Controlling the Words

One of the most popular biblical translations among evangelical conservatives is the New International Version. Introduced in 1978, and immediately endorsed by Billy Graham, the NIV has sold over 300 million copies. As of 2011 the NIV is scheduled for an update. Editors argue that as language changes, biblical translations need to change in order to reflect current usage. Some of the proposed changes, however, are creating a controversy among the conservative faithful.

For instance, instead of referring to God as Father, there is some consideration to using the more generic “parent.” And instead of the male weighted “brethren” as a reference for the gathered church, there is a preference for the more inclusive “family members” or “brothers and sisters.” Critics are accusing editors of bowing to political correctness. In 2002 messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution contending that the British version of the NIV had “gone beyond acceptable translation standards.” Their particular concern was the rendering of God as “Parent.”

Throughout the history of Christianity, the practice of translating Scripture from one language to another has been controversial. Even in the third century before the birth of Jesus, some among the Hebrew faithful were disputing the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Incidentally, it was this Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that was favored by the early church. In time Christians would argue over the translation of the Greek Bible into Latin, and the Latin Bible into German, Slavonic, French and ultimately English. In fact, there were many who lost their lives or spent time in prison for trying to translate the Bible from a preferred language to another.

Translation battles continued even after English was established as the primary language of Christianity. The King James Version, produced in 1611, dominated for several centuries. The King James Bible was not just a book of faith; it was also the lexicon of Western literature and culture. Consequently, we should not be surprised to learn that in 1810, an effort to update the King James translation was met with strong resistance. And in 1901, when the American Standard Version was introduced, it was demonized by devotees of the King James as a work of the devil. That same sort of reaction greeted the Revised Standard Version in 1949 and the New Revised Standard Version in 1989. Most of this resistance was not from mainline Christian churches or from biblical scholars, but from segments of evangelical Christianity.

It’s amazing to notice how many of the translation disputes of the past have centered on issues of gender equality. For instance, the King James Version identifies a woman named Phoebe as a “servant.” The same Greek word is translated elsewhere as “deacon.” But since women were not allowed to be deacons in King James’ church, the more generic translation was adopted. The Greek word can certainly mean servant, but in the context of the New Testament it was also used to designate a particular office. In the current NIV translation, Phoebe is a servant, not a deacon.

And at the end of the day that is what it is all about – controlling the words. Whoever controls the words that are used in translation ultimately controls how we are able to think about theological issues. The words open or close doors for our understanding of God. And ultimately, the words determine who has status in the church, and who does not. Just ask Phoebe.

Republished from Sightings with permission of the University of Chicago Divinity School.