Seeing Through the NIV’s “Transparency”

The revision of the NIV has generated a fair amount of discussion in the biblioblogosphere–see a list at Near Emmaus–and some guys have even put together the means to compare the changes. I want to raise something that I haven’t seen addressed, the video from the NIV translation committee featuring Doug Moo.

In particular, I’m not sure what to do with this line from the video [Update: the excerpt below is actually from this video]:

When the books of the Bible were first written, they captured exactly what God wanted to say, in the languages and idioms used by the ordinary people of the time. Those first readers of God’s word could understand the meaning of what God was communicating in the form that God chose to say it—the Hebrew and Greek that were the languages of that time. They felt no friction between the form and the meaning. That original audience experienced the perfect fusion of these two ingredients. . . . The NIV aims to create as far as possible the reading experience of the original audience. Its goal is to combine in one translation transparency to the original audience and ease of understanding, refusing to prioritize one above the other. . . . In all this work we are guided by our core philosophy, trying to maintain the best possible combination of transparency to the original text and comprehensibility for the broad audience that we serve. The updated text is the latest fruit of this process.

Is it accurate for Moo to suggest that our knowledge of Hebrew is complete enough to know that the type(s!) of Hebrew we see in the Hebrew Bible reflect “the languages and idioms used by the ordinary people of the time?” What do we actually know about the Hebrew that was spoken in the home or marketplace in Israel? Is the NIV team suggesting that the average Israelite would have been able to read the Hebrew Bible, assuming they had access to a portion of it? The extent of literacy in ancient Israel is a debated issue among scholars, as is the role of literacy among the ordinary people. Even if the general populous was basically literate, did this literacy enable them to read the more complex texts in the Hebrew Bible? Moo suggests the ancient Israelites experienced no friction between the form and the meaning. By form, he means the language itself. However, that language was put to many uses, and it seems naive at best to suggest that original audiences would never have wrestled with the meaning of the various texts in light of their various forms (more broadly conceived).

And why the concern to recreate the “reading experience” of the original audience? I ask this because the original audiences largely weren’t reading the Hebrew Bible! The word of God came to the Israelites through prophets like Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah. It was spoken, and when it was read, it was often being read aloud so that people could hear it being read. The writing down of the texts served the purposes of preservation, not personal Bible study. Internalization and meditation were the spiritual disciplines of ancient Israelites, not daily Bible reading.

Ultimately, Moo argues that transparency to the “original text” is a part of the NIV team’s core philosophy. However, it seems to me that they have come short of transparency in the way they are both marketing and translating their text. Ancient Israelites were not likely “reading” their Bible, and it is doubtful that the original authors were aiming at comprehensibility, at least in the way that the NIV translators use the word. There is nothing wrong with making the Bible accessible at a 7-8 grade reading level as the NIV does, but suggesting that reading experience mirrors that of the original audience is simply misleading. Transparency to the original text cannot assume that the original audience did not experience friction between form and meaning, indeed it should aim to translate that friction where it legitimately exists. Others have pointed out problems regarding transparency that are also worth considering.

I appreciate the NIV for what it is; I only wish the NIV committee was more precise in the way they marketed it to the public.

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2 thoughts on “Seeing Through the NIV’s “Transparency”

  1. I agree with your assessment, Joseph. It seems Moo’s comment is more marketing spin to a 21st century literate audience than a careful consideration of language and literacy in the biblical world.

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