Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Accuracy in Bible translation

By Maria Boccia, PhD
Professor of Pastoral Counseling and Psychology
Director of Graduate Programs in Counseling Charlotte campus

“Gender Debate: SBC Pastors Denounce NIV
Southern Baptist delegates passed a resolution criticizing the 2011 update and asked LifeWay stores not to sell the Bible translation.”
This was the headline in the Christianity Today Direct e-mail I receive as a subscriber of the magazine, today, July 26, 2011. I clicked through to the website to see what this was about. At their annual meeting in Phoenix in June, the Southern Baptist convention passed a resolution denouncing the 2011 NIV update, and asked their bookstores to not carry it. The accusation is “gender inclusive” and they claim the new NIV is an inaccurate translation.
These are fighting words. In fact we have heard that repeatedly as the publishers have tried to update and edit the NIV to improve the translation based on new scholarship. These attempts have been beaten down and battered by groups such as Focus On The Family, and the Council Of Biblical Manhood And Womanhood. If these claims were true, I’d be the first in line to agree with the objections raised. Unfortunately, they are not.
There are some passages of Scripture which have been used to argue that women should be excluded from leadership in the church and subordinated to their husbands in the home. The Southern Baptist convention has codified this in their revised faith and mission statement ( The difficulty is that many passages of Scripture which we read unthinkingly in terms of gender restricted language turn out to be inaccurate translations. What the new NIV editions have been trying to do is to correct those inaccuracies.
I will give you one of many examples I could cite to give you a flavor for the difficulty. In I Timothy 3:1, we read
It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. [1]
This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. [2]
And now, for the NIV:
Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task[3]
This year we have been celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. It basically was the official Bible of United States of America since the founding of the country practically. For example when Bible reading was mandated in the public schools, it was a King James version that was read. When we quote the Bible we often quote the King James Version. It has been powerfully influential in shaping what we believe the Bible says about many topics. In this verse, the King James Version taught us to see the office of bishop occupied exclusively by men (gender distinctive intended). The radical mistranslation of the NIV suggests that not only men may aspire to be bishops but also women, as they would be included in the “anyone” of this translation. This is the kind of “mistranslation” to which the Southern Baptists are objecting. However, if we look at the original language we learn the following: it is not the Greek word for man, aner. Nor is it the Greek word for human being often translated as man, anthropos. It is a gender-neutral pronoun, most accurately translated “anyone,” tis.
So, which is the most accurate translation? The one with which we grew up and which we memorized and learned to trust as truly God’s word? Or is it this new NIV against which the Southern Baptists delegates have reacted so strongly? I agree that the Holy Spirit has been at work in our world since its beginning, and he has been teaching the church since its birth on Pentecost. I believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, and I believe that the Holy Spirit has guided and preserved its translation. Because of this, I believe we must respect traditional understandings and interpretations and translations. However, translators are human beings. They are, like the rest of us, fallen sinners saved by grace, and therefore capable of error in their work. That error may come from their expectations and biases, unintentional or otherwise. Therefore, in my mind, it is imperative that we remain open to the teaching of the Holy Spirit. When we see such obvious errors in translation as those described above, we must correct them. Not to do so would leave the church burdened with restrictions on women not authorized by Scripture because of inaccurate and biased translation. Therefore I would say that we should welcome the NIV which corrects mistakes like this in earlier translations and try to accurately reflect gender when gender is indicated in the original language and inclusiveness when inclusiveness is indicated in the original language. Anything less is bad translation.

[1] New American Standard Bible : 1995 update. 1995 (1 Ti 3:1). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.
[2] The Holy Bible: King James Version. 2009 (Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version.) (1 Ti 3:1). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
[3] The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1996 (electronic ed.) (1 Ti 3:1). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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