The New NIV: Popular English Translation Updated

Biblica (formerly known as the International Bible Society) has announced an update for the New International Version. Since the NIV is the translation we use in Christian Odyssey, we thought it might be helpful for our readers to have some background about why the NIV was updated.

Bible translation is a never-ending process for two reasons. First, scholars continue to learn more about the original languages, in vocabulary, grammar, and idioms. Second, English (like all languages) is constantly changing. Our vocabulary and style of expression have changed a lot since the King James Version was translated 400 years ago, and even somewhat since the NIV was last updated in 1984.

Therefore, as translators attempt to convey the ancient meaning in contemporary language, there is always a need for periodic review. Biblica’s Committee on Bible Translation has met each year since 1965. Changes have been adopted only when 70 percent of the committee approved, so the process is a conservative one. In this most recent edition, only five percent of the NIV has been changed. The changes occur in three categories. We’ll give examples of each:

Understanding the original languages

In the 1984 edition of the NIV, the nativity story in Luke reads that Jesus was born in a stable “because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7, NIV1984). However, more recent research has revealed that Bethlehem was such a small village that it is not likely that it had an inn, and it is now fairly well established that the Greek word referred to a guest room rather than an inn.

So, we do not need to imagine an innkeeper who was so heartless as to refuse a woman in labor. Rather, we realize that Bethlehem was a village, and there were not many houses with guest rooms. So the updated version of the NIV reads: “…because there was no guest room available for them.”

Jesus was crucified between two “robbers,” says the earlier translation of Mark 15:27. But now it is known that the Greek word generally referred to rebels, to guerrilla fighters, rather than ordinary robbers. The rebels sometimes robbed traveling merchants, but the primary crime for which they were executed was rebellion against Rome. So the NIV now calls them “rebels.”

An effort to be clearer

Many people have memorized Philippians 4:13: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (NIV1984). Unfortunately, many people misunderstand this to mean they can do everything from winning a foot race to raising ten thousand dollars if Jesus is with them. But if this is intended as a divine promise, what are the people to conclude when their wishes do not come true?

The context makes it clear that Paul does not mean “everything.” Rather, he is saying that Christ gave him the ability to be content even when he was poor and hungry (verse 12). So, to make the verse less likely to be taken out of context, the NIV now reads: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” The word “this” refers readers to the previous verse, where they can see what Paul was talking about.

In a literal translation, 1 Corinthians 7:1 reads, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” Is this really what Paul meant? No, for two reasons. First, “to touch a woman” is now known to be a Greek idiom for sexual activity. And second, the sentence was apparently a quote from the Corinthians, not Paul’s view at all. So the NIV now puts this inside of quote marks: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” That was their idea, not Paul’s.

Contemporary English style

Several decades ago, “alien” meant someone from another nation. Now it commonly makes people think of invaders from outer space. So in the revised NIV, Abraham does not announce that he is an alien, but that he is a “foreigner” (Genesis 23:4). Most readers would understand “alien” correctly, of course, but why use a word that can be misunderstood when a different English word conveys the same meaning without confusion?

Another area in which English has changed considerably in the last 20 years is the use of gender-specific words. Most of us who are over 40 are familiar with the word “man” being used as a synonym for humanity, but a new generation is growing up with school textbooks that do not use the word in that way. For these people, “man” usually means a male.

Again, why use a word that some people will misunderstand? If the original language did not specify a gender, then the translation should not specify one, either.

We have other English words that work just as well, communicating clearly to all generations. So the NIV now reads, “God created mankind in his own image” (Genesis 1:27). It uses the word “ancestors” rather than “forefathers,” and it reads “brothers and sisters” instead of just “brothers” when women are likely to be part of the group.

The updated NIV is now available on biblegateway.com. Printed editions will become available in March 2011. For more information on how the NIV was updated, visit www.biblica.com/niv/accuracy/.

This article was written by Michael Morrison in 2011.

Michael Morrison
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