Mediating translation comparison #3: TNIV vs HCSB vs NAB – Acts 2:3-4

The comparison series between mediating translations continues with the Acts of the Apostles, ch.2, the passage that deals with the birth of the church, and is in the spirit of Pentecost Sunday. It is also an admired passage for pentecostals and charismatics. (Note, the season of Pentecost, May 11 – July 27, is a part of the liturgical calendar of many mainline church denominations, including Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox).

Acts 2:3

They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.

And tongues, like flames of fire that were divided, appeared to them and rested on each one of them.

Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.

and there appeared to them tongues as of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them.

v.3: διαμερζω (diamerizō) means: to distribute, divide up, separate. It means that something is split, or separated into parts, or divided out to each person from a common source. I do not think that what they saw was a physical formation of cloven flames of fire (KJV). “Flames of fire” (HCSB, ISV) seems to make little sense; but rather, “tongues of fire” makes better sense (as I will explain later).

The rendering of “tongues of fire” leads me to draw a hypothesis. If tongues also means language, I leads me to wonder how a language could be physically divided up. I’m beginning to suspect that what they saw was a distribution of the gift of languages to each person there. It would make better sense that it was the Holy Spirit’s charism of ecstatic utterance being distributed or divided out to each of the recipients. Therefore, what they heard on the Day of Pentecost might have sounded like “languages of fire”. This rendering would be a better description of ecstatic utterances of what we know to be “speaking in tongues.” The charism of language (or glossalia), might have sounded like “languages of fire” to the writer of Acts. If so, perhaps this was what the writer was trying to express when he heard ecstatic utterances or ecstatic proclamation being spoken in so many languages or tongues. An alternate translation I provide is:

They saw languages, as of fire, being distributed and resting on each of them.”

Acts 2:4

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages, as the Spirit gave them ability for speech.

And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak different languages as the Spirit gave them power to express themselves.

v.4a: The HCSB, NJB and ISV’s use of “different languages” is the contemporary definition of tongues. It was the various languages that were spoken when the Spirit filled the believers in Jerusalem. Tongue is also an organ of speech but when used in the context of Acts 2, “language(s)” is much easier to understand.

v.4b: At the end of this verse, the original Greek has αποφθεγγεσθαι (apophthengomai , utterance), which can mean: to speak out, speak forth, pronounce, or even to utter one’s opinion. The TNIV does not translate apophthengomai, perhaps to reduce a seemingly redundant idea (however, I do not think it is redundant). The HCSB renders this: “as the Spirit gave them ability for speech.” The NJB rendering of to express themselves” assumes that Holy Spirits utterance is of ones opinion. The NRSV and NLT also renders it as an ability. I disagree with these renderings because glossalia is a charism or gift of the Holy Spirit. It is not a natural ability, or an utterance of one’s personal opinion, but rather, it is suppose to be the utterance of what the Holy Spirit proclaims, speaks or utters through the believer. The RSV/ESV uses “utterance”. I feel the NAB’s rendering of: “as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim may be more accurate. I prefer the NAB’s rendering of to proclaim” because glossalia is the Spirits charism of proclaiming or speaking Gods word.

Also see related posts on mediating translation comparison—TNIV vs HCSB vs NAB: The search begins || #1: Romans 4 || #2: John 20 || #3: Acts 2 || #4: Acts 2b || #5: Matt. 10 || A Conclusion

25 thoughts on “Mediating translation comparison #3: TNIV vs HCSB vs NAB – Acts 2:3-4

  1. I agree Stan, we seem to get along in a very ecumenical spirit, and I learn much from all of you.


  2. It is so refreshing to be able to discuss translation preferences with other believers in such a cordial manner.

    I greatly appreciate this forum.


  3. Nathan, the REB is a translation I’ve long considered investing in. It intrigues me, but I just haven’t pulled the trigger on it yet. Possibly soon.

    Kerry, to be fair and honest, I’m not sure which edition of NLT it was that I checked out. I kind of assumed (yeah I know where that can land ya) they were all pretty close by comparison. I do not mean to sound as though I’m attacking it, like I say, my father loves it. I’m kind of like Nathan, it’s just not my cup of tea, but I tend to be biased toward the more literal translations usually.


  4. I only have a copy of the first edition of the NLT right now. I had also bought a copy of the second edition but I had the same problems with it, so I gave it away. Just not my cup of tea.


  5. Oops. That was my question about the edition of the NLT.

    Kerry had obviously been logged in on my machine.


  6. Regarding the NLT, are you guys referring to the first edition? the second edition? or both?

    Just curious.

    I have been reading the second edition, primarily in the historical old testament books.


  7. The TNIV is virtually the same as the NIV, just some updated translations. After the KJV the REB is probably the hardest translation I’ve ever tried to read. I would say it is almost a collegiate level of difficulty, but using a more dynamic style than formal. I bet you’d like it pretty well, it’s fantastic.


  8. Stan, I’m not saying contemporary translations have no place. On the contrary, for some people they work fine. I feel though, for public reading the Bible should speak with a dialect that is more formal, it grabs our attention, whereas something that sounds like the newspaper can sound so trivial, and like I`m having a conversation with a buddy (which I agree is also the strength as well as the weakness of the more idiomatic translations). I don’t feel comparing what I’m saying to going back to the original languages is quite fair. For example Greek and English are entirely different languages, and translation is necessary. But the English of say the ESV and the NLT are both still English, one just happens to be more stately than the other, and more literal. I simply feel that formal equivalent translations in almost every instance are very understandable to the average reader. For instance, I believe the ESV and NRSV are both on about an eighth grade reading level (corrections are welcomed).

    The point I was trying to make is that it seems every year or few there is a new translation that is the “darling of the day” and more often than not, I cannot see the need for them, other than to make money.

    Robert, excellent point to your story. I also use several translations, but will always lean hard toward the more literal ones, using the others for comparisons. And yes, once in a while one of them will surprise you in a very pleasant way with how it renders a line.

    Nathan, I am with you about idiomatic translations. I do like the NIV and HCSB. I do not have experience with TNIV or REB. As for the NLT, my father loves it, I hate it. It just feels far too dumbed down and colloquial for me to take seriously, but that’s just my opinion.


  9. Stan,
    I agree with you on the TNIV and REB, however my experience with the NLT has not been very positive. It seems very colloquial and dumbed down to me. The NIV and NEB are about as idiomatic as I can go.

    In the end though, I place nearly equal value in all of my English translations. I value the NLT because it occasionally has the best rendering, but not enough that it would be my first recommendation to someone for a primary translation.


  10. I. Wells, I agree with you on this. I preach from mainly the NASB or ESV, but occasionally refer to a modern speech reference because of liking how it phrases something. A member came to me recently and said, “How are we to know when you are quoting the Bible, or just putting it in your own words?”

    What I take her to mean is, am I just giving my interpretation or am I speaking with a “Thus says the Lord.” And how does the listerner know if it doesn’t “sound” like the Bible?

    I use many available editions of the Bible in my personal study, but I concur, especially for those who don’t bring Bibles and don’t follow along during the course of a sermon, using a more literal translation may help in cases such as this.


  11. L. Wells,
    I understand where you’re coming from. That had been my position until a couple of months ago. Choosing a translation definitely comes down to personal preference.

    A few thoughts:

    If you use “the argument that the Bible should ‘sound like the Bible'” why read a tranlsation at all? Why not go for the original languages? I’ve heard people speak in Greek and Hebrew and it sounds nothing like the ESV.

    You said you “think there is a lot to be said about a translation that doesn’t dumb itself down for the sake of SLIGHT increases in readability.” I’m not sure which translations you have in mind, but I would argue that translations such as the NLT, REB, (T)NIV are not “dumbed down” at all and offer, to me at least, HUGE “increases in readability.”

    And why not “a common dialect”? Wasn’t the Greek of the New Testament the “common dialtect”? Most Americans, I suspect, read at a level somewhere between the newspaper and the “drug store novel”. It’s how we speak.


  12. I wish I could agree. Unfortunately I was raised with the teaching that there were literally flaming tongues that flitted about the air and split (amoeba-like?) into different tongues and flamed over people’s heads. Not only were they speaking different languages but there was a second physical presence of the many flaming tongues in the air. If I hadn’t been taught it from more than one church I would think I was making it up. Hopefully my experience was outside of the norm.


  13. Well, I’m probably going to be the only one who takes this side on the “tongues vs. languages” issue, but I don’t see a big difference. I think almost any reader who puts a little thought into it will understand that tongues is tantamount to languages. I feel that we have become far too fussy and finicky over contemporary English today, probably because we are spoiled to having so many great options. To say, for example, the average reader of English cannot fairly readily comprehend the ESV seems to me to insult the intelligence of that reader.

    I will also go so far as to defend an argument I used to think was a little silly, but with the rise of more and more “modern English” translations, I’ve come to appreciate. This is the argument that the Bible should “sound like the Bible”. This is where some translations have done a fine job of preserving readers with a more traditional outlook. Obviously the NKJV has done a remarkable job of retaining a stately tone to its phraseology and cadence, but I think this is also an area the ESV really tends to excel at.

    I think overall, the best balance between readability, accuracy, and stately English belongs to the ESV. I love the NRSV also, for its balance between accuracy and readability, but while both these translations seem neck and neck in these areas, I feel the ESV has a key advantage in that it retains much traditional phraseology (terms like propitiation, justification, etc.).

    I know this sounds old school and lost in the times, but I think there is a lot to be said about a translation that doesn’t dumb itself down for the sake of SLIGHT increases in readability. I say slight because I think there are very few people who can read English, yet cannot with a little bit of effort understand these terms and phrases (and thus the traditional language of the Church is perpetuated thereby). In my view there is a huge difference between a modern reader having to learn to understand the ESV, than say having to learn to understand the KJV (which involves literally learning an archaic language, or “tongue” if you will).

    So to wrap it up, I will say that I think there is a place for easy reading translations, sure, but I also feel the Bible needs to SOUND like something that speaks with much gravity, and not in such a common dialect that it rings of a drug store novel. Many of today’s translations read much this way to me, and that is why I, and many others cannot get into them.

    Again, this is no indictment of easier reading translations at all, as they do have their audience. I’m just making a point here that seems to be falling through the cracks in the world of modern translation. Fortunately the ESV team thought about us in their effort. Oh, and by the way happy Pentecost Sunday to all.


  14. I agree Stan, mother tongue or native tongue is the only use I’ve really heard outside of church. If tongue means language only, then I don’t see the point in using the specific word ‘tongue’ in this verse any longer. ‘Language’ would seem to be preferred in that case, unless we were to use a phrase like, ‘not their mother tongue’ or something less unwieldy.

    RE: tongues of fire. I recall growing up being taught that they were flames of fire shaped like tongues that danced around the air and jumped from person to person. There were also paintings and such that reinforced this image. Until the day I read this post I hadn’t really thought about it too much, but I’ve got it on my list of things to look into in more detail.


  15. I believe the last use of “tongue” referring to “language” was in the phrase “mother tongue”, but that has been quite a while. For the past 10-15 years at least I have heard “native language” used frequently but don’t recall hearing “mother tongue” during that period.


  16. Stan, the only time I ever hear the word “tongues” is when someone is referring to the body part inside the mouth. “Tongues” since the KJV is so outdated. I don’t know why some modern translations even bothered to use it.

    In the context of this verse, it also conjures the image in my mind of a formation of a flame of fire. This created a possibility for a dual interpretation, which I believe is a misinterpretation, i.e., “tongues, like flames of fire” (HCSB, NLT). This is why I prefer “languages of fire” or “languages as of fire.” For me, it seems to be the antidote to correct this misinterpretation.


  17. This is such a good exercise in Bible study.

    In Acts 2:3, I prefer the TNIV and HCSB. I don’t like the phrase “as of fire” in the other two which was also used in the NRSV.

    In Acts 2:4, I prefer to refer to “languages” as “languages” rather than “tongues”. I haven’t heard “language” referred to as “tongue” outside the church since I don’t know when. I think of “english as a second language” and “language requirements” (at colleges) as two phrases I hear frequently. Thus, the HCSB and NJB get the nod in that respect (as does the NRSV, but not the REB).

    The TNIV (and NRSV) are weak regarding “gave them utterance” which is how the ESV puts it. The NAB and HCSB (and the REB) get the nod for that phrase.

    Of the four versions from which to choose, I give the HCSB an overall higher score for this verse.


  18. Hey guys! I’ve gone for a domain name:, so I’ll appreciate it very much if you can make the changes.

    Thank you,


  19. Kevin, becoming a translation critic is what it is all about.

    When I’m preaching from a text, I often find myself retranslating because of some nuance I saw in the original text.


  20. TC, on 2:3, I found that the TNIV, NAB, and NJB all followed the word order very closely and they seemed pretty much the same, except for HCSB.

    On 2:4, I found none of them to be right for me but they each had parts that were rendered well.

    I’m beginning to notice I sound like a translation critic.


  21. Nathan, besides the HCSB, the NJB is one of the few translations that use Yahweh. Who know, maybe the JWs might even like it?

    L.Wells, I find Acts 2 a breath of fresh air. It’s very different from other scripture.

    Robert, my translation of “languages of fire” is only a hypothesis and it might make for a good thesis, or it might not.

    The object of what is seen was not the “languages as of fire”, but of the people who were speaking in glossalia.

    The NASB starts v.3 with: “And there appeared to them…” Let me give you some examples to understand what I mean:

    “And there appeared to them”…some cars rumbling down Main Street making a loud noise.
    “And there appeared to them…” some wild wolves that howled at 12 midnight.

    In the first example, the object of what is seen is not the rumbling of the cars but of the cars itself. In the second example, the object of what is seen is not the howling of the wolves but of the wolves itself.


  22. Kevin, on 2:3 the NAB and the NJB follow the Greek word order too closely, so I have to go with the TNIV and HCSB as my mediating choice.

    On 2:4, though all them followed the word-order closely, I tend to like the NJB better.


  23. Kevin, I’m really intrigued by your translation of the apostles seeing “languages of fire.” I have thought of it in that way. Would you elaborate a little more about how they “saw” languages, since language is typically heard. I want to do more study on this myself.

    Thanks so much for challenging us!


  24. Nice selection of passages as we approach Pentecost Sunday Kevin. I am this weeks lector and will have the honor of reading Acts 2:1-21 in the New Testament reading. I love how the lectionary pairs this passage with the Old Testament reading from Numbers 11:24-30.

    Anyway, I’d have to give the NAB the nod in both these verses.


  25. Thank you for another excellent comparison. I originally bought the NJB for how it handles the tetragrammaton in the OT. I’ve not spent any time with it in the NT though I’m quickly discovering that it compares favorably there as well.


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