Do you remember playing Spot the Difference as a child? Two seemingly identical pictures are placed side by side but you’re told that there are, say, 10 differences between them! And you compare each part of the pictures oh-so-carefully to find all 10!
Well, I wonder how many of you feel a little like that during the scripture reading at church. If you’ve been paying careful attention, maybe you’ve sometimes noticed minor differences between your New International Version (NIV) of the Bible and what appears on our LCD screen. What’s going on? Are Yong Hwee and his team playing games with you, or did someone introduce typos when they prepared the slides?
Of course, the differences are bigger and much more noticeable if your Bible translation is not the NIV at all, but, say, the English Standard Version (ESV) or the New King James Version (NKJV). So let’s look at how these versions all came about, before returning later to our strange situation of Spot the Difference.
How’s your Latin?
Is your Latin a bit rusty? Well, the Christians in 16th-century Europe had the same problem. For hundreds of years, they had no access to the scriptures unless they could read Latin, because the Bible had been translated from its original Hebrew and Greek only into the Latin of the Roman Empire. By the 16th century (and even much earlier), only priests, monks and scholars knew Latin. The average person in Europe spoke his or her country’s language: French, or German, or English. Thankfully, theologians and scholars like William Tyndale had a passion to see “the plow-boy … know more about scripture than [the priest]”, so Tyndale began the work of translating the Old Testament into English. This formed the basis of the first English translation, the King James Version (KJV) of 1611.
Bible translations have come a long way since then. From Christian bookstores to www.biblegateway.com to your phone’s Bible app, we now have access to numerous English translations, the more common ones including the ESV, KJV, NASB (New American Standard Bible), NLT (New Living Translation), as well as the NIV.
So what’s the difference?
The many translations reflect different philosophies in bringing the original Hebrew and Greek to our modern understanding.
To put it simply, at one end of the spectrum we have word for word translations. The technical term for this philosophy is formal equivalence, where the translation retains the original form and structure of the Hebrew and Greek almost exactly. The disadvantage, however, is that the resulting English can sometimes sound awkward or even be difficult to understand in places.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have thought for thought translations. This philosophy is known as dynamic equivalence, and produces a translation that is easier to understand but not as close to the actual wording of the original. Here, priority is placed on understanding God’s Word as its original hearers would have understood it. But this does mean that sometimes the translators have interpreted the text for the modern reader.
Each translation lies somewhere on this spectrum from word-for-word to thought-for-thought, because most translation teams utilise a blend of formal and dynamic equivalence, usually translating the thought whenever a literal translation is obscure. The Bible version that we have been using for public reading is the NIV 1984 version, and it lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of formal to dynamic equivalence.
The NIV tries to bring readers as close as possible to the experience of the original audience. The NIV is founded on the belief that if hearing God’s Word the way it was written and understanding it the way it was meant were the two central aspects of the original reading experience, then an accurate translation should enable modern readers also to hear and understand the original as much as possible.(1)
The NIV (2011)
Did you know that there is more than one NIV translation? In 2011, Zondervan came up with a revision to the 1984 version for three reasons:(2)
1. Changes in English
Over time, because of usage, languages evolve. One example is how we understand nouns of gender. When the original NIV (1978) was published, “a man” was usually understood to be referring to a person, whether male of female. But most English speakers today tend to hear a distinctly male connotation in this word. Therefore, the 2011 edition of the NIV, along with almost all other recent English translations, substitutes gender-inclusive expressions where the original text intends to refer both to men and women. For instance, the NIV (1984) has in 1 Corinthians 8:3, “But the man who loves God is known by God” but NIV (2011) has “But whoever loves God is known by God.”
2. Progress in Scholarship
For example: When the NIV was first translated, the meaning of the rare Greek word harpagmos, rendered ‟something to be grasped,” in Philippians 2:6 was uncertain. But further study has shown that the word refers to something that a person has in their possession but chooses not to use to their own advantage. The NIV (2011) reflects this new information, making clear that Jesus really was equal with God and yet chose to become human for our sake: ‟who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.”
3. Concern for Clarity
Some changes have been made in order to reflect the context better. For example: Philippians 4:13 ‟I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (1984) is now, ‟I can do all this through him who gives me strength”. It’s clearer in NIV(2011) that Paul isn’t talking about being strengthened to do everything or anything under the sun, but rather being strengthened to be content in all circumstances, whether in riches or in poverty.
Back to Spot the Difference
What’s it mean for us at LPPC? Well, on June 7, we will be updating the Bible version used for our public Bible reading from the 1984 to the 2011 version. But don’t worry! If your Bible is less than four years old, it’s probably the 2011 version anyway, because Zondervan has already stopped printing the 1984 version. And if you have an old faithful Bible, it’s still good! Rest assured that the differences are not many — 95% of NIV (2011) is identical to NIV(1984).
In fact, rather than excluding any version of the Bible, we can rejoice in that each has its strengths and they can help us appreciate the richness of God’s Word and the clarity of the gospel that saves. The bigger issue is surely that we must have ears to hear and hearts to obey the everlasting Word of God:
22 Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. 23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For, “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, 25 but the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:22-25, NIV 2011)
So, whichever translation you use, be assured that they all bring God’s Word and knowledge to us — we only have to be willing to hear and read, to obey and preach, because this is the Word that brings life, the Word that stands forever.
1 For more details refer to the preface of the NIV 2011 version at http://www.bible-researcher.com/niv2011-preface.html
2 For more details read notes from the committee on Bible Translation at https://www.biblegateway.com/niv/Translators-Notes.pdf