New Bibles and old debates

May 12, 2011

In March, U.S. publishers released new editions of two of the most widely read English-language Bibles: the Catholic New American Bible and the evangelical New International Version. These updates are intended to reflect modern idioms and the latest scholarly research, while also responding to changes in the (niche-philic) scripture marketplace.

Since its inception in 1965, the Committee on Bible Translation--the group responsible for the NIV changes--has aimed to represent the best in evangelical biblical scholarship and confessional integrity across multiple traditions. The original NIV charter requires the group to monitor developments in biblical scholarship and changes in English usage.

Based on the number of word changes, the new NIV text remains about 95 percent the same as the 1984 version it replaces. But there is a lot to be said about that 5 percent.

Perhaps most controversial is the partial rescinding of gender-neutral language that publishers appropriated into Today's New International Version (2005), the publication of which was soon halted amid criticism. (For more on conservative opposition to the TNIV, see this Southern Baptist resolution and this Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood statement.) In the new version's rendering of Genesis 1:26, God says, "let us make mankind in our image." The 1984 NIV said "man"; the TNIV went with "human beings."

Elsewhere the language is softer, more equivocal, than in the 1984 version. When it comes to ecclesiastical authority (Romans 16:1-2, 1 Corinthians 11:10, 1 Timothy 2:12, 1 Timothy 3:11), the new NIV prohibits women not from "exercising" it but from "assuming" it--language that delegates final interpretation to the individual. The nature of sin is even an open question: "flesh" replaces "sinful nature" in several instances. (1 John 2:16 now reads "the lust of the flesh" instead of "the cravings of sinful man.") It's up to the reader to determine whether sin is inherent or an external force.

The CBT reportedly mined the Collins Bank of English--a database of more than 4.4 billion words drawn from text publications and spoken-word recordings worldwide--for objective, statistically significant data on modern English. This helped to arbitrate the use of generic pronouns and determiners.

But did the CBT compromise on "controversial" verses to appease critics?

Any judgment should keep in mind that a single, univocal version of the Bible is not really an option. Instead, our democratic impulses and consumer culture create demand for multiple dynamic-equivalence translations that attempt to keep a critical distance with regard to history--while updating syntax and grammar. This is clearer than ever today, when we have ready access to not only different translations but adventure Bibles for children, "FaithGirlz" Bibles that tell young girls that they sparkle and The Bible Experience, an audio presentation by almost 400 actors and musicians and others.

It's also important to remember that the CBT isn't a magisterium--it represents no single tradition, and it makes no claim to absolute authority. It is, however, a representative body, comprised of evangelicals from across national and denominational lines. As such, the CBT isn't really in the business of silencing popular opinion.

There are other reasons to trust the committee's process as well. It isn't beholden to publisher agendas--neither Zondervan (the U.S. publisher) nor Biblica (the worldwide one) has a seat. And its voting procedure is wholly democratic: any change must be ratified by a 70 percent majority vote. This process is innately conservative, erring on the side of responsible skepticism toward change.

If you take as a given that translation should be a well-informed and relatively open process, then it's difficult to argue with the CBT's work.


New bibles and old debates

Blogging can be a chore and a bore, we writers know. My blog on which I have been reflecting is a joy to me, however. It occurred to me, as I was sitting in the office and aware of nothing, that those translations on the shelf are the journalings of my life. My biography is not composed around the Bible, but around those bibles, from the gift at high school graduation, to the seminary ones, to the latest of this and that coming out and have been successfully marketed..
It comes to me that the Word of God is not linked to the groans of an editor whose biblical language dictionary has been suddenly outdated or the triumphant dancing in the streets by an archeological discovery that will advance one's compulsory 15 minutes outings on Sunday..
It occurs to me, that once again as I am sitting and looking at nothing in particular, that the Word of God has struck again..
Bob Collie