Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

26 May 2003

Which Bible translation?

When InterVarsity Press announced that it would be publishing my book, the people there sent me a fairly large amount of material about the publication process. Among other things, this material indicated that they preferred their authors of popular books to draw biblical citations from the New International Version (NIV) and authors of scholarly works the Revised Standard Version (RSV) or New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). I opted for the RSV. Here is why.

English-speaking Christians are singularly blessed with a large number of excellent translations of the Bible among which they may choose. Thus the choice is a matter of choosing, not good over bad versions, but one among many fine versions. Why then the RSV, and not, say, the NRSV, the NIV, the Revised English Bible (REB), or the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB)? I have personally used each of these at various times for personal daily prayer. There is much to commend in all of them.

Yet the REB and the NJB have two primary flaws, in my view. First, they are too paraphrastic for my purposes. I prefer to have a version that stays fairly close to the text. In one case, however, I do cite the REB (Matthew 5:6) where the translation of dikaiosyne as right draws a meaning out of the text that the word righteousness does not carry so well.

Second, both attempt to reconstruct the presumed original text, often in the absence of manuscript testimony and solely on the basis of apparent literary evidence. This is seen most clearly in the transposition of verses or parts of verses (e.g., Job 24, which both the NJB and REB reorder but in different ways). Not surprisingly they frequently come to divergent conclusions, which is inevitable in such a speculative venture. (Their predecessor versions, the Jerusalem Bible and the New English Bible routinely transposed entire sections, most notoriously for the JB in Hosea, but the NJB and REB have commendably pulled back from many, if not most, of these.)

The NIV, by far the most popular English version of the Bible in use today, is a monumental achievement undertaken against considerable obstacles and motivated by an admirable belief in the fundamental unity of Scripture. However, for all its virtues, the NIV tends to harmonize across texts in what seems to me to be an unwarranted fashion. For example, the translators change the tense of the Hebrew verb in Genesis 12:1 to make it agree with Acts 7:2 on when Abraham received God’s call to the promised land. They similarly revocalize the Hebrew in Gen 47:31, so that the dying Jacob leans on his "staff" instead of his "bed," to make it agree with Heb 11:21. In attempting to smooth over the rough edges of the biblical text, it sometimes takes the reader in misleading directions from a textual perspective.

The NRSV is in many respects a considerable achievement in its own right, and the vast majority of changes it makes to the RSV are salutary. Where the RSV is stilted the NRSV reads more smoothly. It also properly eliminates the old second-person-singular forms ("thou," "thee," "thine," &c) in addressing God, a now obsolete liturgical usage of an earlier generation that never reflected anything in the original languages in which the Bible was written. Moreover, it eliminates generic masculine forms that have fallen out of use over the centuries, particularly the use of "men" for "human beings" or "people." In more than one place I do indeed quote the NRSV.

However, the translators' single-minded commitment to gender-inclusive language comes at the expense of other valid considerations. Others have taken note of the large number of odd or misleading renderings that have resulted from this single-mindedness. A few examples will suffice here: (1) the revival of the archaic and virtually obsolete "mortal" for anthropos or ben adam; (2) the obviously inappropriate use of "mortals" in Revelation 21:3 to describe those who have experienced the resurrection to eternal life and are thus no longer subject to mortality; (3) the seeming ascription in Psalm 19:12 of "errors" to the "ordinances of the LORD;" (4) the implication of immaturity in the "child" who gathers in the harvest in Proverbs 10:5; and (5) the anachronistic reference to "human rights" in Lamentations 3:35. One could go on in this vein, which I shall not do here.

But suffice it to say that, if one of the characteristics of an ideology is to follow rigidly the inexorable logic of a single abstract principle, e.g., the abolition of the division of labour or the freedom of the market, to the exclusion of other legitimate concerns, then the NRSV has by no means avoided this in its otherwise laudable use of inclusive language. To show that they affirm the equality of men and women, the translators have not only masked the highly gendered character of the original cultures -- itself problematic in the translation of an ancient text -- but, more seriously, have created difficulties of their own in the English text which would not have occurred had they been less single-minded. It thus seemed inadvisable to use this translation as, shall we say, the "default" version in a book arguing for a christian challenge to the ideologies. Consequently, for all its stiltedness and sometimes graceless prose, I have opted for the RSV in those passages for which no specific version is indicated, while continuing to draw on the NRSV and other versions in individual cases where it seemed appropriate to do so.

As my book was in the process of being published, another version of the Bible came out, the English Standard Version, which is an exceedingly light revision of the RSV. The ESV eliminates archaic pronominal and verbal forms, adopts a moderate approach to gendered language (e.g., "people" for "men"), and generally tries to remain as literal a translation as possible while cautiously rewording for clarity in English. However, this translation is not without difficulties either. To begin with, a perusal of its website reveals that its list of endorsements overlaps rather considerably with the list of those who helped to produce it. (Of what possible value could it be for me to write a review of my own book?!)

As for the translators, they go to great lengths to replace what they view as misleading theological terms with their older and ostensibly more correct counterparts. For example, expiation (RSV) is replaced by propitiation (e.g., Hebrews 2:17). This is a questionable improvement, given that the vast majority of readers do not grasp the nuances of either term. Moreover, in those passages that would seem to indicate women holding positions of authority in the early church (e.g., Roman 16:1,7) the translators have invariably chosen to obscure such a reading. This smacks of the same sort of tendentiousness characterizing both the NIV and NRSV. It is too soon to say how the ESV will be accepted. My guess is that it will catch on in certain circles but that it will not replace the NIV as the number one Bible translation in the English-speaking world.

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