Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Do Modern Translations Dilute Biblical Pronouncements Against Homosexuality?

I'll admit that this is not one of my favorite subjects. I've both known and counseled individuals who struggled with homosexual tendencies and urges. It's not an easy issue, especially in today's culture. I've also known those who seemed to be freed completely from the lifestyle and went on to lead normal heterosexual lives, while at the same time, I've known others who professed Christian faith, yet continued to struggle with temptation.

Jesus associated with and had compassion on people engaged in all kinds of sin. We're called to do that, too. We're called to help others overcome their weaknesses through prayer, counsel, and support within a community of faith (Gal 6:1-10). Biblically, homosexuality is not made out to be a "worse" sin than others. In fact, in 1 Cor 6:9-10, Paul seems to put it on the same level as a host of other offenses, including greediness and slander. But that doesn't take away from the fact that active engagement with a homosexual lifestyle is not compatible with Christian discipleship.

And that brings me to this post. This blog, TNIV Truth, has as its tagline, "Telling the truth about Today's New International Version." Why this tagline? Well, it's no secret that the TNIV has been accused of being many things which are simply untrue. Today, I ran across one of them that has roots all the way back to the original NIV Bible.

Wayne referred me to a post at another blog that brought up the old tired issue that a lesbian was on the NIV translation committee. Now, if this is news to you, you should know right off that she was not on the actual translation committee, but was hired as an English stylist in the early days of the translation process. The committee members themselves did not know about her lifestyle as it did not become public for a number of years. I'm not going to quote from the blog I responded to at any length because there's no need to add one more page to the rest of the exaggerated nonsense that's already out there about this issue on the internet. But I have adapted below the response I wrote on the other site so that I have yet another opportunity to provide clarity on this issue.

First, it is no "dirty little secret" (as suggested by the original poster) that Virginia Mollenkott was both a lesbian and briefly worked with the NIV translators strictly as a stylistic consultant. While unfortunate, this has been known for quite a while. She had no control over any of the actual translation, but merely offered suggestions regarding English stylistic issues. The translators themselves were under no obligation to follow any of her suggestions.

To say that if the translation team did not know of her lesbianism, they did not want to know is absurd. Such things were kept very private in those days (and sadly they no longer are). Some of those who knew her closely or worked at the same institutions may have known, but it's nonsense to blame a group (i.e. the NIV CBT) who essentially hired her to check for stylistic issues. Would it reflect badly on a pastor if he hired someone to edit his sermons for grammatical issues and that person turned out to be homosexual? I don't think so. And closer to this issue, a few years ago Mel White who was a ghost writer for Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham and Pat Robertson came out of the closet as a homosexual, and even wrote a book about it. Do we want to say that Falwell, Graham and Robertson were casting a blind eye at White just because people close to him knew of his inclinations and they were clueless? Certainly not. Do we want to say that the ministries of these three men should be forever marred (or even marred at all!) because of this unfortunate association? To suggest that these ministers or that the NIV translation committee had to have some kind of omniscient awareness of their employees darkest secrets seems a bit unfair and certainly uncharitable.

And as I said, this is not new information--there's no "dirty little secret." Kenneth Barker addressed this issue publicly and in print 12 years ago in his book, Accuracy Defined and Illustrated: An NIV Translator Answers Your Questions. This book is available for free in PDF form.

But if I may, let me offer a quote from Barker on this issue on p. 67:

Some have claimed that the NIV condones sodomy (that is, homosexual sins). The alleged reason for this is that some NIV translators and editors were homosexuals or lesbians. These charges have no basis in fact.

Here are the facts. In the earliest stages of translation work on the NIV (in the early 1970s), Virginia Mollenkott was consulted briefly and only in a minor way on matters of English style. At that time she had the reputation of being a committed evangelical Christian with expertise in contemporary English idiom and usage. Nothing was known of her lesbian views. Those did not begin to surface until years later in some of her writings. If we had known in the early seventies what became public knowledge only years later, we would not have consulted her at all. But it must be stressed that she did not influence the NIV translators and editors in any of their final decisions.

I hope that this is cleared up. But here's the reality. Even if Mollenkott were known to be a lesbian, and even if she had been senior translator, the NIV would still have to be evaluated on how accurately it conveys the message of the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts into modern English. But the fact that she was merely a stylist and for a short period of time, makes any assertions against the NIV even more egregious. This has NOTHING to do with the reliability of the NIV. Rather it is an argument based on the fallacy of guilt by association.

What about the change in wording in 1 Cor 6:9 between the NIV and TNIV? Is this a conspiracy on the part of the TNIV translators to make homosexuality more acceptable?

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

Does "practicing homosexuals" in the TNIV water down "homosexual offenders?" Why didn't the translators say "practicing idolaters" or "practicing thieves"?

The issue in 1 Cor 6:9 has to do with individuals actively involved in homosexual activity as opposed to simply a label like “homosexual.” Other recent translations have attempted to fine-tune the wording as well including the NLT and even the ESV: “neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality.”

Let’s all agree that same-sex relationships are being strongly condemned by Paul. These kinds of homosexual “offenders” (to use the NIV word) are included in the list of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Extremely strong language, no? Well, it’s the language that causes the problem, and it’s a bit more complex on the Greek side than the English side.

Remember how you’ve always heard that eskimos have eight words for snow while we only have one? Well the Greek language had more than one distinction for homosexual behavior. And the best way to translate two of the words in 1 Cor 6:9 has been a notoriously sticky issue for translators over the years.

The word translated “effeminate” in the NASB and “male prostitutes” in the NIV/TNIV is the plural of the Greek term, μαλακός/malakos. These are probably not the best translation of the word but it’s a tricky concept to move from the Greek to English. The Greeks, like many other ancient cultures, had separate words for the passive and active homosexual partners. The word, μαλακός/malakos is actually a very interesting term. When used in non-human contexts, it means “pertaining to being soft to the touch–’soft, delicate, luxurious.’” When referring to humans, it means “the passive male partner in homosexual intercourse–’homosexual.’” The second word, translated “homosexuals” in the NASB and “practicing homosexuals” in the TNIV is from the word ἀρσενοκοίτης/arsenokoitas. This word generally referred to the more dominant male partner of a homosexual relationship.

English translations have tried some very interesting combinations to bring these meanings across. In addition to the renderings mentioned above, other options include “male prostitutes and sodomites” (NRSV), and “male prostitutes and homosexual offenders” (NIV). The ESV probably makes the best compromise possible by combining the two terms to simply “men who practice homosexuality.” Regardless of how it’s translated, I don’t think there is any getting around Paul’s original intent.

Neither the TNIV translators nor the ESV translators are trying to soft peddle Paul’s words against homosexuality. But Paul is referring to those actively engaged in the practice and both of these translations reflect this.

Plus there should be no doubt that both the NIV and TNIV use strong language (reflecting that of the originals) in passages dealing with this subject:

Lev 18:22
Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable. Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.
Notice that the TNIV is even more explicit than the NIV here.

Lev 18:13
If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.
Again, stronger language is used in the TNIV.

Romans 1:26-27
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
The versions are practically identical except for the last word. The NIV is stronger, but less accurate. TNIV’s use of “error” for the Greek word, πλάνη/plane, is more accurate.

1 Tim 1:10
for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers — and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers. And it is for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine
TNIV uses stronger and more accurate language here as well. Cf. the ESV’s similar rendering, “men who practice homosexuality.”

I hope this helps dispel the myth that either the NIV or TNIV waters down the fact that active homosexuality is incompatible with Kingdom living. For a related post I wrote a couple of years ago at This Lamp, see "Is the Message Soft on Homosexuality?"


anonymous said...

Even if Mollenkott were known to be a lesbian, and even if she had been senior translator, the NIV would still have to be evaluated on how accurately it conveys the message of the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts into modern English.

I wish to comment on this point in particular. We can only evaluate a translation on its merits. I am imperfect, and all those whom I know are imperfect. I would rather have a more accurate translation made by sinners than a less accurate translation made by saints.

In particular, any translation done by an ecumenical team necessarily includes those whose theological perspective will differ from the reader. Some translators are Jewish, Mainline Protestant, Evangelical, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox. Moreover, even within a translation made by one group, there are theological differences. (For example, I understand that the TNIV was translated only by Evangelical scholars -- but that they have different positions regarding Calvinism, etc.)

Now it may be relevant to discuss the knowledge, skill, and academic background of translators -- since a translation done by an unqualified translator is unlikely to be satisfactory. But the converse of this is not true -- a translation done by a highly qualified translator is not necessarily satisfactory.

The ultimate test -- the only test -- is the quality of the translation. The patron of the KJV, the man who gave the charge and specifications for the translation, James I of England, is often alleged to have been homosexual. If he was, it does not lessen the value of the KJV.

I'd like to illustrate this point with a personal story that is analogous (although not related to translation): as a child, I grew up greatly admiring Martin Luther King Jr. As an adult, I read that charges were alleged against King that he had plagiarized portions of his doctoral thesis. Other charges were made about adultery. But such charges do not lessen the validity of King's work in civil rights and the central message of his life's work. Even if the charges are true in their entirety, they merely show that King, like all of us, was imperfect. King's message deserves to be heard on its own merits.

R. Mansfield said...

Anony said, "I would rather have a more accurate translation made by sinners than a less accurate translation made by saints."

What a great statement! And I believe we are in great agreement. An accurate translation produced by committee and composed of individuals with differing viewpoints will provide good checks and balances when it comes to accuracy.

And in the end, to say that a translation is marred because of one of it's translators actions unrelated to the translation is nothing more than guilt by association.

Gary Zimmerli said...

Thank you, Rick, for addressing this issue. As we all know, the idea that the TNIV and other newer translations are "soft on homosexuality" is one of the major reasons the TNIV has had such a hard time being accepted in the evangelical community.

Good job!

Jeremy Pierce said...

The Eskimo thing is a myth. They don't really have any more terms for snow than English does. English certainly has more than eight terms for snow, though (e.g. 'snow', 'flurries', 'snowstorm', 'snowfall', 'snow drift', 'heavy snowfall', 'light snowfall', 'snowflakes', 'snow crystals'), so if Eskimos have eight then it wouldn't surprise me.

Linguists regularly complain about how this story keeps getting passed around despite the fact that linguists repeatedly denounce it. It's like that claim that we only use 10% of our brain. No one can figure out where it started, but since people say it all the time everyone assumes it must be true.

Kevin said...

Thanks Rick for showing us how the TNIV handles the issue of homosexuality. It really helps to shed light on why the TNIV should not be perceived as a watered-down translation. How it handled 1 Cor 6:9 shows the strength and academic and theological integrity of the TNIV translators. It is every bit as evangelical and theologically conservative in translation as the NIV but with even more accuracy. Its rendering of malakos using “practicing homosexuals” rather than the NIV’s “homosexual offenders” is an example of how the TNIV is even more clear and direct. If there’s a version that soft-peddles homosexual activity, it’s more likely to be the NRSV—not the TNIV. I particularly noticed the TNIV’s rendering in 1 Tim 1:10 using “those practicing homosexuality” rather than the NIV’s “perverts”, which is also more clear and direct than the NIV.

David McKay said...

Concerning Inuits and snow: I listened to a linguist who said that actually Inuits do not have any word for snow! He said that the Inuit languages do not categorise things into groups, and so they have many words for different kinds of snow, but not a single generic word for your ice-garden variety snow!

Anonymous said...


I feel compelled to respond to your statement to the effect that it is unfortunate that lesbians and gays no longer hide their sexual orientation. Before I state my objections to that remark, I want to emphasize that I have nothing but the utmost respect for you. I do not believe that you intended to offend anyone, and I am relatively confident that if I am able to adequately articulate my concerns that you will at least reconsider that statement.
My goal here is emphatically not to try to convince you to abandon your convictions, nor do I intend to advocate what evangelicals refer to as the “homosexual agenda”. Instead, I hope to demonstrate that the attitude you expressed is counterproductive to the church’s mission to proclaim the good news of Christ.

Regardless of what many evangelical Christians believe, homosexuality is not a choice. Furthermore, there are many gay/lesbian children and teens sitting in the pews of every church, including your church. I was once one of those kids. Gay and lesbian kids are there, even if you are unable to identify them. After all, most gay people do not fit the stereotypes, so the gay and lesbian kids/teens in your church are essentially invisible.

As a gay child, all I ever heard preached from the pulpit of my Baptist church was that gay people are repulsive abominations to God. Our pastor and many members of the church constantly made gay jokes. Consequently, I suffered in silence, believing that God was going to send me to hell for my sexual attractions. It is impossible to describe the terror and profound loneliness I experienced as an 11 year old gay kid. I desperately wanted to talk to someone about what was going on with me, but it was quite clear that I could not approach the Christians in my church for guidance. They had made it quite clear that they found gays and lesbians to be repulsive and worthy of nothing but disdain. I internalized the messages I received from the church, and I came very close to committing suicide on several occasions. For at least a decade, I pleaded with God to change my sexual orientation, but of course that never happened. Since I had no one in my church with whom I could share my struggles, I eventually left the church and abandoned my faith in God.

I believe that the church is committing a terrible sin by demanding that gay people keep quiet about their sexuality. Although most Christians give lip service to the belief that “sin is sin, and homosexuality is no worse than any other sin”, the reality is that they behave as though it is infinitely worse than any other sin. The mean-spirited jokes, the ranting from the pulpits, and the stigma associated with homosexuality among evangelicals do not go unnoticed by the gay kids in the congregation. If the church actually loves gay people as it claims, then it must make a concerted effort to eradicate the irrational prejudices that permeate most evangelical churches.

Instead of bemoaning the fact that gays no longer lie about their sexual orientation and expending so much energy condemning them, perhaps the church should begin by creating a culture in which gays are no longer de facto pariahs who are the worst possible sinners. Imagine the impact it would have on a young gay teen if his preacher gave a sermon admonishing the congregation that it is a sin to treat gays with contempt. Imagine how that gay teen might respond if he heard his preacher say that it is a sin for the church to treat gays as lepers and that the church needs to learn how to have conversations about homosexuality. Imagine how that gay teen might respond if the preacher made it unequivocally clear that gay teens should not have to suffer in silence. That gay teen may then feel comfortable approaching his pastor for spiritual guidance, and he may grow to see the church as a place of solace instead of viewing it as a place where he is likely to be treated with scorn.

Many evangelicals believe that homosexuality is caused by early childhood experiences. Even the most hardcore fundamentalist no longer believes that anyone would choose to be gay. If you believe that homosexuality is a mental disorder and not a choice, then it makes no sense to condemn the gay teen as a pervert who woke up one day and decided that he wanted to sin against God. According to the evangelical view, that gay teen has an illness. Do Christians believe it is acceptable to rail against people who are ill and demand that they hide their illnesses? Would Jesus condone the pervasive culture of overt hostility and derision towards gay people that is present in most churches?

If the church wants to reach those gay kids, it must start by changing its attitudes towards homosexuals. Pastors must make their congregations aware that it is a sin to make fun of gay people and treat them as though they are repulsive sinners of the worst kind. Only then will those gay kids feel comfortable seeking guidance from their preachers.

I am not saying you have to condone homosexual activity. However, the church MUST learn to recognize the distinction between sexual orientation and sexual activity. It must also cleanse itself of its overt contempt for gay people. If that occurs, you might be shocked to find that many gay kids will flock to preachers for guidance. If not, the churches will continue to push the gay kids in their congregations away, and these kids will become adults who have learned to fear and hate the church. Because of these experiences, they may reject Christianity altogether. They will then never be able to experience the inchoate love of the God who desperately wants a relationship with them. And that, in my estimation, is a tragedy.

How would you feel about a preacher who used his entire sermon to deride schizophrenics or people suffering from multiple sclerosis? Given that homosexuality is not a choice just like schizophrenia or lupus,why is it acceptable to do so to homosexuals?