When CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite turned against the Vietnam War in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson famously told an aide, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost America." Cronkite, repeatedly cited in opinion polls as "the most trusted man in America," was truly that important. He ended his broadcasts with "and that's the way it is"—and few Americans doubted that. Now, though, we learn what's happening from FOX, CNN, talk radio, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, whatever. We don't believe any journalist knows "the way it is."
When WORLD in 1997 broke the news that Zondervan was about to make the New International Version gender-neutral by often getting rid of "man," "he," "brothers," and so on, the evangelical world flamed like a California brush-covered hill. The NIV was then the most trusted Bible in America, with slightly over a 50 percent market share. Many evangelicals felt betrayed when a small committee secretly made changes that appealed to feminists. WORLD called the new translation the Stealth Bible, and that designation stuck.
Here's the upshot: Zondervan gave up its plans for several years, pledging to maintain the NIV as it was. When the blaze burned out, Zondervan continued publishing the NIV but added a gender-neutral TNIV (the T standing for "Today's") and tried to market it, with little success. Although Zondervan does not reveal overall stats, its Bible market share is probably less than half what it was in 1997. New, competing translations—most notably Crossway's English Standard Version—have emerged.
Two months ago Zondervan released online a new NIV, after spending a year preparing the way. This time Zondervan was open about its plans. This time its affiliated Committee on Bible Translation reached out to critics and solicited their input. This time the Stealth Bible's leading critic, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), praised "significant improvements." Partly because of those better processes and results, there's little fire this time—but even had those improvements not occurred, history would not be repeating itself. The Walter Cronkite of Bibles is dead.
More than 7,000 different Bible editions now exist. People read eBibles on computers, Kindles, iPads, or whatevers. I doubt that the new NIV will win back readers from other translations. For the record, blogger John Dyer found that 91 percent of the words in the new NIV, expected to hit bookstores in March, are unchanged from the old version. Most-removed words: "He," "his," or "him" 2,700 times, "man" or "men" 1,600 times, and "fathers," "forefathers," or "brothers" 500 times.
"Person," "ancestor," and "they" are three of the gap-fillers, but this translation sometimes maintains the role of the individual (Psalm 1 begins "Blessed is the one," not "Blessed are they") and sometimes doesn't (Psalm 146:5). The most-criticized retranslated verse is 1 Timothy 2:12. The CMBW notes that virtually every translation, whether traditional or modern, has Paul writing that in church a woman is not to "have" or "exercise authority" over a man—but the new NIV has "assume authority." Critics argue that readers may conclude women can be pastors as long as they don't engage in a power grab.
A second set of critiques concerns tone-deafness: For example, the famous Psalm 23 metaphor about "the valley of the shadow of death" now reads, "Even though I walk through the darkest valley. . ." Ugh! In the new NIV "mankind" happily beats out "humankind," but the translation also mixes singulars and plurals, as in "Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect" (James 3:2b). The translators defend their choice by writing that many people use sentences like, "The person who eats too many hot dogs in too short a period of time is likely to become sick to their stomach." That sentence makes me sick to my stomach.
I'm not a fan of the new NIV but don't have room to mention some other beefs—and in fairness I should note some improvements. In Esther 5:14, Haman builds not a gallows but a pole on which to impale Mordecai—and that's indeed how Persians killed their enemies. Philippians 4:13 now reads, "I can do all this through him who gives me strength"—the "this" refers to contentment in all circumstances—rather than "I can do everything through him who gives me strength." And Zondervan CEO Moe Girkins deserves credit for an improved process—but she should now make sure that the old NIV stays in print so its fans can replace worn-out copies.