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Beyond stealth

Religion | Zondervan's next-gen Bible hopes to move off the shelves at Raptor warp-speed. Despite a fast-approaching launch date and fast-track advertising, the publisher isn't sharing the full translation with independent scholars or its critics

Issue: "Bush: Hail to the chief," Jan. 29, 2005

Today's New International Version (TNIV) of the entire Bible is scheduled for publication Feb. 4. Zondervan put out the TNIV New Testament in 2002. Now, with the addition of the Old Testament, the translation is complete. And the controversy, which began eight years ago and was apparently resolved, is about to erupt again.

The major difference between Today's New International Version and yesterday's NIV, the most widely used contemporary Bible translation (which will still be available), is that the new translation features "inclusive language." That is, many words referring to the male gender (the generic "he," "father," "brothers") will be changed to also include the female gender ("they," "parent," "brothers and sisters").

The TNIV publicists, in a bit of Orwellian doublespeak, are calling such revisions "gender-accurate" language. The problem, however, comes when the language is not accurate to the original text.

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Sometimes the original biblical languages do use inclusive language, as is reflected in contemporary literal translations such as the English Standard Version (ESV). But the TNIV adjusts the gender even when the Bible is specific, as in translating the word for the clearly male "son" as "child."

The TNIV does not go so far as The Inclusive English Language Lectionary used for Bible readings in many liberal churches, which eliminates male pronouns that refer to God (changing "Our Father" to "Our Father/Mother"). Still, many critics believe that tinkering with the Bible's gendered language obscures what the Bible itself teaches about gender and throws off prophetic and Christological passages. The TNIV also defers to modern sensibilities by changing the word "Jews," when described as plotting against Jesus, to "Jewish leaders," or even "the leaders."

For its critics, the TNIV raises larger questions about the danger of cultural accommodation and the limits of the "dynamic-equivalent" theory of translation in which scholars translate a text according to what they think it means, rather than what it says.

News of plans to revise the NIV in a gender-neutral direction first came in 1997 ("The Stealth Bible," World, March 29, 1997). The NIV in Great Britain had already made those changes in an "inclusive language edition" (NIVI), as did the simplified New International Reader's Version (NirV), designed mainly as a children's Bible. WORLD's story revealing that the revered NIV, which accounts for nearly a third of all Bible sales, was itself on the verge of adopting these controversial changes unleashed a storm of criticism.

On May 27, 1997, in Colorado Springs, James Dobson convened a meeting of evangelical leaders, Bible scholars, and representatives from Zondervan and the NIV translation committee to resolve the disputes. At the end of the meeting, Zondervan agreed not to revise the NIV as had been planned. The participants also signed a document titled the "Colorado Springs Guidelines" that specified how gender-related language in Scripture should be handled. The guidelines indicated where inclusive language may be used and where it should not, upholding the principle of following closely the meaning of the original languages.

But then on May 14, 1999, the International Bible Society (IBS), the group responsible for the NIV, announced plans for a new translation. The group made assurances that the NIV would still be available, but that plans for what would become the TNIV would go forward.

On Jan. 28, 2002, the New Testament portion of the TNIV was published. Despite the agreement the IBS and Zondervan entered into with the Colorado Springs Guidelines, the new translation used gender-neutral language, even when it does not appear in the original biblical text.

How could the IBS and Zondervan violate their agreement so flagrantly? The commitment not to do a gender-neutral revision of the NIV could be satisfied by keeping the old NIV in print and calling the "Today's New International Version" a "new translation" rather than a revision of the NIV. But the Colorado Springs Guidelines also offered specific principles for new translations. The IBS agreed to follow them, but then did not do so in preparing the TNIV.

In July 2002, the president of the IBS, Peter Bradley, in an article for the organization's publication Light Magazine, said that the translators had to "withdraw" from the Colorado Springs Guidelines because they conflicted with the translation guidelines of the Forum of Bible Agencies, to which the IBS subscribes. But Bible scholars Wayne Grudem and Vern Poythress, in their book The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy, show that the guidelines of the Forum of Bible Agencies do not address the issue of gender language at all.

Mr. Bradley also indicated that the Colorado Springs Guidelines were forced on his organization, but Mr. Grudem-who was present at the meeting and wrote up an account of the transactions that all the participants approved-cited evidence that IBS representative Ken Barker played an active role in their development.

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