HAPPY BIRTHDAY, NIV!
You’re 50 years old—counting your birthdays from the 1965 commissioning of your creation. (The complete NIV didn’t appear in print until 1978.)
As a book, you’ve got a lot to celebrate! News reports regularly describe the New International Version (NIV) as the world’s best-selling English translation of the Bible, these days. More than 450 million copies of the NIV are circling the globe—or four times Harry Potter’s first novel (which has sold about 107 million) and three times The Lord of the Rings (about 141 million).
What is it exactly? It’s a translation of the Bible started in the 1960s by conservative Protestant Bible scholars (promoted especially by the Christian Reformed Church and the National Association of Evangelicals). Their aim was to produce an easily readable Bible in contemporary language. They were focused on Protestant churches, so they left out the 7 extra books included in Catholic Bibles—and the additional books included in Eastern Orthodox Bibles. (In contrast, the more mainline Christian translation team that produced the New Revised Standard Version in 1989 went on to complete both a Protestant and full Catholic and Orthodox Bibles.)
Is it universally accepted? No. Over the past 20 years, Christian bloggers have poured their energies into heated debates over various Bible translations—including the NIV. Bible scholar N.T. Wright, who occasionally appears in the pages of ReadTheSpirit magazine and is generally the darling of evangelicals, nevertheless infuriated many of his fans by condemning the NIV translation. Wright’s argument concerns the NIV’s rendering in English of key passages in the ancient Greek letters written by Paul about the process of becoming a Christian. In his analysis of Paul’s letters, Wright argues that the NIV translators wanted the English verses to line up more exactly with the way they teach about salvation today.
Meanwhile, one of Wright’s colleagues—another widely respected evangelical Bible Scholar, Scot McKnight—dismisses these debates about Bible translation as mere political posturing. McKnight says that choosing a Bible translation, these days, is like selecting a presidential campaign bumper sticker. Choosing to carry the NIV proclaims to the world that you’re a “conservative evangelical,” McKnight says.
Overall, McKnight argues persuasively that pretty much all of today’s best-selling Bible translations are superb, painstaking texts prepared by top scholars who labored for years over every line in the Bible. Plus, we know that most Americans who engage in serious Bible-study classes in their congregations typically own multiple translations and enjoy comparing the different versions.
So, debating the value of one translation over another may amount to a tempest in a teapot. However—compounding the issue of translation are the many very popular inspirational Bibles, sometimes called “niche Bibles,” which add lots of additional essays, words of advice and personal stories to the pages of the Bible. Now, millions of Bible readers have a lot more than the actual Bible within the covers of these thick books.
In honor of the NIV’s Golden Anniversary, as editor of ReadTheSpirit, I’m offering these tips for holiday shopping …
BIBLES FOR WOMEN AND MEN
The NIV Bible for Women: For a friend or family member who loves her evangelical Protestant church, this will be a welcome gift. The 1,800 pages are packed with extra inspirational stories and advice written by a Who’s Who of leading evangelical women—101 of them, including Rachel Held Evans who we featured in ReadTheSpirit earlier this year. What did Rachel and the host of other women add to this version of the Bible? In the New Testament, for example, there’s a two-page spread giving advice to readers about the importance of joining a church. “It’s impossible to be a healthy Christian” without belonging to a church, this two-page addition says. These writers argue that God intends for everyone to join a local congregation. They don’t exactly specify that everyone needs to join an evangelical church, but the writers use Protestant phrasing to describe what God wants to see in our church membership. In contrast, Catholic readers might find this passage roughly applicable to their church’s teaching on this issue, but they’re likely to find the evangelical language jarring—plus seven of their Catholic Bible books are missing from this Protestant Bible. So, choose wisely if you’re giving this gift. Overall, this Bible is a great Christmas present for the right recipient: the church-loving, evangelical woman on your shopping list who wants some fresh inspirational reading for the new year.
The NIV Bible for Men—Similar issues; similar advice. Once again, you’ll find a Who’s Who of evangelical men who have written inspirational notes and advice that is sprinkled throughout the Bible. The list of writers includes Shane Claiborne and Scot McKnight both of whom have been featured in ReadTheSpirit.
‘CHRISTIANITY TODAY’ BIBLE
The Christianity Today NIV Understand the Faith Study Bible: At ReadTheSpirit, our journalistic principles in covering religious and cultural diversity lead us to appreciate this 1,500-page study Bible created in cooperation with Christianity Today, a very influential evangelical news magazine. The editors of this volume think like journalists: What facts to regular Bible readers want to know? What questions do men and women ask about the Bible every day? And that prompts these editors to answer questions that are overlooked in most so-called study Bibles. Here’s one example: The “millennium” is a topic ignored in many Christian churches—but the idea is eagerly discussed in those congregations that focus their preaching on the end of the world. Millions of Americans have read the best-selling Left Behind novels, which dwell on the terrifying aspects of the end time. The “millennium” is an end-times issue that’s interpreted in at least four distinctly different ways by various Christian groups. Christianity Today editors understand that it’s a hot topic—so, they devote two pages to charts contrasting the different millennial ideas. Here’s another helpful example: Polls show that most Americans are confused about Christian teachings on what happens during communion (or the Eucharist). In fact, Christian history leaves us with at least four schools of interpretation from “transubstantiation” to “memorialism.” Buy this Bible, and you’ll find a concise two-page spread explaining all four ideas in everyday terms.
Yes, overall, this is a truly evangelical Bible from start to finish—just as the NIV team intended 50 years ago. Mainline and progressive Protestants are likely to be uncomfortable with some of the advice added to the inspirational (or “niche”) editions of this Bible. Most Catholics will feel like outsiders while turning these pages. Still, it’s a great choice for the right Bible reader—and we especially like this Christianity Today niche edition as a resource for anyone trying to understand the religiously diverse public square, these days.
ULTIMATE NIV STUDY BIBLE
The NIV Study Bible: This is a great big door-stopper of a study Bible. It’s the kind of massive Bible with color pictures, color maps and a thick concordance (a Bible index) that devoted members of small Bible study groups love to own and consult for deeper discussions among friends. Everything we’ve said earlier in this column is true: It’s pointedly aimed at evangelicals. Mainly, this one is a lot bigger and focuses on evangelical scholarship more than on inspirational readings. The other Bibles listed here range from 1,500 to 1,800 pages but this massive volume tops them all at 2,900 pages! It’s nearly 5 pounds, compared with the Bible for Men, mentioned above, at less than 2 pounds. This volume’s 20,000 footnotes that help readers interpret biblical passages are written from a clear, strong evangelical Protestant perspective. The General Editor of the volume is the Canadian scholar and preacher D.A. Carson, who earlier wrote a book for Zondervan called The Gagging of God that explained his rejection of “pluralism.” Not only is Carson focused on maintaining the purity of the Reformed, Protestant tradition—but his earlier book even rejects other Christian denominations (for example referring to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a “cult”). Readers beyond the Reformed-evangelical camp will feel like outsiders if they read much of the material added to this version of the Bible.
So, how do we wind up recommending this book? Americans own lots of Bibles. The latest American Bible Society research shows that nearly 9 out of 10 Americans say they own a Bible and, among Bible owners, most own several versions. In fact 1 in 4 Bible owners have more than five different versions at home! Regular Bible readers and members of Bible-study groups love to compare versions of the Bible. So, this giant NIV study Bible will be appreciated by many Bible readers on your gift-giving list. They may be perfectly in line with this brand of evangelical belief; or they may appreciate an NIV Bible as a way to further expand the diversity of voices they can consult when studying their scriptures.
Happy birthdiay, NIV! You’re not aimed at everyone, but your contribution clearly has inspired millions over the past half a century.