Is Zondervan the Microsoft of Bible Translations?

In 1984 Zondervan published what would become the most popular Bible translation in print, the NIV. In 2005 Zondervan published and updated version called the Today’s New International Version but it didn’t fare quite so well. The gender neutral language was good in some places but had its critics. So they came out with another update in 2011 that Zondervan is pushing as just the “New International Version”…no RNIV or NIV 2011. They are pushing this as the full fledged NIV.

That has problems. Lots of problems. As a minister, it is important to me to use translations that people have in their hand. In my study, I rely heavily on the electronic versions of these translations in order to develop curriculum, classes and sermons. Zondervan is removing the 1984 from circulation, not just in print but online as well. I think this is a big mistake that is going to force people to either choose a subpar 2011 NIV or else jump ship from Zondervan and the NIV completely to another publisher and translation…remember, many are now going digital for their Bible reading which nixes the 1984 NIV from availability to the public in that format (unless you have old Bible software already on your PC or Mac). What is more, I just heard from a friend that he requested permission from Zondervan to use verses from the NIV in a book he was writing. They told him he only had permission if he used the 2011 NIV, otherwise the answer was no.

What is the point? If there is a good one, they sure haven’t told us what it is. All this adds up to me to wondering what in the world Zondervan is thinking here. I am sure they have their reasons. I am sure they have marketing gurus who are better at this sort of thing than I am. But on the consumer end this doesn’t look good. It hasn’t been well communicated and it just makes Zondervan look sort of like the Microsoft of Bible translations…more likely improvement over time but some real setbacks along the way that just aren’t communicated or executed really well and that make the consumer aggravated and disgruntled and eventually pick the Mac of the translation world, the ESV.


Communication and the Bible

Communication is not just what is said, it is also what is heard. What is heard is dependent on all kinds of factors. In face-to-face interactions that might include non-verbals like posture, eye contact, expression, and gesticulations. It can also include tone, volume, and very last…words. You know how Americans go overseas and talk really loud to everyone like it will help them understand what is being said better? Well, when language breaks down volume is just one part of the rest of our communications arsenal that we have at our disposal (although I would wouldn’t recommend that approach!). We tend to think that we say what we mean but often everything around our words can cloud the very meaning we are trying to convey with the words we choose to use.

Now add in to that mix talking to someone who has a different culture than you. They use different expressions, different non-verbals to communicate meaning, and even a different pace of speaking. Now lets say that person speaks a language you don’t know…things get tricky. Let’s add one more…let’s say they are from a different culture than you are and that culture is from 2000 years ago half way around the world. You realize there is a lot of explaining to do. They don’t know ipods and Segways (So lucky. don’t we all wish we didn’t know Segways too?). We would have a hard time understanding life from their more distant and somewhat primitive perspective.

You will probably need an interpreter to help you converse with the other person at which point many of the nonverbals and other cues we typically use to communicate with another person are diminished and we have to rely on the translator to bridge the conversation and, what is more, the meaning from one person to the other. I heard Mikhail Gorbachev speak when I was at Harding University. His speech was passionate and vibrant. It was full of energy and zeal. His tone was fused with energy and enthusiasm. He was moving even though I couldn’t understand him. Then his translator would speak in a slow, monotone and draggy voice. Even though he was translating his words so we could understand what Gorbachev was saying, 90% of the passion, feeling and even meaning was lost.

Now think about how this applies to scripture. The nonverbals that you benefit from when someone is standing right in front of you talking to you have been removed. You can’t read anything into the tone, because it is text on a page rather than hearing the spoken word. We don’t have the advantage of watching the gesticulations of the person who is trying to communicate to us the truth about himself and the universe and about us as human beings and our need for Him. Then you realize that we are even using a different language than the original text of the scriptures. Add into that them being from a different time and a different culture than we are familiar with. Things get tricky.

We are fortunate to be surrounded by a number of interpreter scholars. When you open a decent English translation of the Bible, that is what you are getting. That is what a modern Bible translation is. It is like having a group of interpreters who have studied the language, the culture, and the text that we are trying to understand in order to better converse with the one who ultimately communicated those words (God). Just like when using an interpreter in another country today, no interpreter gets all the words right all the time. No interpreter can perfectly communicate from one culture and language to the next first of all because even translations as old as the KJV are still 1600 years removed from the language and the culture that is being translated and, as mentioned above, 90% of the communication process has been stripped away (nonverbals, tone, gesticulations, volume, etc) due to the fact that we are dealing with words on a page rather than speaking with Moses or Paul or Jesus or Peter face to face.

So what we are left with is our best attempt to try to reconstruct the original meaning of the text into something roughly comparable in the English language. That is not an easy thing to do and that is why it is important, especially if you are not familiar with Greek (which at least removes a part of the awkward process of using an interpreter and instead makes us rely on lexicons and books on grammar that even still keep us a step removed from actually walking in the shoes of the biblical writers) to refer to at least two translations when studying a passage of scripture.

Romans 8:37-39 in the New Living Translation (NLT) vs. New International Version (NIV)

A very interesting translation of this text in the New Living Translation:

“37No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from his love. 38Death can’t, and life can’t. The angels can’t, and the demons can’t. Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, and even the powers of hell can’t keep God’s love away. 39Whether we are high above the sky or in the deepest ocean, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Compare that to the NIV:

“37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

So which is closer to the mark? Literally it reads something like this:

“37But, in all these things [we have] complete victory through the one having loved us. 38For I have been convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor present, nor future, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor any created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Verse 37 – The emphasis in 37 is on the victory that is won more than us being the conquerors (point NLT).
Verse 38 – The structure of this verse is a single sentence that carries on and on so much so that it almost leaves you breathless by the end…giving the effect that the list of powers that are unable to subvert us from God’s plan and power is quite a long and exhaustive list. The NLT breaks it up with lots of commas and periods that makes it more choppy and loses the effect that the NIV and Greek text creates. (Point NIV)
Verse 39 – NLT takes on much more dynamic equivalence here than the NIV does. That is not too uncommon for the NLT. In other words, it supplies many words that are not in the original text to get the point across of the intent of the author (Paul). That is not just true of the descriptive terms but also the word “ever.” I think Paul has that sense here in just how final and authoritative God’s love is about any other competing power in the universe. The NIV follows the Greek text much closer here than the NLT. (Point NIV).

Looks like the NIV wins. I do love the NLT’s take on the text and it gets you thinking about some components of this verse that fits the context of Romans 8 well but aren’t necessarily in the text itself. The ESV does a pretty good job on these verses as well. Link to ESV translation.

Romans 11:25-26 – What Does Paul Mean by “All Israel Will Be Saved”?

The toughest couple of verses in all of Romans are contained in Romans 11. After Paul’s illustration of the olive tree and how God selects those branches (whether native to the tree (Jews) or wild olive branches (Gentiles) that belong in his tree he makes a statement that is a little perplexing in 11:25-26…

“I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. 26And so all Israel will be saved…”

It is difficult to say which mystery Paul is talking about when he says “this” mystery. He could be talking about the olive tree and God’s “kind and stern” actions toward his people. Or “this” could refer to what he is about to say regarding Israel’s hardening but eventually acceptance. Last night in our men’s class I made the point that the mystery points back to the olive tree example but the more I think about it, I think it mostly points forward to what Paul is about to explain – God’s plan to save Israel. That is, after all, what Paul is trying to explain all through chapters 9-11. Paul says God has planned the salvation of Israel in three steps – 1) hardening of some of the Jews, 2) acceptance of some Gentiles, 3) all Israel will be saved.

At this point we have some issues. When Paul writes that “all Israel will be saved” we either have to define Israel by a certain set of people in order to make that consistent with all Paul has said about the necessity of righteousness to come by faith in Christ or we have to assume all Jews will eventually put their faith in Christ, or that God is going to save them no matter what (which is not consistent with what Paul has written to this point in Romans). Some people have wanted to say Paul is talking about “Spiritual Israel” here but that just doesn’t bear out through the context. Paul is talking about ethnic Jews here. So either they all will eventually put their faith in Christ or Paul is defining Israel in a slightly different way than meaning every single person who is a direct descendent of Abraham. Paul and Jesus agree that not all ethnic Jews are actually children of Abraham (see John 8:39-41 & Romans 4:12).

It has always been the case that God has called his people “Israel” when some Jews were not included in that number. Two places we see this in the OT are the concept of the remnant and also through blessings and curses in Deuteronomy (for more on that see the first paragraph in this post on Galatians 3:10-14). In Deuteronomy blessings and curses are repeatedly laid out before God’s people. The gist of it is, if you follow God and keep his commandments you will do well in the land. But if you double cross God, rebel and go your own way you will be under a curse. This curse was basically considered a removal of the blessings of God and of covenant status with God. That basically would put an ethnic Jew out of “Israel” and into the same status as the Gentiles (who were also thought to be cursed and devoid of God’s blessings). So my contention here when Paul says “all Israel will be saved” is that he is talking about “true Israelites” (as Jesus refered to Nathaniel as in John 1:47)…those who obeyed the law and were led by that law, as it was intended to do, to Jesus Christ. So this does not mean every single Jew who ever lived will be saved and it does not mean that every single Jew will somehow get a second chance to believe in Jesus at the last day (although I can see how some would interpret it that way). It probably means faithful Jews will turn to Christ and be redeemed and that in some way, shape or form, there may be more of that to come than we realize. That is the plan that God had from the beginning. The only difficulty I see in this interpretation is that it is difficult to keep the Israel of verse 25 consistent with the Israel of verse 26. Hank’s suggestion that the ESV translation of this verse may help us a little here – “Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved…”

Finally Trying Out the ESV

We finally picked up an ESV translation of the Bible. Can’t wait to see how it does. I have heard so many good things about it from several different people from several different perspectives so this should be good.