Is the NIV Gender Neutral?

Has the New International Version (NIV) Bible been altered by scholars with a feminist agenda? No. The NIV Bible translators on the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), the independent body that has faithfully worked with the NIV text for the past 50 years, all firmly believe that the original manuscripts are the inspired Word of God and completely free from error, being the work of authors who were directed by the Spirit of God (2 Peter 1:20-21, 2 Timothy 3:16). To bring any type of feminist agenda to their translation work would be to fail in their God-given calling.

But what about the publisher of the NIV, Zondervan, which is owned by HarperCollins? Could they be influencing the translation of the NIV for commercial reasons? Again, no. Zondervan, Hodder & Stoughton and others who have commercial licenses to bring the NIV to market have no control over the translation itself. They do not own the copyright to the NIV, nor do they have any influence over the CBT or the NIV translation process. Biblica, a 200-year-old not-for-profit ministry focused on international Bible translation, holds the copyright of the NIV. The Committee on Bible Translation, an independent committee made up of evangelical Biblical scholars, is responsible for the translation of the NIV Bible. No publisher, commercial or otherwise, can tell this team how to translate God’s Word. In fact, the CBT members themselves can only make changes to the English translated text if 70 percent of the committee agrees to the change, safeguarding the NIV against theological or ideological bias.

Why would these Bible translators make changes to the NIV Bible? The original intent behind the name “New International Version” was just that—to keep it “new” and fresh, changing appropriately when current Biblical scholarship and English language changes made revisions necessary, and maintaining its readability and understandability for a global English audience. The 2011 update to the NIV represents the latest effort of the CBT to articulate God’s unchanging Word in the way the original authors might have said it if they had been speaking in English to the global English-speaking audience today.

As they meet annually to review these variables, the CBT’s members are always asking two questions:
1. Have there been any recent discoveries about the world of the Bible or new Biblical scholarship that will enable us to make the NIV Bible reflect the original Scripture text even more accurately?
2. Are there any changes in the use of English that could become barriers to understanding the Bible for new generations of readers?

This second question has, in the past, raised concerns about the way gender was treated in the NIV’s language. At the time of the Bible’s original writing, speakers would address a group of male and female hearers with a Greek word traditionally translated “brothers” or “brethren.” In the past, people understood these terms to include men and women equally.

But that has changed. When a group today is addressed as “brothers”, many global English speakers would assume the speaker was addressing only the males. How can we know this? For the latest update to the NIV, the CBT commissioned one of the most comprehensive studies of gender language in English, and remains the only translation team in the world to do so. Drawing on the 4.4-billion-word Collins Bank of English, the world’s largest database of English language usage, this study gave CBT a snapshot of how people today are using gender terms. Among other things, for instance, the study showed that, between 1990 and 2009, instances of masculine generic pronouns and determiners, expressed as a percentage of total generic pronoun usage in general written English, fell from 22% to 8%. In other words, most English speakers today no longer say “If anyone wants to see me, he should make an appointment.” The pronoun “he” has become strongly masculine rather than generic. People today say, rather, “If anyone wants to see me, they should make an appointment.” The CBT has followed these guidelines to make clear when the Biblical text is referring to both men and women.

The Collins study also considered the terms used to refer either to all humans or to smaller subsets of humanity. It tracked usage over a twenty-year period and across different varieties of English: for example, UK English, US English, written English, spoken English, and even the English used in a wide variety of evangelical books, sermons and Internet sites. In most forms of English, “people” is by far the most frequent term used, followed by “humans.” But the Collins Study also showed that “man” and “mankind” continue to be used in current English. So CBT felt free to use any of these terms, depending on the context.

Based on these data, the CBT decided to update the English in the 2011 revision of the NIV Bible to more accurately convey the original author’s intended meaning when referring to gender and to humanity in general. They adopted a set of guidelines to be applied during the update process in cases where the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts clearly indicate an application to mixed groups of men and women and not just to individual men (or women) or groups of men (or women). But the CBT has never considered more far-reaching changes, such as changes to the gendered names used in God’s self-revelation. The first person of the Trinity is still called “Father,” and Jesus is his “Son.” It is important to note that nowhere in the NIV is inclusive language used for God.

Since its first publication as a complete Bible in 1978, the NIV has mirrored the balance of priorities held by the KJV’s original translators four hundred years ago. Similar to translation teams throughout history, the CBT, in their work on the NIV, tries to bring the reader as close as possible to the experience of the original audience: providing the best possible blend of transparency to the original documents and comprehension of the original meaning. The NIV Bible is founded on the belief that if hearing God’s Word the way it was written and understanding its message in the way its authors intended were the hallmarks of the original reading experience, then accuracy in translation demands that neither one of these two criteria be prioritized above the other.

Now, nearly 38 years after its first publication, there are more than five hundred million NIV Bibles in print. But, unlike its predecessor, the King James Bible, the NIV was designed from the start with a built-in policy to defy the attritional effects of time. Since 1978, the NIV translation team has continued to meet, year after year, reviewing developments in biblical scholarship and changes in English usage, and carefully revising the translation to ensure that it continues to offer its readers an experience that mirrors that of the original audience. Since the NIV was released in 1978, the CBT and Biblica have released only two major revisions: one in 1984 and one in 2011, but their work has faithfully continued every year.

So, if you find the gender language unfamiliar, read the NIV passages to your children or grandchildren. Compare the idea of “I will make you fishers of men” to “I will send you out to fish for people” with the young people in your life. The NIV translators believe that the only correct criterion for a good translation is: Does it accurately convey what the authors of Scripture wrote and what the original listeners understood? They won’t allow any ideology, no matter how well intentioned, to influence their translation work and keep them from their goal of making sure God’s inspired Word is communicated accurately and clearly to global English readers of all generations.