Is the New International Version (NIV) Bible corrupt? Which translation should I use?

A pastor friend of mine has asked me to respond to a debate that has recently been making the rounds on social media. What is being said is that the NIV and various other translations corrupt the Word of God by omitting key words/phrases and entire verses of Scripture, with the apparent goal of discrediting God’s word and leading people astray. They claim that, “if you continue reading the NIV after [knowing] this, then you are truly blinded by Satan.” The argument also claims that the NIV was published by a company which is owned by another company that publishes the Satanic Bible and a book titled “The Joy of Gay Sex”.

Let me just say this from the outset: Christians, please verify and understand what you read on the internet! Whilst I am tempted to not bother responding to the allegations, due to the general lack of credibility of these sources, the existence and prevalence of these ideas brings to mind an important question: Which translation should we use? The answer to this question will hopefully help you make informed decisions as to which translation(s) to use and in the process see why some people see a certain version of the Bible as “Holy” and another versions as “inspired by Satan”.

A few important points:

  1. It is my aim to give you a sober overview of the issues surrounding the translation of the Bible in general and answer some of the criticism directed towards more modern translations.
  2. There are a lot of things which need to be discussed in order to understand the broader issue of translations. I will however try to limit the amount of information I give you to the most essential. If you are looking for something more, leave a comment or refer to my suggestions for further reading at the end of the article.
  3. As I get feedback from this article I will be updating it to reflect the most accurate information available and correct any factual errors that may exist.
  4. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (in the words of the King James Bible) says that we should, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” So it is my request, in the spirit of this verse, that you test and prove what you have read previously and what you are now about to read.

The short and simple answer to the accusations against the NIV and other translations is this: If your translation is different from the KJV then it is probably because of one or more of the following reasons: (1) The original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts did not contain the specific verse (2) the translators of the NIV (or any newer Bible version) have used a more modern English and (3) the translators have employed a different approach to translation: usually one which places more emphasis on giving the intended meaning of the original rather than on replacing each Greek word and grammatical structure with the closest English equivalent.

That is the short answer, but not enough to fully understand the issue at hand. In order to answer the question of which translation should we should use, we need to look at the following points: (1) How did we get the Bible? (2) What is translation?

How did we get the Bible?

God’s Word did not drop out of the sky into the lap of one of His servants. The Bible is a compilation of God’s dealings with mankind, written over a period of about 1’500 years (1400 BC – 90 AD). There are 66 books in the Bible which were written in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) by forty different authors, each with their own cultural, historical and educational backgrounds. The one thing they all had in common was that they were inspired by God to write and record what we have today. This is what we mean when we say that, “The Bible is the Word of God”. We do not mean that God dictated every word, but rather that God inspired every thought behind the writing.

Those original writings were not compiled using pen and paper, but written on papyri, parchment, wood, pottery and stone thousands of years ago. Here’s the issue, we do not have any of these original writings (referred to by scholars as the “Autographs”). We do however have thousands of copies of various portions of the originals, but these texts contain minor differences when compared to other portions of the same text. In other words, one copy of a portion of Luke, will have some differences when compared to another copy of the same portion of Luke because of minor copying errors that have crept in over time. Please note that I am not saying that God’s Word contains errors, but that people who have copied portions of scripture over the centuries have made mistakes in copying.
(“x”,”y” and “–” represent errors that have occurred, with “o” representing an omission) The image above illustrates how omissions and errors occurred in the transmission of the original text, with subsequent copies containing the same errors as the source from which they were copied. How did the original texts get “corrupted”? What exactly was the cause of the differences between the texts? There are a number of reasons for differences in the texts that we have and these can be divided into two categories: Unintentional errors and intentional errors:

(1) When manuscripts were copied, unintentional errors would occasionally occur such as, the confusion of similar letters of the alphabet, accidental omission of a word or letter, an incorrect division of words or the accidental reversal of word orders to name a few.
unintentional errors

(2)Some of the intentional changes that were made were done with the purpose of harmonising apparent discrepancies in scripture, updating the language or for providing clarity on theological issues.
intentional errors

What do we do about the differences that exist in the Greek and Hebrew texts that we have available? If we don’t have the autographs, then how do we know what the original actually said? We do so through the science of textual criticism. Put simply, textual criticism is the method used to determine what the original manuscripts of the Bible said. New advances in archaeology (finding the dead sea scrolls, for example) and science (updated methods for dating manuscripts, for example) mean that we continue to find new information that help us to know with increasing clarity, what the original said.

Textual criticism is not for the faint of heart, it is a serious discipline which you and I probably do not have the time for. Fortunately for all of us, there are scholars who have given much of their lives to uncovering what was contained in the Autographs. One such example is the recently published 28th Edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament.

So where does the KJV stand in all of this? Well, today we have over 5,000 copies of portions of the New Testament upon which we can produce a reliable source text for translation, whereas The KJV relies on what is known as the Textus Receptus and is based on only half a dozen manuscripts available to the translator at the time, most of which are not very reliable. This means that the KJV was a good translation way back when it was produced, but that we have now come a long way since then and have much more reliable texts on which to base our translations.
inspiration to translation

What is Translation?

First of all, it should be noted that the Bible was written in everyday language, in other words, the intention of the author was that everybody should be able to understand what was being said, not only the highly educated class.

Now, the Greek and Hebrew text upon which we base our translations is only half the process. How we translate the Greek and Hebrew into English (or any other language) is another immensely significant process. If you have ever translated a joke from one language into another, or translated the sermon of a pastor, or tried to explain to an English speaking friend what someone just said in Hindi, then you know what translation is not. Translation is not taking one word in one language and simply replacing it with a word in another language. Languages are much more complicated than that.

What Bible translators aim to do is to produce a translation which most accurately conveys the meaning and the message of the original. When the Apostle Paul wrote his letters the Churches of the time, he was writing for a reason. He wanted to communicate something, he wanted to produce a certain response from his readers (to stop sinning, for example) and he did so using his own language, wrapped in the culture and context of the time. A few thousand years later, with such vast differences in linguistic and cultural contexts, we cannot expect that Greek words and grammar can be copy-pasted into the English language.

Translation is this: Conveying the message in one language over to another language. This concept can be illustrated with a simple diagram:

steps in translating

As you can see, the structure of the original language is different to that of the new language, but the meaning has been retained. A good translation then is one which conveys the meaning contained in the words and structure of the original languages, into the words and structure of the new language.

Translations of the Bible follow this principle to varying degrees and this is one of the major reasons why translations differ. Two major types of Bible translations are:

(1) Literal/Word for Word translations: These translations try to remain as close as possible to the form of the Greek. In other words, the grammar and style of the Greek/Hebrew. For example: “For to me to live is Christ…” Philippians 1:21 (KJV)

(2) Meaning based translations: Also called dynamic equivalent, functional equivalent or thought for thought translations. These translations aim to give the meaning contained in the original message. For example: “To me the only important thing about living is Christ…” Philippians 1:21 (NCV)

Every translation that we have today falls somewhere on a scale between a literal and meaning based translation. Too literal, and your translation will be too difficult to understand, and you will very likely get the wrong meaning. As I mentioned, a good translation is one which is meaning based, but this does not mean we should go overboard to the point that the translation becomes a paraphrase of the Bible. Here is an illustration to help you understand some of the major translations:

translation continuum

No translation is 100% exact, weather it comes to the form, or the meaning of the original writings. It should be obvious: King James Version, New International Version, Contemporary English Version. By definition, a “VERSION” of something is not the original thing itself. Each translation has its own pros and cons, rest assured they are all pretty good.

A response to some of the criticism of newer translations.

About those missing verses:

Verse Explanation
Matthew 17:21 This verse is not found in the most reliable Greek manuscripts available to us. Most scholars agree that it was added to the Gospel at a later date and was borrowed from Mark 9:29.
Matthew 18:11 This verse is not found in the earliest and best Greek manuscripts and was probably borrowed from Luke 19:10
Matthew 23:14 Does not appear in the best Greek manuscripts
Mark 7:16 This verse is only found in the Textus Receptus, the least reliable text, and it is believed that coppiests may have accidentally included it in the texts as it was a very common phrase.
Mark 9:44 Again, this verse is only found in the Textus Receptus, the least reliable text
Luke 17:36 and again, this verse is only found in the Textus Receptus, the least reliable text
Luke 23:17 Only some manuscripts contain this verse.
John 5:4 Not found in the best Greek manuscripts
Acts 8:37 Not found in the earliest and best Greek manuscripts

About those missing words:

Word Translation by Newer versions Reason
Jehovah LORD Jehovah is the translation for the Hebrew name for God YWHW. Even the KJV does not translate YWHW as Jehovah in most instances.
Calvary The Skull Calvary is derived from a Latin (not Greek!) word for Golgotha. Golgotha is the actual name of the place.
Holy Ghost Holy Spirit Because “Ghost” has negative connotations for today’s readers.
Omnipotent Lord Almighty / Almighty God Updated English, more accurate translation

* FYI most Bibles explain the reasons for “missing” verses in the footnotes.

Revelation 22:18-19 has been quoted in order to refute any new attempts at translating the word of God, and especially any attempt to leave out certain verses or change the wording of other verses:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.

Many take this verse as a stern warning not to add or subtract anything from scripture and that is a good warning to heed. But none of the major translations (like the ones mentioned in this article) try to add or subtract anything at all. An example of a Bible translation which does twist and change God’s word is the Jehovah’s Witnesses translation called the “New World Translation”, they are however a cult and have nothing to do with the NIV, Good News Bible or any other version used by the protestant Church. If anything, this verse is a reminder for us to treat God’s word with reverence and respect – something which modern translations aim to do in their attempt convey exactly what the author said and intended, lest we misunderstand His Word.

Lastly, what about the issue with the publisher being Harper Collins? Well, most of your books, Christian or not, are published by or linked to a secular company which definitely prints material many of us would object to. Did you know Harper Collins also owns Thomas Nelson, the largest publisher of Christian books? But what does this have to do with the Bible? Does the evil from the printing press rub off onto the pages of the Bible? Don’t be silly! Harper Collins is a business and they print books to make money, they don’t care if the book is the Bible or LGBT propaganda, and they definitely don’t control what the Bible says. So chill. If you really want to follow this kind of logic (thinking the NIV is corrupt because of Harper Collins), then don’t buy a car because an atheist may have touched it, or a house because the builder may be into voodoo, and don’t eat because the farmer might be a Muslim and don’t drink water because gay people may work at the water filtration plant, in-fact, just don’t live on this planet anymore.

Let’s have some sense people.

Closing Thoughts: which Translation should we use?

When choosing a translation to use, consider the following two guidelines: (1) Which translation follows the latest Greek and Hebrew texts? Most modern translations do, which leads us to the second question: (2) Which translation do you understand? If you are theologically educated, have a background in Greek and Hebrew, speak English as your first language and grew up your whole life in a Church environment, you may be well conditioned to understanding a more literal translation. And that is good for you, but not necessarily for your congregation or for people who don’t speak like Shakespeare anymore.

Most modern translations are in fact good translations, but we ought to remember that they are just that, translations. The English speaking world is blessed with so many translations, and whilst obviously a blessing, it also tends to cause confusion amongst readers when faced with verses that say things differently. The solution to this is to study the particular verse that you are struggling with, read it in different versions of the bible and read a reliable commentary to get an understanding of what the author originally intended on saying.

I can’t help but also mention in closing how fortunate we are to even have this discussion about the dozens of English translations easily available to us whilst there are still millions of people without a single verse of the Bible in their own language. Let’s take this opportunity to thank the Lord for His Word which has been made so easily accessible to us and remember those who are still waiting to hear and understand the Good News.

Recommended Further Reading