Choosing a Study Bible

Among the most important choices a Christian makes is selecting a Bible translation for daily study. You may be saying, “I thought they were all the same.” No, and that is why you need more information!

To discuss different translations, you will need a key to their abbreviations. The year shown is the year of first publication as a full Bible.

ESV                      English Standard Version (2001)

NET                      New English Translation (1996)

HCSB                   Holman Christian Standard Bible (2004)

NIV                       New International Version (1978)

NASB                   New American Standard Bible (1963)

KJV                      King James Version (1611)

The Crux: What Type of Bible?

The English Bible is found in two forms: translations and paraphrases. First, we will describe paraphrases and then translations.

Bible Paraphrases

One dictionary says a paraphrase is: “A restatement of a text or passage in another form or other words, often to clarify meaning.”[1] Clarity is certainly the main goal of a Bible paraphrase, but you have to understand the original text correctly in order to paraphrase it. If everyone saw the same original meaning in a Bible verse, there would be no need for commentaries; there are tens of thousands of them!

We usually want things that are easier to understand, so what is the limitation of a paraphrase? New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace says, “If the translator’s interpretation is correct, it can only clarify the meaning of the text; if it is incorrect, then it can only clarify the interpretation of the translator!”[2] If the translator’s interpretation is correct, you get a paraphrase of God’s Word; if not, you get a paraphrase of the translator’s word.

One of the most popular paraphrases is The Living Bible. It first appeared in 1971 as the literary effort of Kenneth N. Taylor. Taylor initially wrote The Living Bible for his children, never intending it for serious study, yet it achieved great popularity.[3]

Another widely distributed paraphrase is The Message, the effort of Eugene H. Peterson. The full Bible as paraphrased by The Message became available in 2002. One notable scholar considers The Message even freer than a paraphrase, calling it devotional literature.

So, the two most popular paraphrases are each the product of one man. Further, we note that some question exists as to when clarification becomes invention. Compare these paraphrases with a translation for one of Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on the Mount:

PARAPHRASE: Matthew 5:3 (The Message) “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

PARAPHRASE: Matthew 5:3 (The Living Bible) “Humble men are very fortunate,” he told them, “for the Kingdom of Heaven is given to them.”

TRANSLATION: Matthew 5:3 (English Standard Version) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

You will notice immediately that the two paraphrases are quite different. If you had not been told they were paraphrasing the same verse, you might have guessed otherwise. Paraphrases have their uses, but serious Bible study is not one of them. You need an accurate Bible translation.

Bible Translations

Here is a reasonable definition: “Translation is the interpreting of the meaning of a text and the subsequent production of an equivalent text, likewise called a ‘translation,’ that communicates the same message in another language.”[4] In our case the Bible was recorded in Greek (New Testament) and Hebrew (Old Testament), with a few chapters in Aramaic (Old Testament). Producing an equivalent text in English is what results in our Bible translations.

We all want a Bible that shows fidelity to the original text and clarity in our language because we want to know exactly what God has revealed to us. So, what is the challenge? Wallace says, “Idioms and colloquialisms in a language need to be paraphrased to make sense in another language.”[5] In addition, some translations attempt to distinguish themselves by incorporating a measure of paraphrase to enhance readability. The degree to which this paraphrasing is done leads to some debate.

The most famous translation of all time is the King James Version of 1611, a product of scholars from Oxford and Cambridge. Due to the passage of time and the discovery of thousands of additional biblical manuscripts, the need arose for fresh translations; all languages change over time. The English Standard Version (2001) is a successor in the tradition of the King James Version. Other notable translations include the NET Bible (1996), the New International Version (1978 and 2011), the Holman Christian Standard Bible (2004), and the New American Standard Bible (1963). We have already mentioned the New Living Translation (1996).

Because of their greater fidelity to the biblical text, translations are the right tool for a Bible student or growing Christian.

Notes to the Max

Contemporary study Bibles have an amazing amount of information in the notes at the bottom of each page. They usually contain maps, diagrams and charts at various locations.

Since some translations (ESV, KJV or NASB) emphasize transparency to the original text, they do not put much interpretation directly into the translation. For such translations the notes are a great help in bridging the historical and cultural gap between us and biblical times. For example, John 18:28a (ESV) says, “Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters.” The ESV Study Bible has a long note to tell you all about the Roman governor’s quarters at Herod’s old palace or a possible alternate location.

By contrast, the NIV says, “Then the Jewish leaders led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor” (John 18:28a, NIV 2011, emphasis added). Note the words in italics. The word “Roman” is not in the Greek New Testament here, but it appears in the NIV 2011 translation as a clarification. Similarly, “they” (ESV) has been changed to “the Jewish leaders” (NIV 2011) to make certain you know who took Jesus to the palace, but the words “Jewish leaders” do not occur here in the Greek text. The NIV Study Bible — available at this writing only for NIV 1984 — also has a long note to tell you what is going on in this scene.

In relation to resource materials provided along with the translation, the ESV and NIV study Bibles differ in two significant ways. First, the NIV Study Bible has a concordance about double the size of the one in the ESV Study Bible. On the other hand, the NIV 1984 needs a much bigger concordance since it uses a much greater variety of words to translate individual Greek or Hebrew words, and that makes concordance research more complicated. [Note: A concordance is an alphabetic list of words used in a specific translation matched to a list of the Bible verses where that word occurs. A concordance is essential for doing word studies without special Bible software.]

The second significant difference is that the ESV Study Bible contains a large number of articles (e.g. “The Character of God” and “Marriage and Sexual Morality”) dealing with many subjects at greater length than notes allow. These materials are not replicated in the NIV Study Bible.

For those intrepid few who cannot get enough about the linguistic matters that underlie our English translations, the NET Bible First Edition is a must-have. This Bible has a unique set of Translators’ Notes that justify the translation. These Notes can be technical in relation to original languages, but they are a great help to understanding the original meaning and options for translation. The NET Bible has fine maps but few charts and diagrams and no concordance. Still, it is unique. The NET Bible and all its Notes may be downloaded free at www.Bible.org, and I recommend you do that.

Recommended Study Bibles

I recommend the following study Bibles according to your need:

ESV Study Bible published by Crossway Bibles (2008)

The ESV emphasizes transparency to the original text over clarity in English. The ESV Study Bible has outstanding notes, maps, and concordance along with good articles. It gets my vote as the best general-purpose study Bible available in May 2011.

The NIV Study Bible, Updated Edition published by Zondervan (2008)

The NIV 1984 emphasizes clarity in English, so it has more interpretation in its translated text than either the ESV or the NET Bible. The NIV Study Bible has outstanding notes and maps along with a sizable concordance. It is also a sound choice for a general-purpose study Bible. It seems reasonable to expect that a revision using the NIV 2011 text will be available sometime in 2011. That will be an upgrade!

NET Bible, First Edition [with over 60,932 Notes] published by Biblical Studies Press (2005)

The NET Bible takes a middle position between the NIV and ESV on the balance between transparency to the original text and clarity in English. The NET Bible is highly recommended for those interested in the Translators’ Notes. It also has unique maps based on earth-satellite imaging.  Available at www.Bible.org .

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] “paraphrase.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 22 Nov. 2008. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/paraphrase>.

[2] Daniel B. Wallace, “Choosing a Bible Translation,” Bible Study Magazine (Nov. & Dec., 2008) 24.

[3] More recently the New Living Translation has replaced the earlier paraphrase with a widely accepted translation done by a team of scholars.

[4] “Translation.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 18 Nov 2008, 09:08 UTC. 23 Nov 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Translation&oldid=252537344>.

[5] Wallace, “Choosing a Bible Translation,” 23.

 

NIV 2011: How much paraphrase is too much?

Some popular English Bible translations do a better job than others in maintaining fidelity to the original text of Scripture. As you know, the Old Testament was recorded in biblical Hebrew (except for a few parts of Daniel and Ezra written in Aramaic), and the New Testament was recorded in Koine Greek.

In my view, the following principles should be applied to Bible translation:

  • Idioms have to be paraphrased to make any sense at all.
  • Ancient writing style which does not involve idioms should be translated without paraphrase; just allow us to listen to an ancient conversation!
  • Biblical metaphors should be translated rather than being “clarified” by replacing the figure of speech with its concrete meaning; such replacement is paraphrase, not translation.

In each case below, you will find the Greek or Hebrew text followed by five English translations: English Standard Version (ESV), New English Translation (NET), New International Version (NIV 2011), Christian Standard Bible (CSB), and New Living Translation (NLT). In general, this order measures the tendency to paraphrase, with ESV doing so the least paraphrasing and NLT doing so the most. NET, NIV 2011, and CSB are all about the same in terms of tendency to paraphrase. That is a move to a more literal position for NIV 2011 in comparison to NIV 1984. I consider that a real improvement!

In the examples below, the underlined Greek text is idiomatic, and I have bold-faced the portion of each English translation that tries to express that idiom.

Idioms (must be paraphrased for comprehension)

BNT Matthew 1:18 ??? ?? ????? ??????? ? ??????? ????? ??. (????????????? ??? ?????? ????? ?????? ?? ?????, ???? ? ????????? ?????? ?????? ?? ?????? ?????? ?? ????????? ?????.

A raw translation would be “have in the womb.” The Greek phrase is an idiom: “?? ?????? ????? be pregnant” BDAG-3, the standard Greek lexicon.

ESV Matthew 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

NET Matthew 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way. While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.

NIV 2011 Matthew 1:18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.

CSB Matthew 1:18 The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After His mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit.

NLT Matthew 1:18 This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.

BNT John 2:4 [???] ????? ???? ? ??????·?? ???? ??? ???, ?????; ???? ???? ? ??? ???.

The Greek phrase is idiomatic. A raw translation might be: “What to me and to you?” [NET Bible Notes]

ESV John 2:4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”

NET John 2:4 Jesus replied, “Woman, why are you saying this to me? My time has not yet come.”

NIV 2011 John 2:4 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

CSB John 2:4 “What has this concern of yours to do with Me, woman?” Jesus asked. “My hour has not yet come.”

NLT John 2:4 “Dear woman, that’s not our problem,” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.”

COMMENT: Oddly enough, NLT is the only English text that retains Jesus’ question about the relevance of this situation to both Mary and Jesus by combining them in the pronoun “our.” All the others focus only on Jesus.

BNT John 10:24 ????????? ??? ????? ?? ???????? ??? ?????? ????·??? ???? ??? ????? ???? ??????; ?? ?? ?? ? ???????, ???? ???? ????????.

A raw translation might be “Until when do you raise our soul?” The Greek phrase is an idiom. “to keep in a state of uncertainty about an outcome, keep someone in suspense, fig. ext. of [meaning] 1.” BDAG-3, the standard lexicon.

ESV John 10:24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

NET John 10:24 The Jewish leaders surrounded him and asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

NIV 2011 John 10:24 The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

COMMENT: NIV 2011 adds the words “who were there,” but why? Only the people who were there could surround Jesus, so why add those words? On the positive side, NIV 2011 substitutes “Messiah” for “Christ.”

CSB John 10:24 Then the Jews surrounded Him and asked, “How long are You going to keep us in suspense? If You are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

NLT John 10:24 The people surrounded him and asked, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Ancient Style (leave it alone!)

WTT 1 Kings 2:10 ???????????? ?????? ????????????

ESV 1 Kings 2:10 Then David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David.

NET 1 Kings 2:10 Then David passed away and was buried in the city of David.

COMMENT: NET takes out the more metaphorical idea of “slept with his fathers” and replaces it with the sterile contemporary euphemism “passed away.” The Hebrew original maintains the continuity of David with his ancestors, but the NET takes it away. How does that make matters better? It is hard to believe such measures were necessary to help a contemporary audience understand that David had died when the same verse says he “was buried”!

NIV 2011 1 Kings 2:10 Then David rested with his ancestors and was buried in the City of David.

COMMENT: This substitution of “ancestors” for “fathers” is the result of NIV 2011’s use of new research on English word usage. This is a good change.

CSB 1 Kings 2:10 Then David rested with his fathers and was buried in the city of David.

NLT 1 Kings 2:10 Then David died and was buried with his ancestors in the City of David.

COMMENT: In reference to this verse, NLT has the following misguided boast in its preface: “Only the New Living Translation clearly translates the real meaning of the Hebrew idiom ‘slept with his fathers’ into contemporary English.” (Introduction to NLT, page xlii). This is what software developers call “turning a bug into a feature”! What a selling point!

BNT Romans 13:4 ???? ??? ???????? ????? ??? ??? ?? ??????. ??? ?? ?? ????? ?????, ?????· ?? ??? ???? ??? ???????? ?????· ???? ??? ???????? ????? ??????? ??? ????? ?? ?? ????? ?????????.

ESV Romans 13:4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

NET Romans 13:4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer.

NIV 2011 Romans 13:4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

CSB Romans 13:4 For government is God’s servant to you for good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong.

NLT Romans 13:4 The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong.

COMMENT: This verse displays the NLT’s pride in removing metaphors that they believe are “difficult for contemporary readers to understand” (NLT preface). Apparently some of us are considered so ignorant as to think the authorities were going to pat us on the back with the sword. So, the paraphrase had to make it crystal clear that the intent was punishment. Of course, the sword finds little use in 2011, so it had to go too. Calling this a “translation” is a real stretch. [Just to be clear, the Greek words for have, power and punish do not occur in the Greek text.]

In conclusion, I do not argue that any of the changes shown above affect doctrines of Christian faith. But paraphrasing biblical texts that are not idiomatic is an undesirable translation practice. If the translator believes more “clarity” is needed, put it in a footnote!

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

 

NIV 2011 and Perfection

The new NIV 2011 shows its value in the insightful translation of Philippians 3:12, but it shows no improvement in Matthew 5:48.  In Philippians 3:12, the Greek verb in question, teleio?, is frequently — and wrongly — translated as if it involved some form of perfection. It is my contention that the concept of perfection presented in other translations of Philippians 3:12 came not from the Bible or from Greek and Hebrew but from philosophy. Christian theology has a long history of saying that God is perfect, and that has led to the contention that those who become mature in Christ are being made “perfect.”

The original basis in the Bible for this idea of “perfection” seems to come from Matthew 5:48. Next I will analyze that verse.

Matthew 5:48

For Matt. 5:48, NIV 2011 offers, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In Matthew 5:48, the English word perfect simply does not fit either the underlying Greek adjective (teleios) or this context. So, how did we wind up with a misleading English word in so many translations?

Perfect (Matt. 5:48) was the English word chosen by William Tyndale in the very first English translation of the New Testament (1526) based on the Latin Vulgate. Tyndale did not have a Greek New Testament to guide his work because they were not published in Europe until 1534.[1] About 85 percent of Tyndale’s popular English translation became part of the Authorized Version, which we call the King James Bible, and the translation perfect in Matt. 5:48 was part of that incorporated material.

Bible translator William Mounce explains the second factor that often prevents English translation improvements: “The argument [in the translation committee] was, ‘This is such a well-known verse that we can’t change it.’”[2] [Mounts was not speaking here about Matt. 5:48 in particular or about NIV 2011.] Such forces against change are strong in the Sermon on the Mount!

New Testament scholar Craig L. Blomberg puts us onto the right plan for Matt. 5:48 when he says, “‘Perfect’ here is better translated as ‘mature, whole,’ i.e., loving without limits . . . . Jesus is not frustrating his hearers with an unachievable ideal but challenging them to grow in obedience to God’s will — to become more like him.”[3] The key idea here is completeness, or loving without limits. God’s willingness to love even his enemies sets the example for the disciples of Jesus. Just as the Father is whole and undivided in his love, so must Jesus’ disciples be!

The interpretation just given makes sense out of the word therefore (Matt. 5:48a). Verse 48 is a conclusion based on what has been taught previously. The Gentiles and tax collectors love their own kind (Matt. 5:46-47), but we must look to God for our model of love, not our peers.

In spite of the fact that virtually all modern commentators agree on what has been said above about the correct interpretation of Matt. 5:48, it is not hard to find someone who teaches sinless perfection as the command of Christ. But that idea is very hard to reconcile with the prayer Jesus taught his disciples in which they pray for the forgiveness of the debt (of sin) between themselves and God (Matt. 6:12). Why would a perfect disciple need to ask forgiveness? Even stronger are John’s words: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8, ESV).

I need to address a potential criticism. Someone might claim that I am teaching that God is not perfect. Far from it! The Bible amply demonstrates that God needs no improvement or development. What I do say is that the concept of God’s perfection or our own perfection as disciples is not what Jesus was saying here. Instead, he was holding up God’s character as the example of love for his disciples to follow. God loves the just and the unjust, and so must we.

Philippians 3:12

BNT Philippians 3:12 ??? ??? ??? ?????? ? ??? ???????????, ????? ?? ?? ??? ????????, ??? ? ??? ??????????? ??? ??????? [?????].

The standard Greek lexicon, BDAG-3, offers this definition for the bold-face Greek verb teleio?:  ”to overcome or supplant an imperfect state of things by one that is free fr. objection, bring to an end, bring to its goal/accomplishment.” Happily, this is the definition used by NIV 2011 in Phil. 3:12. Compare the following translations (“2011” is NIV 2011, and NIV is the 1984 version):

ESV Philippians 3:12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

2011 Philippians 3:12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.

NIV Philippians 3:12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.

NLT Philippians 3:12 I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me.

I congratulate NIV 2011 for making this improvement in Philippians 3:12 and hope that they will eventually fix Matthew 5:48, though I’m not holding my breath!

[1] The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 3, S.L. Greenslade, Ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1963) 61.

[2] William D. Mounce, Greek for the Rest of Us (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003) 38.

[3] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 115.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. Material on Matthew 5:48 presented with permission of Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas, which originally commissioned the work.

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:

σὺ λέγεις ὅτι βασιλεύς εἰμι. (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 ἰδοὺ (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.

 

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.

 

Bibles: The Heritage of NIV for 2011

The New International Version (NIV) first came out in 1973 (NT) with great fanfare. It was the first major English translation to abandon the King James Version and its successors as a baseline for English Bible translation. The full NIV Bible was published in 1978 and underwent a minor revision in 1984. NIV1984 is currently the most widely used English translation of the Bible; in August, 2010, The Committee on Bible Translation said that more than 400 million copies of the NIV had been printed.

The successor to the NIV1984 was meant to be the Today’s New International Version (TNIV) published in 2002 (NT) and 2005 (whole Bible). However, opponents attacked its gender-inclusive language and the publisher proved reluctant to quit promoting the profit-producing NIV1984 instead. As of now, TNIV is effectively dead, though it is reasonable to argue that it has risen again as NIV2011.

Now the new kid on the block is NIV2011, scheduled for print publication in March 2011. Electronic versions are already available. NIV2011 is a definite improvement over NIV1984. I’ll be saying a lot more about this new translation, but for now you may want to see the statistics presented in graphical and tabular form by John Dyer, who works at Dallas Theological Seminary. Here is the link: Dyer’s Data & Chart.

The message I get from examining Dyer’s data is that NIV2011 substantially approves of the changes included in TNIV and takes them a step further. One change from NIV1984 to NIV2011 is the cautious shift to gender-neutral language; for example, “brothers” becomes “brothers and sisters” and “men” becomes “mankind.” However, nothing of this nature was done in relation to references to God.

An excellent statement about NIV2011 has been prepared by The Committee on Bible Translation. It is available here. I will discuss this statement in more detail another day.

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