The CBT entered dangerous territory when it proposed revising the world’s most beloved psalm.

Adjusting Sacred Words

When the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) took a look at Psalm 23 during revision sessions for the 1984 and 2011 New International Versions, its members were fully aware of the trouble they might get into with Christians ages 4 to 104 if they altered the words of the beloved psalm.

Psalm 23 is often among the first passages of Scripture young Christians memorize.

No CBT member wants to make unnecessary changes to any Bible passage. However, the CBT’s mandate to maintain an accurate and faithful version of the Bible by periodically reviewing and updating the NIV means that its members must consider how to make all of Scripture more precise, even if it means altering beloved verses.

In the 1984 edition of the NIV, Psalm 23:4 had read: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” But the verse’s original Hebrew doesn’t refer to death, noted CBT member Karen Jobes. It refers to darkness.

“Death was an interpretation of the original Hebrew that was in the King James,” Jobes said, adding that the King James Version influenced most of the English translations that followed.

The alternate translation, “darkness,” had always been in the NIV’s footnotes for verse four, but in the 2011 revision, the CBT decided to break with tradition and put the more precise rendering in the main text. The verse now reads, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley.”

Though the NIV has departed from the traditional translation, Jobes believes the translators have helped to make the verse more precise than ever before. “We may feel we’re in the valley of darkness in lots of different ways other than with impending death,” Jobes said.

When translating from one language to another, whether from Spanish to Chinese or ancient Greek to modern English, words and phrases rarely translate exactly one-for-one. The CBT can get very close to the meaning of the original language, but there will always be the opportunity make the NIV translation more precise as new discoveries in scholarship are made and modern English usage changes.

“Accuracy and clarity have to trump tradition,” CBT member Karen Jobes said. “Sometimes we ‘ruin’ our own favorite verses for the sake of accuracy and clarity.”

In 2011, the CBT also adjusted the language of verse one: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” A 21st-century reader would not use the phrase “in want” in conversation. To make it more digestible for modern readers, it now reads, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”

“It makes clear sense for the reader,” CBT member Paul Swarup said. “These are all the ways in which we make it absolutely clear what the original text means, and make it relevant.”