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.
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.
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. 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.”
These reasons tend to persuade me that the proper reading of 27:16-17 should include “Jesus” before Barabbas. This follows the NA28/UBS4 (Nestle-Aland 28th edition/United Bible Societies 4th edition), SBLGNT (Society of Biblical Literature Greek New Testament), NET (New English Translation), LEB (Lexham English Bible), NRSV (New Revised Standard Version), and TNIV against the ESV (English Standard Version), NASB (New American Standard Bible), HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible), NKJV (New King James Version), and NIV 1984. In my opinion, the NIV 2011 rightly retains the TNIV reading in these two verses. Though two of my favorite translations (ESV and NASB, favored largely due to the accuracy of translation) exclude this reading, it is likely that the NIV 2011 translation of Matthew 27:16-17 is superior.
The next positive translation example occurs in Philemon 1:6. This is actually the first verse I turned to when I began my examination of the NIV 2011. The NIV 1984 reads, “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” The problem with this translation is that it can easily mislead the reader into thinking this verse is about evangelism. To “be active in sharing your faith” sounds like Paul is praying in verse 6 that Philemon and the church at Colossae will be evangelistic. In reality, Paul is praying for the fellowship (koinonia in Greek) of believers in the body of Christ. Though koinonia does involve the sharing of the faith in a fellowship sense, this is not at all how we use the phrase “sharing your faith” in the American church. “Sharing your faith” is almost exclusively used to describe gospel proclamation. Thus, Philemon 1:6 in the NIV 1984 is not a mistranslation, but a poor translation (so also in the ESV, NKJV, and NRSV).
The NIV 2011 follows the TNIV and translates Philemon 1:6 as follows: “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.” This represents an important improvement over the NIV 1984.
Problems with the NIV 2011
While it is clear that the NIV 2011 has bright spots, bright spots alone are not enough to warrant the NIV 2011’s adoption as a reading/study Bible. Are there glaring deficiencies? And if so, are these deficiencies significant enough to relegate the NIV 2011 to a comparison Bible only?
Among the Bibles in my library, one I would never recommend for reading, study, or comparison would be the New World Translation (except, of course, for apologetics). Why would I make such a bold statement? Because, it is clear that the translation committee (I hesitate to call the NWT’s compilers “translators,” for there is some evidence that they were not proficient in the biblical languages) approached Bible translation with an agenda. Their agenda consisted of systematically dismantling the deity of Christ in the biblical text.
In this vein, John 1:1 was made to say that Jesus was just a god. The translator who employs an agenda upon the text is even more treasonous than the translator who tries his best to communicate the text but fails at various points. Even though I would never put the NIV 2011 in the same camp as the NWT, I do find disturbing the egalitarianism and gender-neutral language imposed upon the text that is manifested in a number of ways. Examples of this imposition will follow.
Problematic gender-neutral language
First, the NIV 2011, following the TNIV, employs gender-neutral language by neutering the masculine pronouns. Gender-neutral language is not illegitimate if the biblical text is speaking generically about human beings (e.g., Acts 17:25) but is suspect if the biblical text is referring to a specific sex.
Though gender-neutral language may not be an illegitimate translation practice for generic references of humanity, the translator might obscure the text’s meaning if it’s not employed carefully. This often happens when the translators take a masculine singular pronoun and translate it as a gender-neutral plural.
For example, the NIV 2011 translates John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.” In reality, the pronoun translated “them” is actually a singular “him.” The point of the verse is that God calls and regenerates individual people, but the NIV 2011 adds a corporate element by making the pronoun plural. The verse now seems to say that God is calling and drawing a people to Himself, which is true theologically, but not the point of this verse.
Other gender-neutral translations in the NIV 2011 are more treasonous, especially when the text contains messianic undertones.
The NIV 2011 translates Psalm 8:4 by saying, “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” The phrase “son of man” is translated as “human beings” in this verse. In the Bible, the title “son of man” is often used messianically (see Daniel 7:13-14), and Jesus applies the title to himself on numerous occasions (Matthew 8:20, 9:6, 10:23, etc.). The author of Hebrews interprets Psalms 8:4 messianically and quotes the entirety of the verse in Hebrews 2:6.
Ironically, the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) recognized the messianic nature of Hebrews 2:6 by retaining the “son of man” language and avoiding the gender-neutral translation “human beings.” But the gender-neutral translation of Psalm 8:4 obscures the clear messianic implications of the text, and the reader will struggle to make the connection of this verse with Jesus. Recognizing this problem, the CBT included a footnote for Psalm 8:4 that says, “Or what is a human being that you are mindful of him, / a son of man that you care for him?” If the CBT understood Psalm 8:4 to have messianic implications, why did they obscure the text with gender-neutral language?
Second, the NIV 2011 includes translations that promote egalitarian positions, even though the biblical text does not warrant such readings. This is found in the translation of 1 Timothy 2:12, which reads, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” In contrast, the NIV 1984 reads, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” To “have authority” and to “assume authority” carry very different connotations. The former presumes the possession or the exercising of authority, whereas the latter could be interpreted to mean that Paul merely opposes women taking on positions of authority by their own power or volition.
Thus, it could be argued from the NIV 2011 translation that women could teach or have authority over men as long as the authority was given to them, and not merely assumed by the woman herself. However, this translation is contrary to Greek text, which is most naturally translated “have authority” or “exercise authority.” Even the egalitarian/gender-neutral NRSV translates this verse with “have authority,” which they would unlikely have done if “assume authority” was a valid rendering of the Greek text.
The CBT makes their agenda known in their translation notes in response to 1 Timothy 2:12: “The exercise of authority that Paul was forbidding was one that women inappropriately assumed, but whether that referred to all forms of authority over men in church or only certain forms in certain contexts is up to the individual interpreter to decide.” This response makes it clear that the CBT has come down on the side of egalitarianism, and their translation of 1 Timothy 2:12 reflects their theological position, not the best grammatical/syntactical reading of the Greek text.
The TNIV in NIV clothing
Third, Biblica (formerly the International Bible Society) has made the egalitarian/gender-neutral TNIV the new NIV. In an interesting marketing decision, Biblica decided to use the NIV moniker for a translation that more closely resembles the TNIV. Not only this, but Biblica no longer publishes the NIV 1984 and the TNIV since the NIV 2011 was released two years ago.
This is unfortunate, considering that evangelicals, primarily due to egalitarian/gender-neutral Bible translation issues, did not embrace the TNIV. It seems that Biblica has forced NIV users to either embrace egalitarian/gender-neutral Bible translation philosophies or abandon the NIV.
Yes, there are millions of 1984 NIVs floating around, and one will be able to find second-hand 1984 NIVs for many years to come, but it is extremely difficult to secure an electronic copy of the NIV 1984 for Bible software programs. The reality is that Biblica has made it more difficult for people to access an NIV that is gender-specific.
Furthermore, there seems to be a slight deception in Biblica’s tactics. Zondervan president Moe Girkins publicly admitted that the TNIV “divided the evangelical community,” which was primarily over gender-neutral/egalitarian issues. Considering Zondervan’s close relationship with Biblica as the primary publisher of the NIV, one can safely assume that Biblica is also aware that gender-neutral Bibles lack broad-based support and struggle with receptivity in the evangelical world. It is almost like Biblica has passed off the TNIV by covering it in the NIV’s clothing.
The NIV is one of the most trusted names in Bible translations, and many will flock to the NIV 2011 because it is presented as a new and improved NIV. It would have been more honest for Biblica to call the NIV 2011 a revised TNIV, but they understood that a revised TNIV would be less successful, if not doomed.
It has been seen that the NIV 2011 has many improvements and many regressions over the NIV 1984. While the improvements make the NIV 2011 a valid comparison Bible, the imposed egalitarianism and extreme gender-neutral translations makes this an unhelpful and perhaps misleading reading/study Bible.
In the end, I cannot recommend this translation, and I actually encourage others to avoid it as a reading/study Bible. While there are many godly Christians serving on the CBT (as well as some complementarians), the committee as a whole has embraced a translation philosophy that often reflects our culture more than it reflects the biblical text.
As stated by the CBT, “The chief goal of every revision to the NIV text is to bring the translation into line both with contemporary biblical scholarship and with shifts in English idiom and usage.” Here, the problem is that our culture despises gender distinctions, and the CBT must mute these distinctions to “bring the translation into line … with shifts in English idiom and usage.”
As seen above, the unintended consequence of gender-neutral translations is an obscuring of the text. If good translators commit treason unintentionally, how much more treasonous are those translators who impose an agenda on their translation work.
A version of this article originally appeared at SBC Voices and is reprinted with permission of the writer. All rights reserved.