Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 3: Gender-Inclusive Language and the NIV

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In this mini-series on Making Sense of Different Bible Translations, in Part 1 we looked first at translation theory in general and some basic guidelines for choosing a translation, and in Part 2 we looked at the King James Version specifically. Here in Part 3, we will be looking at the question of gender inclusive language and how it relates to the New International Version.

The “Nearly Inspired Version”?

During my undergraduate studies, I had to learn Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, and our final project was to translate 1 John and then analyze other translations based on our reading and translation of the Greek text. For my analysis, I chose the NKJV, the NIV and the Message.

I had heard people joke that the NIV stood for “Nearly Inspired Version” or the “New Inferior Version,” so I was curious to see how it stood up under scrutiny. Much to my surprise, the NIV was much more literal and accurate than I had expected. The Message, however, does not qualify as a translation at all, in my opinion, but is rather a commentary – as in it, one person (Eugene Peterson) gives his interpretation of what he deems the text to mean, not what it says.

Side note: any translation that is made by one person should be suspect, especially when that person is pushing a particular agenda, as in the case of the Passion Translation.

A Case Study: Hebrews 11:6

Some of the main criticisms that are leveled at the NIV, are that it waters down the meaning of the text, and that it imposes gender inclusive language on the text. This week on Calvary Live, the call-in radio show that I host on Mondays, one caller pointed out Hebrews 11:6 as an example of this. Let’s take this as a case study to see if there’s any validity to it.

  • NIV: And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
  • KJV: But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.
  • Greek: χωρὶς δὲ πίστεως ἀδύνατον εὐαρεστῆσαι, πιστεῦσαι γὰρ δεῖ τὸν προσερχόμενον τῷ θεῷ ὅτι ἔστιν καὶ τοῖς ἐκζητοῦσιν αὐτὸν μισθαποδότης γίνεται.

Here’s my hyper-literal translation of the Greek text:

Without but faith impossible to please (a direct object), believe (a direct object) because must he who comes to God that (object) exists and those who seek him [he] rewards.

So, which translation is more accurate? Both are good translations which convey not only what the words say, but what they mean.

Gender-Inclusive Language

As can be seen in the example above, the NIV tries to use gender-inclusive language when possible. The word προσερχόμενον – means “he who comes” and is in the male singular accusative case. Yet the NIV translates this with the gender-neutral “anyone who comes.”

The question is whether this accurately reflects the meaning of the text or whether it is imposing a modern bias towards gender inclusivity upon the text.

In academic writing today, gender-inclusive language is required whenever possible, including moving away from terms like “mankind” in favor of “humankind,” and “every man” to “everyone.”

In some cases, this is warranted and more accurately reflects the author’s intent. For example: Colossians 1:28 in the NASB says: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.”
Paul is clearly speaking about “every human being,” not only about males. So most modern translations translate it: “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.”
In this case, gender-inclusive language more clearly communicates what Paul was saying.

Another example worth considering is Leviticus 24:15. NASB: “If anyone curses his God, then he will bear his sin,” versus the NIV: “Anyone who curses their God will be held responsible.”
In this case, it is not only gender-inclusive language, but a removal of the concept of “bearing one’s sins” being rephrased as “being held responsible.” While the latter may justifiably be called a “watering down” of the text, since the word “sin” is in the original text, the gender-inclusive language could be justified in the sense that this law did not only apply to men but to men and women.

The NIV does not go as far as some other translations when it comes to gender-inclusive language, like the Holman Christian Standard Bible which replaces the often-used “Brethren” with “Brothers and sisters.” Again, it could be argued that this is still appropriate in that it conveys the fact that the people being addressed are both men and women.

However, there are other examples of gender-inclusive language which do actually have theological implications, and therefore are inappropriate impositions on the text. Examples of this would be replacing the masculine “Father” with “Parent”, or “sons of God” with “children of God.” In the case of “sons” versus “children,” there were very specific differences in the way that sons specifically were treated in ancient society regarding rights and inheritance. Whether this was fair or not, that understanding is built into the use of the term “son” as opposed to children in general, and therefore has direct theological implications. The same is true of the masculine pronouns and terms used consistently throughout the Bible for God. To change these is actually to change the meaning of God’s revelation of Himself in the Scriptures.

To those who may feel that it is odd for a female to consider herself a “son of God,” it should be noted that men are similarly included in the feminine term “bride of Christ.” These terms paint pictures by making allusions and parallels to things which are diminished by disregarding the gender-specificity of “son” and “bride”.

There and Back Again

The NIV has dabbled in varying levels of gender-inclusive language, including a 1997 Inclusive Language Edition, which was only released in the UK, but quickly discontinued.  In the early 2000’s, the TNIV (Today’s New International Version) was released, which included changes such as “children of God” instead of “sons of God.” However, the TNIV was also discontinued, and the most recent update to the NIV (2011) actually reinstated some of the gender-specific language which had been removed in the TNIV, because of recognition of the theological importance of the gender-specifity of those terms.

Conclusion

While I don’t think the NIV is the best translation available, I don’t think it’s the worst either. As we have seen, some gender-inclusive language may be justified and warranted. The question is whether gender-inclusive language is being introduced because of cultural pressure or by a desire to accurately translate and convey the meaning of a text.

Even the best translation, however, won’t benefit you if you don’t read it. So, go do that!

Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 2: the King James Bible

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In Part 1 of this mini-series on Making Sense of Different Bible Translations, we looked at the fundamentals of how Bible translation is done, why so many translations exist and some guidelines for choosing a good translation.

Here in Part 2, we will be looking at the King James Version (KJV) specifically. In Part 3, we will look at the New International Version (NIV) and the question of gender-inclusive language.

When it comes to the King James Version of the Bible, some people feel very strongly that it is the only Bible that English speakers should use. Why is that, and is that a good position to hold? Let’s consider the main issues at stake in this discussion:

Manuscripts: Textus Receptus

The King James Version was translated based on a collection of Greek New Testament manuscripts called the Textus Receptus (Received Text). The Textus Receptus was compiled in the 1500’s by Erasmus Desiderius of Rotterdam, a Catholic priest and humanist.

Although he was a humanist and his work played a significant role in the Reformation, by putting the Word of God back into the hands of the people, Erasmus remained loyal to the pope. Martin Luther disputed with Erasmus over theology, which you can read more about here.

There are two kinds of KJV adherents: those who trust the Textus Receptus, and those who trust the KJV itself.

As discussed in Part 1, the Bible doesn’t change, but language does. As a result, new translations of the Textus Receptus have been done, most notably the New King James Version (NKJV), which also uses the Textus Receptus as its basis, but which translates it into modern English. Those who are trust in the Textus Receptus are happy to use the NKJV and other translations of the Textus Receptus which use current rather than archaic English, such as KJ21 and MEV.

However, there are some KJV Only loyalists who reject any translation other than the original KJV, showing that they are not loyal to the Textus Receptus, but to the KJV itself. This brings up several problems:

KJV Only Problem #1: Which King James Version?

The King James Bible has undergone three revisions since its first publication in 1611, which updated the spelling and use of many words – in order to make them more comprehensible in the common language of the people. If you buy a KJV Bible today, you will be getting the 1769 version, unless you go out of your way to get a 1611. So the question for KJV loyalists is: which KJV are you loyal to? If you accept the 1769 (which is almost all KJV’s available for sale today), then you are dealing with what was essentially the NEW King James Version of the 18th century. There seems no reason in this case then to reject the New King James Version of the 20th century either.

KJV Only Problem #2: What About Other Languages?

As a missionary in Hungary, I remember times when people would come from America to serve at our youth camp, and they would bring English KJV Bibles to give out to the kids… Hungarian kids, who not only don’t speak English, but who certainly don’t understand Shakespearean English from the 1600’s. I have heard stories of American churches buying boxes of KJV Bibles to send to orphanages in Mexico.

Do people need to learn English, and specifically archaic English, in order to read and understand the Word of God?

Other languages have translations of the Textus Receptus which predate the KJV, including the German Luther Bible (1522) the  the Spanish Reina translation (1569), and the Hungarian Vizsoly Bible (1590).

Furthermore, when the KJV was first introduced in 1611, it was criticized for being too easy to understand, because it was written in the common language of the people at that time. When the Bible is translated for the first time into a new language today, it is translated into the language the cultures speaks today, not the way they spoke 400 years ago.

Thus, it seems unreasonable to be loyal to the KJV itself, rather than the Textus Receptus. Next, let’s look at the Textus Receptus:

Is the Textus Receptus the best manuscript of the New Testament?

Since Erasmus assembled the Textus Receptus in the early 1500’s, many Biblical manuscripts have been discovered which are older and more accurate than the manuscripts in the Textus Receptus. What these manuscripts show is that the later Textus Receptus manuscripts contained several additions to the text, which were not present in the older manuscripts.

It should be noted: none of these “textual variants” have any significance for Christian theology. They were added, it seems, as forms of commentary, or to help bring clarity – but they seem to have been added nonetheless.

Do Newer Translations Remove Verses?

As explained in the section above, the Textus Receptus includes some verses which older manuscripts show us were later additions to the text by zealous scribes who were trying to help, but which were not a part of the original manuscripts.

So, rather than newer translations “removing verses”, what you actually have is that the KJV (or the Textus Receptus, rather) has added verses to the Bible – something which is also forbidden by Revelation 22:18-19.

See: On Those Missing Verses and Why are newer translations of the Bible missing verses?

Both the KJV and more modern translations are upfront about these facts. The KJV indicates words which have been added for clarity by using italics, and newer translations use brackets or footnotes to show places where the Textus Receptus includes text which is not found in the oldest manuscripts.

Landing the Plane

Our loyalties as Christians should be the original texts of the Old and New Testaments, written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, not to any particular translation of those words which God inspired. It is often helpful to look at several translations in order to get a full understanding of the meaning of a text.

Further reading: The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations? by James R. White

Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 1

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It has been said that the best Bible translation is the one you will read. It’s true: the point is for you to read and understand God’s message to you. The best translation in the world won’t profit you anything if you don’t actually read it.

However, what if you’ve moved past that point – and you are reading the Bible? What are the differences between various translations, and how should you go about choosing the right one?

According to the American Bible Society, since William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament into English in 1526, about 900 English translations of the Bible have been published.1 Why so many – and what are the differences between them?

The Bible doesn’t change with time, but language does.

Language is something that is constantly in flux. Language uses sounds and symbols to refer to unchanging realities, but the words we use to refer to those realities do change over time. For example, the word gay has a different meaning in the modern vernacular than it did 100 years ago. The word Awful, in the past meant “awe inspiring” – but in modern English it no longer means that.

Another example is the word Terrible. In the King James Bible, this word is used many times, e.g. Psalm 47:2 – “For the LORD most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.”
The word Terrible used to have the meaning of our modern Awesome, which is why more modern translations translate this verse: “For the LORD Most High is awesome.” The word Terrible has come to have an expressly negative or pejorative meaning.

One of the reasons for newer translations is not to change the Bible, but because languages change over time. (Further reading: “What are some English words that have changed in meaning since the translation of the KJV?”)

The Tension of Translation

I am bilingual; I speak Hungarian fluently and occasionally work professionally as a translator and interpreter. Anyone who is bilingual will tell you that there is an inherent tension in translating or interpreting between simply translating the words someone said and conveying the meaning of what they said.

For example, in Hungarian there is a term: Zsákbamacska. It literally means: “a cat in a bag,” but what it means is to trick someone, promising them one thing and then giving them an unwanted surprise. In English, we would call that: “pulling a fast one” – or “a switcheroo.”
Furthermore, in English, we do have a colloquialism about a cat in a bag; we say: “Don’t let the cat out of the bag,” or “she let the cat out of the bag” – which means to reveal something earlier than it was meant to be revealed.

In other words, it is possible to translate that phrase directly, but to do so would actually convey something different than what the original writer or speaker had intended to convey. To actually be accurate, you must translate the meaning of the term, not just its words. However, if you only translate meaning and ideas, some of the power of the language will be lost, because particular words conjure pictures (like a cat in a bag), which are rich with insinuations, allusions and other communicative forces.

The ideal translation of any text or speech from one language to another does both, and it is a very difficult balance to reach.

Remember: every translation is inevitably an interpretation.

Because of the nature of language, it is impossible to translate something in a purely clinical, sterile way without getting your “fingerprints” on it.

For example, if in the source language there is a word for which there are two words in the target language, then the translator must decipher which word best matches the meaning they discern the speaker/writer to intend.

For example, in Greek there is one word: pisteuo – for which we have two words in English: faith or belief. There is a difference between faith and belief in English, but not in Greek. Conversely, in Greek there are four words for love, whereas there is only one in English; so if you tell someone you love them in English, in order to translate that into Greek, the translator must interpret what you meant: Do you love this person as a brother/sister? Do you love them romantically? Do you merely feel an empathetic bond to them?

All translations are inevitably interpretations, which is why it matters who translated your Bible and what their underlying theological beliefs and assumptions were.

Some Comparisons for Consideration

All translations fall on the word-for-word and idea-for-idea continuum.

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I personally use and recommend the ESV and the NASB. After those, I would consider the NKJV and the NIV. I will explain my reservations about the NKJV in part 2 of this post, as well as answering some common assumptions about the NIV – however, both can be avoided by choosing the ESV or NASB 🙂

The reason I prefer these translations is because they are more literal translations – meaning that they attempt to translate word-by-word as much as possible, rather than paraphrasing the basic idea in modern vernacular. For example: the statement “he who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:4 ESV) is interpreted as “those who do right for the right reasons” in the CEV.

I prefer more literal translations because I believe that the very words, not just the ideas of Scripture were inspired by God and are thus very important. Much of the theological richness of certain words or metaphors inevitably tends to get washed out in a thought-by-thought translation, even if that is not intended.

The ideal translation is one which accurately translates the original text, but yet is readable. This is a difficult balance to strike, which is why there are so many translations out there – and why I choose the ESV, because it does both well.

Here is a comparison from Romans 3:24:

  • (ESV) justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
  • (NASB) justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.
  • (NIV) justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
  • (KJV) Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
  • (NKJV) being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
  • (CEV) God treats us much better than we deserve, and because of Christ Jesus, he freely accepts us and sets us free from our sins.
  • (NLT) Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.
  • (Message) Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ.

Every translation is an interpretation, but at what point does an interpretation become a commentary?

Notice the word “justified”, which has enormous theological implications, appears in the more literal translations, whereas in the thought-by-thought translations they take the liberty of explaining what the word “justification” means (or at least what they understand it to mean). That explanation may seem nice, but by doing so, they are crossing the line from being translations to being commentaries. The Message in particular, should not be considered a translation, but rather a commentary, as it is focused on explaining ideas and concepts rather than translating the original text into English.

Click here to read Part 2 of this article, where I look at the King James Version specifically.