A Review of the NIV 2011: Part 2 of 4

In my previous blogpost, I discussed selectively the history of the English Bible, and brought us up to speed on the NIV 2011. Now, I wish to look at features of the NIV 2011. This blogpost will focus on the positive features.

What Makes for an Accurate Translation?

Before discussing the NIV’s strengths, I need to address a misperception of my first post—a misperception that I unwittingly contributed to. In discussing the history of the English Bible, I noted that the KJV was a literary translation while the RV was a literal translation. I also suggested that the RV was more accurate than the NRSV and the KJV. What I need to do here is correct the frequent perception that literal = accurate, and not-so-literal = inaccurate.

Anyone who has ever learned a foreign language knows that the structure, idioms, vocabulary, and syntax between the two languages are not identical. To be sure, some languages are closer to each other than others (e.g., Northwest Semitic languages, such as Hebrew and Aramaic, are very similar), but there is never complete overlap. And although Greek, being an Indo-European language like English, is closer to English’s structure and style, Hebrew is a different animal altogether. For this reason, since a translation of the Bible is not simply a translation of Greek to English but a translation of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into English, a formally equivalent, or ‘literal,’ translation of the Bible will inevitably be uneven and inaccurate. Even if the original text of the Bible were only in Greek, a so-called literal translation would still miss the mark. Taking just idiomatic expression as an example, consider Matt 1.18. English translations speak of Mary’s pregnancy as follows: 


Matthew 1.18

KJV she was found with child
ASV she was found with child
NAB she was found with child
RSV she was found to be with child
NRSV she was found to be with child
NASB she was found to be with child
ESV she was found to be with child
NJB she was found to be with child
NIV (1984) she was found to be with child
REB she found she was going to have a child
TEV she found that she was going to have a baby
TNIV she was found to be pregnant
NIV (2011) she was found to be pregnant
NET she was found to be pregnant
HCSB it was discovered…that she was pregnant

A glance at the list of 15 translations shows that “she was found” is the wording of all but three, and “with child/have a baby” is part of the translation all but four times. One might conclude that since these translations vary from formal equivalent to functional equivalent the Greek text must have both of these phrases in it. Otherwise, how could so many translations have identical renderings? The reality is that all these translations are putting a Greek idiom in English dress and changing it to meet English usage. And, whether acknowledged or not, they are largely influenced by the KJV—even the 1984 NIV and the Roman Catholic translations (NAB, NJB). It may surprise you to know that the Greek text here says, “she was found having [it] in the belly.” That’s very vivid language; any woman who has ever been pregnant knows what it’s like to be having it in the belly! But it’s not English idiom, so translations have had to change the Greek idiom to one that was acceptable in English. It is interesting that two of the least ‘literal’ translations in the chart—the REB and TEV—are the only ones listed to actually read ‘have’ here; none of the others use that word, even though it is in the Greek.

What this text illustrates is that a faithful translation to the meaning of the original does not have to be faithful to the form of the original.

Consider another example, this time the Greek expression μὴ γένοιτο (me genoito). This is used 15 times in the NT, once by Luke and 14 times by Paul. Luke uses it in the more classical sense of “I hope this won’t happen [but I fear it will].” It is found in Luke 20.16 and gives the reaction of the people to Jesus’ parable about the vineyard owner who will come to destroy the tenants. But Paul doesn’t use the expression that way. For him, it has the sense of abhorrence, revulsion, of vehement and categorical denial of the truth of the supposition. For example, in Rom 7.7, Paul says, “Is the law sin? Absolutely not!” Even within the NT the same words bear a different idiom for two different authors. So, how is this two-word clause translated? These two passages will be used. 


Luke 20.16

Rom 7.7

KJV God forbid God forbid
ASV God forbid God forbid
RSV God forbid! By no means!
NRSV Heaven forbid! By no means!
NASB May it never be! May it never be!
ESV Surely not! By no means!
NIV (1984) May this never be! Certainly not!
TNIV God forbid! Certainly not!
NIV (2011) God forbid! Certainly not!
NET May this never happen! Absolutely not!
NAB Let it not be so! Of course not!
NJB God forbid! Out of the question!
REB God forbid! Of course not!
TEV Surely not! Of course not!
HCSB No—never! Absolutely not!

μὴ γένοιτο is a Greek idiom that should not be literally translated. Literally, it reads “May it not be.” (Neither ‘God’ nor ‘forbid’ are in the Greek, but the KJV and several others have rendered this rather idiomatically, not literally.) But it is a request using the optative mood, which in Attic Greek and, under normal circumstances, even in Koine, had a weakened force. The optative was also used in prayers to deities in Greek (perhaps because the petitioner had little hope that the god would answer his or her prayer). It’s like when a child sheepishly asks her mother if she may stay up two hours past her bedtime to watch a movie on a school night: “Couldn’t I please stay up?” But Paul has utilized the same form but invested it with his own idiomatic meaning.

Two points here: First, the idiom in Paul is different from that in Luke and should be translated differently. Significantly, the only versions in the list above to render both instances the same way are the KJV, ASV, and NASB. Though claims are made that these versions are the most literal, they are not the most accurate. Second, no translation renders this exactly literally in any place it occurs. To do so would be to pervert the meaning of the text.

Often I am asked, “What is the most accurate translation today? What is the most literal, word-for-word translation?” I point out that those are two separate questions, and that the answer for one will be different from the answer for the other. The most literal, word-for-word translation is probably the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is slavishly literal to the point of being bad English much of the time—except where the Greek or Hebrew text affirms a doctrine that is contrary to what this sect believes. In those cases, the translation becomes paraphrastic, but illegitimately so.

At bottom, the best translation is one that is faithful to the meaning of the original text. That does not always, nor even usually, mean a literal translation.

Specifics of the NIV 2011

Praise for the NIV 2011

Charts and tables and databases of the differences between the NIV (1984, the revised edition of the 1978 version), the TNIV, and the NIV 2011 have been produced. These are indeed helpful, but since they focus on statistics more than on reading, the data can give a false impression. For example, some of them note that the NIV 2011 is closer to the TNIV than to the NIV 1984 its gender language. True enough. But then they make the illegitimate leap that as such the NIV 2011 is not accurate. The preface to the NIV 2011 explicitly notes that it is a translation meant for people today, and it recognizes that the use of ‘man’ in the sense of ‘person’ is no longer a viable option for most English speakers in the 21st century. The fact is, the English language has changed. In order to render the meaning of the original text in the language that people understand today, revisions are constantly needed. There is no final word on the Word of God. The King James translators knew this, as have the translators of virtually every translation done since. The NIV 2011 is no exception.

The primary focus of the NIV 2011 is an accurate translation (more on this later), and one has to admit that they have accomplished this objective admirably. Although there are, to be sure, some verses that one might take objection to, overall the translation is extremely well done. And it is fresh and ‘breezy’—in the sense that it is easy to read, not in the sense of being nonchalant or indifferent to the weighty matters of rendering God’s Word into a modern language.

The scholarship behind the NIV 2011 is probably as good as it gets. And the textual basis is both bold and exceptionally accurate. 1 Thess 2.7 now describes Paul and Silvanus as “little children” instead of “gentle”; Mark 1.41 speaks of Jesus as “indignant” instead of “filled with compassion”; John 1.34 has John the Baptist speaking of the Lord as “God’s Chosen One” instead of “the Son of God.” These are disturbing readings, yet scholars in recent years have come to recognize that most likely they reflect accurately the original wording was. No doubt Gordon Fee, a world-class textual critic, had a large role in these decisions. (Two of these readings already found their way into the NET Bible, and the next iteration will probably follow the third, too.) I wish they had been so bold in Jude 5, and followed the reading “Jesus” in the place of “the Lord,” especially in light of Philipp Bartholomä’s article, “Did Jesus Save the People out of Egypt? A Re-examination of a Textual Problem in Jude 5,” Novum Testamentum 50 (2008) 143-58. (See also, for example, Mark 1.1 and 7.4 for places where I think the NIV has deleted the true reading.) The text of 1 Cor 14.34-35, which Fee and a few others have strongly argued should be excised in spite of the lack of external evidence, is retained. And the preferred reading in John 1.18 was not changed from the 1984 NIV (Greek: “God” instead of “Son”), while other modern translations have capitulated to Bart Ehrman’s poorly-based arguments on this verse.

In most places, the text hardly changes from the earlier NIV. Yes, it was that good, especially in the Old Testament. Before the NIV was originally published in 1978, I was taking a course on the Hebrew text of Isaiah at Dallas Seminary from Dr. Ken Barker, one of the NIV translators. We translated Isaiah and compared the NIV to the Hebrew text. My admiration for the NIV—before the whole Bible was ever published—grew significantly because of that course.

This is not to say that the New Testament has been translated poorly. Not at all. In 1 Cor 13.5, it says that love “does not dishonor others”—a decisive improvement over the much weaker “it is not rude” of the earlier NIV. Gone are the more correct, but equally more cumbersome, relative pronouns in many verses (e.g., Matt 1.16: for “of whom was born” referring obliquely to Mary, the new NIV has “and Mary was the mother of”—a strong improvement in clarity even though not as ‘literal’). In 1 Cor 6.9, the old NIV and the TNIV speaks of “male prostitutes” and “practicing homosexuals,” while the NIV 2011 speaks of “men who have sex with men.” On the one hand, this turns these two substantives into a single phrase, therefore rendering it other than literally. But it is much more accurate. The footnote here correctly states, “The words men who have sex with men translate two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts.”

The alternative renderings that are listed in the footnotes are also refreshing for their honesty (see above on 1 Cor 6.9). The text of Rom 3.22 says, “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ…” while the alternate rendering is, “This righteousness is given through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ…” (The NET Bible continues to be the only committee-produced English Bible that reads “faithfulness of Jesus Christ” in the text here, as far as I am aware.) This alternative received only a passing note in Cranfield’s magisterial two-volume commentary on Romans (1975-79); it cannot so readily be dismissed today, even though other recent translations do indeed dismiss it readily.

All in all, this is a fine translation and is the culmination of the efforts of many decades, scholars, countries, denominations, and ideologies. Yet everyone associated with the NIV is unswervingly committed to the Bible as the word of God written. Their joyous wonder at the beauty and majesty of the scriptures comes through loud and clear in this superb version.

22 Responses to “A Review of the NIV 2011: Part 2 of 4”

  1. Leslie Jebaraj July 22, 2011 at 12:10 am

    Very helpful. Thank you, sir. Looking forward to the rest of the installments.

  2. Dr. Wallace, thanks for your review of the 2011 NIV. I look forward to your remaining blogs on this topic. Keep up the great work!

  3. Dan –

    Have you ever read Eugene Peterson’s book, Eat This Book?

    He has what I believe is an amazing account of why he formulated The Message version of the Bible, and also relates very much about how God has always looked to get His revelation into the language people understood, even the plough bow. Some other amazing archaeological accounts shared in the book as well.

  4. Thanks for your review.

    On literal versions, have you seen the Concordant Literal New Testament, that is the most literal I have seen. Also the English in an interlinear would be literal.

    Even the most literal involves translation choices. And sometimes literal can be very misleading, when a term means something different today in a metaphor than it did back when.

  5. Dr. Wallace,

    What do you think about the NIV Update’s “victim of adultery” in Matthew 5:32?

  6. Clark Coleman July 23, 2011 at 1:18 am

    Concerning Matthew 1:18, you wrote: “It is interesting that two of the least ‘literal’ translations in the chart—the REB and TEV—are the only ones listed to actually read ‘have’ here; none of the others use that word, even though it is in the Greek.” The REB and TEV use “have” in the phrases “have a child” or “have a baby” in the future, i.e. the event of childbirth, while the Greek idiom uses “have” in reference to the present, of having the baby inside her belly right now. Thus, I cannot conclude that the word was transferred from Greek to English in any sense. Rather, by coincidence, the English idiom chosen had the word “have” it. Perhaps by calling this “interesting” you meant “coincidental” or “irrelevant?”

  7. Daniel B. Wallace July 23, 2011 at 3:21 am

    That’s an excellent observation. I’m not so sure that ‘having’ related to pregnancy and ‘have’ related to bearing a child are that different (one results in the other), but you are probably right that they did not intend to be literal here.

  8. Clark Coleman July 23, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    I am not sure I understand the point being made in the introductory paragraphs, and I am pretty certain the point is being misunderstood by others (more on that later). Hypothetically, if a word for word literal translation were given for a Greek or Hebrew idiom, the translation would lose intelligibility to the English reader. But the two examples highlight the fact that the ‘more literal’ translators recognized the idiomatic language and did not attempt to render it literally. Therefore, you are proving that it would be unwise to pursue a translation approach that none of the well-known translations pursue. But the punch line, which you emphasized, was “a formally equivalent, or ‘literal,’ translation of the Bible will inevitably be uneven and inaccurate.” It seems that your examples have not demonstrated that any well-known ‘literal’ translation is uneven or inaccurate. Yet, examine the link to this blog entry in comment #8 to see how others use your conclusion.

  9. Daniel B. Wallace July 23, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    I think you’ve missed my point. I was arguing that even literal translations can’t maintain their focus on formal equivalency. It would not make sense. A consistently literal translation would be atrocious.

  10. Clark Coleman July 24, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    I understand and agree. See comment #8, which is how I ended up at this entry. I don’t think they understood. Your phrasing “a formally equivalent, or ‘literal,’ translation of the Bible will inevitably be uneven and inaccurate” translates in their minds to “[fill in name of translation with reputation for being formally equivalent] is inevitably uneven and inaccurate.”
    Perhaps a different phrasing would have been clearer, e.g. “A 100% literal ….” or something like that.

  11. Dr. Wallace,
    I have often struggled with what is the most accurate translation as often words do not have the 100% same meaning in the target language. I was struck by the changing of the traditional “Son of God” change in John 1:34. How was THAT (the chosen one of God) chosen as the English equivalent? Part of my wonder comes from my own bewilderment of the word “son” as a description of Christ because the relationship with the “Father” is not a biological one. But is there some other factor that contributes to focusing solely on the “chosen” aspect of son-ship? I do agree that there are certain parts that do need to be updated (and I dread you asking me how I would decide which parts), but does changing phrases like “Son of God” really help? I am very interested in your thoughts.

  12. Daniel B. Wallace July 26, 2011 at 2:55 am

    Tornado, the paragraph in which I discuss John 1.34 opens with “The textual basis is both bold and exceptionally accurate.” What I’m discussing in that paragraph is the underlying Greek text that is being translated. The reason “God’s Chosen One” is better is because it is translating different words. Until a few years ago, only two MSS were known to have the reading “chosen one of God” instead of “the Son of God.” But they were immensely important MSS: Sinaiticus (oldest complete NT) and Papyrus 5 (third century papyrus). But then another MS showed up, Papyrus 106. Also from the third century. The NET Bible was one of the first to go with “chosen one of God”–and it did so before P106 was discovered. Gordon Fee has for a long time argued that this is the correct reading, and his judgment is now reflected in the new NIV’s rendering here. With the discovery of P106, I suspect that more translations will follow suit.

  13. Thank you for your response, that is quite amazing! So the difference is not only in the translation of the Greek but also in using different (in this case older and more reliable) texts. That is very exciting. I don’t suppose you helped to uncover any of those documents, did you?

  14. “Literal” translations seek one kind of accuracy, nonliteral translations a different kind. Both have uses and limits. To call your one kind “accurate,” instead of specifying that it seeks one kind of accuracy at some degree of cost to another, bugs me. Literal translations offer the data in a rawer form, good to wrestle with, less processed. Leland Ryken wrote a book advocating them. Young’s Literal, anyone?

  15. “The preface to the NIV 2011 explicitly notes that it is a translation meant for people today, and it recognizes that the use of ‘man’ in the sense of ‘person’ is no longer a viable option for most English speakers in the 21st century. ”

    That is true in academia, but not elsewhere. Unfortunately, Bible translators are primarily drawn from academic settings, where the feminist thought police took control long ago, so we will continue to see signs that translators are out of touch with “the main in the pews” in future translations.

    Note that I have a Ph.D. and have spent much of my life in academia, and I do not use words such as “academic” in a pejorative sense. I do think that academics are out of touch in this regard. Daily newspapers, for example, are often much more traditional with respect to gender language (perhaps not the New York Times and comrades).


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