Something funny is happening to our Bible readings

Something funny is happening to our Bible readings at church. I noticed it last week.

We use the NIV at St Michael’s for our public reading of Scripture and preaching. (And Scott, please note we have at least two readings at every service, and three for our early morning service!)

Everyone on our reading roster knows we use the NIV.

But last week some of the readings were different from what we had in front of us. And others noticed too. What was going on?

As you know, rather than using their own Bible, or the large lectern Bible at church, people sometimes like to print the Bible text when they read in public. This allows them to use larger font size for ease of vision, or to add marks to aid their expression and emphasis.

In every case where there was a variation from what we expected in our NIVs, and only in those cases, it turns out the person concerned had chosen to print off the reading. And they had gone to that most helpful website for multiple Bible translations,

There, the default translation for English users has always been the NIV.

And it still is … sort of.

As you may know, the NIV has been updated by their Committee for Bible Translation (CBT). So far the 2010 NIV text is only available electronically.

But Bible Gateway have made the 2010 version the default option instead of the standard 1984 text. And most casual users of BibleGateway will just see ‘NIV © 2010’ and will naturally presume that’s the version we have been using.

Most average church members will not even know there’s been an update. And once they’ve printed it out electronically, they probably won’t even refer back to their current NIV Bible, but will just practice off the print out. So chances are, they won’t even realize there’s a difference.

And the listeners will be a tad puzzled. It’s mostly NIV, but a few changes.

So that’s the first point of this blog. Let’s assume you still want to use the NIV that corresponds to your pew Bibles and personal Bibles.

Then you need to let your readers know that if they use BibleGateway, they must manually select the 1984 version of the NIV, rather than 2010. In the drop down menu of English versions, the 1984 NIV comes right at the bottom, just after the TNIV.

Because of the potential for confusion in readings, like we had last Sunday, I think it’s a real pity that there is not a clearer warning on BibleGateway that the 2010 NIV default text is not the same text as everyone will currently have in their printed NIVs.

That brings me to my second point of this blog. As Trevin Wax has pointed out, every church who uses the NIV will have to make a decision whether to change over to the 2010 NIV, or whether to swap to another English version like the ESV or HCSB altogether for their public reading and preaching of Scripture.

This is because the NIV copyright holder, Biblica (formerly the International Bible Society), and Zondervan (the exclusive North American publishers) have decided that once the 2010 NIV is published in hard copy (from March 2011), they will no longer print further copies of the 1984 NIV, nor of the controversial and divisive TNIV (with its sometimes excessive and ill-judged gender neutrality).

And this brings me to my third and last point. It’s really only addressed to those pastors and churches which use the NIV as their public reading and preaching Bible translation. (Perhaps in the minority on Sola Panel, I am not a big fan of the ESV, thinking it fails on its own stated terms, although it seems like the ESV Study Bible is an excellent resource for studying the Scriptures!)

It’s fine to critique a new translation almost immediately—if you are properly across the issues involved of course. And many readers of Sola Panel will have opinions on the 2010 NIV, especially on its approach to gender matters in translation. I happen to think it’s much better than the TNIV on this issue, although I am still weighing up some issues of concern. And almost all other 2010 update changes—apart from the gender related ones—seem like improvements to me over the 1984 NIV.

However my point is that before any decision to change your church’s preferred translation for public Bible reading and preaching, the church’s pastoral staff and other key leaders should use and evaluate the potential new candidate for at least six and preferably twelve months or so.

You could do this via:

  • private reading and study
  • asking small groups to trial the new version for a set of studies on one book of the Bible
  • even letting the congregation know you are trying it for a sermon series (we did this with Titus in the HCSB a few years ago, which I think probably gets Titus 1:6 right!).

This is my criticism of some in my neck of the woods who decided to change over to the ESV almost as soon as it was published, certainly within a month or two in a number of cases.

In that brief space of time, most such churches had to be relying on the (admittedly impressive) endorsements, and possibly their pastor’s (hopefully intensive and extensive) efforts to assess the entire ESV text. But most churches could not—in such a short time—have been relying on extensive assessment, by a variety of church leaders, across a range of public and private uses, with satisfactory time for reflection and second thoughts.

By contrast, I recall some Moore College lecturers refusing to comment on the merits or otherwise of the ESV until they had trialled it for twelve months in personal use.

There are an enormous number of churches out there still using the 1984 NIV. Sooner or later we have to assess whether to update to the 2010 NIV, or whether to go somewhere else. We will need to decide. But a decision as crucial as your public Bible reading and preaching translation should not be rushed.

And that’s sometimes where the critiques flying backwards and forwards—legitimate in themselves—can cloud a mature reflection process.

Any change will have some trade offs, because no translation is perfect. Does the better translation or greater clarity of expression on some items, and the update of some now obsolete English words, make up for the moderate but definite move to inclusive language? Which changes in regards to gender issues really matter, and which are acceptable? (Even the ESV was more gender inclusive on some matters than 1984 NIV.) I need time to think carefully about these things.

Lastly, and thanks to bloggers who have alerted me, especially Justin Taylor, here is a list of resources on the changes in the 2010 NIV:

  • You can view all three translations (2010 NIV, 1984 NIV, 2005 TNIV) side by side here at BibleGateway.
  • Here are the notes on updating the NIV from the Committee for Bible Translation (CBT).
  • As well as reading the above, anyone who wants to engage in the discussions over gender issues in translation should consult the Collins Language Study on contemporary use of gender language, commissioned by the CBT (56 page full report in pdf here).
  • The NIV CBT also has a section on FAQs (how’s that for three four TLAs in a sentence?)!
  • John Dyer has helpful summaries of what has changed between 1984 NIV, TNIV and 2010 NIV, including a couple of wordles of words removed from 1984 and added in 2010, and this excellent diagram of the percentages that are the same or change between the three.
  • The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood responds to the changes in the 2010 NIV, basically praising CBT and Zondervan for being consultative and responsive to criticism in this revision, and saying 2010 NIV is a big improvement over the TNIV, but still in their view falls short on some important gender matters.

Correction: The editor made an incorrect deletion from the second last point. Please see author’s helpful comment below on ‘wordles’.

24 thoughts on “Something funny is happening to our Bible readings

  1. In my second last bullet point about John Dyer’s resources on the 2010 NIV, our trusty editor has replaced the term ‘wordles’ with ‘words’.

    Rachel, I agree, it did look like a typo!

    However, ‘wordle’ is a word!

    A wordle is a diagrammatic way of showing the relative frequency of words used in a document.

    Here’s the wordle of words removed from the 1984 NIV.

    And here’s the wordle of words added to the 2010 NIV.

    The visually minded will soon see the gender trends, e.g., pluralising pronouns, and getting rid of some masculine terminology.

    Of course, the wordles themselves should be considered in light of proper argumentation on the pros and cons of such decisions.

  2. My apologies Sandy; I’ve added a correction and a note. I’ve always thought of those diagrams as ‘text clouds’, coming from ‘tag cloud’. Nice to learn there is an actual name!

  3. Hi Sandy

    Thanks for making people more aware of this. 

    I got caught out 2 weeks ago at a funeral – a cut and paste job from Biblegateway to the funeral director on Psalm 23 meant we had a clunky and unfamiliar reading (NIV 2010)… not what people expected. 

    e.g. ‘paths of righteousness’ becomes ‘right paths’
    ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ becomes ‘the darkest valley’.


  4. Thanks Sandy for another great reflection on Bible Translation. It was your helpful comments on the ESV and a later discussion with Peter O’Brien about translation in general that rehabilitated me from the “white hats/black hats” approach to Bible Translation that seems to be around to thinking things through with more clarity and care.

    I hope that this revised NIV will not be subjected to the “white hats/black hats” fear campaign of TNIV (I think even you inadvertently swiped at it in a throw-away line in your blog!).

    Your suggestion for evaluating the translation is a massive undertaking – but for those of us who love the Scriptures and are committed to bringing them to our congregations in their natural language, nothing ought to be too massive an undertaking to ensure we get it right.

    At the end of the day those of us who are not linguists need the humility to learn that we are not therefore experts on translation. And 3-4 years of theological college Greek a linguist does not make. Your post encourages such humility.


  5. I think that the new NIV is an improvement over the old NIV. It will now actually be closer to the ESV, as both use gender-inclusive words where the original text does so.

    Sometimes the new NIV will have something in the body of the text which the ESV has in a footnote. Romans 1:13 springs to mind.

    In many places the text reflects the very changes people have been proposing for the NIV.

    SARX is now being render as FLESH in a lot more places. But is that an improvement?

    I would find it hard to see how folk could cling to the old NIV when it has masculinised in many places words that are not gender-specific in the original. But in 1979 it was thought to be proper English to put things in the masculine.

    But we didn’t speak that way then, and we certainly don’t do now.

    As I listen to people speak and preachers preach, I notice that they rarely go for the masculine, but frequently put things into the plural or in a gender-inclusive way.

    Both the ESV and the new NIV do this cautiously, though they both prefer to render in the singular when the original is in the singular. [That’s one of the changes from the TNIV to the new NIV.]

  6. My prediction: most NIV84 churches drifting across to NIV10 churches, without realising it. That’s Zondervan’s hope no doubt.

    The jarring will be something the next decade will live with. It’s no worse than the now common occurrence of preachers choosing to use the ESV or Holman.

  7. Hi there,

    I came across the 2010 NIV issue when loading the podcast for our church using  I have also noticed there is now an International Standard Version due to be released next year.  Could someone please provide some feedback on it?  You can check out an electronic verion of it at . Thanks.

  8. Hi David R

    I’ve had a glance at the ISV before and have found its idiosyncrasies pretty off-putting. For example, the ISV attempts to render poetic passages as English poetry. I’m all for the power of poetry, not to mention the power of dynamic translation, but I’ve found the ISV’s attempts atrocious—it’s all heavy-handed rhyming! Take the ISV rendition of Philippians 2:6-8:

    In God’s own form existed he,
        And shared with God equality,
          Deemed nothing needed grasping.
    Instead, poured out in emptiness,
        A servant’s form did he possess,
          A mortal man becoming.
    In human form he chose to be,
        And lived in all humility,
          Death on a cross obeying.

    It just makes me cringe!

  9. I don’t really see how the new NIV forces a choice, unless a church decides that it no longer agrees with the translation philosophy behind the NIV family.

    I reckon some of Trevin Wax’s commenters have the right idea:

    People need to realize that an excellent translation does not remain excellent forever. KJV was wonderful in 1611, it is not an excellent translation for today’s readers. The 84 NIV is still very good, but it cannot be frozen or people will still be reading it in 200 years when it is hopelessly out of date.

  10. Russell, good to hear from you again. Thanks for your comment. I am sure you are right that dropping the “valley of the shadow of death” will not be popular, and it was a far worse example of being caught out by BibleGateway than I had.

    But apparently there’s some fairly strong evidence for it (see Martin Shield’s response to CBMW linked above.

    Pastorally, I am sure you could continue to use an older translation at funerals, to avoid unnecessary annoyance/alienation at an inappropriate time, where translation details would be right off beam!

    But when preaching on Psalm 23 on a regular Sunday, I presume we would want the best translation possible.

  11. Hi Glenn, thanks for your kind words.

    And if you meant I took a swipe at the TNIV, that wasn’t inadvertant. I don’t think it did a uniformly good job on the gender questions. The CBT has acknowledged that to some extent, by commissioning special research on English word use and also by reverting to 1984 NIV over TNIV on some occasions and going to something entirely new on others. I don’t think it was only political.

    As regards the 2010 NIV I am only just starting to make an assessment, and yes, I expect it to take some time.

    Clearly, like you, I believe it would be helpful if we don’t get all polarised on it too quickly.

  12. David, thanks for your comments.

    I don’t think ESV and NIV 2010 do gender issues the same way.

    I think it is right to say that where there is a clearly generic anthropos (‘man’ as ‘human’) ESV goes for ‘people’, whereas 1984 NIV went for ‘men’. Compare 1 Tim 2:4, where God wants all people to be saved.

    Likewise, where there was no noun, the old NIV sometimes went for ‘men’, to fill out the adjective, whereas ESV goes for ‘people’. Compare 1 Tim 2:6, where Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all” (ESV following the Greek), but “for all men” (1984 NIV, even though there’s no noun).

    So ESV improves on 1984 NIV at this point and is rightly more gender sensitive in a way that is hard to argue against.

    Likewise, 2010 NIV goes for “all people” in both 1 Tim 2:4 and 2:6. 

    However a clear difference is that ESV avoids pluralising prounouns after using a singular noun, whereas the 2010 NIV choose to do so, following now common English use. This is an area of different philosophy and will be debated.

  13. Seeing I am in 1 Timothy 2, it’s also worth noting that 2010 NIV sticks with TNIV using “assume authority” on authentein in 1 Tim 2:12.

    The CBT says this is intended as a neutral phrase, where you can properly assume authority if duly qualified and properly appointed.

    CBMW don’t like it.

    At this stage I am just reporting on it, not commenting.

    But I do want to comment on 1 Tim 2:5.

    1984 NIV had “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (anthropos both times).

    Though going for ‘people’ in v4, not ‘men’ (like 1984 NIV), ESV still went for “one mediator between God and men, the man* Christ Jesus”, but with a footnote saying “*men and man render the same Greek word that is translated people in verses 1 and 4”. It was trying to make it clear that the mediator was truly a ‘man’ like the people he was saving, but to say ‘people’ lost the word link, in this verse, so they kept ‘men’ and explained via footnote. But that could sound like it’s excluding women today.

    TNIV went for “one mediator between God and human beings, Christ Jesus, himself human”. But this makes ‘human’ a bit abstract, not a specific person, a man. It also misses the link to “people” in vv4.

    2010 NIV goes for “one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” – being happy from its study of English use today to use words like ‘mankind’ (and even ‘man’) as part of a mix of terms available for generic ‘man’ (as human). This keeps it clear that Jesus is a real, particular human, a man. And it keeps a verbal link to those he ransoms – mankind. But it also misses the verbal link to “people” in v4.

    Over all I think 2010 NIV probably does best on this one, with ESV as my second pick.

  14. Mikey, I hope people don’t just drift from 1984 to 2010 without realising it. I hope it’s more carefully thought out than that.

    And in terms of the jarring, that’s why I wrote this post, so people will realise what’s happening and at least do the courtesy to their brothers and sisters in their congregation of reading from the agreed translation for public reading and preaching of Scriptures, unless they’ve agreed together otherwise, rather than inadvertantly or deliberately confuse some. Already we have to do that anyway. E.g. we have people who bring their ESV or HCSB or TNIV to church to follow along, but if they do the public reading, they do it from NIV.

  15. Arthur, I think it will eventually force a decision because over time it will get harder and harder to stay using the 1984 NIV as the agreed translation for public ministry, because no new print runs will occur. It’s like my older friends who love their RSV. You just can’t buy them.

    And it matters a fair bit because the NIV has been so widely used across the evangelical world.

    But as you say translations don’t stay as useful for ever.

  16. Now here’s a funny thing: many of the folk who criticise the contemporary language of modern Bible translations write and speak in that very language.

    However, Don Carson, an advocate for the modern translations, writes and speaks in the high-register, old-fashioned language of the old translations.

  17. Matthew, that’s excellent. Many thanks, especially for those who often like to refer to their preferred version on Biblegateway!

  18. Matthew and Sandy, I wonder how many folk would actually prefer a Bible which puts things in the masculine that are not so specified in the original Greek and Hebrew?

    While this was supposedly correct English grammar some years ago, it is certainly not the way people speak and write now.

  19. I wonder how many folk would actually prefer a Bible which puts things in the masculine that are not so specified in the original Greek and Hebrew?

    At a start, I am guessing anyone who is putting together Powerpoint slides for bible readings when the bible in the pew is a 1984 NIV (which is my primary use of Bible Gateway). smile

    Note that I (and other people running the computer at my church) experienced the exact issue that this article is about in the last couple of months. It matters little all whether I prefer the 1984 NIV, or the 2010 NIV, or the ESV or I am a Textus Receptus man. But it matters considerably if the congregation is distracted / confused when the text on the projector differs from what is being read out to them.

  20. Hi Matthew.
    I wonder about the wisdom of putting up the Bible readings on a powerpoint slide.

    I can see the point of putting the Bible reference up, but I would have thought you’d want people to follow along in their Bibles.

    [However, if the reader does it well, people will get more out of the Bible reading, by listening and not trying to follow along, even if their Bible is the same version.]

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