The New NIV: What Kinds of Changes Were Made?


New NIV 2011 replaces 1984 version

There is a big sale on NIV Bibles these days. Well, not all of NIV Bibles are on clearance: just the 1984 editions. Zondervan has released an updated version of the NIV and it is going to replace the original, 1984 version. I had not seen one of these 2011 NIV Bibles until I recently received one of them as a birthday present, which explains why I am about a year behind the curve in commenting on it. But Bible translation is an extremely important matter for the church, and it is especially important when a publisher removes one of the American church’s favorite Bibles from shelves in favor of a controversial revision. The controversy comes from some conservative groups that have complained about gender neutral language and translations of verses that afford woman a higher place in ministry than they are comfortable with. I will address the controversy in a follow up article. Most of the significant changes the new NIV has made are worthy of applause, and this article will comment on those changes.

The NIV Bible was published in 1984, and it quickly became one of the most popular translations in the English speaking world. At the turn of the century, however, the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), which is responsible for the translation of the NIV, was commissioned to modernize the text to include gender neutral language. The result was the TNIV, which debuted in 2005. This Bible was severely criticized for departing from the original wording of the text to include women in places where the original authors made no mention of them. So widespread was the criticism that the TNIV never became popular and it was soon forgotten by most Bible readers.

But Zondervan did not give up on their effort to modernize the language of the NIV and make corrections to unfortunate or misleading readings in some of their translations. So they commissioned the CBT to make revisions to the NIV, which amounted to revisions to the TNIV,[1] in order to render the Bible into more contemporary language. They replaced the most offensive and controversial gender neutral language in the TNIV, and improved on a number of readings from the 1984 NIV, rendering them more accurate. Focusing on these more accurate readings, I will discuss three key changes in the new NIV that I think will interest most readers: a problem with the flesh, calling Jesus the messiah, and including women in ministry roles.

“Flesh”-ing out an important change

As a college Bible teacher who uses the NIV as my primary translation, it is incumbent on me to warn my students about misleading renderings in the NIV, in order to secure them in the truth of what the original authors intended to communicate. I have a short list of primary complaints about the translation of certain verses in the NIV, so when I started looking at the changes in my new NIV I was pleased to see most of my complaints addressed and corrected in the new translation. It was so thorough, if I had not known better, I would have thought that someone had sent my list of recommended changes to the committee. Of course, I also found some places where I did not agree with the new NIV reading, but these were greatly outweighed by the improvements in the text. None of these improvements satisfied me more than correcting the poor translation of sarx, which the original NIV usually rendered as “sinful nature.” The new NIV correctly translates it, most of the time, as “flesh.”

The translation of sarx proved to be one of the most difficult tasks the CBT had. Douglas Moo, who is chairman of the CBT, confesses that he originally criticized the NIV rendering of this word when he was teaching Romans as a professor. But in the late 1990s, when he was asked to join the committee to recommend changes to the 1984 NIV, he gained an understanding of why the NIV decided to avoid “flesh” as a translation.[2] They understood that most readers associated flesh with either the skin on their body or with sexual sin, and Paul’s use of the term in most places was far from either of those ideas. As a result, Moo drew back on his criticism of the translation “sinful nature” and the committee opted at that time to retain its translation of sarx as “sinful nature.” But when changes were being made for the new NIV, the CBT saw the potential for “sinful nature” to mislead the reader, so they opted to make the change to “flesh,” which is done in most, but sadly not all, places. Craig Blomberg explains why the CBT made the change:

Through my seminary studies . . . I came to learn that it wasn’t as though Christians had two compartments to them, one in which the Spirit resided and one in which the flesh resided, so that one could speak of their spiritual and their sinful natures. The Spirit always indwells us, and sometimes fills us, but when he doesn’t it is because we are not fully yielded to him. Thus the flesh, as the common Scriptural opposite, is most naturally likewise understood as a power to which we can yield, to varying degrees.[3]

The problems I had with “sinful nature” as a translation included the misconception Blomberg referred to, but it went further than that. I also have a theological dispute with “sinful nature” as an accurate description of original sin, but I will hold off on discussing that here. I will provide a full explanation of my understanding of Paul’s use of sarx in a future article in my Romans series that you can find on my blog page. But on the level of translation philosophy it is difficult to support the old NIV rendering. The word sarx in Greek simply means “flesh,” and its range of meanings is strikingly similar to the range of our English word, “flesh.” There are not a great many words in the English language that are as closely parallel to the Greek “equivalent” as “flesh” is to “sarx.” When faced with a difficult translation decision, the rule of thumb should be to stick with the more literal translation that involves the least amount of interpretation. When in doubt, let the reader figure it out. In the case of sarx, the NIV went with a controversial translation that involved more interpretation than was necessary. Thankfully, the new NIV has fixed this problem.

Is Jesus the messiah or the Christ?

The CBT also addressed a significant problem that involves not merely translating from Greek to English, but also deals with the first century translation of a key word from Hebrew (or Aramaic) to Greek. The Hebrew word meshiach, is translated into Greek as Christos. Both words mean “anointed one,” a reference to the messiah. But early English translators, instead of translating Christos as “messiah” or “anointed one”, chose to transliterate it instead as Christ. Modern translations have followed suit, arguing that people in the ancient Greek world would have had no idea what a messiah was. Since the concept was new to them, it afforded a new word to describe it, so we also get a new word in English, Christ, to refer to God’s messiah.

Problem is, the word is translated “Christ” even in settings that are completely Jewish, where the people speaking and hearing the word would have had no idea what a Christ is. The new NIV has attempted to fix this incongruity by translating Christos as “messiah” whenever a Jew is speaking to other Jews.[4]

One apparent exception is in Mark 1:1, which is written to an audience that includes Gentiles. But the change here is warranted, clearing up a common misunderstanding among English readers. The 1984 NIV reads: “the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” To an undiscerning reader, it sounds like Christ is Jesus’ last name, and that is precisely what a lot of Christians seem to think.[5] Even if one knows Christ is not his last name, the tendency is to think it is just the common appendage to his name, much like M.D. comes after the names of some doctors. Much to the contrary, Mark reveals the structure and purpose of his Gospel in this simple opening phrase. Understanding that Christ is a reference to Jesus as the messiah, Mark tells the reader that he is going to identify Jesus first as messiah, which reaches its climax in the middle of the Gospel at Peter’s confession (Mk 8:29), and second as the Son of God, climaxed by the declaration of the centurion when Jesus is on the cross (Mk 15:39). The new NIV makes Mark’s thesis statement in 1:1 much easier to recognize.

One place where I believe the new NIV missed an opportunity is in John 17:3. There Jesus prays to the Father: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” I suppose the CBT decided the Father was not Jewish, so they did not change “Christ” to “messiah,” but I think it is clear that in this context the idea of messiah is more appropriate, and there can be no doubt that Jesus, the Father, and the disciples all understood the concept of messiah. By failing to make this change the new NIV obscures an example of Jesus referring to himself as the messiah. There is much dispute in New Testament scholarship over how Jesus understood himself and his self-references are very important. But in John 17:3, instead of readers seeing Jesus speak to the Father with an understanding that he is the messiah, we have another instance where the reader is left thinking that Christ is Jesus’ last name, and here on the lips of Jesus himself, as if he had to state his full name to his own Father.

Women in ministry roles

The subject of women in ministry, as we shall see in my next article on the new NIV, is the locus of much controversy. Some of the verses I mention here are the subject of criticism directed toward the CBD by some conservative groups with a low view of women in ministry. I will address this controversy in my next article on the new NIV. Here I will restrict myself to examples where the new NIV has shed some of its male-dominant attire to render more accurate translations of the text.

There are two vivid examples in Romans 16 where the 1984 NIV rendered terms referring to women poorly, reducing them from ministers to friends of ministers. First is Phoebe, who, in Rom 16:1, is called a “servant of the church in Cenchrea” in the 1984 NIV, but she is promoted to “deacon” in the new NIV. Commentators have argued for decades over whether Phoebe should be considered an official minister of the church or just a lay worker, helping out where needed. In this case being a courier, bringing Paul’s letter to the Roman church.

The word at issue is diakonos, which can mean “servant” or “deacon.” James Dunn pointed out in 1988 that if Paul merely thought of Phoebe as a courier or servant, he would have used the verb form (as in 15:35) or the feminine form of the noun (diakonia).[6] Moreover, when diakonos is used with the verb “to be” (ousa), as it is here, it refers to a recognized position in the ministry of the church.[7] Dunn goes on to say, “Phoebe is the first recorded ‘deacon’ in the history of Christianity.”[8] In addition to that, her role in delivering Romans requires her to have an official position of leadership. Epistles sent to recipients as a group in the ancient world were read aloud to the group for a very practical reason; most of them could not read. It is estimated that only 10%-20% of people in the Greco-Roman world of Paul knew how to read. After reading the letter to the people, Phoebe would be expected to field questions about what she just read. She had to possess a thorough knowledge of the contents of Paul’s letter and the recognized authority for her interpretations to be accepted by the community. Keeping these things in mind, it is decidedly difficult to maintain Phoebe as merely a servant in the church. Recognizing this, the new NIV makes the appropriate change to reflect her status as a deacon.

Six verses later Paul says something more controversial. He identifies Junia as an apostle (Rom 16:7). The NIV, along with many other translations, solved this uncomfortable situation by adding an “s” to her name, making her a man. Problem is, there is no record in the ancient Greco-Roman world that a masculine name, Junias, existed. It seems to be an invention of English translators in a male dominated society. But there are well over 100 examples of the feminine name, Junia. The evidence is overwhelming: Junia is a woman. Most likely, Andronicus, who is named with her, is her husband, making them an apostolic couple.

In the controversy over women in ministry, the argument shifts away from claiming Junia to be a man; that is no longer a tenable argument. So those opposed to the idea of Junia being an apostle usually go in one of two directions. Either they claim “apostle” is used in the more general sense of a messenger, or they interpret the verse to say she and her husband were known by the apostles, rather than being known as apostles. regardless of whether either of these interpretations is correct, it is now certain that the verse should read Junia, not Junias. The new NIV got it right.

In 1 Tim 3:11 Paul, in giving qualifications for overseers and deacons, mentions women (gunekai). Some believe this refers to deaconesses, others that it refers to the wives of deacons. The original NIV had “wives,” which excluded the possibility of female deacons in this verse. The new NIV uses “the women,” a word that leaves both possibilities open, allowing the reader to interpret and determine who these women are. This is the way good translation works. The evidence leans toward these women being wives of deacons, but it is not conclusive, so a good translation, when it is able, should render the verse in a way that allows both interpretations.

This brings us to a highly controversial verse from the previous chapter of the same book: 1 Tim 2:12. The original NIV said: “I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.” The new NIV changes “have” to “assume.” In doing so the new NIV has come under heavy attack from people who call themselves complementarians, denying that a woman is allowed to teach men. But many others, including those who are called egalitarians, believe that Paul is not restricting all women from teaching, just those who “usurp” their way into the role. The CBT wanted to use a word that,  like “the women” in 3:11, allows for either interpretation. They saw “have” as a word that settles the case for those who deny any woman the right to teach men. Interestingly, the KJV uses the word, “Usurp,” which clearly points in favor of the egalitarian interpretation. So the new NIV has a word that is in the middle, allowing either interpretation.

That is not how the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood sees it, though, and the Southern Baptist Convention agrees. They refuse to endorse the new NIV and have asked their pastors not to use it in the pulpit. They have even gone as far as to request Lifeway Bookstores not to carry the translation. Since Zondervan has ceased production of the 1984 NIV, this means most Baptists will not find any NIV Bibles in the bookstores they frequent the most. What has the Baptists up in arms so much that they take this firm a stance against a conservative Bible translation? I will explain that and give an assessment of the controversy in my next blog on the new NIV.


[1] According to Robert Slowey (“NIV2011 Comparison with NIV1984 and TNIV, web page,” http://www.slowley.com/niv2011_comparison/, last updated September 12, 2011, last accessed October 13, 2012), 92% of the verses in the new NIV are identical to the wording of the TNIV, while only 61% are identical to the 1984 NIV. Among verses where the new NIV agrees with one prior version against the thr, Slowey says the new NIV agrees with the TNIV against the 1984 NIV 31% of the time, but it agrees with the 1984 NIV against the TNIV in less than 1% of verses. This is strong enough evidence to say with confidence that the new NIV is a revision of the TNIV, not the 1984 NIV, despite claims to the contrary from the CBT and Zondervan.

[2] Moo tells his story briefly in Romans, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2000), 253.

[3] Collin Hansen, Perspectives in Translation, blog in Bible Gateway, Feb 28, 2011. http://www.biblegateway.com/perspectives-in-translation/, last accessed Oct 12, 2012.

[4] Places where the new NIV smartly changes “Christ” to “messiah” include Mat 1:16; 16:16; 22:42; Mk 8:29; 14:61; Lk 9:20; Jn 20:31; Acts 2:36; 5:42; 9:22; 17:3; 18:28; 26:23; Rom 9:5; Rev 11:15.

[5] The lack of a comma after “Jesus” contributes to this misunderstanding.

[6] See James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, Word Biblical Commentary, vol 38b, David A Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, eds. (Waco: Word, 1988), 886, where he criticizes the NIV translation of the word.

[7] Ibid., 886-87. Dunn also states that this is the majority position of commentators.

[8] Ibid., 887.

3 comments on “The New NIV: What Kinds of Changes Were Made?

  1. Theresa Asereht says:

    I cannot find the name of the author of these articles?

    • Sorry for not posting my name on the main page. I do not like when others do this, and now I am guilty. My name is Steve Alt and I have added my name to the subtitle of the blog page. Thanks for pointing out this omission.

      • Theresa Asereht says:

        Thanks, Steve, I thought that was you but wasn’t sure…..I really like the articles…
        theresa walker jsbc 91

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