The new NIV

It seems that barely a year goes by without a new translation of the Bible. A glance at my bookshelf reveals that I own no less than thirty-one different English translations, though I use only three regularly. But last year I added a new Bible to that shelf, the 2011 edition of the NIV.

This new arrival is important, because the US publishers have explained that it is intended to replace the ‘old’ 1984 NIV with which many of us are so familiar. Already the publishers forced some electronic retailers to stop selling it on 16 January, and once existing stocks are used up, it will become increasingly difficult to obtain even print copies of the 1984 NIV.

A major revision

Does this matter? After all, Bible translations are often revised (the ESV Bible was updated both in 2007 and 2011, with hundreds of changes in both cases). But whilst changes to the ESV were minor, the NIV changes are more significant. The NIV translation committee says that ‘about 95%’ of the words in the 1984 NIV are still in the 2011 NIV. Independent analysts suggest the figure is nearer 90%, but more than 12,000 verses have been revised in some way, nearly 40%.

The 2011 NIV is not the first attempt to revise the 1984 NIV. An earlier attempt was made in 2005 with a version called the TNIV (Today’s New International Version). The TNIV met with a storm of criticism from many conservative evangelicals, mainly because of its use of gender-neutral language (e.g. using ‘human beings’ instead of ‘men’) in places where it was felt the text did not warrant it, and sometimes when it changed the original meaning.

So the 2011 NIV is an attempt not only to revise the 1984 NIV, but also to revise the divisive and flawed TNIV. ‘We need to undo the damage,’ said Zondervan’s president. ‘We’ll get it right this time,’ said the president of the International Bible Society (now called Biblica). The new version incorporates many of the changes introduced in the TNIV, whilst also responding to some of the criticism. Like the 1984 NIV, the TNIV is being withdrawn from sale, as the translators and publishers hope that the new edition will satisfy both those who loved the 1984 NIV, and those who preferred the TNIV.

So we have three versions to compare: the 1984 NIV which many of us will be familiar with, the TNIV which caused such a furore in 2005, and the 2011 NIV published last year. Most of the verses (18,859, or around 61%) are exactly the same in all three versions. Of the remaining verses, only 171 (less than 1%) reverted to the 1984 NIV having been changed in the TNIV; almost all of these are to reverse unnecessary inclusive-language changes. On the other hand, 9,736 verses (31%) that were changed in the TNIV are retained in the 2011 NIV. A further 2,320 (7.5%) received new translations for the 2011 NIV. Therefore the 2011 NIV is closer to the TNIV than it is to the 1984 NIV.

Why change?

Some Christians may wonder whether the NIV needs to be updated at all. After all, if it ‘ain’t broke’, it needn’t be fixed. The Committee for Bible Translation, who produced the revision, explain that there are three reasons why the revision was necessary: (1) changes in the way English is used (for example, the 2011 NIV uses words like ‘foreigner’ in place of the word ‘alien’), (2) progress in scholarship, and (3) concern for greater clarity. These are all admirable reasons to update an English translation. Even the KJV has been updated over the years for precisely these reasons; nearly all King James Bibles in use today were revised in 1769.

The most contentious changes are likely to be with regard to inclusive language, but we need to take care that we do not over-react. It is tremendously difficult to produce a translation which will accurately reflect the meaning of the original text to millions of people from an enormous variety of cultural backgrounds who sometimes use English in very different ways. In both Hebrew and Greek, a masculine pronoun or other word would often deliberately refer to both men and women. Where that is the case, translators need to take care that those reading the English translation – whatever their background – would understand that it refers to both men and women.

In Genesis 1:27, the 1984 NIV says, ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ In the context, ‘man’ at the beginning of the verse refers to both men and women. So the 2011 NIV follows the TNIV in reading ‘So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’

An accurate translation?

Which translation is more accurate? That’s an impossible question to answer. As I read Genesis 1:27, or similar verses, I know enough about the Bible to understand that in this context ‘man’ refers to ‘humankind’. The 1984 NIV translates the verse accurately for me, and probably that’s equally true of you. But we’re not the only readers of the Bible, and language is changing. For years, school-children and students have been taught not to use male words when referring to men and women. So when they come across a situation like this, it can be confusing, or seem antiquated or even misogynistic. For these readers the 2011 NIV rendering more accurately gives the sense of the original text to that reader. If that’s true today, it will be even truer in the coming decade, something the translation committee need to take seriously if they’re creating a translation they hope will last.

Another example is Psalm 8:4. The 1984 NIV has ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” The 2011 NIV replaces this with, ‘what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?’ In the context of Psalm 8, this is a reasonably accurate translation (and an improvement over the TNIV). But there’s a problem. The verse points not only to human kind in general, but also prophetically to the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. So when Psalm 8:4 is quoted in Hebrews 2 in reference to Jesus, the 2011 NIV translates it differently: ‘What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him?’ Which is the best translation of these verses? The Hebrews 2 translation is reasonably accurate in the 2011 NIV, but to avoid readers wrongly concluding the verse has been misquoted by the writer to Hebrews, shouldn’t the translators have retained the phrase ‘son of man’ in Psalm 8?

Those who prefer literal translations of the Bible like the KJV, NKJV and ESV will no doubt continue to use and enjoy them, and not worry too much about what is happening in the NIV world. Those who currently enjoy the 1984 NIV will find the 2011 NIV very familiar despite the number of changes (most of them are very subtle) and be glad that it reads even better than its predecessor at many points. That said, those who haven’t been brought up on gender-inclusive language may find some of the changes irritating, and a handful downright unhelpful.

No translation of the Bible is perfect, and the 2011 NIV is no exception. But it’s significantly better than the TNIV, and in many places is an improvement over the 1984 NIV. Yet the downside of what I consider unhelpful translations such as Psalm 8:4, are a major negative factor. Is it still better overall? For me, probably not. But for others, particularly those used to seeing gender-neutral language, it may well be a clearer, more accurate translation. One thing is certain though – if you intend to be reading the 1984 NIV well into the future, you had better buy now, while stocks last.

This article was published in March 2012. Bookmark the permalink.