Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version

By Various Authors
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (1989). 1412 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Robert Thomas
2.1 (Spring 1991) : 111-115

The complete Bible of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) was first published in 1952 (with the addition of the Apocrypha in 1957). The revision committee of approximately thirty members continued meeting every two or three years subsequently to consider proposed improvements. The committee's constituency has evolved over the years. In the beginning, its members were mainline Protestant in affiliation, with the exception of a Jewish scholar invited to join the OT section at a late stage. In time, it has come to incorporate more and more Roman Catholic scholars and a scholar of the Greek Orthodox Church. The female constituency of the committee has increased during the same period. The committee and the fruit of its labors is now viewed as thoroughly ecumenical.

In 1971 a new edition appeared which was a revision of the NT but contained only minor changes in the OT. Because of social changes in the decade of the sixties and the early seventies, in 1974 the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCC), sponsor of the project, authorized work leading toward a further revision. This revision is now available under the title of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

Typical of some miscellaneous changes is a deference to the Jewish connotation of Xrist3ow (Christos, "Anointed One") in the NT by rendering it "Messiah" in some passages where it had been "Christ," particularly in the gospels and Acts (e.g. Matt 16:16; Acts 2:36; 17:5; 26:23; Rom 9:5). Sometimes this creates confusion, however, when it is near the name "Jesus Christ" which is always rendered in the conventional manner (e.g. Acts 2:36, 38). Following their new policy, one wonders why the NRSV translators did not use "Messiah" in Hebrews, an epistle whose addressees were of a distinctly Jewish background (for example, see Heb 3:6; 6:1).

Some infelicitous expressions in older editions have been improved. In Ps 50:9 "I will accept no bull from your house" (RSV) has been revised to read, "I will not accept a bull from your house" (NRSV). "Once I was stoned" (RSV) in 2 Cor 11:25 is now "once I received a stoning" (NRSV). Racial sensitivity is reflected in a simple change from "but" to "and" in Song of Solomon 1:5; instead of "very dark, but comely" (RSV), the NRSV reads "black and beautiful."

Apart from miscellaneous changes of this type, the translators concentrated their efforts in three general areas, two of which were socially motivated.

(1) One of the social changes was a movement toward less formality in social relationships, including a less formal style of language in public worship. In response to this trend, the NRSV has eliminated the "thee's" and "thou's" in speech addressed to God that characterized its earlier editions. This usage of pronouns distinguished between language addressed to God and that addressed to human beings, a distinction unsupported in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of the Bible. Dropping the old-style pronouns has marked most modern versions of the Bible. Besides the RSV, notable exceptions that have not eliminated them are the Modern Language Bible, the New American Standard Bible, and the New English Bible. A recent revision of the NEB, called the Revised English Bible, has now deleted them too.

This part of the project was the simplest and, for most, the least controversial, though it did at times force some rather difficult decisions. As an example of difficulty, corrected to modern style, the opening phrase of the Lord's prayer, "Our Father who art in heaven" (Matt 6:9), would have become "Our Father who are in heaven," but the committee judged this to have an inferior sound. Following other modern versions, they therefore rendered, "Our Father in heaven,"even though it entailed leaving a Greek word untranslated and sounded rather abrupt. They viewed this as the best choice.

(2) The other social change was viewed as more important and has affected the NRSV extensively. This was the widespread movement to eliminate "sex-biased" language. The pressure to adopt inclusive terminology came from leaders of "main-line" churches, most younger women, publishers, and educational organizations. Consequently, the Division of Education and Ministry of the NCCC which commissioned the project directed 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." Without question, this aspect of the committee's responsibility was the most difficult.

The NRSV has used various means of incorporating inclusivist language. A few examples illustrate these. "I will make you fishers of men" (Matt 4:19, RSV) is now "I will make you fish for people" (NRSV). Often "brother(s)" (RSV) has become "brother(s) and/or sister(s)" (NRSV) (e.g. Matt 5:22-24, 47; 18:35) and in one instance, "members of my family" (Matt. 25:40, NRSV). In at least one section "brother" (RSV) is rendered "another member of the church" (NRSV) (Matt 18:15, 21), and an inclusive linguistic standard is maintained by repetition of "member" (Matt 18:17) and by an awkward passive, "if you are not listened to" (Matt 18:16). "Awkwardness" is also the word for the Son of Man being betrayed "into human hands" (Matt 17:22, NRSV). It is unnatural English compared with his betrayal "into the hands of men" (RSV).

Sometimes the inclusivist term "neighbor" (NRSV) substitutes for the masculine "brother" (RSV) (Matt 7:4-5). "Man" (RSV) is neutralized to "anyone" (NRSV) and "son" (RSV) to "child" (NRSV) in Matt 7:9-10. "Man" (RSV) is labeled "a human being" (NRSV) in Matt 12:12 and a "person" in Matt 12:43. The alleged sexually biased "men" (RSV) in Matt 12:31 has turned into "people" (NRSV).

The above inclusivist revisions are indicated as such by footnotes which indicate that the Greek text supports the RSV rendering, but one where no such note occurs is Matt 15:18: "a man" (RSV) is omitted from the NRSV without explanation. Also without notation is "mortals" (NRSV) substituted for "men" (RSV) in Matt 19:26.

A case could be lodged that the illustrations given so far offer no great cause for concern, but a further device for accomplishing inclusiveness encounters a distinct practical disadvantage. This involves changing a singular to a plural in order to cover up gender differences. Instances of this are numerous and may be illustrated from Christ's series of teachings calling to discipleship: "Those who lose their life for my sake will find it" (Matt 10:39), and "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Matt 16:24; see also Luke 17:33; John 12:25, NRSV). In each case, his appeal in the original text is to the individual, not a group. To render plurals as the NRSV does inevitably makes his invitation less personal and compelling. The individual focus of his invitation disappears through a different means in Rev 3:20, that of changing from third person to second: "If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me." In the context of Revelation 3, this is easily construed as a group invitation to the whole Laodicean church rather than to individuals within the church.

The pluralizing device has also obscured the Messianic implications of at least one OT passage, Ps 8:4-6 (cf. Heb 2:6-9). In 1 Tim 3:2 inclusivist language has forced a return to an earlier rendering, discarded in the 1971 revision because it was too interpretive. From "married only once" in 1952, the version changed to the more literal "the husband of one wife" in 1971. The NRSV reverts to "married only once" and limits the phrase's meaning to one of several possible interpretations of the Greek text.

Some aspects of the translation were exempt from inclusivist language, however. Masculine terms for God, such as "Father," "Lord," and "King" have been retained. It was decided that these were inherent in the biblical text. Also the psalmist in Psalm 109 was left as a male because the committee could find no satisfactory way to make the language inclusive. Possibly to compensate, a way was found to render Psalm 131 as though it were composed by a woman. The masculine flavor of legal language of the Bible in passages such as Exodus 21-23 and Joshua 20 was thought by the committee to have been necessarily retained as well, but this judgment was apparently overruled by a later review body. To illustrate, the committee approved the use of "his" in Exod 21:15, but the NRSV in its final form omits the pronoun in that verse.

(3) In addition to revisions motivated by desires to comply with social change, the committee sought to incorporate recent discoveries from fields of biblical scholarship. Under this heading of endeavors, the committee felt less constrained by tradition than the original RSV committee and altered some more familiar KJV phrases to bring them into closer alignment with recent scholarly opinion.

For example, "paths of righteousness" in Ps 23:3 has become "right paths" in the NRSV, "the valley of the shadow of death" in Ps 23:4 is now "the darkest valley," and "forever" in Ps 23:6 is changed to "my whole life long."

In surveying the NRSV more broadly, this reviewer must express two disappointments, one theological and the other linguistic. The major obstacle to its use by evangelicals remains: theological bias toward looser views of traditional orthodox doctrine that characterized the RSV also characterizes the NRSV. Acts 20:28 is still not rendered as an explicit statement of the deity of Christ, as a natural rendering of the Greek requires, though the manner of avoiding the obvious is different from the original RSV. Another explicit statement of Christ's deity is obscured through the NRSV punctuation of Rom 9:5, not the same as in the RSV but with the same resultant meaning. The theological concept of "propitiation" and its implication regarding God's wrath is still studiously avoided (cf. Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). Some theological improvement over the RSV is evident, but the liberal bias remains.

Committee Chairman Metzger alludes to the linguistic issue in the NRSV's "To the Reader" (p. xi) when he hints at the tension that developed between the committee's maxim, "As literal as possible, as free as necessary," and its mandate to incorporate inclusive language. Inclusive language has made the NRSV a less literal translation than the RSV. Metzger says the new work is essentially literal, but this is a matter of questionable judgment. RSV was already close to the upper limit of literal translations. The added freedom necessitated by efforts to avoid "sexually biased" language may raise the NRSV into the range of what should be called a free translation. In any event, this feature reduces its usefulness as a study tool. This is a shame because the premise regarding "sex-biased" language that generated most of the changes is so weak.

Because of the continuing theological problem and the new linguistic problem, the NRSV will find very limited usefulness among evangelicals.