“Hear the word of the Lord” — Hosea 4:1

September 7, 2009

bible2I see by the papers that the publishers of the New International Version of the Bible are preparing a new edition of the scriptures that is likely to re-ignite the debate about sexist language.

I was discussing sexist language with one of my English classes the other day. The text for that class advises students to use the construction “his or her” in order to avoid expressing gender bias.  So, for instance, students are advised to write. “A person who has been drinking at a party should surrender his or her keys to a sober friend,” rather than, “… surrender his keys to a sober friend,” which is grammatically correct, but some say not correct in other ways.

scriptureSeveral years ago, a translation called Today’s New International Version was introduced in which many gender references were changed in order to avoid what the publishers felt were unwarranted or unnecessary male nouns or pronouns. For example, a verse from the Gospel According to Matthew was altered from “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye ‘ ….” to “How can you say, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’ ….” That doesn’t seem to alter the meaning of the verse, although I don’t know why the translator, if he or she wanted to alter that verse didn’t resort instead to “How can you say to your sister or brother ….”

An even more curious change affected a verse in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.” That was changed to: “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a human being.” The first man referred to was Adam – who was incontrovertably male – and the second man referred to was Jesus – also incontrovertably male, so that change seems unnecessary if it does not actually obscure Paul’s meaning.

scrollbThe committee working on the new translation has explained that every gender reference in the Bible will be reviewed, but the outcome remains to be seen — sometime in 2011.

This aspect of Today’s New International Version was controversial. Some Christians who rely on this version argued that the text should stick as close to the original as possible, for reasons of authenticity and scholarship. Some objected to the tinkering with gender references as a disingenuous bow to political correctness. And some, including the translators, argued that those and other changes were designed to make the Bible more attractive to a younger audience and more accessible to all English-speaking people.

My own view as a reader of the New American Bible is that a book that is presented to the reader as the Bible should reproduce as closely as possible the language and meaning of the original writers and traditions. Reading the scriptures without historical context is always a risky business, and not just with respect to gender bias. Serious readers of the scriptures should know enough about the cultures in which they were written to understand that the status of women was very different from their status in the 21st century and even more different from the status they should occupy in the 21st century. There are many popular and scholarly commentaries on the Bible that explain the contents and background of the scriptures from a variety of religious perspectives and for a variety of audiences.

Meanwhile, the Huffington Post report on the revisions to the New International Version of the Bible is at this link:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/09/01/new-international-version_n_274299.html

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