Christian friends, we are still (and will be right through February 19) in the season after Epiphany, during which we remember and celebrate the light of God’s revelation, symbolized by the Bethlehem star. According to the old King James Version, the light of that star guided the “wise men” to the Christ Child (Matthew 2:1-12): a reading followed by the RSV, and the NRSV. However, like the CEB and the NIV, the newly published NRSVue (that is, the Updated Edition of the New Revised Standard Version) more accurately reads “the magi“–a Persian clan of Zoroastrian astrologers.
To understand what the NRSVue is, we need to rehearse a wee bit of history. The Revised Standard Version (1952) was a revision of the earlier American Standard Version (1901)–itself the American English form of a revision of the KJV undertaken by the Church of England in 1881. The RSV was the work of a team of expert translators, including the legendary New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger, assembled by the International Council of Religious Education (one of the predecessors of the National Council of Churches [NCC]). The RSV was not intended to be an entirely new translation; the intent was to preserve the familiar rhythms and language of the KJV as much as possible “in the light of our present knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek texts and their meaning on the one hand, and our present understanding of English on the other” (from the preface to the RSV).
The New Revised Standard Version (1989) was undertaken by a new committee formed by the NCC, this time chaired by Bruce Metzger. One issue driving this call for a revision was the increasing recognition in many churches that our language should reflect more accurately the full inclusion of women in the community of faith. So, in the NRSV, Genesis 1:27 reads, “So God created humankind [the NRSVue simply has “humans”] in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Here, the translation “humankind” is far better than the KJV and RSV “man”: the Hebrew word used, ‘adam, means “humanity” rather than “man.” The NRSV renders the standard New Testament greeting to fellow Christians, “Brothers” (adelphoi in Greek; for example, 1 Corinthians 2:1), as “Brothers and sisters”–not a literal translation of adelphoi, but an accurate expression of the inclusion of women as well as men in those early Christian communities.
But the major reason that a new revision of the RSV seemed needed was that new texts continued to come to light–particularly, with the publication of more and more material from Qumran: the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls. The NRSV translators paid close attention to the Qumran discoveries (look for a Q in the text notes), making this the best scholarly translation of the Bible to date, especially for the Old Testament.
The NRSVue, published in 2021, was begun about five years ago as a cooperative project of the NCC and the Society of Biblical literature (SBL). According to an email from SBL Press and the Bible Odyssey team, “nearly seventy-five SBL members working individually and collaboratively over the course of four years” produced this “review and revision of the NRSV thirty years after its initial release.” Much like its predecessors, the NRSVue is an updating and revision, rather than a fresh translation from scratch. The NRSVue is readily accessible on the web, at Bible Gateway and at Bible Odyssey.
The title of this blog is taken from a recent interview with the two heads of the NRSVue project: Joseph Crockett, the (now retired) CEO of the NCC’s publishing house Friendship Press, and John Kutsko, then executive director of SBL (see Annelisa Burns, “An even better Bible,” The Christian Century [February 2023]: 62-65). In that interview, John Kutsko observes,
We approached this project as if it were a regularly scheduled maintenance in light of new texts and understandings. We believed from the start that its primary value would be in the review itself, regardless of the extent of revisions made to the text. We did not know that we’d have 12,000 substantive changes.
Most of these changes are minor, if significant: like the substitution of “magi” for the traditional reading “wise men.” Just as the NRSV paid particular attention to gender, the NRSVue has paid particular attention to “ableist” readings that reduce people to their infirmity. So, while the NRSV of Mark 1:40 reads, “A leper [Greek lepros] came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean’”, the NRSVue of this passage (like the CEB) has “A man with a skin disease.” In addition to granting the sufferer his full humanity, this reading avoids the ready confusion of biblical “leprosy” (the Greek lepros and the Hebrew tsara’ath/tsara’ are catchall terms in Scripture for a host of skin diseases, not to mention molds and mildews [see Leviticus 13–14!]) with clinical leprosy, or Hansen’s disease.
Of course, as with the RSV and NRSV before it, the ready accusation is that the translators are watering down the Gospel with their liberal agenda. In response to an interviewer who asked if the NRSVue was a “woke revision,” Kutsko said,
“[W]oke” is a mischaracterization of what we do. While all scholarship, including translation, is socially located and can’t be completely objective, our book editors and the general editors were both diverse and specialized. They strove for the ideal of representing the sources and meaning of the ancient texts.
In the Christian Century interview, when asked about controversial changes, Kutsko and Crockett noted in particular the decision in the NRSVue to render the Hebrew khattat as “purification offering” rather than “sin offering.” This was not, they noted, an attempt to take “sin” out of the Bible (Kutsko: “I can assure your readers that there is still a lot of sin in the Bible.” Crockett: “And it doesn’t stop with the Bible!”), but rather a reflection of the best scholarship on the meaning and use of this particular ancient Israelite ritual (as Jacob Milgrom’s footnotes to Leviticus in the HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible observe).
While I affirm most of the choices I have encountered in the NRSVue, I must confess that some took me by surprise. To begin at the beginning, Genesis 1:1-2 reads,
When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was complete chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
However, I do differ with the NRSVue on Genesis 2:2:
On the sixth day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done (Gen 2:2).
This reading (also found in the CEB) is in keeping with the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Septuagint, and the Syriac, all of which read in Genesis 2:2 that God completed God’s work on the sixth day (see also Exod 20:11; 31:17; 2 Esdras 6:38-59). The versions, influenced in particular by the Exodus passages, are making an understandable decision: after all, how can God be said to finish God’s work on God’s day of rest? Indeed, since, in Genesis as we have it the seventh day of creation is placed in a different chapter than the first six (Gen 2:1-3), one could easily conclude that the seventh day comes after the work of creation is completed.
But the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) reads wayyikal ‘elohim bayom hashibi’i mela’kto [“God completed God’s work on the seventh day”]. The NRSV stayed with the MT here (as do the KJV, NJPS, and NIV). I am persuaded that that is the better course. The priestly writers in this unit pursue a sabbatical logic. In Genesis 1:1–2:4a, each day is numbered, from One through Seven (1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31; 2:2-3). Indeed, rather than using the word “Sabbath,” Gen 2:1-3 speaks only of Day Seven, to preserve that numbering sequence. In this context, then, the seventh day is the day of completion, the climax of creation. The NRSV had it right.
While the RSV remains available, the editors have chosen to let the NRSV go out of print (so, for example, it is no longer available at the Bible Gateway website). I think this decision is unfortunate: I am certain that, as I use this new Bible, I will find still other places where I prefer the text critical decisions made in that earlier version to those in the NRSVue. Still, so far as I can now see, in most places the Updated Edition has stayed with the critical assessments of the NRSV, which is all to the good.
Unfortunately, the NRSVue suffers from some of the same limitations as the NRSV. It assumes a college-age reading level–a major barrier to many readers. While excellent for study, this Bible is harder to use for devotional reading and spiritual reflection. Those looking for a more accessible translation should try the Common English Bible. Still, the NCC and the SBL must be commended for revisiting, and revising, their work. Joseph Crockett puts it very well:
God deserves the best each generation can render, and the growth of information in the past 30-plus years makes Bible research, interpretation, and understanding an ever-changing enterprise.
The textile art at the head of this blog, “Star of Bethlehem With Pomegranate Trees,” was made by an anonymous quilter in 1850, and is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This image comes from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56278 [retrieved January 30, 2023]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Star_of_Bethlehem_with_Pomegranate_Trees,_New_York,_c._1850_-_Museum_of_Fine_Arts,_Boston_-_DSC02710.JPG.
I cannot let Ms. Burns’ interview go without noting these sobering words of warning from John Kutsko concerning modern seminary education:
I worry about the future’s ability to support scholars with sufficient language facility. We found it pretty difficult to find a team of people who had mastered Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and so on. Most Protestant denominations don’t require Greek or Hebrew for ordination, so faculty are teaching these languages less. I’m not optimistic that a review begun in 2050 will find the necessary scholars to do what we did in this updated edition.