Last month, my 97-year-old grandfather died. He was a missionary who devoted his life to putting the Bible in the hands of people, in their own mother tongue whenever possible. As he lay dying, my cousins and I quickly stitched together a video of us reading Psalm 23. In the last few decades, he preached from the NIV, even though that was not the translation he was most accustomed to as a child, because he found it to be the most accessible for the people to whom he ministered. But in the flurry of text messages among my cousins as we worked to put together our video, we checked which translation would have been most familiar to him as a child, when he first learned the Psalm. And so the American Standard Version was what we read.
Our preferences for Biblical translations are deeply personal, often based on the translation that we first heard. Yet Bible translation also has a long history of being intertwined with politics, both in the realm of church affairs and of secular culture. It only takes a basic knowledge of Reformation history to know the truth of this: Wycliffe, Tyndale, Erasmus, and Luther challenged the political fabric of Europe with their translations by putting the biblical text directly into the hands of people who could not read Latin or Greek or Hebrew. And even after the Reformation had completely turned over the structure of European Christianity, there continued to be political debate about translations. The reason behind the King James Version involved appeasing the political and religious powers that be in England. Although today we think of that translation as the definitive one for English-speaking Protestantism, there were other translations put forward by those who dissented. (Pilgrim leader William Bradford used the Geneva translation rather than the King James.)
Bible translation has a long history of being intertwined with politics.
Biblical translation today is no less political. A current controversy over the latest edition of the English Standard Version illuminates a struggle in more conservative churches, a struggle that also spills over into secular culture. The latest changes to the ESV include a modification to Genesis 3:16. In older ESV versions, it read, “Your desire shall be for your husband.” But the revision reads: “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband.” There is great debate about the subtleties of this change, as well as questions about whether the Genesis curse is meant to be descriptive of gender relations due to the presence of sin or prescriptive for how God intends gender relations to be.
But beyond the linguistic and theological debate, this discussion also highlights the rise of feminism within evangelicalism and fundamentalism, a movement that is challenging the accepted anthropology of gender in those communities. I can’t help but wonder if the scholars who dominate the ESV Translation Oversight Committee, a group of exclusively male theologians, edited Genesis 3 in an effort to push back at movements toward more equality for women in the Church. As the last few months of American politics showed, many Americans are still uncomfortable with the idea of women in leadership positions. In October, female evangelical leaders stepped out from behind their male leaders to criticize Donald Trump for his treatment of women, and the secular world took notice of the influence these women have. The ESV edits had long been in the works by then, but I can’t help but think that this is part of the culture the editors of the ESV may be pushing back against.
As a woman in church leadership, I am of course rooting for the Christian feminists in evangelicalism. I think the Church can only be blessed, in this critical time, by the leadership of all of God’s people, regardless of gender, race, class, or other categorizations. And I’m grateful for the voices of Christian leaders who are carefully examining the ESV’s treatment of Genesis. The ongoing critique of the ESV is Biblical translation work at its most Reformational: engaged with both the political and the personal, and placed in the hands of all of the people of God rather than a select few scholars. I hope that the conversation will lead to the continuing reform of the Church—reformed, and always reforming.