Translation manipulation | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

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 former WORLD book reviewer, story coach, feature writer, and editor. She has authored eight historical novels for children and resides with her husband, Marvin, in Austin, Texas.



Please wait while we load the latest comments...