Post-War Bible Translations:
The Revised Standard Version and New Revised Standard Version


The RSV (whole Bible 1952, with the Apocrypha 1956) and NRSV (1989) are different from the other translations covered so far in this series in that they have a ‘history’; they are direct descendants of Tyndale and AV. Just as the AV was, strictly, a revision rather than a new translation (taking its lineage from Tyndale and Coverdale, via the Great Bible and the Bishop's Bible), so was the RSV a revision of the American Standard Version (1901) which in its turn was a revision of the AV via the Revised Version (1881 & 1885). This may explain why the RSV has found a place in so many hearts. The preface ‘To the Reader’ of the NRSV restates much of the earlier Preface to the RSV. It explains the philosophy of both versions and the reasons why a new revision had been deemed necessary. It acknowledges their debt to the King James Version which has been termed ‘the noblest monument of English prose’, but shows how the continuing discoveries of older manuscripts and ongoing investigations into linguistic features of the text have prompted the proliferation of new translations into English. ‘Following the publication of the RSV Old Testament in 1952, significant advances were made in the discovery and interpretation of documents in Semitic languages related to Hebrew. In addition to the information that had become available in the late 1940s from the Dead Sea texts of Isaiah and Habakkuk, subsequent acquisitions from the same area brought to light many other early copies of all the books of the Hebrew Scriptures (except Esther), though most of these copies are fragmentary. During the same period early Greek manuscript copies of books of the New Testament also became available.’

The revision has, in the opinion of the committee, made use of the best texts available and the style of English adopted has continued in the tradition of the AV but always with regard to current English usage. The maxim ‘As literal as possible, as free as necessary’ was followed. ‘As a consequence, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) remains essentially a literal translation. Paraphrastic renderings have been adopted only sparingly, and then chiefly to compensate for a deficiency in the English language — the lack of a common gender third person singular pronoun’. The claim is that linguistic sexism has been avoided wherever possible. The consensus amongst the translators and theologians with whom I have spoken with regard to this series is that the RSV/NRSV versions remain the most reliable for academic and scholarly study. Luther A. Weigle, who chaired the American Standard Bible Committee, comments on the terseness of the style of the RSV, and notes that, though it was not an overt policy, the result has been the use of fewer words than the AV and certain contemporary translations.[1] The NRSV has abandoned the thee and thou pronouns in prayers addressed to God. The preface points out that ‘in the original languages neither the Old Testament nor the New makes any linguistic distinction between addressing a human being and addressing the Deity.’ Readers will recall that whilst the NEB (1961, 1970) had retained the thou form in prayers addressing God, the REB (1989) abandoned it. I give the RSV and NRSV renderings of passages cited in other Tyndale Society Journal articles () for the purpose of comparison. I start with Jonah's prayer:

RSV: NRSV
2 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying, ‘I called to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice. Then Jonah prayed to the lord his God from the belly of the fish saying ‘
I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.
3 For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas,
and the flood was round about me;
all thy waves and thy billows passed over me.
You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.
4 Then I said, “I am cast out from thy presence;
how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?”
Then I said, "I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?"
5 The waters closed in over me the deep was round about me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head
6 at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, 0 Lord my God.
at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, 0 Lord my God.
7 When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple.
As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayers came to you, into your holy temple.
8 Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty. Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.
9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to thee;
what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’
But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’
10 And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land. Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.

(I refer readers to volume 2 of the Journal for this passage according to Tyndale and AV, as well as NEB/REB).

The vexed question of phrases from the AV which have become part of our literary heritage is perhaps even more difficult in versions which claim to maintain the AV tradition. The RSV retains, for instance, the ‘still small voice’ of I Kings 19:12, whilst readers will hold differing opinions on the NRSV's ‘sound of sheer silence’ (surely preferable to REB's ‘faint murmuring sound’).

The lovely cadences of Tyndale/AV's translation of the opening verses of John's Gospel have been preserved in RSV and I do not feel that they have been well served by NRSV's revision:

John 1:1ff

RSV:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; and all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.


NRSV:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.


Whilst RSV virtually retains Tyndale/AV in Genesis 1:1ff., NRSV takes into account a different world view and achieves a felicitous rendering of the opening words of the Bible.

RSV:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
And God said, ‘Let there be light’: and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
And God said, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters,which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven, And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.


NRSV:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and darkness he called Night, And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the water, and let it separate the waters from the waters’. So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.


Bruce Metzger restates the words of the RSV Preface in that to the NRSV ‘This new version seeks to preserve all that is best in the English Bible as it has been known and used through the years. It is intended for use in public reading and congregational worship, as well as in private study instruction, and meditation. We have resisted the temptation to introduce terms and phrases that merely reflect current moods, and have tried to put the message of the Scriptures in simple, enduring words and expressions that are worthy to stand in the great tradition of the King James Bible and its predecessors.’ Here are the opening verses of Hebrews for comparison with versions previously quoted.

RSV:
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs.


NRSV:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.


In our pluralist, essentially secular, society where marketing and targeting are the order of the day, Bible translators have identified their intended readers and their probable ‘reading age’, and individual translations are intended to appeal to different readers. Whilst some have hoped that RSV/NRSV might become the ‘common’ English Bible, it seems unlikely that there will ever again be one, even unofficially authorized, version that has a place equivalent to that of the King James Version. The more ‘literary’ style of the NRSV, which will appeal to many, may prove a barrier to others. Consider for example the stately language of Romans 8.18ff with the eager immediacy of Phillips' wording (quoted in Volume 3 of this Journal):

NRSV:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing, with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will all but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.


As the NRSV preface says: ‘The Old Testament sets forth the call of a special people to enter into covenant relation with the God of justice and steadfast love and to bring God's law to the nations. The New Testament records the life and work of Jesus Christ, the one in whom “the Word became flesh” as well as describes the rise and spread of the early Christian Church. The Bible carries its full message, not to those who regard it simply as a noble literary heritage of the past or who wish to use it to enhance political purposes and advance otherwise desirable goals, but to all persons and communities who read it so that they may discern and understand what God is saying to them’. If the very range and variety of translations furthers that end then that must be beneficial. To quote the Preface of the King James Bible (1611): ‘For is the kingdome of God become words or syllables? Why should we be in bondage to them if we may be free, use one precisely when wee may use another no lesse fit, as commodiously?’

Dr Hilary Day


Notes
  1. An Introduction to the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament (The International Council of Religious Education, 1946), pp.56-57.

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