Overselling the NIV for 2011

In about one week the New International Version (NIV) for 2011 will be available in print form in bookstores and by online order. On balance, this is a favorable development for all English-speaking Christians.

However, NIV-2011 is a commercial product as well as a Holy Bible, so it will get some overheated marketing hype during the rollout. Take, for example, the opening paragraphs of the “Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation” available here.

This is the first paragraph:

When the original Bible documents first emerged, they captured exactly what God wanted to say in the language and idiom of ordinary people. There was no friction between hearing God’s Word the way it was written and understanding it the way it was meant. The original audience experienced a unique fusion of these two ingredients.

The first sentence is solid. In order to believe the second sentence, we have to believe that the original listeners had immediate and total comprehension of what God meant. That is a big exaggeration! Certainly they understood the vocabulary without having to use a reference book, but that is only the first step in the journey toward “understanding it the way it was meant.”

The apostle Peter seems to have a different idea when he says: “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:15–16).

To similar effect, Jesus explained to his disciples that some of the people would never understand his parables: “This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand’” (Matt. 13:13). Jesus continued by quoting Isaiah 6:9–10 to demonstrate how this failure to understand was predicted before by the prophets.

Consider your own experience in reading English poetry in high school or college. Did you immediately understand it all? I sure didn’t! Poetic language is often subtle, and a large part of the Bible is poetic (e.g. Psalms and large parts of the prophets).

So, it would appear that the complexity of biblical thought and dullness of heart are two reasons to believe that instant understanding of God’s Word has never been the general situation. I could add the distortion in thinking brought about by suppressing the truth revealed by God (Rom. 1:21 and 1:28). NIV for 2011 will not change any of that.

Here is the second paragraph from the “Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation”:

Readers of the Bible today, however, can no longer experience this fusion. The passage of two thousand years has turned the Greek and Hebrew of Bible times from living languages into historical artifacts. If we had the original documents in our hands today, they would still represent exactly what God wanted to say. But the vast majority of people would no longer be able to understand them.

In some respects, this states the obvious. There may be a small number of people today who can sight-read the Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek New Testament, but there is a very high probability that you don’t know any of those people and will not meet one in your lifetime!

But let’s move back to the first century and check out the situation. To the average Jew in the first century, Moses was almost as remote in time as the first century is to us! Very few people spoke Hebrew, though Aramaic and Greek were both widespread. What were the versions of the Bible (Old Testament) being used? It appears that the most commonly used was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament that we call the Septuagint, and it was very uneven in quality. Since the printing press did not come until 1453, availability was a serious problem.

Perhaps when Moses came down from the mountaintop with the covenant, the people could understand all of the vocabulary in the original Hebrew. On the other hand, I doubt the Egyptians had made slave education a high priority.

So, leaving aside the difficulty of certain biblical concepts and dullness of heart, we would still be hard pressed to find a time when some magical “fusion” of hearing God’s Word and understanding it was ever the case. The only case I can think of that works is Adam and Eve in Eden before their disobedience. They heard God and understood him but did not ultimately obey him.

I welcome the NIV for 2011 and consider it a definite improvement over the NIV as updated in 1984. The research done in support of using contemporary English grammar is particularly notable. Yet the translators —or the marketing department mavens — are close to offering something they cannot deliver. Overall the “Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation” is well worth reading to get a feel for the changes you should expect.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.


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Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!