Features

Anti-unisex backlash

National | Liberal theologians seek to preserve a literal Bible translation, even at the risk of patriarchalism

Issue: "Steve Largent," Feb. 13, 1998

(with Susan Olasky) - There's something curious going on in the world of Bible translation. Just when it seemed that many evangelical translators were deciding that it was time to get with it and, in the words of the NIV Committee on Bible Translation, "mute the patriarchalism of the Old Testament," along comes a group-composed largely of more liberal theologians-determined to undertake an entirely new translation of the Bible, one preserving that "patriarchalism."

The project is called "The Chicago Bible Translation Project." The committee working on the translation includes scholars from a variety of Chicago-area theological institutions ranging in affiliation from United Methodist to Roman Catholic.

Eerdmans Publishing House, publishers for the project, issued a press release stating that the translation is designed for use in settings "where teachers of the English Bible (using current English translations) often find themselves explaining, 'This is not what the text really says.'" The proposed translation will solve this dilemma by providing a more literal translation-one that will not permit "modern premises to invade the biblical text and obscure its original cultural and historical context."

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In a clear reference to unisex language, and a slap at recent translations like the New Revised Standard Version and the New Living Translation that head in that direction, the announcement stated, "This translation will not be guided by current efforts to make the Bible more egalitarian, more tolerant, and less patriarchal in its language or in its portrayal of the social cultures of its context."

The translation, which is to be based on the work of scholarly translations for commentaries, has a publisher and a translation committee; the only remaining obstacle to publication is the need for additional funds to complete the translation work. But why would liberal scholars labor on a translation preserving traditional gender language?

Robert Jewett, professor of New Testament at Garrett-Northwestern Theological Seminary and chairman of the translation's steering committee, is a self-described "liberal evangelical" who "hold[s] to the authority of Scripture but not to the inerrancy." He told WORLD about "a passion at the center of our project for the original meaning of Scripture." Mr. Jewett added, "We're not interested in ascribing to a modern overlay, whether right-wing or left-wing."

Mr. Jewett's objection to gender-neutral language is based on his higher-critical approach to the Bible. Like others who do not see all Scripture as inspired, he believes that God is less patriarchal than writers like Paul. He also claims that earlier authors of Scripture had less understanding of God's truth in this area than later authors, and that there is revolutionary change even in the course of Paul's writing-from an early patriarchalism to a more egalitarian maturity.

Gender-neutral language, Mr. Jewett said, "obscures the genuine revolution that is there in Scripture." The enemy of scriptural truth in Mr. Jewett's view is not patriarchalism or any other element of ancient culture, but liberal dishonesty: A gender-neutral translation that claims to be accurate is "almost as bad as Stalin's revisions of world history in which every 10 years he'd change all the history textbooks."

Speaking of the inclusive-language New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), Mr. Jewett said, "We're facing, with the NRSV, liberal dishonesty in spades. The modern liberated perspective which imposes itself on the text is about as dishonest as you can be. All the way through the NRSV, implying that Paul has all these liberated concepts and so forth like the current politically correct person in an Ivy League school: I mean that's just ridiculous. Here you have the imposition of liberal prejudice on the biblical text with the ridiculous assumption that our modern liberal views were Paul's."

While liberal scholars such as Mr. Jewett view inclusive language as the imposition of modern prejudices on the text, one evangelical scholar affiliated with the Chicago Translation Project sees no conflict in his involvement with the Chicago Bible Translation and support for gender-neutral Bibles.

David Scholer, professor of New Testament at Fuller Seminary and author of an editorial in the evangelical feminist publication The Priscilla Papers that called on Zondervan and the International Bible Society to release the gender-neutral NIV in the United States, told members of the Chicago Translation's advisory board in February 1997, "I look forward to the appearance of this Bible. I will even get to use it in my teaching for a few years before my retirement."

He said a version targeted at students will fit right in with the trend in modern translation to target specific audiences, including "those with certain ecclesiastical needs, those with certain theological concerns and agendas," and "persons for whom the historical and cultural distance of the Bible is seen as something to be overcome."

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