Stan Gundry, Vice President of Zondervan, was kind enough to send me a review copy of the NIV 2011. Not just any review copy—but a soft leather, NIV Thinline Reference Bible! My wife told me to hurry up with the review so that she could have it. I had to remind her that one doesn’t judge a book by its cover, but being Irish she might not have heard a word I said. And being of Scottish descent, I didn’t pay attention to whether she did.
So, I must do this review in haste for the sake of peace in my home. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a careless review. I have read several reviews of the NIV 2011—some positive, some not—and have checked numerous passages to form a judgment of my own. As one who has been a consultant, proofreader, translator, or editor of a few Bible translations, I come with some experience in the matter.
A Selected History of the English Bible
First, for a brief history lesson. The NIV was one of the first English translations of the modern era to consciously depart from the King James Bible tradition. That tradition—reaching as far back as William Tyndale (1525)—has had successors in the Revised Version (1885), American Standard Version (1901), Revised Standard Version (1952), New American Standard Bible (1971), New Revised Standard Version (1989), and English Standard Version (2001). This tradition involves a heavy amount of infighting: The revisers of 1885, mostly British scholars, were slammed by those devoted to the King James Bible. Chief among them was John Burgon, whose main complaint was over the textual basis of the RV New Testament, a work that was largely a translation of the Greek text that Westcott and Hort had published in 1881. Apart from the textual base, the RV also suffered from its position of touting the triumph of “King Truth” over “King James.” The RV was literal, and slavishly so; it was the ugly step-child of King James, and had a poor following. Contrary to what many KJV Only advocates believe, the KJV was not a literal translation; it was a literary translation (as H. L. Mencken—no friend of Christianity once quipped—the King James Bible is “unquestionably the most beautiful book in the world”). It was a literary masterpiece that, in this regard, has been unmatched by any English translation of the Bible since. But its accuracy of text and translation were long overdue for a major overhaul when the RV came along.
On the Revised Version translation committee were some Americans who, by agreement with the syndics of the RV, would not publish their own translation for fourteen years. In 1901, the American Standard Version appeared, and it had significantly improved English over the RV. This was the first English Bible produced by a committee, since the KJV, which was actually put in tolerable English.
Fifty-one years later, the RSV appeared. And that’s really where our story begins. The RSV had “young woman” in Isa 7.14, which was an affront to many fundamentalist and evangelical churches, so much so that one pastor even lit a copy of the RSV on fire from the pulpit and sent the ashes to the RSV committee chairman. (Dr. Bruce Metzger, who as the chairman of the NRSV committee inherited the ashes of this Bible, once showed me the urn that housed them. He quipped, “I’m so glad to be a Bible translator in the twentieth century: they only burn the translation, not the translators!”) The furor over the translation of ‘almah in Isa 7.14 was so strong that other translations sprang up in reaction to the purportedly liberal bias in the RSV. The NASB was chief among them, since it was within the same Tyndale-KJV-RV-ASV tradition. It intended to offer a conservative alternative to the RSV, based on the same tradition. But it could be argued that the original NIV (1978) was also stimulated in part by the RSV’s defection from the KJ tradition. Translation is always a tricky business, and part of the balancing act for translators is to be as faithful as possible to the original text while making a translation that the average Christian will embrace. Jerome found this to be a problem when a riot broke out in Tripoli in AD 403 when they read his translation of Jonah 4.6—more specifically, his translation of קיקיון in Jonah 4.6 as ‘ivy’ (hederem) instead of the traditional ‘gourd’ (cucurbita). Augustine even found it necessary to write to Jerome about the situation, pleading with him to temper how much he tampered with the traditional Latin text. Now, if the rendering for a plant could cause a riot, how much more would treating a key prophetic text such as Isa 7.14 cause upheaval? Yet, truth be told, ‘young woman’ is almost surely what the Hebrew word means. In Matt 1.23, the evangelist is quoting from the Septuagint of Isa 7.14, and clearly the Greek word for ‘almah means ‘virgin.’ (See the note in the NET Bible at both texts for discussion.)
After the RSV fiasco, English Bible translations started reproducing like rabbits. To this day, the reaction to the RSV is visceral. Yet, surprisingly, the NIV 2011, although it adopts ‘virgin’ in Isa 7.14, lists ‘young woman’ as a viable alternative. The old battle lines have worn down to sometimes barely recognizable historical relics, reminders from the past of what once divided us.
In 1952, one woman was at the center of the storm of Bible translations; beginning in 1989, all women were the focus. And, once again, it was the (N)RSV that was the instigator. In that year, the New RSV appeared. With its gender-inclusive language, the NRSV seemed to go beyond the limits of accuracy and good English style in a fair number of texts. The table below shows what the RSV read in comparison with the NRSV in three verses:
RSV Compared to NRSV
|Matthew 18.15||If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.||If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.|
|1 Timothy 3.2||Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher||Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher|
|Revelation 3.20||Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.||Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.|
In Matt 18.15, the NRSV is an ugly translation. This is due to an overriding principle of making the translation gender inclusive, even if the English ends up being terrible. Who speaks like this: “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one”? In this respect, the NRSV has gone retro, mimicking the homeliness of the old RV, but without its accuracy. Ironically, the NRSV committee’s attempt at avoiding sexual connotations by replacing ‘brother’ with ‘member’ results in creating sexual connotations of another sort! (One of the major tasks of Bible translators these days is to get rid of what one scholar calls the ‘snicker factor’—those places where bathroom humor or sexual innuendo need to be changed, making the translation junior-high-boy foolproof. The NRSV succeeded on several fronts, changing what the RSV had—e.g., Ps 50.9 [“I will not accept a bull from your house” vs. “I will accept no bull from your house”]. But not all: see, for example, Matt 8.20.) Further, by stretching the limits of gender inclusiveness to the breaking point, the NRSV distorts the text here: ‘brother’ is a familial term, and in the context of church discipline has connotations of warmth and commitment to each other that ‘member’ lacks. What is left is a cold harshness in the context of discipline, far removed from what the Matthean saying originally intended to convey.
In 1 Tim 3.2, “married only once” translates the Greek phrase, “husband of one wife” (though some evidence has been suggested that this phrase might mean simply “married only once”). The text now sounds like Paul would allow women to be elders/bishops, but that seems to be a case of historical revisionism.
And in Rev 3.20, the singular of the Greek text is lost in modern English since we no longer distinguish singular from plural with the second person. The warmth and emphasis on the individual in the Lord’s invitation is thus toned down because of other concerns.
So, what does this have to do with the NIV 2011? Just as with the evangelical and fundamentalist reaction to the RSV, there has been yet another spate of translations in response to the NRSV. The ESV and HCSB are leading the charge, keeping the gender-inclusive language in check. I won’t comment on the value of those translations here, except to note that the ESV, largely because of Leland Ryken’s role in the work, brings an understated elegance to the translation. In a word, the ESV is memorable, something we will address later on.
But four other translations of note have appeared since, or contemporaneously with, the NRSV, and none of them seems to go nearly as far as the NRSV in its inclusive agenda. The REB (1989), which is a revision of the NEB (1970)—both produced by British scholars—is also a gender-inclusive translation. But the translators explicitly noted that gender inclusiveness would not trump good English style. (Just check the REB in the three verses already discussed to see that they were true to their word.) The Brits apparently learned a big lesson from the RV’s failure: the NEB and REB stand as probably the best English renderings of the Bible in terms of style done in the twentieth century. (Look at Luke 11.48 and John 1.1 for illustrations of accuracy that simultaneously involve great style.)
The NET Bible (2005) should also be mentioned: it does not take sides on the gender issue, but intends to be gender accurate. That is, it is not gender inclusive if the Greek or Hebrew explicitly refer to males, but it is likewise not gender exclusive if the original languages have in view both sexes.
Finally, the TNIV (2005) and NIV 2011 should be mentioned. These are gender-inclusive translations or perhaps gender neutral, but not nearly to the extent as the NRSV. And on the translation committee—indeed, the chairman of the Committee on Bible Translation, Douglas Moo—are those who would be styled ‘complementarians.’ That is, these translators (by no means all, but a good portion of them no doubt) generally believe in male leadership in the home and church. The opposing group is known as egalitarians, those who believe essentially that men do not have the sole rights as leaders in the home or church. The remarkable thing about these two newer translations is that such scholars could work together to produce them. And all of them are evangelicals. This speaks very highly for the TNIV and NIV 2011 and serves as an implicit endorsement of the translation by both groups. Although ‘over 100 scholars’ seems like overkill for a good translation (a much smaller group could do as good a job if not better), the NIV’s multinational and multidenominational workforce removes it from any charges of sectarian bias. This really has to go for the gender issue, too, because of both complementarians and egalitarians on the translation committees.