Examining the Bible Versions

New Revised Standard Version (1989)

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, released in 1989, is an update of the Revised Standard Version (RSV). It modernizes and simplifies the language of the RSV, and also revises it in the interest of “gender-inclusiveness.” In general, the translation is less literal than the RSV, but more literal than the New International Version. The revisions made to the RSV include: more accurate translations due to newly found manuscripts, modernizing archaic English (such as “thee” and “thou”), and the use of gender-inclusive language, which has been criticized by some conservative Christians. Gender-inclusive language does represent a change from the traditional translations, however, in many cases, the original language, Koine Greek, is gender ambiguous. For example, adelphoi, can be translated as either “brothers” or “brothers and sisters.” The inclusive language alterations are very thorough, involving thousands of alterations designed to completely erase the Bible’s generic masculine pronouns and other usages offensive to feminists. An attempt has been made to downplay the extent to which this policy was imposed upon the committee by the National Council of Churches (the copyright holder, which in 1980 also commissioned the Inclusive Language Lectionary as another revision of the RSV), but it is evident that it did not arise spontaneously from a consensus of the translators themselves.

SOME STRENGTHS OF THE NRSV

  1. Translation Style. The preface of the NRSV declares that the maxim the translators followed was “As literal as possible, as free as necessary. As a consequence, the NRSV remains essentially a literal translation. Paraphrastic renderings have been adopted only sparingly, and then chiefly to compensate for a deficiency in the English language–the lack of a common gender third person singular pronoun.” Any translation declaring itself as literal grabs my attention and I have extensively used the NRSV as a”test-drive.” For me, I want a version that is literal as possible and only strays from literalness when absolutely necessary.
  2. At Times, Great Translations. There are quite a few places where the NRSV excels in its translation accuracy and readability. One example is 2 Corinthians 4:11-

    NRSV: “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.”
    NASB: “For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”

    I applaud when translations hit a homerun with their word usages. 2 Corinthians 4:11 is such an instance in the NRSV. To say that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh can be confusing to many readers, particular those unfamiliar with the Bible. “Manifested” is not a word we use in the 21st century commonly. However, to say that the life of Christ may be visible in our mortal flesh makes sense to all people without sacrificing accuracy. There are many instances where the NRSV is a superior translation.

SOME WEAKNESSES OF THE NRSV

  1. At Times, Poor Translations. Just as often as the NRSV can have a great translation, it can also have a very confusing and awkward translation, particularly in the Old Testament. Notice Psalm 88:10-

    NRSV: “Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you?”

    What are the “shades?” One can see how someone unfamiliar with the Bible could easily get the wrong idea about what this text is saying. It sounds like window shades rise up to give praise. This is an instance where literalness causes a problem. The NASB is clearer:

    NASB: “Will You perform wonders for the dead? Will the departed spirits rise and praise You?”

  2. Interpretation, At Times. There are a couple instances where interpretation from the translators enters the text rather than remaining literal. 1 Timothy 3:2 is one such instances:

    NRSV: “Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once….”

    “Married only once” is absolutely an interpretation of the literal “one woman man.” The interpretation of the NRSV rules out the other possible ways of understanding the text.

  3. Calvinist Preference. As noted with the NIV, the NRSV also butchers Psalm 51:5. While the Calvinist preference is not extensive like the NIV, one can still find it.

    NRSV: “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”

    Compare this to the literal ESV:

    ESV: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

    The NRSV does not fall into the error of the NIV and does translate the Greek word sarx accurately as “flesh.”

  4. Gender Inclusiveness. The gender inclusiveness is probably more of an annoyance than a critical flaw. I realize that some of the Greek words are gender neutral, but the English does not have gender-neutral pronouns. When gender-neutral words arise, the NRSV consistently uses inclusive language. For example, notice Galatians 3:15-

    NRSV: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sister;”
    NASB: “For you were called to freedom, brethren;”

    Maybe others have trouble with this, but I think most people realize that “brethren” includes both genders. If I were to walk into the room of men and women and say “what are you guys doing,” people would not think I am only talking to the men. The English language uses the masculine for gender-neutral statements and I think we generally understand this truth. While there is nothing wrong with how the NRSV uses gender inclusiveness (as far as I have seen), it makes the text more wordy and clunky.

Conclusion

The NRSV has not gained much acceptance in the religious world. I believe the gender inclusiveness has been one reason for its lack of acceptance. Not many Christian bookstores carry the NRSV and those that do usually only have a couple editions. One must be carefully about the edition purchased because there are Catholic editions of the NRSV which include the Apocrypha in the Bible. Be sure the NRSV you look at does not say “Catholic edition.” The NRSV is a version I have read and studied from extensively. I think it is a version worth having in your library for your studies.

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