Lesson 6


Last week we discussed some of the leading theories of Bible translation, and began to take a look at some translations completed in the past 50 years, namely the RSV and NASB. Today we will consider a couple descendents of the RSV (the NRSV and ESV) as well as the translation that is currently the leading seller, the NIV, and its recent offspring, the NirV, NIVI and TNIV. At the conclusion of our study today, I will offer some practical suggestions for selecting a version of the Bible for your personal use.

When studying the most recent English Bible translations, one cannot help but notice that the most significant changes in the latest versions involve gender-related language. In the past two decades, there has been increasing pressure on Bible translators to use more “gender-neutral” or “gender-inclusive” language. Today we have time only to touch on the highlights of this debate, which has been well documented in the pages of Word magazine. In short, in the process of Scripture translation, there are times when gender-neutral language is appropriate and legitimate, and there are times when such language violates the original biblical language, and thus is inappropriate and illegitimate. (For clarification of which is which, I point you to the Colorado Springs Guidelines for Translation of Gender-related Language in Scripture, May 1997) Later I will offer specific examples of legitimate, and illegitimate, gender-inclusive language, using the principles laid down in the Colorado Springs guidelines.

Before proceeding with a look at the NIV (and its progeny), NRSV, and ESV, there is one point from last week’s discussion of theories of translation that I wish to clarify, and that concerns the “dynamic equivalence” theory. It merits mentioning that this theory arose in the last century in the context of missionary translation work, i.e, translating the Bible into receptor languages which heretofore had no Scripture. The theory behind this new method of translation was developed by a linguist named Eugene Nida in the middle of the twentieth century.[1] Nida was for more than thirty years (1946-1980) the Executive Secretary of the Translations Department of the American Bible Society, and during this time he published a number of books and articles explaining and promoting the method.

(Note: the following two paragraphs, including quote of Nida, are taken verbatim from article “Against the Theory of ‘Dynamic Equivalence’” located on the Web at http://www.bible-researcher.com/dynamic-equivalence.html)

“At first the new method was not primarily concerned with English translations. It was developed as a method to be followed in translating the Bible into the tongues of primitive tribes who were at that time being reached for the first time by Christian missionaries. This missionary orientation is conspicuous in Nida’s writings on the subject. But Nida’s conception of the task of the Christian missionary was also novel, for he believed that a missionary should not be much concerned with the planting of churches.

Our communication is primarily sowing the seed, not transplanting churches. It is lighting a spark, not establishing an institution. This does not mean that the communication of the full revelation of God is unconcerned with the church; but the indigenous church we are committed to, whether in central Africa or central Kansas, is not the church we have structured, but one raised up by the spirit of God… The development of an indigenous church will always be the living response of people to the life demands of the message. The source of the information … is never more than a catalyst.

From this and other similar statements we can see that Nida was concerned with producing versions of the Bible which might be used in primitive cultures and outside the context of an established church—outside of or prior to any teaching ministry, that is. Obviously, such a version could not be one which required explanations or any introductory preparation of the readers; the versions would have to be made as simple and idiomatic as possible, because the teaching ministry of the Church was simply left out of the equation. The Bible is simply delivered into the midst of a society, in such a form that it may be immediately understood by the common people. But we notice also the phrase “whether in central Africa or central Kansas” in Nida’s paragraph above. It was not only the primitive tribes who were to receive the new versions, but all peoples everywhere. This is the attitude towards the Church and its ministry which underlies the ‘dynamic equivalence’ approach.” (underline my own)

New International Version (1978)

Recall from last week the critical reception that the RSV received from conservative Protestants, which in the extreme cases included Bible burnings and allegations of communist associations. This largely undeserved ill-reputation could not be overcome by advocates of the RSV, and so certain denominations and evangelical organizations began their own work on new Bible translations. Their goal was to produce a standard Bible for conservative Protestants. The translation that came the closest to meeting this goal is the NIV.

The groundwork for this translation was laid in the 1950s, when the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church and the National Association of Evangelicals created committees to explore the feasibility of a new translation. These committees merged in the early 1960s. In 1967 the New York Bible Society (later renamed International Bible Society) assumed financial sponsorship of the project.[2] In 1968 a full-time executive secretary, Dr. Edwin Palmer, was appointed, and the following year the Gospel of John was published, followed by the entire NT in 1973. The entire Bible was published in 1978. The Christian publishing house, Zondervan, contracted with the New York Bible Society to be the sole publisher of the new translation in the US.

An international body of scholars representing many different denominations contributed to the NIV. These included several Reformed scholars, including Dr. Palmer[3] from the CRC, faculty members from Westminster Theol. Seminary in Philadelphia representing the Orthodox Presb. Church, and Dr. Harris from Covenant Theol. Seminary in St. Louis, representing the branch of conservative American Presbyterianism now known as the Presbyterian Church in America.

As I have said several times before in this study, one can learn a great deal about a translation by reading its preface, because it is here that we find what the editors want the general reader to know about their translation. Some key features of the NIV can be gleaned from its preface:

  • The international and interdenominational aspect of the work is highlighted.
  • It claims to be a “completely new translation,” rather than a revision of a previous translation. In fact, in the preface to the NIV, no other versions are mentioned by name, and no tradition of Bible translation is referenced. I find this to be a striking contrast to virtually all previous major English Bible translations.
  • It claims to be the result of perhaps the best translation-by-committee process ever: “It may well be that no other translation has been made by a more thorough process of review and revision from committee to committee than this one.” While this claim may be true (very difficult to judge), it borders on editorial self-aggrandizement.
  • High regard for authority of Scriptures

Since 1987 the NIV has surpassed the KJV as the best selling English Bible.[4] According to Comfort in his Essential Guide to Bible Versions, “the success of the NIV is due, in part, to the fact that it struck a happy medium between the stiff and literal authorized versions and the modern, idiomatic versions.”[5] This balance is a regular marketing piece of the NIV and its progeny, the NIrV and TNIV.

NRSV (New Revised Standard Version)—1990

About the same time that the NIV was released in the 1970s, work began on a revision of the RSV. We turn again to the preface for help in understanding this project. Bruce Metzger, as chair of the revision committee, wrote that the need for issuing a revision of the RSV arose from three circumstances:

  • the acquisition of still older biblical manuscripts,
  • further investigation of linguistic features of the text, and
  • changes in preferred English usage.

The most notable change in English usage that appeared in the NRSV is the use of gender-inclusive language. The translators were given a mandate to “eliminate masculine-oriented language concerning people, so far as this could be done without distorting passages that reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture and society.”[6] The modern cause of sexual egalitarianism is a strong one indeed, and Bible translators often find themselves unable to avoid its lure.

In the interest of time, we will consider one verse (Rev 3:20) as an example of how gender-inclusive is applied in the NRSV (later we will consider the same verse in revisions of the NIV):

  • RSV: Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one (tiV in Greek) hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he (autoV) with me.
  • NRSV: Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.

(Comment on “Colorado Springs Guidelines for Translation of Gender-Related Language in Scripture”: see A.6. for comment on tiV, and A.1. for translation of 3rd person masculine singular pronoun.)

NIrV (New International Reader’s Version) –1996
NIVI (New International Version: Inclusive Language Edition) –1996

In the early 1990s Zondervan began work on a simplified version with a reading level of 3rd grade that was intended as a stepping stone to the NIV. The preface to this version states that it is intended for children or adults whose first language is not English.

Meanwhile, in Great Britan, largely due to increasing sales of the NRSV, there was pressure from the British publisher of the NIV, Hodder & Stoughton, to produce a gender-inclusive revision of the NIV. This eventually resulted in the release of the NIVI in 1997 (not for sale outside of GB). The preface to the NIVI contained a controversial statement regarding gender-inclusive language: “it is often appropriate to mute the patriarchalism of the culture of the biblical writers through gender-inclusive language.”

Then came the controversy.[7] We haven’t time to consider the many details, so here’s the abridged version. Wayne Grudem presented a paper at the Evangelical Theological Society late in 1996 entitled “What’s Wrong with Gender-Neutral Bible Translations: a Critique of the New Revised Standard Version.” Up to this point, almost all of the scholarly attention on the subject was directed at the NRSV. Things changed in March of 1997 when WORLD magazine published an article by Susan Olasky provocatively entitled “Femme fatale: the feminist seduction of the evangelical church: The New International Version of the Bible…is quietly going “gender-neutral.” This created a public relations crisis for IBS and Zondervan, whose CEO leveled an ethical complaint against WORLD with the Evangelical Press association. After about a month of charges and counter charges, the involved parties were invited by James Dobson’s Colorado Springs based ministry, Focus on the Family, for a meeting to resolve the NIV controversy. The meeting was constructive in that the 12 individuals present agreed to guidelines for translation of gender-related language in Scripture (see handout which includes list of attendees). Regarding the controversial phrase from the NIVI preface about “muting the patriarchalism of the culture of the biblical writers,” the Colorado Springs statement called this language “regrettable and sadly misleading.” Regarding the NIVI in general, the participants in the Colorado Springs conference said this: “We agree that many of the translation decisions made by those who produced…(the) New International Version Inclusive Language Edition in the United Kingdom were not the wisest choices.”[8]

IBS and Zondervan gave early indications that they would not pursue work on a gender-inclusive revision of the NIV, however it is interesting to note that Zondervan continued to publish the NRSV, which is in violation of the translating guidelines agreed to by Zondervan president Buce Ryskamp in the FOTF meeting statement. More telling is the fact that just five years later IBS and Zondervan announced plans to publish the Today’s NIV (TNIV), a gender-neutral revision of the NIV. At the Jan 2002 Christian Bookseller’s Assoc. Expo, the publisher handed out copies of the NT portion of the new version. (The OT not expected until 2005). In June 2002 at the 30th General Assembly of the PCA, an anti-TNIV resolution easily passed calling for cautioning of PCA congregations “as well as the larger Christian community, against use of the TNIV. Also, according to the resolution, “the PCA implores the IBS to refrain from further gender-neutral or other ‘corrective’ efforts in Bible translations.”

What about the translation of Rev 3:20 in the TNIV?

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.

English Standard Version (ESV)

The first significant English translation of the Bible in the 21st century—the ESV—is a revision of the RSV. Unlike the NIV, whose preface includes only an ambiguous, passing reference to translation tradition[9], the preface to the ESV emphasizes the translation tradition that is being carried forward:

The English Standard Version (ESV) stands in the classic mainstream of English Bible translations over the past half-millennium. The fountainhead of that stream was William Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526; marking its course were the King James Version of 1611 (KJV), the English Revised Version of 1885 (RV), the American Standard Version of 1901 (ASV), and the Revised Standard Version of 1952 and 1971 (RSV). In that stream, faithfulness to the text and vigorous pursuit of accuracy were combined with simplicity, beauty, and dignity of expression. Our goal has been to carry forward this legacy for a new century.

The makers of this version undertook the work with the idea that there was a need for an evangelical version that was more literal than the New International Version but more idiomatic than the New American Standard Bible. The Revised Standard Version seemed close enough to this middle ground that it might be suitably revised in a short period of time. The following paragraphs from WORLD magazine (June 5, 1999) reveal the interesting circumstances in which the ESV was conceived:

The English Standard Version (ESV), announced in February by Crossway Books, had its roots in discussions that took place before the May 1997 meeting called by James Dobson at Focus on the Family headquarters to resolve the inclusive NIV issue. The night prior to the meeting, critics of regendered language gathered in a Colorado Springs hotel room to discuss the next day’s strategy. During the course of the evening it became clear their concerns with the NIV extended beyond gender issues. The group discussed the merits of the Revised Standard Version, first published in 1952 by the National Council of Churches and recently replaced by the New Revised Standard Version, a regendered update.

Some months later, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School professor Wayne Grudem and Crossway President Lane Dennis entered into negotiations with the National Council of Churches to use the 1971 revision of the Revised Standard Version as the basis for a new translation. An agreement was reached in September 1998 allowing translators freedom to modify the original text of the RSV as necessary…

Clearly the ESV was projected as a version that would deliberately adhere to the Colorado Springs guidelines, and this is confirmed in the preface to this version:

“The ESV deals with questions of gender by rendering literally what is in the original…”Anyone” replaces “any man” where the original language denotes both sexes, but “man” and “men” are kept where these is a male meaning component in the original. The generic “he” continues in use;’ literal translation would be impossible without it.”

Practical suggestions for selecting a version of the Bible for personal use

During this six-week study of the history of English Bible translation, I have intentionally avoided endorsements, or condemnations, of specific versions, opting instead to emphasize trends and principles that are part of this history. Despite this emphasis, I did say in the first week of our study that “the primary purpose in studying this material is to provide you with the tools to make an informed decision about the Bible that you select as your personal study Bible.” With that purpose in mind, here are some suggestions (in no particular order) that summarize my reflections on this important question of “which Bible for me?”

  • Avoid fads. If your goal is to have a Bible that will serve you well for many years—perhaps even for life—then don’t waste your time with versions that are targeted for a “niche” market, and tend to be fleeting in popularity: “here today and gone tomorrow.”
  • Caution regarding children’s Bibles: By providing your children with an easy-to-understand Bible written at an early elementary reading level, you may be doing them a disservice in the long run. It is best, in my opinion, for children to become familiar with the language of the Bible in the same version that their parents are using, with the parents serving as teacher/guide for the more difficult to understand passages. This approach also facilitates Bible memorization as a family unit. With access to children’s Bibles, it is easy to give junior his/her own copy, expect him/her to read it, and the job is done. Wrong! Ask yourself this question: If children’s Bibles are such a good thing, then why does Bible literacy continue to decline, even among Bible-believing Christians? Could it be that many of the children who cut their spiritual teeth on a Bible written for children never successfully make the transition to an adult Bible?
  • Before selecting a particular version, consider the translation theory/philosophy behind that version. Did the translators follow an “essentially literal” or “dynamic equivalence” approach, or is it a paraphrase? The answer to this question usually can be found in the preface. While these exact words may not appear, if you understand what they stand for, you will readily recognize what philosophy of translation the editors used in that particular version. If you value readability over accuracy, then you will tend to the right on the spectrum of translation theories. On the other hand, if you value accuracy, then you will tend to the left on this spectrum. (By the way, I failed to mention it previously, but on the far left end of the spectrum is what is known as the “interlinear” bible, which is helpful for study purposes, but not for general Bible reading.)
  • Consider the gender-language issue, as we have discussed in some detail today. If you are offended by what you consider to be an overly masculine translation of the Bible, then one of the newer gender-inclusive versions is suited to your taste; but if you subscribe to the principles laid out in the Colorado Springs guidelines (1997), then you had best stick to one of the more traditional versions.
  • Consider the history behind a particular version. If there is controversy aplenty, then that should raise a red flag. This fact alone does not disqualify the original translation, but it does raise questions about motivations for subsequent revisions, I believe. Case in point: the NIV and its revisions.
  • Style matters. Modern editors are aware of this, and for this reason stylistic advisors are part of translation committees and editorial boards. For example, Leland Ryken served in this capacity for the ESV. If you were raised on the literary style of the KJV, and have grown accustomed to the KJV language, then it is highly unlikely that you will ever gladly receive any one of the newer translations that falls outside the mainstream English Bible tradition. You are best staying with the KJV, NKJV, or RSV, or experimenting with the ESV. On the other hand, if your stylistic preference values a more modern idiom, then you would be more comfortable departing from the mainstream tradition.
  • Memorization: Is this a version with which I will feel comfortable memorizing Scripture? It has been argued—and undisputedly so—that the explosion of modern translations has harmed the cause of Bible memorization, both privately in the home and corporately as a church family.

Final thought: In this world of abundant English versions of the Bible, may God keep us from being factious regarding our favorite version: “…each one of you is saying ‘I am of the KJV,’ & ‘I am of the NIV,’ & ‘I am of the (fill in the blank).’ (see 1 Cor. 1:12)

And when we weight the differences between the many English versions of the Bible, may we be reminded regularly to pray for faithful translations of the Bible into languages and dialects which still are without the written Word of God. For truly, our cup overfloweth.


Footnotes

[1] Eugene Nida, Message and Mission: the Communication of the Christian Faith, NY: Harper & Bros,1960; Toward a Science of Translating, Leiden: Brill, 1964

[2] the total editorial cost reached approx. 8 million dollars (see Goddard, the NIV Story: the Inside Story of the NIV, Vantage, 1989). Zondervan advanced funds to help defray the costs.

[3] Dr.Palmer took his M.Div. degree from Westminster Theol. Seminary, where he later taught theology from 1960-1964. He was a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC).

[4] If one considers the KJV and the NKJV together, sales roughly equal that of the NIV today.

[5] William Comfort, Essential Guide to Bible Versions, Tyndale, p. 191

[6] Bruce Metzger, The Bible in Translation, Baker Academic, p.156

[7] see Poythress & Grudem’s book, ch. 2 “The Rise of Gender-Neutral Bible Translations” for a timeline of this controversy.

[8] As quoted in Poythress & Grudem, p..302-303

[9] from the NIV preface: “The Committee also sought to preserve some measure of continuity with the long tradition of translating the Scriptures into English.”