Updated: Nov 8, 2019
I worked at a Christian bookstore when the 2011 New International Version Bible (NIV) came out. Up until then people were reading from the 1984 revision of the NIV. The NIV is the most popular version of the Bible sold in the world today. A revision to a popular Bible version doesn’t seem like it would be any big deal, but this one caused a lot of controversy. The hoopla over this revision was because the translation team decided to go from masculine language to gender neutral language.
Our Old Testament is the Jewish Scripture. The manuscripts are in the Jewish language - Hebrew (with a few chapters and verses in Aramaic in later books). During the time period between the Testaments, Alexander the Great came to power and united the world with the Greek language. So the New Testament authors wrote in Greek. Now since we can't read Hebrew/ Aramaic or Greek, the original language manuscripts had to be translated to English.
The original language manuscripts are written with masculine language.
The translation teams take their task very seriously. They know they are dealing with the holy Word of God. The credentials of the scholars doing the translating are incredible! They are highly qualified and work in teams (for most popular Bible versions like the NIV.) It is their job to accurately translate the original language wording to English (or whatever language they are translating to.)
The translators struggle with what to do with the masculine language when women are included - when the verses apply to all people. Research found that a large percentage of readers would read a passage such as “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7) to refer only to men or boys, not to women or girls. (OK, sorry, but “duh?” I mean really.) I read from a masculine language Bible and I don't have any problem knowing the Scripture applies to me too. But apparently some women do.
The 2011 NIV revision translation team decided to revise the wording to include the women by going "gender neutral." Scriptures referring to all people (both men and women) were modified to be all-inclusive.
In all translations, even with gender-neutral language;
God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are always referred to as masculine. Always.
People got very upset about this revision! A lot of critics said this was not translating the manuscripts, but altering the Word of God. "Don’t be messing with Scripture!" But my answer to that is they already "messed with it" when they translated it!
I don't really know how people knew about the change. I am not sure I would have known if I hadn't been working at the Christian bookstore. Just about every day I worked, a customer would rant about it. So I do what I do to stay informed and I researched it. Christianity Today, my local newspaper and a bunch of bloggers had articles on the 2011 revision. Apparently pastors at churches all over were talking about the revision. It really was big news back then.
You may not know this but most modern translations already use gender neutral language. New Living Translation (NLT), Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), and The Message were written with gender neutral language. And now the NIV. English Standard Version (ESV) has some gender neutral language. ESV is considered a literal translation even though it does have a little gender neutral language. (Literal translations translate as close to word for word even if some of the meaning in modern day language is lost.) Literal translations like the King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), and the New American Standard Bible (NASB - which I usually read from) all have masculine language.
Let’s look at some examples of the masculine language being changed to gender-neutral language:
Mark 4:25 (NIV 1984)
Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.
Mark 4:25 (NIV 2011)
Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.
Luke 17:3 (NIV 1984)
If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.
Luke 17:3 (NIV 2011)
If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.
Proverbs 27:17 (NIV 1984)
As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.
Proverbs 27:17 (NIV 2011)
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.
Matthew 4:4 (NIV 1984)
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Matthew 4:4 (NIV 2011)
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"
Note they did not change Matthew 4:4 because it is such a well-known Scripture verse as-is! In order for a change to be made, 70% of the committee had to agree on the change. They did not make every masculine verse gender-neutral, but they did revise most of them.
Titus 3:1-2 (NIV 1984)
Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.
Titus 3:1-2 (NIV 2011)
Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.
Gender neutral language “pluralizes” masculine words to include both men and women.
Paul’s “brothers” was changed to “brothers and sisters”.
“Blessed is the man” was revised to “Happy are those“. (I don’t care for this one. Seems to me they could have just changed it to “Blessed are those.” Must have been a reason they changed "blessed" to "happy.")
We know language evolves over time. “Pluralizing” is not particularly harmful. You may have learned the standard English rule that a singular noun must be followed by a singular pronoun, which of course was always masculine. “if anyone…, let he…” However, it is now becoming standard English that a singular noun can be followed by a plural pronoun, “If anyone…, let them…” Notice this. It is everywhere now!
I take on faith that the translators have done a good job with picking the correct word to best convey the meaning of Scripture.
Is gender-neutral language harmful to theology? Is the message of the original writers altered? In my opinion it isn’t and gender-neutral language is no ‘biggie’ for me.
My problem with the 2011 New International Version revision wasn't with the move to go with gender-neutral language. It was they made other revisions like replacing the word "saints" (see my post, Will You be in that Number?) And they dumbed-down the language, lowering the reading level. But that is because modern day society has a very limited vocabulary and the translators decided to dumb it down so the average person would understand the Scripture. (Notice in Titus 3:1-2 above how they changed "show true humility" to "always to be gentle"? This is an example of dumbing it down for us so people will understand. People don't understand the definition of biblical humility.) I suppose that is good because we want people to read the Bible and understand it. But this general dumbing-down of society grates all over me!
With regard to "gender-neutral" language, it makes no difference to me. I already knew "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone" included me too.
* Updated 1/10/17