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A fair analysis of the new NIV

Religion | How the NIV 2011 compares to what was the evangelical standard, the NIV 1984

Since 1997, when WORLD first reported on plans to change for ideological reasons the 1984 NIV translation relished by most American evangelicals, we’ve followed the turns of the New International Version as it became newer. The NIV translation is no longer as huge an issue as it was 16 years ago because many evangelicals have moved on to translations that did not exist back then, including the English Standard Version, but the NIV is still important to millions.

Recently we ran across a solid comparison of the 1984 and 2011 NIVs. Joel Belz and I can’t vouch for every detail in the analysis below, but we think it’s fair. Its author, Si Cochran, is the youth pastor at Southern Hills Baptist Church in Sioux City, Iowa. He received a Master of Divinity degree at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is pursuing a doctorate at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. —Marvin Olasky

The NIV 2011: Yesterday’s NIV is now Today’s NIV—a transformation of a translation reflecting today’s culture

As the old Italian proverb goes, “Translation is treason.” The treasonous nature of all translation work consists in the inability to accurately convey the nuance of meaning when moving from the original text to the receptor language. While the translator may be able to convey the bulk of meaning found within a text, he will unlikely communicate every nuance, and may perhaps unintentionally deceive his readers. Thus, translations have their consequences. This is why the historian learns Greek, so that he does not misunderstand Herodotus. In the same way, the New Testament scholar learns Greek, so that he does not misunderstand God.

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For Christians dependent upon translations for reading God’s Word, the question becomes, “How treasonous is my translation?” Answering this question should lead to the pursuit of Bible translations that accurately represent (as close as possible) the intended meaning of the biblical autographs (the original manuscripts). Conversely, translations that are more prone to treason should be read less, and perhaps only used as comparison Bibles.

Release of the NIV 2011

Two years ago, the NIV (New International Version) 2011 was released as the successor to the NIV 1984 and TNIV (Today’s NIV) translations. Since the NIV has been the evangelical standard for a number of years (particularly among English dynamic equivalent translations), it is important to assess the accuracy of the translation and to explore any possible dangers that might be inherent in the text.

The NIV 2011 should be considered the offspring of the TNIV, and the grandson of the NIV 1984. The genetic stock shared by all three translations is 18,859 verses, which is 60.7 percent verse similarity. Some genetic traits skip a generation, and this is the case 0.6 percent of the time, where the NIV 1984 and the NIV 2011 share 171 verses of commonality against the TNIV. But as one would imagine, the child is more similar to the parent, and the TNIV and the NIV 2011 share 31.3 percent genetic makeup, or 9,736 verses. But genetics alone cannot prevent mutations and variation, so the NIV 2011 is unique 7.5 percent of the time, or 2,320 verses of originality. Broken down, this means that the NIV 2011 is 38.8 percent different than the NIV 1984 and 8 percent different than the TNIV.[1]

Positive changes in the NIV 2011

From the outset, I want to make it clear that the NIV 2011 has made some positive translation changes from the NIV 1984, and often presents a superior reading in comparison to other English translations. A few examples are in order.

As I was working my way through Matthew 27 in preparation for a sermon a few years ago, I stumbled upon the textual issues in 27:16-17. Here, we find Pilate offering to release either Barabbas or Jesus to the Jews. In some early manuscripts, we find a reading that attributes the name “Jesus” to Barabbas in verses 16 and 17. So this reading has Pilate offering to the Jews either Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Christ. I am no text critic, but I have enough knowledge of textual criticism to follow the arguments and make an informed decision regarding the manuscript evidence.

It appears that this reading is preferential for a number of reasons. First, it is a harder reading. There is more reason to exclude “Jesus” from Barabbas for reverential issues, than for a scribe to include the name “Jesus” in reference to Barabbas. This was in fact Origen’s opposition to the inclusion of “Jesus” in these verses.[2] Second, it seems unlikely that a scribe would make the same mistake twice in verses 16-17 of referring to Barabbas as “Jesus Barabbas” unless that was in fact his name. Third, Jesus, which is the Greek form of the Hebrew Joshua, was a very common name in the first century. Fourth, there seems to be a contrast of one Jesus with another Jesus. So Pilate offers Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus “who is called the Christ.” Pilate would not necessarily need to refer to Jesus as the one “who is called the Christ” unless he is making a distinction between Jesus Barabbas and Jesus the Christ. He could have naturally said, “Do you want Barabbas or Jesus.”

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