Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Farewell to Thee’s and He’s: On Why the NRSV is popular with both Evangelicals and Liberals

I was in an English university college and attached theological college (of an Evangelical foundation) during the weekend of September 17-19 and the only version of the Bible easily available in chapel and common room was the New Revised Standard Version from the 1990s. Had I also visited a Liberal college, I think I would have found the same. Further, I was sat in the chancel at the local, magnificent Cathedral for five services and the NRSV was read there as well, except at the Holy Communion when The Book of Common Prayer (1662) was used.

It seems that the NRSV has won the hearts and allegiance of both Evangelicals and Liberals in both the United Kingdom and the United States of America. WHY? It is the most favoured version used in the major old-line/main-line denominations of the U.S.A. and the State Churches of Great Britain. WHY?

I think that the answer can be put into four parts:

First of all, the NRSV came along as the successor to the RSV (still in print) and the publicity for it which was intense benefited from its relation to this very successful version from the 1950s. In short, marketing and relation to a previous version!

Secondly, the NRSV, unlike the NEB, REB, NAB & NJB, preserved some of the literary qualities of the English literary tradition of Bible translation that flows from the KJV through the ASV & the RSV. Further, it continued to follow the tradition of essentially literal translation for much of the texts. In contrast, the NEB & the REB relied more on the theory of dynamic equivalency. The result of this conserving is that the NRSV sounds better in formal services than do the other recent versions.

Thirdly, the NSRV went all the way with the eradication of the historic second person singular in the English language – thou, thee, thine, thy, thyself – and replaced by “you, yours.” Since the late 1960s a growing number of both Evangelicals and Liberals have been of the opinion that in order to be relevant and credible the churches must free their language of worship, apologetics and mission of archaic forms, especially “thou/thee” with the special verb endings.

Fourthly, the NRSV went most of the way with the eradication of what is usually called sexism. It used a variety of devices to hide and conceal the supposed androcentric nature of the biblical texts. Both Liberals and Evangelicals are wholly committed to the advancement of women to full equality in terms of positions of leadership in the churches and so the removal of what seems obvious sexism from the English version of the Bible used is for them a necessity. (To be accompanied by the removal of sexism from hymnody and liturgy and sermons.)

Therefore, while Evangelicals and Liberals may disagree on what is salvation and whether homosexual unions are blessed of God they agree that for their different agendas they both need a modern version of the Bible that allows them to be relevant and credible in modern western Society. The NRSV fits the bill nicely, while for Roman Catholic Liberals the NAB or the NJB seem to suffice.


When an ancient text contains a clear distinction between the second person singular and second person plural, as do Hebrew & Greek, not to convey this in a translation into English causes a serious loss of meaning.

When there is a very long tradition in English usage, going back to the middle ages and strongly confirmed at the Protestant Reformation, of addressing God as “Thou/Thee” not to continue to maintain this in translation (as did the RSV) is a serious loss to the continuity of English devotion as a living tradition. “Thou/Thee” not only preserves the Unity of God but also makes clear that the Holy One admits sinners by grace into friendship with him as his adopted children.

When the ancient texts of the Scriptures contain a doctrine of divine order which places men and women in a specific relation, deliberately to remove this relation is to remove a basic doctrine from the Bible and hide it from the modern reader.

This is what we read in the Preface to the NRSV:

During the almost half a century since the publication of the RSV, many in the
churches have become sensitive to the danger of linguistic sexism arising from
the inherent bias of the English language towards the masculine gender, a bias
that in the case of the Bible has often restricted or obscured the meaning of
the original text. The mandates from the Division specified that, in references
to men and women, masculine-oriented language should be eliminated as far as
this can be done without altering passages that reflect the historical situation
of ancient patriarchal culture. As can be appreciated, more than once the
Committee found that the several mandates stood in tension and even in conflict.
The various concerns had to be balanced case by case in order to provide a
faithful and acceptable rendering without using contrived English.

Only those who read the original, can use an interlinear Bible, or are willing to carefully compare the old RSV (or some other linguistically conservative version such as the KJV, the RV or the ASV) with the NRSV will notice the varied, clever, and subtle ways offending words, such as he, his, him, man, men, and brethren, are excised from the text. However, when referring to God, Christ, or male historical characters, the masculine pronouns are normally retained.
Here are five ways in which divine relations are removed or disordered.
1. Pluralization
A common NRSV device to do away with man and he is pluralization:
Blessed is the man... but his delight (RSV)
Happy are those... their delight (NRSV)
Examples of this technique are found everywhere.
2. Additions to the Text
The addition of "and women" to 2 Pet 1:21 suggests that some Bible books were written by women. Perhaps they were?
The word "brethren" (KJV) or "brothers" is the NT's most common word for Christians. Adelphos, the Greek word for brother, comes from the alpha copulative (a-) and an old word for womb.
1 Thessalonians and 1 John use brethren frequently. Generally, the NRSV will put "brothers and sisters" in the text with a footnote "reading Gk brothers(s).” No one disputes that the term brethren includes both sexes and all ages, but whether it is valid to add to the text words that are not there is at best questionable.
3. Subtraction from the Text
In I Thess 5:27 the NRSV reads: "I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them." In contrast the RSV reads "I adjure you by the Lord that this letter be read to all the brethren."
Note that Romans 2:1 deletes "O man" entirely.
It is one thing to change an ambiguous pronoun "he" to Jesus where it's not clear who is meant. It is yet another to change a clear noun brethren to a vague pronoun them.
See also Romans 2:1 where “O man” is deleted.
Further, what about a bias toward the feminine in that the NRSV at Matt 24:40 deletes "men" in "Then two will be in the field"; and yet" women" is added (validly? for the Greek form is feminine) in v 41: "Two women will be grinding meal"?
4. Paraphrase
For example, Abraham is no longer a "father" in Rom 4:11, but an ancestor.
"Married only once" (1 Tim 3:2) for the literal "the husband of one wife," if taken out of context, might allow for women bishops.
The Son of God became a human being as male man. This is obscured by the NRSV:
There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim 2:5 RSV).
There is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human (1 Tim 2:5 NRSV).
5. Incorrect or Very Loose Translation
In I Thess 4:10 adelphoi is rendered, "But we urge you beloved..." and 5:4, "But you, beloved" instead of "brethren" (RSV). While brotherhood implies affection, “beloved” is hardly appropriate as a translation.
Other less than accurate renderings of brothers include "students" (Matt 23:8), "members of my family" (Matt 26:40), "community" (John 21:23), "friends" (Rom 7:4), "believer(s)" (1 Cor 6:5, 7), "everyone" (1 Cor 10:13), and "comrades" (Rev 12:10).
The NRSV ought only to be used by those who use it alongside a version which seeks to preserve the literal sense of the original languages, the KJV, the RV, the ASB, the RSV and perhaps the NKJV & ESV.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon M.A., D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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