Tag Archives: Bible translations

NIV Turns 50: An Interview with Douglas J. Moo

[Repost and discussion of an interview by Books at a Glance.]

One of the wisest things a Bible interpreter can do is become familiar with the best translations of Scripture in his or her own language. The NIV (New International Version), whether or not you agree with every aspect of its approach, is certainly one of the best in English. Credit for that goes to its thoughtful and informed translators–people such as Douglas J. Moo.

Moo is one of my favorite NT commentators. (His name appears seven times on my list of recommended commentaries.) He also serves as current Chair of the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), the body of translators that produces the NIV translation.

I’m posting this interview with Moo here because I think it gives helpful insights into the mindset of the NIV translators. If we understand the NIV’s translators better, we can make wiser use of the NIV translation.

Moo says lots of useful things in this interview. I especially noticed this sentence about translation philosophies:

“The key tension here is not form vs. meaning but, in practice, form vs. natural English.”

I find that sentence interesting because it avoids the fallacy that a translator needs to choose between (a) accurately conveying the form of an original text or (b) accurately conveying the meaning of the original text. Too often that is exactly the claim that you hear, especially from proponents of functional equivalence translations (otherwise known as dynamic equivalence or thought-for-thought–translations such as NIV or, more radically, the NLT).  Moo avoids that fallacy. Instead, he correctly understands that (a) all good translations aim to convey meaning accurately, and (b) all translations must continually make choices between following the form (sentence structure, etc.) of the text in the original language or the forms of natural English.

I also admire the way he expresses the NIV’s goals regarding decisions about gender:

To put it simply: our “agenda” on the CBT is clear and single: to put the meaning of the Scriptures into accurate, natural, and contemporary English. We view our gender decisions in this context – and only in this context. To render expressions in the original text that clearly refer to human beings in general with words such as “man,” “he,” etc., is to betray our mandate to put the Bible into accurate English.

Three things in response: (1) I think the updated NIV can be a great help in alerting readers to passages where gender decisions must be made, and to where they may have had false assumptions about what a passage actually says about gender (see here for an example from my own experience). (2) I think the NIV would do well to balance its valid concern for gender accuracy with an increased emphasis on other equally valid translation concerns, such as the concern to properly transmit number (singular vs. plural pronouns, for example). (3) I think it is time for those of us who have some legitimate concerns about the NIV’s gender choices (see 2) to stop insinuating they have an egalitarian agenda. The truth is, the CBT contains both members of egalitarian persuasion and members of complementarian persuasion, who agree on their goal to translate Scripture faithfully. We may (should) discuss the extent to which they achieve their goal, but I don’t think it is helpful to question their good intent.

Here is the beginning of the interview with Moo, hosted over on Books at a Glance:

If you’ve kept an eye on the headlines at all you are aware that 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the NIV, an enormously successful and influential Bible translation. To mark the celebration here at Books At a Glance, we are very pleased to have our good friend Dr. Douglas J. Moo, Chair of the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) here to talk to us about their work.

And here is Moo’s final sentence in this interview:

At some point – perhaps 8-10 years from now – we will probably release a new edition.

–>Read the rest of the interview here<–

 Random Addendum
(hey, that sounds nice!)

I’m reading through Galatians right now (repeatedly–about nine times in the last ten days or so), and I’m reading it in a variety of translations (ESV, NASB, NLT, NIV, plus a wee bit of Greek). The ESV is the translation I use most (see here), but here, for the record, are several places where I like the NIV translation of Galatians at least as well or maybe even better than the ESV:

Galatians 1:16 — Here the NIV actually follows the Greek more closely than the ESV does, relying more on immediate Greek vocabulary and less on contextual interpretive clues in its translation choice.

  • ESV: “to reveal his Son to me” (footnote: Greek in)
  • NIV: “to reveal his Son in me”

Galatians 3:16 — Here I don’t know which translation I prefer, but the NIV, interestingly, chooses a word that is more suggestive of the underlying Greek word (σπέρματι, or spermati, which was used to refer to, among other things: plant seeds, sperm, offspring, or anything possessing vital life force).

  • ESV: “to Abraham and to his offspring”
  • NIV: “to Abraham and to his seed”

Galatians 6:1 — Here the NIV, though less word-for-word (a slight negative), does a better job of recognizing that Paul is still talking about walking and living by the Spirit, as he was in the immediately preceding verses of chapter 5.

  • ESV: “you who are spiritual”
  • NIV: “you who live by the Spirit”

Thoughts about this interview, Douglas Moo, or the NIV translation? Share them in the comments below!

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On Translation Choices and Pastoral Concerns

This morning I noticed an example of the NIV being very politically correct–or, to be kinder, very pastorally aware:

The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. (1 Cor. 7:4)

The Greek text for this verse has no word that corresponds to the NIV word “yields.” The ESV translates the end of each sentence well: “but the husband/wife does.” This translation supplies the implied verb, “does.” The KJV does not supply any implied verb. So it is less clear but mirrors the Greek even more closely: “but the husband/wife.”

On Translation Choices…

In the NIV Paul sounds like he is urging voluntary mutual submission in this verse, rather than providing a reason why such submission is important. It is more likely, I think, that Paul is urging mutual submission in the previous verse (“The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband” 1 Cor. 7:3.) and then adding a reason why in this verse. In other words, I think verse verse 3 says what married people should do–give each other their conjugal rights–and verse 4 says why–because married people don’t possess autonomous authority over their own bodies.

There, I find myself being PC, too! There is no word “autonomous” in the Greek to soften the force of Paul’s assertion.

The ESV, interestingly, shows it agrees with my understanding of how verses 3 and 4 are related by adding a “for” at the start of verse 4, even though none is present in the Greek.

So is there any linguistic basis for the NIV’s choice here? There probably is, for the NIV is usually very intentional. I’m speculating here, because I don’t know what discussion the translation committee had on this verse. But I suspect the textual basis for their choice is found in the verb “have authority over.” They may understand this as “keep authority over,” concluding, therefore, that the opposite idea is to yield. But it seems odd to me, if this is really what Paul was thinking, that he would end his sentence with “but the husband/wife.” Rather, it would be more natural, if he understood the verb this way, to end, “but yields it.” This, of course, is how the NIV translates the end of the sentence. So the NIV provides what Paul should have said if their understanding of the verb is correct, not what Paul actually said!

At least, that’s my best guess at what’s happening linguistically here with the NIV.

Let me contrast the NIV and ESV translations another way. In the ESV, Paul is contrasting persons: Who has authority over the husband’s body? Not the husband but the wife. In the NIV, Paul is contrasting actions: What does the husband do with his body? Not rule it himself but yield it to his wife. I think the ESV reflects the Greek more accurately.

I quickly surveyed all 50 translations on Bible Gateway. If I counted correctly, only the Phillips, the Message, the NLT, and VOICE translations agree with the NIV here. That’s not proof that the NIV is wrong, but neither is it a ringing endorsement.

A few translations find other ways of “softening the blow,” such as EXB’s “The wife does not have full rights over her own body; her husband shares them…” This translation softens the blow at two points: by adding the word “full” before “rights” (but they add a note after “full rights” that provides a literal translation: “authority”) and by providing the word “shares” in the final clause, where the Greek gives no suggestion of anything being mutual.

Probably little real damage is done by NIV’s choice, and it may prevent some dangerous misapplication. But it’s yet another reminder of (a) how pastoral concerns can shape translation choices, and (b) the importance of comparing translations when we can.

And Pastoral Concerns

The pastoral concern that probably motivated the NIV translators is legitimate: We do not want to encourage abusive spouses to demand sexual rights from their spouses. Just as slave owners have pointed to texts commanding slaves to obey their masters, so abusive husbands have pointed to texts like this to convince their spouses that they must submit to abuse.

The pastoral problem is very real. So is there another way to address the problem besides rewriting Paul’s thoughts (as I think the NIV is doing)?

I think there is. I think the answer is to preach and teach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). We need to constantly discourage people from building theologies and practices on isolated proof-texts. I believe proof-texting can be legitimate and even important; the NT authors do it regularly as they quote the OT. But we must not use isolated proof-texts. Our proof-texts must reflect the whole counsel of God. We can do this by choosing proof-texts that are balanced within themselves. We can also do this by providing multiple proof-texts. And we can avoid proof-text problems by remembering that, according to Scripture, Scripture often requires explanation, not mere quotation (see Neh. 8:7-8).

Here is an example that parallels the problem in our text: The question of relating to civil authorities. Paul says some very hard-to-swallow things about this question, too:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Rom. 13:1-2)

Taken in isolation, this can be a dangerous proof text. But we don’t solve this problem by rewriting Paul. We don’t translate Paul like this: “Let every person be subject to those governing authorities which have been instituted by God.” (At least, I hope we don’t.) Rather, we recognize that Paul is stating a foundational principle. We quote this principle and feel its full force. Then we pull in other Scriptural data and recognized that there are exceptions. For example, the apostles said “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) and Jesus even commanded his disciples to flee authorities who tried to persecute them (Matt. 10:23).

If we apply these parallels to the question of conjugal rights and sexual submission in marriage, then several conclusions are suggested: (1) There are times when one spouse will need to tell the other, “I must obey God rather than you.” (2) There are times when a spouse will need to flee abuse.

Other passages could enrich our observations here. My point is that I think this kind of theological and expositional legwork is a good way to address the pastoral concerns of a text like 1 Corinthians 7:4. I appreciate when translations try to avoid leaving misimpressions. But I don’t appreciate when they do this by changing what the text actually says. So, in this case, I prefer the ESV over the NIV.

What do you think? Leave a comment and share your perspective.

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“If anyone does not provide for his relatives…”

(Old Facebook Post)

What does the Bible say about who is responsible to provide for the family? Google that question, and the first website listed will give this answer:

“A father is also to provide for his family. If he does not, he “denies the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). So a man who makes no effort to provide for his family cannot rightly call himself a Christian. This does not mean that the wife cannot assist in supporting the family—Proverbs 31 demonstrates that a godly wife may surely do so—but providing for the family is not primarily her responsibility; it is her husband’s.”

The next website references the same verse from 1 Timothy, with this commentary:

“1 Timothy 5:8 — As the head of the family (see next point), a man should provide, not just for himself, but for his whole household.”
Here, for review, is the full verse in the ESV:
“But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

At least six of the first ten Google results1 interpret the same verse in the same way. Only one might disagree. If you base your theology on Google, then you have a pretty strong consensus: 1 Timothy 5:8 teaches that husbands and fathers must provide for their families. But is it correct?

I think there are two problems with this interpretation. First, the context of the verse is not about fathers or husbands. It is not about caring for wives or children. It is about carrying for widows. The widows are older women, not children and–obviously–not wives. The only caregivers explicitly mentioned are “children and grandchildren” (or perhaps other descendants; the second word is a general term) and “believing women.” (“Believing women” are probably mentioned because the care of widows was generally seen as the responsibility of woman; it was often considered unfitting for a single man to care for a widow relative, and a married man would usually let his wife do the care-giving.)

No direct mention is made of husbands anywhere in the context except in the qualifications for enrolling widows under the church’s care; such a widow must have “been the wife of one husband”–a one-man woman, probably meaning not adulterous. And the only roles of husbands that are mentioned (indirectly) are their roles in satisfying the passions of their wives and helping them bear children. Even when discussing how younger widows will want to remarry, no mention is made of how they might be seeking a husband to provide for them. So nothing in the context suggests that 1 Timothy 5:8 is about the role of husbands.

This raises a question: If 1 Timothy 5:8 is about the care-giving duties of children, grandchildren, and believing women, then why the masculine terms in our verse? The ESV has three masculine pronouns: his, his, and he. Why the masculine language if men are not in focus?

This question leads me to my second problem with the Google interpretation of 1 Timothy 5:8: In the Greek text, there is no masculine subject in this verse! The updated NIV reflects this accurately: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” The Greek text, as I understand it, works like this: The first two times the ESV uses “his,” the Greek text simply has nouns with possessive endings–nouns that show that they belong to an individual, with no gender specification. Where the ESV uses “he,” the Greek has a third-person singular verb, again with no gender specification. So there is no grammatical reason to conclude that this verse is talking directly about males, let alone specifically about husbands and fathers.

Neither context nor grammar indicate that 1 Timothy 5:8 teaches that husbands are responsible to provide for their families. Does that mean they are not responsible? Of course not! I still think husbands and fathers bear a primary responsibility to care for their families. But we must base our teaching on other passages. And perhaps a corrected understanding of this verse will also allow us to hear the strength of other passages that speak of women providing for and managing their families. We men need all the help we can get!

Shopping for the perfect Bible translation?

I think we can learn a couple more lessons from this investigation:

  1. Gender-neutral translations are helpful. If you understand just a little about how gender works in the Greek, and if you understand the translation philosophies of the ESV and the NIV, for example (one favoring masculine pronouns and the other generally gender-neutral), then you can often guess what is happening on the Greek level just by comparing the two translations. The ESV tells you the Greek is singular; the NIV tells you the Greek uses language that can be–and sometimes, should be–gender-neutral. Comparing a gender-neutral translation can prevent false assumptions. (Of course, the reverse is also true!)
  2. It is futile to search for the perfect translation. “Translators are traitors,” as the famous Italian proverb goes. (I’ve always wondered what that proverb actually means in Italian!) In this case, we could ask, why does the ESV–and the KJV, and the majority of English translations–get this verse wrong? But the problem lies with the English language, not with the translators. In common English usage, we have no gender-neutral third person pronoun suitable for referring to persons2–no word for “s/he.” So translators must choose to either go with a generic (but misleading) masculine singular pronoun (as with the ESV), or else switch to the plural pronoun “they,” which is nicely gender-neutral but wrongly plural3 (as with the NIV).

There is no way to provide a perfectly “literal” and accurate translation. Even if you do this: “Anyone who does not provide for his or her relatives, and especially for his or her own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever,” then you have the problem of an awkward sentence with more complex syntax than the Greek. So there is no perfect translation. But that’s okay! If we do a little study, compare with other texts, and a possess good theological foundation, our translations are accurate enough to prevent us from adopting serious error.

So, what should we learn from 1 Timothy 5:8? If you have a parent or grandparent who needs your care–especially if he or she lives in your own house, and especially if she is a widow–then it is your Christian duty to do your best to ensure that he or she receives the needed care. Do you hear this, ladies? (And men.)

First two images courtesy of graur razvan ionut and Iamnee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

  1. At the time of this post; results will change.
  2. “It” doesn’t count, because it is used to refer only to non-persons.
  3. The NIV translators would disagree, and history will probably prove them right: “They” and “their,” if I remember correctly, were once commonly used for singular as well as plural purposes before wide-spread attempts to standardize English, and this usage seems to be the wave of the future as well. Currently, however, it still strikes many people as strange or misleading.

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