I am often asked about the merits of various Bible translations. Like many of my readers, I was brought up on the NIV.  When I became a Christian (1977), the NIV NT was already replacing other popular versions (RSV, Phillips, NASB). Soon after the OT was also translated. The NIV today outsells the traditional KJV two to one.

The NIV served me well, especially in my first decade as a Christian. Since then, I have read the entire Bible in many different translations. My aim is not to denigrate the NIV. Still, and in part because the NIV is a "dynamic equivalence" translation, translating idea by idea rather than word by word, there are some errors. There is a much heavier interpretive element in this version than in the stricter, more formal translations.

In this article we will consider nine passages, all from the N.T.

Matthew 11:12
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.

This is a mistranslation, and it has led to justification of a heavy leadership style. For analysis, click here. The error has been corrected in the TNIV: "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it."

Matthew 26:31
Then Jesus told them, "This very night you will all fall away on account of me…

Yet the Greek word rendered "fall away" says "stumble, not "fall away." For analysis, cllick here. This is an unfortunate error because it ignores biblical terminology and supports the thinking that those who fall away can come back to the Lord, directly contradicting Hebrews 6:4 and other passages. For a study of the (falsely) related concept of "restoration," click here.

Acts 2:4
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

The Greek word for languages (or the literal organ of the tongue) is glossai. In Elizabethan (King James) English, tongues was an acceptable translation. In modern English, unless one is trying to sound archaic, or using a phrase like "mother tongue," this can only be a concession to Pentecostalism and its belief in "angel languages" or something to that effect. For more on tongues, click here and here.

Acts 17:26
From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.

The problem is that the translators have read full Calvinistic predestination into the passage! If God decided the places where we would live (where we would live, who would reach out to us, etc) -- if he predestined us to be saved -- then it follows logically that he must also have predestined the lost not to be saved. (This is what Calvinists call "double predestination." But fortunately this is not what the text says. The TNIV has removed the error: "From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands." For a fuller explanation, click here.

UPDATE: The NIV has now been corrected. This verse has been changed to: "From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands."

Romans 11:25
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.

Here the Greek pleroma, which means "fullness," has been errantly rendered "full number."  The NAS is accurate: "For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery--so that you will not be wise in your own estimation -- that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in." There is no quota, as the NIV suggests. The common evangelical interpretation is closely related to a political theology of modern Israel. For more on this, click here.

Galatians 5:19
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious…

The Greek sarx means "flesh." On the other hand, "sinful nature" is a Calvinist interpretation, suggesting the traditional doctrines of Original Sin (that we are born damned) and total depravity. (For several articles on Calvinism, click here.) The NKJV reads, accurately, "Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery,fornication, uncleanness, lewdness..."  For more, go here.

Ephesians 4:11
It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.

The Greek poimenes means shepherds, and in every other N.T. location is rendered so. The sole exception -- and the NIV is hardly the only translation to slip here -- is this verse. It is a clear concession to Protestantism and the "pastor" position that has become so common. Yet pastor is a Latin word for -- you guessed it! -- the Greek word poimen, shepherd. For more, click here.

Ephesians 5:3
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people.

The Greek does not use the word for "hint," which after all lends itself to subjective arguments about what a "hint" is. The Greek simply reads, "Let... not even be named among you." This is captured well in, for example, the
NASB: "But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints." Or take the 1999 HCSB, one of my favorite translations: "But sexual immorality and any impurity or greed should not even be heard of among you, as is proper for saints." The point the NIV translators were trying to get across is a good one, but their manner is too periphrastic. Better stick to the Greek text.

2 Timothy 4:5
But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. 

As someone involved in leadership for many years, I am sensitive to how this sentence has been worded. The Greek simply says, "...fulfill your ministry." This has been rendered faithfully in the NASB: "But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry." This is important because there is a difference between "fulfilling" one's ministry -- preaching the word, in this case (v.2) -- and "discharging all the duties of one's ministry," which suggests multiple elements in the evangelist's job description (teaching, counseling, administration, finances, leadership meetings, etc). The job becomes too big, outgrowing the biblical parameters. This is not fair to the preacher, and impedes the maturation of the body of Christ, who should share responsibility for many of these things.

Philemon 6
I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. 

The verse has absolutely nothing to do with evangelism, which is the implication in the NIV translation. After all, Paul is asking Philemon to forgive and welcome his former slave, Onesimus, who has stolen from him. Reconciliation between brothers and church unity are the issues, not reaching out to the community. For further analysis, click here. The TNIV rectifies the error "I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ."

1 Peter 3:21
[A]nd this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledgeof a good conscience toward God...

The word "pledge" is a possible translation of the Greek eperotema, but probably not the right one. The NIV was translated by a committee of evangelicals, most of whom believe that one becomes a Christian by "receiving Christ" (the "sinner's prayer"). Naturally, to render the original word "appeal" or "request" would suggest that baptism was a part of salvation, rather than something separate and apart from (or after) it. The committee opted for the less controversial "pledge," which suggests that one has been cleansed from sin before baptism. For a fuller analysis, click here. The NASB is accurate: "Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you--not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience--through the resurrection of Jesus Christ..."


No translation is perfect, and the NIV, like all versions, has its share of errors. So what should the careful Bible student do?

  • Unless you are trained in the original biblical languages, study the Bible in more than one version.
  • Beware of any unusual phrases or sentences that appear in only one translation. Usually these are interpretive. Rather, check your "insights" against several versions to make sure you are not affected by translator bias. This advice is especially important for anyone teaching others.
  • Do not reject the NIV, or any other reasonably good translation, but strive to grow as a student of the Bible by trying to become handy with the stricter versions (NRSV, ESV, NASB, NKJV, etc).
  • If you're seeking a more accurate but also readable version, the HCSB may be for you.
  • If you have been a Christian a while and read only the NIV, I would stongly urge you to "move on." (Don't be like the "King James Only people -- "If it was good enough for Jesus and the apostles, it is good enough for me"!)
  • Thank God that, in English at least, we have so many versions to choose from. We are literally spoiled for choice!