What does “NIV” stand for?

Or, “A helpful guide to the meaning of Bible translation acronyms”

If you’re a newcomer to the world of the Bible and in particular are baffled, befuddled or generally bamboozled by the multitudinous proliferation of Bible translations out there (meaning: there are lots and you don’t know what they’re all about), then you’ve come to the right place.

THIS is the (un)official guide to the meaning of all of the most popular Bible translations’ acronyms. Whether it’s the NIV, the NLT, the NASB or blow me even the KJV, we’ve got you covered to understand what all these acronyms actually stand for. And we’re starting with my personal favourite translation.

NASB: The “Necessarily Awkward Sentences Bible”

So named because it’s one of the most literal, word-for-word translations out there. If you want an exact transliteration from Hebrew or Greek into English, look no further. “He has rays flashing from His hand, and there is the hiding of His power,” says Habakkuk 3:4. Whatever the ‘hiding of His power’ is – it’s up to you to figure it out! And Saul wasn’t just told “David is in the wilderness,” he was told, saying, “Behold, David is in the wilderness,” in 1 Samuel 24. All your quirky Hebraisms are left right in there for you to pick your way around. Ephesians 1 sounds beautiful but you’re not quite sure what connects to what when you read “He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved…” etc. To be fair, Paul’s original sentence in the Greek is fairly complex, but this literal translation necessarily means that you won’t get much help here. Word for word. (Some have thought it’s the Needlessly Awkward Sentences Bible. I’m not sure which.)

NIV: The “Nearly Infallible Version”

They almost got it right with this one. Except that, well, NT Wright, foremost and formidable New Testament scholar, says that if you want to understand Paul properly, don’t read the NIV. And, as far as I’m concerned, they made a blunder in Psalm 51:5, translating it to try and make it a verse about original sin (“sinful from the time my mother conceived me”) when the Hebrew says “in sin my mother conceived me” – it’s a verse about his mother’s sin, not his own (who was David’s mother anyway? Was David being kept out in the field an indication of Jesse’s embarrassment?). Incidentally that’s the only verse that would qualify as supportive of original sin, IF it says what the NIV says it says, which is doesn’t. Hence, nearly infallible.

NLT: The “Nice Lite Translation”

This is a nice translation. Readable. Light. “Lite”. Unfortunately, it makes some deep theological assumptions in places, all in the name of helping you read through without having to stop and think about it too much. Which is good sometimes and, well, not so good some other times. Suggest taking it with a dose of a different translation every now and again.

KJV: The “Knotty Jacobite Version”

So named as stemming from the reign of James I; if Shakespeare had written the Bible, it would have sounded like this. Poetic, ancient, resonant and…well sometimes down right incomprehensible. They practically spoke a different language back then in 1611. If you want a fun historical experience, have a go. But if you want to hear the word of God in the vernacular, this isn’t it.

ESV: The “Evangelically Sensible Version”

There are two criteria for owning one of these Bibles. You must either have a close-shaven, dark beard and thick-rimmed glasses, or you must be the wife of someone with a close-shaven, dark beard and thick-rimmed glasses. Additional possible qualification are: A copy of this Bible sits right next to your copies of Calvin’s Institutes and Augustine’s City of God, and you must have read everything by John Piper, including the sermon collections. Evangelical is practically your middle name; Conservative, your last.

A note on other translations

You may encounter the RSV – the Relatively Safe Version. It’s not bad, but it’s starting to sound a bit antiquated. Its American equivalent, the ASV (Archaic Sounding Version) a little more so. Better perhaps, the NRSV (Nice Reflective Sunday Version) – echoing in shuffling Anglican church buildings every week. A lesser-known translation is the HCSB – Harmless Christian Standard Bible – another viable alternative to the range. Not to be confused with the world’s local bank HSBC, however.


(Important: Post update. I have been informed somewhat tersely that the acronyms in fact denote otherwise. I have included a list of what the acronyms actually stand for below, while I write to publishers to check. My apologies for any misinformation.)

NASB: New American Standard Bible
NIV: New International Version
NLT: New Living Translation
KJV: King James Version
ESV: English Standard Version
RSV: Revised Standard Version
ASV: American Standard Version
NRSV: New Revised Standard Version
HCSB: Holman Christian Standard Bible

3 thoughts on “What does “NIV” stand for?

  1. Uncontrollable pedantry requires that I point out that the RSV was a substantial revision of the ASV – the latter isn’t the American equivalent of the former. You could argue that the ASV was close to being an American edition of the RV, but that still seems a tad harsh.

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