New Bible drops neutered language of controversial 2002 version
At stake are millions of dollars in publishing revenue and the trust of millions of churchgoers.
Since its debut in 1978, the New International Version — known as the NIV — has been the Bible of choice for evangelicals, selling more copies than any other version. But a 2002 gender-inclusive edition bombed after being condemned as too liberal.
Translators hope their latest edition, which debuted online this month, will avoid a similar fate. They’ve retained some of the language of the 2002 edition. But they also made changes — like going back to using words like “mankind” and “man” instead of “human beings” and “people” — in order to appease critics.
It’s available for preview at BibleGateway.com, with print versions expected in March.
Wheaton College Bible scholar Doug Moo, head of the translation committee, said the group tried to create an accurate English Bible without ticking off readers.
He thinks even critics will respect their work. Translators talked to them ahead of time and gathered suggestions for changes. Where there were disagreements, the two sides had civil conversation about it, he said.
“We really tried to get it right this time,” he said. “We tried to be careful about not bowing to any cultural or ecclesiastical agenda. We also talked to anyone who wanted to talk to us.”
The Rev. Don Polk, pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, first read the NIV back in 1985. Before then, he’d always favored the King James version, but felt its language was too dated. So he switched over.
“I felt like it spoke better to our generations,” Polk said.
In 2009, the NIV accounted for 28% of Bibles sold in Christian bookstores. That was followed by the King James, at 16%.
Today, the Committee on Bible Translation, which translated the NIV, admits Today’s New International Version, the revision released in 2002, was a mistake. They substituted “brothers and sisters” where the New Testament writers used “brothers.”
They also broke a promise they’d made to James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, John Piper, pastor of Minneapolis megachurch Bethlehem Baptist, and other conservative pastors, not to produce a gender-inclusive NIV.
In response, Dobson accused translators of distorting the word of God.
“They picked a fight they didn’t need to pick,” said Jay Phelan, senior professor of theological studies at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago.
Still, Phelan was a fan of the 2002 version. He worries that the translators have buckled under pressure from conservatives.
“The whole idea that we want to make this constituency or that constituency unhappy is wrong,” he said. “You don’t do a translation that way. You don’t say ‘this will make the liberals unhappy’ or ‘this will make conservatives unhappy.’ Your job is to produce the most accurate translation possible.”
Moo disagrees. He says that the new version of the NIV is accurate. But he also admits that the committee did some research to see what words evangelical Christians — who are most likely to buy the new NIV — prefer.
So far most of the critics of the last version have remained silent about the new one.
Focus on the Family had no comment. Neither did Piper or other vocal critics, some of whom have switched to the English Standard Version.
Denny Burk, a professor of New Testament at Boyce College, a Southern Baptist school in Louisville, has complained about one change in 1 Timothy 2:12. That verse from a New Testament letter from the Apostle Paul, used to read, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.” Now it says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.”
The change from “have authority” to “assume authority” is huge, Burk argues. He believes that God gave men and women different jobs — and that women can’t be pastors. Burk says the new Bible sides with his opponents.
“It appears, therefore, that the NIV 2011 comes down on the side of egalitarianism in its rendering of 1 Timothy 2:12,” he wrote in a blog at BibleGateway.com.
But the debate on both the modern New International Versions hasn’t been anything compared with how some Bible versions have been received in the past. Translators of the 1950s-era Revised Standard Version changed the Hebrew word “almah” from “virgin” to “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14, which some Christians believe predicts the birth of Jesus.
But Revised Standard Version translators believed “young woman” was more accurate.
With that one change, all hell broke loose. Critics said that the translators had transformed Jesus’ mother from a saint to a sinner, said Peter Thuesen, professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. One minister was so angry that he burned the offending passage in front of an Associated Press photographer.