By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 4/21/2011 6:03:29 AM ET 2011-04-21T10:03:29

Easter may sound a little different this year.

It's purely a coincidence, but U.S. Catholics and Protestants alike are being introduced this Easter season to separate "official" updated translations of the Christian Bible, which arrive in the year the magisterial King James Version celebrates its 400th birthday.

But with millions of dollars in publishing revenue and the trust of millions of churchgoers hanging in the balance, the new versions aren't being met with universal acceptance.

While the changes may seem small, they are resounding throughout Christianity, whose many denominations formed or broke off from others over clashing interpretations of God's word.

The two new translations touch on some of the most sensitive issues behind those differences, particularly on the inequality of women in society and on the status of Mary and — by extension — the birth of Jesus. (An earlier version of this article said "the divinity of Mary." Most Christian denominations do not regard Mary as divine.)

'People,' not 'men'
Since its debut in 1978, the New International Version has been the Bible of choice for many evangelical and other Protestant Christians in North America, selling more copies than any other version. But a 2005 gender-inclusive edition called Today's New International Version was widely criticized after some evangelical denominations condemned it as being too liberal.

Members of the Committee on Bible Translation, a nonprofit organization of biblical scholars formed in 1965, hope their latest edition will avoid a similar fate. The new version drops "Today's" from the title and turns the clock back on some of the more controversial choices of the 2005 edition, reviving words like "mankind" instead of "human beings," while still avoiding generic references to "he" and "him."

Mark 1:17, for example, has been translated to read: "'Come, follow me,' Jesus said, 'and I will send you out to fish for men.'" The new version changes "men" to "people"; in other verses, "forefathers" are called "ancestors."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, meanwhile, has thoroughly revised the Old Testament in its New American Bible, similarly changing many generic references to "mankind" in favor of  gender neutrality. It also adopted language intended to "more clearly express the meaning of the original," it said — like changing "booty" to "plunder" or "spoils of war," because "booty" has a different, decidedly unbiblical meaning nowadays.

Most controversial is its revision of Isaiah 7:14 to predict that the messiah will be born to a "young woman," not to a "virgin," a characterization that some critics say casts doubt on the miraculous nature of Jesus' birth.

Actress Eve Foster in costume as the Madonna in the 1933 play, "The Miracle."
Sasha  /  Getty Images
Actress Eve Foster in costume as the Madonna in the 1933 play, "The Miracle."

The conference of bishops explained that it had concluded that the original Hebrew ("almah") more accurately meant "maiden" or "young woman" and pointed out that several other modern translations agree, including the Revised Standard Version, the monumental 1950s translation that was the basis for many of the Protestant revisions in use today.

Unlike the New International Version, which can be used in evangelical and other Protestant services, the latest New American Bible isn't yet approved for use in the Catholic Mass, the bishops conference said, because only the Vatican can grant such approval — a process that can take years.

It will nonetheless be highly influential in the United States as a study Bible officially approved by the U.S. bishops, who said it would replace the current version as the official text on the conference's website later this year.

Ancient accuracy in today's world
Translators of both new versions said the goal was to strike a balance between sometimes conflicting imperatives: fidelity to the original Greek and Hebrew texts, and readability that honors the sensibilities of a 21st-century audience.

"We have to be very careful about how we go about this, because we don't want to change the word of God easily or quickly," said Douglas J. Moo, chairman of the New International Version translation committee.

"But precisely because the Bible is a timeless document, we want it to speak to every generation of people, and as English changes and we learn more about the world of the Bible, we want to be able to put the Bible into the English that people are actually using," said Moo, a New Testament scholar at Wheaton College, a leading evangelical university in Illinois.

YouTube: Bible editor explains the changes

Not everyone thinks the committee got it right.

Deanna Brown, owner of Parable Christian Book Store in Kennewick, Wash., declined to stock the new version, saying it was "just too controversial." (The store will order it for pastors on request.)

Mary Beth Cain, a customer at the store, agreed with the decision, saying the new version's issues with gender and language were "really obscuring the real truth we need to focus on — that salvation is in Jesus Christ."

But Chip Brown, senior vice president of Bibles for Zondervan, the division of HarperCollins Publishers that has exclusive rights to publish the New International Version in North America, predicted that it would be "the translation of choice for millions of people around the world who want to read and understand Scripture in today's language."

To promote acceptance of the new translation, Zondervan said it would phase out the 1984 update of its popular 1978 version of the book, which many churches have continued to use during the translation controversies. That means no more copies will be printed to continue stocking the pews for denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention, which rejected the 2005 modernization and stuck with the 1984 version.

The SBC — the nation's largest non-Catholic denomination — hasn't said yet what it will do. However, the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood has already said it will reject the latest New International Version, largely because of "over 3,600 gender-related problems" it had identified.

"Our prayer is that evangelicals will continue to be very discerning with regard to the Bibles that they purchase and will utilize those translations that are the most accurate," the council said in a statement.

The council is influential with the Southern Baptist Convention and its flagship Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which trains many Southern Baptist pastors. The seminary's president, R. Albert Mohler Jr., is a member of the council, which is headquartered at the seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Read the new NIV translation

'It's not rewriting. It's retranslating.'
Similar concerns have greeted the Catholic bishops' revised New American Bible.

Many of the changes reflect new scholarship arising from the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, translations of which were just beginning to emerge when the bishops last updated the New American Bible in 1970, said David Lyle Jeffrey, a Bible scholar at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and editor of "A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature."

The Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in caves near Jerusalem beginning in 1947, include the earliest known Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible. Their discovery has been a source of great controversy in Judeo-Christian scholarship ever since, with competing schools of thought arguing over whether the material should be canonized in the modern Bible and, if it is, what should and shouldn't be included.

"I suspect that the scholarship they reflect will have more value in the seminaries than in the pew — where some of these things may, in fact, confuse more than clarify," Jeffrey said.

That may especially be likely with the change from "virgin" to "young woman" in Isaiah, which has drawn a great deal of media attention, Jeffrey told the National Catholic Reporter.

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Mary Elizabeth Sperry, associate director of Bible Utilization for the bishops conference, said that change was an isolated revision and doesn't signal any update in the doctrine of the virgin birth.

"It's the same stories that you know. It's the same texts that you know," Sperry said. "But you're seeing them with greater precision and greater clarity. ... It's not rewriting. It's retranslating."

Msgr. Daniel B. Logan, pastor of Our Lady of the Sea Parish in Ponte Vedra, Fla., agreed, saying that change and others simply reflect that "English is a living language" and that "certain words mean certain things today, but they didn't meant the same thing" when earlier translations were published.

That consideration factored in to many of the changes in the Protestant New International Version, too, said Moo, chairman of the committee that oversaw the new edition.

"We're always working from basically the same original language texts, the Hebrew and the Greek of the originals, and we learn more again about what those words mean," Moo said. "And of course, as English changes, the translation of those words has to change sometimes.

"I hope those differences can always sort of remain in a charitable kind of context, but I think the differences themselves can just help us all learn better what the Bible is all about, and that's a great thing as far as I'm concerned."

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Video: God 2.0: Bible updated for modern readers

  1. Closed captioning of: God 2.0: Bible updated for modern readers

    >>> the newest best seller to hit the bookstores and the e readers tonight is a rewrite of the most widely read book of all time, the bible . two new translations, brand new editions that are supposed to be more readable, more up to date. as you might imagine, it's a job not taken lightly by any of the scholars and theologians who took on this daunting task. here is nbc's lee cowan.

    >> reporter: for those seeking the word of god , you need a pretty big bookshelf. ever since guten berg printed his first bible back in the 1400s , there have been so many revisions, it's almost biblical. the latest are these, the new american bible and the new international version of the bible , released just as christians were celebrating the beginning of lent, ash wednesday.

    >> it's like reading the bible in high definition . it's the same stories that you know, it's the same text that you know.

    >> reporter: in the new american bible , popular with catholics, the old testament doesn't sound quite so old. in leviticus instead of the faithful being instructed to bring a cereal offering, it's now a grain offering . isaiah doesn't speak of booty anymore, it's spoils.

    >> it's not rewriting, it's retranslating.

    >> reporter: even evangelicals prefer the international version where scholars work to make it less gender specific. man is now mankind. forefathers are now ancestors, and in john, the cravings of a sinful man have been changed to simply the lust of the flesh.

    >> we don't want to change the word quickly, that's why we take our jobs so seriously.

    >> reporter: it is tricky business . critics would say we're not supposed to change the bible to fit our lives, we're supposed to change our lives to fit the bible , but scholars insist it's only the language that's change, not the contest.

    >> i think the reason there's controversy is we have people who care so deeply about the bible as god's word. in a sense that's a very good thing.

    >> reporter: no matter your beliefs, the bible is a classic that has survived more translations than any other work in history. and yet still remains a best seller . lee cowan, nbc

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