Friday, October 30, 2015

does the new NIV distort the Scriptures? - part 5

Today I'm tackling the second part of an accusation against the NIV translation of the Bible. The first (which was part 4 of this series) addressed the issue of single words being changed, such as "Jehovah." What's more, some Christians are deeply concerned that the new NIV has removed entire verses from the Bible.

In a way, they are right. If you compare the KJV to the NIV, you'll discover that some verses have dropped out. But the important question is WHY?

Is this an attempt to take out statements that are uncomfortable or to water down the message of Scripture?

In a word, no.

Those who translated the Bible into English in the early 1600s did the best they could with what they had, but since then hundreds of other ancient manuscripts of the Bible have come to light, including those known as the "Dead Sea Scrolls." These manuscripts are much older than those available to the translators of the King James Version, sometimes by a thousand years, and in many cases they preserve a more accurate biblical text.
"The Shrine of the Book" at the Israel Museum,
where some of the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed
Photo: D. Camfferman
The process of discerning which manuscript is better is called "textual criticism" (not because it's "critical" of the text, but because it's trying to determine the "critical" text). The goal of most textual critics is to reconstruct the oldest and most accurate text possible by identifying and removing any mistakes or later additions.

Those responsible for the translation of the NIV (the Committee on Bible Translation) want you to be confident that you hold in your hands the Word of God, not a text filled with well-intentioned additions— however "true" they may be. In some cases, a word, a verse, or even a whole paragraph was added to the text at some point in history in order to clarify the meaning or harmonize a text with a similar passage in another book. This is especially common in the Gospels, where multiple books recount the same event. Either by accident or on purpose, scribes would fill out the shorter text with details from the longer text.

The NIV translators carefully examined the manuscript evidence. In cases where a new (older) manuscript suggested that a verse was a later addition to the biblical text, they chose to eliminate it.

Here's an example:
Matthew 18:11 (NIV) - Photo: C. Imes
In the KJV, Matthew 18:11 says, "For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost."
In the NIV, there is no verse 11. Instead, a footnote reads, "Some manuscripts include here the words of Luke 19:10."
Sure enough, Luke 19:10 reads, "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost."
Luke 19:10 (NIV) - Photo: C. Imes
In other words, even without this statement in Matthew 18:11, no theology has been lost. The truth that Jesus looks for and saves sinners is still in the New Testament. In the cases where a verse does not appear elsewhere, it was never supposed to be there in the first place. Thankfully, no doctrines of consequence rest on those verses.

Ironically, as with this example, many of the "missing" verses listed by concerned readers are found elsewhere in the Bible. Think with me here. If the NIV translators were trying to change the Bible, they didn't do a very thorough job.

For Zondervan's answer to this question (a shorter version of what I've said above), click here.

I've saved the most controversial objection to the NIV for last. Stay tuned!

Monday, October 26, 2015

does the new NIV distort the Scriptures? - part 4

A few minutes trolling around online will produce dozens of websites warning you about the dangers of the NIV.

Here's a quote from one of my "favorites":
"Did you know that it was written by Zondervan and they are OWNED by Harper Collins, who also publish The Satanic Bible, and the Joy of Gay Sex. NIV has removed 64,575 words from the Bible including Jehovah, Calvary, Holy Ghost and omnipotent to name but a few . . . NIV has also removed 45 complete verses."
In my next post I will respond to the more serious charge, that the NIV "removed" verses from the Bible. But first let me set the record straight:
Zondervan chooses the binding and
style of the NIV Bibles they print,
but they are not involved in the
translation (Photo: C. Imes)
  1. Zondervan is a reputable Christian publishing house, fully staffed by evangelical believers, and it continues to produce some of the finest resources available for Christian Bible study today. Yes, it was bought by HarperCollins, a secular publishing house, but Zondervan retains full control of the editing process and employs believing scholars to do this work. The content of books published by the parent company in no way affects the quality or accuracy of Zondervan's publications. 
  2. Even so, Zondervan did NOT "write" the NIV, nor did they translate it. The work was done by a team of Christian scholars (the Committee on Bible Translation, or CBT) working under Biblica according to the wishes of the original translation team. Zondervan simply makes the CBT's translation available to the wider world, choosing the binding, the size and color of the font, and the formats in which it will be printed.
  3. If a word appears to be "missing" from the NIV, it has disappeared for one of two reasons. Either the translators felt that a different word would more accurately convey the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic text, or the translators determined that a word or words did not belong in the translation because the best ancient manuscripts did not include it
The word "Jehovah" is a good example. No such word exists in Hebrew. God revealed his personal name to Moses in Exodus 3:14. We can be confident that the consonants of that name are YHWH. (This is sometimes called the "Tetragrammaton," because it is made up of just four letters). However, scholars are not exactly sure which vowels were used to pronounce his name. Ancient Hebrew was written for centuries with only consonants. [Ths snds crzy bt w cn rd wtht vwls n nglsh s wll]. By the time helpful scribes decided to add dots and dashes to the Hebrew text to indicate the proper vowels (long after the time of Christ), pious Jews refused to pronounce God's personal name out of reverence. For that reason, when pious scribes added vowels to the name YHWH they deliberately used the wrong vowels so that no one would accidentally say God's name out loud. The vowels were intended to remind people to say "Adonai" (Lord) or "HaShem" ("the Name") in place of YHWH.

Some time ago, Bible scholars who did not understand this convention tried to pronounce God's Hebrew name by reading what they saw in the text -- the consonants YHWH, and the vowels meant to signal Adonai. The result was a nonsense word -- Yehowah, or Jehovah. Scholars since figured out their error, but not before hymns, churches, and even whole movements (like the "Jehovah's Witnesses") had employed the erroneous word. No one is absolutely sure how the consonants YHWH were to be pronounced. It might have been Yahweh. Another possibility is Yahu. We just don't know.

Exodus 3:15 (NIV)
Photo: C. Imes
Since the pronunciation is uncertain, most English translations have chosen to render the Tetragrammaton with four uppercase letters in English: LORD. Whenever you see that in your Bible, you can be sure that the Hebrew behind it is God's personal name, YHWH. If you see "Lord," then it's translating the Hebrew title that means "lord" or "master": Adonai.

So, did the NIV "remove" the word Jehovah from the Bible? Not exactly. They just chose to represent the Hebrew name YHWH in a different way. In my next post, I'll tackle the other part of this accusation -- that the NIV removed dozens of verses from the Bible.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

does the new NIV distort the Scriptures? - part 3

In the first post in this series, I suggested that English translations need to be updated occasionally because some passages become ambiguous or misleading as the English language changes. In my second post, I gave an example from Psalm 1.

Today I'd like to approach the language question from another angle. Because not only does the English language change, but ancient languages change, too.


Since the King James Version was first translated, whole libraries of ancient texts have been unearthed from the time of the Bible. In the past 100 years, "new" ancient languages have even been discovered! These texts are written in Akkadian, Ugaritic, Hittite, Phoenician, and other languages closely related to Hebrew. They are helping scholars understand the Bible better than ever before.

In the past, translators have often had to guess at the meanings of Hebrew words that occur only once or cultural concepts that seemed obscure. Sometimes they still do. But ironically, we understand the ancient world better now than ever before, thanks to these discoveries and the scholars who have devoted their lives to pouring over them. Hebrew dictionaries are getting better all the time. Now translators can compare with other texts and in some cases the meaning of a biblical term or concept becomes clear.

If you notice a significant change in a newer translation, there is a good possibility that this is why. Ancient copies of the Bible didn't come with a glossary attached. Translators have to work hard to understand the sense of a Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek word and then search for a good way to say it in English.

Occasionally, a discovery will impact a passage that is known and loved by so many people that the translators are in a tough spot. Should they use what they now know of ancient languages to offer a better translation? Or will "changing" this verse make people suspicious of the new translation because it is different from what they know? Call this "pastoral concern" or call this "politics" or call this "good business." The fact is that if people won't buy it and read it, the best translation in the world is useless. The committee has had to make some tough calls, because sometimes some of the best-loved verses are most resistant to revision.

Take Psalm 23 for example. Though I grew up reading the NIV, I'm old enough to still have the KJV echoing in my head.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for thou art with me . . ." (Psalm 23:4a, KJV)
The old NIV updated the English only slightly by removing "yea" and "thou." Hebrew has no special pronouns for deity, so why use them in English when we no longer talk this way?
"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me . . . " (Psalm 23:4a, NIV 1984)
But the new NIV "tampered" with something much closer to the hearts of many:
"Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me . . ." (Psalm 23:4a, NIV 2011)

What happened to "the valley of the shadow of death"?! That's the best part of the psalm!

If you look closely, you'll find that it's been moved to the footnotes, where it says, "Or the valley of the shadow of death." But the scholarship behind this shift isn't brand new. If you check the footnotes of the older NIV, you'll find that it says, "Or through the darkest valley." In other words, the translators have been aware of another way to translate this word since at least 1983. But perhaps they didn't feel we were ready for the change.

The Hebrew word behind this is צַלְמָוֶת (tsal-mavet). Can you find it in this picture of Psalm 23 from my Hebrew Bible? (hint: it's in the last line of Hebrew text, just above the number 2671.)

It's a compound word, and if you break it apart the two parts mean "shadow" and "death" respectively. But keep in mind that many compound words don't hold their meaning when you break them apart. Have you ever seen "butter" "fly"? Then you get my point.

In this case, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Septuagint, rendered the Hebrew צַלְמָוֶת as two words in Greek meaning "shadow" and "death." Perhaps their Hebrew was rusty and they didn't know this word. But now we do. According to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament צַלְמָוֶת  means "gloom," or "an impenetrable darkness." They attribute the translation "shadow of death" to "folk etymology."

(To complicate matters, The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew still considers that the word could mean "shadow of death." In other words, scholars are still working on this one. And each translation committee will have to use their best judgment.)

What grieves me about the misinformation floating around cyberspace about the NIV is that it is often based on fear rather than solid study. The good scholarly work of those who updated the NIV is rejected because people who are not trained to evaluate a translation blow the whistle. Their good intentions (protecting the Word of God) inhibit the majority from having access to the best translation possible. Do us all a favor. Don't be that whistle blower. Do your homework.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

does the new NIV distort the Scriptures? - part 2

Last week I suggested that our English translations need to be updated from time to time because as our language changes, familiar biblical passages lose their ability to communicate. Here's a real example from a recent adult Sunday school class at our church. The passage "sounded right" to me because I've heard it all my life, but to a friend the wording was very misleading in English:

We were reading Psalm 1:
"Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers." (v. 1, NIV 1984)
A well-educated and spiritually mature man across the room spoke up. "I have never understood why the righteous are not supposed to 'stand in the way of sinners,'" he said. "Why shouldn't we try to keep them from sinning? Are we just supposed to let them self-destruct?"

It took a few moments for this to sink in. Finally I got it. He was reading this line with the English idiom in mind, "stand in the way," which means to block someone from getting somewhere or doing something. The Hebrew means something else entirely. It's saying that we'll be happier of we don't hang around ("stand") on sinner's avenue ("the way of sinners"). That is, we shouldn't choose that path ourselves.

The translators of the new NIV (2011) recognized the problem and made the meaning a little more obvious:
"Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers." (v. 1, NIV 2011)
As you can see they made a few other changes as well. Is this "tampering with the word of God" as some claim? Or is it facilitating a better understanding of that Word? In my opinion the Committee on Bible Translation is doing all of us a great service. In this case they are finding a fresh way to communicate the same Hebrew text in English with potential for greater understanding.

And their work is not over. Even more recently, I was reading Psalm 1 with my sisters-in-law at our annual beach getaway. When we got to verse 5, reading from the new NIV (which is identical to the old NIV), one sister was confused:
"Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous."
"Why don't the sinners have to be judged?" She asked. I stared at the text, trying to see it from her angle. Aha! She took "stand in the judgment" as a single action (="be judged"). I assured her that the wicked would indeed be judged. When that happens, they will not be able to stand up under it. That is, they will crumble under God's wrath. (For another possible example of this kind of "standing," see Psalm 24:3.)

For the record, this translation of Psalm 1:5 is a fine rendering of the Hebrew. Next time around, though, the Committee on Bible Translation could make this more clear in English. In the meantime, I recommend comparing more than one translation any time you're confused about what a text might mean (and even when you're not! maybe you should be!). Biblegateway offers free access to the Bible in dozens of English translations.

Aside from the NIV, which I use most often, another favorite of mine is the New Living Translation. Like the NIV, the NLT was translated directly from the original languages by top evangelical scholars. It is a more "dynamic" translation. In their own words,
"the translators rendered the message more dynamically when the literal rendering was hard to understand, was misleading, or yielded archaic or foreign wording. They clarified difficult metaphors and terms to aid in the reader's understanding." (from the Introduction to the New Living Translation
Here's a look at these two verses from Psalm 1 in the NLT:
"Oh, the joys of those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or stand around with sinners,or join in with mockers." (v. 1)
"They will be condemned at the time of judgment.Sinners will have no place among the godly." (v. 5)
The NLT clears up both of the questions my friends raised about Psalm 1 in the NIV, but one could argue that some of the poetic symmetry is lost (walk . . . stand . . . sit). In the end, I think English speakers are best served by using a combination of at least two translations. If you're not sure where to start, the NIV and NLT are both very good.

However, this 2-part post, long as it is, only addresses one factor in the need for new English translations—confusion with the current translation. Other factors come into play as well—factors controversial enough to make some people's blood boil. I hope to write about those in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

Friday, October 9, 2015

does the new NIV distort the Scriptures? - part 1

Have you heard that the new NIV distorts the Word of God? If so, you're in good company. Lots of people have heard this. Not having the tools to evaluate the arguments for or against a Bible translation (or lacking the time), many have decided simply to avoid any translation they've heard bad things about. And for many, that includes the NIV.

This saddens me. While someone might study the issues carefully and still conclude that the NIV is not a reliable translation (based on their own convictions), I think it's safe to say that most of those who reject it do so without understanding the issues well enough to make an informed decision.

It should not surprise you that I have an opinion on this matter. After 14 years of higher education in biblical studies, I have the tools to evaluate whether a translation is faithful to the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Of course, my training doesn't guarantee that I'm right, but I hope it puts me in a good position to evaluate the issues. So perhaps you'd permit me to address this from my perspective. (Thanks, I'll take that as a 'yes.') Whether you trust my opinion is another matter. If you do, read on.

First, the facts. The NIV was first published in 1978, representing the work of a diverse group of over 100 Christian scholars from a variety of denominations and cultural backgrounds. Quoting from the preface to the latest edition:
"The work of translating the Bible is never finished. As good as they are, English translations must be regularly updated so that they will continue to communicate accurately the meaning of God's Word. Updates are needed in order to reflect the latest developments in our understanding of the biblical world and its languages and to keep pace with changes in English usage. Recognizing, then, that the NIV would retain its ability to communicate God's Word accurately only if it were regularly updated, the original translators established The Committee on Bible Translation (CBT). The committee is a self-perpetuating group of biblical scholars charged with keeping abreast of advances in biblical scholarship and changes in English and issuing periodic updates to the NIV. CBT is an independent, self-governing body and has sole responsibility for the NIV text. The committee mirrors the original group of translators in its diverse international and denominational makeup and in its unifying commitment to the Bible as God's inspired Word."
Let's be frank. Radical liberals and people known for wacky ideology do not get invited to join evangelical groups such as the Committee on Bible Translation. No. The committee is made up of best of conservative evangelical scholarship—men and women from a variety of denominational and cultural backgrounds who have spent years pouring over the Greek and Hebrew text, serving in church ministries, and achieving tenure in reputable evangelical institutions. Though no one is perfect, these are not the people your momma warned you about. Believe me. I've read their books. Heard them teach. Sat in their living rooms and prayed with them. These are godly men and women who love the church and who actively uphold the authority of Scriptures and submit their lives to its teachings.

So, what is everybody so worried about?

In a word? Change. Change is hard, especially when it touches things we hold dear. We care deeply about the Bible. We have been warned that evil people will try to distort the Scriptures. And so we're on guard. When someone comes along and says they have an improvement on the Bible we've been reading all our lives, it's natural that we should feel defensive. But while it's a good thing to be cautious and "test" what we hear, let's put away our guns. There's no sense shooting at each other.

What's wrong with the Bible we have?

In a word, change. The English language is changing faster than ever and its spoken by people all over the world. There are more English speakers outside the United States than inside it. The growing challenge is to ensure that an English Bible translation communicates well to those from a variety of cultures and those even of our own culture with no church background.

Growing up in church, we have become accustomed to the lilt of certain phrases, but we need to become rigorously self-critical. What does this actually mean? Often, we don't know. We've just been hearing it all our lives, and so it "sounds right." More importantly, what does this communicate to someone new to the faith?

In my next post, I'll share a recent example that illustrates the need for updated Bible translations.