NIV 2011 and James 3:1

So, I’ve not really followed very closely the whole controversy/hubbub about the NIV 2011. It has something to do with dissatisfaction with the TNIV*, but I won’t get into that.  In my humble opinion, they should just call this next revision “Tomorrow’s NIV”. . .  JK. Folks are calling it the NIV 2011, among other things. The text is now available online for all to see (;

Robert Slowley has put online a handy comparison of the original NIV, the TNIV and the NIV2011. John Dyer made a similar tool.

So, given the new release of the text, I decided checked out the differences in the Epistle of James (given that I’ve spent a little time studying that book in the past).

One thing I found particularly ‘interesting’ is the translation of adelphoi in James. The author of James uses this  word throughout the letter to address his audience. He particularly punctuates the epistle with reference to adelphoi mou (1:2, 16, 19; 2:1, 5, 14; 3:1, 10, 12; 5:12, 19). In the original NIV, this phrase, adelphoi mou is consistently translated “my brothers”.

That’s an OK translation. The problem is that while the Greek word, adelphos, in the singular generally refers to “a male from the same womb” or “brother”, in the plural it can also refer collectively to a group of both brothers and sisters (male and female). Adelphos can also refer more ‘metaphorically’ to a person “viewed as a brother in terms of a close affinity”, rather than by virtue of being ‘from the same womb’ (BDAG, s.v. ἀδελφός). Of course the precise meaning of adelphos in any given instance is determined by context. If, for instance, you know that a group of individuals being referred to are both male and female, you’d assume that adelphoi means either “brothers and sisters” (siblings) or perhaps “folks associated closely with each other.”

Given this understanding of adelphos, particularly adelphoi (the plural), the TNIV consistently translated adelphoi throughout the Epistle of James as “brothers and sisters.” This makes sense. It is highly unlikely that James would have addressed only males of “the twelve tribes of the dispersion” (1:1) who came from the same womb. He was most likely using the term more metaphorically to refer to those with whom he shared a close association (they were, after all, a part of the same twelve tribes), and just as likely he was referring to both men and women.

Once upon a time in English, one could simply say “brothers” and folks would pretty much understand that both men and women were being referred to. (Growing up, I memorized a lot of the KJV so I was familiar with this inclusive* ‘brothers’ language . . . Shakespeare was a lot easier for me than for the other kids in high school.)  Nowadays, given the way language has shifted over the years, folks might have a hard time with this. If you refer to “brothers” it would pretty much be assumed you were speaking to an all (or mostly) male crowd. So, James is addressing more than just the men in the congregations, why should we leave our ‘sisters’ out?

Well, the NIV2011 retained the TNIV’s translation of adelphoi as “brothers and sisters” in all places but in 3:1. Here is the Greek text and the English translations in the NIV family tree:

  • NA27 Μὴ πολλοὶ διδάσκαλοι γίνεσθε, ἀδελφοί μου, εἰδότες ὅτι μεῖζον κρίμα λημψόμεθα.
    Mē polloi didaskaloi ginesthe , adelphoi mou, eidotes hoti meizon krima lēmpsometha
  • NIV Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
  • TNIV Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
  • NIV2011 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
So, I’m a bit befuddled. Where did the translators of the NIV2011 get the phrase “my fellow believers”? It’s simply not in the text. James uses adelphoi mou the same as he does elsewhere in the epistle–to address his listeners as a whole. He uses adelphoi to do so, implying a close connection. I guess that “my fellow believers” gives the sense of this close affiliation, but there’s a difference in ‘feeling’ between “fellow believers” and “brothers and sisters.”
Throughout James, the NIV2011 uses “brothers and sisters” to translate adelphoi mou, (see the translation footnote a in 1:2) but in this context, the translation gives no clue that he’s using the same form of address. There is another thing to consider: James talks a lot about ‘faith’ and ‘belief’.* Given the NIV2011’s translation in 3:1, if I didn’t know any better, I’d assume that Jimmy was using one of those ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ words. He did after all just get done preaching about the importance of faith/belief backed up by works. I can imagine a well-meaning-and-observant Sunday School teacher having an “Ahah! moment” reading this translation. James just gets done talking to the folks about the nature of true belief, and then he lovingly refers to his addressees as “fellow believers.” Problem. He is not.

I can’t help but wonder about this. Was this simply the slip of the translator’s pen? An oversight in translation consistency? The nuance is slight enough; I think it very well could have been. If it is, it’s an unfortunate slip. James is here admonishing his readers, “Not many of you should become teachers.” If memory serves me correctly,* wasn’t gender and the whole ‘women in ministry’ thing at least tangentially related to the controversies over the TNIV? Why didn’t they use fellow believers elsewhere in the text? The only place where the translators used “fellow believers” to translate adelphoi mou refers to potential teachers. Elsewhere they used somewhat ‘gendered’ language. Were they avoiding explicit reference to brothers and sisters in a place where James may be addressing both brothers and sisters who could potentially be teachers? Was this an attempt to avoid the TNIV feather-ruffle?

My inclination is to believe that this would not be the case. I prefer to give the benefit of the doubt, or at least to believe that there was some other relevant stylistic reason to do this. Still, this made me wince just a little. If anything it provides one of those brave souls who would become a teacher a ‘teachable moment’ in translation theory.

So. That’s my first post in almost a year. I await the darts. 😉

2 thoughts on “NIV 2011 and James 3:1”

  1. Jim, this is clearly a case where the topic of teaching has influenced the translation to exclude the feminine gender. I doubt it was done to promote a particular view of women and authority. Rather, it was probably done to be ambiguous and avoid the question. Often, this is a wise move in translation. However, in this case, since they translate the phrase as “brothers and sisters” in every other case, it sort of tips their hand. But what does it reveal, that they are a translation committee full of complementarians? I doubt it. Rather, I suspect it’s more simply related to the longstanding confusion about what James 3 is about. Is it a new topic about the office of teacher? Some think so. Just compare section headings in different English versions. It’s split about 50-50 whether this passage is taken to address teachers specifically or the community more generally even though teachers are briefly mentioned. Donald Verseput had a really good article on this passage as well as other topics in James just before he died several years ago. I wish he had lived a few more years to let the world know what else he had been saving up to publish on James. Anyway, I’ve been working on an article that addresses this topic. This passage does not even start with a command to limit the office of teacher to “not many.” Rather the grammar demands that this be understood as an address to the entire community not to become a group of many teachers. That is because the previous passage in chapter 2 indicates that they are not living in faith. How can they be a community in which EVERYONE teaches one another (as was the expectation in early Christianity) if they are not even living in faith by the Spirit? I discuss this briefly in the conclusion of my 2010 thesis. Sometime, I hope to finish the article.

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