I have an old New International Version (NIV) of the Bible which looks totally used and abused. It has a sticker giving the date I got it – May 1980- and when I look in the front of it I can see it was published in 1979 meaning I have one of the first copies of the NIV. Until I received that Bible, I memorised Bible verses for Sunday School, but the NIV became the first Bible I actually sat and read. It was written in my contemporary language and it spoke to me like other Bibles hadn’t. It accompanied me for many years, as its now shoddy appearance is witness to.
Fast forward a few years when, working as a pastor, I became more and more uncomfortable with some of the language in the NIV. Passages clearly addressed to whole churches or groups in the Bible were simply addressed as ‘brothers’ or ‘men’ I was acutely aware this language would leave some of the women I was addressing feeling excluded. At first I began to add ‘and sisters’ to ‘brothers’, and used ‘people’ instead of ‘men’, but eventually I wanted a Bible that did that for me so I bought a New Living Translation which I used for a number of years.
But in 2011, Biblica released a new revision of the NIV using gender-accurate language, which, for some, has proved controversial. Many have felt the Committee for Bible Translation, who translated and continue to do revisions to the NIV, have bowed to trends in society to be inclusive for the sake of being inclusive. Yet as we celebrate 50 years since the NIV was commissioned, the accusation of changes being made in order to be “politically correct” does the NIV’s founders, translators, and faithful readers a great disservice. It dismisses the key issue which is that the NIV has changed because spoken English has changed, and the NIV charter demands that of them.
The NIV translators are committed to ensuring the Bible is both accurate and readable. A key aspect of accuracy is the reader knowing exactly what the writers of the Bible meant, so when our English no longer accurately expresses its original meaning, changes have to be made. Putting aside any changes in the language of gender take a look at these two passages from the previous version of the NIV (the NIV 84).
‘Samson answered her, “If anyone ties me with seven fresh thongs that have not been dried, I’ll become as weak as any other man’ (Judges 16:7)
‘They destroyed all the villages around Gerar, for the terror of the LORD had fallen upon them. They plundered all these villages, since there was much booty there’ (2 Chronicles 14:14)
Back in the 80s talking of tying up men in thongs and finding lots of booty might have been spiritually enlightening (!), but these passages read out today would most certainly be snigger inducing. Thongs and booty are no longer appropriate words to use that way because language has changed, and these terms have taken on a new meaning in our culture. Yes, we can work out what they mean (post-sniggering), but the translation loses some of its accuracy by failing to get across quickly what the Bible writers meant.
As it is with gender language. The Bible writers often used the Greek work adelphoi which literally means brothers, but their meaning for those to whom it was written, was to address them all, both brothers and sisters. But gendered language has moved on. We don’t speak of mankind so naturally anymore but humankind, nor of forefathers but our ancestors. If we use gender-exclusive language now, the modern reader will naturally assume the writer was only addressing men, meaning the modern reader is misled from the original meaning. In other words, gender-exclusive language, rather than maintaining the accuracy of the Bible, renders it less accurate.
I believe the Bible is God’s Word, written for us. It has transformative power to change lives. So my plea is that we strive to ensure we continue to translate and revise those translations so the language of the Bible is one less thing we have to wrestle with. And even more, please don’t fight over it! By all means have a favourite, but too many people in the world have no access to a Bible. For those of us who do have it, arguing over which is better/best is a luxury more than half the world can’t afford.