< And God Said


Friday, September 18, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Translating any beloved text is a dangerous enterprise. Language is laden with cultural and historical resonances and the meanings of words change over time. Now, consider the task of translating and updating the Bible. The New International Version of The Bible, or the NIV, released in 1984, became the most popular Bible in the world. In 2005, a group of scholars called the Committee on Bible Translation released an update to 1984’s NIV called Today’s New International Version, or TNIV. It caused an uproar, mostly due to its neutral take on gender. For example, here’s the 1984 NIV.

MAN: Then God said, let us make man in our image, in our likeness.


MAN: Then God said, let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The new version included many changes, but the most vocal critics charged that the Committee on Bible Translation was yielding to a feminist agenda. The TNIV was drowned in the controversy, and this month the committee announced that it’s scrapping it and starting over. Committee chairman Doug Moo says that response to the TNIV ranged from the reasonable to the not so much.

DOUG MOO: One very irate person, who perhaps was a bit mentally unbalanced, even sent an NIV Bible with a rifle having shot a bullet through it. [LAUGHS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that people were outraged partly because they think it’s a slippery slope? You know, you slip in one cultural change, like gender neutrality, and it’s just a matter of time before you take on homosexuality; then you have a Bible originalist’s plague of frogs or something like that.

DOUG MOO: Yes, I think that was part of the concern, that we were making some of the gender decisions out of ideology and who knows where that would lead, whereas our purpose all along was simply to do the best job we could to represent God’s unchanging word in contemporary English.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was there something underneath the objection of changing the word “man” to “human beings,” something in particular that you think people were nervous about?

DOUG MOO: The criticisms came on two grounds. One was that that kind of change would remove what some think is a deliberate purpose on God’s part to sort of highlight men as representative human beings, to single them out as those who are given attention in Scripture. And so, our decision to move away from that kind of language was felt by some to be losing a theological point in the Bible. The other problem which we face in English, as many are aware, is that we have no third singular generic pronoun. When we want to refer to a single human being, it used to be we used “he” and “him” and “his” to do that. Many people feel that that now carries a masculine coding that the originals don't intend. But what do we replace it with? We decided to use plurals, so instead of a “he” we might use a “they.” And we were criticized for doing that because, you know, what was a singular form in the original text now became a plural in English.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Your point, as you say, is not to push any kind of political ideology but to reflect the language as it is currently used, right?

DOUG MOO: That’s correct. And in 1984, you know, I think there was still a sense that, well, if you’re translating the Bible you can't use ordinary English because that might be offensive. Now there’s a sense that, no, the Bible is written in the ordinary, everyday language of its day and we should reflect that in using ordinary, everyday English.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've also had to deal with Hollywood and the [LAUGHTER] drug culture. The word “alien” appears in the 1984 version.

DOUG MOO: In many passages of the Old Testament we've changed “alien” to “foreigner.” With the popularity of ET and other science-fiction movies of that sort, I suspect most contemporary English listeners when they hear the word “alien” think of an extraterrestrial, and that’s not, of course, what the Bible is communicating [LAUGHING] at all at that point.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I love how you attempt to cope with marijuana culture.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here’s the 1984 version of Second Corinthians, 11:25.

MAN: Three times I was beaten with the rods. Once I was stoned.

DOUG MOO: We could just hear the giggles from the junior high kids in the back of the church [LAUGHTER], you know, when that’s read out loud.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here’s your version.

MAN: Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was pelted with stones.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The thing that caused the dust-up back in 2005, changing “man” to “human beings,” is it staying in the 2011 version?

DOUG MOO: We are making no promises or predictions about where that’s going to come out.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you might go back.

DOUG MOO: I suspect that at some places we may go back. Other places I suspect we won't. But, again, that’s very hard to predict at this0 point.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: How many of your readers do you think believe that the Bible is literally the word of God?

DOUG MOO: It’s hard to guess. The New International Version is certainly not confined to the evangelical Christian community. Again, it’s the best-selling English Bible in the world right now, I think, so it is used quite broadly. But a lot of our readers do pick up the English Bible and think that here in the NIV or the TNIV they have God’s actual words for them. And that, of course, gives to our work a sense of tremendous accountability and responsibility.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So as a believer as well as a scholar, does it feel weird to be changing the words you grew up with?

DOUG MOO: Yes, it does, very, very often, and that’s one of the things sometimes we have to fight against. And sometimes it can be hard to change a treasured passage [LAUGHS] that we have learned in a certain way. But, again, our concern is to get it right, and we don't want to simply listen to tradition on the one hand or to the latest fad on the other. We want to represent what really is there in those ancient texts in contemporary English.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Doug, thank you very much.

DOUG MOO: You’re welcome.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Doug Moo is the chairman of the Committee on Bible Translation and the Blanchard Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College.