NIV Update 2011 – “Flesh” and Other Translation Issues

Categories: Biblical Studies, New Testament

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Haven’t had much chance to blog lately as I’ve been feverishly preparing for my preliminary exams (took my Greek prelim on Monday, with my four main subject exams coming the week after Thanksgiving), but lots has been happening out there and I can’t stay away entirely. One notable bit of news is that the updated NIV has been released, so many of us who made suggestions can see whether our suggestions were followed in the least. (There have been lots of posts on this, including Rick Mansfield’s initial thoughts, J.R.D. Kirk’s observations, and John Hobbins on Qohelet 11:1–2, among others.)

New International Version 2011
It'll look the same on the outside, but there have been some changes under the hood.

I’ve had a “draft post” sitting in my blog dashboard since Feb 7 that explains the specific suggestions I made to the committee last November. I figure I might as well just do two posts in one, listing my suggestions and looking to whether or not they were implemented.


My suggestions:

1) First on the list, of course, was my firm agreement with many other scholars that the old NIV’s handling of the Greek word σάρξ (“sarx“) was simply abominable. Put simply, σάρξ (the Greek word for “flesh”) does not mean, nor does it ever mean, “sinful nature,” and by translating it “sinful nature” in many places, the NIV offers a distorted base from which many launch a distorted theological reading of Paul. When Rom 7 says “sinful nature” instead of “flesh,” all the parallelism with Rom 8 is lost, making these chapters much harder to understand. (I figured the odds of them listening to the many scholars piping up about this issue were about 50/50.)

2) I raised the problem of the fuzzy meanings of traditional theological language—many who read the Bible see key terms like “faith,” “grace,” “sanctify,” etc. and gloss over them without even realizing they don’t know what they mean, simply because these words are not used outside of the context of the church. I suggested a re-examination of some of these terms—perhaps translating πίστις as “faithfulness” more often, trying to incorporate the idea of reciprocity (inherent in the Greek but not in the English) into the translation of χάρις (“grace”), and finding better, less traditional ways of translating traditional, but outdated, terms like “sanctify,” “propitiation,” etc. (Odds of any changes: less than 5%.)

3) I suggested a philosophical change in dealing with certain metaphorical language—again coming back to the σάρξ issue. Essentially, I suggested that where the NT (more specifically Paul’s) language is metaphorical, attention should be paid to the fact that he is not using pre-established terms with all the aspects of his metaphorical meaning already inherent in the term. Rather, such language relies upon a link between the term itself and the metaphor being used. So, in the case of σάρξ, Paul isn’t using a pre-established theological term but a term that carried the connotation of bodily desires (and could serve as a euphemism for the foreskin). As such, it is the wrong move for translators to search for a specific theological way of rendering such a term rather than trying to allow the metaphor to work in English. (Odds of adoption: beyond changing “sinful nature,” pretty much zero.)

4) The old NIV isn’t always a great “read aloud” translation. I suggested translating, then having the committee read the translation aloud, and then making changes for better oral reading. (Odds of adoption: slim.)

5) One of the big problems I see in modern Bible translation is the adherence to verse-by-verse translations. Greek grammar is very different from English grammar; English hearers/readers have a hard time when the main thought is pushed far back into the sentence, and they have a nearly impossible time when verse numbers are included in the exercise. Take Heb 6:4–6, for example, where the main clause is “It is impossible for [such people] to be brought back to repentance,” but the problem is that there is a multi-verse description of “such people” nested right in the middle, to the effect that an English reader has forgotten the beginning of the thought by the time they reach the end. It would be better to rearrange the sentence into better English syntax without trying to maintain the Greek order of verses; this gives the English reader the best chance to understand what’s actually being said. (Essentially, my point boils down to application of Discourse Analysis over versification in doing a good translation.) (Chances of adoption? Near-zero.)

6) “The Fullness of the Nations”: In Gen 48:19, a very odd Hebrew phrase occurs—a phrase not occurring anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. Jacob, who is blessing Joseph’s sons, tells Joseph that Ephraim’s seed would become מלא הגוים (literally, “the fullness of the nations”). This is difficult language and seems quite odd in its context; the LXX chooses to harmonize the difficult Hebrew with Gen 17:4, where God promises Abraham he would be the father of “a multitude of nations.” We do, however, see a quite literal Greek translation of this difficult phrase in Rom 11:25, where Paul explains that τὸ πλήρωμα τῶν ἐθνῶν “the fullness of the nations” must come in for “all Israel” to be saved. This section of Romans has been especially difficult, but it makes a whole lot more sense once it’s understood in the light of Gen 48:19 (as my forthcoming JBL article shows). I suggested that the committee follow the Hebrew in this verse while also translating Rom 11:25 in the same way, ensuring that this important connection isn’t masked in English. (Odds of adoption? I figured around 75%. It’s an obvious and easy change with a good payoff.)

7) Lord LORD: In Matthew and Luke, Jesus refers to himself using the double form of κύριος (“Lord, Lord”), a formulation likely tied to the Greek translation of אדוני יהוה (“Lord YHWH”), which occurs frequently in the Hebrew Bible, most notably and commonly in Ezekiel. As I argue in the paper I’m presenting at SBL in a week, this use of the double κύριος in the Gospels should be connected to the use of the divine name. But because most English Bibles eschew such repetitions in their translations of the Hebrew Bible, the echoes are missed by most readers. I suggested using “Lord LORD” rather than “Sovereign LORD” in these cases, at least where the LXX translates κύριος κύριος. (Odds of adoption? I figured around 10%. It’s easy and obvious, but I figured they’d pick euphony and tradition over precision and ease of understanding.)


Were any of these suggestions followed?

As my percentages suggested, I didn’t really expect much that I said to have a whole lot of impact, though I had some hopes on a couple of the more critical (and specific) issues.

1) “Sinful nature” translations: I must confess my heart leaped as I read this in the “Translator’s Notes”:

Most occurrences of ‟sinful nature” have become ‟flesh.” Especially in Paul, sarx can mean either part or all of the human body or the human being under the power of sin. In an effort to capture this latter sense of the word, the original NIV often rendered sarx as ‟sinful nature.” But this expres- sion can mislead readers into thinking the human person is made up of various compartments, one of which is sarx, whereas the biblical writers’ point is that humans can choose to yield themselves to a variety of influences or powers, one of which is the sin-producing sarx. The updated NIV uses ‟flesh” as the translation in many places where it is important for readers to decide for themselves from the context whether one or both of these uses of sarx is present (p. 7).

Is it possible that they really corrected the most egregious flaw in the old NIV? Did this mean I could recommend the NIV to people as a reasonably reliable translation? But I was a little suspicious that it said “most,” not “all.” I immediately headed over to Bible Gateway to check Romans 7, hoping against hope that they really, truly made the necessary changes. This is what I found:

7:18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.

7:24 So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature[d] a slave to the law of sin.

Sigh. To top that off, the note for 7:5’s translation of “flesh” says the following: “In contexts like this, the Greek word for flesh (sarx) refers to the sinful state of human beings, often presented as a power in opposition to the Spirit.” This is quite simply not true. Yes, Paul presents the flesh as a power in opposition to the spirit, but it does not denote the “sinful” state of human beings but rather the “appetitive” aspect of human beings, which—if given control of the will, leads to sin. There’s a big difference between the two. (I suppose I’ll have to do a longer post on this once my exams are completed.)

Oh well, I had hoped they would get it right and help make the parallelism between Rom 7 and Rom 8 clear, for example:

Rom 7:14 For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, having been sold [as a slave] under sin.
Rom 8:9 But you are not in flesh but in spirit, if indeed the spirit of God dwells in you. But if someone does not have the Spirit of Christ, that person is not his.

The NIV renderings?

Rom 7:14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.
Rom 8:9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.

That’s only one example, but these parallels persist throughout Rom 7 and 8. Unfortunately, they’re a lot harder to locate in the NIV, which obscures them at every turn. Oh well, I had hoped for better.

2) Re-examination of traditional theological language: Nope. No real changes here. They did make a change towards more gender-neutrality (which will surely be somewhat controversial), but as J.R.D. Kirk (linked above) says,

In doing a quick read through parts of Romans, I found that some of the most unfortunate translation decisions in the old NIV were retained.

Romans 1:17, for one, reads, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”

This is a difficult verse, to be sure, but “by faith from first to last” seem to me to be the least likely among three or four different translation options. It becomes unclear how the Christ event puts God’s righteousness on display, instead causing the reader to look to human faith as the way that God’s righteousness is revealed. That is both exegetically and theologically unfortunate. …

Similar to the problems with Romans 1:17, the end of Romans 3 continues to be largely unintelligible in the NIV due to its commitment to giving traditional renderings of “faith” as “faith” rather than “faithfulness.” Romans 3:20-26 is a tremendously complex passage, but it can be made sense of when we realize that it’s Jesus death, not our response of faith, that puts God’s righteousness on display.

In fact, at the beginning of ch. 3, there is a clear instance when you have to take pistis as faithfulness: does our unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? That sense of pistis should have been carried into the end of the chapter to help readers make better sense of the relationships between God’s faithfulness, human faith, Christ’s death, and God’s righteousness. The NIV doesn’t leave enough ambiguity for people to come to a good conclusion here, as it continues to over-translate in the direction of a traditional Reformed reading.

3) Metaphorical language: Nope. As expected.

4) Greater attention to orality: Nope. If anything, it has gotten worse, moving further away from connecting words and particles that help lend a much better “oral” quality to the translation.

5) Less rigorous ties to verse-by-verse translation, more attention to discourse principles: Nope. I have noticed no improvement here in the passages I’ve sampled.

6) “The fullness of the nations”: Nope. In fact, it appears they went backwards, now translating “a group of nations,” which follows neither the LXX nor the Hebrew, nor connects with Rom 11:25. Excellent!

7) “Lord LORD”: Nope. They just stuck with “Sovereign LORD” throughout, just as the old NIV did.



So, as might have been expected, the committee made none of the changes I suggested, though they made a half-hearted attempt at compromise with respect to σάρξ. Unfortunately, they retained it in probably the most important spots to get it right. The NIV will continue to be a version with good sections, but one with which I am dissatisfied as a whole and will not encourage for use among my students.

Tags: Biblical Studies, discourse analysis, Ephraim, Genesis, New Testament, NIV, Paul, Translation

3 Comments. Leave new

  • “Sinful nature” may be a terrible translation of σάρξ, but “flesh” is also horrible. And to say that σάρξ *means* “flesh” is outright false. Σάρξ means something more closely to “that which is physical.” I would argue that “flesh” introduces just as many problems for explaining Paul’s meaning as “sinful nature” does.

    • While I agree that it’s not a perfect correspondence (and agree with your “that which is physical” is more precise), I strongly disagree with the idea that “flesh” introduces “just as many” problems as “sinful nature” or that it’s “outright false” as a rendering. “Flesh” does contain the notion of something “bodily” or “physical,” which is a plus. It also has connotations of desire in English, which is a plus. The biggest negative I can see is its connotation of sexual desires to the exclusion of others, while the Greek term pertains to a wider range of physical drives/desires (though sexual desires are included among the others encapsulated in the term, and Paul’s use of it as a euphemism for “foreskin,” connects it with sexual desires somewhat). “Sexual desires” aren’t inherently sinful, so even that doesn’t entirely taint the term in my view. What other problems do you see that it introduces beyond this one, which is still significantly preferable to those presented by “sinful nature” (which doesn’t have a bodily sense at all)? “Flesh” is at the very least much closer to a “neutral” term in English, though it’s not always used as such in churches.

      We don’t have an English term that directly corresponds with σάρξ, but “flesh” is, in my view, the closest we can come with a relatively understandable term. Given that the biblical texts are designed to be read and interpreted corporately, I think “flesh” is easier to explain than any other alternative I know of, and certainly preferable to “sinful nature,” which entirely misrepresents what’s going on, even losing the “bodily” foundation that “flesh” retains. But I’m curious to know the source of your protest; as far as I can tell, we’re essentially agreed on the fundamentals of what’s actually going on with the use of the term σάρξ and what that word means (“that which is mortal, corporeal, and the source of appetites and drives in an amoral sense”). Is it just that “flesh” is more negatively tinted than σάρξ (in which case it’s still an improvement over “sinful nature” and easier to explain) or is there something else I’m missing here?

  • […] of Luke 7.28-31 and Matthew 11.12, 16 and 19. N.J. Mackison (Scum of the Earth), Jason A. Staples (Professor Obvious), and J.R. Daniel Kirk (Storied Theology) provide comments on a number of translation choices. […]


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