Brief Thoughts on the TNIV

This continues my series of Bible translations reviews. Today’s New International Version was published in full in 2005, the first major update to the well-established NIV. It is perhaps best known for being at the centre of an ongoing dispute about gender language. This is perhaps unfortunate because it means that much of the discussion on the TNIV is concerned with debate over this one issue. Since I don’t hold particularly strong views on the matter, and because I want to talk about other aspects of this translation, I shall ignore it but not without recommending a book which I think offers a very balanced and helpful view on the subject: The Inclusive Language Debate by D. A. Carson.

Superficially, not a lot has changed from the NIV to the TNIV and those who have memorised significant swathes of the former won’t need to undertake much recalibration should they choose to switch. Most of the changes are very helpful, adding clarity or moving in line with the latest scholarship. Take for instance 1 Peter 2:6-7 where the NIV unnecessarily swaps between “cornerstone” and “capstone” in the two verses whereas the TNIV opts for “cornerstone” twice – a nice little tidy up. Elsewhere, the NIV’s unwarranted introduction of the word “letter” in Hebrews 13:22 skews the debate about whether Hebrews was an epistle or a treatise. The TNIV is much more accurate with, “I have written to you quite briefly.”

Better word choices are evident elsewhere too. The NIV’s “fathers” is replaced with “ancestors” (forefathers might have been even better) as seen in, for example, Luke 6:26. In Esther, the TNIV makes a welcome change from nearly all English translations in avoiding “gallows” (surely incorrect) in numerous places (e.g 2:23; 5:14; 7:9; 9:13) preferring to give the idea of some kind of wooden pole by which criminals were impaled, thus: “have a pole set up” (TNIV) against “Have a gallows built” (NIV). Note also that in this verse, the TNIV changes the NIV’s “seventy five feet high” to “fifty cubits” – more helpful for exegetes, but less helpful for everyday readers.

One or two excellent corrections have been made which have real theological consequences. Compare the following from John 11:6:
NIV “Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.”
TNIV “So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.”
Notice the difference? The NIV in using “yet” implies that Jesus loved his friends but despite that delayed his return to Judea anyway. But the TNIV, correctly implies that it was because (not despite) of his love for them that he stayed where he was. That may seem a strange thing to do, but it’s exactly what the Greeks says and makes good theological sense if you believe in the sovereignty of God.

Besides corrections, there are some very interesting surprises in the TNIV. In Hebrews 1:7, nearly every translation opts for something akin to “He makes his angels winds” (eg ESV, NASB, NRSV) but the TNIV translators (along with NET) preferred “He makes his angels spirits” which is a perfectly viable translation. I think that R. T. France is correct in supporting this in his recent commentary on Hebrews in the revised Expositors’ series. I have wondered for a while why NET was alone in this so it’s nice to find the TNIV in agreement. Perhaps scholarly opinion on this is changing.

Another interesting thing is that the TNIV is occasionally more literal than expected. Almost always it is broadly similar to the NIV but sometimes it makes quite a significant change. In John 1:16, the NIV reads, “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.” I would have expected this to remain but unexpectedly, the TNIV has gone for something similar to the ESV with, “Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.” This sort of thing is quite rare: where the TNIV departs from NIV, it is usually insignificant and less literal in comparison.

There are some changes which are particularly intriguing and for which I offer no opinion. In Numbers 4:6, for example, the NIV has a rather peculiar, “cover this with the hides of sea cows” whereas the TNIV has it covered with “a durable leather.” I don’t know that there’s any kind of scholarly consensus on this – the Hebrew is very difficult and nearly every major translation has a different idea of what it ought to be.

Some changes are a little dubious. In Romans 16:1, the NIV has Phoebe as a “servant” but the TNIV has changed this to “deacon” which may seem to be a better translation of diakonos but I suggest not because the English word has taken on additional meanings of authority and responsibility that the koine Greek diakonos did not have. The word “servant” is a better choice. Whilst I’m at it, a quick lesson on exegesis and what is called the ‘root fallacy’: just because an English word clearly derives from a Greek word, it does not follow that they have the same meaning.

Another dubious change is Romans 1:3 where the NIV’s “…regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David…” has been changed to “regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David…” I’m not convinced that the TNIV has provided greater clarity or accuracy and in fact may have added unnecessary ambiguity. The term “human nature” is well-established in everyday secular and religious language but “earthly life” is an innovation that is not easily understood.

Overall, though, I am very impressed with the TNIV. It’s not my favourite translation but I use it frequently and I do think it’s an improvement over the NIV which is already a fine piece of work. I expect that the much-publicised debates about gender language, and the presence of other excellent translations, will prevent it from establishing a user base as large as the NIV’s but it should continue to sell well.

Andy Cheung is a PhD student researching Bible Translation and a tutor in New Testament at the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School in the UK.

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