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The New RSV: The Best Translation, Halfway There

by Walter Wink

Walter Wink is professor at Auburn Theological Seminary, New York City. He received his Th.D. from Union Theological Semianry, has been active in peace movements throughout the world, and is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. His books include: The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millenium (1999), Homosexuality and Christian Faith (1999), and Cracking the Gnostic Code (1993). This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 19-26, 1990 pp. 829-833, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Throughout my career as a biblical scholar I have used the Revised Standard Version of the Bible in my classes. Though I noted its rare deficiencies, I little expected its sequel to be such a thoroughgoing improvement. Indeed, as I examined the New Testament section of the New Revised Standard Version line by line I was astonished by the almost unerring precision and appropriateness of not just some but virtually all its changes. Fifty-one other English translations of the New Testament have appeared since the RSV was published 44 years ago, but the NRSV now takes its place as the finest American translation yet.

That is not a grandiose claim. In a sense, every new translation should be better than its predecessors since it can draw on their improvements and add fresh ones. In practice, however, that is not the way it works. The New International Version is, in my view, too literal, wooden, halting. The Good News Bible (Todayís English Version) is at times inspired in its renderings, at others not, but is too much a paraphrase for basic study. The Jerusalem Bible, if one is strong enough to lift it, is a superb translation, though I often regret the changes made in the second edition. The Revised English Bible of 1989 is, if anything, more literary than the NRSV, and a truly excellent version; but it is less close in its -renderings to the originals and a bit, well, British -- as it should be. The King James Version is simply not based on the better Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, and is full of errors.

What makes the NRSV a quantum-leap forward, a work of such quality that it can serve, as the KJV and the RSV once did, as the definitive translation for North American readers? First, it reaps the harvest of literally tens of thousands of scholarly probes into the language and times of the Bible. It draws on the discovery of many older manuscripts, some of them, as in the case of the Isaiah scroll found at Qumran, a thousand years earlier than the texts used to translate the KJV.

Second, unlike the RSV translators, who bore the onus of adhering as closely as possible to the KJV (large portions of which the faithful had memorized) , the NRSV translators were instructed to continue in the tradition of the KJV but with complete freedom to introduce such changes as were warranted. Thus the NRSV preserves a continuity with the English literary tradition, in which the KJV has played a role approached only by Shakespeare.

Third, it is the first major translation mandated to eliminate linguistic sexism in reference to men and women (but not to God) , without altering passages that reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture.

Fourth, archaisms like "thee" and "thou" have been dropped. An enormous number of small changes have been introduced, few of them creating major shifts in meaning but whose cumulative effect is to produce a magnificent translation -- in short, a stunning achievement.

Here is but a sample of some of its improvements. Some changes are simply more vivid and pithy: "bombastic nonsense" replaces "loud "boasts of folly" in II Peter 2:18; the Gerasene demoniac is now "howling," not just "crying out" (Mark 5:5) ; the Shulammite maiden in Song of Solomon is now "black and beautiful," not just "dark, but comely" (1:5) , and her loverís "intention toward me was love" (RSV: "his banner over me was love" -- 2:4) Saul no longer is "prophesying," but in a "prophetic frenzy" (I Sam. 10:13), and "outlaws" replace Jephthahís "worthless fellows" (Judg. 11:3)

Adam and Eve did not make "aprons," since kitchens had not yet been invented, but "loincloths" (Gen. 3:7) The RSVís "great men" are now "magnates" (Rev. 6:15) who behave like "tyrants" (RSV: "exercise authority" -- Mark 10:42) The stilled sea is "a dead calm" (RSV: "great calm" -- Mark 4:39) , and acting "by nature" is now to "do instinctively" (Rom. 2:14)

In a few cases the NRSV translation actually reverses the meaning of the RSV. When Agag comes before Samuel "haltingly" (RSV: "cheerfully") , saying, "Surely this is the bitterness of death" (RSV: "Surely the bitterness of death is past" -- I Sam. 15:32) , we are given a whole new picture of the scene. Here the Qumran scrolls have contributed to the translation. More often, however, the translators provide more modest clarifications. The angel with which Jacob wrestled did not merely touch the hollow of his thigh on the sinew of the hip (RSV) , but rather "struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle" (Gen 32:32) And speaking of wrestling, Epaphras is not simply "remembering you earnestly" in his prayers, but "wrestling (agonizomenos) in his prayers on your behalfí (Col. 4:12)

Jesusí family is not just afraid that he is "beside himself" but that he has "gone out of his mind" (Mark 3:21) Phoebe is not a "deaconess" (RSV) but a "deacon," fully an equal of men and a "benefactor" or patron, not just a "helper" (RSV -- Rom. 16:1) Likewise, the translators make clear that Junia is a woman (RSV: "Junias") , and not one of the "men of note among the apostles" (RSV) ; she is rather a woman "prominent among the apostles" and a believer before Paul was (Rom. 16:7)

It is a delight to run across these improvements. At times I would catch myself saying, "Surely not!" only to consult the Hebrew or Greek and discover the NRSV is right. Why, I wondered, does it read "believing wife" in I Corinthians 9:5, when the RSV has merely "wife"? A glance at the Greek shows why: it reads "sister as wife" -- sister denoting a member of the church (the translators have conveniently supplied this datum in a note)

In other cases the NRSV translators have hit on brilliant phrasing: "super-apostles" (for "superlative apostles" -- II Cor: 11:5) ; or "to be our way of life" (for "that we should walk in them" -- Eph 2:10) Advice for slaves has been clarified, now that there is fortunately no need for such advice: obey your earthly master "not only while being watched" (RSV: "not in the way of eye-service" -- Eph 6:6) But the prize for straight talk goes to Galatians 5:12: "I wish those who unsettle you [with the demand that they be circumcised] would castrate themselves" (RSV: "mutilate")

One innovation in this version is the translation of the Greek imperfect tense with the proper sense of action continuous in the past. Itís a little thing -- but of such excellences are a greater excellence made. Thus the leader of the synagogue "kept saying" (RSV: "said") í to the crowd that healings should not take place on the sabbath (Luke 13:14)

Some passages no longer preserve the sonorous KJV cadences, and it will be hard for some people to part with them. John 1:1-4 is at every point more faithfully rendered in, the NRSV, but v. 3 just jerks and twitches ("All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being") But thatís what the Greek says. Should they have translated more freely? Many will lament the change in Paulís rhapsody on love in I Corinthians 13:3, "If I hand over my body so that I may boast" (RSV: "to be burned") The better manuscripts do indeed support the alteration -- but isnít something like "burned" implied? The change of Psalm 23:4 from "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death" to "through the darkest valley" may be more correct, but it is certainly less powerful. And some may regard the improvement of Romans 3:25 as worse, because more intelligible: "Whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement" (RSV: "expiation")

But other passages are so felicitously turned that no one could complain. The RSVís awkward "In these you once walked, when you lived in them" becomes "These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life" (Col. 3:7) Or RSVís "the time for establishing all" becomes the far more majestic and correct, "the time of universal restoration" (apokatastasis -- Acts 3:21)

In a few instances the translators actually solve the meaning of puzzling verses. Why did Peter, who was unclothed in the boat, put on his clothes and dive into the sea to reach the risen Jesus? He was just covering his nakedness, not fully dressing (John 21:7) And at Cana the steward does not say that good wine is normally served first, and then, "when men have drunk freely," poor wine is served (RSV) , but "then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk" (John 2:10) The Greek verb means to be inebriated. Picture it: Jesus creates 120-180 gallons of finest wine after everyone is already too soused to notice. I only wish translators had had similar chutzpah at Luke 18:5 and had placed their more accurate footnote in the text: "so that she [the importunate widow] may not finally come and slap me in the face" -- the term is from boxing, more literally, "give a black eye."

Judicious handling of monetary terms actually helps a couple of stories make sense. By rendering "denarius" as "the usual daily wage," the translators make it clear that the owner in the parable of the workers in the vineyard is giving all his workers what they need for survival, regardless of the time they worked (Matt. 20:2) And in Matthew 17:24-27, the story in which Jesus pays the temple tax by catching a pecuniary fish, the translators tell us through the notes that the stater is worth two didrachmas, thus covering the taxes of both Jesus and Peter.

Christological titles shift a bit. "Christ" is replaced by "Messiah" when it is a title, not a proper name, for Jesus (except in Mark 1:1 --why?) , and "my beloved Son" by "my Son, the Beloved"; both changes are welcome. "Son of Man" is correctly rendered by "mortal" in the Old Testament, yet it is left untranslated in the New. "Son of" in Hebrew is merely an idiom meaning "of or pertaining to the following genus or species," and the NRSV never leaves it untranslated. Thus a "son of a quiver" is an Ďarrow.í In Matthew 8:12 "sons of the kingdom" is correctly given as "the heirs of the kingdom" by the NRSV. So why is Son of Man capitalized (it is not in the Greek) when applied to Jesus and left untranslated? Why not, for consistencyís sake and greater accuracy, try rendering it "the human being"?

In many cases the RSVís footnotes have migrated into the NRSV text. It took some courage to change the revered reading of the Isaiah servant song from "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows" to "Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases" (Isa. 53:4) , though the RSV note indicates that its translators already knew which was the more correct. So also Genesis 1:1 now follows what was a note in the RSV: "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth."

Antiquated terms are replaced. "Dome" helpfully supersedes "firmament" in Genesis I. "Behold" is handled by a variety of clever means: Ďlook," "see," "just then," "see here," "suddenly," "here is." "Rejoiced exceedingly" becomes "overwhelmed with joy"; "he opened his mouth" becomes "he began to speak" "he knew her not" becomes he "had no marital relations with her."

Christian reflection on the problem of evil will be greatly advanced by the correction of the egregious error of the KJV, preserved in the RSV, that not one sparrow falls to the ground "without your Fatherís will." This picture of God as a murderer violates not only moral feeling but the Greek text, which is literally rendered by the NRSV, "Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father" (Matt. 10:29) God suffers with the creation.

All these excellences (and there are too many to count) will probably be eclipsed in the public mind by the NRSVís treatment of sexist language. Be ready for the argument that the translators have violated the Greek text in order to curry the favor of feminists. That is all bluster. The care with which this part of the mandate has been achieved is everywhere evident. The fact is that sexist translations are inaccurate. To use "men" when women are clearly included is not just insensitive, it is incorrect.

The translators have used paraphrases, otherwise avoided in this version, to compensate for a deficiency in the English language -- the lack of a common gender third-person singular pronoun. One strategy is to shift from the singular to the plural in order to circumvent masculine pronouns: "Blessed is he" in Psalm 32:1 becomes "Happy are those." Or the third person can be shifted to second person, actually making the saying more personal and direct, as in Matthew 18:6 -- "it would be better for you [RSV: "him"] if a great millstone were fastened around your [RSV: "his"] neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea." Sometimes "one" does the job: "For one [RSV: "man"] believes with the [RSV: "his"] heart and so is justified" (Rom. 10:10) "Children" can be substituted for "sons" when women are clearly included (Rom. 8:19) , and "mortals," "human beings," or "humankind" used to translate the Greek anthropos (which is often an inclusive term, distinguished from aner, "man" or "male")

Some of the NRSVís nonsexist translations demanded great resourcefulness. The refrain in Mark 4:9, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" becomes "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!" "Godís foolishness," we learn from I Corinthians 1:25, "is wiser than human wisdom" (RSV: "men") The term "brethren" created greatest difficulty. It usually means the whole church. The NRSV translators have rendered it "brothers and sisters," "believers," "friends," "beloved," "the community," "members of your family" (of believers) , "members of the church" -- and all of them work. (Why then is "brother" left standing in Acts 15:1?) Some may balk at the taking of these liberties; but the issue is one both of accuracy and of justice, and "we must obey God rather than any human authority" (RSV: "men" -- Acts 5:29)

Not everything on the sexually inclusive front is satisfactory, however. Why is the awkward "humankind" preferred over "humanity"? Why in Mark 10:7 do we have the contrast "man . . . wife" (as if she were still chattel) instead of; as at I Corinthians 11:3, "husband. . . wife"?

Sometimes the attempt at inclusiveness founders. In trying to avoid the masculine pronoun, the translators render Luke 14:27 as "Whoever does not carry the cross." This makes it sound as if it is Jesusí cross, rather than oneís own, as the Greek reads. The theological implications of that change are fairly serious. We have enough vicarious, Jesus-did-it-all-for-me Christianity already without that added burden. And what price justice, some may ask, when they discover that "fishers of men" has become the prosaic "fish for people" (Mark 1:17) Any takers for "fishers of folk"?

People are always on the lookout for theological bias in Bible translations. Is there one here? The signals are mixed. In two passages we have what appears to be a move toward a lower Christology. II Corinthians 5:19 is translated "In Christ God was reconciling the World to himself." The word order in the Greek (and the KJV and RSV) is "God was in Christ," putting greater emphasis on the incarnation. Again, the NRSV changes John 1:14 from "glory as of the only Son from the Father" to "glory as of the fatherís only son" -- this, again, in an incarnational passage. Are these changes anti-incarnational?

Hardly. John 1:18 compensates fully in the opposite direction, declaring Jesus God. The RSVís "the only Son" becomes "It is God the only Son." But the Greek is monogenes theos, "the only-begotten God," a phrase exceedingly difficult to render into modern English. The NRSV translates from the perspective of trinitarian theology, whereas John is far closer to the logos spermatikos notion of Stoic and Philonic philosophy. So on the issue of bias I would say we have a standoff reflecting the theological range of the committee.

In so great an undertaking as this there are bound to be a few weak spots. But they are very few indeed. Some are important; the majority amount to fine tuning.

A key and controversial text is I Corinthians 6:9, which NRSV translates as "male prostitutes and sodomites" (RSV second edition: "sexual perverts") Given the present state of our knowledge, I wish the translators had let the RSV stand. "Male prostitutes" is probably correct, but "sodomites"? What precisely does the word mean? In the story of Sodom in Genesis, sodomites are heterosexual men who want to humiliate other ostensibly heterosexual alien males by gang-raping them. Is that what the translators have in mind? Or do they mean everyone, hetero- and homosexual, who engages in anal intercourse? Or are they referring to what many take sodomy to mean: intercourse with animals? Some have argued that the two Greek terms here refer to active and passive male prostitutes. The issue is charged with significance, for Paul categorically states that none of these people (whichever they are) will inherit the kingdom of God. Do the translators mean all homosexuals?

I thought it was common knowledge that "feet" in Exodus 4:25 is a circumlocution for the genitals (as in the REB) , and that "Abba" means "Daddy" rather than "Father" (as the note- in Romans 8:15 says) Do the translators really wish to remove the question mark in John 7:28? Doing so makes this verse a direct contradiction of 8:14, and overlooks Johnís characteristic irony.

Irony was also missed in the phrasing of Mark 10:30: all the wonderful things the disciple who leaves all will receive -- houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields -- will be tempered "with persecutions." And why follow the reading of a tiny minority of manuscripts in II Corinthians 5:3 against the powerful witness of the vast majority, when the latter reading (and RSV) makes better sense?

Why keep "virginsí in I Corinthians 7:25 and 34, where the RSVís "unmarried" and "girl" were better? We just donít use virgins this way in modern English. Why, when the translators render "flesh" so adroitly over and over, do they leave it in I Corinthians 5:5, where "the destruction of the flesh" looks like, and has been taken by commentators to mean, ritual execution? Their own translation of sarx in Galatians 5:13 would have served: in "the destruction of his self-indulgence."

The translators do a wonderful job of putting passages in poetic form. Why then did they leave the hymn of the Cosmic Christ in prose in Colossians 1:15-20? And perhaps a footnote was in order at Mark 10:51 to indicate that Bartimaeusís request, "Let me see again" (implying that he had once been sighted) , is only a conjecture, since the same word (anablepo) is used of the man born blind in John 9:11.

Many people have favorite hobby horses they like to ride that may have no urgent appeal to others. So it may just be a personal peccadillo that I find "patient endurance" in Revelation 1:9 unendurably bland, preferring something guttier, like "iron intransigence" or "resolute resistance," or "firmeza permanente," as the Brazilians like to put it. "Do not resist an evildoer" in Matthew 5:39 could have been tightened up to reflect the use of antistenai as a military term, indicating violent resistance.

My favorite hobby horse, however, is the principalities and powers, having written almost five books on the subject. Here the NRSV gets a mixed review. Its rendering of "principalities and power" by "rulers and authorities" is a welcome change, making far clearer that not just spiritual powers but earthly institutions are implied. This means, however, that the phrase "principalities and powers" must now recede from usage. Perhaps the Powers That Be will become the collective designation.

But the NRSV should have abandoned the RSVís statement that God "disarmed" these powers in Colossians 2:15; they are far from disarmed! But they have been exposed and unmasked, which is what the Greek term really means (to "strip off") And I am disappointed that the phrase stoicheia tou kosmou is still being translated "elemental spirits," when the word "spirit" isnít there. The NRSV footnote is correct -- "rudiments," though who knows what they are. The translation in Hebrews 5:12 would have served for all appearances of the phrase: "basic elements." And Daniel 10:13 should have been translated as "the guardian angel of Persia" or similarly, to indicate that it is an angelic being, as the reference to the archangel Michael makes clear.

But most of this amounts to fine print. What will create a storm of complaints is the decision by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ. USA, to eliminate masculine language in reference to people but not to God. Surely we must be aware by now that God is not really a man. The language of males, applied to God, is merely a metaphor. But it also reflects the patriarchal power structure of those who use that metaphor. It would be extremely difficult to erase all such patriarchal imagery, nor should we want to; much of it is valid. God is like a Ďloving Father.

The Education Division could have done something very simple. It could have asked the translation committee where possible to reduce the unnecessary use of masculine pronouns in reference to God without, violating the meaning of the text. The translation committee has demonstrated how faithfully and with what care it would carry out this directive. At several points it has in fact already made a beginning. For example, in Matthew 10:40 the NRSV substitutes "the one who sent me" for "him who sent me," referring to God (see also Matt. 19:4) How easy it would have been to substitute "God" for "he" or "him" in any number of places without in any way altering the meaning. "Jesus" is freely substituted for "he." The statement in the introduction that the English language is deficient in its lack of a common gender third-person singular pronoun applies as much to pronouns referring to God as those referring to people.

Many who have been deeply wounded by patriarchy will regard this version as a cup not half full but half empty. The very greatness of its achievement will be regarded as aiming too low. Such a judgment would be eminently unfair. The translation committee did what it was commissioned to do with unprecedented skillfulness. We should regard its effort as part of an ongoing process. Let us hope that the sheer success of this version, the first major translation seriously to tackle the issue of sexist language, will encourage the Education Commission to let the translators finish the job.


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