The explosion of translations in recent years presents a real challenge to thoughtful readers. In our next two (or three!) posts, we will consider several translations: today’s post will look at the Revised Standard Version, and the New Revised Standard Version. For each translation, I will say a little about its motivations and history, talk about its strengths and weaknesses (with examples), and for comparative purposes, give you the same passage in each: the last verse of Psalm 23. In the King James Version (see the previous post, “Which Bible?”), this reads “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”
But first, a word about that word “LORD.” The translators of the KJV chose to use this word, in all capitals, to represent the Name of God in Hebrew:
in English letters, Yhwh. By ancient tradition, the Name is not pronounced: in synagogue, when you come to the Name, you say Adonai: that is, “my Lord.” Hebrew scribes, both to insure that the Name would not be pronounced accidentally and to remind the reader what was supposed to be said, wrote the Name with the vowels of Adonai. European translators ignorant of this convention came up with the pronunciation “Jehovah,” which is used seven times in the KJV, usually where the context seemed to require a name rather than a title (see Genesis 22:14; Exodus 6:3; 17:15; Judges 6:24; Psalm 83:18, and Isaiah 12:2; 26:4). While some modern translations have gone against this convention (notably the Roman Catholic Jerusalem Bible which, following the prevailing view of biblical scholarship, renders the name as “Yahweh”), most follow the KJV and use LORD in all capitals to represent the holy Name.
The Revised Standard Version (1952) is so called because it was a revision of the earlier American Standard Version (1901)–the American English form of a revision of the KJV undertaken by the Church of England in 1881. This revision of the ASV was undertaken by a team of expert translators, including the legendary New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger, assembled by the International Council of Religious Education (one of the bodies that led to the National Council of Churches). 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).
In the RSV, Ps 23:6 reads exactly as it does in the KJV. However, there are several translator’s notes, recognizing other (and in some cases, better) possibilities for translating the Hebrew: “surely” could also be read as “only” (the Hebrew ‘ak often has that meaning), “mercy” could also be read as “kindness” (a much better rendering of the Hebrew word khesed; better still would be “steadfast love” or “loyalty”), and “for ever” could also be read as “as long as I live” (again, much better; the Hebrew literally means “for length of days”).
The New Revised Standard Version (1989) was undertaken by a new committee, formed by the National Council of Churches, 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 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” (see the post from May 11, 2013, “Women in the Bible”). 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 an accurate translation of adelphoi, but an accurate expression of the inclusion of women as well as men in those early Christian communities (again, see “Women in the Bible”).
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 have paid close attention to the Qumran discoveries (look for a Q in the footnotes), making this, in my view, the best scholarly translation of the Bible available, especially for the Old Testament.
For example: in 1 Samuel 11, the story of Nahash the Ammonite has always seemed very strange: who is this man? Why is he laying siege to Jabesh-Gilead, a city far to the north of Ammon? Most of all, why, when the people of the city offer to surrender, does he instead insist, “’I will make a treaty with you on one condition: that everyone’s right eye be gouged out! . . . That’s how I bring humiliation on all Israel.’” (1 Samuel 11:2, CEB). Scholars had long known that the Jewish historian Josephus had a longer story about Nahash in Antiquities VI.5.1, but they did not know if that story had any ancient basis in a biblical text.
With the publication of a fragmentary text from Cave 4 at Qumran (called 4QSam a), we now know that this story was part of the text of Samuel: a paragraph that fell out of the text in the course of its copying and recopying over generations. The NRSV of the end of 1 Samuel 10 reads:
Now Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had been grievously oppressing the Gadites and the Reubenites. He would gouge out the right eye of each of them and would not grant Israel a deliverer. No one was left of the Israelites across the Jordan whose right eye Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had not gouged out. But there were seven thousand men who had escaped from the Ammonites and had entered Jabesh-gilead.
The translators’ footnote on this addition says (my explanations are in brackets), “Q Ms [referring to the manuscripts from Qumran] Compare Josephus, Antiquities VI.v.1 (68–71): MT [for “Masoretic text,” the Hebrew text on which our Old Testament is based] lacks Now Nahash . . . entered Jabesh-gilead.”
In the NRSV, Psalm 23:6 reads:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.
Clearly, this is very similar to the RSV for this passage, with the same footnotes, except for the last phrase, which has now been more accurately rendered, and where the footnote observes the literal meaning of the Hebrew, “for length of days.”
I recommend the NRSV for serious study, and especially the HarperCollins Study Bible, edited by Harold W. Attridge. This edition of the NRSV has lots of maps, charts, and other helps, but the best part is the extended introductions to each book of the Bible, and the footnotes: a third or more of every page, providing cross-references, further information pertaining to the history back of the text, and in many cases, additional insight into the translation. These introductions and footnotes are written by scholars doing cutting-edge research in the books on which they comment. In fact, in some cases, the author of the notes is the person primarily responsible for the translation of the book in question (for example, S. Dean McBride in Deuteronomy), so that you can get straight from the horse’s mouth the reasons behind the choices made.
The problem with the NRSV is that it can be hard to read. Often, the language clanks and clatters–clearly, the work of scholars rather than poets! Further, the NRSV assumes a college-age reading level, a major barrier to many readers. Finally, while the NRSV, and the HarperCollins Study Bible in particular, are excellent for academic work, they are harder to use for devotional reading and spiritual reflection.
Next time, we will consider some other popular translations, comparing them to the NRSV in particular.