Search for comments on the new NIV by Google, and you will find bloggers talking about its “feminist agenda”, “Satan’s lies”, “end-time deception” and that “the homosexual community is excited about the new perversion of the Bible.” (They provided no statements from gay groups, expressing their glee). At its annual convention last year, the Southern Baptist Convention went so far as to condemn “this inaccurate translation of God’s inspired Scripture”, implying that it does so because it believes that God’s Word is infallible.
What’s the fuss? After all, every Bible version is updated and revised over the years; these revisions do not imply that the message of God’s Word is being altered: the NASB of today is not the original, but the 1995 revision. Nor is the “original” King James the 1611 version; it was updated continuously over the centuries. The ESV wins the prize: it was a revision of the National Council of Churches’ RSV (1971 edition); the ESV was published in 2001, revised in 2007 and revised again in 2011. The NIV itself was revised in 1984, and hardly anyone noticed. But few updates have caused a stir as the NIV 2011 has.
I’m not capable of evaluating the whole edition; nevertheless, for the last decade I have worked closely with the Greek text of 1 Corinthians, writing a Spanish-language commentary for CLIE publishers in Barcelona, Spain; my comments therein are based on the Spanish version of the NIV, called the Nueva Versión Internacional (NVI). Therefore, I do regard myself as qualified to evaluate the NIV 2011 rendering of 1 Corinthians, and I will do so with reference to NIV84, the Nueva Versión Internacional, the Nestle-Aland 27th edition of the Greek Testament and other translations. Since 1 Corinthians is a long book, we will look just at chapters 1-7.
I happen to believe that calling a Bible “satanic” is a grave act, and one that must be backed up with a careful evaluation of evidence, not with broad-brush comments that it is a “politically-correct” perversion.
I’ve gone through and compared 1 Cor 1-7 word-for-word and will mark the important changes in the NIV 2011 as an improvement on the 1984 version, inferior to the 1984, or equal to the 1984. Other alterations, which are not listed, are mere changes of order or the substitute for one word for another (for example, “in” becomes “within” in 1 Cor 1:5). Part II of this essay will deal with the hot issue of gender and the use of English pronouns in Bible translation; here in Part I we will deal with everything else.
My broad conclusion with reference to 1 Cor 1-7 is that the NIV 2011 is generally more reliable than the Spanish NVI and even more trustworthy than the NIV84. If anyone wishes to respond to my comments, please focus on these facts rather than sweeping generalizations; one can access the NIV 2011 here.
CHANGES FROM THE 1984 and the 2011 EDITIONS
Holy Spirit: with regard to a handful of verses concerning the Holy Spirit, the NIV 2011 is better than the 1984 edition. In fact, if the 2011 edition had improved only these references it would have justified the whole project of revision:
1 Cor 2:13-15, 3:1. We first quote the NIV 2011, putting the 1984 wording within brackets . The issue of gender-neutral language in 2:14 and 15 will be addressed in Part II.
2:13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words [1984: in spiritual words]. 14 The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit [spiritually discerned]. 15 The person with the Spirit [spiritual man] makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments…3:1 I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit [spiritual] but as people who are still worldly – mere infants in Christ.”
My Comments: The Greek word pneuma (πνεῦμα) can refer to a human spirit or to God’s Holy Spirit; in the original Paul did not capitalize the word when it refers to God’s Spirit, since capitalizing proper nouns was not the practice in the Greek of the first century. Thus it is the job of the modern editor to capitalize references that appear to refer to the Holy Spirit, for example in Rom 8:9 NKJV – “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you”; or to the human spirit as in Gal 6:18 NKJV – “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
It is commonly agreed that when Paul uses pneuma he usually is referring to the Holy Spirit, that is, we do well to capitalize the word in the English versions. Similarly, when he uses the adjective pneumatikos (πνευμάτικος), he could mean “spiritual” but usually he means “Spirit-ual”, that is “having to do with the (Holy) Spirit”. That is why we should take 1 Cor 12:1, not about “spiritual things” but “things of the Spirit” (using the adjective pneumatikos), in this case the Spirit’s gifts.
I have to chuckle when I hear how some use the word “spiritual” today. When people seek romance, they describe themselves as, let’s say, “warm, open-minded, spiritual, likes music and long walks on the beach.” In this case, “spiritual” means “I’m a really deep person, thus romantically desirable”. But that’s not what Paul mean by the word. In verse after verse of his letters, a “spiritual” person is “a person of the Spirit”, whom we receive through the New Covenant.
In 1 Cor 2-3 the NIV 2011 underscores that meaning, as does the Good News Bible. Rather than “spiritual words” it chooses the better option, that Paul is speaking of “Spirit words” or more smoothly “Spirit-taught words”. A “spiritual man” is not someone who, like in the romance ads, is in touch with his feelings; rather it is a person who has the Holy Spirit. Once we understand that one of the legitimate meanings of the pneumaword group is “Spirit, of the Spirit”, and that in Paul’s mouth that is the usual sense, then the 2011 version is a careful, literal rendering of the original Greek. This translation decision is one of the most positive improvements of the 2011 version over the 1984 and also the Spanish NVI. [Note: one could only wish that the NIV were consistent in 1 Cor 15:44b (also 46), with "If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body." Paul does not speak, as the Jehovah's Witnesses claim, of a body "made up of spirit", that is, incorporeal, but rather a body given "by the Spirit", see Eph 1:17-20, 1 Pet 3:18].
“You are temples”: Twice in 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the metaphor of a temple to describe the people of God. Here too the NIV 2011 improves on the NIV84:
1 Cor 3:16-17, 6:19-20. In 1 Cor 3 Paul uses the metaphor of a “building”, a comparison he later makes into the Temple of God in 3:16-17. The people of God is the dwelling place of the Spirit of God himself: “16 Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 17 If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (3:16-17 NKJV). Some have interpreted 3:16-17 as a parallel to 1 Cor 6:19, that is, so that 3:16 would mean that the Spirit lives in every individual Christian: “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?” (6:19 NKJV).
Nevertheless, it seems as if Paul is using the temple metaphor in different ways in 1 Corinthians. In 1 Cor 6:19, every Christian is a temple. A church of 100 people is a church of 100 moveable temples of God’s presence. That is why the Christian must live a holy life. But in 1 Cor 3, Paul has said that the whole church is a building (3:9-15) which is also a temple (3:16-17). Paul warns people that they must not harm the church, that is “destroy God’s temple”. In this case a church of 100 people is like one single temple of God. Later, in Eph 2:21, he again uses “temple” of the whole people of God, as also in 2 Cor 6:16 (and see 1 Pet 2:4-8).
Although Paul uses similar terms in 1 Cor 3 and 6, it is very clear from the context that he uses “temple” language with two applications. In fact, it is a distinctively “Pauline” style, to use one and the same metaphor but in different ways, according to the need of the moment (see for example, how the church is a “body with different parts” in 1 Cor 12, but in Ephesians it is “the body, of which Christ is the head”).
The NIV84 (also the NVI) does not make that distinction clear. In 3:16 it has “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?”, leaving ambiguous that which the context makes clear, that there is one temple in view. The NIV 2011 is not a paraphrase of 1 Cor 3:16-17; it is one way to literally translate the Greek “you are the temple of God” (ναὸς θεοῦ ἐστε), giving it the meaning that Paul intends in the context: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” and in 3:17 “you together are that temple”. Then in 6:19 he takes a new turn: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples…” The NIV 2011 is a clear improvement by making the distinction more explicit (as does the New Living Translation).
Sexual and Marital Terminology: There are several controversial passages in 1 Corinthians that have to do with sexual and marital relations. In two cases, the NIV 2011 is a clearer reflection of the Greek original; in the difficult verse 7:36 it offers a change that is legitimate but not necessarily an improvement.
1 Cor 6:9 Paul gives a “vice list” of people who will be excluded from God’s kingdom on Judgment Day. The first group is the “sexually immoral” (pornoi), a broad category of those who engage in any sort of illicit relations, that is, sex apart from marriage. The list then mentions “adulterers”, that is, people whose sexual affairs transgress someone’s marriage vows. Later in the verse are two words that have raised a great deal of difficulty; I won’t include all the data, only to say that most of the major commentaries agree with my interpretation.
The first word is malakoi. This term can mean “soft”; but when used in a sexual sense it refers to men or boys who voluntarily submit themselves sexually to another man. The major Greek dictionary, BDAG, offers the definition “pertaining to being passive in a same-sex relationship, effeminate especially of catamites, of men and boys who are sodomized by other males in such a relationship.” The NIV84, the NRSV and the NLT mistranslate malakoi as “[homosexual] male prostitutes”, but prostitution is not inherent in the word’s meaning. Paul says nothing about their motivation or sexual orientation, but focuses on action or conduct. For this and other reasons, the traditional rendering of malakoi as “effeminate” is problematic (as NKJV, NASB), since today the word is typically defined as pertaining to boys who speak or walk in a certain way, or use gestures which are commonly associated with women, but who do not necessarily practice homosexual sex. It is the sexual practice that Paul refers to here.
The second word arsenokoitai appears in the New Testament here and in 1 Tim 1:10. The BDAG lexicon has “a male who engages in sexual activity with a person of his own sex”, a precise and accurate definition, and once again, correctly emphasizing activity rather than sexual orientation. The word in 1 Cor 6:9 should not be translated as “homosexuals”, as in the NASB. The reason is that for the last century and a half, “homosexual” has been defined in terms of one’s sexual orientation. That is not at all what Paul means – the two words malakoi and arsenokoitai do not refer to orientation, but to behavior. The rendering of arsenokoitai as “homosexual offenders” in the NIV84 (similarly HCSB, “anyone practicing homosexuality”) is not much better, since the original Greek refers only to males – that is, not women who practice homosexual sex, as in Rom 1:26; plus, again, for us the word “homosexual” conveys that a man has sex with a man because of his sexual orientation. The Spanish NVI with its “pervertidos sexuales” (sexual perverts) is way too general and completely misses the mark (similarly GNB, NRSV). The KJV does not use the word “homosexual”; in fact, the term was invented only in 1869, by a German-Hungarian physician. The KJV’s “abusers of themselves with men”, while a bit abstract, is a better translation than “homosexuals”. To conclude, arsenokoitai is probably a broader term than malakos. Some have suggested that arsenokoitai are the active (or “male”) partners, as BDAG “of one who assumes the dominant role in same-sex activity”; nevertheless, this nuance is not certain.
In my opinion, for pinpoint-accurate translation the NET Bible wins the award with its “passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals” – it’s the best, that is, for Bible students who have a high threshold for frank language. Also entirely accurate is the NIV 2011, which chose to take these two words, which to some extent are synonymous and overlap, and to combine both into the one English expression “men who have sex with other men.” The ESV likewise combines the terms into one with its “men who practice homosexuality”, a translation which is better than some but not as precise as the NIV 2011 (the new NIV is, inexplicably, less accurate when it translates arsenokoitai as “those practicing homosexuality” in 1 Tim 1:10). The NIV 2011 offers an accurate and literal translation of 1 Cor 6:9; in fact, apart from the NET Bible, I know of no version, be it the KJV, ESV or NLT, that captures the original so clearly and frankly. That is why I am dumbfounded by claims that “the NIV 2011 is evil, catering to the homosexual agenda”; or that “the Devil’s feminist, homosexual, abortionist crowd wants to produce a unisex Bible [the NIV 2011] that doesn’t condemn the sin of homosexuality.” Apparently the hypothetical gay and lesbian revisionists of the NIV forgot to purge from the new edition, not only 1 Cor 6:9, but also Lev 18:22, Lev 20:13, Rom 1:26-27, and 1 Tim 1:10. In fact, every verse that censures homosexual acts stands out unmistakably and accurately in the NIV 2011, and 1 Cor 6:9 NIV 2011 is the most accurate rendering of all. If anyone can produce for me a member of “the homosexual community” who is ”excited about the new perversion of the Bible” I would surely like to meet him or her, so I can ask, “What gives?”
1 Cor 7:1 “Now for the matters you wrote about: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’” Note that this sentence is taken as a quotation of an idea of the Corinthians – they wanted Paul to confirm their view that a life of abstinence is inherently more holy (see Quotations from the Corinthians, below). Some Corinthians wondered if for a man all sexual contact is wrong – or at least, not the best option – whether in or out of marriage; 7:2-7 shows that that’s what Paul understood it to mean. The NIV84 has “it is good for a man not to marry”, but this translation is simply incorrect; it reads more into the verse than the Greek will bear. The original is literally “not touch (from haptō, ἅπτω) a woman”; it was a well-known euphemism for sexual contact (see Gen 20:6; Prov 6:29). The NIV 2011 is a clear winner over the 1984 version. The ESV and NLT are similar and thus equally accurate; the NASB, NRSV and KJV have “not touch a woman”, which is correct and literal but not as clear to the modern reader, who cannot be expected to be familiar with a first-century Greek euphemism.
1 Cor 7:36 is a difficult verse on several levels. The NIV 2011 has “If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants.” Like the editors of all English translations, the NIV team had to make certain decisions about Paul’s language. First, does Paul address the father of a virgin girl (NASB), or a man who is engaged to that girl? The Greek could allow either. The NIV 2011, 1984 and the NVI take it that this speaks of a man and his fiancée; I agree with that interpretation. Another issue is the phrase that the NIV 2011 translations “if his passions are too strong”; although it seems to be a very different meaning, the NIV84 has “and she is getting along in years” while the NVI has “and she has reached sexual maturity.” I am in favor of the NIV84 on this phrase. Nevertheless, the verse is complicated enough that I will mark it as yellow. The NIV 2011 is fine, but trades one “possible” meaning for another.
Quotations from the Corinthians: On several occasions, Paul is apparently quoting the “slogans” of certain Corinthians. For example, “all things are lawful” in 1 Cor 6:12, 10:23 reflects the libertine stance of some of his disciples, not a principle that Paul wishes to affirm as such. For that reason, some versions put quotation marks around the statement; even though the Greek did not have quotation marks, the editors of an English translation add them to help the reader. The NIV 2011 helpfully goes even further, as seen in 1 Cor 6:12 – “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say…” It adds “you say” here and in 6:13 in order to make it crystal clear that Paul is quoting someone else’s idea.
1 Cor 6:12, 10:23 “I have the right to do anything” was “Everything is permissible for me” in the NIV84 and its equivalent in the Spanish NVI. Both renderings are superior to “All things are lawful for me” in the ESV, NRSV and NASB, since the word “lawful” might make the reader think of the Roman law or the Law of Moses – neither of which is in view in this context. It is probable that the Corinthians were following certain Stoic ideas, which stated that the truly wise and philosophical person is not constrained by outside forces. The NIV 2011 is somewhat better at capturing that idea.
1 Cor 6:13 “You say, ‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.’” The NIV 2011 makes the quote longer than the 1984 edition, making “and God will…” part of the quoted material: some Corinthians were saying that they could sin with the body, since God was going to destroy the body anyway. The NIV84 and NVI with many versions end the quote with “the stomach for food”. Nevertheless that would seem to contradict what Paul goes on to say in 6:13-14, that the body belongs to the Lord and in fact, God will resurrect it just as he raised Christ. This passage has a strong parallel with 1 Cor 15:32, where some Corinthians deny the resurrection: Yes, says Paul “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’” But in fact, God will raise the body, so we should be holy. So, Paul does not agree with the idea that “God will destroy the body”. The NIV 2011 is much better here by putting that error in the mouths of some Corinthians.
1 Cor 1:2 “called to be his holy people” might be clearer than “called to be holy” in 84 and NVI, but it is only a marginal improvement.
1 Cor 1:10 “I appeal to you…that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you.” The 1984 has “I appeal to you…that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you…” The NIV 2011 (also the NKJV’s “speak the same thing”) technically is more literal than the 1984 and the NVI, but I’m not convinced a literal translation communicates in English what the phrase would communicates to a speaker of Greek. “Say the same thing” [τὸ αὐτὸ λέγητε] is an idiomatic expression for fundamental agreement, not simply verbal agreement. A chip each for the NIV84, the NASB, the NRSV, the ESV and the NVI for understanding it as a metaphor and not pressing a literal equivalent. (This verse also contains an issue about how to translate adelphoi in this verse, concerning which see Part II).
1 Cor 2:7 “No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that…”; compare with 1984’s “No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that…”, similar to the NVI. In my opinion either rendering is valid.
1 Cor 2:9 – “However, as it is written: ‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’ – the things God has prepared for those who love him.” The NIV84 and NVI place the close quotes at the end of the entire verse. The first two phrases (in italics) are taken from Isa 64:4 – “From ages past we have not heard, nor have our eyes seen any God besides you, and your works, which you will do to those who wait for mercy” (NETS version of the Septuagint). The third phrase, “no human mind has conceived”, is not from Isaiah, and the end of the section is only similar to the Septuagint. It is perhaps Paul’s own extension of Isaiah’s language, or maybe a Jewish tradition based on Isaiah which Paul found ready-made. The church Father Origen, Commentary on Matthew 27.3-10, claimed to have seen the whole reference in a certain Apocalypse of Elijah, but his testimony is questionable. The NIV84 and the NASB place the close quote at the end of the verse; they seem to take the whole section as a paraphrase of Isa 64:4 LXX. It is a difficult enough verse that we cannot say that NIV 2011 is an obvious improvement.
1 Cor 3:9 “For we are co-workers in God’s service” is less literal than the NIV84: “For we are God’s fellow workers.” Part of the problem here is that some Christians find repugnant the idea that humans work in synergy with God; nevertheless that is the language that Paul uses. I agree with the paraphrase by Fitzmyer, First Corinthians, 195-96: “those who work together with God and are engaged in a common endeavor with God himself, who is the principal worker.”
1 Cor 6:2 “the Lord’s people will judge the world” rather than the more literal 1984 version, “the saints will judge the world.” There are a number of places where the NIV 2011 and other versions shy away from the word “saints,” in order to avoid the idea of a saint as a particularly exalted Christian such as St. Augustine or St. Clare. Unfortunately, removing “saints” eliminates that contrast that Paul makes in 1 Cor 6:1, 9-10 between the “holy ones” and the “unrighteous”.
1 Cor 6:4 Paul rejects the practice of suing other Christians before a local judge. This verse is one of the difficult interpretive cruxes of 1 Corinthians, since grammatically there are three possible right translations: (1) If this is such an important matter, then why do you appoint those of little account in the church? (2) Since even the lowest Christian is better than a worldly judge, appoint even those of little account in the church! (3) You have allowed gentiles to judge your cases, therefore yielding to the opinions of those who are not valued by the church. The NIV 2011 and the NLT follow (3), whereas the NIV84 follows (2). The NVI, NKJV, ESV and NASB follow (1). Given the difficulty of the verse, we mark the NIV 2011 with yellow; it is not an obvious improvement on the 1984 version.
Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica