NIV 2011 — The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Before describing some issues I have with NIV 2011, I want to say that NIV 2011 is one of the top three English translations now available. It may even become my favorite, though currently I am using it in conjunction with the English Standard Version (ESV) and the New English Translation (NET). Time will tell as I translate more passages and compare NIV 2011 to the others in many types of biblical texts.

Before I begin, here is what The Committee on Bible Translation humbly says in the preface of NIV 2011:

The committee has again been reminded that every human effort is flawed — including this revision of the NIV. We trust however, that many will find in it an improved representation of the Word of God, through which they hear his call to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and to service in his kingdom.

I have found both flaws and improvements in NIV 2011, but more improvements! Critiques, such as this one, may also be flawed!

The Good

Corrections to NIV 1984

I am ecstatic with the decision to replace “sinful nature” (NIV 1984) with “flesh” (NIV 2011) as the translation of the Greek noun sarx in most places. Primarily this affects Romans (e.g., Rom. 8:5) and Galatians and greatly influences our understanding of sin’s influence within both believers and unbelievers. Concerning the old translation “sinful nature,” The Committee on Bible Translation says: “This expression can mislead readers into thinking the human person is made up of various compartments, one of which is sarx, whereas the biblical writers’ point is that humans can choose to yield themselves to a variety of influences or powers, one of which is the sin-producing sarx.”[1]

Since I have been warning against that compartment-model for years while watching people look down to see “sinful nature” right there in their NIV Bible, I am delighted with this change.

Another favorable trend is the decision to make NIV 2011 a translation that puts fewer interpretations into the biblical text and leaves the burden of interpretation on the reader where it belongs. The sarx decision falls into this category, but another sad case within NIV 1984 is the one I will use to illustrate a positive correction made by NIV 2011.

In John 18:36–37, Jesus is being interrogated by Pilate, or so Pilate believes. The crucial point comes when Pilate, the Roman governor, exclaims, “You are a king, then!” (John 18:37a). When Jesus answers we see two different translations:

“You are right in saying I am a king.” (NIV 1984, John 18:37b)

“You say that I am a king.” (NIV 2011, John 18:37b)

There is simply no possible way to get the NIV 1984 translation from this Greek:

?? ?????? ??? ???????? ????. (John 18:37b)

First, I congratulate the NIV 2011 team for fixing this error, which not only failed to represent the Greek but was also blind to the political situation in which Jesus spoke to Pilate. For Jesus to explicitly admit that he is a king of any sort would be to agree with the charges brought by the Jewish leaders that he was setting himself us as a king in opposition to Caesar (Luke 23:2).

How did this mistake occur? Obviously, I was not there, but I suspect that it involves the translation theory employed by the NIV — an approach known as Dynamic Equivalence (“DE” from here on), sometimes also called functional equivalence. The Committee on Bible Translation says, “The NIV tries to bring its readers as close as possible to the experience of the original audience[.]”[2] Clearly, the key word is “experience.” The big problem is that we have no way of knowing exactly how the original audience experienced the Word; we have to guess.

In another post I have criticized the assumption by The Committee on Bible Translation that the original hearers experienced instant clarity when they heard God’s Word for the first time in their own language. To give us the same alleged experience in 2011 (or 1984), as the principles of DE require, means that strong measures must be taken to remove ambiguity and make everything crystal clear. When Jesus made his ambiguous response to Pilate about kingship, that simply would not fit the DE mold, so Jesus was edited to make a more definite statement about kingship. This is a kind of “clarity” we do not need in Bible translation!

All this was done in good faith with the best intentions, and I am not saying anything negative about the motivation or spiritual integrity of those involved in the process. But when good-hearted people employ a flawed approach, this is the result. NIV 2011 fixed the error.

Updated Pronouns

Another positive development in NIV 2011 — and this one is subtle when you read the biblical text — is the use of a careful linguistic analysis to update the use of English pronouns to match current English usage. For example, Mark 4:25 now says, “Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them” (NIV 2011). Older grammatical style, such as used in NIV 1984, says, “Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him” (Mark 4:25).

Another example of the pronoun changes may be seen in James 2:15–16, which NIV 2011 presents like this: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” See how the italicized pronouns have changed by looking at NIV 1984: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? (James 2:15–16).

Those of us who have seen a few more revolutions of the earth around the sun may wince at this grammar, but it is futile to fight linguistic shifts.

The Bad

The following remarks are based on Matthew 28:1–10, describing the miraculous events surrounding the discovery of the empty tomb and a climactic meeting with the resurrected Jesus. Read the NIV 2011 translation here.

The Greek particle idou occurs 62 times in Matthew’s Gospel and is generally untranslated by both NIV and NET. NIV gives no explanation of this practice, but NET says, “The Greek word ???? (idou) has not been translated because it has no exact English equivalent here but adds interest and emphasis.” Perhaps one of my readers can explain how idou can “add interest and emphasis” when it is not translated into English!

The Greek particle idou is difficult to translate, but that is mainly true when the translator is trying to make everyone talk in a suburban-America-in-2011 dialect. No one in my hometown will say “behold” or “see!” this week. Of course, these biblical events did not occur in my hometown this week! So, why should they sound as if they did?

BDAG-3, the standard Greek lexicon, defines idou by saying: “prompter of attention, behold, look, see. Like (Hebrew hinneh) it sometimes serves to enliven a narrative . . . . with emphasis on the size or importance of something (frequently omitted in translation, but with some loss of meaning).” You can guess that I really like that “loss of meaning” phrase! That neatly summarizes my whole point.

Here are two things to consider:

  • The events being described are the most exceptional in all human history.
  • DE promises us that it will deliver the same impact that the original listeners would have felt; that is its alleged genius. How can they possibly punt on conveying the enlivened feeling of emphasis that idou is designed to create? I thought this was exactly where we might expect some help by the paraphrasing nature of DE principles.

That is the case for dialing up the temperature of the text in Matthew 28:1–10; idou is used four times in this brief span, which is an exceptional frequency. The amazing events taking place are exactly the point of the passage. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Soldiers keel over in a dead faint, earthquakes pop, and an angel descends from heaven and takes dramatic action. The angel uses idou twice in emphasizing his words to the women, and then the resurrected Jesus appears! We cannot ho-hum our way through this scene. Our familiarity with what happened has dulled our senses!

The Ugly

Adding or Subtracting Words

It is pleasing to say that NIV 2011 has very little to put into this category. Generally, a problem I have with English translations based on the dynamic equivalence (DE) philosophy is that they unnecessarily add words that are not in the Greek text of the New Testament or they covertly fail to translate words that are in the Greek text. The NET Bible does a marvelous job giving notes about the instances in which they have done one of these two things, but NIV 2011 leaves the reader in blissful ignorance.

Consider Romans 8:34, which NIV 2011 presents this way: “Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” Where did the italicized words come from? Certainly not from the Greek text of the New Testament! This is the kind of perverse result that DE can produce.

It can be argued that the above addition is harmless. I do not think that is the case. Is “no one” theologically true? Consider the trial and crucifixion of Jesus: God was certainly for him, but that did not prevent his legal condemnation by Pilate and his religious condemnation by his enemies. It is difficult to see how “no one” is an accurate description for that situation. What Paul is saying in Romans 8:34 is not that “no one” will condemn the Christian; he is saying that their condemnation will fall away or be refuted by the divine mercy we enjoy through union with Christ. Adding words creates a problem.

Foreclosing Possible Interpretations by Making Interpretive Choices

Remember that DE translations seek to make everything really clear, even things that are murky. Consider Genesis 6:3, which says, “Then the LORD said, ‘My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.’” As an alternative to “mortal,” NIV 2011 offers “corrupt” in a marginal note.

God is speaking about his disgust over  the violence and sin rampant in the world before the flood of Noah. The issue is the meaning chosen for the Hebrew word translated “mortal” by NIV 2011. The Hebrew noun here is bashar, and you may look high and low in the standard Hebrew lexicon, but you will not find “mortal” as one of the lexical choices in its field of meaning. So, how did we get “mortal”? By interpretation! In picking that one, the translators rejected others that may be preferable.

From the array of possible meanings for this verse, the translators selected one and then created a novel meaning for bashar to match. That is allowable, even necessary, in cases where a Hebrew word is rarely used and its meaning is less certain. But bashar occurs 294 times in the Old Testament and 33 times in Genesis alone, so its range of lexical meaning is well established.

The safest path is to put a basic meaning for bashar into the biblical text and put the various possible interpretations into a marginal note or footnote. The safe choice for bashar in Gen. 6:3 is “flesh,” a meaning firmly established in the standard Hebrew lexicon and the one chosen by the ESV for this verse.

Of course, the safe choice “flesh” leaves the reader wondering what sense of that word is meant. Some possibilities are “mortal,” “corrupt” or “ruined.” Which one is right? [I personally prefer “ruined” because of Gen. 6:12.] To answer that question is hard work and may leave you wondering if you have taken the word correctly — that is, you may wonder whether you have selected the right sense. But here is the difference: at least you know there is a question here and some uncertainty in meaning.

But I have already said that DE translations of the Bible abhor uncertainty and ambiguity. They are eager to confront each of these interpretive questions and resolve them with a clear, scholarly choice and to put that choice directly into the translation rather than in an explanatory footnote. Now the reader does not have to wonder or work. The reader doesn’t know!

It amazes me that Christians are so laid back about this practice. If I told the Christians here in Texas that the state government had made these interpretive choices for them in preparing their English Bible translation, they would surround the capital in short order!

What is the solution to this problem? Use a more literal translation like the ESV alongside NIV 2011. Consult both in doing your Bible study. If you can do so, add the NET Bible into the mix. Be willing to think and pray in moving closer to God through study of his Word.

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


[1] “Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation,” page 8.

[2] “Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation,” page 1.

 

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