Why I Hate the New International Version of the Bible

July 4, 2016

As readers of this journal may know, I am writing a book on how to read and interpret the Bible.  So, I’m thinking a lot these days about hermeneutical matters.  Yesterday provided me with a shock that somehow has to find its way into the book.

Vittore_carpaccio,_vocazione_di_san_matteoMy Sunday School class is studying Mark’s gospel.  Yesterday’s lesson was on Mark 2.  In one episode, Jesus calls the publican, Levi, to be a disciple (2:14).  In the next episode, Jesus is eating in “his” house, along with many publicans and sinners (2:15).  In class I made the point that in Mark’s gospel it is not clear in whose house Jesus is eating.  Luke’s gospel removes the uncertainty by telling the reader that the meal occurs in Levi’s house (Luke 5:29).  I wanted the class to notice that Mark sets the two episodes side by side without directly connecting them.

I then learned that the NIV Bible takes it upon itself to connect what is unconnected.  It translates Mark 2:15 thus: “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house. . . .”  In other words, the NIV gratuitously adds to the biblical text, thinking that it thereby helps the reader.  (I learned this because most of the class uses the NIV.  Some years ago it became the translation unofficially endorsed by my denomination.)

The clods responsible for the NIV, thinking that they have done the reader a favor, have, in fact insulted the reader.  The NIV consistently assumes that the reader is stupid and needs the translator to clarify whatever in the biblical text is unclear.

The NIV approach fights against the very thing that is most needed, namely, for Christian disciples to read the Bible very carefully and slowly.  The NIV hinders such careful reading by making the biblical text more familiar–in this case, by importing information from Luke into the translation of Mark.  Doing so eliminates the need for the reader to linger over the text, puzzling about its narrative flow or lack of flow.

Speed_bump_(asphalt)

The NIV refuses to acknowledge that sometimes lack of clarity is a good thing.  Lack of clarity in the Bible functions like a speed bump, slowing the reader so that reading becomes more laborious but also more careful.  The problem for many Christians is that, having read and/or heard the Bible for many years, they are overly familiar with it–it contains no surprises.  One way of getting them to read more carefully is to draw attention to the surprising points of unclarity in the text–the places where it doesn’t make sense or says something different from what we think it says.

Wrinkled_Paper_Texture_Free_Creative_Commons_(6816216700)The NIV subverts this process by smoothing out the wrinkles in the Bible, making for a smoother text and a faster read–exactly the thing that is least needed today.  That is why the New American Standard Bible is superior–when the biblical text is unclear, its translation is unclear; when the biblical text lacks coherence, the translation lacks coherence.

Trying to increase biblical literacy in the church is a daunting task today.  It’s too bad that the translation that is most popular in my church makes the task more daunting.

4 thoughts on “Why I Hate the New International Version of the Bible

  1. Sam,
    There is a fundamentalist reading of the Bible on both the left and the right. You are being a fundamentalist of the left. I affirm the infallibility of the Bible in the tradition of the Westminster Confession. Every day this summer I am working on Cotton Mather’s way of reading the Bible. He believes in infallibility but would never trap himself with nit-picky issues like this. When he deals with nit-picky issues, he does so with a light heart looking at all the possible readings. Usually he offers options that resolve the issue–like a somewhat lesser Thomas Aquinas. The Bible’s infallibility is a long, strong, and broad tradition that requires a reader to listen, not hold a scalpel.

    By the way, the NIV translation practices are no different than all the paperback ancient texts I assign in my classes–Penguin Classics, Oxford, etc.

    Rick Kennedy

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  2. “Hate” is a strong word. “Clods” who translated the NIV is another provocative statement (something, I am learning, Dr. Powell seems to enjoy; see some recent articles and reviews of his). The NIV has a decidedly lower reading level than other translations. This is good for accessibility, but as Powell points out, it can come across as insulting or patronizing to readers. All translations have their flaws. The newest NIV translation is better than some of its older versions (I use the TNIV, which due to political pressures, has basically been discontinued). All readers, preachers, and teachers have the task of making sure that we do not make any one translation the “gold standard”, as we have the NIV in the CotN. On the other hand, the translators of the NIV undertook a noble task that has allowed Scripture to be more readable to millions of readers. Dr. Powell, in my view, too quickly neglects this in his hyperbolic rant.

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  3. Sam, I think that you are straining on a gnat. The NRSV also injects the name of Levi, although it also adds a note that the original reads “his.” It is common for translators to try to “smooth” out a saying, particularly an idiom, sometimes but not always using a note to explain the translation. I assume you are using the 2011 edition of NIV, not the earlier one. There are some pluses to the newer edition. It is more gender inclusive. For Genesis 1:6 it has correctly translated the term raqia by the word “vault.” The earlier edition had “expanse” which has been followed by both young and old Earth creationists to avoid the idea that there is a solid vault/dome that separates the waters above and waters below. What I do not like is when a theological position motivates the translators to adapt an unwarranted reading. For example NIV reads Genesis 2:8 “Now the LORD God had planted a garden…” and 2:19, “Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground…: Both change a simple past tense to a past perfect in order to make it seem that the garden story is sequential to the earlier creation account. Another issue is the translation in 1 John 3:6, “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning.” Granted that the Greek present tense can carry the idea of continuous action. But it does not have to do so. Here the seriousness of sin is down played. “OK, we do and can all sin a little as long as we don’t make a habit of it.” This is hard to reconcile with verse 4, “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact sin is lawlessness.”

    I agree that translators do take unwarranted liberties at times. Sometimes they have to make changes to communicate correctly what the Greek or Hebrew words mean. Also, your point that we need to read Scripture thoughtfully is well taken. I think, however, that there may be some better examples to make your point.

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    • Thanks, Bob. I’m always open to better examples–the one I offered was just the one that popped up on that particular Sunday in my SS class. But I do object in principle to translators trying to make the text smoother than it originally was. I think lay people and pastors need to be confronted with the text in its own character, even if the text is sometimes incoherent or ambiguous.

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