The Bible and Journalism

In the Gospel of John, a high priest makes a stark pronouncement about Jesus that sets the stage for Holy Week.

In the New International Version translation, Caiaphas tells the Pharisees: "You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." But in the NIV Inclusive Language Edition the words "that one man die" have been translated "that one person die."

For millions of readers, this change represents an attempt to be sensitive to modern issues of gender and equality. But millions of others believe that changes of this sort warp God's Word.

Thus, a recent World magazine expose about efforts to update the NIV created a firestorm in Christian publishing. This story involves the Bible, millions of dollars, sex roles, doctrine and some of today's most powerful religious leaders and institutions. It also has sparked another round of debate about whether "Christian" and "journalism" are mutually exclusive terms.

World's cover showed a Bible morphing into a black warplane, with the headline, "The Stealth Bible: The popular New International Version Bible is quietly going 'gender-neutral.' " The inside headline was just as provocative: "Femme fatale: The Feminist Seduction of the Evangelical Church."

The NIV isn't just another volume on the crowded shelf of Bible translations at the mall bookstore. It is today's most popular Bible -- with more than 100 million copies in print and a staggering 45 percent share in the highly competitive Bible sales market. The NIV translation is jealously guarded by the International Bible Society, which holds the copyright, and the powerful Zondervan Publishing House, which has exclusive commercial rights to the text. The latter is owned by HarperCollins, which is part of Rupert Murdoch's secular multimedia empire.

Zondervan publicists immediately screamed "foul," circulating a letter noting that World had not contacted the publishing house for comment and claiming that the story followed a "predetermined agenda" that suggested a "conspiracy of evangelical Bible translation with radical social feminism." According to Zondervan, the result was unethical -- an article full of "innuendo and sensationalism, containing unconscionable slander."

While an NIV Inclusive Language Edition is available in England, published there by Hodder & Stoughton, Zondervan's leaders stressed that no final decision had been made to publish a "gender-accurate version" for the U.S. market.

World publisher Joel Belz stood his ground. In a follow-up editorial, he noted that no one had challenged World's thesis - that the 15-scholar panel that controls the NIV text, called the Committee on Bible Translations, has given its blessing to the inclusive-language edition in England and was quietly working to produce a similar text here.

"This story about the NIV revision is about people who, for supposedly good reasons, are willing to misquote God," Belz said.

For the NIV camp, this is a clash between two different styles of conservatism. Attempts to modernize gender references, stressed Zondervan's media statements, would focus on words for humanity - not language about God. But World argued that even gender-neutral language for human beings can blur biblical descriptions of differing roles for men and women and, in some cases, weaken references to the humanity and divinity of Jesus. World's editors insist that those who support an egalitarian approach to gender roles in the home, pew and pulpit have surrendered too much turf to feminism.

The battle lines were clear. "Egalitarians" backed a revised NIV. On the other side were "complementarians" who say men and women have differing, but complementary, roles. One of evangelicalism's most powerful figures, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, quickly opposed a "politically correct" NIV. Leaders of the nation's 16-million-plus Southern Baptists began making plans for open revolt against the proposed gender revisions.

Thus, the International Bible Society on May 27 waved a white flag, saying it would abandon plans to revise the NIV, return traditional gender references to its New International Readers Version and ask the British publisher to cease printing its inclusive-language NIV.