You Can Do Better, NIV (Part 2)

Acts 4:32-37 offers a fascinating depiction of life in the earliest years of the Church. These verses tell us that believers were of one heart and mind, and shared everything. So much so that folks would sell property and bring the proceeds to the apostles for distribution to those in need. This brief section concludes with an example of someone named Joseph doing exactly that.

In the midst of these verses, Acts 4:33-34 offer a great example of the differences between English translations. Check out these verses in the NIV and NRSV.

33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales... (NIV)
33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. (NRSV)

OK, there's a lot going on here. Let me state up front, the NRSV does a great job with these two verses. They've translated the Greek rather literally (as is often the case with the NRSV). The NIV, on the other hand, has made some translation decisions that seem to show total disregard for the Greek text. There are three big problems in these two verses.

First off, the NIV changes where the sentence breaks are in the Greek. In the Greek, the end of verse 33 is the end of the sentence, and verse 34 begins a new sentence (like the NRSV). The NIV decides to connect the two verses, suggesting that the power of God's grace resulted in the end of need. A lovely thought, but not what Acts says. The NRSV gets it right.

The second problem has to do with the same phrase at the end of verse 33, which the NIV translates as "and God's grace was so powerfully at work in them all" and the NRSV translates as "and great grace was upon them all."

What's with the NRSV leaving out God? What kind of liberal humanist God-hating translation is this?

Well, God isn't in the Greek. The NIV added it.

You might respond, "W.G., from where do you think grace comes? It's from God, of course!" True, but the word here for grace can also mean favor. What if Acts 4:33 is simply saying that other people liked what they saw in these believers? That in sharing their hearts and their minds and their stuff, others looked favorably upon them? A lot of folks think that's exactly what is intended here. Theologically, you might prefer the NIV's translation, but it's essential that theology comes after translation and not the other way around.

The final thing worth talking about is the NIV's inclusion of the phrase "from time to time" in verse 34. As a young Greek student years ago, this was one of my first discoveries in translating. I don't mean to say no one else had talked about this, lots of folks have. I just mean in my own translating of this passage, I suddenly realized the NIV did something weird here. There is no "from time to time." As far as I know, the NIV is the only English translation that includes it. Rather, the Greek says that folks who owned plots of land or houses sold those properties and brought the money to the apostles to be distributed to those in need. The NIV's addition of "from time to time" effectively softens what is happening, making it a little more optional, so to speak.

I don't know why the NIV felt it was necessary to make that addition. I have a theory. I have no proof. To the best of my memory, I've never heard anyone else put forward this theory. Only I can be blamed if it's labeled as ridiculous.

The NIV was born out of conservative Protestants' desire for a new, accurate translation but also out of their response to the Revised Standard Version (first published in 1952). Conservative Christians just did not like the RSV. OK, that's an understatement.

Members of the RSV translation committee were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers. I'm not kidding. This isn't just me throwing around "McCarthyism." Sen. Joe McCarthy actually insisted that these allegations against RSV committee members were included in the United States Air Force training manual. Who knew that stuffy Bible scholars were such a threat to our existence?

If you don't know who Joe McCarthy is, you really should look him up.

It was bad at the local level too. Christians and pastors actually burned the new Bibles. Yep. Bible-burning parties. Hosted by pastors.

That seems like a terrible idea.

Evangelical Protestants got to work, and in 1973 the New Testament of the NIV was completed. In 1978, the entire NIV Bible was available. Still in the thick of the Cold War, this new translation arrived with a conservative evangelical Protestant audience in mind.

In a Cold War context, Acts 4:32-37 is... problematic. By adding "from time to time," the NIV offers a kinder, gentler depiction of the earliest church, and one a little less communist/socialist. Unfortunately, it's not true to the Greek text.


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