Hebrews 4:15 and NIV

One of the readings for our midweek service is Hebrews 4:14–16. While we currently use HCSB for Scripture readings, I like to see how other translations handle the text. I remember that NIV 1984 didn’t do a bad job on the text. So tonight I was reading NIV 2011 and noticed something that sounds “almost right.” But in reality NIV 2011 makes a dramatic change.

There are two changes, but the one is not as critical (italic), so I will address that one at the end. But the second one, at the end of the verse is the most important.

Sin or Sin?

οὐ γὰρ ἔχομεν ἀρχιερέα μὴ δυνάμενον συμπαθῆσαι ταῖς ἀσθενείαις ἡμῶν, πεπειρασμένον δὲ κατὰ πάντα καθ᾿ ὁμοιότητα χωρὶς ἁμαρτίας.

NIV 2011

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we areb—yet he did not sin.

NIV 1984

or we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.

NAS 95

For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.


For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.


For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tested in every way as we are, yet without sin.

At first glance “yet he did not sin” seems no different than “without sin.” But NIV 2011 has narrowed the definition of sin to be only actions. In the process, the translation falls short of the Biblical understanding of sin, as a totality, to include our sinful old self (original sin) as well as sinful actions.

So it raises the question based on the NIV 2011 whether Jesus fully satisfied the penalty for sin, or just for sin actions, i.e. individuals acts that are identified as sin.

I have not seen any reasoning by NIV translation team why this change was made. Certainly it is not any easier to read or understand. Regardless of the reason for the change, the doctrinal change is significant.

Sympathy vs. Empathy

The minor change was from “sympathize” to “empathize.” The Greek word is συμπαθῆσαι. BDAG provides “sympathy” as the only translation. The word is also used in Heb. 10:34 “You suffered along with those in prison” (NIV 2011). Louw & Nida offer this for 10:34 “It is, however, possible to interpret συμπαθέω in He 10:34 as referring primarily to sympathy rather than actual sharing or suffering” (Louw & Nida). Michaelis wrote in TDNT, Vol. 5,

A compound of syn and pathos, sympathes refers to a person who is affected by the same suffering, the same impressions, the same emotions as another, or who undergoes identical trials, and finally “sympathizes” with this other person who is in some sort of trouble, has pity.

One English dictionary attempt to distinguish between the two is:

Empathy: when you understand and feel another’s feelings for yourself

Sympathy: when you have compassion for someone, but you don’t necessarily feel that person’s feelings

While we can distinguish them this way, it does not necessarily help in determining which is the better translation for the Greek. In one sense, many people do not attempt make that distinction in every day speech.

There does not seem to be any rationale for the change in the NIV 2011. I tend to favor “sympathize” as the translation.


Author: exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian

2 thoughts on “Hebrews 4:15 and NIV”

  1. Hi Rich,

    I preached on this last Sunday and wrestled with how to translate the words “χωρὶς ἁμαρτίας.” At first I translated simply as “without sin.” Then I realized that it introduced an ambiguity in the english which wasn’t there in the greek. It introduced the idea that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are but there was no sin [in the temptation.]

    That wasn’t good. So I ended up translating it in my notes (and explaining it in the sermon) as “yet never sinned.” In this area I thought the NIV11 did a good job of bringing this across. But it’s also an example where we have to make choices in translation.

    I suppose, to get the original and actual sin point across you’d have to say something like “but Jesus had no sin” or “there was no sin in him.”

    Now, the other translation issue in this verse I definitely agree with. I don’t get why they changed from “sympathize” to “empathize” in the NIV11. Sympathize is perfectly fine here.


    1. Interesting, Steve. I looked at it as if the NIV 2011 translation narrowed the Greek (avoiding original sin). You looked at it as if the “without sin” introduced an ambiguity (without regard to temptation). As I re-studied and re-thought this post, I’m not sure that the issue of temptation fits into the sin. I think that is the whole point, he was tempted, yet even the temptation did not stain him.

      You are right, it is a translation choice. You have given more to think about, and I appreciate that. While your comment does cause me to re-think this, I still would disagree with the NIV 2011 translation.

      Thanks, again, for posting. Greetings to your wife.


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