May 3, 2011

Five Most Intriguing Changes in the Updated NIV

Posted in New Testament, Old Testament, Translation Philosophy by Collin Hansen on February 28th, 2011

Last year I enjoyed the privilege of moderating the Perspectives in Translation forum at Bible Gateway. This work put me in touch with some of the world’s most gifted Bible scholars, men and women committed to helping us understand God’s Word in many varied contemporary English translations.

We launched this project around the same time the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) released the updated NIV at Bible Gateway. NIV translators Doug Moo and Craig Blomberg participated in the Perspectives forum. But so did translators and/or supporters of several other versions, including the NLT, ESV, HCSB, CEB, and NET. That made for some vigorous discussion, especially regarding the best way to render passages related to gender roles. We welcomed such debate, because translation is a serious matter that carries serious consequences for Christian faith and practice.

Now the scholars have returned to their regular tasks of teaching and writing, so we will only update the Perspectives forum if we see occasion and reader demand to convene a group discussion. We’re grateful for the significant interested readers have shown in the forum and welcome any tips for special topics we might cover.

To recap our discussion so far, I wanted to look back on the updated NIV and observe what I regard as the five most intriguing changes unveiled in last year’s edition compared to the 1984 NIV. Scholars discussed most of these changes at Perspectives in Translation. Others were covered in the translation notes released by the CBT.

5.) Philippians 4:13

1984 NIV: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

2010 NIV: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

Here we have one of the most popular and frequently memorized verses in the entire Bible. According to data compiled by Bible Gateway, this is the number four most-read Bible verse. It’s easy to memorize and packs a punch. But the 2010 translation helps us to understand the apostle Paul’s intent more clearly by encouraging us to examine the context of his remark. God granted him contentment in all circumstances, whether rich or poor, well fed or hungry. Indeed, we know from Philippians 4:7 that the “peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” God does not promise to protect believers from all hardship. But he does promise to preserve us in it.

4.) Psalm 23:4

1984 NIV: ‟Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

2010 NIV: ‟Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

I don’t remember much from Sunday school as a child, but I remember memorizing Psalm 23. The King James Version of 1611 conveyed the beauty of this chapter with lyrical, rhythmic phrasing like the “valley of the shadow of death,” retained in verse four of the 1984 NIV. Some modern translations, such as the ESV an NASB, have preserved this beautiful language. The 2010 NIV, however, has joined the HCSB, NLT, NRSV, and NET by opting for broader comprehension with a simpler modern phrase: “darkest valley.” No matter how dark things appear in our lives, God will never leave us. There can be no greater hope!

3.) Romans 8:8

1984 NIV: “Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.”

2010 NIV: “Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.”

I could have selected several other verses to illustrate this same change. The CBT’s translation notes explain that particularly in Paul’s letters, the word “sarx can mean either part or all of the human body or the human being under the power of sin.” Paul uses the word both ways, just as we use the same words today with both literal and figurative meanings. The 1984 NIV aimed to help readers by offering the figurative meaning whenever translators believed they could establish Paul’s intent. The 2010 NIV takes a more hands-off approach, more frequently translating sarx as flesh and urging the readers to make their own decisions about when Paul means to reference the sinful nature that misleads us.

Blomberg explained on the Perspectives forum more about the misconceptions prompted the CBT to make a change:

Through my seminary studies . . . I came to learn that it wasn’t as though Christians had two compartments to them, one in which the Spirit resided and one in which the flesh resided, so that one could speak of their spiritual and their sinful natures. The Spirit always indwells us, and sometimes fills us, but when he doesn’t it is because we are not fully yielded to him. Thus the flesh, as the common Scriptural opposite, is most naturally likewise understood as a power to which we can yield, to varying degrees.

2.) 2 Corinthians 5:17

1984 NIV: ‟Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

2010 NIV: ‟Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

However you translate it, this is one of the most encouraging verses in the Bible. Believers cling to this promise when overwhelmed with the weight of our sin and its effects on the ones we love. The 2010 NIV helps us to more clearly understand something profound: our union with Christ has cosmic implications! Far from minimizing the significance of the new birth, Paul teaches us that same re-creative power that raised Jesus from the dead now regenerates us, who were helpless in our sins. Indeed, Jesus is making all things new.

The CBT tells us more about Paul’s teaching:

Given his overall theology that the coming of Christ and the new era he inaugurated began the period of the restoration of all things that would culminate in new heavens and new earth, it is likely that Paul is making a much more sweeping claim than just the salvation of the individual believer. A new universe is in the works!

Blomberg argued at the Perspectives forum that Paul employs an attention-grabbing structure in the original Greek in order to show us that our individual conversions are part of God’s grand creative plan. This example demonstrates how translators consider both a verse’s sentence construction as well as the broader context of biblical theology.

1.) Philippians 2:6

1984 NIV: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.”

2010 NIV: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.”

This verse belongs to a beloved section of Scripture, Philippians 2:6-11, which explains the humiliation Jesus suffered on the earth and the exaltation he enjoys in heaven. Paul tells us we have the same mindset, looking not to our interests but to the interests of others, as Jesus did by enduring death on the cross.

This verse also bears tremendous theological importance. In particular, scholars have long debated the meaning of the rarely used Greek word harpagmos. The 1984 NIV translated it “something to be grasped.” But what does it mean that Jesus did not grasp equality with God? Isn’t he in very nature God? What’s the difference?

The CBT considered new scholarship in the last 25 years that led them to believe that harpagmos carried the meaning of someone who possesses something he does not use for his own advantage. Blomberg explained more on the Perspectives forum:

The point then of the verse is not that Christ, in choosing to give up his position, metaphorically, at the right hand of the Father in order to become human, gave up his deity or even his divine attributes, but that he didn’t consider them as something to be used to his own personal advantage. Evangelical theologians have often spoken of Christ giving up the independent exercise of his divine attributes apart from when it was his Father’s will.

More than any other change, I think, this verse illustrates how Bible translators serve the rest of us. A verse that has baffled me for so long now comes into clearer focus thanks to careful study of the original language in its ancient context. And now that I know more clearly what Jesus Christ did for me, I praise him and ask for the Spirit’s help in serving others to the glory of God the Father.

Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition and editor of the Perspectives in Translation forum at Bible Gateway. He is the co-author of A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir.