They’ve been throwing a controversy and no one invited me!
Seems there’s been a huge debate lately over a new translation released by Zondervan called the TNIV: Today’s New International Version. Seems that the publishers of the NIV decided to update the now-venerable NIV — which they do every few years anyhow — by making it “gender-inclusive”. By this they mean that where the original language uses a masculine word like “αυτος” (he), “ανηρ” (man) or “αδελφος” (brother) in a generic fashion to refer to people of either sex, the translation uses “them”, “person” or “brother and sister” to indicate the genericity of the referent.
Now a number of leading conservative personalities have voiciferously come out against this translation. In a recent Focus on the Family (ptui) interview with Wayne Grudem, the following charges were made (taken from Stan Gundry’s response on the B-TRANS list):
- Tampering with Scripture, including, ironically, Revelation 22:18-19.
- Culture is influencing translation.
- The Slippery Slope: translating “πατηρ” as “parent” might lead to referring to God as “parent” instead of “father”, and to referring to Jesus as female.
- They’ve taken a lot of masculinity out of the Bible — it’s not as much a man’s Bible any more.
Mark D. Roberts has written an extensive and balanced overview of the controversy; well worth reading. I’m just going to rant a bit from the perspective that I think the TNIV is a Good Thing. I’ll try to make it entertaining, at least.
Let’s look at the charges:
Tampering with Scripture, including, ironically, Revelation 22:18-19.
This charge is simply false on the face of it, and absurd upon further reflection. The TNIV has not changed one word, or iota or pointing, of Scripture. Note the very deliberate use of Greek in my examples above. Scripture was written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and we have very good texts in those original languages, that we are fairly sure come pretty darn close to the original. Now the writers of the TNIV did not retroactively reach back through time and modify all the copies of Scripture we have in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, nor did they mount commando raids on the publishers of the current scholarly editions of the text, to change instances of “αυτος” to “αυτος και αυτη”, “ανηρ” to “ανηρ και γυνη” and “αδελφος” to “αδελφος και αδελφη”! The words of Scripture remain unchanged on library and office shelves and pews all over the world.
What the TNIV people have done is to add words in their English translation for which there is no word-for-word correspondence in the original languages. Shocking! The Focus-On-The-Family (ptui) types would have us read “essentially literal” translations, where there’s no such flim-flammery going on. OK, let’s look at a couple of verses in the New Testament. Revelation 22:18-19, say. Let’s see what a word-for-word translation would look like:
Μαρτυρῶ ἐγὼ παντὶ τῷ ἀκούοντι τοὺς λόγους τῆς προφητείας τοῦ βιβλίου τούτου: ἐάν τις ἐπιθῇ ἐπ’ αὐτά, ἐπιθήσει ὁ θεὸς ἐπ’ αὐτὸν τὰς πληγὰς τὰς γεγραμμένας ἐν τῷ βιβλίῳ τούτῳ: καὶ ἐάν τις ἀφέλῃ ἀπὸ τῶν λόγων τοῦ βιβλίου τῆς προφητείας ταύτης, ἀφελεῖ ὁ θεὸς τὸ μέρος αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τοῦ ξύλου τῆς ζωῆς καὶ ἐκ τῆς πόλεως τῆς ἁγίας, τῶν γεγραμμένων ἐν τῷ βιβλίῳ τούτῳ.
Witness I all the hearing the words the prophecy the book this: if any add to them, add the God to him the plagues the written in the book this; and if any delete from the words the book the prophecy this, delete the God the part his from the tree the life and from the city the holy, the written in the book this.
This is a direct, word-for-word translation from the original Greek. You can sort of make some sense out of it, but it’s not very clear, for a number of reasons. First, Greek often uses a different word order than English. I suppose that switching words around doesn’t add to or take away from Scripture, so let’s try that:
I witness all the hearing the words the prophecy the this book: if any add to them, God add to him the plagues the written in the this book; and if any delete from the words the prophecy the this book, God delete the his part from the life the tree and from the holy the city, the written in the this book.
Doesn’t make it much better, does it? A further problem is all the “the”s. It seems Greek likes using “the” in places where in English it would be redundant, like with names (“the God”, “the Gordon”) and adjectives (“the city the holy”). I guess taking out redundancies might not quite constitute modifying Scripture TOO much, maybe:
I witness all hearing the words the prophecy this book: if any add to them, God add to him the plagues written in this book; and if any delete from the words the prophecy this book, God delete his part from the life tree and from the holy city, the written in this book.
Well, maybe a little better, but not a whole lot. We’ve come up against the major problem with translating Greek to English. Greek is a highly inflectional language, which means that it uses little bitty changes in individual words to convey what in English would require adding extra words. So let’s risk our place in Heaven, and add some English words where no Greek words existed. For example, the words I’ve transated “the” in the passage, are actually inflected for cases that require English prepositions to fully transmit their meaning:
I witness to all thosehearing the words of the prophecy in this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues written in this book; and if anyone deletes from the words of the prophecy in this book, God will delete his part from the life tree and from the holy city, the ones written about in this book.
Now we’re getting somewhere. We’ve suddenly discovered the relationships between all the people and things, and the whole sentence is now correct English. Which version is a better translation? I don’t think you’ll find anyone on any side of the debate who would argue that removing and adding words isn’t essential to good translation. Which leads us to a dilemma: according to the very text we’re translating, we will be damned for all eternity if we do this. Literally.
This could be a problem.
So why do we have so many translations? The Bible has been translated into many different languages throughout the history of the church. We have dozens of English translations, and there are huge organizations devoted to translating the Bible into every single language on the face of the planet! How do we resolve this contradiction? Ironically, the Greek original helps us. The Greek word “λογος” doesn’t mean precisely the same thing as the English word “word”. For most purposes they overlap well enough, but the Greek word also includes a sense of “idea”, of “rationality” that the English word lacks. So we could translate Revelation 22:18-19 “If anyone deletes from the ideas…”. This is the principle by which we justify translations of the Bible. When we translate, we are not mechanically encoding individual words, we are trying to convey the ideas of the original text in the grammar, idioms and accustomed forms of the target language. Thus Revelation 22:18 looks like this in French:
Je le déclare à quiconque entend les paroles de la prophétie de ce livre: Si quelqu’un y ajoute quelque chose, Dieu le frappera des fléaux décrits dans ce livre; et si quelqu’un retranche quelque chose des paroles du livre de cette prophétie, Dieu retranchera sa part de l’arbre de la vie et de la ville sainte, décrits dans ce livre.
Namwonya kila mtu asikiaye maneno ya unabii yaliyomo katika kitabu hiki: mtu ye yote akiyaongezea cho chote, Mungu atamwongezea maafa yaliyoandikwa katika kitabu hiki. Na kama mtu ye yote akipunguza cho chote katika maneno ya unabii yaliyomo katika kitabu hiki, Mungu atamnyang’anya sehemu yake katika mti wa uzima na katika mji mtakatifu, ambayo yameelezwa katika kitabu hiki.
И я также свидетельствую всякому слышащему слова пророчества книги сей: если кто приложит что к ним, на того наложит Бог язвы, о которых написано в книге сей; и если кто отнимет что от слов книги пророчества сего, у того отнимет Бог участие в книге жизни и в святом граде и в том, что написано в книге сей.
All of these translations involved a whole lot of adding and deleting and moving words around. Yet we don’t object to them. So what are the opponents of the TNIV objecting to?
Culture influences translation.
This charge is also absurd. I completed an entire Master’s degree dedicated to the idea that Bible Translation should be profoundly influenced by culture, for language is inseparable from culture. If it were not, we should be satisfied with the very first translation of the Bible into English:
And I witnesse to ech man herynge the wordis of prophesie of this book, if ony man schal putte to these thingis, God schal putte on hym the veniauncis writun in this book. And if ony man do awei of the wordis of the book of this prophesie, God schal take awei the part of hym fro the book of lijf, and fro the hooli citee, and fro these thingis that ben writun in this book.
The English language has, unsurprisingly, changed since the time of John Wycliffe. Not only in spelling, but in the meaning of words like “put” and “vengeance”. In translations all around the world, the literal text is adapted to various cultures. In lowland Papua New Guinea, which never sees snow, our souls become white as a cockatoo. In West Africa, leopards, not wolves, seek to devour the flocks of the church. In fact, a literal translation into English would talk about our bowels far more often than our hearts. Culture always influences translation, subject to the desire to accurately convey the meaning of the original.
So if there’s an obvious reason to produce new translations as culture changes, why object?
The Slippery Slope: translating “πατηρ” as “parent” might lead to referring to God as “parent” instead of “father”, and to referring to Jesus as female.
First of all, I have no problem with “God the Parent”. There are many places in the Bible where God is depicted with feminine mothering qualities. If you’ve read some of my other rants, you’ll notice that I tend to alternate between male and female pronouns when referring to the Deity. That is because I believe that God contains all good qualities, male and female. Not to put too fine a point on it, if you object to referring to God as female, then you must believe that the essential characteristics of females are evil, because if they were good, God would partake of them in infinite measure, and thus in equal measure to the male. Unfortunately, I think I may be on to something here.
As for the second, it’s ridiculous to anyone who’s ever studied (or even thought about) how translation works. No translation changes words from masculine to neuter or feminine where the referent is obviously male! The changes are made when a masculine noun or pronoun is used to refer to both male and female people in general. This is pretty much the first rule you learn in translation school: concrete referents must be translated literally. Jesus was male. Nuff said.
(That is not to say that portraying Jesus as female in some contexts might not have some artistic value, but translation is not art in that sense).
So we come to the last, and key, objection:
They’ve taken a lot of masculinity out of the Bible — it’s not as much a man’s Bible any more.
I think this is the root of the problem. Opponents of the TNIV are simply clinging to an archaic, oppressive patriarchy. It is true that until recently it was considered standard usage to use masculine expressions to refer to gender-indefinite referents, but this is changing in current English usage. Why? Because many people feel that women should be equally represented in language as in life, law and theological status. How can this be anything but a good thing?
Let’s look at Revelation 22:18-19 again. The TNIV’s opponents would claim that altering the masculine pronouns would somehow change or diminish the meaning of the text. Let’s look at the TNIV’s translation:
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If any one of you adds anything to them, God will add to you the plagues described in this scroll. And if any one of you takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from you your share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.
Far from diminishing or detracting from the meaning of the text, the TNIV has gone a step further than just making the pronoun indefinite. They have turned an impersonal statement into a personal challenge, making the impact of the verse stronger.[*] What does this say about the motives of the TNIV’s translators? That perhaps they read the Bible with great care and are deeply committed to ever more clearly transmitting its meaning to new generations of people? Ya think?
So to those drooling, slack-jawed, mumbling, dewlapped, wrinkled, combed-over, liver-spotted, woman-fearing and I have no doubt, limp-dicked defenders of the patriarchy, I say shame on you! How dare you try to keep the Bible and the Faith the province of your little boys’ club? You’ve lorded it over half of humanity for long enough, justifying centuries of priviledge and oppression by quoting Scripture, of all things. Well here’s some scripture for ya, in the original (and in a translation of small words, lest your tiny fossilized brains burst into bitty shards from the shock):
Οὐκ ἔνι Ἰουδαῖος οὐδὲ Ελλην, οὐκ ἔνι δοῦλος οὐδὲ ἐλεύθερος, οὐκ ἔνι ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ: πάντες γὰρ ὑμεῖς εἷς ἐστε ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
[*] Update and footnote: Craig Blomberg, in his review of the TNIV, notes that this kind of thing: changing from third person to second, adding words, changing genders to be more general, etc., goes on all the time in the New Testament text itself, where the NT translates Hebrew verses from the Old Testament into Greek.