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Translation manipulation

In 1997 WORLD uncovered a plan to reshape the most popular English translation of the Bible


Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Translation manipulation

In early 1997 a call came to the Olasky home with a tip: The NIV was quietly going gender-neutral. Would WORLD be interested in the story?

At that time WORLD’s staff was small, so editor Marvin asked me to make a few calls. From that small beginning came a story that rocked the evangelical world and the larger world of Bible publishing—and threatened WORLD’s existence as well.

The initial story ran on the cover of the March 29, 1997, issue with the attention-grabbing headline “Stealth Bible” over an image of a Bible in the shape of a stealth bomber, the military’s state-of-the-art airplane. The inside headline shouted “Femme fatale.” Under it in large letters, “The feminist seduction of the evangelical church: The New International Version of the Bible—the best-selling English version in the world—is quietly going ‘gender-neutral.’”

In reporting the story, I interviewed Larry Walker and Kenneth Barker of the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), the obscure group with exclusive control over the text of the NIV. I also interviewed pastors and elders at particular churches and seminary professors about the trend.

We obtained a copy of the already-published British version (NIV Inclusive Language Edition) and found many of the translating choices troubling. Some sounded awkward: “fishers of men” became “fishers of men and women.” Others changed meaning. Doing away with “blessed is the man who does not walk …” and replacing it with “blessed are those …” turns the focus from the brave individual to a crowd. Replacing “God created man” with “God created human beings …” cloaks the unity of mankind. And replacing “protects all his bones …” with “protects all their bones” obscures a reference to Christ.

Our articles drew rapid responses, many of them negative. Two groups mentioned in the article, the International Bible Society (IBS) and Zondervan, issued denials on their websites. Even some readers who oppose unisex trends in society thought maybe WORLD had got it wrong. Why else would IBS and Zondervan, respected organizations that had done wonderful things in the past, complain so vociferously?

The more we dug, the clearer the story became: Groups charged with protecting the Bible had bowed to ideological pressure. As WORLD continued reporting, Zondervan and IBS backtracked and changed attack lines. The rapidly developing story undermined their denials. Evangelical leaders joined the fight. Jerry Falwell sent reprints of the articles to his 50,000-member mailing list. The Baptist Sunday School Board met to decide whether to continue using the NIV in its curriculum. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson came out against gender-neutral Bibles even after discovering that his own Odyssey Bible used a gender-neutral translation. He withdrew it and offered refunds.

Dobson also sought a way forward: He invited to Colorado Springs representatives from the CBT, IBS, Zondervan, and their critics, including WORLD publisher Joel Belz. Dobson’s goal was to hammer out an agreement on principles that should guide Bible translation work.

Early on the morning of the Focus-convened meeting, IBS announced that it would discontinue all plans for a new, gender-neutral version of the NIV and ask the British publisher to yank the NIV inclusive-language edition (NIVI) then being sold in Britain. IBS also promised to revise its inclusive-language children’s Bible, the NIrV, to bring it in line with the then-current NIV.

Later that day the meeting participants signed a statement declaring that “many of the translation decisions made by those who produced Hodder and Stoughton’s New International Version Inclusive Language Edition in the United Kingdom were not wise choices.” It called “regrettable and sadly misleading” the phrase in the preface to the NIVI that says “it is often appropriate to mute the patriarchalism of the culture of the biblical writers through gender-inclusive language.”

The statement agreed to specific translating principles that conservatives had been advocating: maintain the generic use of he, him, his, himself; use “man” to designate the human race; don’t change singulars to plurals. An IBS press release said its new policy “effectively eliminates incorporation of gender-related language revisions” in all NIV Bibles it licensed.

Yet WORLD ended its report on these developments with these words: “The battle for the Bible is not over.” That was true. Zondervan complained to the Evangelical Press Association that WORLD (and I) had violated the organization’s code of ethics by damaging the publisher’s reputation: WORLD “seems to be unconscious of its duty to protect the good names and reputations of Zondervan Publishing House, International Bible Society, and Committee on Bible Translation.” WORLD eventually withdrew from that group, since it emphasized public relations rather than journalism.

And the story continued. By 1999 Zondervan, IBS, and the CBT were back at it. After pledging just two years earlier “to discontinue all plans to develop a new, gender-neutral version of the NIV,” they hinted at a new “rendition” that would be gender-neutral. They announced publication of the TNIV New Testament in 2002.

A February 2002 WORLD article used the movie Groundhog Day to describe what was going on: “The two organizations were breaking well-publicized agreements that had seemed to deliver them from a public-relations quagmire. They were admitting that work on a gender-neutral Bible had continued despite IBS’s pledge that it would not.”

Despite a $1 million marketing budget and ads that ran in Rolling Stone and Modern Bride, the TNIV never caught on. By 2009 IBS, now called Biblica, announced it would go out of print by 2011. CEO Keith Danby said, “We failed to live up to the trust that had been placed in us. … The feeling is, don’t mess with my Bible.”


Susan Olasky

Susan is a book reviewer, story coach, feature writer, and editor for WORLD. She has authored eight historical novels for children and teaches twice a year at World Journalism Institute. Susan resides with her husband, Marvin, in Austin, Texas.

@susanolasky

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Shelley Tuttle

Thanks for bringing this to the fore, again. It is a good reminder that Bible translations need to be under scrutiny for misinterpretations based on cultural biases. It's too bad that IBS and Zondervan dug in their collective feet. A blow to Christians that rely on Bible publishers for a trusted version of God's word.

IWAN1851

Greatly appreciated esp. in these later days. Keep the good works.

mrbobmac

This change (in the late 1990's) was what led me to give up the NIV for good. I had always been an NASB guy anyway, but decided to switch to the NIV because it was so widely used. In my work teaching, I thought it would be prudent to use the version that was so commonly used. But when the TNIV came out and I bought one, I felt like I was reading a new language.

Reading the Bible imprints the Word on our soul. When I have re-read the same passages hundreds of times, the text itself is seared into me (in a good way, like a great steak), but even the actual physical text itself... it's position on the page, the color highlighter or pen I used to annotate. Sometimes I could find a verse I 'know what it is but just can't quite put my finger on it' simply by flipping through my Bible to find the particular spot/color I know it is in.

When I attempted to use the TNIV, I found it caustic—because so many verses were subtly changed, it felt rough on the edges, dissonant.

At this point, the ESV had been released, and I found abandoning both the TNIV and the NIV altogether to be a refreshing change. Unfortunately this meant starting over with a new translation again, but after almost 20 years of using the ESV, it has almost reached that point of 'seared perfection' where every word is profoundly familiar. I do have an NIV (1984)—and several other versions—on my Bible software, which I use for reference and study.

C S

This article is good, but it does NOT go far enough! The current “NIV” IS exactly that “Stealth Bible” that ‘World’ made its front page headline years ago. By republishing under the same name and deep-sixing its original translation, Zondervan has successfully accomplished its truly evil goal.

NanamiroC S

True. I didn't realize the NIV had gender-neutral language until after I bought one for my 10-year-old son and noticed some bizarre stuff. I looked into it and discovered the NIV quietly changed it's language, and now it's hard to get a 1984 version. Glad I kept my old one.

Steve S

Thank you for your work covering the important topic of bible translation. It's worth noting that several researchers have pointed out the NIV 2011 is really based on the TNIV and remains problematic in many areas. (https://wng.org/sift/a-fair-analysis-of-the-new-niv-1617251704) (https://www.waynegrudem.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/An-Evaluation-of-Gender-Language-in-the-2011-NIV.pdf)

C SSteve S

Thank you. I was about to comment on this. Your links are helpful.

Laura W

Not only did they make the changes they said they wouldn't, two years after the fact, they asked Bible websites to take down the 1984 version so it would no longer be available in that form either. (I know, because I asked a couple of them to bring it back.) I have a small stockpile of 1984 NIV's, just because I've memorized so much in that version already--I hope they last me long enough.

CJ

Good for WORLD for standing by truth and not PR!