At some point during the month of March, Biblica publishers will be filling the shelves of bookstores everywhere with a much-anticipated work. After 27 years, the NIV Bible is getting a face-lift…er, a word-lift.

The publishers of the NIV are releasing an updated version of today’s most popular English Bible. This is not the first time the NIV publishers have done this; but earlier attempts were not well-received.

Previously, the makers of the original NIV version (1984) published a would-be replacement in 2002: the extremely controversial TNIV (Today’s New International Version). In terms of its controversy, most notably, the TNIV contained gender-neutral language.

For instance, the TNIV version of Hebrews 2:17 states, “For this reason He [Jesus] had to be made like His brothers and sisters in every way in order that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest.” Take my word for it, the Greek does not say “and sisters.” Such an irresponsible translation leaves the door open for our sexually confused culture to think of Jesus as an androgynous transsexual. In the incarnation Jesus did become like His brothers, but He did not become like His sister, too. While the TNIV was well-received by many in liberal Christianity, conservatives were quick to distance themselves from this version and its alarming changes.

As best I can tell, the TNIV was so poorly received the publishers have now decided to make this new NIV (does that make it a “new New” version”?) a compromise between the original NIV and the TNIV. It will, as I understand it, simply be called the NIV. Furthermore, the TNIV is being phased out of publication altogether (Praise the Lord!) In this updated work, some of the gender-neutral language of the TNIV has been retained, while the more extreme instances have been toned down.

The text of this new work has been available online since November 2010. Having glanced at it, I, stil, have some concerns about this revised NIV. Frankly, if I have to choose, I much more prefer the original NIV to any of its successors. I am not saying “Don’t buy a copy of the revised NIV”, but I do feel the need to caution you about what you may find inside. For those that read the NIV, the 2011 one will not be the same as the 1984 one you are used to. Nevertheless, the release of this updated NIV once again raises the important issue of Bible translations.

For years I made a faulty assumption when I shopped for Bibles. I assumed, as do many people today, that virtually all Bible translations are reliable in terms of their accuracy of the Hebrew and Greek. I also assumed that some of these versions were advantageous because they happened to be more readable. I soon discovered that this was not the case. Not all Bible translations are created equal.

The differences that we find in Bible translations are not merely an issue of readability. They also include issues of reliability and accuracy. In fact, the core difference is not so much found in the translations themselves; rather, it is found in the different translation theories behind the versions. Let me explain what I mean.

 

Essentially Literal Translation Theory

Until the mid-1900’s, English Bible translators had but one goal in mind:translate the original Greek and Hebrew as accurately as possible into English. This is why William Tyndale, in 1526, even created new English words like intercession and atonement, to convey a clearer understanding of the original.

When the KJV was later published, not only was there an effort to accurately translate the words, but the translators even sought to retain the original word order. (Hence, we get such awkward-to-the-modern-ear KJV verses like Luke 9:17, “And they did eat, and were all filled: and there was taken up of fragments that remained to them twelve baskets.”) In addition, anywhere that words were added to smooth out the stilted reading, the translators made this clear by printing these clarifiers in italics.

This essentially literal approach has given birth to such versions as the KJV, NKJV, NASB (which I use), and more recently the HCSB and ESV.

 

Dynamic Equivalent Translation Theory

However, in the mid-1900’s, a new translation theory was introduced into the world of English Bible translations. This is known as dynamic equivalence. In laymen’s terms, the essentially literal versions (again, the KJV, NASB, ESV) are often called “word for word” translations; while the dynamic equivalent ones (NIV, NLT, GNB) are called “thought for thought” translations.

The original intention of these “thought for thought” works was for use on the mission field among people groups who did not have a fully-developed grammar or, in some cases, even an alphabet. In that context, “thought for thought” translations are invaluable. However, the English language DOES have an alphabet and a well-developed grammar system.

The bottom-line assumption is that the “word for word” theory of translation emphasizes the text of Scripture, while the “thought for thought” theory of translation emphasizes the reader of Scripture. I am not trying to make this a “good vs. evil” comparison. Both theories have their merits, but inherently, the “thought for thought” approach does have its drawbacks in terms of precision and accuracy of the original. Dynamic equivalent translations, while extremely readable and accurate in many places, do run the risk of obscuring some portions of Scripture.

 

Paraphrased Approach

In the late 1900’s an even further development came about in the world of translation theory. This was the publication of numerous paraphrased versions. These versions, such as The Message and The Living Bible, make no apologies for ignoring the tedious work of actual translation. Most such paraphrases just start with an English version.

This approach has given rise to some ridiculous versions like The Street Bible (also called The Word on the Street). I am not one for burning books, but there are some books, in my opinion, that should be ignored and The Street Bible is one of them.

Why do I share all of this? I want you to be informed the next time you buy a Bible or pick one up to read. If readability is most important, a “thought for thought” translation will be more helpful. If accuracy and reliability is more important, a “word for word” translation will work best. Just remember, not all Bible translations are created equal. It is important to know the differences.

My Personal Recommendations

In the end, my personal recommendations about Bible translations are as follows.

  • Paraphrased versions like The Message, The Living Bible, and the NT in Modern English (J.B. Phillips) should be used with their end in mind, they are just a vague summary of what the original says. They are not evil, corruptions – they serve the same purpose that a children’s story book Bible do. They are intended to generally get the main idea across in a memorable, simple way.

 

  • The dynamic equivalent, or “thought for thought” translations, such as the NIV, New International Reader’s Version (NIrV), and the New Living Translation (NLT) can be great for kids, teenagers, ESL readers, and for leisurely, devotional reading. They can be use for teaching – but, the preparation (for Bible teaching) is best done from a more literal translation.

 

  • The essentially literal, or “word for word” translations, such as the KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, and HCSB are best for careful Bible study, Bible teaching and preaching, and for formulating precise understanding of doctrine and theology.