Biblical feminists, as opposed to other feminists outside and within the church, accept the full authority of all Scripture for all the people of God. But they recognize, with all modern people, that we do not absorb Scripture in its pure form into our understanding. Like anything else we read, reading Scripture is an interpretive process.
Evangelical tradition places a high value on the biblical text, which is a good thing. But too often, we buy into a myth that our favorite translation is God’s true Word, pure and untainted by bias. Changes are seen as a threat to God’s truth, motivated by a social or political agenda.
Language matters. It impacts our ideas. It reflects our biases. It influences those we speak to. As I sang on Christmas Eve that all men are to employ their songs, the picture in my head was of men singing praises to God. Not one woman was among “all men” in my own imagination! It’s crucial that women see ourselves in what we sing, in what we read, and in what we hear.
Recent events in the evangelical community—particularly with the release of Todays New International Version (TNIV) Bible translation—have raised concerns over masculine language. Does Jesus ask us to be fishers of people or fishers of men (Matt. 4:19)? Is there a difference? Should we be afraid to use words like people, especially when the ancient text and context warrants this?
King-James-Only advocates have taken a personal preference, elevated it to a theological absolute, and used it to divide liberals from conservatives, believers from unbelievers, servants of God from minions of Satan. Critics of inclusive language in Bible translation are doing the very same thing with their reckless, blanket denunciations of the TNIV.
The challenging complexity of the ministry of Bible translation should spark humility, among translators themselves and among those who critique them. I pledge to keep such humility in mind as I describe four types of shortcomings that can be found in Bible translations, using 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 as a test case.
Paul makes a few statements that seem to limit women. Did he intend for these to apply to all women, or only to women among the original recipients? Some interpreters argue that Paul considered his words directly applicable, not only to the women of Corinth (in the case of 1 Corinthians) and Ephesus (in the case of 1 Timothy), but to all Christian women in his era (in Philippi, Antioch, Jerusalem, etc.). Such an argument often proceeds as follows: Since Paul himself intended broad ancient application, the next sensible step is to apply his words directly to all Christian women of subsequent generations.
While some Christians rationalize sexism and patriarchy by appealing to the “plain reading” of Scripture, others instinctively question whether what they see on the pages of Scripture is a faithful and consistent translation of the original text. At stake is something much more costly than a statue; we risk living our lives based on distortions of Scripture, which, in turn, justify a Christianity centered not on Christ but on male rule.
A historical case can be made that Christianity has, all things considered, been good for women. It has not been the mighty agent of gender oppression that it is sometimes made out to be. Still, contemporary Christians can hardly feel smug about the track record of our religious tradition. We live with the uncomfortable awareness that our faith has not been as affirming as it should have been, or as empowering for women as it certainly needs to be from now on.
In the spring of 2002, Zondervan and the International Bible Society released the latest work of the ongoing Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), Today's New International Version (TNIV) of the New Testament. The Old Testament is slated for release in 2005. Approximately 7% of the text is changed from the last American revision of the NIV, published in 1984.