Up-to-Date Language is Overrated

13110327_236912cfd7.jpgYesterday, Biblica and Zondervan announced that they would stop revising the controversial TNIV translation of the Bible and would resume revising the NIV translation, the best-selling translation of the past three decades. The “new” NIV would be called the NIV Bible 2011.

Photo: Detail from a 1770 Bible, from eye2eye via Flickr.

Keith Danby, CEO of Biblica, stated

We shackled the NIV to the language and scholarship of a quarter century ago, thus limiting its value as a tool for ongoing outreach throughout the world.

The language of a quarter century ago! Gasp! Why, that was nearly…wait, that wasn’t that long ago was it? I was 8, Mary Lou Retton was on the cover of Wheaties, and a cool cartoon about transforming robots debuted on television. That was just yesterday, right? More on that in a moment.

Scot McKnight has pointed out that the NIV has been pretty regularly updated ever since it was first published. Really, if the TNIV or NIVi had just been called “NIV,” this might not have been nearly as big a deal.

How much revision is necessary after a “quarter century?” Changing scholarship is one thing. Paradoxically, we have access to much older texts of the Bible now than Christians or Jews have had for centuries. Earlier this year, the Codex Sinaiticus – a Bible over 1,600 years old! – was posted online in its entirety. As our best understandings of ancient Hebrew and Greek change, then by all means, so should our translations of Scripture.

What about language, however? Has the English language changed all that much in the past 25 years? Without a doubt, language has changed…but how much does that – should that – affect the Bible? The biggest change has been the wide acceptance of gender neutral language (which was the root of controversy regarding the TNIV). Beyond that, though, how much matters?

How timely do we want our Bible to be? Paraphrases like The Message can be helpful, especially in shocking us out of complacent readings of Scripture. The Bible, however, is a collection of books written between 1,900 and 3,000 years ago. “Timeless” is a trite, overused word – yet it describes the Bible quite well. The language we use to translate it ought to be able to stand the test of a few decades, shouldn’t it?

It’s also ancient. While the Bible is relevant to our own day, we should avoid the grave mistake of thinking that it was written for our culture and our times. When reading about the storm that rose up in the middle of night on the Sea of Galilee, we ought to remember that the disciples had no electric lights, no radar, no GPS, no outboard motor, no 7-day forecast – that they were at the complete mercy of the wind and waves. Jesus’ word of “peace” ought to be read in their context, not ours, in which we mostly think about weather only when it threatens to ruin our picnics.

While I agree that new converts and spiritual seekers ought to have a Bible that’s easier to read that the King James, our conversion is only the beginning of our life with the Bible. On my deathbed, I will be pondering the mysteries of Scripture just as much as I did on the day I gave my life to Christ – perhaps more so. The language of our Bible translations ought to be deep enough and strong enough for us to carry it with us for the long decades of following Christ. If you have ever known a passionate devotee of Jane Austen or Shakespeare (or the original Star Trek, for that matter), you’ll know that the power and nearness of language has little to do with how “up to date” it may be.

Speaking of up-to-date language, who in the world is Biblica? You probably know them better as the International Bible Society, but they changed their name earlier this summer. Everything needs revision now and then, I suppose.

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