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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Bibel in gerechter Sprache (BigS): The Secular Press, Kirchenherren, and Theology Professors React To a New German Inclusive Bible Translation


Susanne Scholz

A major intellectual upheaval has taken place in Germany. A new inclusive German Bible translation, the Bibel in gerechter Sprache (literally: “Bible in just language”),[1] has created stormy, even shrill reactions in daily, weekly, and other newspapers and magazines, as well as in academic and ecclesiastical journals since 2006. Of course, the inclusive translation has also found many supporters; it is already in its third edition since it was published in October 2006.[2] But in post-Christian Germany, a theological publication—no less a Bible translation—has rarely, if ever, produced such sweeping responses from the media and church. This and the following essays on the new inclusive translation introduce some of the contested issues, describe the nature and goals of the new Bible in German, and discuss several of the hotly debated theological and epistemological issues that the translation has provoked in the general press, the churches, and the universities in German-speaking countries.

Indeed, the new inclusive Bible translation has stimulated manifold responses from journalists who do not often engage theological issues, much less Bible scholarship. German-speaking countries are secular, as is the press, and religion is usually viewed as an outdated area of discourse and practice. But the Bibel in gerechter Sprache, abbreviated as “BigS,” has changed this perception—if only for a relatively brief moment in time. In this case, the popular press was discussing the new publication even prior to its release date in October 2006. Columns and reviews of renowned and local daily and weekly papers alike have largely been critical from the beginning—after all, a deep- seated androcentric bias has persisted in German-speaking countries for a long time. For instance, in April 2006, Robert Leicht questioned the legitimacy of the project in the weekly newspaper, Die Zeit, because the translation allegedly confuses the distinction between translation and interpretation and thus creates “real danger”; in his view, it misrepresents the “Urtext.”[3] Other reviewers, such as Heike Schmoll, charged that the translation overturns Luther’s principle, according to which the words should follow the meaning of the text. Schmoll believes the new translation “does not allow the text to speak for itself” and so “reverses the principle into its absurd opposite.”[4] Still other reviewers, such as Edgar S. Hasse, expressed their astonishment that in the new translation not only male, but also female shepherds come to see baby Jesus in the manger.

Commentators have made cynical remarks about God receiving feminine names, such as “Die Ewige” (the Eternal), whereas “the devil remains always male.”[5] The weekly magazine, Der Spiegel, published an article during the very week during which the Bible’s release was celebrated by editors, translators, and supporters. The author, Matthias Schulz, wonders if “modernists are messing up the Sacred Scriptures” when “female and male shepherds hurry to the manger” and “male and female neighbors” surround Jesus in his childhood.[6]

The harsh response in the popular press created lots of discussions in a public forum that usually does not deal much with religion except perhaps when it relates to Muslim women’s headscarves or the death of a Pope. That the various church bodies and theologians would react to the historic publication was clear from the beginning. Perhaps equally expected was the forcefulness of the critique that attacked the inclusive Bible’s editors, translators, and even grassroots supporters. Many critics have relied on an almost vengeful tone that dismisses the project and characterizes it as theologically invalid and flimsy.[7] For instance, a retired bishop and translator of a well-known New Testament translation, Ulrich Wilckens, accuses editors and translators of “heresy” and a “simply wrong translation.”[8] Other theology professors assert that this Bible translation “goes behind the ideas of the Protestant Reformers . . . serving theological and political interests”[9] of the translators only. Still others contend that the Bibel in gerechter Sprache “hits rock bottom in the modern history of Bible interpretation.”[10] Systematic theologian Ingolf U. Dalferth declared the inclusive translation “theologically bancrupt” and “philologically, historically, and theologically useless.”[11]

Statements have also come from various church bodies. In March 2007, the highest committee of the Evangelische Kirche Deutschland (EKD), the umbrella organization of the Protestant regional churches in Germany, explained that the new translation is not authorized for worship use in German Protestant churches and should not replace the 1984 Luther translation.[12] The Committee (“Rat der EKD”) also advises that the Bibel in gerechter Sprache should function only as a “supplementary edition of the Bible” (“eine ergänzende Bibelausgabe”). The Committee criticizes the translation for a lack of “Worttreue” (lit.: “closeness to the word”), arguing that translation and interpretation are different exegetical tasks. In the view of the Committee, the translation’s emphasis on inclusivity, on “just language,” distorts the biblical text—and the work is therefore more an interpretation than a translation. The Committee comes close to rejecting this Bible’s goals toward gender justice, a rejection of anti-Judaism, and a promotion of social justice, when it states:

The notion of “just language” or “just language use” is unclear. It is also unclear why the three chosen criteria of “gender justice,” “justice regarding the Christian-Jewish dialog,” and “social justice” should succeed in “addressing the biblical foundational topic in a special way.” Used as translation principles, these criteria turn into preconceived ideas with which the text is read. This approach does not serve the understanding of the biblical text at all.[13]

Other church committees, too, disapprove of the inclusive translation. The Protestant Lutheran Churches of Germany (VELKD) published a statement on March 6, 2007, maintaining:

The “Bibel in gerechter Sprache” is not authorized from any ecclesiastical committee. . . . [It] is “ungeeignet” (lit. “unqualified” or “unsuitable”) to be used as an exclusive Bible translation. . . . [The translators] project modern assumptions into it which contradict the Reformation that impressed deepest respect upon the Holy Scripture.[14]

Catholic leaders have also distanced themselves from the inclusive Bible. Elmar Fischer, Bishop of Feldkirch in southern Germany, emphasized that the translation has not been authorized for worship use.[15] In March 2007, the Austrian bishops affirm that Bible translations should be kept apart from “restrictive ideologies” (“einengenden Ideologien”) and that the new translation “is only sometimes useful and even then only when read together with other authentic Bible translations.”[16]

Some Protestant regional churches, however, endorse the new translation. One of them is the Protestant regional church, the Evangelische Kirche in Hessen Nassau (EKHN). This regional church has a long tradition of endorsing feminist and liberation theologians—such as Luise Schottroff, who is among the editors—and of promoting progressive theological movements and teachings. The EKHN supported the work of this Bible translation financially and with personnel. In March 2007, the highest officer of the EKHN (“Kirchenpräsident”), Peter Steinacker, published a letter in which he encouraged the congregations of the EKHN and related institutions to study the translation and to develop their own positions.[17] Steinacker explains that “sometimes there is considerable discrepancy between the scholarly discussion in biblical studies and the level of understanding in the congregations.”[18] The letter expresses gratitude for the fact that the inclusive translation puts the Bible into the public spotlight. Other theologically progressive regional churches also encourage their congregations to read the new translation and use it in their worship services.[19]

In short, then, this new inclusive Bible translation has succeeded in bringing important exegetical and theological developments of the past forty years to the public and ecclesial attention in German-speaking countries, especially Germany. For the first time, journalists, professors, clergy, and a wide array of post-Christian and conservative Christian voices have felt compelled to engage theologically progressive thought, such as feminist theologies, the anti-racist theological debates especially related to the Jewish-Christian dialog, and social justice. This translation of the Christian canon of the Bible has therefore accomplished what decades of scholarly discourse have not. It goes to the “heart” of the theological enterprise—the biblical text—and, as a consequence, a most controversial debate has developed in German-speaking countries after decades of utter disregard and relentless marginalization of progressive theological voices and research, especially within academia and the higher ranks of the churches.

Of course, negative criticism constitutes only one side of the debate. The inclusive German Bible translation has also received tremendous support from German-speaking progressive theologians and Bible scholars, as well as from the grassroots of congregations in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. In fact, the completion of the inclusive translation was reason for celebration, and many Christians—women and men—rejoiced when the translation was finally released. The new publication also represents a tremendous organizational and intellectual accomplishment from the editorial board and the fifty-two translators.[20] To introduce the English-speaking scholarly public to this new work, I have asked four German-speaking colleagues to address the various issues related to the Bibel in gerechter Sprache. I translated and edited their essays into English, and I am grateful to the editor of the SBL Forum, Leonard Greenspoon, who put the final touches on the translations. It should also be noted from the outset that all four colleagues and I are sympathetic supporters of and/or participants in the Bibel in gerechter Sprache.

Each invited essay addresses a particular area related to the new translation, but each essay also relates clearly to the others. In some cases, repetitions in the choice of examples or issues raised demonstrates that certain biblical passages and concerns have been repeatedly central in the often hostile debate and are therefore in the forefront of the essayists’ minds. Luzia Sutter-Rehmann of the University of Basel, Switzerland, introduces basic assumptions of the inclusive translation, describes the translation process among the editorial team, the translators, and the grassroots readers, and articulates the translation’s goals with examples from the inclusive Bible. Wolfgang Stegemann of the Augustana Hochschule in Neuendettelsau, Germany, discusses the often-quoted critique that this Bible is an interpretation and not a translation. Irmtraud Fischer of the Karl-Franzens University in Graz, Austria, elaborates why the Bibel in gerechter Sprache has created such agitation in academia and the churches. Finally, Marie-Theres Wacker from the University in Münster, Germany, reflects on the new translation’s hermeneutical principles in the context of (post)modern Germany.

Considering the active debate on this first inclusive Bible translation in the German language, it is impossible to provide a “balanced” overview of this exciting new publication to the English-speaking scholarly world. Yet all essays, including this one, provide ample resources in the footnotes, and readers of German are encouraged to continue reading and studying and perhaps even to purchase their own copy of the “BigS.” After all, several inclusive English Bible translations have been published in the past few years, and African and Asian Christian scholars are also in the process of developing post-colonial and gender-fair translations. The Bibel in gerechter Sprache stands in this international exegetical tradition, even though it sometimes seems as if the German secular and church-oriented press knows little of these global developments. It is a goal of our essays to bring attention to the specifics as they relate to the Bibel in gerechter Sprache and so to advance cross-geographical connections on the important goal of producing inclusive Bible translations.

Susanne Scholz, Starr King School for the Ministry

Notes

[1] Ulrike Bail, Frank Crüsemann, Marlene Crüsemann, Erhard Domay, Jürgen Ebach, Claudia Janssen, Hanne Köhler, Helga Kuhlmann, Martin Leutzsch und Luise Schottroff (eds.), Bibel in gerechter Sprache (3rd ed.; Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2006). See also www.bibel-in-gerechter-sprache.de.

The German phrase “gerechte Sprache” (“just language”) approximates what is called “inclusive” language in English. Yet the new German Bible does not only include gender and ethnic inclusivity, but also economic justice. In my view, the English phrase “inclusive language” corresponds best to the German phrase “gerechte Sprache.”

[2] Many supportive reviews are linked at http://www.bibel-in-gerechter-sprache.de/modules.php?name=Web_Links [accessed on February 29, 2008].

[3] Robert Leicht, “Kein Wort sie wollen lassen stahn,“ Die Zeit Nr. 15 (06.04.2006). Online: http://images.zeit.de/text/2006/15/Bibel.

[4] Heike Schmoll, “Befreit zur religiösen Mündigkeit,“ Frankfurter Allgemeine Nr 253 (October 30, 2006): 1.

[5] Edgar S. Hasse, “Weihnachten mit den ‘Hirtinnen’,” Die Welt (December 3, 2006). Online: http://www.welt.de/print-welt/article699817/Weihnachten_mit_den_Hirtinnen.html. A later publication is based on this observation, see Elisabeth Gössmann et al. (eds.), Der Teufel blieb männlich (Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 2007).

[6] Matthias Schulz, “Wortsalat im Garten Eden,“ Der Spiegel (October 30, 2006): 190. For other reviews in the popular press, see also “Umstrittene Übersetzung: Die Schlange hatte mehr drauf,” Der Spiegel (October 25, 2006); Ursula Persak, “In Gottes Namen: Eine Neuübersetzung der Bibel berücksichtig Erkenntnisse der Geschlechterforschung,” Nürnberger Nachrichten (May 1, 2007). Online: www.nn-online.de; Katharina Eckstein, “Die Bibel aus dem Gleichstellungsbüro,” Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger (June 6, 2007). Online: www.ksta.de; “Nicht zum Gebrauch im Gottesdienst geeignet,“ Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (June 5, 2007). Online: www.faz.net; Uwe Birnstein, “Sagen Sie mal, Hirtin . . . Interviews mit Personen der Bibel,“ Sonntagsblatt Bayern (December 23, 2007). Online: www.sontagesblatt-bayern.de

[7] For a comprehensive collection of academic and ecclesial statements on the inclusive Bible, see “Kontroverse um die ‘Bibel in gerechter Sprache’,” epd-Dokumentation 17/18 (April 24, 2007). Online: www.epd.de; “Bibel in gerechter Sprache (2): ‘Sola scriptura’—Zur Aktualität des protestantischen Erbes,“ epd-Dokumentation 23 (May 29, 2007). Online: www.epd.de; “Bibel in gerechter Sprache (3): ’Tradition erneuern—Glauben stärken,” epd-Dokumentation 31 (July 24, 2007). Online: www.epd.de.

[8] Ulrich Wilckens, “Theologisches Gutachten zur ‘Bibel in gerechter Sprache’,” epd-Dokumentation 17/18 (April 24, 2007): 30. For a detailed analysis of Wilckens’ “Gutachten” that counters his position, see Luise Schottroff, “Stellungnahme zum theologischen Gutachten von Ulrich Wilckens zur Bibel in gerechter Sprache,” epd-Dokumentation 31 (July 24, 2007): 34-37.

[9] Jens Schröter, “Kritische Anmerkungen zur ‘Bibel in gerechter Sprache’,” epd-Dokumentation 17/18 (April 24, 2007): 19. See also his “Übersetzung und Interpretation: Bemerkungen zur ‘Bibel in gerechter Sprache’,“ epd-Dokumentation 31 (July 24, 2007): 21-27. See also Jens Schröter and Ingolf U. Dalferth (eds.), Bibel in gerechter Sprache? Kritik eines misslungenen Versuchs (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007).

[10] Ulrich H. J. Körtner, “Bibel oder nicht Bibel: Das ist hier die Frage! Zur Kritik der ’Bibel in gerechter Sprache’,“ epd-Dokumentation 17/18 (April 24, 2007): 23.

[11] Ingolf U. Dalferth, “Der Ewige und die Ewige: Die ‘Bibel in gerechter Sprache’—weder richtig noch gerecht, sondern konfus,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung (November 18, 2006). Online: www.nzz.ch/2006/11/18/li/articleEBIFU.html.

[12] “Die Qualität einer Bibelübersetzung hängt an der Treue zum Text: Stellungnahme des Rates der EKD zur ‘Bibel in gerechter Sprache’,” epd-Dokumentation 17-18 (April 24, 2007): 14-15.

[13] Ibid., 14.

[14] “Beschluss zu neueren deutschen Bibelübersetzungen: Bischofskonferenz der Vereinigten Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche Deutschlands,“ epd-Dokumentation 23 (May 29, 2007): 36.

[15] “’Bibel in gerechter Sprache’ nicht für die Liturgie zugelassen,’ Katholischer Nachrichtendienst (March 7, 2007). Online: http://www.kath.net/detail.php?id=16172 [visited March 1, 2008].

[16] “’Bibel in gerechter Sprache’ ungeeignet für Liturgie und Schule,” Katholischer Nachrichtendienst (March 16, 2007). Online: http://www.kath.net/detail.php?id=16253 [visited March 1, 2008].

[17] Peter Steinacker, “An die Kirchengemeinden und Einrichtungen in der EKHN: Brief des Leitenden Geistlichen Amtes der Evangelischen Kirche in Hessen und Nassau (EKHN) zur ‘Bibel in gerechter Sprache’,” epd-Dokumentation 23 (May 29, 2007): 36-37.

[18] Ibid., 37.

[19] So, e.g., the Nordelbische Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche that strongly endorses the study and use of the BigS, not following the recommendations of the Lutheran Church organization in Germany (VELKD) and the EKD; see “Erklärung zur Bibel in gerechter Sprache: Kirchenleitung der Nordelbischen Kirche,“ in epd-Dokumentation 31 (July 24, 2007): 28-34, quoted from page 33: “Nach Ansicht des Theologischen Beirats machen die theologischen Erwägungen es nicht erforderlich, dass die Kirchenleitung sich den Beschluss der Bischofskonferenz der VELKD vom 06.03.2007 und die Stellungnahme des Rates der EKD vom 31.03.2007 zu eigen macht. . . . Unter Abwägung aller dieser Aspekte ist schließlich im Einzelfall eine verantwortliche Entscheidung für oder gegen die Verwendung der ‘Bibel in gerechter Sprache’ zu treffen. Ein besonders geeigneter Ort im Gottesdienst kann die Verwendung als Lesung des Predigttextes sein.“ The Evangelische Kirche im Rheinland also endorses study and use of the BigS.

[20] For full disclosure, I translated the First Book of the Maccabees in the BigS.

Citation: Susanne Scholz, " The Bibel in gerechter Sprache (BigS): The Secular Press, Kirchenherren, and Theology Professors React To a New German Inclusive Bible Translation," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2008]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=760

 
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