Does the NIV translation fail to reflect the “new perspective on Paul”?

I recently heard from a reader who became interested through this blog in The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that can be read without the distractions of chapter and verse numbers, etc.  However, he was initially concerned about the NIV translation, used in that edition, because, he said, “of an article I read which makes me worried that the translation of Paul’s epistles is too much in the Reformed tradition and ignores the last 50 years of Pauline scholarship.”  I think those concerns can be addressed.

At issue here is the so-called “new perspective on Paul,” which is a vast and complicated discussion, but which involves questions such as whether Paul was saying that our salvation comes to us from God completely apart from works (the Reformation emphasis), or whether Paul was saying only that distinctively Jewish observances such as the Sabbath are not required of Gentiles, but that God expects everyone to produce good works as a result of their salvation.  Since the real question here is about the NIV translation, I won’t go into the “new perspective” any further, except to observe its implications for some specific translation choices.

In a 2003 public lecture, N.T. Wright, a noted exponent of one version of the “new perspective,” called the NIV’s translation of a certain phrase in Romans “appalling.” He felt it described God’s own righteousness, but the NIV rendered it as “a righteousness from God,” that is, one that would be imputed to a human being.  In the same lecture, Wright noted that the NIV, also in Romans, left out the word “or” before the question “is God the God of the Jews only?” This seemed to have been done in order to soften the impact of what would be, from the Reformation perspective, a sudden and difficult-to-explain shift from a discussion of individual salvation to the topic of how Jews and Gentiles together form the community of faith.

I don’t know exactly what article about the NIV and the “new perspective on Paul” my reader was referring to, but I suspect it may have been written before the latest update to the NIV was released in 2011, and so it was based on the 1984 second edition.  This most recent update includes changes to many of the passages that likely caused the concerns expressed in the article.  (I’m grateful to this post by T.C. Robinson on his blog New Leaven for much of the information that follows.)

For example, the statement whose translation N.T. Wright found “appalling” formerly read this way:  “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”  In the latest update to the NIV,
it now reads, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  The previously missing “or” has  been placed in front of the statement that follows shortly afterwards: “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too?”

Within this same passage in Romans, the NIV now refers to God’s “righteousness” in a couple of places where it previously spoke of God’s “justice.”  And where the translation formerly said of Christ, “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood,” it now reads, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood–to be received by faith.”

Other material that’s present in the Greek but formerly missing in the NIV is also now reflected in that translation.  As the discussion continues, Paul asks, according to the 1984 edition, “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter?”  This omits any representation of the phrase kata sarka, which follows the term propatēr (“forefather”).  The latest update to the NIV reads, “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter?”

It should be noted that some of these changes were actually made as early as the 2001 TNIV New Testament.  The TNIV was meant to be understood as the latest word from the NIV’s Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), and as such it was effectively the third edition of the NIV.  It would be folded into that translation as part of its 2011 update, which may be considered the fourth edition.  The TNIV NT changed “a righteousness from God” to “the righteousness of God,” for example, in the place we’ve been considering.

The TNIV also changed “through faith in his blood” to “through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.”  And it referred to Abraham as “the forefather of us Jews,” not simply as “our forefather,” beginning to reflect the way that proponents of the “new perspective” see the Jew-Gentile dynamic running through the book of Romans.  These changes all followed the TNIV into the NIV in its most recent update (with of us Jews becoming according to the flesh, a more literal rending of kata sarka).

This is not a comprehensive survey, and I have no first-hand knowledge of the exact reasoning behind the changes, but it certainly appears to me that the CBT has been working, in every update it has issued since the “new perspective” came to prominence, to ensure that their translation does reflect the most up-to-date scholarly understanding of Paul’s writings.  So I see no need to avoid the NIV based on the belief that it ignores the “new perspective on Paul.”

[Disclosure: I was a consulting editor for The Books of the Bible, which appeared first in the TNIV in 2007 and was reissued in the NIV in 2011.  I have also consulted with the CBT on specific projects such as the visual formatting of material like genealogies, lists, etc. in the NIV.]

A mosaic depicting St. Paul, Ravenna, Italy, late 5th century

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

1 thought on “Does the NIV translation fail to reflect the “new perspective on Paul”?”

  1. Every translation is an interpretation, this cannot be avoided as choices must be made about what the words meant in the source language and how best to express this in the target language. In effect, a translation is the translator’s best effort to present Scripture as they understand it. It helps a lot to know where the translators are coming from, often they tell you and sometimes it can be inferred. One reason there are so many translations is there are so many groups of believers with different understandings of Scripture.

    The so-called New Perspective on Paul (better, Perspectives as they vary) is an attempt to try to better read Paul in terms of his time and the cultures in which he operated in. It is in contrast to the so-called Old Perspectives which are based on the understandings of Luther and the original Reformers, like Calvin. It is a debate about how best to understand Paul. The way one understands what Paul is saying/arguing (in Greek) will obviously influence one’s translation.

    For myself, based on my studies I believe what is sometimes called the RNPP or Radical New Perspective on Paul which is that Paul was a practicing Jew all his life; so I appreciate for example, what Wright (NPP/Anglican) says in his debates with Piper (OPP/Reformed), but do not think he goes far enough. On the NIV I think the newer NIV is an improvement over the older NIV, but I still think there are improvements possible.

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