Sunday, August 7, 2011

The 2011 Revision of the NIV

In 2009 the organization that owns the copyright of the New International Version, the International Bible Society, changed its name to Biblica; 1 and in September of that year it announced that yet another revision of the NIV was in the works. The revised edition appeared online at and in November 2010, and the printed edition was issued in March of 2011. This was the third revision of the NIV to be published in the space of fifteen years, but it appeared under the name New International Version without any identifying edition number or other special designation. An examination of the text reveals that this new 2011 edition of the NIV is actually a minor revision of the TNIV, the gender-neutralizing revision of the NIV that was published in 2005. 2 It has been reported that the Zondervan corporation (which has exclusive rights to publish the NIV, through an arrangement with Biblica) has moved to suppress the 1984 text, by informing other publishers that it will not allow them to use the text of the 1984 NIV in printed materials after 2012. 3
The Preface of the revised edition explains that “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.” This however is nothing but a piece of publisher’s boilerplate, found in all prefaces, and it is somewhat misleading, because there is little or nothing in the NIV revision prompted by “latest developments in our understanding of the biblical world and its languages.” The changes that stem from different exegetical decisions are not really “updates.” The revision simply reflects in some places a shift in the balance of opinion among the current committee members, about options of interpretation which have been pondered by many generations of scholars. In many cases it is not even a shift in opinion about the meaning, but merely a different opinion about what nuances are important enough to require expression in the version. Such changes in the balance of opinion on the NIV committee have little importance in the scheme of things, and there is no reason to think that they must represent an improvement or advance in knowledge.
The explanation offered for the “updates” is also misleading in that it does not mention the real political and financial considerations that have caused the NIV committee to make three revisions within the past fifteen years. The considerations that set in motion this series of revisions are, however, indicated in a document that set forth a new “Policy on Gender-Inclusive Language” adopted by the committee in 1992. The document contains these paragraphs:
C. Authors of Biblical books, even while writing Scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit, unconsciously reflected in many ways, the particular cultures in which they wrote. Hence in the manner in which they articulate the Word of God, they sometimes offend modern sensibilities. At such times, translators can and may use non-offending renderings so as not to hinder the message of the Spirit.
D. The patriarchalism (like other social patterns) of the ancient cultures in which the Biblical books were composed is pervasively reflected in forms of expression that appear, in the modern context, to deny the common human dignity of all hearers and readers. For these forms, alternative modes of expression can and may be used, though care must be taken not to distort the intent of the original text.
The same committee wrote, in the Preface to the 1996 revision published in Great Britain, that they believed “it was often appropriate to mute the patriarchalism of the culture of the biblical writers through gender-inclusive language when this could be done without compromising the message of the Spirit” (p. vii)
These statements represent a very controversial position in the realm of translation theory, and, as such, they deserve a full discussion. But I have treated the issue thoroughly in another place, 4 and so we will move on.
It is surely no coincidence that this position was adopted by the NIV committee less than two years after the publication of the New Revised Standard Version (1990), which gender-neutralized the language of the RSV, for the same reasons. The NIV committee members were simply following the lead of the NRSV committee. But because the NIV was being used by a more conservative constituency, a strong reaction arose against the NIV revision of 1996, which led to some discussions with conservative ministry leaders in America. In order to quell the controversy, which threatened to depress sales of the New International Version, representatives of the International Bible Society (IBS) then agreed to refrain from publishing the revision, or anything like it, in America. But shortly afterwards they did publish a similar revision in America, under the name Today’s New International Version, while giving assurances that the new revision would not replace the 1984 edition. In the marketing of the TNIV, the IBS sought to minimize controversy by claiming that the revision was not really motivated by a desire to avoid offending modern sensibilities, or by any attitude contrary to “patriarchalism.” It was claimed that their purpose was nothing other than to make the meaning of the text clear. This however was widely dismissed as an evasion, and rightly so, because the editing process which eliminated the words “man,” “father,” “son,” “brother” “his,” etc., had obviously nothing to do with any considerations about the meaning of the original words, or with any desire to make the meaning clear. It is not even credible that such arbitrary and mechanical changes would have been done by a committee of scholars, and we may assume that it was done by style editors employed by the publisher. The TNIV did not sell very well. But it seems that IBS officials were determined to make this gender-neutralizing revision sell, because after six years of TNIV failure they announced that another revision would replace the 1984 NIV—and this turned out to be just a minor revision of the TNIV, rebranded as the NIV.
In their revision of the TNIV, it seems that the committee has now looked at the gender-neutralizing changes that were made, and it has modified many of them. We see, for example, the changes in Psalm 1.
1984 NIV
2005 TNIV
2011 NIV
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. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.
Blessed are those who do not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but who delight in the law of the LORD and meditate on his law day and night. They are like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.
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, but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.
The change here was made in response to criticism of the TNIV which used this verse as an example of the loss of meaning that often happens when plurals are substituted for singulars. As I wrote in 2005, the substitution of plurals does significantly interfere with the sense here, because “the one man whose delight is in the law of the Lord is set in opposition to the many ungodly ones around him. But when the man is made to disappear into a group of genderless people, then a part of the meaning of this passage is lost.” 5 And so the revisers have made it singular again. But we also see that they still refuse to use the word “man” or any masculine pronouns, leading to the awkward substitution “that person,” and the ungrammatical use of “they” with a singular antecedent. This continues to be objectionable, because the stylistic taboo against using the word “man” forces inaccuracy and clumsiness in the translation, and it has nothing to do with making the meaning clear. It is simply a “politically correct” avoidance of masculine terms.
In June of 2011 the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) published a critique of the 2011 NIV, which describes and criticizes the gender-neutralizing alterations of the revision. The critique is carefully written, and I recommend it highly. It should be studied by those who are considering using this version. The critique rightly emphasizes the fact that the revision is designed “to water down or omit details of meaning that modern culture finds offensive.” This is the crux of the matter: the theoretical position taken by the NIV revisers, that the language of the version must be made inoffensive to the sensitivities of feminism. That is what makes the revision unacceptable.
The “Brief Response” to this critique issued by the NIV committee does not engage or even acknowledge the central issue here. It is contemptuous and evasive. It claims that “the NIV translators have never been motivated by a concern to avoid giving offense.” But this directly contradicts their own policy statement of 1992, which explicitly states that the purpose of the revision was to eliminate renderings that “offend modern sensibilities,” and it contradicts the evidence of the version itself. Again, this is what makes the NIV revision so offensive, on theoretical grounds. It not only introduces thousands of inaccuracies, it requires us to accept a very objectionable de facto rule of translation. And to make matters worse, the revisers are not even willing to talk about the rule that led to these revisions.
In my opinion there was a need for a thorough revision of the NIV. The version contains too many weak and improbable renderings that ought to have been changed long ago. For instance, there is Proverbs 21:21, which in the 1978 and 1984 editions of the NIV was translated “He who pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor.” The Hebrew here reads
רדף צדקה וחסד ימצא חיים צדקה וכבוד
It will be noticed that the first occurrence of צדקה is correctly translated “righteousness,” but the second occurrence is mysteriously translated as “prosperity.” And again in Proverbs 8:18 we find צדקה translated “prosperity.” The word צדקה does not have any such meaning, and we are left wondering how this rendering could have been preferred by the committee. 6 Yet it has persisted through four revisions of the NIV. The 2011 revision has here, “Whoever pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor.” Thus the masculine pronoun, which presented no difficulty for comprehension, has been eliminated; but the word that really needed to be changed was left untouched.
In the future I might add to this article other comments about the NIV revision that are unrelated to the “gender neutral” controversy. There are some interesting changes, some improvements, and some glaring instances of failure to make appropriate changes. But for now the focus belongs on the main purpose of the revision, which was to make the language inclusivist or gender-neutral, in imitation of the NRSV.
Michael Marlowe
July 2011

1. The organization’s website states that it has approximately 900 employees, and that its annual operating budget is approximately $70 million. (<>, accessed 30 July 2011.)
2. See the collation and analysis by Robert Slowley, “NIV2011 comparison with NIV1984 and TNIV,” published online at <>, November, 2010.
3. <>, retrieved 30 July 2011.
4. See chapter 6 of my book, Against the Theory of Dynamic Equivalence.
6. The only other versions I have found with a similar rendering are two which have been influenced by the NIV: the New Century Version, which has “success” here, and the NET Bible, which translates “bounty,” and explains in a note: “The first use of the word had the basic meaning of ‘conduct that conforms to God’s standard’; this second use may be understood as a metonymy of cause, indicating the provision or reward (‘bounty’) that comes from keeping righteousness (cf NIV ‘prosperity’; NCV ‘success’).” But this is a bit of a stretch, and the fact remains that for the word צדקה there is no attestation for a sense “prosperity, bounty, success.” And there is no need to propose such a meaning, because “righteousness” makes perfectly good sense in the context. The point is, He who pursues righteousness will acquire not only righteousness but also life and honor.



Nicholas Leone said...

You should also mention that in the new NIV they have replaced "valley of the shadow of death" with "darkest valley".

Nicholas Leone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
biblebill said...

The newest revisions are terrible reminds me of the saying "if it ain't broke don't fix it "

You people should have just let well enough alone there are all kinds of wordings that do no justice to the original meaning that the older Nivs had rendered.