Fifteen years ago, the country’s largest Protestant denomination issued a stinging rebuke to a new Bible translation. The Southern Baptist Convention accused an update to the popular New International Version of “erasing gender-specific details” by changing some references to “man” to “mortals” and “father” to “parent,” among others. It was not the first time the SBC condemned “gender-neutral” translations of Scripture, and it would not be the last. Soon afterward, the SBC issued its own “gender-accurate” Bible, the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
This spring, the SBC’s publishing arm issued a refreshed translation of that Bible that some observers are now calling “gender-inclusive.” Religion writer Jonathan Merritt, the son of a former SBC president, and Garet Robinson, a pastor with a Ph.D. in theology, compared the new version, now called the Christian Standard Bible, with the original. Writing in the Atlantic, they conclude that it has “significant deviations from rigidly literal interpretation methods” and catalog the changes in detail:
The CSB now translates the term anthropos, a Greek word for “man,” in a gender-neutral form 151 times, rendering it “human,” “people,” and “ones.” The previous edition had done this on occasion; the new revision adds almost 100 more instances. “Men of Israel” becomes “fellow Israelites;” when discussing Jesus’s incarnation the “likeness of men” becomes “likeness of humanity.” The CSB translates the term adelphoi, a Greek word for “brother” in a gender-neutral form 106 times, often adding “sister.” “Brotherly love” is translated “love as brothers and sisters.”
So how big of a deal is this? The Christian Standard Bible translation team says it hasn’t made a point of being gender-inclusive but simply tried to capture the meaning of the original text.* The new version uses masculine terms such as father and king and masculine pronouns to refer to God and in passages referring to specific men. But with more generic references, it often opts for neutral terms such as mortal or person. The translators used an approach called optimal equivalence, which prioritizes word-for-word renderings when the meaning is understandable to contemporary readers but shifts to a “thought-for-thought” translation when literalism would obscure that meaning.
Denny Burk, a Southern Baptist professor of biblical studies, dismissed the notion that the new translation is gender-inclusive as “demonstrably false.” Burk writes that traditionalists don’t oppose all gender-neutral translation decisions but only those that “mute the author’s masculine meaning”; the new version, he said, makes no such errors. It also follows the Colorado Springs Guidelines, a widely used standard for translators who oppose the gender-neutral approach.
Debates over Bible translation are debates about theology and linguistics, and they can be dustier than the valley of dry bones. But scholarly nit-picking can obscure what’s really at stake here: interpretations relating to gender roles, marriage, sexuality, the character of God, and how readers see themselves—or not—in the Bible’s story. Christian blogger Rachael Starke wrote that the Christian Standard Bible’s new language “moved [her] to worshipful tears of thanks.” The translation, she wrote, “reveals with beautiful clarity the way Jesus’ redemptive work has always been for, and on behalf of women, as much as it has been for men.”
Correction, June 16, 2017: This post orginally stated the translation team for the Christian Standard Bible was from the Southern Baptist Convention. It was not.