Sunday 28 June 2015

The NIV - how accurate is it?

The New International Version of the Bible (NIV) is a favourite among evangelically-minded Christians. It has been around since 1978 in the 66 book version that is standard in many churches (the New Testament was first released in 1973). There have been a number of updates and spin-offs since, but it has retained broad appeal despite a plethora of competing English translations. There have reportedly been 450 million copies sold, a nice solid earner for Rupert Murdoch's Zondervan and HarperCollins.

But is it any good? Well, that depends on your criteria for "good". Perhaps a better question might be, is it accurate?

Paul Davidson has been documenting the dodgy bits of the NIV for a long time, and he keeps digging up dubious translation choices. He's just added three new mistranslations to an impressively documented online article. It's a great resource.

It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to find that agenda-driven translators think it's okay to paper over the bits that they think are problematic. (How many of these issues have persisted through to the 2011 revision, the TNIV and NIVr - love those acronyms! - would be interesting to know.)

So back to the question. How accurate is the NIV?

Short answer: not very.


  1. How accurate can any version be? Look at the process they go through to prepare these translations. For each verse, many - sometimes hundreds or thousands - of variant versions need to be considered. These "source documents" are all copies of copies of copies of copies, ad infinitum, and vary from one another in many ways both large and small. None date to anywhere near the dates of the originals. All have changed over time, both unintentionally and intentionally, in ways we can only guess. Add to that the fact that these are written in ancient languages of which we have only limited understanding, often using idioms which have no English translation, often using period references we can only guess at and often based on the "logic" of the era of their writing (and revision) which we cannot begin to comprehend.

    How does one decide which "source documents" are most reliable? Is it the majority? The oldest? Those most consistent with other scriptures? Some other basis?

    On top of all this, translators naturally each come with their own set of preconceived ideas, beliefs and mindsets.

    For each verse, dozens of expert translators come up with their own best translation, then sit in a committee and compare their recommendations with those of their peers, then discuss, debate and vote on a final version.

    "Accurate"? What can that even mean in such a situation?

  2. A good question and thanks for the resources.

    Another good question is, "does it matter?"

  3. I think Davidson is parsing some passages with a little too much imagination. I had a look at his viewpoint on Genesis 37:28. The question pivots on whether the Midianites or Joseph's brothers drew him out of the pit. Supposedly, two traditions are present here (suggestive if Biblical contradiction) and the one tradition is masked by the artful wording of the NIV translators.

    I could not identify the two "traditions" he is talking about. I think the word tradition is a little too heavy. I think maybe he sees one tradition in verses 25 - 27 which implies the brothers would draw him out - the brothers guilty throughout. But then we have an "accurate" translation that says the Midianites did the drawing out and, though farfetched, this may be construed as different "tradition".

    I am not an expert in Hebrew. So I looked at a number of different translations, including a Jewish translation, and the problem is the word "they". Who does it refer to? The Midianites or the brothers? The Jewish translation votes for the Midianites. NIV votes for the brothers. Maybe they both did it - a Midianite on one end of the ladder and Judah on the other end. Who cares?

    While this is just one sample, it does put me on alert.

    (And, right. I know the drill. There is no god and there was no Joseph and this account was plagiarized and its all a fable.)

    -- Neotherm

    1. I personally believe there is a God and He's very nice, even if He's left a mess in some parts of the Universe with His experiments. Still, making a planet a solid diamond is impressive. It's too bad that He's been made out as a nasty selfish Corporate CEO in some segments of religion. But I could be wrong.

      Anyway, don't despair, since the Bible is the basis of Western Civilization (of which New Zealand is a part, if not technically, based on location), it isn't all bad. So what if some of it may be myth and some books may be forgeries (not plagiarized -- we should look into that allegation!), it's done stellar work to forward civilization after leaving it in the Dark Ages for awhile. It's too bad it's been the basis of wars and oppression along with slavery and discrimination, but that may be because something was lost in the translation.

      There's no reason to believe that the Bible isn't inspired. A Boeing engineer may be struggling with a difficult problem when he takes a break and is inspired by some music by Mozart -- he goes forth and finds an optimum solution to his problem, thanks to Mozart. Now Mozart probably didn't know one thing about Boeing engineering, but that doesn't matter because he inspired the solution after all. You know, you can't take this Inspiration thing to restrictively because you might... ah... miss the point of the Inspiration.

      Now the Bible is really useful for the one thing I admire most about it: It disproves the religion of Armstrongists and shows them to be utter hypocrites.

      For that alone, we should preserve and protect the sanctity of the Bible....