In my last post, someone asked about Bible translations (a question that regularly comes up), and I offhandedly mentioned that I perceive some Evangelical bias in the New International Version (NIV). Someone asked about that, so I thought I’d take a shot at explaining what I meant.

The NIV was created in the 1970s (NT 1973, full Bible 1978) by a committee of over 100 Evangelical scholars in order to create a Bible that would be appealing to, well, Evangelicals. The idea was to avoid some of the perceived liberality of the Revised Standard Version from a couple of decades before (a sentiment that would have been near and dear to JRC’s heart, even if he likely would have rejected the NIV itself as, well, not the KJV). I first encountered the NIV as a new missionary in the late 1970s, and purchased a copy of a small NIV NT from a Christian bookstore. My trainer somehow conveyed to me the idea that this book represented the “original Greek,” so I wanted one for myself.

The NIV makes moderate use of a translation philosophy called dynamic equivalence, which more readily uses paraphrase in order to convey the sense of the original, as opposed to formal equivalence translations, which try to maintain the structure of the original (such as subordination of thought, use of conjunctions and so forth). I have no problem with dynamic equivalence in theory, but the devil is in the details of its execution. Consider the following examples:

KJV Genesis 2:19: And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

NIV Genesis 2:19: Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.

Note how the NIV puts the verb into an English pluperfect construction in an attempt to harmonize what appear to be two parallel creation accounts in the first couple of chapters of Genesis. Determining when a Hebrew verb should be rendered as a pluperfect is largely a matter of context. The NIV translators are committed to biblical inerrancy, and therefore they feel the need to read these two chapters in an internally consistent way.

KJV Jeremiah 7:22: For I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices:

NIV Jeremiah 7:22: For when I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices

Note how the NIV inserts the word “just” in an attempt to harmonize this passage with the fact that the children of Israel were indeed given commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices.

RSV Isaiah 7:14: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman’u-el.

NIV Isaiah 7:14: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

The NIV is committed to understanding the OT in light of NT passages that quote from it. So instead of acknowledging that Matthew misunderstood the Hebrew word almah used by Isaiah, it renders the word as “virgin,” just as Matthew did.

KJV Mark 4:31: It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth

NIV Mark 4:31: It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground.

This is an attempt to avoid a contradiction with known facts of modern science.

Some Catholics have complained that the NIV translates paradosis, when it has a negative connotation (as in Mt. 15:3 and Col. 2:8), as “tradition,” but when it has a positive connotation (as in 1 Cor. 11:2 and 2 Thess. 2:15, 3:6), as “teaching.”

These few examples illustrate some of the tendencies of the NIV towards preserving inerrancy, harmonization of contradictions and harmonization with known facts of current knowledge (as opposed to allowing errors to stand). Ironically perhaps, these tendencies are the same kind of thing one finds in the JST, albeit applied with a scalpel as opposed to a bludgeon.

I don’t hate the NIV, and it is worth consulting, if for no other reason than that it is the world’s best selling Bible. But I would read it with a grain of salt. I prefer the NET, which is also an Evangelical production but in my view superior to the NIV, or the more formally equivalent NRSV.


  1. I have heard that an almah is a virgin by definition. At least that is the common apologia.

    Anyway, I am going through the “inspired by” TNIV old testament right now, and the major differeces I’ve noticed are the language around sex and violence is much more strait forward. So much so that I don’t play it with my 5 year old in the car. Other than that, it is good in audio.

    So are you going to do a post on the above mentioned “perceived liberal” bias in the RSV?

  2. The Right Trousers says:

    This is great, Kevin.

    I’ve found more bias in the study notes in mine, but it really doesn’t bother me that much. At any rate, the clarity of the prose is what I really appreciate. I got it initially because I couldn’t understand a blasted word Paul wrote as rendered by the KJV. Those translators seemed to have made nothing but word salad out of his letters.

    (Turns out half my problem was not understanding Paul’s way of understanding salvation. No wonder we proof-text his stuff so much!)

    Another harmonizing bit in the NIV that I just had to snicker at: Jesus eats with tax collectors and “sinners”. Doesn’t matter who says the word, “sinners” is always in quotes in this context. And here I thought we were all sinners…

  3. Kevin,
    While I know it’s popular to claim that Almah as used in Isaiah 7:14 is meant merely to depict a young woman (which follows if the prophet is talking about his own or Hezekiah’s wife), Almah doesn’t much appear in the Hebrew Bible and is used when the narrative tells the story of Rebekah at the well (Gen. 24:43). Consider this:

    “There is no instance where it can be proved that ‘almâ designates a young woman who is not a virgin. The fact of virginity is obvious in Gen 24:43 where ‘almâ is used of one who was being sought as a bride for Isaac.” (R. Laird Harris, et al. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, p. 672.)

    Couldn’t it be that virginal birth interpretation of Almah wouldn’t make much sense if the text was telling the story of one of the living prophets’ wives? Yet just because it doesn’t make sense from a 20th or 21st century reading doesn’t mean that isn’t what it says.
    If the text was not intent on stating that the woman giving birth was not a virgin, why wasn’t na’arah used as in other places, as in Ruth 2:6 and 2:8?

  4. My favorite translation is the NJB myself. I never did care for the NIV either. Mainly though just because I didn’t like how it read. (Not being able to read Greek or Hebrew)

  5. Kevin, my favorite Bible is the Archeological Study Bible:

    This Bible uses the NIV translation but includes some fascinating historical and archeological information on nearly every page to help you understand context, which especially helps with the Old Testament.

    One note: I have only read the NIV and the KJV, but I remain incapable of understanding Romans in the KJV, but the NIV has helped me glean what the heck Paul was talking about. I’ll try the NET sometime and maybe become even more enlightened.

  6. wow, just based on the sections you quote there, I probably won’t ever read the NIV.

    As an alternative to the KJV, I prefer the NRSV. I like its clarity.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    The Hebrew almah is a feminine nominal form derived from the root *)LM, which conveys the basic sense of one who has grown to the point of puberty or sexual maturity. It basically means lass, young woman. It is certainly true that an almah may be a virgin, but there is nothing inherent in the word that requires it to be restricted to a virgo intacta. In contrast, Matthew translates the passage with the Greek word parthenos, which does specifically refer to a virgo intacta (note that the Parthenon is the temple of the virgin goddess, Athena).

    BTW, BoM scholars see the male name Alma as related to the Hebrew almah, being derived from the same root. The masculine equivalent of almah is elem, “lad, young man.” Most Hebrew names pre-Exile were theophoric, meaning that they bore an element referring to a god. When you add a theophoric element to elem, you get something like Almiel, “lad of El.” Now, since virtually all names bore theophorics, it also became common to shorten the name by dropping the thephoric element; this is called a hypocoristic form. BoM scholars see Alma as a hpyocoristic form from a longer theophoric form, the aleph or a at the end being a trace vowel from the theophoric (this is a very common linguistic phenomenon). As you probably know, such a shortened hypocoristic form for a male name “Alma” was preserved in the Bar Kochba letters (we know this Alma was male because he was describes as the “son of Judah.”

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Matt W., you’re right that one of the main purposes of the TNIV (Today’s NIV) was to strive for more gender neutral language. I think they went about this responsibly, but it was hugely controversial in the Evangelical community, and many won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole and stick with the older NIV.

    For my post on the RSV, see here.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Also, I don’t want it to seem as though I’m coming down too hard on the NIV. I agree that it’s very readable (readability seems to have been their number one goal), and if you’re reading something hard like Paul’s letters you’re much better off reading them in the NIV than the KJV. But all translations have biases (including the KJV itself), and it is helpful to be aware of the biases when reading one.

  10. Thanks for this post. I’m really interested in the insights I get reading different Bible translations. For the past year I’ve been participating in a Bible study with women from many Christian faiths and it’s been very insightful for me to hear some verses we’re discussing read from different Bibles. I don’t have the education to ever say that one is right or wrong, but lots of times it helps to get more understanding from the scripture to hear it in different translations. I wish I had more time to study that way more regularly, though the internet does make it easy to check different translations.

  11. Thanks for the comparisons. Out of the millions (if not billions) of translation decisions that go into recreating a text as the Bible, the differences are minute and generally steam from underlying translation strategy.

    As for me, I love my NIV Study Bible that I bought a couple years ago when the church was studying the OT. The text is generally easier to understand than the archaic KJV, provides a fresh view, but what I like the most are the integrated study aids at the bottom half of every page.

  12. John Hamer says:

    This was very helpful. I’ve had an NSRV Cambridge Annotated Study Bible as my main Bible for the past fifteen years. I’ve gotten along with it just fine, but to be honest I picked it up without knowing anything of the background between the NSRV and the NIV. Meanwhile, my dad, who is (by chance?) an Evangelical has been talking up the NIV to me. I’m now fully satisfied to stay put.

  13. Kevin,
    How can we be sure that in the Hebrew Almah was not used specifically to denote a virgin? There is not evidence it was not. As in the passage in Genesis, it is assumed that a young woman in such a situation is a virgin, in the same chapter where bethuwlah is used to describe Rebekah

    Because there is not necessarily a word equivalent to parthenos in Hebrew, couldn’t it be that the culture of the the ancient Jews was that it was assumed that a lass was a virgin? Whereas in Greek culture there was a specific word for virgin, since they were a very sexual culture, and virgo intacta would not be assumed?

  14. Thanks for this, Kevin. I have been taking a Bible as Literature class this semester, and have been reading a lot of different bibles (I have come to decide on the NRSV). I hadn’t considered seriously the NIV, and now after this post, I probably won’t.

  15. Kevin,

    I read Robert Alter’s Five Books of Moses earlier this year and really enjoyed his translation/footnotes. In your opinion/experience, how does his translation stack up?


  16. MMiles, words derive their meaning from their context. From what we have of Hebrew, there is *no* indication that virgo intact was intended. The male equivalent also has no such indication. We have to go off the evidence we do have.

    “it is assumed that a young woman in such a situation is a virgin” Assumptions do not always hold. That’s what makes them assumptions ;)

    I’m also of the opinion that parthenos doesn’t mean virgin and we misread Matthew (and I’ve seen this argued in print), but that’s another can of worms.

    Nice post Kevin.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    mmiles, Hebrew at the time of Isaiah didn’t have a technical term for virgin. In the Middle Ages Jewish sages (speaking contra Christianity) argued that if Isaiah had intended the meaning virgin, he should have used bethulah, which specifically has that meaning. But bethulah as specifically meaning virgin is a linguistic development. The word appears about 50 times in the OT, and when it has to bear the specific meaning virgin it is modified by something like “who has known not a man” (suggesting that the word itself couldn’t assure that meaning on its own).

    The fact is that none of the Semitic languages, including Akkadian or Ugaritic, had a specific term for what we think of as a virgin. Bethulah only took on that connotation over time.

    I don’t see how the fact that many young women who were described as either almah or bethulah were in fact virgins translates into either of those terms being a technical term in all cases for one who is a virgin. The question isn’t whether there is evidence against that proposition, but whether there is evidence for it.

    Suppose we get past all of that and conclude that Isaiah specifically meant to refer to a virgin. Do we really mean to read that passage as referring in the first instance to Jesus? In context, doesn’t the virgin have to bear the child almost immediately, so as to be a meaningful sign to Ahaz?

    (Of course, I have no problem with later tradition applying this prophecy to Jesus.)

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    Nitsav rasises an interesting point about parthenos. There are at least four uses of that word in classical sources where it clearly cannot mean virgin.

  19. Thanks Kevin, these few good examples give me a better idea what you meant by an Evangelical bias. Also, I must say I got a kick out of your JST dig at the end since this post is in response to a request from Pastor Todd and he takes such offense at the idea of the JST. I wonder how he will feel about this same sort of harmonization in the NIV that he decries in the JST. Todd?

  20. Nitsav and Kevin–
    Thanks. Kevin could you refer me to reading which discusses the linguistical developments of bethulah?
    Much appreciated.

    So when reading the Hebrew Bible where the virtue of women is mentioned (Psalms), as well as our assumptions of chastity–how important was virginity to the Jews? Were women assumed to be virgins to be a good marriage match?
    This off topic, so sorry about the threadjack.

  21. “But all translations have biases (including the KJV itself), and it is helpful to be aware of the biases when reading one.”

    If there is anything fundamental about the compilation of scripture that I wish every member of the Church understood, this probably is it.

    Thanks, Kevin. I really enjoyed this and will make sure my son reads it before he leaves on his mission.

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    mmiles, for a start see the article “Virgin” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary.

  23. Mmiles, send me your email address, and I can send you a copy of the article. nitsav dot lariv at gmail dot com

  24. KJV Jeremiah 7:22: For I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices:

    NIV Jeremiah 7:22: For when I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices

    Note how the NIV inserts the word “just” in an attempt to harmonize this passage with the fact that the children of Israel were indeed given commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices.

    [Threadjack] I recall reading (but not where I read it) that this passage and some of Isaiah 1 is evidence to assert that burnt offerings were not part of the original law of Moses, but were added later. It may just be a faith demoting rumor. [End of threadjack]

  25. Thank you, Kevin. You’ve provided important insights.

  26. I’ve never liked the NIV, because I’ve felt it was speaking down to me. It seems to be written at about a seventh-grade level or so. My favorite printed Bible has been the New Jerusalem Bible, but in recent years I’ve come to appreciate the NET, mostly because of its extensive translation notes.

  27. Thanks for posting this … the ensuing discussion of the meanings of “almah” and “bethulah” have been very helpful. It seems that the argument about the meaning of these words has more nuance(s) than I had heard in the past on the same subject.

  28. Fascinating stuff, Kevin.

  29. One of my good friends is an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, and quite studied in Hebrew, since that is such a part of his religion and lifestyle. Last year in a religious discussion on translations, he seemed to find real humor that the Hebrew word of Almah was commonly mistranslated as “virgin”. It seemed totally clear to him that such a translation was innacurate and should have been ‘young maiden’.

    On risk of threadjack….
    It continues to amaze me how Americanized our pronounciations are of various names, such that my Rabbi friend had a hard time recognizing who I was talking about (i.e. Ephriam, Levi, etc.). Yet, the American pronunciation is what is listed in the LDS pronunciation guides.

    I learned new appreciation for Hebrew words that often I skipped over with little real comprehension in the scriptures, like “abba” used like “pappa”, which I heard commonly used in my orthodox friends homes.

  30. Kevin Barney says:

    divaqs, one of the forms of the name Isaiah in Hebrew would be pronounced Yishiyahu, so you’re right that the anglicized pronunciations we use can be pretty far afield from the pronunciations in the original language.

  31. Kevin,
    Many years ago in an on-line LDS forum, I read the comments by an LDS poster who strongly suggested that the Catholic New American Bible was a far superior modern translation than the NIV. This poster maintained that the NAB avoided much of the EV theology and spoke well of the (Catholic) concepts of authority and sacraments… themes which resonate with LDS beliefs. Are you aware of the NAB? Is anyone?

  32. Hi Earl. I own a copy of the NAB (via Bibleworks), though I haven’t used it on a regular basis.

    I took a few minutes, and the NAB avoids everything Kevin criticizes here.

    The NAB consistently translates paradosis as “tradition” regardless of the positive or negative connotation of the passage.

    Catholics and Jews have less at stake in how they translate, since their doctrine and prescribed behaviors are mediated by an authority besides the Bible. Protestants, on the other hand, are bound to believe and act as the Bible says, so interpretation is the only real way to mediate or nullify undesirable elements.

  33. I have been told that “nearly” any reputable modern English translation is, on the whole, preferable to the KJV.

    My feeling is that the use of the KJV within the church may at some point become a mill-stone around our neck since the “point and click” generation will have no clue what the KJV text says or means. I use modern English texts now to help me understand some of the archaic renderings. In another 15 to 20 years, the membership will be unprepared for any serious study of the KJV text due to the old word usage.

    I see this trend as being similar to the pre-Reformation use of a Latin text which no English speaking Catholic could read unless they also studied Latin. The good Catholic folks had to rely on a priestly class to interpret scripture.

    We cannot allow this trend in Zion. However, I am unable to see the church leadership taking a proactive position. Older men raised with the KJV will just not see this as a prioity.

    We need a “Restoration Version” of the biblical texts in modern English. I wish someone would start a thread on this whole topic. While I am passionate about it, I lack the scholarship to do it justice. {By the way, a heavily footnoted KJV will not carry the day with me… And the Joseph Smith interpretations should NOT be substituted in the text – I am fearful that such may happen in an LDS modern English version.]

  34. NoCoolName_Tom says:

    There are a number of professors at BYU working on a “BYU Rendition” of the New Testament – from what I’ve heard it features new translations of much of the New Testament, but will include the KJV alongside the rendition. The editor is Dr. John Hall with whom I have some issues on his favorite personal translations (esp. John 1:1) but my non-existent Greek skills are no match for his! I don’t believe they are planning to include the JST in the text itself, but probably will in the footnotes, of which they plan to have a LOT – the entire project is supposed to be fifteen volumes in total.

    I’m still not sure what to think about it, since I worry that Dr. Hall’s view of the translation might influence it to result in a distinctly “Mormon” viewpoint as opposed to an “accurate” viewpoint (and, yes, I am aware that upon first glance those two seem like they should be the same thing).

    Sorry to rag on Dr. Hall. He’s a cool guy, very smart, and very skilled in his field. Figured I should add that after the above.

  35. Kevin Barney says:

    John was one of my mentors at BYU, and I agree that he’s a cool guy, very smart and very skilled in his field. But I also agree with you that I’m not a fan of the proposed rendering of John 1:1.

  36. Well, as I think further on this, we must be very carefull… Golly, all we need now is another “Mormon Bible”… yuck…!

  37. From my reading, it also appears that they translate “ergos” as ‘works’ when it has a negative connotation and ‘deeds’ when it has a positive. Hrm.

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