In September last year I was one of the first bloggers to comment on the announcement of the NIV 2011 update, first briefly at Better Bibles Blog and then in more depth here at Gentle Wisdom. See also my post the following month about Bill Mounce joining the committee preparing this update.
Fourteen months later, to the day, the text of the update was released online (it will available in print next year), and I have been much slower to write about it. It was left to David Ker to announce this text at Better Bibles Blog – although I did manage the first comment there. Indeed it is so long since I have posted on this blog that some of you may have thought it was dead. But it was only sleeping, and this issue has woken it up at least for a moment.
So here are my first impressions of the NIV 2011 update. These are based not on extensive reading or other use but on reports and discussion of individual verses and translation decisions. I have found Robert Slowley’s detailed analysis especially helpful.
It seems that the 2011 update is indeed more or less what I predicted last year that it would be. I wrote:
I expect the 2011 NIV to look very like the current TNIV, with at most a few minor concessions to those who have persistently condemned its gender related language. There will of course also be some small improvements of the kind one might expect when updating a translation a few years old. But I am expecting the new version to be much more like TNIV than the current NIV.
And that is indeed more or less what it has turned out to be. According to Slowley’s figures, 60.7% of verses in NIV 2011 are identical to both NIV 1984 and TNIV; 31.3% are the same as TNIV but different from NIV 1984; 7.5% are different from both NIV 1984 and TNIV; and only 0.6% are the same as NIV 1984 but different from TNIV. That shows that the new version is much more like TNIV than like NIV 1984.
Nevertheless, in as many as 8.0% of verses NIV 2011 is different from TNIV. This is perhaps rather more of a change than I had predicted. I am glad that the translation committee has made changes, no doubt many of them in response to the consultation which they held late last year. But I am not happy with some of the changes made. While I did not much like the old NIV (and TNIV) rendering “sinful nature” for Greek sarx, mainly in the letters of Paul, I consider the change back to the traditional “flesh” (2011) to be a step in the wrong direction, making this important concept more obscure to readers who are not theologically trained.
Concerning gender related language, I predicted “a few minor concessions”. I think what we see in the update is a little bit more than that. But it is very much less than the full return to traditional but misleading language which some had feared. Slowley’s analysis of “word changes relevant to the gender language debate” is interesting here. He notes changes in the frequencies of certain words. Here I present some of these data with groups of words combined:
Male words sometimes used generically:
- Brother(s): 1984: 788; TNIV: 614, down 174; 2011: 633, up 19.
- Father(s): 1984: 1572; TNIV: 1274, down 298; 2011: 1280, up 6.
- Forefather(s): 1984: 112; TNIV: 4, down 108; 2011: 13, up 9.
- He/him/himself/his: 1984: 22675; TNIV: 19686, down 2989; 2011: 19880, up 194.
- Man/mankind/men: 1984: 4090; TNIV: 2278, down 1812; 2011: 2489, up 211.
- Son(s): 1984: 3227; TNIV: 3115, down 112; 2011: 3131, up 16.
Gender generic words:
- Ancestor(s): 1984: 8; TNIV: 336, up 328; 2011: 325, down 11.
- Human(s)/humanity/humankind: 1984: 51; TNIV: 316, up 265; 2011: 223, down 93.
- Mortal(s): 1984: 20; TNIV: 58, up 38; 2011: 50, down 8.
- People: 1984: 2224; TNIV: 2727, up 503; 2011: 2717, down 10.
- Person(s): 1984: 111; TNIV: 203, up 92; 2011: 329, up 126.
Unfortunately Slowley’s data do not include some words which might have been of interest such as “sister”, “they” and “child”.
These results are interesting for their consistency. From NIV 1984 to TNIV there was a significant increase in the user of gender generic words and a corresponding drop in the use of words which are usually male but sometimes used gender generically. Of course the latter words are still used in TNIV when their referents are clearly male. From TNIV to NIV 2011 there has been a consistent reversal of this trend (with the one exception of “person”, sometimes used in 2011 where TNIV has “human being”) but the size of the reverse change has always been very much less than that of the change from 1984 to TNIV – in most cases less than 10% of the change.
Now figures like this can only give a very rough estimate of how many of the gender related changes in TNIV have survived in NIV 2011. But they reinforce the impression I have gained from looking at some verses with specific changes, that the great majority of the changes have survived, sometimes with improved wording, and only a small proportion have been reversed. The reversals, I have noticed, tend to be in sayings which have a proverbial character; probably the translators considered that generic “man” and “he” are still used in such contexts. It is interesting to see that the singular “they”, which some had predicted would be purged from the 2011 update, has in fact been used more in the new text.
Unfortunately the result of this partial reversal has been inconsistency which may cause confusion. Users can get used to a text like NIV 1984 in which “man” and “he” are consistently used in a gender generic sense. In the 2011 version these words are used in this way, but only rather rarely. The danger then is that in those few places the generic sense will not be recognised and the text will be misunderstood as making a point about gender. An example of this might be Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (2011 = 1984), one of the few uses of generic “man” in the Gospels.
Related to this is the use of Bill Mounce’s favoured word “mankind”, 61 times in NIV 2011, compared with 36 in 1984 and none in TNIV. This is often used where NIV 1984 had “man” or “men” and TNIV has “human beings”, e.g. Genesis 1:26,27 and 1 Timothy 2:5. “Mankind” is a great improvement on generic “man” or “men”. But sadly this word has become something of a shibboleth among feminists, and so its use is likely to ensure that this group of people in need of God’s word will reject the NIV 2011 update. This problem could have been solved easily by the substitution of “humankind”, used 14 times in TNIV but not at all in the 1984 or 2011 versions of NIV. But then perhaps “humankind”, which Mounce rejects with “What an ugly word!”, is also a shibboleth among anti-feminist conservative Christians to the extent that they would not accept a translation using it.
One rather odd change I noticed, which some might attribute to political correctness: in Matthew 5:32 the “adulteress” (1984, TNIV) is no longer a wrongdoer but has become “the victim of adultery” (2011).
I have been encouraged to see no strident general rejection of the NIV update on the blogosphere. I hope that is not just because I haven’t been looking very widely. All I have found is Denny Burk’s predictable complaint about the rendering of 1 Timothy 2:12, to which Douglas Moo, the chair of the translation committee, wrote a gracious response which really should put this matter to rest. We can hope and pray that those who made such a fuss about the TNIV will this time keep quiet, or at least express their opinions in more measured tones.
I do not want to welcome this new version unreservedly. I do not like a number of the rather few changes that have been made to TNIV. But if, as I hope, this version can become one around which evangelical Christians can unite, rather than dividing and fighting, then it will be a great step forward for advancing the kingdom of God.