NIV 1984 vs NIV 2011

Why has there been a change?

The NIV translation of the Bible has been around for nearly forty years: it was completed in 1984. Since that time it has served the church well, and continues to do so. We currently use the NIV as our mainstream Bible in church, and I expect to do so for some time to come. The CBT has felt the need to produce a revised text for the following reasons:

  • Concern for clarity because the 1984 NIV is ambiguous or has become so as the English language has changed
  • Changes in the English language with regard to gender inclusive language
  • Advances in biblical scholarship.

Should we welcome the new translation of the NIV? 

The questions to ask of this new translation are those we should ask of any English translation:

What is the underlying text

We do not have the original manuscripts that Paul, Peter, Matthew, John and Isaiah penned. We have copies: lots of them, and some of them very early. Although the copies are very similar (really remarkably similar), they are not identical and we need to try somehow to reconstruct the original text. The fruits of the two main approaches are known as the Majority Text and an eclectic text. The first weighs up the number of copies reflecting one reading or another and favours the one with most witnesses. The Authorised or King James version of the Bible (1611) is based on a Majority Text. Textual critics have found ways to group the manuscripts into families, and favour those readings with the strongest claim to be original. The NIV is based on an eclectic text, as are many modern translations including ESV and RSV. You can see this in Mark 16.9-20 and John 7.53-8.11 where the NIV notes comment ‘the most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have [this text]’. While adherents of the KJV and NKJV family of bibles remain loyal to the Majority text, I am persuaded that the NIV 2011 is based on a better text, an eclectic text.

The Philosophy of translation

Translation is not an exact science because languages are not identical. A particular greek word will often have a different range of possible meanings than its English equivalent. For example the word glossa means language, tongue, or the tongue (in your mouth). An English translation may need to choose between the three words.

Here again there are two broad approaches.

  • A literal or formal equivalence translation aims for word for word translation in order as closely as possible to mirror the language and syntax of the original text. The ASV of Philippians 1.3-4 reads  I thank my God upon all my remembrance of you, always in every supplication of mine on behalf of you all making my supplication with joy, which faithfully reflects the syntax of the greek and is stilted English.
  • A paraphrase or dynamic equivalence translation uses thought-for-thought translation to bring about clarity in the target language. It’s better English! For example the Message gives us Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart.
  • The NIV translators aim to blend the two approaches. In practice it is a moderate form of dynamic equivalence translation, and mostly it is reader-friendly. Philippians 1.3-4 becomes I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy … (the NIV 2011 is the same).

There is no such thing as a perfect translation. All translation is treason (a saying quoted by D A Carson). Compromise is inevitable. I think that for general use, the NIV is a good  compromise. For study purposes a more literal translation like ESV will get the reader closer to the original – but at the expense of readability in English.

Advances in Scholarship

The Bible is written in languages that are now dead to us: our only access to them, and to the forms of Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic that were current in ancient times, is through scholarship. We learn what words mean by studying how they were used – in the Bible and in the literature of the time. For example (these examples cited by the CBT website)1:

  • We are more certain than we were forty years ago that the Greek word kataluma used in Luke 2:7 means “guest room,” not “inn.”
  • We likewise know that those crucified on either side of Jesus (called lēstai) were “rebels” rather than “robbers” (e.g., Mark 15:27).
  • We now know that the word translated “demons” in the original NIV® of Psalm 106:37 is more accurately translated “false gods.”
  • Joseph’s “richly ornamented robe” (Genesis 37:3) suggests a garment with decorations hanging from it, but drawings and descriptions of comparable clothing from antiquity now suggest that “ornate” is the best adjective to use.

Most of these changes are of negligible doctrinal significance. But some will affect doctrine, as this note from the CBT explains

  • When the NIV® was first translated, the meaning of the rare Greek word harpagmos, rendered “something to be grasped,” in Philippians 2:6 was uncertain. But further study has shown that the word refers to something that a person has in their possession but chooses not to use to their own advantage. The updated NIV® reflects this new information, making clear that Jesus really was equal with God when he determined to become a human for our sake: “[Christ Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.”

I have looked at a couple of other texts:

  • 1 Tim 2.12 translated in 1984 as I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent has changed in 2011 to I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; a she must be quiet (bold indicates a change). The new translation implies that authentein refers not to the exercise of authority, legitimate or otherwise, but to an abuse of authority – which can never be legitimate. I do not think this adequately reflects the context and biblical teaching on this issue. While this is an important issue, it should be borne in mind that any serious discussion of this verse and this word must refer to the original language and to the context.
  • 1 Cor 12.1 Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant  becomes Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. (1 Corinthians 12:1) The word translated spiritual gifts/gifts of the Spirit is pneumatikoi, meaning ‘spiritual things/people’, and could have been distinguished from the other words charismata for spiritual gifts.
  • The word hilasterion for propitiation is translated in the same way in both editions of NIV as ‘sacrifice of atonement’ with a marginal gloss of ‘or one who turns aside God’s wrath, taking away our sins’.


The bible was written for both men and women. In the languages of the time it was normal to refer to men and women as ‘man’; and to brothers and sisters’ as ‘brothers’; and to ‘anyone’ as ‘he’. God is also revealed in masculine terms. In Scripture God is a ‘he’ not an ‘it’ or a ‘she’. When the NIV 1984 was produced it was still correct to refer to mixed groups in this way: ‘man’, ‘brothers’, ‘he’. That is no longer the case. It is considered incorrect to use one (male) gender to refer to a mixed group; instead one should use ‘brothers and sisters’, ‘one’ or even the singular ‘them’ in place of ‘him or her’ (as is ‘if anyone comes to me I will eat with them’). At the same time feminist writers want to challenge the patriarchy inherent in the Bible’s revelation of God as father and son in masculine terms by removing gender references to the Godhead. I tend to describe these two movements as ‘gender inclusive’ (meaning language that includes both genders) and ‘gender neutral’ (meaning language that removes the genders). The first is welcome the second is not.

It is reassuring therefore to read that

Nowhere in the updated NIV® (nor in the TNIV®, nor in any of the committee discussions leading up to either version) is there even the remotest hint of any inclusive language for God. The revisions solely surround inclusive language for mankind.2

The NIV 2011 is gender inclusive, but with greater safeguards in my opinion against the risk of gender neutral language. It is also much clearer now that gender inclusive language is the norm in the UK and US.

As an example of the change, philadelphia is rendered love for one another or mutual affection in NIV 2011; but NIV 1984 was not consistent in translating this verb, rendering it brotherly love and brotherly kindness.

The obviously difficult phrase is ‘son of man’ which in Hebrew means ‘human’. Psalm 8.4 is typical of the phrase in the Psalms. Compare NIV 1984 what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? With 2011 what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? The good news is that Ezekiel is addressed as ‘Son of Man’ in NIV 2011, as is the one like a son of man in Daniel 7.13. Jesus’ use of the phrases remains, as far as I can see, unchanged.

Concern for Clarity

Psalm 1 is a good text to illustrate some key changes

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. (Psalms 1:1–3)

This changes in NIV 2011 to:

Blessed is the one [because ‘man’ includes ‘man or woman’] who does not walk in step with [a better translation] the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take [because ‘stand in the way of sinners is ambiguous and could mean ‘stand in the way of in order to prevent sinners’ – the opposite of the intended meaning] or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight [change needed in order to avoid he/she delights in the law; and singluer they would be awkward] is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person [this impersonal construction is the unfortunate consequence of gender inclusive language. There is no adequate ‘that man/that woman expression] is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do [this is a singular ‘they’, now common for third person gender singular inclusive]  prospers. (Psalms 1:1–3)

Other ambiguities have been introduced by changes in English usage. These examples cited by the translators:

  • Who would have guessed in the 1970s that, within a few decades, an ‟alien” would mean, thanks to the influence of ET and other movies and TV shows, an ‟extraterrestrial being”? In the updated NIV, ‟alien” has been replaced with ‟foreigner” or similar words in order to communicate the intention of God’s Word accurately to contemporary English readers. See, for instance, Genesis 23:4: ‟I am a foreigner and stranger among you . . . ”
  • ‟Ankle chains” refer much more often to prison manacles than to the type of personal adornments described in Isaiah 3:20. The modern fashion of wearing jewelry around the ankle has led to the widespread use of the word ‟anklet” to describe this piece of jewelry, and this is the word used in the updated NIV.
  • In Exodus 4:14 Aaron’s ‟heart will be glad when he sees” Moses, but today we would just render this Semitic idiom as ‟he will be glad to see you” — as the updated NIV does.
  • And how many readers today would use the word ‟overweening” in a sentence, much less be able to define it? Moab’s ‟overweening pride” in Isaiah 16:6 and Jeremiah 48:29 has therefore now become her ‟great . . . arrogance.”

Conclusion: Should we welcome the NIV 2011?

Every translation is a compromise on the original text in the original language. The English language has changed since 1984 and gender inclusive language is now the norm. As a translation for general use, I think that the NIV 2011’s gains in contemporary accuracy outweigh the losses in reflecting the (grammatical) gender bias in the original language.

Every translation involves interpretation. Here again there are gains and losses: some translations are clearly better; others reflect advances that have gained the consensus of scholars – including protestant scholars. I am not qualified to over-rule them; in the key phrases like 1 Tim 2.12, it is clear that the evangelical community is divided and more neutral translations are preferred; which detracts from the translation.

I welcome the NIV 2011. While the ESV is a better bible for study purposes, the English of that translation is not good enough for general use. I expect the NIV 2011 to gradually replace the 1984 version, and when our church bibles need replacing through wear and tear I expect we will buy 2011 editions. But we will not rush to do so as the current bibles are adequate for the task.


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