The New Revised Standard Version

a Review

By Daniel J. Phillips, M.Div (OT)

[PREFACE: this review was originally written in 1990 for a local Sacramento daily newspaper.]

Some thirty-seven years after the completion of the original edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the National Counsel of Churches has sponsored a new revision, called the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV). A committee of thirty was constituted, including five Roman Catholics, five Presbyterian Church (USA), four Episcopalians, four United Methodists, two American Baptists, one Greek Orthodox, and one Jewish man, among others. At least four of the translators were women.

Why a new RSV? Clearly not to correct the errors of the old RSV, nor to blaze many new trails in translation at least, not good trails, in my judgment. The prophesied "virgin" of Isaiah 7:14 is still a "young woman." The margin admits only that the "Gk" the Greek translation known as the Septuagint has "the virgin." This omits the more significant fact that the original Hebrew text, which the NRSV obliterates, also uses a term which means "virgin."

Also, the Old Testament (OT) still hides God's personal name Yahweh behind "LORD." In perpetuating this bad habit among translations, the NRSV preface offers the most bizarre defense I've yet read. The preface alleges that it is "inappropriate for the universal faith of the Christian Church" to imply that "there were other gods from whom the true God had to be distinguished" (p. xii). But aren't there? I seem to recall that Israel made a rough go of it learning this very fact! Yet say this, apparently with a straight face, in spite of the fact that the preface had just allowed that it is "almost ...certain that the Name was originally pronounced "Yahweh" (pp. xi, xii). So the upshot seems to be: we know what God's name was, but we just do not want to use it. The committee evidently felt itself fit to improve on the Bible's communication of Christian faith, inasmuch as God's personal name is found some 6823 times in the Hebrew text of the OT.

Nor does the NRSV blaze any other new, good trails of translation. "Apostle" and "baptize" are still transliterated, rather than translated ("envoy" and "immerse," respectively), and "justify" in Romans has not been improved by the more helpful translation "declare righteous."

So, again: why a new RSV? Two answers may be given.

The first answer is that given in the Preface to the NRSV: to keep up with discovery of ancient manuscripts, and with studies in comparative languages (p. x). Indeed, there have been changes, if the book of Isaiah is any indication. In the NRSV, readings found in the Dead Sea Scrolls are preferred over the traditional Masoretic text some twenty-one times, which is eight times more than in the original RSV.

The second answer may be safely deduced from a close reading of the NRSV, and from an observation of its trends. That reason is ideological. One discerns an apparent desire to import modern thought into the Biblical text, even at the expense of the clear teaching of the Bible. Since Biblical doctrine and some of our culture's favorite notions clash, one or the other has to "give." In the NRSV, it is often the Bible that "gives."

Consider the evidence. One is immediately jarred by Genesis 1:2, where the Hebrew text reads, "and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters." The NRSV, by contrast, has "while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters." The margin does offer, "Or, while the spirit of God or while a mighty wind," but neither is a great improvement. One is puzzled to note that "Day" and "Night" are capitalized in 1:5 but by contrast even the marginal reading "spirit of God " is in lower case!

The Hebrew phrase meaning "Spirit of God/Yahweh" occurs in many other passages, but the NRSV consistently conceals this fact behind such renderings as "divine spirit" (Exodus 31:3; 35:31, etc.), or even occasionally "spirit of God" (Num. 24:2) or "spirit of the LORD" (Judges 3:10; again, note the lower cases). The odd treatment of the Spirit continues through the Old Testament (OT), as we read such bizarre versions as this statement concerning Saul: "the spirit of God possessed him, and he fell into a prophetic frenzy" (1 Samuel 10:10). Similarly, in Psalm 51:11, David prays "do not take your holy spirit from me." Phrases which highlight the personality of the Spirit are simply printed in lower-case ("the spirit of the LORD speaks" in 2 Samuel 23:2, or "grieved his holy spirit" in Isaiah 63:10).

Although this depersonalization of the Spirit is found in dozens of OT passages in the NRSV, the New Testament is quite different, rendering the identical Greek equivalents as "Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:18), and "Spirit of God" (Matthew 3:16) one of the many inconsistencies of this version. This may be due to the relatively orthodox influence of Dr. Bruce Metzger.

There are other highly peculiar features in the OT. For instance, the violent homosexuals in Sodom politely ask to "know" Lot's angelic visitors (Gen. 19:5), as if they were simply a sort of Middle Eastern Welcoming Committee. But Lot himself says that his (engaged!) daughters "have not known a man" in the next verse. Even among the Biblically illiterate, it is widely recognized that "know" is a Biblical euphemism for sexual intercourse. The translators of the NRSV do not so much as acknowledge this in a marginal note in Genesis 4:1, 24:16, or other passages.

Now, one must wonder what can explain such reticence, in a "new" version of the Bible? Certainly, modesty cannot be pled in our day of sexual bombardment. Further, the same Hebrew verb is rendered "lie with" (Genesis 38:26), "slept with" (Judges 11:39), and "have intercourse" (Judges 19:22). Thus the sin of homosexuality is concealed in Genesis 19, while the very same verb is translated "wantonly raped" in Judges 19:25. Thus, the treatment in Genesis 19 is quite singular. One must be forgiven for wondering if this is a concession to "gay rights" elements.

Perhaps the most bizarre and irritating element of the NRSV is its insistence on "gender-free language," a major modern, progressive setback in translation. "Gender-free language" means that the translators avoid terms like "man/men," "son(s)," and "brother(s)" no matter what the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible say! This lamentable practice (pardon me) engenders a blizzard of hilariously inconsistent renderings. For instance, Solomon dedicated Proverbs to his "son" in the Hebrew text (cf., i.e., 1:8). Not to worry, though; the perpetrators of the NRSV have "saved" Solomon for the '90's by substituting "child" in most texts. This leads to the humorous situation of the "child" of 2:1 (God forbid that he be a "son") being delivered from a "loose woman" in vv. 16ff. Somehow, "son" slips back into 3:11 although the preceding verse had rendered the exact same term as "child"! The "child" of 5:1, again, is warned against a "loose woman" (v. 3). This is ideologically-born silliness at its best.

Sometimes the hapless committee avoids gender by the use of plurals (the Hebrew text's "lad" is changed to "young people" in Ps. 119:9, and "children" in Proverbs 22:6). Sometimes they use a phrase (no longer does a true friend stick closer than a "brother," as the original Hebrew of Proverbs 18:24 tells us; he now "sticks closer than one's nearest kin"). If a phrase has no noun, and should normally be translated as "he" or "he who," the NRSV may without notice convert the text to a plural. And so we have "their wisdom...their might...their wealth...those who boast...that they understand and know me," in Jeremiah 9:23, 24, all of which camouflage originally singular pronouns and verbs.

In the New Testament, Paul is no longer allowed to address himself to "brothers." No, in our enlightened day, he must say "brothers and sisters" (Romans 1:13). Evidently the translators were concerned that only they could have figured out that "brothers" in such cases included both sexes. But one must not expect consistency here, either. The same Greek term is rendered "brothers and sisters" in Romans 7:1, "my friends" three verses later (7:4), "brothers and sisters" again in 8:12; then, in the same chapter, "within a large family" (8:29; margin: "Gk. among many brothers"), then "kindred" in Romans 9:3, "brothers and sisters" in 10:1, 11:25, and 12:1, "your brother or sister" in 14:10, "another" in 14:13, back to "brother or sister" in 14:15 and 14:21, "brothers and sisters" in 15:10 and 30, and 16:14 and 17. At least Phoebe (16:1) and Quartus (16:24) are permitted to be "our sister" and "our brother," rather than "our kinsperson," or some other monstrosity!

There are many, many other inconsistencies. The Hebrew text of Exodus 21:22 is fatal for the practice of abortion, but the NRSV conceals this by the rendering "miscarriage," without so much as a footnote. Yet in the NT, the rendering of Luke 1:15 even paraphrases in the other direction: concerning the birth of John the Baptizer, "even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit." Another puzzler: the Greek word Christos is rendered Messiah in Matthew 1:1, and yet "Christ" in the identical Mark 1:1. Again, euaggelion is "good news" in Mark 1:1, "gospel" in Romans 1:1 and 16, and then "good news" again in 1 Corinthians 15:1 though it had been "gospel" in 4:15 and 9:12, 14, 18, 23! The same word rendered "unchastity" in passages on divorce (Matthew 5:32 and 19:9), is "sexual immorality" in 1 Corinthians 5:1.

Charismatic Christians may note that glossai is translated "languages" in Acts 2:4, but "tongues" in 1 Corinthians 12:10, 28, etc. First Corinthians 13:10 is, nicely, "but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end." This is a good rendering, bringing out (whether intentionally or no) the predicted cessation of tongues and prophecy at the completion of the Canon. How Charismatics will feel about this is anyone's guess.

Incredibly, the preface claims that the NRSV "remains essentially a literal translation" (p. xi). This simply is not true. The "inclusive language" phenomenon has already been noted. Also, if the translators find a Greek word troublesome, they may just drop it: "therefore" is dropped in Romans 12:6, and the following Greek participle is changed into a finite verb. Conjunctions are frequently discarded without notice, even when they may aid interpretation (e.g. Matthew 17:1). Nouns are regularly changed into verbs (Ephesians 4:12; Colossians 3:22), and moods are changed or introduced at will (Colossians 1:11). Further, the NRSV has no way of letting the reader know when they have supplied words not found in the original text (the King James and New American Standard use italics). For instance, the English reader would not know that "it has been bearing fruit" is supplied by the translators in Colossians 1:6.

Is there, then, anything nice to say about the NRSV? Well, yes.... The use of paragraphs makes for more natural reading. The style of English is usually smooth and readable (except for the "inclusive" absurdities). The complete omission of "Thee" and "Thou" is clearly for the better. The NT is better than the OT. The renderings of 1 Corinthians 13:10 and Hebrews 2:4 are really quite good. The writers of the NT are usually allowed to call Christ God (John 1:1; 20:28; Titus 2:13, etc.). Paul is still permitted to bar women from church leadership (1 Timothy 2:11, 12), and to enjoin wifely submission (Ephesians 5:22, etc.). The translators may betray their discomfort with the Biblical commands by the marginal suggestion that "woman" and "man" could mean "wife" and "husband" in 1 Timothy 2:11 even though there is no such note concerning the identical words in verses 8 through 10. But at least they confined their personal problems to the margin. So, those are good things.

And that's about it. Otherwise, save your money, and keep your New American Standard Bible. It may not be that great, but it is the best we have.

Copyright © 1997 by Daniel J. Phillips; All Rights Reserved


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