APRIL 1, 2002
The Translation Sensation
-- Martin E. Marty
Devoting two whole pages of the March 27 USA Today to arguments over Bible translations, as Cathy Lynn Grossman and her editors did this Holy Week, might have seemed like a drab choice to people who live any distance from church conflicts. Those who live closer know better. The perennially hot topic is hotter just now as giant Bible publisher Zondervan releases Today's New International Version of the Bible. Why? Because some evangelical factions protest the translators' efforts to be "inclusive" in language when it comes to the Bible's "he's" and "she's."
Bible translation talk 'drab'? Hardly. As I wrote a script for a filmed but not yet released treatment of Bible translation history for the American Bible Society, some questioned why do it? It is too dull a subject for television. I responded with what was true: through much of Christian history church leaders worked on their own and with civil authorities to burn translations, translators, or both. Those who observe the battle over the Zondervan publication might think "they" still do.
Why is this a topic for those who do sightings of "public religion?" The answer is simple. Most of these fights are political. They have to do with either church politics or political politics. Thus half a century ago fundamentalists were burning the Revised Standard Version as "Stalin's Bible," not because there was more red in it than in other translations -- there is a lot of blood in all translations -- but because the National Council of Churches, seen by them as dangerously leftist, sponsored it.
Criticizing attempts to turn God into "she" -- God is sometimes "she" in some ascriptions in the Hebrew already -- is a venture that credibly inspires debate. But holding that line among others in a world in which "mankind," meaning "humankind," sounds partial, jarring, and distracting if not offensive, has to do less with protecting the "inerrant" word of God than with fighting against "radical feminists" and "political correctness," or for one's faction or "the family."
When Kenneth Taylor produced the hugely popular (among evangelicals) Living Bible in 1971, evangelical critics pointed to some large theological leaps that resulted from Taylor's commitments. "Salvation" came out "get to heaven." To a theological purist, changing concepts from "salvation" to "get to heaven" is greater than changing "him" to "him or her" or "them," but the protesters did not protest then because neither church politics nor political politics was at issue. They are now. In respect to the desire by "inerrantists" to assure an "inerrant" tradition, one might say inerrantly that in the nature of language there can be no such thing. With the new version, there is another war on. Let the battles begin!