Gender Language and the Bible Translation Wars

In 1989 the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation of the Bible introduced a largely gender-neutral translation of the Bible. Never-mind for the moment that the Bible is overwhelmingly anti-woman, as can be seen in Biblical scholar Michael Coogan's book, God Sex and the Bible, as well as in The Women's Bible Commentary - Expanded.Using gender-neutral language in translating the Bible so it can speak to everyone is like rearranging chairs on the Titanic, it will not help at all. The ship will still sink.

Yesterday I had a discussion with a believer who was looking for an earlier edition of the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, the one evangelicals have hailed ever since it's original publication in 1978 (going through several editions). I didn't know that Zondervan, the publishing company for this translation, revised it again in 2011. And guess what? They have followed the lead of the NRSV to some degree in reducing gendered language. It took them 22 years to catch up. Their reasoning can be found in the Preface, which says:
One of the main reasons the task of Bible translation is never finished is the change in our own language, English. Although a basic core of the language remains relatively stable, many diverse and complex linguistic factors continue to bring about subtle shifts in the meanings and/or connotations of even old, well-established words and phrases. One of the shifts that creates particular challenges to writers and translators alike is the manner in which gender is presented. The original NIV (1978) was published in a time when “a man” would naturally be understood, in many contexts, to be referring to a person, whether male of female. But most English speakers today tend to hear a distinctly male connotation in this word. In recognition of this change in English, this edition of the NIV, along with almost all other recent English translations, substitutes other expressions when the original text intends to refer generically to men and women equally. Thus, for instance, the NIV (1984) rendering of 1 Corinthians 8:3, “But the man who loves God is known by God” becomes in this edition “But whoever loves God is known by God.” On the other hand, “man” and “mankind,” as ways of denoting the human race, are still widely used. This edition of the NIV therefore continues to use these words, along with other expressions, in this way.

A related shift in English creates a greater challenge for modern translations: the move away from using the third-person masculine singular pronouns — “he/him/his” — to refer to men and women equally. This usage does persist at a low level in some forms of English, and this revision therefore occasionally uses these pronouns in a generic sense. But the tendency, recognized in day-to-day usage and confirmed by extensive research, is away from the generic use of “he,” “him,” and “his.” In recognition of this shift in language and in an effort to translate into the “common” English that people are actually using, this revision of the NIV generally uses other constructions when the biblical text is plainly addressed to men and women equally. The reader will frequently encounter a “they,” “their,” or “them” to express a generic singular idea. Thus, for instance, Mark 8:36 reads: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” This generic use of the “indefinite” or “singular” “they/them/their” has a venerable place in English idiom and has quickly become established as standard English, spoken and written, all over the world. Where an individual emphasis is deemed to be present, “anyone” or “everyone” or some other equivalent is generally used as the antecedent of such pronouns.
Anyway, this believer was upset and wanted the "more accurate" 1984 edition of the NIV and was having a hard time finding it. ;-) Too bad. This is but a small piece of evidence that Christian colleges, churches and publishing companies move from being conservative to moderate to liberal as the decades move on. It does not happen in the reverse. You will not see these institutions gradually move from being liberal to moderate to conservative. Never. What happens is that conservatives usually get upset and start new colleges, churches and publishing companies, or there is a startling take-over of these institutions by conservatives through pressure of some kind.

All translations are interpretations. Therefore there will always be translation wars. Christians have killed each other over these different translations. Now the wars are largely a war of words.

N. T. Wright has written of previous NIV editions: "When the New International Version was published I was one of those who hailed it with delight. I believed its own claim about itself, that it was determined to translate exactly what was there, and inject no extra paraphrasing or interpretative glosses.... Disillusionment set in over the next two years, as I lectured verse by verse through several of Paul's letters, not least Galatians and Romans. Again and again, with the Greek text in front of me and the NIV beside it, I discovered that the translators had another principle, considerably higher than the stated one: to make sure that Paul should say what the broadly Protestant and evangelical tradition said he said.... [I]f a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about."

Bruce M. Metzger criticized the addition of the word "just" inserted into Jeremiah 7:22, so the verse becomes "For when I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices." Metzger also criticized the addition of the word your into Matthew 13:32, so it becomes "Though it [the mustard seed] is the smallest of all your seeds", avoiding any impression of Jesus's speaking a botanical untruth. The usage of your in this verse has been removed in the 2011 NIV revision.

Source on Wright and Metzger's quotes, Wikipedia.

To read a review of the 2011 edition of the NIV there's one online by Bridget Jack Jeffries.