Thursday, October 30, 2008

RSV vs. NRSV: Your Thoughts!

It has been a while, but soon I do plan to return to my examination of the RSV vs. NRSV series. Class and ministry work as taken up a lot of my time recently. However, before I return to the RSV vs. NRSV debate, I would like to hear some of your thoughts about these two translations, in relation to each other. The reason I am doing this is to try and cover any angles that I may be missing before I begin my analysis of them.
I think we all can agree that there are merits to both translations; but what do you like and dislike about the two? Your comments can focus on the translations themselves or other important factors like resource materials, reception in Church and academia, liturgical use, etc...


Michael said...

Maybe it is just me, but I think that the NRSV is written at a significantly lower reading level than the RSV.

It seems to me that there is definite downward trend in terms of the IQ level required to read Bible translations, translations just keep getting dumbed down further and further, and I think the NRSV is part of that trend towards a 'dumbed down' text.

That right there is my main complaint about the NRSV.

And, while I do agree that its reputation as 'a liberal Bible' is largely undeserved, it cannot be denied that the NRSV often takes its use of inclusive language a little too far, becoming at times incoherent, or even worse, readings which seem to bungle up traditional Christian interpretations, see, for example, how it butchers the important theological term 'son of man' in Ezekiel.

In addition, many of the editorial choices made in the OT text made in the NRSV OT are at best highly questionable. I think it tends to favor questionable or speculative readings far too frequently.

rolf said...

I like the RSV 2CE overall. I think its strong points are accuracy, clarity and the psalms. However, it can be a little wooden when reading longer books in Bible such as Acts (as we did in Bible study). It is also the translation I use when quoting and looking up individual verses.

The NRSV reads better in public and at times flows better than the RSV, but some of the changes made to make the translation inclusive have set it back. One of the big ones is 'Son of Man' changed to 'mortals' in the OT. The other is the excessive use of changing verses into plural tenses to allow for inclusive language. The NRSV translators should have used the same approach as the NJB, NAB, REB, and others, and used inclusive language on a case by case basis, but they put it everywhere, almost as a statement. This I beleive costs the NRSV to lose some of its accuracy and beauty. If done the right way, it could have been the best translation on the market.

Jeremy Priest said...

I've posted on this before,so I won't repeat my comments here, but I've seen a few passages in the NRSV where the clear authorial intention (based on the Greek words) is obscured by inclusive language interests.
The RSV might err on the side of sticking more closely to the NT Greek syntax, so it can be a bit more cumbersome to read (especially aloud), but in terms of study bibles that's the direction you want to err in translation.

The RSV Psalms are, in my opinion, not the greatest. I much prefer the old Duay-Rheims version - though translated from the Latin, it captures the earthiness of the Hebrew original better.

Keep up the good work, Tim. Did you see the RSV 2CE Lectionary that Ignatius Press recently released?

Tim said...

michael and rolf and jeremy,

You all make some solid points. One of the things that bugs me the most about the NRSV are the "son of man" renderings in the OT. Thankfully, they added a textual note when they do this. Perhaps they will make some better decisions in any revision they do in the future. Unfortunately, with the death of Bruce Metzger, who knows who will be the chairman of the committee.

I do think the NRSV, overall, reads better. But that is just me.

I haven't yet seen the RSV-2CE lectionary. My biggest concern with the RSV-2CE is that it is just a gimmick translation. I certainly like some of the changes they made, but Ignatius Press won't release the complete list changes or the editors. Plus, Ignatius Press is a small publisher, which is making the whole Ignatius Study Bible program go so slowly. Eh? Who knows?

rolf said...

Did you see the response you got from Father Joseph Fessio, S.J. (Ignatius Press) about the RSV 2CE.
He posted on your "RSV vs NRSV Prologue II" thread, with a reason why he is unable to provide you any information about the translation? Just wondering.

Tim said...


Thanks for pointing that out to me....I actually didn't see that before. I will post on the site.

Meg said...

I'm curious -- how do people think "son of man" ought to be translated in the OT? Should it be translated the same way each time it appears?

The Hebrew ben-anything means son of, but it also means member of a category. Sometimes bnei adam means sons of Adam (as in those who built the tower of Babel), sometimes it means human beings (as in Ezekiel).

Look at the corresponding bnei elohim (sons of God). I don't think that should be translated as the literal sons of God -- it refers to divine beings - perhaps angels, depending on the context. To give the literal translation would be misleading, don't you think?

Tim said...


You bring up some really good points, and also show how hard it is to be a translator of the Bible. It is definitely not easy.

The whole "Son of Man" translation is an important issue. Along the same lines as Rolf, I think it should be translated literally. Our Lord applied the title to himself during his earthly ministry, so I would hate to see that conenction lost due to translating it as "mortal" in the Old Testament, particularly Daniel and Psalm 8. One of my main faults with the NRSV, which I generally like, is the way they handled the "Son of Man" in the Old Testament. While it is clear that translating it as "mortal" is not necessarily wrong, I think the fact that Jesus uses the title for himself, and the apparent messianic connection it had in the 1st Century, should be enough for leaving the translation as literal as possible.

Michael said...

I believe, in general, that the Old Testament should be translated, in a Christian Bible, from a Christian perspective. Hence, it should be translated in such a way as to reflect Christian belief.

This, ultimately, is the problem, both with the RSV and the NRSV. The Old Testament is translated in such a way as to mute any possible Christian interpretation. This is true particularly in messianic passages. The RSV and NRSV OT are basically Jewish translations, rather than Christian ones. That is the problem I have with them.

While it may be possible, on the grounds of grammar or what have you, to defend such things as the decision to translate 'son of man' as 'mortal', or to translate Psalm 1.1 as 'happy are those', or to use the phrase 'young woman' rather
than 'virgin' in Isaiah 7:14, and so on and so on, the net effect is that the end result is a non-Christian, secular translation.

'Son on Man' is an important Christological term, Psalm 1 is a messianic Psalm, Isaiah 7:14 is a messianic prophecy. I have a major problem with translations that don't reflect this fact.

it is much the same with Luke 2:28. The translation of the angel's greeting to Mary as 'hail favored one' may be perfectly defensible on the grounds of Greek grammar.

What it is NOT however, is a Catholic translation.

With all else being equal, I think that the Bible should be translated in such a way as to reflect Christian beliefs, not mute them or reduce their impact, or hide them.

Meg said...

Wow, interesting! I have to say, I disagree. I think that Catholic theology can stand quite nicely without incorrect translations from the Hebrew.

To translate the sign of Immanuel in Isaiah 7 as "virgin" is simply wrong. There is a Hebrew word for virgin, and it is NOT used in this passage. So to translate it as virgin is, in my opinion, deceptive. It is trying to re-translate the Bible to say something it does not -- essentially, to rewrite God's word.

The Gospel passage that cites Isaiah 7 was never intended to support the Virgin Birth, but rather the identification of Jesus as the Messiah, the sign of Immanuel. That doesn't mean there are not other ways to support the theology of the Virgin Birth, just that Isaiah 7 isn't one of them.

My fear is that if we read an Old Testament that is different from those of our Jewish forbears, we will lose all connection with them. Without the Old Testament, there is no way to understand Jesus death. What kind of an anointed king gets killed before ruling his kingdom? Only by turning to the Hebrew Scriptures, as the early Church did, can we find the truth.

Misquotations by the New Testament authors merely show their humanity, and perhaps their lack of access to Scripture.

Bottom line, ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ. And rewriting Scripture might not be a good thing in that regard.

Michael said...

So, you think the Septuagint is a 'falsified' translation?

I think you place far too much trust in the Masoretic text, which is NOT the original Hebrew text, but is actually a text redacted by Jewish rabbis seeking to undermine the OT support for Christian beliefs.

We are on much safer grounds in following the Septuagint, which it just so happens, was the OT text cited most frequently in the NT, rather than the corrupted and biased Masoretic text.

Meg said...

Michael, no, I don't think the Septuagint was falsified, I think it is a translation -- and yes, it is the translation probably used by the Evangelists, because it was in GREEK. I don't think Hebrew was much spoken in those days - it was a liturgical language.

There are certainly variants in the Hebrew text, and the goal of scholarship ought to be to find the text closest to the original Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek written by each author, shouldn't it?

I've never heard of rabbis doing any such thing to the text of the Bible. I'm sure you have excellent sources to back up such an accusation. I have heard only of the almost fanatical respect that Jewish scholars have for the text - to the point where they will not even correct known scribal errors, because every word, every letter is holy.

I've been studying "son of Man" for my midterm Tuesday - are you familiar with Geza Vermes work on the expression? He claims it is was a common Aramaic euphemism - especially in letters. It was a polite way of referring to oneself in the third person, especially when talking about unpleasant subjects.

I don't find the Daniel 'son of Man' to be particularly Christological, but there's apparently a pseudepigraphical apocolypse of Enoch that has a saviour called the son of man? i haven't read it, just about it.

Tim said...

Very lively discussion on this topic! I hope to be able to give my answer on a few of these.

1) In regards to which textual basis is used for the Old Testament these days, it is certainly a debated issue. While the early Church certainly used the LXX primarily, more modern translations have used the MT. However, this too seems to be changing a bit. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, many Old Testaments are beginning to follow a more eclectic text. While the MT remains at times the base, the Dead Sea Scrolls, along with the LXX which often agrees with the DSS, are being cited more and more. This is especially the case with the NRSV.

2) The whole "Son of Man" issue I don't think is an either/or debate. Like I mentioned earlier, it certainly was used more broadly for "mortals". Yet, by the time of Jesus, the messianic significance of the title was evident, certainly in the parables of Henoch that you mentioned Meg. I believe it is also used in messianic imagery in 4 Ezra.

In a specifically Christological sense, Jesus obviously used the term quite a bit. In the Gospels it is used 70 times. I think the most explicit example is in Mark 14: 62, when Jesus is before the council. When asked if he is the Son of the Blessed, he says: "I am; and you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of Heaven." Here, Jesus is clearly quoting from Daniel 7:13-14, which describes the Son of man.

3) Let me also state that I agree with what Rolf mentioned earlier. I think if the NRSV had used inclusive language like the NJB or NAB New Testament, then the NRSV would probably be my favorite translation. I still find it slightly better to read than the RSV, particularly in the OT. However, the poor decisions in regards to some of the inclusive language used, in particular the "Son of Man" sayings and also the qualification of bishops in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus, make it hard for me to use the NRSV as my #1 Bible. In many ways, I wish I could.

L. Wells said...

Michael, I agree totally with your assessment of the constant dumbing down of translations. It is strange to me when I see people clamoring for updates to translations 50, 30, even 20 years old, when translations such as the KJV and the Rheims have survived 400 years. I hardly think the English language is evolving this quickly (devolving perhaps is more like it in some modern translations).

Everyone here has made some excellent points actually. I am much like Tim regarding the NRSV. I had made it my main translation a few months ago, but sometimes the inclusive language has just gone way overboard and out of bounds, as in 1 Timothy and Titus. Recently I've found myself reaching more and more for my old RSV and the ESV(which has a few issues of its own).

I do think overall the NRSV is a great translation, and will always use it heavily. I do wonder how great it could've been though, had they not went so wild with the inclusive language. As Rolf stated, they should've went the route some of the other translations used with a case by case determination. The one thing that I think still makes the NRSV the best translation on the whole, is that it is extremely well footnoted, and to me the footnotes are every bit as much a part of the transation as the renderings in the text body themselves. Another reason I use it so much is that it is the translation of the Revised Common Lectionary, and being Episcopalian, and being that lector is one of my duties, I like to stay familiar with the text I am going to be using most in my public readings and in my studies.

Will Ham said...

Hey everybody! I too am an Episcopalian and somehow don't own my own version of the bible(no idea how). I'm not sure about this inclusive language. My question here is this, I like the "son of man" text and I like the Psalms as I'm use to hearing them. I also want to be able to read my bible fluently. That being said should I go for the NRSV or the RSV? I was recommended the NRSV but I want to make sure I make the right decision.

CarlHernz said...

Hi Will,

Currently the Episcopal church in the United States employs the NRSV for most uses including worship. The NRSV Psalter is used in the current Book of Common Worship, but some congregations may use an older one that employs the RSV or KJV, so it depends on what your congregation has been using when you hear Scripture proclaimed. The NRSV employs the term "Son of Man" and language common to Anglican usage.

rolf said...

Will, I think that is a question only ou can answer. As you can see by the above comments from almost 7 years ago, people have different opinions. Read both of them and decide which works the best for you. Both are good translations!

Will Ham said...

Thanks! I'm going to go with this version.

Will Ham said...

Thanks for the help!

Timothy said...


Here is a post I did a few months back on why I prefer the NRSV.

Will Ham said...

Thanks Timothy! I was looking at the NOAB 4th edition. It's huge but I feel like it will be good for personal reading, bible study and last a long time.

Timothy said...


Get the genuine leather edition. It is quite nice and will indeed last you a lifetime!