Before it was published, the NIV Bible went through perhaps the most rigorous translation process in history. The first edition, printed in 1978, was the labor of more than 100 evangelical biblical scholars. This careful attention to detail continues today.
Safeguarding the Text
The text of the NIV is entrusted to the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), a self-governing body of 15 evangelical Bible scholars. No outside group—no publisher or commercial entity—can decide how the NIV is translated.
In keeping with the original NIV charter, the CBT meets every year to monitor developments in biblical scholarship, as well as changes in English usage. Every year, they solicit (and receive) input from scholars, pastors, missionaries, and laypeople.
A Groundbreaking Study of the English Language
In preparation for the latest update to the NIV, published in 2011, the translators commissioned one of the most comprehensive studies of gender language in English ever done, drawing on the Collins Bank of English—a database of more than 4.4 billion words, taken from publications and spoken-word recordings spanning two decades.
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(Dr. Bill Mounce) One of the things that I really learned since being on the CBT, it’s not because I’m on the CBT, it’s just watching this happen thousands upon thousands of times. You realize that accuracy and meaning are tied together. I think before, I kind of thought more that accuracy was, well, if I can stick to Greek structure, Hebrew structure, then I’m being more accurate. But, literalness has to do with meaning. It doesn’t have to do with form. That’s what the English word means, and so when you translate, but you don’t get the meaning across, you haven’t been accurate. The main difference for me is the change from sticking to translating this word, this word, this word, and if you can kind of make sense out of it, that’s okay; to in this group, it’s really, how do these words hit you. Does it hit you the same way it would have hit the initial audience? And so, in the CTB, we spend a lot more time than I am used to at making really proper English and good-sounding English. And so, that’s a different emphasis for me. That’s what took the time.
(Dr. Bruce Waltke) For example, if I say, “hand,” I think you think of the palm, but the Hebrew doesn’t mean that. When the Hebrew says, “hand,” it means from the elbow to the fingertip. Now how do you translate that? You see, there’s no word for that in English. That’s why no translation is perfect because it’s no one-for-one correspondence, and yet you’ll hang bracelets on your hand. How do you hang bracelets on your hand? The Hebrew makes a distinction between, he calls this is (Hebrew word) and this is (Hebrew word). The Hebrew makes that distinction, but English doesn’t.
(Dr. Karen Jobes) When I was a little girl, and I think a lot of us do this, and I was interested in other languages, and so we got a hold of a French dictionary. What I did is I just went through in an English sentence, and I would replace every English word with the corresponding French word, and of course, what results is not French because you can’t just plug word for word in and come out with a translation. So I think the idea that for word-for-word translation is more accurate is basically wrong. That’s not how languages work. No translation is always strictly word for word, and no translation is always strictly paraphrased. Every translation has elements along this spectrum, but we try to be very deliberate about a mediating position where we maintain the accuracy of the word originally, but without thinking that we need to maintain the syntax of the original languages because then you get back to something that is very much like I did as a child where you’re kind of plugging English words into Hebrew or Greek syntax, and what you come out with is not really English.
(Dr. Mark Strauss) You can trust the NIV because it has very strong scholarship behind it, but it also has, there’s a sense of respect and reverence for the Bible as God’s Word. All the translators believe fully in the inspiration and authority of Scripture. And so, it is God’s Word, but it comes to use through human instruments, and therefore, we need to understand it, and we need to understand what it means so that we can then unpack that and translate it in a clear manner. So those two things, that it is accurate to what the message is, but it’s accessible. It’s understandable and clear.
(Dr. Paul Swarup) The passion among the room is that, you know, we need a translation which is both faithful to the original text and, at the same time, can be easily understood by the current generation. That’s really the passion, and that’s the tension that plays out in our discussions. You know, whether how much do we stick to the original text, and at the same time, we don’t want to lose this, you know, but at the same time, to make it relevant to the current generation. And so to hold these two together, that’s really, you know, it’s a fine dance. You know, one has to do that, I mean, so there’re arguments and tugs and pulls always towards maintaining that balance of how we can be faithful to the text and faithful to this generation to which we want this text to be easily accessible.
A High Threshold for Change
Every change to the NIV must be thoroughly vetted—and changing the text isn’t easy. In order to become part of the NIV, a change must receive the support of at least 70 percent of the translation team.
Such a high threshold among a denominationally diverse team of scholars helps to protect the NIV from agendas, bias, and outside influence—ensuring that any changes are backed by the very best biblical scholarship.
The result of such a rigorous translation process? A Bible you can trust, now and in the future.
Q & A with Members of the NIV Committee on Bible Translation (CBT)
This event was held at the Evangelical Theological Society November 2014.
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(Moderator) Now I would like for the members of the Committee of Bible Translation who are present to come to the platform. We’re going to give the opportunity to you to ask questions of Doug and of the CBT. CBT members, would you please come, and as you come, Doug is going to introduce each one of you. I asked Doug to introduce some of the CBT members because I know most of them, but you know, the CBT is so insulated from publisher influence that there are one or two of them that I have never met in spite of all of my years attending ETS. So, Doug, would you please introduce the members of the CBT that are here, and those that are not here, you are going to mention those as well. Doug, come to the platform.
(Douglas Moo) Yes, this will give an opportunity for my fellow CBT members to correct what I’ve just been saying which is the habit of the way we are working on the committee certainly. Let me introduce those who are here from left to right: Dr. Rick Hess from Denver Seminary, Mark Strauss from Bethel West, Dr. Jeannine Brown from Bethel West, Dr. Karen Jobes at Wheaton, one of my colleagues there, and Dr. Bill Mounce working with BiblicaltTraining.org.
We are sorry that more of our CBT members couldn’t make it tonight. Let me just read their names: Dr. Craig Blomberg from Denver Seminary, Dr. Simon Gathercole from University of Cambridge, Dr. David Instone-Brewer from Tyndale House at Cambridge, Dr. Paul Swarup who is the pastor of the Cathedral Church in Delhi, Havilah Dharamjah from the South Asian Institute of Advanced Christian Studies, Dr. Bruce Waltke, retired, Dr. Larry Walker, retired, and Dr. Michael Williams from Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids. I should add that Dr. Mark Strauss is the vice chair of the committee and Dr. Michael William is the secretary.
(Moderator) Now, we have microphones scattered throughout the room. It’s a little bit difficult for me to see with these lights glaring, so if I fail to see someone, I have spotters out there who will alert me; but when you come to the microphone, would you please introduce yourself and also please remember that this is a chance to ask questions, not to lecture.
(Audience Member) There was a mention in the address that you had to make a decision about to whom you were speaking. In one case, it was to either the evangelical community or to the community at large. What was the decision that was made? I was curious to know which way you go, or if you try to do both, or if you go one way one time and one way or another.
I will comment. My understanding is that we try to do both. I mean, we always keep in mind the larger non-evangelical public, and we recognize the NIV is predominantly an Evangelical translation. That is our largest constituency.
(Moderator) Jesse, there’s someone there.
(Audience Member) My name is Tony Slavin. I was curious if there is a written policy on translating figures of speech. It seems sometimes that the NIV would remove a figure of speech if it comes into English. For example, 1Peter 3, on weaker vessels or weaker partner.
(Moderator) You stump them.
(Jeannine Brown) I don’t believe we have a written policy. The issue of understandability is often a key piece whether the vessel communicates well with a 7th to 8th grade general audience in that context. I was thinking of 1Peter 1:13. The idiom there of, I don’t want to say literal, to gird your mind, kind of picture, you know, so that often we can’t communicate well in idioms. Did you ever notice the NASB keeps the gird, but also girds your minds for action, the NIV preparing your mind for action and getting rid of the gird word as I like to say. How much can we keep an idiom? How much do we have to let go? Part of it is understandability. So my question to our team on vessel would be, “Is that understandable?” That would be part of the conversation.
(Mark Strauss) Another key factor is whether it’s a live or a dead metaphor. Is there an image of a vessel in that or not for the original reader? Are they envisioning that picture, or is that a dead metaphor so that they would already go directly to the abstract concept behind the metaphor? I think that’s a key factor.
(Moderator) Back here.
(Audience Member) James Young from Westminster Seminary. What do we learn from other biblical translators in the past who, in making the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, do they provide us any guidance for Christians doing their translation?
(Karen Jobes) I presume you’re speaking about the Septuagint. Right? Yeah. It’s interesting to me that in my career, I have had two major foci in my research. One is the Septuagint, and the other has been the NIV. It took me actually several years to begin to realize why both of those topics are so dear to my heart. I think we do see in the Septuagint some of the same issues being played out as the translators were trying to contextualize the Hebrew text for the Diaspora Judaism and all of the political and cultural issues that were involved, and that’s very similar to what we do in modern translation. It’s also been interesting to me that sometimes when the Hebrew is obscure, we turn to the Septuagint, and what do we find? They didn’t know what it meant either. So, I think there are lots of kinds of translation issues, translation philosophy. It’s a very fascinating field of study to combine study of an ancient translation with practices and philosophy in modern translation.
(Moderator) Anybody want to add to that?
(Rick Hess) Yeah, if I could. One of the things that strikes me about the Septuagint is that we don’t have the original Septuagint, and what we do have is evidence of an evolutionary development over years as the manuscripts vary and differ, but also a tendency in some cases, many significant cases, to translate back towards what may well have been the original text. But, in any case, it becomes the master edit text. Therefore, there is a kind of interest in literalism there which is balanced over against what you were talking about, Karen, which is the attempt to make it available to the people of a particular audience and readership that the Septuagint was written for. So, you do have some parallel issues going on.
(Moderator) All right, before I go to Jesse, if you have a question, would you please stand and either wave or walk towards someone who has the microphone. Jesse, you have someone.
(Audience Member) Drew Longacre. I am very curious about the text critical principles and what you do for that process. When you have say a text that is in multiple different versions, which do you choose to translate? How thorough is your examination of the manuscript traditions behind the NIV?
(Douglas Moo) We pay very careful attention to the critical apparatus in both the Hebrew and the Greek as a regular part of our revision process. Often it’s the footnotes that will, you know, indicate where we think there has been a difficult decision made, and we want to reflect the option. We do understand that putting footnotes in the Bible is sort of like a mother putting an apple in her child’s lunch. The child is never going to eat it, but the mother feels good about doing it. So, we feel good about putting that note in fearing that no one will read it. Here’s again where, you know, we should perhaps emphasize the 50-year history. The original translators worked with the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of their day and made their decisions. Certain views of the text have shifted a bit over the years. You’ll find in the updated NIV a lot more places where we follow the Septuagint against the Masoretic text, recognizing as most contemporary scholars do that various discoveries have confirmed the fact that the Septuagint was often rendering alternative Hebrew manuscripts. So that continues to be a process that we engage in looking at year by year and, you know, making changes as we think appropriate.
(Moderator) Back here.
(Audience Member) My name is Josh Williams. I was just, you said before, that the gloss learning approach for Hebrew and Greek words was over simplistic. What would you suggest as an alternative?
(Douglas Moo) Well, I want to turn that over to Bill Mounce because he’s the expert here obviously, and Bill, in fact, may want to correct everything I have said. I try to make it clear that I think that’s where you have to start. I don’t know of any other option to start there, so if I’m teaching beginning Greek, it’s going to be too much to try to give students, you know, a long explanation of what words may mean. They just need to start with a simple equivalent. My concern is that as we work with students as they move on in the language that we don’t help them see there’s much more going on. Bill, you should probably have a chance.
(Bill Mounce) Yeah, I think a lot of first-year Greek is just how much do you want to simplify it so that people can learn everything they have to learn. You have to teach clauses in the first year, I think. I just don’t think there’s any way to get around it. Although during my time, I don’t know if you’ve notice it on the NIV, my definitions of adofhas and entropas have grown in BBG as I’ve been a little more sensitive. I think that’s a function of second-year Greek. I think that’s where you have to really start moving students from a gloss to a greater understanding of semantic range.
(Moderator) All right, Jesse, over here.
(Audience Member) I wanted to ask a question about the “international” in the title, New International Version, and to connect that to the nonprofit corporation, Biblica, which ensures the objectivity and independence of your translation. So I believe it’s true that Wycliffe also sponsored some translations into other international languages such as French and Spanish. Is that true? I think Biblica owns the copyright to La Bible du Semeur in French, and I don’t know the progress on the Spanish, but I’ve heard of that. Could someone comment on what Biblica’s future roles are in other languages?
(Moderator) I want to ask Scott Bolinder to address that issue.
(Scott Bolinder) We do translations in the world’s top one hundred leading spoken languages. We don’t have them all complete. Our missional goal is that what English readers have experienced with this kind of rigor, that same philosophy guides our translations whether it’s Chinese, French, German. We have about thirty projects underway currently where we’re working either first time or revising, but our goal is to have the same philosophy of equal rigor to the ancient text, equal rigor to the target in the world’s top one hundred languages; and we’ll be done with that, but we will also keep those fresh with the same kind of rigor that the CBT. Obviously, the committee level is different. There is not a committee on Bible translation per se. They have a name, but the committee that’s just completing the revision on the La Bible du Semeur which will be done in about six months has been working rigorously, and they’re a terrific group of scholars outside of Paris. In fact, I just had an email today that they’re this close, waiting for a couple of books to be done. The Hoffnug fur Alle, our German text, is going to be complete within about a year. So that is our, what we call, our call in the translation world. We sit with every tribe, every nation, Wycliffe, UBS; and the other thing that some people don’t know is when we’re done with a translation, if any other translation entity finds it useful, we welcome them to take our tie text. Many translations, in SIL, Wycliffe, and the broader translation community will use the NIV as a reference text. Everyone is trying to use Greek and Hebrew as they can and as the scholars are available in those languages, but the NIV with its worldwide reach is often used, but then they will often say, (we just heard from SIL), “Hey, we love your updated Tagalog translation. May we use it to speed our minority language dialects?” And we say, “Absolutely.” So, it’s a big community trying to first complete something for everyone, 7000 languages. I was at an Every Tribe Nation meeting yesterday, 3800 left to be done, and we think we can complete them by 2033. So, everybody has something, but everybody also needs the full Bible. Our brief is full Bible, same philosophy, same rigor, first and ongoing, and then trying to help people have those Bibles and use them well.
(Audience Member) Randall Buth, Biblical Language Center, Israel. Thank you for this opportunity. I think it’s a very appropriate and nice opportunity to get feedback. Thank you. My question relates to the current development of philosophy of translation. In 1965, communication theory looked more at the code and expected what was actually written to carry the full message. Over the last fifty years, communication theory has changed particularly one-word relevance theory where the written code is now looked at signaling the message, but not necessarily having everything in it which means for translators, the amount of explicit information may be less in 2015 from 1965. I’m wondering in the Revised and New International Version, how this has affected your thinking or processing the amount of explicit information you want or don’t want in a text.
(Moderator) I thank that’s a Mark Strauss question.
(Mark Strauss) Yeah, I think many of us have read a great deal in communication theory and relevance theory in particular, and I think we are constantly cognizant of the fact that readers are going to have certain presuppositions and assumptions when they come to the text. We try to determine what those assumptions and presuppositions are and translate accordingly. If there is additional information that needs to be provided to make the sense clear to your average reader, and again there’s that average reader context, then we include that; but if not, then we don’t include it. So, I think there is an awareness that translation is an act of communication, not simply a replication of words. Do you want to add anything?
(Karen Jobes) You know, I would say that it’s going to become more of a problem because in 1965, I think the translation committee could rely on more biblical literacy, literate people reading it, and so there was a lot of that relevance that’s brought to the verses because people understood. They had been taught. They were churched. Translators are now targeting for a world that has become generally in many ways less literate, but also much more unchurched. A lot of the things that we could assume we may have to start spelling out more, so I think that would be an issue to look at as we move forward in Bible translation.
(Audience Member) I want to go back into textuality. How do you ensure the preservation of clauses, phrases, terminology that is meant by the original author to be evocative of let’s say Old Testament concepts, covenantal language, or messianic prophecy, certain actual phrases that are really meant for the reader to understand? Aha! It’s a shout out to a previous thing. That requires kind of technical language.
(Rick Hess) I think you have to do the best you can. I mean that because as Doug already mentioned, illegitimate totality transfer, you can’t convey everything, and there are a lot of illusions. I mean, look at names through the Old Testament are filled with wordplay with the text beginning in Genesis. So, once you’re aware of that, you try to relate those where it seems clear, and then you allow exegesis, commentaries, and other things to take their course and to provide further information about what the text is about. By the way, I’m glad you came back to that. I didn’t mean the poetry discussion, a complete discussion, on the subject, and this isn’t either. But, I do think that, and we struggle with this all the time, and we don’t all vote unanimously when it comes down to making decisions. So, it is a legitimate concern, and I think we have to be aware of that, and that’s part of what our training and background should be about as well as suggestions that others, like yourselves, might make towards what we’re doing. Then, as we take that into account, we try to work with the English language to reflect the best possible words that can communicate that covenantal messianic whatever language is there.
(Karen Jobes) One of the things, another factor that answers that question is committee memory. The NIV has a very long memory because of the continuity of the committee. There are many times when someone could make a suggestion and say, “In this place, I think we should translate it here and in this way.” Another member of the committee will say, “Oh, but if we do that way, we’re going to lose lexical linkage back to the Old Testament or back to another part of the book.” So, it’s that kind of committee memory that helps to safeguard. I found in my almost twenty years now on the committee, there is nothing that is done without a deliberateness, and it may look as if, “Why did they do this here and do that there?” But, there’s a reason, and that’s one of the things that has impressed me about working on this committee is the long reach of memory and continuity.
(Moderator) Now we are an assemblage here of scholars, biblical scholars, and theologians; and I’m concerned that at my table, there’s a journalist, several spouses who may not have advanced degrees in biblical studies and theology, and I’m concerned about my boss. Would somebody in two or three sentences in ordinary English explain what intertextuality is?
(Douglas Moo) This is when you don’t want to be chair. I’m going to give just a simple explanation if can. Intertextuality, the way Scripture ultimately is a whole, reflects other parts of Scripture back and forth on itself so that, you know, a word or phrase in one part of Scripture is deliberately picked up in another part of Scripture. That’s a connection you want to preserve obviously, but sometimes if those connections are more verbal than involving meaning, you have a tough choice the translator has to make. Do you keep the meaning that is going make sense in both of those contexts and change the words you are using in English, or do you keep the same words in English at the possible expense of losing the natural meaning in one text or another?
(Moderator) Mark, did you understand that? Good. Thank you, Doug. We have three people standing. I think, in interest of time, these will have to be the last three, so I’m going to go back here into the center and then over to you, Sarah.
(Audience Member) Thanks. Christy Overton. So, I know you’re a committee, you disagree. I want to know about a passage that was really hard for you to agree on. What was it, and what was that process like?
(Mark Strauss) Romans 16, whether Phoebe was a deacon or a servant in the church, was probably the hardest one I have ever agonized over, and we agonized over that one.
(Moderator) And what was the conclusion?
(Jeannine Brown) That was my first year, so that was what I had gotten myself into, but we did spend – oh, I don’t know – more than a half hour or hour. You probably have the records. More than morning. I have blocked it out clearly.
(Douglas Moo) Yeah. There were very, very strong arguments back and forth. Most of the people on the committee are passionate about what they are doing which we like. We usually end up to be willing to eat a meal together afterwards, but passion is part of it. Very definite opinions are expressed. In the case of Romans 16:1, it is a good example of, you know, not only figuring out the Greek, but figuring out the English. What does the word deacon communicate to modern English speakers, and the fact as we well know that in the U.S. certainly, depending on the denomination you’re in, deacon means one thing or something quite different. So, the question becomes then, you know, not just, “What does the Greek mean?” but, “What kind of English word do we choose that’s going to communicate to the large majority?” So, we eventually went with deacon, I think, in Romans 16:1, Phoebe as a deacon of the church in Cenchrea, and of course, put servant, I think, in the footnote which no one has ever seen perhaps. That’s right, and then we also added an explanation of what we meant by deacon to try to head off people who might take what we were doing in the wrong way.
(Moderator) And Doug, I think it’s important that at this point you explain what the 70% rule is.
(Douglas Moo) CBT since the beginning has instituted a policy and all its revisions that in order to revise the existing NIV text, a vote of approximately 70% of the members is required. So, it’s a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach respecting the very good work that the translators before us have done.
(Jeannine Brown) So we really say in the end, if you want to know where we disagreed and argued, look at the footnotes. Check out that apple. It could be a caramel.
(Moderator) Okay, Sarah, back to you.
(Audience Member) I really appreciate the work you guys do. Thank you. Going back to the text critical apparatus and the manuscript tradition, I was just wondering if you could explain the reasoning behind the way you treat the longer ending in Mark and the adulterous woman.
(Douglas Moo) I’m just glad that Dr. Craig Blomberg isn’t here right now. He would express himself pretty strongly. Yeah. I think there are pretty serious differences of opinion on CBT on that one. All I would say is that if you’re a careful reader of the NIV, you will note that in each edition, those texts get smaller and smaller.
(Moderator) Okay. Last question over here.
(Audience Member). Thank you. I’m Ralph Hawkins from Averett University. I’m just thinking about going back to what Dr. Moo mentioned early on wanting to avoid, I think you called in Biblish, church-ese, or whatever. In the classroom, I find that it’s more and more difficult, students are less and less familiar with words that those of us in the church, you know, church-related academic institutions, think of as sacred words like covenant, you know, but that’s not a word that we use much in our society. We might use it in a mortgage contract or a marriage document maybe. Ark of the covenant, atonement, words that we think of as sacrosanct. When do we, like the USB Guide to Translating Joshua suggests translating ark of the covenant as the treaty box. I’m not sure like atonement, but, you know, in a culture where these words don’t make any sense, they’re just completely unfamiliar, when do we move from retaining sacrosanct words and insisting that people learn them or finding some kind of colloquial expression that can speak to our readers? I’m not trying to imply an answer. I’m asking. Thank you.
(Moderator) Doug, as chair of the CBT, I think it’s your responsibility to answer the last question.
(Douglas Moo) I’m trying to speak for my colleagues here. Certainly, all translators struggle at exactly that point. The only thing I guess I would say, and this might just be my personal opinion, is that in working in any discourse, there are certain technical terms that go with the discourse that most people are able to handle. I think of different genres that people read books in our day whether it’s a spy novel, mystery novel, military novel. The readers will be introduced into a world that’s a bit strange to them with a certain vocabulary particular to that world. If they just keep reading, I think most people are able to start getting a sense of what’s going on even though the language is somewhat technical.