced in 1611, took decades to win acceptance from
the lay English public. Even the pilgrims who arrived on these shores in the
1620s refused to pack it for the journey.

"History tells us that nearly every new translation is controversial in the
beginning, but then usually goes on to serve a useful purpose," a TNIV
statement says.

"The passion with which people from all sides are responding to the (TNIV)
is part of the normal discourse in updating translations for the next
generation. Perhaps the most classic example is the furor that broke out in
1611 over the King James Version. People were outraged that the older
English translations would be supplanted. Nine years after its publication,
the Pilgrims still refused to take copies of the KJV on board the Mayflower,
the Geneva Bible being their version of choice for the Plymouth Colony."

# # #

*Waddle, former religion editor of The Tennessean newspaper, is a writer
based in Nashville.

United Methodist News Service
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