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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

RSV: acceptable to all?

Suzanne's 21st May posting Together on the gospel was a call for
at least one Bible translation that all are comfortable using for scholarly work and for the purposes of dialogue.
In a comment on this I wrote:

The ESV translators have disqualified their translation in the eyes of anyone who is not a fully committed evangelical by their theologically motivated changes e.g. to Isaiah 7:14, going back to "virgin" instead of "young woman". For similar reasons NIV is unacceptable to these people; TNIV is somewhat less of a problem to these people, as for example it has drawn back from capitalising "son" in Psalm 2, but it retains "virgin". The objection is to reading New Testament interpretations back into the Old Testament. Thus ESV, NIV and TNIV will never be acceptable to any more than one wing of the church.

The more liberal wing of the church might claim that NRSV fits the bill, but unfortunately this is not acceptable to evangelicals, because of the liberty it takes on some textual matters, and to some because of its approach to gender issues.

I would suggest that RSV is still the nearest we have to a generally acceptable translation. Evangelicals have mostly forgotten their old objections to "young woman" and "expiation". Even if some of us don't like RSV's approach to gender issues, we can at least take it as a product of its time - whereas an almost unbridgeable gap seems to have opened up on this, implying that no more recent translation will be acceptable to all.

Unfortunately I am now thinking I must revise this positive opinion of RSV. I have been using this version as a basis while checking a draft translation of the gospel of Luke. And I am afraid that I have been shocked by the approach to textual matters in this book - although several other books I have checked have not been so bad. The basic problem is that time after time RSV follows Codex D, the 5th century Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis. This manuscript presents a highly variant Greek text (the "Western text") for which there is usually no support from any other Greek witness, although sometimes from Old Latin versions.

In just one chapter, Luke 24, RSV follows Codex D against all other Greek manuscripts in the following places:

v.3 omits "of the Lord Jesus"
v.6 omits "He is not here, but has risen"
v.12 omits the whole verse
v.36 omits "and said to them, 'Peace to you!'"
v.40 omits the whole verse
v.51 omits "and was carried up into heaven" (one other Greek MS agrees with D here)
v.52 omits "worshipped him, and"

All of these readings are rejected by the UBS Greek New Testament with a B rating, which "indicates that the text is almost certain". Admittedly RSV footnotes all of these. I note that all of these points except the first NRSV follows the UBS Greek rather than RSV, with the RSV reading footnoted - not surprising because of the leading role of Bruce Metzger in preparing both of these texts.

Oddly enough, in v.32 RSV does not omit "within us" although this is omitted by Codex D and two other important MSS.

In the light of this, I have to revise my assessment of RSV and suggest that like NRSV it is "not acceptable to evangelicals, because of the liberty it takes on some textual matters". My criticisms of the NRSV on textual matters relate largely to the Old Testament, whereas my criticisms of RSV relate to the New Testament.


At Wed May 31, 11:44:00 AM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

I think for a brief while, the NRSV fit the bill as a Bible for use in scholarly work by everyone. I even saw a number of evangelical scholars using it quite often in their works in the early to mid-nineties. However, use of the NRSV seems to have dramatically dropped off by just about everyone as evidenced by the lack of editions available. At one time Thomas Nelson, Holman, Tyndale and a host of others published the NRSV. My hardback reference copy of the Life Application Study Bible is in the NRSV, but it's no longer published.

Sadly, the Bible wars are upon us, and lines are being drawn. I think I'll opt not to take sides :-)

Another trend I've noticed, especially in Bible commentaries is the move to scholars producing their own translations. Although most of the time, this results in a fairly literal translation. Maybe this is being done because of the very lack of consensus for a scholarly translation that you describe.

Personally, I don't want to use the RSV because of the archaic language.

At Wed May 31, 12:38:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

After researching and writing an 147 page essay on textual matters such as this, I have to revise my opinion of the RSV and NRSV New Testaments as well. A shame. There really doesn't seem to be a concensus on Bibles, and r.Mansfield was correct, lines are being drawn on the field.

I have spent years of my life doing the "Bible translations" research, I have to admit, that my theological and doctrinal studies (not to mention just plain ol' application to my life) have suffered during this time period. My brain is so tired...

At Wed May 31, 12:51:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...


I'm impressed with the work you have done here and the discoveries you have made. I have personal preferences for an English Bible translation but am not sure it is necessary or desirable to have an English "textus receptus" for scholars to agree on. If they are scholars let them simply refer to the original language.

Perhaps what is more crucial is for someone to know what translations they shouldn't use if they hope to get a fair hearing by a spectrum of scholars.

Alas, we are really akin to the scribes and teachers of the Law in many ways.

At Wed May 31, 02:30:00 PM, Blogger Gary said...

Peter, I'm not a translator, but I am fascinated by it.

My understanding of the debate around the "young maiden/virgin" in Isaiah is that the word is technically "young maiden", but that it was understood in that time that the young maiden was a virgin. We today don't include this in our understanding of what a young maiden is, so in my mind, at least, it would be better to use the word "virgin" simply for a clearer understanding of the meaning of the word.

Besides, what's the big deal if a young woman gets pregnant? Where's the "sign" in that? Now if a virgin becomes pregnant, that would be a big deal!

Keep up the good work, guys! I love this blog!


At Wed May 31, 03:02:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm glad I haven't turned people off with this. This is not special research, only what I am coming across in my work checking the textual basis and footnotes of a draft translation.

Just to let you know that RSV is not alone in having such issues. In Luke 18:11 TEV/GNT goes for "stood apart by himself and prayed" rather than "stood up and prayed to himself" on the basis of the same Codex D and no other Greek manuscripts. In John 1:34 TNIV goes for "God's Chosen One" rather than "the Son of God" on the basis of just one Greek manuscript, the original and rather wayward hand of Sinaiticus, and a doubtful reading of another. In both cases footnotes refer to "manuscripts" in the plural supporting the alternative; it seems to me barely honest to write that when the chosen text is supported only by a singular manuscript. But neither TEV/GNT nor TNIV seems to do such things systematically.

At Thu Jun 01, 04:19:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Anonymous, I also like the NRSV in many ways, for those occasions when a rather literal translation is required. But you have asked a difficult question about its text in the OT which I can answer easily only by giving examples. And 1 Samuel is the best place to look for such examples.

No less than 22 times in the first 2 chapters of 1 Samuel (and that is only counting the times it is admitted in a footnote - which is not done by policy when the change is only to the Masoretic vowels) NRSV has abandoned the Masoretic Hebrew text for a reading from LXX, Syriac or a Qumran manuscript, or for a conjectural emendation. I don't claim that none of these emendations are justified. But the policy in NRSV is that "Departures from the consonantal text of the best manuscripts have been made only where it seems clear that errors in copying had been made before the text was standardised". I accept that there have been some errors in copying of the Hebrew text of 1 Samuel, but this many? The NRSV editors seem to have decided that the Hebrew text of 1 Samuel is totally unreliable and must be abandoned whenever any other version differs from it. But they have apparently forgotten that the LXX and other ancient versions also have complex textual histories and cannot be relied on.

At the end of 1 Samuel 10 NRSV has inserted a long passage, describing the cruelty of Nahash the Ammonite, which has no textual basis in either the Masoretic Hebrew or the LXX, and which is not even mentioned in the footnotes of the standard scholarly editions of these texts (BHS and Rahlfs LXX). The only textual basis for this passage is a single manuscript from Qumran, plus Josephus seems to know a similar story. The conclusion which is obvious to scholars other than the NRSV team is that this passage is late gloss added in to explain further 11:2, and to change Nahash's formulaic threat into a real cruel practice in order to heighten the evil of the Ammonites. Must we really accept the evidence of one manuscript from a sectarian source against the agreement of all Jewish and Christian manuscript and scholarly tradition?

At Thu Jun 01, 07:08:00 PM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

A couple of points:

I found the post very interesting. I have never been able to figure out the RSV policy on establishing a New Testament base text for its translation committee. Obviously, a collaboration posed obstacles to uniformity, but an agreement to note all departures from some commonly-used critical edition would have been good, and mentioning it would have been nice, too. (Richmond Lattimore, who had only himself to answer to, of course, did exactly that. You may not agree with how he translated Westcott and Hort's editon, but at least that was what he said he was translating.)

Gary, Isaiah's announcement is a response to Ahaz's pointed refusal to ask for a miraculous "sign," and he substitutes for one the prediction/revelation that "the young woman" (perhaps someone known to the court, perhaps truly anonymous) has conceived, or will conceive, and that certain events will transpire while the infant yet to be born is still a child. Christianity treats this as containing a much more important message for those in Ahaz's far future. But inserting that meaning into the translation as the primary one seems to many to make understanding the text itself much more difficult.

The most natural Hebrew meaning is in line with a lot of Isaianic passages about children and their names, as well as fitting Ahaz's "I don't want no miracles to show ME what to do!" attitude.

NRSV's "Samuel" actually followed the New American Bible by inserting the Dead Sea Scroll passage (the "Nahash pericope") in a puzzling episode, forming a new bridge betwen chapters 10 and 11. I also think it belongs in a footnote, not the main text; but new evidence on an old problem is always exciting. Emanuel Tov, in "Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible," is cautiously favorable about its likely authenticity, and suggests reasons for its early loss in the main lines of transmission.

Indeed, the text of Samuel is notoriously difficult; the Hebrew very obviously has some missing words and phrases at some points, and is elliptical (although not necessarily defective) at many others. There are missing elements in the LXX, too, although at other points; except that there the problem extends to missing sentences and paragraphs.

Automatically filling up the gaps in the former from the latter compounds the problem, but some sort of judicious repair work seems required on both. And one has to beware of substituting Hellenistic narrative standards for ancient Israellite ones.

For example, the shorter LXX version of the Goliath story reads much more easily, and some think it must be the original. But the easy assumption that material in the passage not in the LXX was a late addition to the Hebrew text leaves open the question of why such a bold editor didn't fix some other problems at the same time as he was making the insertions!

At Thu Jun 01, 09:15:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

In particular, unless I am forgetting one, I believe that since the NRSV and REB all the major translations have been associated with a particular group (e.g. Evangelicals, Catholics, Jews) or sometimes even a single institution (e.g. the NET Bible and the Dallas Theological Seminary.)

I think you're right. I suspect that there will never again be any standard English Bible. The ESV team has been hoping (and promoting) that the ESV would become one, including the "Standard" in its name. But there's too much history (and even ideology) behind it to get interconfessional acceptance toward some standard status.

I think that the NRSV is probably closest to a standard Bible inter-confessionally among Bible scholars. But conservative preachers and media personalities will never put their imprimatur on the NRSV. I find it so ironic that the ESV which is produced by such a conservative group is such a mild stylistic revision of the RSV which was condemned so soundly by conservatives when it was published. Of course, the ESV team revised what they viewed as the theological flaws in the RSV.

Then we get different appetites for Bible versions these days. Enough Bible users have gotten a taste of more idiomatic English in Bibles so that many prefer to use an idiomatic Bible, at least for personal spiritual guidance and devotional reading. That desire is in tension with the desire of many (sometimes the same people) to get as close to the forms of the original as possible for historical, cultural, literary, and other reasons.

At Fri Jun 02, 03:48:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

While in general I have problems with ESV, I have to commend it for restoring the passages which RSV omitted from Luke 24. NRSV did the same except in verse 3. NRSV (which is generous with footnotes) footnoted the RSV alternatives, but ESV didn't bother. I decided on the same policy for the translation I am working on, after realising that I couldn't use the regular "some manuscripts" formula for readings supported by literally only one Greek manuscript.

ESV is also much better than NRSV in 1 Samuel 1. It departs from the Hebrew in only two places (nine in NRSV), both footnoted, one where the Hebrew is not understood and the other where LXX and Syriac agree against Hebrew. That seems much more reasonable to me.

Thus my problems with ESV are not textual, but translational and theological.

At Fri Jun 02, 04:37:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Ian mentioned Lattimore's translation of the Westcott and Hort text. I was interested to come across information at Michael Marlowe's site that as long ago as 1745 Codex D (Codex Bezae) was translated into English by William Whiston, the translator of Josephus who was also infamous as pioneer of geology and for being expelled from Cambridge University as an Arian.

At Fri Jun 02, 09:21:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


Thanks for recognizing these positive points about how the ESV handles textual matters. I have had a few other people point this out to me.

I picked up Lattimore's translation in the library last week, but did not have time to give it more than a glance.

At Sun Dec 09, 01:58:00 PM, Blogger Steven said...

Years ago when I was attending a secular university I had a noted secular Greek scholar and translator. He warned everybody that the RSV was probably the single worst translation that he had ever come across.

He called the RSV Really Substandard Version and we spent about three weeks just going over the multitude of problems with it. His case was pretty rock solid and built solely upon textual complaints. The man was actually agnostic and his politics were very liberal so I do not think he had any covert reason other than textual criticism for his viewpoints.


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