THE TRANSLATION WARS:
A Preliminary Evaluation of the Revised
New International Version (2010)
By J.R. Ensey
There have been dozens of new English Bible translations in the past one hundred years. Overall, they have added readability and comprehension to the task of Bible study. Perhaps some have striven for a market share of Bible sales to the point of taking far too many liberties with the clear revelation of absolute truth. The paraphrases, although quite popular in some circles, are not always faithful to doctrinal purity. This is not justifiable since our eternal destiny hinges on right believing that produces right living.
The most popular of all the English translations in the past century has been the New International Version. The New Testament was published in 1973 and the full Bible in 1978, providing a refreshing relief from the more staid translations preceding it. An update and slight revision was published in 1984 (hereafter, NIV84) and served to increase its credibility and popularity. That edition was hailed as a milestone in Bible publishing.
Although categorized as a “dynamic equivalence” translation, it sought to split the difference between the stiff, ungainly literalness of the ASV and the more free-wheeling paraphrases. Although not even a committee can produce an English Bible that renders every verse in a way that satisfies all Christian traditions, the NIV probably may have come as close as any. Conservative scholars on the Committee for Bible Translation worked for years to produce a Bible that was both accurate and readable. The NIV quickly climbed to the top of the sales charts and there it has remained as the best selling version of the English Bible. Serious textual critics found little to grumble about, with the exception of the KJV Only (KJVO) contingent.
In the 1990s, social pressure from political correctness proponents evoked an effort to bring the NIV into compliance with modern terminology, particularly as it applies to gender specific pronouns. As a result, the Today’s New International Version (TNIV) was published in 2002. The public outcry was quick and brutal. Shortly after its publication, a statement was signed by 100 Evangelical leaders saying, “We cannot endorse the TNIV as sufficiently trustworthy to commend to the church.” The general feeling was that the Word of God must never be subject to cultural consensus and popular perceptions of truth.
The translators had obviously gone too far. They later admitted that they underestimated the depth of the popularity of the NIV. It was popular with both liberals and conservatives because of its ease of reading, clarity and faithfulness to the original text. The TNIV overrode the Greek text in many places, stretching the translation to reflect current social ideology, not merely language usage.
Public debates were held online, before live audiences, and in some leading Christian publications. Perhaps the most publicized debate was between anti-TNIV Dr. Wayne Grudem and pro-TNIV Dr. Mark Strauss held at Concordia University in Irvine, CA in May of 2002. Dr. Grudem was quoted by the moderator in his opening remarks as saying, “When translators and publishers give in to the principle of sacrificing accuracy because certain expressions are thought to be offensive to the dominant culture, this altering of the text of scripture will never end. And then readers will never know, at any verse, whether what they have is the Bible or the translators’ own ideas.”1 Dr. James Dobson had also criticized the TNIV: “I have now received sufficient feedback from a large number of evangelical scholars to convince me that this new work is a step backward in the field of biblical translation.” “No one is authorized to treat the Bible like Silly Putty,” said Southern Baptist leader William Merrell. Grudem highlighted 711 unwarranted and illegitimate gender changes made in the TNIV. Charges were hurled at the translators as having been driven by a political agenda. While those charges were never proven, considerable vitriol was injected in the “battle for the Bible.”
Advocates tried to dispel fears about the purposes of the changes, but had little success. The translation generated large, full-page ads in major magazines denouncing it. They tried to overcome the negative publicity but the publishers eventually recognized it was a losing battle, admitting that mistakes were made in the way the TNIV was handled, if not in the text itself.
A report in Christianity Today magazine stated: “In announcing a major revision of the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, Biblica (formerly the International Bible Society and Send The Light, or IBS-STL) CEO Keith Danby said ‘decisions surrounding the release of the…Today’s New International Version (TNIV), were mistakes. In 1997, IBS announced that it was forgoing all plans to publish an updated NIV following criticism of the NIV inclusive language edition (NIVi) published in the United Kingdom. Quite frankly, some of the criticism was justified and we need to be brutally honest about the mistakes that were made,’ Danby said. ‘We fell short of the trust that was placed in us. We failed to make the case for revisions and we made some important errors in the way we brought the translation to publication. We also underestimated the scale of the public affection for the NIV and failed to communicate the rationale for change in a manner that reflected that affection.’”
Danby added that it was also a mistake to stop revisions on the NIV. “We shackled the NIV to the language and scholarship of a quarter century ago, thus limiting its value as a tool for ongoing outreach throughout the world,” he said.2
The owners and distributors of the version deemed it wise to discontinue it and work on another revision that would be less offensive. “Whatever its strengths were, the TNIV divided the evangelical Christian community,” said Zondervan president Moe Girkins. “So as we launch this new NIV, we will discontinue putting out new products with the TNIV.”3 That revision was eventually produced and published online in late 2010. Printed Bibles were to be available in March or April of 2011. It is generally referred to as the NIV11. This paper will focus on that revision.
Granted, the work of translation is not an easy or simple one. Greek wording and meanings may have been quite clear to the first century reader, but for English speakers 2000 years after the fact, there is often a struggle for comprehension. Textual critics will almost always approach the work with at least some presuppositions and predetermined, untouchable doctrinal convictions. Further, the Old Testament has to be considered so that its doctrinal traditions are not violated. For example, the doctrine of God distilled from the Greek New Testament cannot be different from that set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. They must complement each other.
Admittedly, I am disappointed that there are any problems at all surfacing in this new revision. The NIV has been a favorite of my family for more than three decades. I had found that the New Testament was faithful to the doctrinal constructs of the Old Testament. No doctrine had been violated, and where portions of verses were omitted for lack of manuscript support, the translators included the wording in brackets or in generous footnoting to explain. I did not hesitate to recommend the 1984 NIV to fellow ministers and to our local congregation. Overall, it actually strengthened the doctrines of the Oneness of God and personal holiness as compared to the KJV/NKJV. It was strong and clear in the passages dealing with homosexuality. Although there were some places I would have preferred a different rendering, that would have been true with any revision.
Since the NIV11 revision has been available for such a relatively short time, I have not read every passage. What seems to be a developing pattern is that they have basically stayed with the NIV84 wording except in places where it was obvious that a better rendering would enhance readability and comprehension.4 Here is what the translators acknowledge:
First, it’s important to stress that about 95% of the text of the updated NIV is exactly the same as the 1984 text it replaces. The majority of what has changed involves comparatively minor matters of vocabulary,
sentence structure and punctuation: changes that move the NIV from the English of 1984 to the English of 2011. Other changes are more substantive, reflecting the advances in biblical scholarship over the last three decades.5
Types of Changes in the NIV11
Let me list a few of the changes that were made in the revision. When the term Christos is employed as a Messianic title, as in Mark 1:1, NIV11 translated it Messiah. When Paul said in I Corinthians 6:2, “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world…,”, NIV11 renders the phrase I italicized as “the Lord’s people.” The Greek hagios literally means all of the body of believers, not suggesting persons of exceptional holiness (Vine’s), particularly in a Roman Catholic sense.
In Philippians 4:13, rather than “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength,” the NIV11 says, “I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.” This keeps it in the context of the chapter rather than a seemingly unqualified ability to do absolutely anything. Genesis 19:9 removes alien and replaces it with foreigner, removing any thought of anyone conjuring up visitors from outer space. “Overweening pride” of Isaiah 16:6 was simplified with arrogance. Philippians 2:6 had been rendered harpagmos as “something to be grasped” (equality with God). This is an adequate and accurate rendering, but is somewhat clearer in the NIV11: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.”6 I do not have a problem with these particular renderings.
In going through a list of wording changes from NIV84 to NIV11, many have to do with gender-neutral passages. Simply because we have become accustomed to male-oriented language in the KJV, NIV84, et al., it does not follow that in some places there is justification for modification. For example, James 3:2 is rendered “if anyone (tis) is never at fault in what he says, he (houtos, this one) is a perfect man [aner).” In NIV11, it reads, “Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.” This expresses why it is important that English stylists and experts are employed to assist in the task of translation. Grammarians concede that the English language is changing so that “they, their, and them” does not always indicate singularity. Decker, himself a grammarian, explains: “In particular, the use of “their” (and related forms) is often treated as a singular in the NIV11…. [From the Guidelines set forth by the translators]: “Singular ‘they,’ ‘them’ and ‘their’ forms were widely used to communicate the generic significance of pronouns and their equivalents when a singular form had already been used for the antecedent. (p. 6). It is important to notice that guideline #3 explicitly refers to using ‘they,’ ‘them,’ and ‘their’ as singular. This does not mean that these words are always singular, but that they can be used as either singular or plural depending on the context.’ This reflects how the English language has changed…. Though it makes many English teachers cringe, for better or worse, English usage no longer restricts these forms to plural reference. Contemporary English commonly uses expressions like the following: ‘If anybody had a right to be proud of their accomplishments, it was Paul.’” The translators point out, however, that many times a generic “he” was retained, such as in Job 31:29. "People” and “humans” (and “human beings”) were widely used for Greek and Hebrew masculine forms referring to both men and women. A variety of words—“humanity,” “human race,” “man,” “mankind”—were used to refer to human beings collectively. “Ancestors” took the place of “forefathers.”7
Problems With the NIV11
Although, it is not difficult to agree with the philosophy of the NIV11 translators on many of the wording changes that do not affect meaning, allow me to point out four passages where renderings may leave many Apostolics feeling queasy.
The first is in I Corinthians 11:9-11, in the midst of Paul’s discussion of spiritual authority and its manifestation in both men’s and women’s hairstyles. In the 1984 version, the NIV stated, “Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.” That rendering meshed well with the context. The NIV11 revision presents those verses in this way: “Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.” I am less than satisfied with that expression.
Here is the transliteration of the critical verse 10 from Biblos.com:
The first phrase, because of this, inextricably ties the verse to the context. The context goes back to the creation and uses that model to establish divine order and headship. Verse 11 also seems to bracket the statement of authority with a clear pronouncement of the woman’s dependence on male authority. However, by rendering epi as over rather than on/upon in verse10, and inserting the word own, it may suggest to some readers that she alone has sole control over how she expresses authority by what she has on her head.
Here is the translators’ explanation of why they translated the verse as they did: “The expression ‘a sign of’ before ‘authority’ in the 1984 NIV did not correspond to anything explicitly in the Greek and is increasingly recognized as an inadequate rendition of this verse. Whether Paul wanted the women in Corinth to wear an external head covering while praying or prophesying, or simply to have long hair, or maybe even to wear a partial face veil, the point is they should be able to control what they do or do not have on their heads.”8 [Italics mine.] This sounds like egalitarianism has influenced the translators and played a role in this rendering. Leaving the matter of whether the woman is to have long (uncut) hair as her symbol of submission to male authority strictly up to her discretion is tantamount to rendering much of the entire passage (verses 2-16) moot.
The translators evidently felt that Paul was saying that he wanted women to feel independent in the matter of choosing a veil (or other physical head covering) or a particular hairstyle as her “covering.” This fits well with accommodation to liberal egalitarian philosophy, but it does not fit the context. To their credit, the translators added this footnote: “Or have a sign of authority on her head.” That is the 1984 rendering and is much more in line with the context. But how many average readers carefully peruse and evaluate the footnotes?
Another verse that has been tweaked to my chagrin is John 1:18. The Prologue of John is critical to the remainder of the book since it lays a foundation for the doctrine of God and of Christ, themes John deals with in depth in his Gospel. The rendering of verse 18, however, is similar to a verbal pothole in street of truth. The King James Version reads, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” The 1984 NIV version translated it poorly, in my estimation—perhaps the most awkward rendering in the entire edition—and has only worsened the potential for full understanding in the NIV11 revision: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and[b] is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” Neither of those lucidly reflects the whole Bible’s teaching on the nature of God and the Sonship ministry of Christ. Does it reflect that since all of the translators were Trinitarians, they were motivated to make the verse express that viewpoint? (Footnote: b. Some manuscripts but the only Son, who.) I would like to think not, but who really knows?9
This is one of the verses where I favor the KJV rendering over the NIV. That Jesus came from (was the expression of) the bosom (the inmost being) of the Father (KJV) fits well with the other passages that address the Father/Son issue. To say Christ “is at the Father’s side” [1984 rendering] or “is in the closest relationship to the Father” (NIV11 version), seems to be a lean toward accommodation of Trinitarian thought.10 The English Standard Version (ESV) erred in similar fashion by letting the verse read: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side.” It is footnoted that the Greek supports the KJV rendering of “in the bosom of the Father.”
A third change that is somewhat disconcerting is how Titus 2:13 is translated. The 1984 NIV rendering: “While we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” That was doctrinally and textually superior to the KJV’s “the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ.” The KJV translators’ strong commitment to trinitarianism appears to bleed through here and in a number of other places, as in I John 5:7,8.11 But the NIV11 revision has Paul saying, “while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” To some readers that may seem to replace the coming of the Lord Himself with the “appearing of His glory,” which might or might not be interpreted to refer to the Second Advent. It seems to be a weak rendering.
Yet another rendering which I did not prefer is found in Mark 15:27. The 1984 version rendered the verse thusly: “They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left.” The NIV11 version translates the Greek léstés as “rebels” rather than “robbers.” Strong’s definition of that word does not embrace that rendering. While all robbers are rebels in a sense, not all rebels are robbers. The terms do not seem to be interchangeable. The Greek leaves no doubt that the men were “brigands…bandits…unscrupulous marauder(s) (malefactors), exploiting the vulnerable without hesitating to use violence.”
I much preferred the 1984 rendering of Revelation 3:20: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” The NIV11 says it this way: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” It seems to strain the grammar. While the NIV11 does not change pronouns referring to God, who remains “He” and “the Father,” in places it avoids using “he“ or “him” as the default reference to an unspecified person. This forces Mark 1:17 to read, “‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’” I don’t particularly like the sound of that because it is unfamiliar terminology, especially at that verse. On the other hand, anthropon is not gender-specific. Vine says that it is used generally of human beings, male or female, to include all living humans as distinct from God and from animals.
On the positive side, the major passages in the NIV11 dealing with homosexuality appear to be intact, as are those setting forth the doctrines of God, the Sonship of Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, and patterns for holy living.
The NIV11 is likely to be judged a good overall translation of the Scriptures, but it will probably draw some fire for continued efforts to be somewhat “gender accurate.” By this insistence, they may be missing a good opportunity to build on the ever-increasing popularity of the 1984 edition. They learned an expensive lesson when they drew back a nub after publishing the failed TNIV. Although many of the TNIV renderings have been stricken and reworded, the retention of some more controversial ones that had the obvious purpose of accommodating changing social mores and political correctness, will likely be viewed by many Evangelicals as an error of marketing judgment.
While the effort to increase readership and understanding through language updates is commendable, they might have been better served to let stand the wisdom and insight manifested in the 1984 edition. Having said that, I believe many of the renderings are justified and provide an enhancement of readability and clarity.
Time will tell whether the updated NIV11 will win or lose the translation wars. Will its battles with the English Standard Version, the NLT, and other versions be lost before the ink dries on the pages of the new printed Bibles now sitting on the shelves in 2012?
1. The entire transcript of the debate can be read at: http://www.salemthesoldier.us/TNIV_concordia_debate.html.
4. Changes in translations will inevitably occur as required by changes in language. Scholarship has improved immensely since 1611 and continues to be upgraded by technological and scientific advances.
6. This has always been a difficult passage for translators. I would recommend that the reader reference Rodney J. Decker, “An Evaluation of the 2011 Edition of the New International Version,” Themelios International Theological Journal, Vol. 36, Issue 3, 11/11; pp. 425, footnote 42.
7. Extracted from Ibid., p. 434.
9. This is not an accusation against the translators, but where there is smoke, there is fire. The KJV translators, and the ESV translators, as well as other groups of translators seemed to go out of their way to insert Trinitarian-leaning readings into the text. I John 5:7,8 and Titus 2:13 are two examples in the KJV.
10. For greater detail and more indepth study on John 1:18, see the author’s paper titled Critical Analysis of Three “Trinitarian” Passages available from Advance Ministries at advanceministries.org.
11. I John 5:7b-8a did not appear in any Greek text of the Bible before the 16th century. It is obviously an interpolation. It was not in the original Textus Receptus. Although I have used the KJV as a primary text for most of my 55 years in the ministry, as have most other Apostolic ministers, it was in dire need of revision for both textual and linguistic reasons. The New King James Version was unsatisfying to KJV Onlys but also to those looking for a more thorough revision that reflected recent manuscript discoveries and even more contemporary linguistics. In my opinion, if The Bishop’s Bible had been our primary Scriptures and the KJV were to be introduced today, it would not receive the accolades nor emanate the level of scholarship that it did in 1611. The NIV, or a Bible like it, that offered sufficient faithfulness to the autographs, and yet was readable and comprehensible, was sorely needed. I would like to have seen them retranslate John 1:18 to more closely reflect the Christology of the remainder of the Book of John. If they had done that, and perhaps adjusted a couple of other renderings, they could have left the 1984 NIV as it was. Virtually no one other than a tiny minority needed the treatment given the gender specific passages. It seems obvious that political correctness, more than linguistic necessity, played a role in some of the renderings.