Tag Archives: NRSV

Which translation of the Bible do you use?

Which translation of the Bible do you use? (AKA, my defense of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible)

I grew up with the New International Version (NIV)—standard text, I think, for my generation of evangelicals—and I still use it: I use an NIV Thompson Chain Reference Bible and have an exhaustive concordance based on the NIV text, and most of the scripture I remember is from the NIV.

In the last couple of years I’ve been checking out other translations.  Initially it was about finding the best translation, but I no longer believe there is an overall “best” translation or that such a thing is even possible.  Of course, each translator or translation committtee claims that their version is the most accurate or the most faithful rendering of the original languages of the Bible, and each of us poor, non-original-language-reading saps must decide which committee’s or scholar’s word to go by.

Now, from what I can tell (as a layperson) the difference between the translations is for the most part superficial: placement of punctuation (which does not exist in the original text), word choice (between similar English words), word order and whatnot.  Two people using two different translations are not likely to come away from the same texts with a different interpretation or understanding—if they do, it’s because of what the interpreters bring to the text, rather than what the translation gives the interpreter.  But with the proliferation of translations these days, we do, at some point,  have to make a choice.  (Is it me, or is it evangelical Protestant groups that are releasing all these new versions these days?  What does that say about us?)

In the last couple of years I’ve been drifting more towards the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).  Growing up, I was told that this was a “liberal” translation, though the reason for this was never made clear to me.  As far as I can tell, the NRSV is considered “liberal” because of two things: the use of gender inclusive language and the translation of Isaiah 7:14 (is it “virgin” or “young woman“?).  I’m assuming gender inclusive language is no longer much of an issue, as both the New Living Translation (NLT) and Today’s New International Version (TNIV), both generally accepted in conservative circles, use inclusive language.

As for the translation of Isaiah 7:14: first and foremost, it seems to me to be a moot point, given that in the NRSV both Matthew 1:23 and Luke 1:26-34 use the term “virgin” in reference to Mary.  So the doctrine of the virgin birth is not at issue between translations.  Second, I don’t want my choice of translation to be based on an ideological or doctrinal slant.  In fact, I don’t want the process of translation itself to be based on that (which again makes me wonder about the myriad new translations appearing from evangelical publishers). The goal of any translation should be to provide an accurate, faithful rendering of the original text (within the limits of the translation process), even if that means that the most faithful, accurate and, dare I say, honest translation of that Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14 (for example) is “young woman” rather than “virgin” (I’m not a scholar, so I’m not saying it is).  This is not at all an unreasonable expectation, particularly from an evangelical viewpoint which believes that it should be scriptures shaping our theology rather than our theology shaping scripture (or translation).

I’m sure the issue is more complicated than I’ve described here and I don’t have the answers in the translation debate.  I simply have to take someone’s word for it, and before I can do that, I have to decide whose word is most trustworthy.  And so on and so forth.

Which is precisely why I am increasingly leaning towards the NRSV.  The NRSV is the only translation, as far as I’m aware, which in general knows no denominational boundaries.  The NIV, TNIV, NLT (New Living Translation), ESV (English Standard Version), and others tend to be accepted and used specifically by evangelical or conservative denominations.  This doesn’t make them poor or inferior translations, but I do find it curious that the majority of those using these translations belolong to a relatively small section of the Christian spectrum (I admit this is conjecture, rather than fact).  The NRSV, on the other hand, is widely accepted among evangelical Protestant churches and mainline Protestant churches, as well as the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church (there may be exceptions of course, such as the King James Only-ers), and academics and scholars respect the translation as well. So I lean towards the NRSV because it’s ecumenical—it’s not the translation of one view of the Bible.  The NRSV is not a conservative Bible or a Reformed Bible or a Catholic Bible or what have you—it can be any one of those, but it need not be any.

I’m not saying the NRSV is perfect.  I’m not saying the other translations are bad (I can be kind of neurotic about having one of everything, so I own several translations).  I’m not saying the NRSV the most readable. I’m just saying I appreciate the fact that it’s ecumenical.  It is meaningful for me that, in a world of increasing division between liberal and conservative, this ideology and that ideology, this theology and that theology, the NRSV is a translation of the Bible that seems to transcend those boundaries.