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Decline of the NIV?

Two new Bible translations and one revised one take the spotlight

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Since 1986, when it surpassed sales of the King James Version, the New International Version has been the biggest-selling Bible in the USA. But from 1993 to 1998 (the last year for which Spring Arbor, the largest distributor of Christian books, has statistics) the NIV's market share declined from 37 percent to below 30 percent.

No single competing version is responsible for the NIV's decline. Instead, Bibles as varied as Eugene Peterson's loose paraphrase The Message, Tyndale House's New Living Translation, and the New King James have each chipped a few percentage points from the NIV's lead, while sales of the King James version have stayed at about 24 percent.

Three new entrants in the competition all have potential. The Holman Christian Standard Bible, a new translation under development by LifeWay Christian Resources (publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention), and The English Standard Version, a Crossway Books revision of the old Revised Standard Version, both seem likely to win followings when they are published early in the next century. A now available revision of the New American Standard Bible could also be a contender.

Perhaps the version with the best chance of sales success is the Holman CSB, due to its connection to the Southern Baptist Convention. David Shepherd, LifeWay Bible and Reference Book Division director, is starting with a New Testament translation begun 16 years ago by Dr. Arthur Farstad, executive editor of the New King James Version,

LifeWay had several reasons for wanting a new translation. Mr. Shepherd says Zondervan had not allowed him to publish some NIV niche Bibles "because of competitive concerns." The "Stealth Bible" controversy two years ago boosted new efforts, he says, as many people within the Southern Baptist Convention saw the benefits of another translation.

The Southern Baptist connection certainly gives the CSB a leg up, but it does not guarantee success. Southern Baptist Convention President Paige Patterson said, "If the Sunday School Board did something really good, there's enough dissatisfaction with the NIV that it might sell." But Mr. Patterson adds, "We have over-translated and we have ruined Bible memorization and congregational reading.... We have translation pandemonium out there. How it's going to work out, I don't know."

The second translation hoping to pick up some of the Bible share lost by the NIV is the English Standard Version (ESV), announced in February by Crossway Books. The version had its roots in discussions that took place before the May 1997 meeting called by James Dobson at Focus on the Family headquarters to resolve the inclusive NIV issue.

The night prior to the meeting, critics of regendered language gathered in a Colorado Springs hotel room to discuss the next day's strategy. During the course of the evening it became clear their concerns with the NIV extended beyond gender issues. The group discussed the merits of the Revised Standard Version, first published in 1952 by the National Council of Churches and recently replaced by the New Revised Standard Version, a regendered update.

Some months later, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School professor Wayne Grudem and Crossway President Lane Dennis entered into negotiations with the National Council of Churches to use the 1971 revision of the Revised Standard Version as the basis for a new translation. An agreement was reached in September 1998 allowing translators freedom to modify the original text of the RSV as necessary to rid it of de-Christianing translation choices.

Although Crossway does not want its translation thrust linked to "Stealth Bible" concerns, feminists were quick to notice connections between the Crossway team and the conservative Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood's critics of a regendered NIV. "This is not a CBMW project," said CBMW president Wayne Grudem.

The third version that may become better known is the New American Standard Version, first published in the 1960s. Although long regarded by many evangelical scholars as the most accurate of modern English translations, it has lagged far behind many other versions in sales. Industry sources blame readability issues plus restrictive publishing policies over the years by its owner, the La Habra, Calif.-based Lockman Foundation.

But changes are underway. The NASB was updated in 1996 (archaic words were replaced and awkward phrases smoothed out), and Lockman revised its policies for publishers. Foundation Publications, Moody Press, Oxford, Riverside-World, and Zondervan all published editions of the updated Bible; the latter two publishers have major editions scheduled for release next year. Zondervan has committed itself to "build a base of acceptance in the market for the updated NASB," especially among serious students of the Bible, according to an internal marketing document provided to WORLD.

Zondervan's increased interest in the NASB is fueled in part by consumer research it conducted last year. Accuracy, it found, was the most important factor in Bible translation preference for 76 percent of respondents, with readability a distant second (15 percent). "Gatekeepers" in the survey (pastors, seminary teachers, ministry leaders) perceived the NASB to be the most accurate of six popular versions, followed closely by the NIV.

When gatekeepers were asked to recommend a translation "for the serious Bible student," the NIV and the NASB were the most mentioned-despite the NASB's low profile in the marketplace. So it is no surprise that Zondervan sees a potentially strong market niche for the NASB and is using the accuracy issue-ironically, one that its own regendering attempt has brought to the forefront-as the key talking point to promote and sell it.


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