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NIV gets in more beer, but dumps aliens in latest revisions to best-selling Bible translation

21 July 2017


Chosen: the panel are introduced at St Andrew’s, Cambridge

Chosen: the panel are introduced at St Andrew’s, Cambridge

“A LOT more beer.” This is one of the changes to the New International Version announced by its Committee on Bible Translation, last month, as members met in Cambridge for their annual review summit.

The discovery of the residue of fermented beverages in ancient jars is just one example of progress in scholarship which is occasioning revision of the NIV. But it is not always scholars who prompt a re-evaluation of the text. The teenage children of members of the panel are a source of questions. As a result of their comments, it was decided recently to replace the “thong” of the sandals in John 1.27 with “straps”.

The NIV, which dates from 1978 and is published by Hodder & Stoughton, is the most widely read Bible translation in contemporary English. There are more than 400 million in print. The committee is part of its “DNA”, the chairman, Dr Douglas Moo — who is also Wessner Chair of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College, Illinois — explained during a question-and-answer session at St Andrew the Great. Notes published to accompany the last edition, published in 2011, describe it as a “built-in mechanism to defy the attritional effects of time”.

The process is “deliberately conservative”, Dr Moo explained: a change was only made if 70 per cent of the members agreed. Seven of his colleagues were present to give examples of such changes, and explain how they came to be.

The philosophy behind the translation is “the best possible blend of transparency to the original documents and comprehension of the original meaning”, according to notes provided with the latest edition, which argue that this was also the approach adopted by the translators of the Authorised Version.

Some changes simply reflect shifts in the English language. The word “alien” — now taken by many to mean “extra-terrestrial being” — was replaced by “foreigner”. Other changes reflect progress in biblical scholarship; for example, those crucified on either side of Jesus are now “rebels” rather than “robbers”.

Other changes have a significant bearing on meaning; some relate to contested passages. In 2011, the term “deacon” was used to describe Phoebe in Romans 16, with a footnote explaining that “deacon refers to a Christian designated to serve with the overseers/elders of the church in a variety of ways”. This footnote took hours to craft, Dr Craig Blomberg, Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, said. Yet people of different theological persuasions had complained that the committee was “with the other side”.

Another change in 2011 was to 1 Timothy 2.12, which now reads: “I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man.” In 1984, the wording was “exercise authority”; the Authorised Version uses the verb “usurp”. Accompanying notes argue that “assume” is “a particularly nice English rendering because it leaves the question open, as it must be unless we discover new, more conclusive evidence”.

During the question-and-answer session, the committee was asked whether it had a “Reformed theological bias”, given the frequent use of the word “chosen”. It was denied by Dr Moo, who said that members came from different theological viewpoints. The committee has 15 members, of whom three are women, and two are from India; nine are based in the United States, and the Baptists have the most representatives.

The diversity of the panel was “something we are constantly looking at,” Dr Moo said. A challenge was that all members must have English as a first language.

While many of the submissions that the committee considers come from its own members, or scholars, anyone can write in with questions or suggestions. Dr Moo described how learning that someone had “stumbled” over certain passages was “very valuable. . . The more people who are reading it carefully and critically the better we are going to make it.”

Asked whether they saw their work as part of a “grand scheme of divine inspiration”, Dr David Instone-Brewer, Senior Research Fellow in Rabbinics and the New Testament at Tyndale House, said that the committee always began with prayer. He described the experience of an “‘Aha’ moment, when you say ‘That is what God would say if he was speaking in English.’. . . He manages to mould us as a committee and get past all of our weaknesses.”

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