How does a modern Bible translation like the NIV come about? Baptist minister David Instone-Brewer got a unique opportunity to find out when he was invited to join with a committee of translators. I’ve often wondered how a modern Bible translation is made and especially how a committee can do it – after all, forming a committee is often the last thing to do if you want a task to succeed! The mystery was solved for me when I was asked to join the Committee for Bible Translation (CBT). Here’s what I discovered…

I arrived at my first meeting in Colorado Springs in America having firmly shelved all presuppositions about who my colleagues on the committee would be. Sure enough, the CBT is a mixture of sexes and ages - but it is, to put it bluntly, mostly made up of old men. Quite soon, though, I discovered that these men’s brains - and even their bodies - were fitter than mine. They appear to be living proof that Bible translation is a cure for the aging process. One evening, straight after dinner, I climbed the highest peak in the beautiful Garden of the Gods, next to our conference centre, only to find that another scholar who is in his 70s was already there, admiring the view.

It is these scholars, and some who have now retired, who gave us the New International Version (NIV) – a Bible trusted throughout the world for its accuracy and its fine English style. Having completed that translation, the process to produce a Bible for the next generation started again and resulted in the publication of Today’s New International Version (TNIV) in 2001.

Once more the translation removed the language barriers that often hamper evangelism by employing vibrant understand-it-firsttime English.

The next revision of the TNIV is due in about 2010. “What’s to revise?” I hear you ask. Well, we are concerned mainly with those verses where we now know that the translation could have been better. I wasn’t surprised at all by the incredible language skills, scholarship and deep faith of my colleagues, but I was amazed at their devotion to detail - and, above all, their determination that an ordinary nontheologically minded reader should be able to grasp God’s message as though God had originally spoken in their own language.

Inspiration and translation

The Muslim view of inspiration is very different to that of Christians. In fact, it prevents them from translating their holy book, the Qur’an. They can produce something which suggests the meaning, but believe the only correct way to hear God’s message is in Arabic.

Christians and Muslims also have different beliefs about the inspiration of scripture. Muslims believe that God dictated the words to Mohammed, who was no more inspired than a secretary. Christians, however, believe that the Bible’s authors were themselves inspired when they received the message of God, so that they were able to deliver it using their own words. Ancient Jews similarly believed that ‘God speaks the language of common humanity’. They revered translations of the Scriptures almost as highly as the Hebrew text itself so that, for example, they were allowed to break the Sabbath by entering a burning building to rescue a person, the Hebrew Scriptures - or a translation of them. They always read the Hebrew text in the synagogue, but it was usually accompanied by a translation into Greek or Aramaic depending on the main language of the congregation, because they believed the primary purpose of God’s message is to communicate.

Christians have not traditionally regarded any one translation as inspired, although sometimes a translation became so revered that it was regarded as authoritative. For example, in the fifth century Augustine regarded the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament as so authoritative that he criticised Jerome for basing his Latin translation on the original Hebrew instead of the Greek translation.

Later, in the sixteenth century, William Tyndale came under attack because he based his translation of the New Testament on the original Greek instead of the Latin translation. The saga continued when Tyndale’s translation was revised into a version acceptable to King James. This has now become, for many believers, an authoritative translation. Some churches even teach that the King James Version (KJV) is the original text, and not a translation!

Why another version?

To bring things right up to date, the NIV is so universally accepted that it is sometimes jokingly referred to as the ‘Nearly Infallible Version’. It was therefore courageous for the committee to decide to create a new version.

I should admit that I had misgivings about the TNIV because of some of the things I had heard about it. Have you heard that the TNIV is the translation from Hell, which is soft on homosexual practice and portrays God as female? I confess that I had listened to comments like this without looking at the translation itself, but once I did so, I found them completely without foundation. See, for example, TNIV 1 Corinthians 6:9-10: “Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers, nor male prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

My second misgiving applies to all Bible versions which do not present a literal word-for-word translation. This is mainly because I prefer to use the Hebrew and Greek originals with an English translation merely to help me find my place. Mind you, even the KJV is often not literal enough for this purpose. When the Hebrew says, ‘God’s nose grew hot’, the KJV translates it, ‘God burned with anger’ (Exodus 4:14 and about 50 other places). This type of paraphrase is used by virtually all English translations, including the TNIV, because they all follow the principle of William Tyndale who wanted to translate into English which “even a ploughboy could understand”.

The aim of a Bible translation is not to turn each Hebrew or Greek word into an equivalent English word. It is to convey the message of God - which He transmitted in the human speech of the time - in the human speech of today. As Bible translators, we only do half the job if we stop when we have translated the words, because idioms and thoughtforms change and if we do not translate these also, the wrong message will be conveyed. It is rather like when my daughter asks me to thank her grandmother for her “wicked” birthday present. When I pass on her thanks, I will not use the word “wicked”!

Lost in translation?

During the committee meetings we dealt with some interesting examples where even the present TNIV can cause confusion. For example the accusation in Mathew 11:19 that Jesus was a ‘glutton and a drunkard’ because he loved attending parties. The literal translation of the Greek word translated ‘drunkard’ is ‘wine drinker’, however ‘wine drinker’ was not the word translators used because the context implies stronger language (since everyone drank wine, and it was even compulsory at Passover). But we do have a problem too with using the word ‘drunkard’ as this suggests that Jesus was inebriated – again not the literal translation. In the end we settled on the English idiom ‘heavy drinker’. Before the meeting we had all studied the problem and brought various suggestions, but it wasn’t until we’d debated for a long time that someone proposed this solution - even though it now seems obvious. I began to see just how the Holy Spirit is able to work with a committee.

Another place where the literal Greek is misleading in English is Matthew 18:15 which reads literally, ‘If your brother sins…’ In English this could imply that female believers don’t sin! In Greek the word ‘brother’ often means ‘sibling’, but this sounds clumsy in English, so the TNIV adds ‘or sister’. This kind of change has brought a lot of criticism to the TNIV by people who are afraid that male-female distinctiveness might become obscured. The question the committee faced this year was whether to retain the word ‘your’ (which is present in the Greek) or whether to say, ‘If a brother or sister sins …’ The addition of ‘your’ makes it sound as if Jesus was referring only to actual relatives rather than all believers, so it was left out.

The ‘unforgivable sin’ is a bane of every pastor and a cause of anxiety to many sincere believers, so I was very pleased that this year’s committee made a huge improvement to the translation - though I doubt that it will solve all the pastoral problems. The present TNIV of Matthew 12:31 is roughly the same as most English translations: ‘people will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy. But blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.’ There are two problems with this. First, it appears to imply a type of universalism: that God will ultimately forgive all sins, irrespective of repentance, except this one sin. Second, it suggests that blasphemy against the Spirit is worse than ‘other’ blasphemy – presumably against the Father or the Son – without saying why.

The first problem can be solved by making the translation of the English clearer: ‘people can be forgiven’. The second can be partly solved by understanding the broader meaning of the Greek word blasphémia. This word was used both for slander against people (e.g. Titus 3:2) and slander against God (e.g. Acts 6:11, where both Moses and God are ‘blasphemed’). So the blasphemy which is forgivable was presumably slander against people, while the unforgivable blasphemy is against God (in this case against the Holy Spirit).

This is what Jesus’ audience expected him to say, but with a significant difference. First century Jews believed that blasphemy against God could not be forgiven because he who ‘takes the name of the Lord in vain’ will ‘not be considered guiltless’ (Exodus 20:7) (though they emphasised that it was only true blasphemy if it was committed deliberately). Presumably they reasoned that if someone has deliberately rejected God, how can they ask him for forgiveness? This is similar to Hebrews 10:29 6:4-6 which says that someone who has knowingly and deliberately rejected Jesus cannot find forgiveness because they have rejected the only source of forgiveness.

So Jesus’ Jewish audience expected him to say ‘all slander against people may be forgiven but slander (i.e. blasphemy) against God will not be forgiven’. When Jesus substituted ‘God’ with ‘the Holy Spirit’ they were amazed. They were familiar with the Holy Spirit from the Old Testament (Isaiah 63:11) but they regarded him as a spirit sent by God. Jesus’ words showed clearly that he regarded the Holy Spirit as equivalent to God himself!

How can an English translation convey all this? It cannot, of course, and nor should it aim to. This is how the BTC translated the verse: ‘every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven’. Some of the members were unhappy with the loss of symmetry and wanted to use ‘slander’ for both phrases, but ‘slander against the Spirit’ does not convey the same seriousness in English as ‘blasphemy’, so this compromise was agreed on. The task of explaining the implications of this is left to the commentaries!

One of the criticisms against the TNIV has been that ‘men’ has been replaced by ‘people’ – as we saw in the previous example where the TNIV has ‘people can be forgiven’ instead of ‘men can be forgiven’. Shortly after meeting with the Committee, I was talking with Wayne Grudem, who is a vociferous critic of such changes. I told him, with the mischievous smile which he knows well, that this year we re inserted four hundred thousand ‘men’ into the TNIV. When he asked where they were, I pointed to Judges 20:2: ‘four hundred thousand soldiers’, which the committee changed to the more literal translation, ‘four hundred thousand men’. Wayne chuckled.

The treasures of translation

There has been a lot of bad feeling between supporters of different translations, but the scholars recognise the value of each for different tasks. Literal translations such as the English Standard Version are superb aids for following the Greek and Hebrew originals, while contemporary English translations such as the TNIV are superb for conveying the meaning to a modern reader.

There will always be disagreements about the best way to convey this meaning, but this is what makes different translations such a valuable treasure. Unlike any other ancient document, we have more than 100 published English translations of the Bible. Together, they give us unparalleled insight into the precise and widely textured meaning of the original text by which God conveyed his message to mankind – or should I say to ‘humanity’?