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On the first day of the month the latest update of the New International Version of the Bible was released. This update replaces both the 1984 edition of the NIV as well as Today’s New International Version (TNIV), which was recently pulled from the market. Shortly after our family received a copy of the latter, I posted a brief preliminary assessment on my blog. Having compared the same passages in the NIV 2011, I reproduce here, with very few modifications, what I wrote then of the TNIV, because it turns out to be just as relevant:

To begin with, the NIV 2011 reads smoothly and is easily comprehended. However, the NIV 2011 has the same major deficiency as the NIV 1984, namely, harmonizing across texts without warrant in the existing ancient manuscripts. Something I wrote seven years ago concerning the NIV 1984 applies to the NIV 2011 as well:

For example, the translators change the tense of the Hebrew verb in Genesis 12:1 to make it agree with Acts 7:2 on when Abraham received God’s call to the promised land. They similarly revocalize the Hebrew in Gen 47:31, so that the dying Jacob leans on his “staff” instead of his “bed,” to make it agree with Heb 11:21. In attempting to smooth over the rough edges of the biblical text, it sometimes takes the reader in misleading directions from a textual perspective.

Like the NRSV, the translators of the NIV 2011 have unwisely resurrected the archaic word mortals as a substitute for the generic masculine men, as, e.g., in Psalm 9:19. This is a questionable innovation at best, given that ordinary speakers of English generally do not use mortal in any context at all. However, the NIV 2011 does not make the mistake of using it in Revelation 21:3, when mortality has obviously been conquered in the redeemed earth. Moreover, there are a number of passages, e.g., Psalm 54:3, in which people is the word of choice. This makes more sense.

The NIV 2011 has avoided the anachronistic reference in the NRSV to “human rights” in Lamentations 3:35, which here reads: “to deny people their rights before the Most High”. It has also eluded the inadvertent ascription of errors to the Law of God in the NRSV’s translation of Psalm 19:12, which here reads: “But who can discern their own errors?” The insertion of own properly clarifies this. The NIV 2011 maintains the male reference in Proverbs 10:5: “He who gathers crops in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son.” Here the NRSV unwisely substitutes child, with its implication of immaturity.

However, in Psalm 127 the NIV 2011 replaces the references to sons with children, which does not seem to fit the context, especially in light of verse 5: “Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their opponents in court.” The RSV reads as follows: “Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.” The footnote to this verse in the New Oxford Annotated Bible says: “The gift of many stalwart sons makes a father feel secure.” Given the highly gendered division of labour in ancient Israel, the shift to children masks this meaning. Even the NRSV recognizes this and retains the reference to sons.

Finally, as in the NRSV, the NIV 2011’s translation of Psalm 8 alters the masculine pronoun to a generic plural, thereby making it unclear why the author of the letter to the Hebrews would cite it as a messianic reference to Jesus in Hebrews 2:5-9. For a translation that otherwise harmonizes across texts, this seems an odd thing to do. This is what I wrote of the NRSV seven years ago:
But suffice it to say that, if one of the characteristics of an ideology is to follow rigidly the inexorable logic of a single abstract principle, e.g., the abolition of the division of labour or the freedom of the market, to the exclusion of other legitimate concerns, then the NRSV has by no means avoided this in its otherwise laudable use of inclusive language. To show that they affirm the equality of men and women, the translators have not only masked the highly gendered character of the original cultures — itself problematic in the translation of an ancient text — but, more seriously, have created difficulties of their own in the English text which would not have occurred had they been less single-minded.

At this point, while I think the NIV 2011 has corrected some of the more egregious renderings in the NRSV in its use of inclusive language, it has not altogether escaped the ideological single-mindedness of which I speak above.

Two more comments are in order.

First, the translation of the Greek ??????? as “brothers and sisters” in both the NRSV and NIV 2011 New Testaments strikes me as correct. After all, in English the word brothers always refers to males. However, I wonder whether the word brethren might not have made for greater economy of expression. Although it is slightly archaic, it is much less so than mortals and it continues to be used and understood as a generic designation in the names of more than one protestant denomination, e.g., the Plymouth Brethren or the Brethren in Christ. (Incidentally, modern Greek employs the neuter plural ?? ??????? for “brothers and sisters.”)

Second, like the NIV 1984, the NIV 2011 does not contain those books regarded by Catholics and Orthodox as deuterocanonical and by protestants as apocrypha. This marks the NIV as a bible for evangelicals only. The fact that the majority of the world’s Christians regard such books as Judith, Tobit and the books of the Maccabees as canonical scripture appears to have made no impression on the work of the NIV translation committee. Ironically this will keep the largest-selling version of the Bible in the English-speaking world from becoming genuinely ecumenical and that’s unfortunate.

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