COLORADO SPRINGS – Many Christians are familiar with the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, but many don’t know how it was made, how it’s maintained, or that it has some roots right here in Colorado Springs.
Biblica, the international group that provides financial support for the NIV project, is based out of Colorado Springs. With their insight we now have the answers to WHY this version of the Bible was created and HOW/WHY it’s constantly revised.
Let’s start at the beginning! No, not Genesis 1:1, but the beginning of the NIV.
The dream actually started out with one Howard Long, an engineer from Seattle. Howard avidly shared the Bible with others, but one day came across someone who could not grasp the 17th century language used to write the King James Bible (which Howard used).
So in 1955, he set out on a quest to create a new Bible translation, a quest that took 10 years. At the end, a “cross-denominational gathering” of more than 100 scholars met up in Chicago and struck an accord to begin work on the NIV.
“Instead of just updating an existing translation like the KJV, they chose to start from scratch, using the very best manuscripts available in the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic of the Bible.”
In 1966, the group’s decision was endorsed by a gathering of 80 Evangelical ministry leaders and scholars. This act resulted in the creation of the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) which works to safeguard, update and continue work on the NIV.
Eventually, as the mid-20th century rolled around, Biblica, then called the New York Bible Society, became an integral part of the NIV’s development and continuance when it sponsored the NIV in 1968, leading to its first publishing in 1978.
Now you may be thinking to yourself, “That’s a long time for so many people to be working on one book, I wonder why it took so long?”
According to Biblica records, this translation of the Bible followed some painstaking methods to ensure “accuracy and readability.”
All 66 books in the Bible received individual teams comprised of “two lead translators, two translation consultants, and one English-style consultant [where necessary].”
However, work has never stopped, because the book is intended to evolve alongside the English language.
“The original mandate, given in 1965, was to continue the work of Bible translation, ensuring that the NIV always reflects the very best of biblical scholarship and contemporary English.”
Now you may be wondering, “Are you telling me that this Bible changes? How much does it change, how does that work and how often does it happen?”
All good questions, I’ll answer them in order briefly, and then in long form:
- “Are you telling me the Bible changes?”
- Yes, the NIV is currently on its third edition. Originally published in full in 1978, it was republished (with edits) in 1984 and then again in 2011.
- “How much does it change?”
- It varies, changes can be as small as a comma addition or as large as a word or sentence structure change.
- “How does that work?”
- The CBT (Committee on Bible Translation) meets yearly and its scholars look at thousands of changes then vote on choices. a vote must reach at least 70% consensus for a change to be made. Then choices are cataloged for the next edition.
- “How often does that happen?”
The CBT has a semi-confusing acronym, “It’s not the Colorado Baseball team, as some of you might want to think,” joked Hans Combrink, Biblica’s Vice President of Global Translation, “but instead, the Committee on Bible Translation.”
The CBT is a group of highly trained, and thoroughly learned Bible scholars.
- There are only 15 members
- The group is self-governed, apart from any church body so as to avoid any (and all) biases
- The group has existed in some form for 40 years
According to Biblica, the CBT alone can edit and revise the NIV, “No publisher or commercial entity, can decide how the NIV is translated.”
“They do what they think is best for the translation of God’s word. Even if we felt, that things should read differently, they have the prerogative to translate and continue to revise the NIV as they believe is in the best interest of the reading of God’s word.”
With this group behind the wheel for the past 40 years, the NIV has seen three revisions: the original in 1978, the second in 1984, and the most recent in 2011.
These revisions (or editions) are created through a near-constant stream of updates that come out of yearly meetings where this group assembles and pours over thousands of proposals for changes to the NIV, they discuss those, they deliberate those,” continued Combrink.
When making changes, the committee looks to follow two main tenants, accuracy and readability; working to translate in a way that the current generation will understand while staying true to the text.
Because Biblica and the CBT believe, “Every new generation should be able to hear or read and understand the word of God, in the language that they speak or understand.”
Each proposal is debated and can be voted on. However, a change only makes it into the next edition if 70 percent of the committee is in agreement on a vote.
According to Biblica, “The large threshold among a denominationally diverse team of scholars helps to protect the NIV from agendas, bias, and outside influence — ensuring that any changes are backed by the very best biblical scholarship.”
Many proposals taken under consideration are for minor changes, “We like to joke that they get excited about commas,” commented Tracy Thomas, Chief Advancement Officer for Biblica.
However, larger changes are proposed as well.
“There are words,” commented Cave, “in even the 1984 version that gets teenage boys giggling behind their hands [laughing at] what word is in the Bible. I mean it said ‘booty’ in the Bible, but that was because it was translated in 1984 and MTV wasn’t all that popular yet. Now, you don’t want the word ‘booty’ appearing in your Bible, because it means something totally different.”
Another example of a wording change can be found in Judges 16, AKA the story of Samson and Delilah.
In the 1984 revision of the NIV, “We read that Samson says, ‘if anybody ties me with seven fresh thongs, I will be weak as any man.'” Combrink explains that while the phrase may have made perfect sense in the 70s and 80s, the meaning is lost now, “Thongs now refer to women’s underwear.”
So when the NIV was revised and republished in 2011 the text read a little differently.
“[Samson] said, ‘If anyone ties me securely with new ropes that have never been used, I’ll become as weak as any other man.'”
-NIV 2011, Judges 16:11
Other times, the text in the Bible is edited or revised based on new and relevant discoveries made in the field of archaeology.
“Archaeologists,” commented Cave, “find documents and tablets with inscriptions on them.”
Sometimes those artifacts and writings will have a word or words on them that better help to explain certain texts in the Bible. Because, little known fact, there are some words and phrases in the Bible that only show up a handful of times.
In fact, some words show up only once in the Bible. Termed “hapax legomenon,” these words can be difficult to translate, “So, sometimes it’s a best guess on what these words mean,” stated Combrink.
“But,” continued Cave, “if you find other documents that have the same phrase, you’re able to compare each context and understand [them] better.”
So, the Bible changes.
But wait! Is there no outcry against this constant changing and shifting to such a internationally popular text?
Yes, there often is.
People are quite attached to their Bibles, “And for them, the Bible that they grew up with, is THE Bible,” commented Cave, “and actually [they] struggle to understand that it could be in any other form.”
So when a change, or new edition, or revision comes around to the NIV, or any Bible, it can cause some amount of confusion, “In the church,” said Combrink. “In readers of the Bible, there’s always a little bit of resistance.”
After speaking with Biblica leaders, I found this “resistance” and confusion were the greatest challenges the organization faces.
“One of the things that constantly surprises me, is how faithful people are to old Bible texts,” Cave said.
Since it’s conception, there have been many English speaking Christians who ask, “Why translate the Bible again, when the King James Version already exists?”
“If there is any English speaking population,” Cave continued, “you’ll find that the King James Bible, is THE Bible that is revered way above any other Bible.”
Some folks even attribute their attachment to that specific version of the Bible to an older and higher authority:
“You will hear now and again people saying, ‘well, if it was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it’s good enough for me.’ Which is humorous, except it’s actually quite serious, because people do say that. And helping people understand that Paul didn’t have access to an English Bible, is a bit of a shock.”
So Biblica can struggle to prove to Christians, that all biblical scholars, all translation teams are on the same team.
“When we revise a Bible,” commented Cave, “We are not being critical of other Bibles. The King James Bible is probably the greatest piece of English translational literature there has ever been.”
In fact, scholars say the King James Version (KJV), is the precursor to the NIV!
When the King James Version was created, it followed similar goals. Scholars at the time worked to faithfully translate the Hebrew and Greek texts into a format that was easily understood or readable.
“Had there been a CBT at the time with the King James Bible, there never would have been an NIV,” Cave mused.
But, the KJV didn’t have a Committee for Bible Translation, and it didn’t have a long-term plan to keep it up to date.
“So, in order to keep reaching those new generations to don’t speak that language, who don’t understand those words; how do we explain that to them? Someone actually said the other day, it’s a bit like some of the old computers.
I mean, some of the early computers were the best piece of technology there has ever been.
But you wouldn’t use it today. You know?
They were so advanced, they took things to a whole new place, like the King James Bible did.
But that doesn’t mean that you would still use it today, because you would get very frustrated, trying to do what you do. ”
So, Biblica believes their translation of the text, has to change with the times, “As we move into the 21st century, this remains necessary: to revise the translation,” stated Combrink.
However, the organization prepares before releasing a new revision by sending out copies and drafts to various organizations.
“We send drafts and copies of that translation out and get feedback from people.To also seed the ground, to make people aware that there will be a new revision to the NIV. [We] also explain why this is needed and why this translation is an improvement on the previous version of the NIV.”
After all the vetting, debating, voting, translating, archaeological researching, drafting, talking, traveling, and gathering, a new revision is released.
But that’s not the end.
The CBT will continue to work, updating the NIV for English readers, but also for foreign translations.
Biblica creates and stewards dozens of translations in popular languages across the globe.
“We have a heart for the top 100 strategic languages around the globe,” stated Tracy Thomas.
The hope is that by addressing these languages, they can provide access to Bibles to the majority of the world’s populace.
On top of that, Biblica partners with other organizations to foster new translations in additional countries.
Currently they are partnered with Every Tribe Every Nation (ETEN) in their ongoing mission to provide Bibles to the thousands of nations that don’t have a translation.
To that end, they provide translation notes, along with digital copies of their various translations, including the NIV.
“The work that the NIV committee do in translating, but also explaining why its translated that way, helps those other translators in their work. They’re still working from Greek and Hebrew, but they’ve got real, quality reference material to help them.
And that’s one of the contributions that we make.”
All to spread this text around the world.
The New International Version is the intellectual property of Biblica, an international organization based out of Colorado Springs. However, it is edited solely by the Committee on Bible Translation.
They meet each year, and have since their creation and the first publishing of the NIV in 1978.
In those meetings they pour over proposals and archaeological finds and scholarly research in order to determine what, if any, revisions need to be made to the NIV.
Every generation or so a new NIV is released.
This causes some confusion in English Bible users, since a familiar text is changed somewhat.
However, the NIV follows a philosophy of modern language translation while staying true to the original text. The hope is that it can be read and understood easily by anyone and everyone.
To that end it must keep being changed, indefinitely.