Bible's language riles evangelicals

Tinkering with the Bible has always been controversial.

In 1536, William Tyndale was burned at the stake for translating and printing the holy book in English.

Release of the King James Version in 1611 sparked such a furor that the Pilgrims refused to take it on the Mayflower. They stuck instead with the Geneva Bible. Still, the KJV won out, eventually becoming the beloved standard among Protestants for more than three centuries.

In the 1960s, when Kenneth Taylor worried that his children weren't understanding what they read in the Bible, he produced The Living Bible. He faced a torrent of criticism, but his venture later grew into Tyndale Publishing House.

Now, in a world of 70 English translations and a multiplicity of specialty Bibles, a new translation of the perennial bestseller is again causing a ruckus. This time the controversy has flared within the evangelical community, the largest US market for the scriptures, over gender-inclusive language. Some conservatives vigorously oppose changes they claim are being made for the sake of political correctness.

The International Bible Society (IBS) decided that the most popular Bible of recent decades – the New International Version (NIV), with 150 million copies sold since 1978 – needed updating to communicate the word accurately in "the language of the day." Earlier this year it announced publication of Today's New International Version (TNIV), with the New Testament to debut this month, and the Old Testament in 2005.

"Everyone should have access to the transforming power of God's Word in language they can understand and relate to," said Ronald Youngblood, board chairman of IBS, which since 1810 has sponsored translations in 600 languages.

The glitch, however, was that back in 1997, the society had promised not to do it. Their plan then to prepare a gender-inclusive revision sparked a firestorm of criticism from such influential conservatives as James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, and leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, who branded the effort a capitulation to feminists. After discussions, the society and its commercial publisher, Zondervan, backed down on their plan.

But then they had a change of heart. "It came down to fulfilling our mission," says Larry Lincoln, communications director at IBS. "People don't speak the same way now they did 30 years ago – and we needed to offer another choice for today's generation."

Only 7 percent of the NIV was changed, Mr. Lincoln says, and less than 2 percent of changes relate to gender. Most are to clarify passages or update English, referring to Mary as "pregnant," for instance, rather than "with child." Male terminology for God is retained, and inclusive language is used only in situations where it was the original intent – for example, "sons of God" becomes "children of God," and "brothers" becomes "brothers and sisters." Another change with import for interfaith relations involves using more specific language; references to "the Jews," for instance, become "Jewish leaders."

Lincoln says the society has already gotten e-mails from pastors across the US saying, "Thank you for finally doing this – I've been making these changes in the pulpit for years."

A group of 35 evangelical scholars, however, quickly issued a statement decrying "inaccuracies that introduce ... distortions of meaning" and saying the new work "should not be commended to the church." Mr. Dobson called it "a step backward."

Their review of the text was sponsored by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a group which affirms that "distinctions in masculine and feminine roles are ordained by God as part of the created order." Their website describes some "100 inaccuracies."

The controversy has apparently not dampened interest in the new translation. "We've moved up the distribution date because retailers are so excited to sell it," says Emily Leuthner of Zondervan.

"I'm sure there will be a market for it, because inclusive language is important to many people," says Amy Ward, manager of the Massachusetts Bible Society bookstore. Demand for Bibles there splits evenly among the NIV, New Revised Standard Version, and the King James.

Zondervan, the world's largest Bible publisher, sold 7.1 million last year. Specialty Bibles have surged in popularity. The Extreme Word Bible for teenagers was the No. 7 bestseller in Christian bookstores last year. The Encouragement Bible for people facing loss came out in February, partly in response to Sept. 11. Among general translations, the Christian Booksellers Association's top sellers were the NIV, the King James, the New King James, and the New Living translation.

At Fellowship Emanuel Bookstore in Boston, which caters to urban churches, manager Sara Mitchell says the King James remains the clear favorite, then the NIV. One customer so far has asked about the TNIV, but not necessarily to buy it.

Same verses, three versions

Here is a familiar Bible passage as it appears in three different translations:

Hebrews 1:1, 2.

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;

King James

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.

New Revised Standard

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.

Today's New International

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