Another English translation of the Bible recently appeared: the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition (NRSVue). While presented as an “updated edition” rather than a new translation, NRSVue incorporates 20,000 changes—12,000 of which the editors deem “significant changes.” I have long appreciated the NRSV for its dignified, simple, transparent, smooth-flowing prose, which creates an immersive reading experience both in private study and public worship. Compared to the English Standard Version—which is the version used by my denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod—the NRSV seems less clunky, less concerned with sounding “dignified” or “stylish.” The NRSVue improves upon the excellence of the NRSV in several subtle ways. Every serious Bible reader should check it out.
In the NRSV, Romans 7:18 is translated as, “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” Here is the same verse in the NRSVue: “For I know the good does not dwell within me. For the desire to do the good lies close at hand, but not the ability.” Smoother, right? NRSVue is more literal in this passage by including the definite article before “good.” This choice also brings in a Neoplatonic element, which is always lurking in the intellectual background of the apostles and early Church Fathers.
Compared to Robert Alter’s magisterial translation of the Old Testament, the NRSVue isn’t intentionally archaic or cute. There are “boys” running around— not “lads.” The word order is less anachronistic, more standard contemporary English. While Alter talks a good game about being very literal, he doesn’t always deliver.
Another of the major changes from previous translations is that the NRSVue doesn’t identify people by their maladies: not “leper,” but “one with a skin disease”; not “slave-girl,” but “enslaved woman.” Since the exact nature of ancient leprosy, as well as the circumstances of slavery, are not always well known, this seems like a better approach.
Of course, the NRSV’s commitment to inclusive language has not changed. For inflected languages like Hebrew and Greek, the gender of a pronoun does not correspond to male-female gender, as it does in English. Therefore, it is reasonable for translators to consider using gender-neutral language rather than exclusively male pronouns. However, the NRSVue may take this reasonable workaround a bit far. For instance, the NRSVue renders 1 Corinthians 1:10 as “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,” to convey that Paul is addressing the entire congregation. But many scholars hold that Paul’s epistles are written to the all-male clergy. In these instances, modern ideology may have compromised historical accuracy.
Not all the changes in the NRSVue are salutary. Speaking of ideology: In 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, arsenokoitai—previously translated in the NRSV and in many other English translations as “sodomites”—has become “men who engage in illicit sex.” Lexically, it has been uncontroversial for centuries that arsenokoitai indicates sodomy, so it would appear that something other than philology is governing this change.
I wonder, though, if it’s political correctness that dictates such changes—it might simply be prudishness. The socially and theologically conservative ESV uses “men who practice homosexuality” instead of “sodomites.” Is “sodomy” too on the nose for modern sensibilities? In 1 Samuel 25:22, the NRSVue still has “males” instead of the literal “one who pisses against the wall.” In a similar vein, the NRSVue refuses to translate the Hebrew zara and Greek sperma literally as “seed” (as the King James and Alter translations do). Is “seed” too biologically specific, too indelicate?
Like the NRSV, the NRSVue switches between “descendants” and “offspring” for zara and sperma without any apparent rationale. The NRSVue, like the New King James Version (NKJV), also translates the great Christological “seed” passages—Genesis 15, 17, 22, and 26, Romans 4 and 9, and Galatians 3—as plural (“descendants”), even though the original language is always singular (“descendant”). If they would only keep it singular, we’d see the typological Christology of the original texts shine.
The NRSVue is also surprisingly more evangelical than the “conservative evangelical” ESV and NKJV. Instead of rendering mishpat as “rules,” as the ESV does, NRSVue uses the term “ordinances”—which has a nice liturgical and evangelical ring. Another felicitous translation choice in this vein is Galatians 3:5. Instead of wondering if the Spirit comes “by works of the law or by hearing with faith” (ESV), the NRSVue asks: “Does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?” Emphasizing pistis (usually translated as “faith”) as a concrete act—receiving God’s free gifts, rather than having the right intellectual concepts in our heads—seems far more genuinely evangelical. I have little doubt Luther himself would appreciate small nuances such as these.
Some “conservative” translations tend to impose a predetermined theology on the text, instead of simply rendering the Hebrew and Greek in the most equivalent modern English and letting the theology fall where it may. Paradoxically, it’s the translation that is most free of predetermined doctrine or stylistic concerns that communicates the Word of God most engagingly and winsomely to my ear. Because of this, the NRSVue is now at the top of my translation ranking.
Rev. Kevin W. Martin is a pastor at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.
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