In May of this year the latest and most thoroughgoing revision of the RSV appeared, sponsored by the National Council of Churches.
I must confess that I have been having my morning devotions in the NRSV for the last several months.1
The reason for this is that I have been asked by our Book and Periodical editor to write a review of the NRSV, and the associate editors agreed that this was probably a work of such influence as to merit a full article, not just a brief review. Also, I thought it only fair to read as much of the new version as time permitted between May and going to press with the Autumn Journal. I cannot say, to update the words of a 1952 Eternity Magazine title by Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse, that “I Have Read the NRSV,” but I have read most books in the NT, several OT books, and selections from the others, including the Apocrypha.
In my boyhood, when the RSV first came out (1952), our daily paper, The Washington Post, printed several weeks’ worth of two-column excerpts from the KJV and RSV (right on the front page, if I remember correctly). These I clipped out and compared in some detail. It gave me the incentive to buy the full text sometime later. I have read the complete RSV two or three times and the RSV NT several times.
At Bible school one of our most influential teachers, though extremely conservative in theology, used the RSV because he believed that the KJV was made from “corrupt” manuscripts. (At that time I was convinced he was right.)2
When the NT of the RSV came out in 1946, knowledgeable Greek scholars generally said it was a good, linguistically conservative updating of the Tyndale-KJV-ASV tradition. Denominationally the translators were all Protestants, mostly of the liberal persuasion. Nevertheless some verses came out stronger for the deity of Christ than in the KJV, due to the translators’ understanding of “Granville Sharp’s rule.” Examples of this are seen in the phrase “our (great) God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13; 2 Pet 1:1).
Some conservatives objected to the RSV’s use of “thee” and “thou” for God the Father and “you” and “your” for God the Son. The answer given was that “thee” and “thou” were used only in prayer and poetry, and no NT texts addressed to Christ fit this category.
Many remember the uproar caused in 1952 when the complete RSV came out. A southern minister publicly burned the page containing Isa 7:14: “Behold, a young woman shall conceive,” where “young woman replaced the KJV’s “virgin.” (By the way, the NRSV has a note there reading “Gk the virgin.” Of course, it was this Greek OT version that Matthew quoted in Matt 1:23. It is worth noting that the Greek OT [Septuagint] was translated, not by evangelicals, but by Jews, centuries before Christ.)
By and large the RSV was accepted by the more liberal denominations, with a few conservative ones and many individuals using it because it was the only major modern version that they had at the time.
This reviewer can relate well to the announced NRSV standard: “as literal as possible, as free as necessary.” For the Bible, the book on which we Christians seek to pattern our faith and conduct, it is important to be as close to the original as English allows. This is often quite close, since English and Greek are related languages, and even Hebrew goes rather easily into English. However, a literal translation, especially of idioms, can often be misleading, and at best, poor style. Hence the need for more freedom when necessary. Whether the NRSV meets these standards will be examined in this review, as well as important theological considerations.
II. Translation-Perspective and Style
The National Council of Churches used five Roman Catholics, one Greek Orthodox, one Jew, and the rest Protestants to work on the translation, all serving without pay. The chief translator is Dr. Bruce Metzger, a well-known Princeton scholar (and gentleman!).
The NRSV is available in editions with only the thirty-nine books of the OT accepted by Jews and Protestants, and also in editions with those books added that are accepted only by Roman Catholics and/or Orthodox. (See below, under “Theological Perspectives.”)
All of the passages that retained thee and thou in the RSV have been updated to eliminate these pronouns and their special verb forms. Also, the word “behold” has been everywhere changed or deleted.
The language of the NRSV is easier and more modern than the RSV. Oddly enough, the RSV employs the traditional use of “shall” and “will” only in the OT (classical literature) and only “will” in the NT (koine style), except in quotations from the OT.
A handful of ambiguous expressions have now been clarified. For example, “I will accept no bull from your house” (Psalm 50) and “once I was stoned” (2 Cor 11:25) have slang connotations today that are better avoided, the translators felt. (Actually, the context would probably carry the day for most readers.)
The NRSV deserves high marks for its literary style as a whole, still largely following in the Tyndale-King James tradition.
The dust jacket of the Thomas Nelson edition of the NRSV reads:
Adhering to the motto “as literal as possible, as free as necessary, the New Revised Standard Version translation committee, after 15 years of careful work, has crafted a version of the Bible that is formal enough to convey the meaning of the original Scripture texts, yet contemporary enough to meet the needs of today’s church.
The NRSV uses clear, up-to-date English. Difficult wordings and confusing sentence structures from the RSV are changed, and certain passages that were confusing or awkward are now reworded, making the NRSV an ideal translation for personal Bible reading.
Whether this version is ideal for personal Bible reading or not will depend largely on who is the reader, his (or her!) theological views (if any!), and other considerations.
III. Textual Perspectives
OT Textual Base
The RSV generally uses the Masoretic Text (traditional Hebrew). However, it has been widely criticized by conservatives for frequently revamping that text. Since the ancient text used only consonants, by inserting different vowels than the Masoretes wrote in, modern scholars are able to come up with some very striking variant readings—often strictly conjectural. These have often been labeled “Cn” for correction.
However, changes made without this warning have caused many to mistrust the RSV OT text in some places, especially where it impinges on conservative theology (e.g., Christology).
The NRSV follows the RSV in this. It also bases its text on the ancient versions in other languages much more than the NASB, NIV, or NKJV would, for example.
There are many footnotes referring to the Qumran mss. of Samuel (abbreviated “Q MS”). “Four sentences based upon one of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been tacked onto Chapter 10 of 1 Samuel, for instance.”3
Many of the footnotes in the RSV are decidedly helpful to those who want to study the Bible in detail, but the liberal presuppositions of the NCC and its translators should be kept in mind by the Bible-believing reader.
NT Textual Base
The NRSV continues the RSV’s usage of a critical text of the Greek similar to the old (1881) Westcott-Hort text but with more eclectic readings. It is not very different from the texts behind the NASB or NIV, but much less traditional than that behind the NKJV.
This reviewer does not favor the critical text,4 but even if he did, textual footnotes such as “other ancient authorities omit (or read or add),” are far too vague to him to be helpful. Sometimes this means one or two mss.—or a version that is just a translation. Sometimes—frequently, I fear—it refers to the eighty to ninety-some percent of the mss. supporting the Majority text!
I was pleasantly surprised to see that the note on Mark 16:9-20 was more factual than those in either the NASB or the NIV, both of which imply very weak support for that important resurrection account. The original RSV had this passage in small italics at the end of the book. Not that they now accept it! It’s in double brackets to communicate that it’s a later interpolation. However, the note states that “In most authorities verses 9-20 follow immediately after verse 8,” which is a fairer representation of the majority status of the passage than “some of the oldest mss. omit” (NASB) or “the two most reliable early manuscripts do not have” (NIV).
However, putting the so-called “shorter ending” in the text (which doesn’t even sound like the Bible, much less like John Mark) is not good. (NASB makes the same mistake.) Even worse, the NRSV margin prints an unusual ending that has Greek support only from Codex W and from manuscripts known to Jerome. Its tone and content reflect Gnostic ideas.
Many of the NRSV footnotes on Greek words, literal renderings, and singular and plural words for you in texts where modern English can’t show it, are truly helpful.
IV. Theological Perspectives
It is a well-known fact that evangelical believers had little input into the RSV and probably not a great deal more into the NRSV, though Dr. Metzger is himself fairly conservative by Princeton standards.
Evidences of liberal bias can be found throughout.
For example, while the Hebrew word rûach can mean wind or spirit, why should the Holy Spirit be edged out at the creation by a mere wind?
The Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters (RSV)
A wind from God swept over the face of the water (NRSV)
Was there perhaps a desire to eliminate another hint of the Trinity in the OT?
The critical text of John 7:8—”I am not going to this festival”—deleting the word yet (omitted by some mss.), seems to make Jesus tell a lie to His brothers—excuse me, His family members.5
The NRSV rendering of John 7:39 would be possible grammatically, but a contradiction of the rest of the Bible on the eternality of all the members of the Trinity:
“For as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”
The understood (italicized) word given of the KJV’s “not yet given” is certainly implied.
A major evangelical criticism of the RSV—and it carries weight with the NRSV as well—is that it plays down messianic passages in the OT even when these same passages are used by the apostles in the NT to prove that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah (such as Isa 7:14, parts of Isa 53, Ps 110:1 “lord” (lower case) in NRSV OT, capitalized in NT). After all, the earliest Christians were all Jewish and they were persuaded that Jesus was the Christ by these very OT texts, both in Hebrew and Greek.
No doubt some people overdo the messianic content of the OT. But this is preferable to the modern trend suggesting that the inspired NT apostles, prophets, and teachers were not sound expositors of the OT text. After all, Luke described our Lord’s Emmaus road homily in these words:
Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures (Luke 24:27 NRSV).
A Hebrew Christian girl named Esther sat next to this reviewer in a college speech class. Her great passion in life is to reach her people with her good news about Messiah. She gave a speech once decrying the difficulty of leading a Jewish person to Christ using the RSV OT. She summarized the problem in the words of her ancient ethnic and religious forebear, Mary Magdalene:
“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13 NRSV).
One fears that many Protestants today are doing much the same thing. Finally, advocates of sola gratia—salvation received by grace through faith alone—will be chagrined to read 1 Pet 2:2 in the NRSV:
“Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation” (emphasis supplied).
No footnote is given to indicate they have changed the Greek text underlying the verse. “Growing into salvation” surely sounds more like Horace Bushnell than the Apostle Peter.
Supporters of the modern ecumenical movement will be pleased that the old Protestants-only committees of the RSV have been expanded to include Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Jewish representation. On the other hand, those who believe that modern ecumenism forces unions chiefly by hierarchical pressure from the top of main-line denominations down will be less than thrilled. (Generally these are a frustrated conservative and evangelical remnant, often large in some groups.)
A very major obstacle to uniting all the churches into one super-church is the fact that Protestants have generally accepted only the OT books that are in Hebrew and were part of the Jewish Canon. By adding books from the Apocrypha, the NRSV helps erode the historic Protestant framework of the King James tradition, upon which the RSV and NRSV are largely built.
Generally speaking, the more biblically oriented in theology one is, the less likely one is to accept the Apocrypha. For example Jerome, knowing that the “OT” Apocrypha was never part of the Hebrew canon, translated it only under pressure from Pope Damasus of Rome. The position of the Westminster Confession against the Apocrypha is well known.
Many Protestants are surprised to learn that early editions of the Authorized or King James Version included the Apocrypha. However, since the translators did not believe these books were inspired, but only useful, they put them between the Testaments—not interspersed, as if they were a valid part of the OT, as in Roman Catholic versions. As Protestantism grew more and more enlightened through the canonical Scriptures, it gradually dropped the Apocrypha altogether. The fact that Roman Catholicism used some verses in the Apocrypha to support such doctrines and practices as prayers for the dead only served to encourage the move to delete them as an excrescence with no divine warrant to be in the Bible.
When the RSV first came out (1952) it did not include the Apocrypha. The Protestant climate in America was still strong enough to prevent this. It wasn’t long, however, before a little separate volume, bound in red to match the RSV binding, appeared. Soon one could buy an RSV with or without the Apocrypha (between the OT and the NT). Other Bibles produced under liberal auspices, such as the New English Bible (NEB), generally include the Apocrypha, and of course, Roman Catholic versions such as the Jerusalem Bible, always do.
The move toward the Apocrypha is a move towards eventual merger with Rome-to have a “common” Bible. Strictly evangelical versions, such as the NASB, NIV, and NKJV, do not even make editions with the Apocrypha available.
The NRSV has gone even further than the others in blurring the distinction between canonical books and what they call “the Apocryphal/Deutero-canonical Books.” At least they do admit that these books were always at least considered on a secondary (deutero-) level by Jews and Christians.
The NRSV Apocrypha does not merely include the usual books found in the Roman Catholic Bible-Tobit, Judith, Additions to Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah (= Baruch chapter 6), Additions to Daniel (the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon), and 1 and 2 Maccabees-but several others as well.
Three other categories of Apocryphal books are included: (1) Books in the Greek Orthodox and Slavonic Bibles but not in the Roman Catholic Canon: 1 Esdras (=2 Esdras in Slavonic =3 Esdras in Appendix to the Vulgate), the Prayer of Manasseh (in Appendix to the Vulgate), “Psalm 151,” and 3 Maccabees; (2) In the Slavonic Bible and the Appendix to the Latin Vulgate: 2 Esdras (=3 Esdras in Slavonic = 4 Esdras in the Appendix to the Vulgate); (3) In an Appendix to the Greek Bible: 4 Maccabees.
In the edition of the NRSV used in this review (Thomas Nelson) all this material takes up 264 pages between the Testaments. The NT in this edition is just 261 pages long—or three pages shorter!
It is in the area of feminist influence that the NRSV most stands out from other Bible versions. Since this is so, we will handle that issue in some detail.
The NRSV, in Dr. Metzger’s words, circumvents the “inherent bias of the English language toward the masculine gender.” (This can be debated, since the generic use of he, his, and him with no masculine denotation has long been recognized.) Let the Time reviewer introduce the issue for us:
During the 1980s the National Council of Churches, in response to insistent feminist demands, published three sets of highly controversial rewrites of certain Bible passages. The texts referred to God as “Father [and Mother],” inserted women’s names that did not appear in the original, and refrained from calling God the King or Jesus the Son of God or Son of Man.6
I had a personal discussion with a very modern nun from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago on this controversy. We appeared together on a major Chicago talk show, which that night was about the Bible and related topics. I found that she was active in the radical rewriting of liturgies to exclude “sexist” language. She admitted that they were having real difficulties with the phrase “Son of Man.” Only the little preposition of (in that expression) was inoffensive to radical feminists, since both “Son” and “Man” are tainted with masculinity. I believe the proposed liturgy went so far as to say “Our Father/Mother who are in heaven.”7
The NRSV is not nearly that radical. No doubt Dr. Bruce Metzger would not stand for that much tampering with the sacred text. Hence in the NRSV you will find “Son of Man” for Christ in such passages as Mark 10:45. In Ezekiel, however, the same phrase is paraphrased as “mortal,” which is perhaps implied by the phrase, though hardly a close translation.
We quote from the NRSV’s own words on what they were seeking to do:
During the almost half a century since the publication of the RSV, many in the churches have become sensitive to the danger of linguistic sexism arising from the inherent bias of the English language towards the masculine gender, a bias that in the case of the Bible has often restricted or obscured the meaning of the original text. The mandates from the Division specified that, in references to men and women, masculine-oriented language should be eliminated as far as this can be done without altering passages that reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture. As can be appreciated, more than once the Committee found that the several mandates stood in tension and even in conflict. The various concerns had to be balanced case by case in order to provide a faithful and acceptable rendering without using contrived English.8
Some of their “de-sexing” is acceptable in the light of the original, but the title of Time magazine’s Review of the NRSV is at least suggestive: “Farewell to Thee’s and He’s.”9
Only those who read the original, can use an interlinear, or are willing to carefully compare the old RSV (or some other linguistically conservative version) with the NRSV will notice the varied, clever, and subtle ways offending words, such as he, his, him, man, men, and brethren, are excised from the text. However, when referring to God, Christ, or male historical characters, the masculine pronouns are retained.
If I were giving a little talk to a group on this whole issue I would be tempted to call it “Six Ways to Emasculate the Word of God.” Since many would take exception to such bluntness, I will merely list and illustrate six NRSV techniques that I have noticed.
1. Valid Inclusivism
The exhortations to believers in the Bible are aimed at men, women, boys, and girls. For many centuries, the generic use of he as a pronoun referring back to any person of any age or sex has been part of our English usage, and is a handy tool with which to avoid odd, cumbersome, or tendentious style.
The NRSV dust jacket gives an example of a fairly innocuous change from the RSV’s use of both “man” and a generic “his”:
Then every man will receive his10 commendation from God.(RSV)
Then each one will receive commendation from God.(NRSV)
The Greek here does not have a word for man (anthropos, human being or aner, a male person or husband), but merely the word hekastos (“each one”). The NRSV publicists chose a very successful example for advertising purposes. Even the very conservative (theologically as well as linguistically) New King James Version reads “Then each one’s praise will come from God.”
Many other passages, especially in the Gospels, that read “if any man” in the KJV read simply “if anyone” in the original, and are worth changing. In 1611 “man” was a little more “generic” than it is today, though that venerable version is sometimes unnecessarily masculine in light of the original.
A common NRSV device to do away with man and he is pluralization:
Blessed is the man… but his delight (RSV)
Happy are those… their delight (NRSV)
The trouble with this is that the personal, individual aspect of obedience to God is blurred by a plural invented to please the feminists. Examples of this are abundant everywhere.
3. Additions to the Text
The addition of “and women” to 2 Pet 1:21 suggests that some Bible books were written by women. Perhaps. But Peter did not write that.
Did the four women on the NRSV translation team insist on this addition?
The word “brethren” (KJV, NKJV) or “brothers” (NIV) is the NT’s most common word for Christians.11 Adelphos, the Greek word for brother, comes from the alpha copulative (a-) and an old word for womb. I was taught that its origin stresses equality and affection. Many church groups use the term as part of their name, and most other conservatives use it at least on occasion in sermons.
First Thessalonians and 1 John use brethren frequently. Generally, the NRSV will put “brothers and sisters” in the text with a footnote “reading Gk brothers(s). No one disputes that the term brethren includes both sexes and all ages, but whether it is valid to add to the text words that are not there is at best questionable.
The Roman Catholic edition of the RSV changed brothers to brethren in passages in the Gospels referring to our Lord’s immediate family. They were seeking to support the dogma of the “perpetual virginity of Mary.” In other words, they recognized that the older English form brethren had a broader, and less physical meaning than brothers, and might allow for cousins. In this I believe they were correct (not in their reason for the change, though!). The word brethren tends to include sisters more than brothers does, and in this reviewer’s opinion is worth keeping in our permanent Christian vocabulary.
Is it a mere coincidence that in the very verse where Paul speaks of “nothing beyond what is written” the NRSV adds “and sisters” (as usual with no ms. evidence)?
4. Subtraction from the Text
In 1 Thess 5:27 the NRSV reads: “I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them.” RSV reads “I adjure you by the Lord that this letter be read to all the brethren.”
Romans 2:1 deletes “O man” entirely.
It is one thing to change an ambiguous pronoun “he” to Jesus where it’s not clear12 who is meant. To go the other way and change a clear noun brethren to a vague pronoun them so as not to offend the feminists with a somewhat masculine word is too obsequious, I believe.
Is there not also a bias toward the feminine in that the NRSV’s Matt 24:40 deletes “men” in “Then two will be in the field”; and yet” women” is added (validly, the Greek form is feminine) in v 41: “Two women will be grinding meal”?
Sometimes an expression, which if closely translated would use a male-oriented word, is loosely translated to make it more inclusive.
For example, Abraham is no longer a “father” in Rom 4:11, but an ancestor.
“Married only once” (NKJV) for “the husband of one wife,” if taken out of context, might allow for women bishops.13
Interestingly enough, in this same book (2:8) “men” is retained for requesting prayer “in every place.” Since “men” is contrasted with “women” in the next verse (same sentence), perhaps it was felt it had to stay.
The dust jacket of the NRSV says that it “never changes the masculine gender of God.” This is not quite accurate. God the Son not only became a human being but also a man. This is obscured by the NRSV:
There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim 2:5 RSV).
There is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human (1 Tim 2:5 NRSV).
Radical feminists seem angry that Christ was—and will remain through all eternity—a man, and in both senses of that word.
6. Incorrect or Very Loose Translation
Paraphrase and loose translation are one thing, but putting in words that are improper translations of the Greek is quite another.
In 1 Thess 4:10, “But we urge you beloved…” and 5:4, “But you, beloved” in both cases translate adelphoi, “brethren” (RSV). While brotherhood implies affection, by no stretch of the imagination are they anywhere near interchangeable terms.
Other less than accurate renderings of brothers include “students” (Matt 23:8), “members of my family” (Matt 26:40), “community” John 21:23), “friends” (Rom 7:4), “believer(s)” (1 Cor 6:5, 7), “everyone” (1 Cor 10:13), and “comrades” (Rev 12:10).
Another device to avoid the offending pronoun “he” is found in Col 3:25:
For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. (RSV)
For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality. (NRSV)
English does not possess the middle voice, as Greek does (our loss), but we do have the passive and active. To change the active “the wrong he has done” to the unspecific “whatever wrong has been done” is a totally unnecessary change, neither dynamic nor exactly equivalent. The NIV, which frequently uses dynamic equivalency where some of us would rather they had not, was not afraid to let the wrongdoer be called “he.” This generic usage allows for female thieves as well; after all, not all sinners are males!
All of us, especially those men (masculine usage!) who preach, should be sensitive to the importance of women in the church and their great contribution to Christ’s work. But when it comes to restructuring and sometimes rewriting the divinely inspired Holy Scriptures to fit a movement largely run by those who despise the Bible’s teaching on the Church and the home, we must say: “Thus far, and no further!”
The NRSV is well edited, smooth reading, and nicely produced. Those who will be presenting the Gospel to people in so-called “main-line” denominations will need to have a copy and be familiar with its good points as well as its bad.
For conservative evangelicals who believe in inerrancy and all the doctrines of the Bible—such as Christ in all the Scriptures (including the OT) and the essentially differing roles of men and women in home and church—this reviewer cannot recommend the NRSV as “A New Standard” for public or private reading.
Most of the NRSV is well-translated, but the many tendentious readings illustrated in this review render it severely marred.
1My friends, former students, and colleagues on the NKJV committees will be relieved to know that I still preach from the NKJV, read the Greek text (Majority, of course!) before turning off the lamp at night, am reading through Numbers in Hebrew, Mark in the Vulgate on alternating Monday evenings, the Norwegian (the language of heaven, Papa said) on alternating Tuesday evenings, and the Lutherbibel on alternating Thursday evenings. So you can see that I am not wholly shut off from traditional texts.
2After receiving my Th.D. in NT I decided to study textual criticism carefully on my own. I came to embrace the Majority text position, which is closer to the KJV text than to that translated in most modern NT’s.
5C. K. Barrett says that the “not yet” is almost certainly wrong,” an attempt to remove “a superficial contradiction with v. 10.” He feels John may not have seen any “moral obliquity on the part of Jesus “—it was not an absolute denial (The Gospel According to St John [London: S.P.C.K., 1962]), 258.