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!


  1. Carmen, Thanks for your review and for using real life examples of how someone might struggle with understanding a text. I'm glad that there is a group of scholars committed to God's Word as revealed truth who are working to make the Bible understandable to all. I appreciate your encouragement for people to compare a couple translations to help in their understanding. This is important for all to remember. Looking forward to your future posts. P.T.

  2. I am enjoying your input on this subject. I put aside the NIV after two decades due to the incessant rumor mill surrounding the 2011 release. I am glad to know that my fears may not have been very well founded. Having said that, there is one concern I still maintain - but it is not regarding the general accuracy of the NIV or the integrity of its translators. The Bible needs to be accessible, yes. 100% agreed. What worries me is what appears to be the confusion between "accessible" and "pedestrian." I began reading the Bible voraciously at 19 years of age. I am 44 now, and credit the Bible as the primary vehicle God used to enhance my literacy and deepen my appreciation/use of language. I bless the Lord for using His word to challenge my mind, which in turn deepened my understanding and my inward grasp of the depth and richness of His communication. Advising that I refrain from "walking in the counsel of the wicked" carries profounder implications than "not walking in step" with them. The latter teaches me to simply avoid doing what they do. The former teaches me to be careful about how I hear and how I consider what they propose as wisdom, advice, or direction. Your articles are helping me put to rest any fears that the NIV is intentionally subverting the scriptures. But I remain concerned that it might be keeping pace with our propensity to define anything provoking earnestness or effort in our approach as a barrier. Does creating a path of least resistance in our reading of the scriptures create a path of least resistance in our application of them? Just a thought.

  3. Thanks for your comment! I'm glad this series has been helpful for you in dispelling some of the myths surrounding the NIV, and I appreciate your thoughtful concern. You've put your finger on something significant — the pervasive influence of the King James Version on the English language. A recent book by Alister McGrath entitled "In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture" demonstrates this admirably well. Surprisingly, the KJV continues to be the best selling Bible version and the most widely read, in spite of its increasingly archaic language. It is indeed well loved, and it has no doubt improved the diction of those who read it.

    The irony of this is that when the KJV was first translated, the goal was to communicate in common parlance, not in an elevated style. It sounds especially eloquent to us in large part because the English language has changed since the KJV was produced. The NIV translators are operating under the same principle as the KJV translators: to communicate the Word of God in a language people can understand. The original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts do not exhibit an "elevated" style compared to other literature of their day.

    While you may be right that in the case of Psalm 1:1 a certain "earnestness" is lost in the NIV, I suspect we could find multiple other examples where the opposite could be demonstrated. In other words, I don't believe there is a thorough attempt to eliminate the appearance of human effort, only a concern for transparency in translation. I'm convinced that for the vast majority of English speakers, reading the NIV regularly would enhance their literacy.