It happened quietly and without fanfare, but it happened nonetheless: this past month the NIV translation of the Bible was revised and updated.
My favorite online research tool, Bible Gateway, now gives the option of displaying “New International Version 1984” (NIV1984 for short) or “New International Version 2010” (which inherits the plain old “NIV” designation). In other words: last month, “NIV” meant the 1984 version, but this month, “NIV” means the 2010 version. Not sure what marketing genius was behind this nomenclature, but it’s sure to complicate things for everyone. (“I’m reading from the NIV.” “Which NIV?”).
There’s an intriguing back story to this development. In 1997 Zondervan announced it was going to revise the New International Version – at that time the world’s best-selling Bible – to make it gender-neutral. Christians balked at the publisher’s capitulation to feminist ideology. Because the decision was made in a back room with little public interaction, WORLD magazine dubbed the project “The Stealth Bible.” Facing a tremendous backlash from its core market, Zondervan scrapped the plan and left the NIV unchanged.
A few years later, the publisher quietly released a gender-neutral version called the TNIV (for Today’s New International Version). But in the meantime, Crossway had published the English Standard Version, a warm and readable translation which retained the masculine pronouns of the Greek and Hebrew text. The ESV rapidly gained market share; TNIV sales fell flat. Apparently, the NIV 2010 (or just plain NIV?) is Zondervan’s attempt to breathe new life into the NIV.
A few editorial observations:
- If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. When you have a strong product that enjoys over 50% of the market share (which the NIV had prior to 1997), why would you tinker with it? Execs at Zondervan are undoubtedly asking that question as they watch their market share decline.
- As a general rule, for-profit publishers holding copyrights for Bible translations is a bad idea. It leads to a proliferation of “new translations” which are really just profit engines for publishers. We don’t need any new English Bible translations; the ones we have are more than adequate. But don’t expect the flood of new versions to stop. The publishers are making good money. (This is one reason I prefer the New American Standard Bible, whose copyright is held by a nonprofit foundation.)
- Clamoring to adapt to the latest cultural fashion isn’t always a great idea… because fashions change. Even the conventions for gender-inclusive writing have changed. In the 90’s, the standard was to use “he/she,” “him/her,” etc. But writers and editors soon left the clunkiness of that format behind, choosing instead to alternate back and forth between male and female pronouns. Likewise, “humankind” was all the rage for awhile, but “mankind” is back – because it’s intuitively obvious that mankind includes everyone.
Zondervan’s attempt to be more sensitive to gender-conscious readers is in many ways commendable. On the downside, it makes for less fluid reading. As an example:
- Romans 8:29 (NIV1984): 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
- Romans 8:29 (NIV2010): 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
Of course, “brothers and sisters” draws out the full intent of the text. But I contend that it’s intuitively obvious – even to the newest Bible reader – that “brothers” means “brothers and sisters.” Does translating it that way explicitly, every time, really make for a more readable translation? Or does it merely insult the reader’s intelligence?
Regardless of your answer to that question, be advised: if you read the NIV, the NIV you get for Christmas won’t be the same as the NIV on your shelf. Now you won’t be confused.