Lost in Translation(s): The New NIV and the Biblical Languages

Lost in Translation(s): The New NIV and the Biblical Languages

Translations are a big deal. I mean, most people do not have access to God’s Word in the original Hebrew (OT) and Greek (NT). This is one of the reasons studying biblical languages is so valuable: it enables us to understand translations and why they differ. But for most people the translations are there in order to know what God has said about who he is and what he’s done. No wonder there is more than a little fuss every time there is a new translation – or, worse, a new version of an old translation.

Since it was first released in 1973 (updated slightly in 1978 and 1984) the New International Version (NIV) has been a favourite translation among evangelicals. We all know that the Bible is the world’s best-selling book… well the NIV is its best-selling translation. That means that the majority of people who the read the Bible in English read it in the NIV. Case made, I hope: the NIV is an important translation.

But 1973 is fast becoming a long time ago (eleven years before I was born!). Lots of things have changed since the 1970s: the way we use language has changed, culture has changed, biblical scholarship has changed. These factors, among others, influence Bible translations that seek to communicate God’s timeless truth in timely ways, NIV included. So in 2011 the NIV was revised (note: there was an attempt to revise the NIV in 2005 – the TNIV; but this project was abandoned). If you go to a Bible store and purchase an NIV, it will be slightly different from the one you knew before. In this little article, I want to say loud and clear that this update is a good thing because it is making God’s Word accessible to our times once again.  I want to take you through a few ways I have noticed that it does this.

A thing to be grasped?

For a long time Philippians 2:6 has baffled Bible translators: “(Christ Jesus), being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (NIV 1984). Grasped? What does that mean? It can’t mean that Jesus didn’t consider himself equal with God because the last verse has just told us that he is in very nature God. Fortunately, some scholars have done the hard work of examining all the ways in which the Greek word harpagmon has been used, and they’ve discovered that it sometimes conveys the sense of “exploit”. Now the verse makes sense: “(Christ Jesus), being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage” (NIV 2011). It’s not that Jesus didn’t consider himself God; it’s that although he was God he didn’t use that as an excuse not to become human: becoming a man wasn’t below him. This is now much clearer.


In a famous story often called “the parable of the Talents” (Matthew 25:14-30) we read about a man who goes on a journey and entrusts his wealth to his servants: “To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability” (25:15; NIV 1984). Now the problem is that “talent” has come exclusively to mean “special or natural ability.” So it looks to us like the man gave these servants abilities that they must use while he is away.  But “talent” also means “a weight of currency,” which is precisely what talanton (the Greek word in this passage) means: a weight of gold. No-one really uses the word talent like this anymore; so the 2011 NIV has it like this: “To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability.” The story can now be related more accurately: it is about their stewardship of the Master’s wealth, not their use of abilities.


Be honest: do you know what dropsy is? “There in front of him was a man suffering from dropsy” (Luke 14:2). How many times have you read that text and not really considered what this man actually had? If you look up dropsy in a medical dictionary you will find that it has to do with excess fluid collecting in the tissues of the body (nowadays called “oedema”). Wouldn’t it be nice if you could learn this simply by reading the text? “There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body” (NIV 2011).

Revelation of Jesus Christ?

Greek (the language behind the NT) can be quite complex. When we read in Revelation 1:1: “The revelation of Jesus Christ” (NIV 1984), we need to think a bit about what that could mean. Revelation about Jesus (Jesus is the object of the revelation)? Revelation that is Jesus (Jesus is the content of the revelation)? Revelation from Jesus (Jesus is the source of the revelation)? Perhaps you read that last line and thought “oh no! Does it have to be so complex?” It doesn’t. There are good reasons for taking it in the final sense: Jesus as the source of the revelation (e.g. at the end of the book Jesus says that he sent his angel to give this message; 22:16). “The revelation from Jesus Christ” (NIV 2011). Using the best insights from Bible scholars, the NIV is helping you to better understand God’s Word.

I could give many more examples, but this is a blog, not a book! I encourage you to read the NIV and find out for yourself. By the way, I’m not saying the NIV is the translation to use; different translations have different strengths and so I’d recommend you use multiple translations in your Bible study (e.g. ESV, NLT, NASB, NRSV). But since the NIV is the most-used translation of the world’s most important book it is worth appreciating some of the differences in its most recent revision.

So we see the value of being able to use the Bible in its original languages. But for those of us who stick with English, and in particular with the NIV, we have a good idea of what the original languages say, and therefore what God says. So take up and read.

Blog written by Bradley Trout.

Bradley is pursuing his Doctorate through Radboud University in Nijmegen, and is a member of GWC’s Evangelical Research Fellowship. Bradley is also Pastor at Mountain View Baptist Church in Lakeside. Bradly and his wife Rachel are passionate about God and people. It is their mission to “make disciples” through telling others about the good news of Jesus Christ.