Last week the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible announced plans for its 2011 translation, and it’s gotten a good amount of attention for a book that’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. That’s because the new version features a slew of changes with regard to pronouns, seeking a more gender-neutral approach that many evangelical organizations are denouncing.
It’s not like God is becoming a “Mother” or a “Being” anytime soon—that would be far too revolutionary for the NIV to even consider—but in text that refers to all people, gender-neutral pronouns are used instead, which often means replacing “he” with “he or she” or “a person” and adding “sister” where “brother” also appears.
For example, whereas Mark 1:17 used to read, “And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make become fishers of men,’” the new version reads, “‘Come follow me,’ Jesus said. ‘And I will send you out to fish for people.’”
OK, so maybe that revision in particular lacks the nice ring that it used to have. But overall, I think it’s a step in the right direction for the Bible and the traditionally patriarchal Christian religions. It’s also an interesting discussion for the broader population about yielding to the masculine whenever a gender is unknown. That’s been a debate for years—whether it’s deeply sexist or simply not a big deal—but the NIV 2011’s decision is another important public body passively advocating for greater inclusion in the language.
The Committee on Bible Translations, which made the changes, seems to have a pretty cool process, and what’s even better is that it’s all spelled out on their site, lending an important level of transparency. Once a year, the biblical scholars behind the NIV meet to discuss language approaches within the religion and how modern changes in the English language or vocabulary should be reflected in the Bible. They’ve been meeting since 1965 and make broad changes every few years, although the 2011 version features the most sweeping changes since 1984.
Their FAQ on the website explains further about their reasons for the revisions:
Our mandate under the NIV charter is to maintain the NIV as an articulation of God’s unchanging Word in contemporary English. To the extent that gender-inclusive language is an established part of contemporary English and that its use enhances comprehension for readers, it clearly was an important factor in the decisions we made.
70 percent of the 15 committee members present at the time of voting need to approve any textual changes to the Bible, and about
75 25 percent of the changes made for the 2011 version compared with the 1984 version are gender-related.
Other publishers of Bible editions have similar revision processes to account for shifts in connotation or definition. For example, this year “booty” was removed from the new translation of the New American Bible, which replaced the word with the phrasing “spoils” of war—I’m guessing it’s been a losing battle against congregations’ snickers ever since Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child staked their claim to that word back in 2001.
The NIV’s new translations in particular have upset some evangelical Christians, including the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a group that feels women at home “intelligently are to submit to the leadership of their husbands.” The organization has written extensively on the subject before, and their thoughts on NIV 2011 don’t stray too far from those other writings: gender-neutral language distances Christians from the text, mars the meaning, and should be avoided.
So what should win out? The traditions inherent in the Bible’s age-old text? Or considerations about language trends we see in our modern world? And is anyone else surprised by how progressive these gender-related decisions are?