Grieving the NIV (ESV vs NIV2011 vol. 5)

June 25, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Posted in English Bible Translations | 14 Comments

I haven’t written about this topic for a while even though I promised to post occasional notes about it throughout this year.  I have made numerous notes of possible translation thoughts and questions in recent months, but haven’t had time to compile those.  However, I did want to write these thoughts.

I will always view the NIV(1978, 1984) as the greatest translation of my generation.  I was given a NIV New Testament in 1976 and was on the waiting list for the first edition of the entire Bible in 1978.  I have been memorizing out of it for about 28 years and preaching out of it for 25.  It has been a best seller because it captured the language of my generation.  I understand that language evolves and minor changes need to be made in translations.  I also realize that I am getting older and may be more uncomfortable with change now than I have been in the past, especially since I have become so comfortable with the NIV1984.  However, the NIV2011 is an entirely different beast.  This is not a minor edition of the same translation; it is a different translation, though based on the earlier one.  It appears that there are numerous changes on every page.  Here are my three major thoughts:

First, the translators or publishers are hiding what this translation is and using a marketing scheme that is shady at best, and downright dishonest at worst.  I addressed that issue here.

Second, it seems the NIV2011 translators have violated their own stated translation principles.  This is demonstrated in their refusal to include “selah” from the text of Psalms.  You can read my thoughts here.

Finally, I believe the NIV2011 translators have sacrificed clarity for political correctness.  This becomes most evident in their incessant use of they, them, their as singular pronouns.  I have mentioned this in other places, but have never concentrated on it in this series of articles.  It is so bothersome to me, and so prevalent in the NIV2011, that this alone causes me to look for a preaching Bible somewhere else.  The translators argue that these pronouns have become singular through common usage.  I understand that common usage determines grammar; however, when the older usage is still acceptable and offers greater clarity, one must opt, especially when dealing with scripture, for the higher clarity.  John Piper and Wayne Grudem present evidence for the common usage of masculine, singular pronouns in this article and its links.  As Piper comments about this matter, “The larger issue here is: Are the ‘programmatic changes’ worth the difficulties that the translators find themselves in when trying to bring singular Greek or Hebrew words over into English as plurals, or masculine words over into English without masculine connotations?  The price is high and linguistically unnecessary.”

I read Isaiah 26:3 in my devotions just the other day.  I am familiar with the famous KJV language here and with the ESV (which is really close to the translation I memorized it) “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.”  The NIV2011 has “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.”  On this verse a deliberate change from a singular to a plural object avoids the misuse (in my mind) of plural pronouns for singular objects, but it changes the language of the original and loses the intended punch.  Did God inspire this statement in singular for a reason?  That I don’t know, but it shouldn’t be changed without good reason.  Besides, the singular has more impact on the reader as though the verse were speaking to him; the plural lacks that punch.  (Did you notice what pronoun I used?)  The same could be said of Isaiah 32:8.  Where the NASB had “The noble man devises noble plans, and by noble plans he stands,” the NIV2011 has “The noble make noble plans, and by noble deeds they stand.”

Probably the worst example of this I’ve run across is in Mark.  “Whoever (singular) wants to be my disciple (singular) must deny themselves (plural) and take up their (plural) cross (singular) and follow me.  For whoever (singular) wants to save their (plural) life (singular) will lose it, but whoever (singular) loses their (plural) life (singular) for me and for the gospel will save it.”  Wow!  That seems like a lot of unnecessary verbal gymnastics to avoid using “he” and “his” as generic pronouns.

There are three questions that bother me.  They are harsh questions, but valid ones.  I don’t mean them to be accusatory – I do not doubt the sincerity of the translators – but the questions remain.  I wonder what else is hidden for marketing purposes.  I wonder how many other translation principles were violated.   I wonder how often clarity was sacrificed for political correctness.  These matters are serious enough in my mind to make me give up using the NIV2011 as my preaching Bible.

I am grieving as I write those words, because I have so loved the NIV.  It’s time to bury an old friend.  There are probably many more NIV fans out there who can only hope the 1984 edition is someday put back in print.


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  1. I posted this yesterday and ran across this anomaly this morning. It tickled me. In the NIV2011 Proverbs 19:19 says, “A hot-tempered person must pay the penalty; if you rescue them, you will have to do it again.” Verse 26 says, “Whoever robs their father and drives out their mother is a child who brings shame and disgrace.” You can see the use of plural pronouns for singular nouns, as is evident throughout Proverbs.
    But in between those we read verse 24, “The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he will not even bring it back to his mouth!” According to the translators of the NIV2011, only males are sluggards! Ladies, you’re off the hook on this one.
    June 30 addendum: I found the same thing again a few chapters later. Proverbs 21:25 says, “The craving of the sluggard will be the death of him, because his hands refuse to work.” Ditto the males only comment.

  2. I know very little about the processes used to make new translations and versions of The Holy Bible, but I agree that replacing singular pronouns with plural ones can obscure meaning. I think it is treating the word of God in a reckless fashion. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.


  3. Here’s an e-mail I received in response to the article:

    Hello Pastor Glenn,
    I appreciate your blog post recently on the NIV text. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment. Despite its flaws I still prefer the NIV 1984 text to anything else out there. I’ve tried for years to make the move to the ESV (which is what my pastor uses/preaches from), but it reads too clunky and archaic to me. My pastor recommends the ESV, but doesn’t disregard any of us from reading our translation of choice (as long as we are reading it).

    I’ve even tried to look past the flaws of the NIV 2011 but it doesn’t seem to be working either. So what now? Here are my options:
    1) Stick with the NIV 1984.
    2) Move to the ESV.
    3) Move to the HCSB.
    I know all the above translations are flawed in some sense. But I need ONE as my primary translation for reading, studying and memorizing. What are your thoughts or recommendations?

    Michael in Texas

  4. Michael,
    Thanks for reading and thanks for your response as well. I agree with everything you’ve said here. Choosing a Bible will be difficult for those of us who have loved the NIV but don’t like the changes they’ve introduced. Unfortunately, you’ve pretty much nailed the alternatives with those you mentioned. There are a few people sticking to the NASB (1995 edition), but it seems that it will eventually be replaced by the ESV as well. If it was just me for my reading and memorizing purposes I’d possibly opt to stick with the NIV1984, and I will continue to use that version for many things. However, as a preaching pastor, I don’t see that as a valid option, because some people want to buy and follow along in the version I use. To use the NIV1984 would confusing to those people if they have the newer version. To use the NIV2011, in my mind, would encourage support of their marketing scheme, which I mentioned in the article. Even if that weren’t a problem, the NIV2011 would be totally frustrating to use because of the pronouns.
    The HCSB hasn’t been as popular as the others. My experience with it was to read the NT and Psalm when it first came out. I was thrilled to read about their translation philosophy and thought it would be the Bible to eventually replaced the NIV. I wasn’t as thrilled after I read it. Though it is marketed as a “standard” Bible, which means it is mostly a word-for-word translation (or formal equivalence to use the technical language), I found it to be less formal equivalent than the NIV, which is often called a thought-by-though (or dynamic equivalence) translation. You can view my chart of Bible translations here:
    Though many people put the HCSB between the NIV and ESV on similar charts, I put it further away from the formal equivalence end because of some passages I compared. For instance look at Psalm 23, where the NASB, ESV, NIV, and even the KIV adjusting for old word endings, differ by only a few words, but the HCSB differs significantly more.
    My choice, therefore of the three you mention, would be the ESV. However, I too find it archaic and awkward in places. This week my message is from Job 28, where verse 22 reads “Abaddon and Death say, ‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.'” What is Abaddon? I doubt very many modern lay readers know. The NIV says more simply, “Destruction and Death say, ‘Only a rumor of it has reached our ears.'”
    You probably noticed the titles of my posts in this series have been ESV vs NIV2011. I began the year assuming that was my choice. Though not totally thrilled about it, I have opted for the ESV as the better of the two for my purposes. I’m hoping it will grow on me over time.
    I would remind my readers that the fact we have such choices in English is a blessing indeed. There are still languages in the world with no copies of God’s word and many that have only one choice.
    Thanks again for writing, and stay in the Word,

  5. Here is a passage where the use of the plural pronoun could get the NIV2011 translators into trouble. This morning I read Psalm 8, and I noticed that the pronouns in verses 3-6 are translated as “them” and “their,” but footnoted as “him” and “his.” They had to translate the passage this way to be consistent with their philosophy but added the footnotes here because this passage is specifically applied to Jesus in the book of Hebrews. I haven’t seen the NIV2011 footnote any other uses of “them” and “their” as singular pronouns. I looked up the quote of these verses in Hebrews, and this is what I found:
    “There is a place where someone has testified: ‘What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him? You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honor and put everything under their feet.’ In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (Hebrews 2:6-9 NIV2011)
    It seems awkward and inconsistent to me to translate all the pronouns with them except in the second phrase which was changed from “human beings that you care for them” in Psalms to “a son of man that you care for him” in Hebrews. The ESV and the NIV1984 both have “the son of man that you care for him” in both passages. I don’t expect OT quotes in the NT to be identical to the OT passage, because there are differences in old translations, language changes, etc. But I do expect some consistency in the philosophy of translation used; the NIV2011 fails on this account. Because this psalm is applied to Jesus, the only consistency would be using “him” and “his” throughout both passages. Piper’s comment in the article above is especially appropriate here.

  6. I have a question. I use Bible Gateway a lot. They have 4 English versions of the NIV…the 1984 version, the UK version, one referred to as simply the NIV version, and one called New International Readers Version. Is either of the last two versions I listed the NIV2011 version?

  7. Totally interesting.

  8. Theresa,
    What Bible Gateway lists as “New International Version” is the 2011 edition that I have been writing about. What they list as “New International Version 1984” is the one we’ve been reading for almost 30 years. Kudos to Gateway for recognizing these as two different translations! The UK version is British with a few minor changes to clarify matters for those from British cultures. Until you pointed it out, I didn’t know that one was available here, and I don’t know if it was changed in 2011 or not. Thanks again for reading and for your insightful comments!

    P.S. The New International Readers Version is an NIV edition that uses a smaller vocabulary and much lower reading level for children. My daughter used it for a time when she was younger. It follows the NIV1984, whenever possible, but makes changes when the translators thought the wording or vocabulary older than their young target audience. Seems from what little I know to be a useful translation for the purpose it was made.

  9. The NIRV is really nice for school age kids, it uses a smaller vocabulary so it is easily understandable. It was my Bible of choice when I was younger, and sometimes I still go back to it if I want clarification on a verse that I don’t understand. I really like it for that purpose, but I wouldn’t use it as my study/reading Bible.

  10. I have a little different perspective. I think the NIV, like many other modern versions, is trying to translate gender according to its audience. The ESV, for example, includes the following footnote for “brothers” throughout the New Testament:

    “Or brothers and sisters. The plural Greek word adelphoi (translated “brothers”) refers to siblings in a family. In New Testament usage, depending on the context, adelphoi may refer either to men or to both men and women who are siblings (brothers and sisters) in God’s family, the church.”

    The ESV folks consider “brothers and sisters” as a viable translation option, so what’s the problem with moving it out of the footnotes and into the text for clarity? The NLT uses “brothers and sisters” but doesn’t seem to get many complaints, maybe because it’s perceived as less literal than the NIV is supposed to be – Maybe it’s not expected to be as “accurate” as the NIV.

    The NIV 2011 may have moved a little toward the paraphrase end of the Bible version continuum, but it remains a legitimate translation, in my opinion. I also think that we live in a day of too many resources to be bothered by these translation issues. Even with basic internet access one can read from paralel versions on sites such as biblegateway. I recommend people have a reading Bible somewhere in the middle, but also study something more literal and something more paraphrased than their reading Bible. NASB, NIV2011 and CEV or GW make a pretty decent combination – again, INHO!

  11. John,
    Thanks for reading and for your input. I agree with most everything you’ve said here. However, I think you missed the point I was making. I have no problem with a translator using “brothers and sisters” for adelphoi. That is perfectly valid; never once in the article or following comments do I complain about that. My complaint is when the translators opted to use a traditionally plural pronoun for singular subjects in the text. That is a concession the Greek text doesn’t allow for, and it is not necessary in English, even though the NIV translators seem to believe that it is.
    Keep reading the Word!

  12. I realise I’m a little late to this party, but as a bookseller, have a vested interest in this sort of thing, and noticed a few things that are worth adding.

    Firstly, what bible gateway identify as the British NIV is, infact the 2011 edition, not 1984. Hodder and Stoughton, the UK publisher did produce a British edition based on the 1984 edition, but like Zondervan, have completely replaced this with the 2011 edition.

    As for the NIrV, based on the 1984 NIV, it is still in print and available. However, it should be added that many of the “inclusive language” changes which made there way into the NIV(I) TNIV and NIV 2011 started in the NIrV. If you are looking at an NIrV as a replacement to the NIV 2011 over gender neutral choices, you will be disappointed. It’s an improvement, but not by much.

    As for the Abaddon passage, I believe that this is not so much an archaism, but one of those instances where the ESV translators have tried to leave ambiguity in the text. Is Abaddon here (a Hebrew word which also appears in the NT) there simply as a word for destruction, or as the propername for the angel NAMED Appolyon or Abaddon and an allusion to his appearance in Revelation. Additionally, Abbadon, in Hebrew tradition is also one of the places where the damned lay, a place of fire and snow, said to have been visited by Moses.

    All of this is missing if you simply translate the word as destruction, but is present if you transliterate it.

    Certainly, that they speak implies that “death and destruction” are characters, not just words, and that treating it as a propername, or leaving that interpretation open. is the right thing to do, given the ESV translators remit. There is more here than simply the word “destruction” alone would imply, so I think it’s a fair translation (though I would have preferred it to be footnoted as “Hebrew: destruction”

  13. Luke,
    Thanks for your input. As a bookseller, I wonder if you agree with my assessment that the publishers refusal to call the NIV2011 something other than simply the NIV is a marketing scheme based on the failure of the TNIV. In my brief observations, it seems that the NIV2011 is much closer to the TNIV than it is to the NIV1984. And I believe the variances from the NIV1984 are significant enough to demand a title other than simply NIV. I have written about that in the first link above.
    Blessings and thanks for reading.

  14. P.S. to Luke.
    In response to your view of ESV using Abaddon, why then did the translators use Death for the second word rather than the Hebrew there? That seems inconsistent. It is easy to see that the concepts, whatever they are called, have been personified because they are speaking. Thus using Destruction is still preferred in my view.

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