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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Why the Agitation?: The Status of the “Bibel in gerechter Sprache” in Academia and the Churches

 Irmtraud Fischer (translated and edited by Susanne Scholz)

 

A new German Bible translation has easily made it into the headlines of major German-language newspapers. Who would have guessed that the Bible is still able to create so much excitement! Edited by well-known Protestant German Bible scholars, the Bibel in gerechter Sprache has attracted considerable controversy in academia, the church, and even the general public since its publication in October 2006.[1] Bible translations are gigantic projects. That this Bible translation was published in only five years[2] was possible thanks not only to the commitment of the editorial board and the more than fifty mostly young translators, many of them Protestant and some also Catholic, but especially to the many individual donations from many church congregations and church groups.

The Bibel in gerechter Sprache has its origins in the Protestant Kirchentag of the 1990s. During the five years of preparation, translation, and editing, a regional German Protestant church, the Evangelische Kirche in Hessen und Nassau, in particular supported the project with staff and money. It is probably not by accident that this regional church recognized the need for an inclusive Bible translation in terms of gender, sensitivity to anti-Jewish bias, and class discrimination. This church had long-term connections with professors such as Willy and Luise Schottroff, who have educated and trained its future clergy at the universities of Mainz, Frankfurt, and Kassel since the 1960s.

A Necessary Addition to Existing German Bible Translations

The new inclusive Bible translation should be assessed within its German context, which so far has produced only translations endorsed by ecclesiastical bodies. They usually take no notice of contemporary hermeneutical issues related to gender, anti-Judaism, and class. Other German translations reflect this inflexible hermeneutical setting. The most recent revision of the Luther Bible translation was completed in the early 1980s, when feminist theology was still in its early stages in Germany, and thus it does not address gender issues.

Yet the just-completed revision of the Zürcher Bibel in 2007 brought the problem of androcentric language squarely to the foreground. A group of female and male theologians and committed women of Switzerland forced the Church Synod of the Evanglisch-reformierte Landeskirche of the Kanton Zürich, which functioned as the editorial board, to address the problem of gender exclusive language. They successfully demanded that a female professor be added to the editorial board and that gender inclusive language be implemented in the revised translation.[3] Many attempts—often also supported by male theologians and Kirchenmänner—to use biblical terminology for God and not the traditional term “Herr” (Lord) failed in the final vote in the Synod. The term “Herr” was changed to “HERR,” so that the capitalization would indicate the vicarious role of the translation. The current process of revision for the Einheitsübersetzung, endorsed by the Catholic Church, does not hold much promise for inclusive language because the revision is supposed to deal only with serious deficiencies and will require the final approval of the Vatican.

The Bibel in gerechter Sprache overcomes the shortcomings prevalent in other German Bible translations. It not only uses inclusive language, but also makes linguistic justice its explicit goal. It opposes several forms of discrimination and marginalization, including gender and unjust ethnic and social dynamics. For instance, the traditional German translation of male servant (“Knecht”) and female servant (“Magd”) for enslaved people suggests a lower paid rural worker, whereas in antiquity slaves did not enjoy any civil rights. The new Bible translation does not obscure this social reality. Its translation principles are closely aligned with the “sozialgeschichtliche” German Bible exegesis, which some traditional historical critics still consider as too far on the left.

The heated response to the Bibel in gerechter Sprache reveals the wide spectrum of German biblical scholarship and its manifold inherent conflicts. It gives evidence of the wide diversity of academic Bible research in the German-speaking context with regard to methodological and hermeneutical premises, different views on the relationship of the Old and New Testament and thus about Judaism, and divergent epistemological positions.

Manifold Names for God

Until the mid-1970s—before the publication of the Einheitsübersetzung, an ecumenical German-language translation—the name of God was sometimes transliterated with the vocalized tetragrammaton; by now, this practice has disappeared. If the decision had been made because of the uncertain vocalization or because of the Jewish prohibition against speaking the name of God, one could have had respect about the expertise and sensitivity of the Tätervolk (the nation that was once the Nazis) in the post-Shoah era. Yet the elimination of the name for God was in fact related to the Christianization of the “Old” Testament. By accepting the (originally Jewish!) tradition of the Septuagint that translated the name of God with “Kyrios,” German translators created unity between both testaments when they decided for the one name for God. Few Bible readers realize that the original texts rarely contain the translated term “Herr.” Despite the common practice in antiquity to replace YHWH with the term “Adonai” in Hebrew and “Kyrios” in Greek, the decision to use the German “Herr” is problematic. The translation of the name for God loses both the dynamic and gender-neutral character of the original Hebrew, as it appears in Exod 3:14.

The Bibel in gerechter Sprache assumes that the name for God cannot be translated and offers many different terms with a special font to emphasize the alternatives. Several terms have a long tradition in Judaism such as Adonai, ha-shem, the Name, and ha-makom. Others are based on the German translation of Buber/Rosenzweig such as “DU” (Thou). This variety of terms encourages readers to reflect on the Jewish roots of Christianity. Many responses to the new Bible translation and its references to God indicate that contemporary Bible readers and Christians in German-speaking countries are still not used to a creative continuation of this very Jewish custom; they resist a flexible pronunciation for God. Even when the feminine form is suggested (e.g., “der/die Ewige”—the Eternal One, “der/die Eine”—the One, “die/der Heilige”—the Holy One), such translation does not distort Scripture, but should be recognized as a justifiable reaction to idolatry that limits divine terminology to one gender only (see Deut 4:16ff).[5]

The manifold terms for God also resist the trivialization of God-talk because the term “Herr” in today’s German applies to any man. The term refers to the gender of a person, whereas the biblical term “Herr/Kyrios” refers to social status and power in the human and divine realm. Since today’s German does not associate this dynamic with “Herr,” the translation “Herr” is inappropriate, if not for reasons of gender justice then to protect God’s holiness.

Doing Justice to Jewish Origins: The Order of the Books in the Hebrew Bible

Christians will notice that the new translation does not follow the “usual” order of the books in the Hebrew Bible. It relies on the Jewish canon: Torah, Prophets, and the Writings. What might be an inconvenience to newcomers adheres to the demand for justice. The “Old” Testament follows the order of the Protestant Reformation that recognized the Hebrew Bible as the Holy Scripture of Judaism. Those who oppose the canonical arrangement of the new translation with a reference to “tradition” will need to accept the observation that they endorse christological and hence anti-Jewish appropriation of the Hebrew Bible.

 Some biblical books appear twice—once in the version of the Hebrew text and placed in the canonical section of the Writings, the other time in the version of the Greek text and placed according to the Protestant canon among the Apocrypha. This may initially irritate especially Catholic readers. Yet only this double representation avoids the problem of creating translated texts that do not exist in the original manuscripts. For instance, the Greek versions of Esther and Daniel have a different theological message and are not to be added to the Hebrew text, as in the Einheitsübersetzung. If one wants to include the spiritually significant prayers of the Greek version, one has to print the entire Greek text next to the Hebrew text.

A Bible Text As It Really Is—Without Rosy Colors

The new inclusive Bible translation foregoes any attempt to outline the biblical text, and it therefore does not include subtitles as reading guides, as they would mold a reader’s assumptions about the text. The original text does not contain any subtitles, which many readers do not even realize. The decision to forego subtitles should be viewed as an act of justice toward the original text. Readers are expected to figure out for themselves what each passage means.

The Pastoral Necessity for Creative Translation

Those who dare to translate the Bible will always garner criticism because engagement with this significant book of Western culture is emotionally loaded. Experts will always debate the details, and predictably they also offer massive critiques of this new inclusive translation. But the emotionally heated debate about the new translation goes beyond the struggle for a correct translation. Obviously, the repeated insistence for justice has touched a sore spot in German theological studies.

Those who categorically reject the new translation should also recognize what the alternatives are. This new Bible translation addresses openly its hermeneutical assumptions and does not pretend to be objective and value neutral. It speaks to people who do not want to abandon their human dignity and their human rights when they join institutional religious life. All Western democracies in which German is spoken have developed guidelines against various forms of discrimination, and the citizenry has to adhere to them. Especially in times when Muslim faith communities are often singled out because they discriminate against women, Christians too should remember these concerns when this inclusive Bible translation is ridiculed and even condemned.

The Bibel in gerechter Sprache is a courageous and daring attempt at inculturation. In view of the many translations that are endorsed by ecclesial boards but ignore inclusive translation principles, the new translation is long overdue. It is the first German Bible translation that uses contemporary German as spoken today in a culture that is characterized by gender equality and sensitivity to ethnic and social justice. The harsh criticism demonstrates indirectly that religious language, ecclesiastical doctrine, and theological scholarship have yet to confront the democratic advances in Western societies. In fact, the polemical responses to the valid and socially needed concerns of the Bibel in gerechter Sprache demonstrate that today’s theological scholarship holds bigoted views on gender and related social categories. Indeed, this new translation is long overdue.

Of course, like other Bible translations, this one also requires revisions. My wish for the revisers of the Bibel in gerechter Sprache is good judgment and calmness in dealing with the many sincere concerns, but also lots of poise and stamina in the face of the escalated agitation visible in the flurry of public responses. Certainly, the editors have demonstrated clearly that they reflected on the difficulties of translation more than most Bible translators, and they have made their reflections publicly available.

Finally, many Christian congregations rely on the work of energetic women of strong faith. They have a right to enjoy at least one German Bible translation that does not marginalize women and instead makes women visible. The Bibel in gerechter Sprache is not the only German translation, and few people will rely exclusively on this translation. Scare tactics that bemoan a loss of tradition are therefore superfluous. 

Irmtraud Fischer, Karl-Franzens Universität

Notes

[1] See, e.g., the collection of neutral and positive assessments and largely negative voices in Elisabeth Gössmann, Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, and Helen Schüngel-Straumann, eds., Der Teufel blieb männlich: Kritische Diskussion zur Bibel in gerechter Sprache—Feministische, historische und systematische Beiträge (Neukirchen: Neukirchen-Vlyn, 2007). The editors of this volume define only their own contributions as “feminist” although they mainly oppose the new translation. See also another mainly negative assessment by Ingolf U. Dalfert, Jens Schröter, eds., Die Bibel in gerechter Sprache? Kritik eines mislungenen Versuchs (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007), which contains many reviews and newspaper articles of the general German language press.

[2] To learn more about the new Bible translation’s self-description and origins, visit www.bibel-in-gerechter-Sprache.de.

[3] Since I was a professor of “Altes Testament und theologische Frauenforschung” in Bonn from 1998-2006, I was added to the editorial team that worked on the revision of the Zürcher Bibel.

[4] The Bibel in gerechter Sprache explains extensively the various translation options; see 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), 9-28.

Citation: Irmtraud Fischer, " Why the Agitation?: The Status of the “Bibel in gerechter Sprache” in Academia and the Churches," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2008]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=763

 
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