The NRSV vs the ESV

Laurence M. Vance, Ph.D. Vance Publications

The Revised Standard Version (RSV) was perhaps the most controversial version of the Bible ever translated. Its publication (the New Testament in 1946; the Old Testament in 1952) brought forth a multitude of books and pamphlets against it that attracted the attention of both the secular and religious press. Copies of the RSV were even burned.

The RSV relegated Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11 to footnotes, attacked the deity of Christ by changing the punctuation of Romans 9:5, dropped the word begotten from John 3:16, replaced the word propitiation throughout the New Testament, and, in what became the most controversial passage of all, changed the word virgin to "young woman" in Isaiah 7:14. This is all in addition to the scores of omitted phrases and verses in the New Testament because of the corrupt Greek text that the RSV was translated from.

The RSV claimed to be an authorized revision of the 1901 American Standard Version (ASV). Many conservative evangelicals, however, disagreed, and controversy over the RSV led to the translating of two other well-known versions. The New American Standard Bible (NASB), first appearing as just the Gospel of John in 1960, followed by the New Testament in 1963 and the Old Testament in 1971, also claimed to be an authorized revision of the ASV, hence its name. The translators of the other version took a different approach. Because the designation New American Standard was not needed, since this was an entirely new version and not a revision, the name chosen was the New International Version (NIV). It was released as a New Testament in 1973 and a complete Bible in 1978.

Soon after its publication, and repeated on other occasions, the RSV text was changed in many places. When the complete Bible was published in 1952, it incorporated about eighty changes in its New Testament text. So, in a sense, the 1952 edition was the first New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). In 1962, the whole of the RSV was slightly revised, but again, the designation NRSV was not used. In 1971, the official second edition of the RSV New Testament appeared, but it was still not termed the NRSV. It was not until 1990 that a Bible with the name NRSV was published.

The NRSV is the official revision of the RSV. In 1974, the National Council of Churches, which held the copyright on the RSV, authorized another revision of the RSV. The head of the Standard Bible Committee, the ecumenical committee formed in 1929 that was responsible for the text of the ASV and its revisions, was (since 1977) Bruce Metzger of Princeton—also one of the editors of the Nestle-Aland Greek text. The composition of this committee during the time that work on the NRSV was done included liberal Protestants, Roman Catholics, a Greek Orthodox, and several women. Like its predecessor, the NRSV also had a Jew on its translation committee.

According to Metzger, there were four major types of changes to be made to the text of the RSV: the elimination of archaisms, changes in paragraph structure and punctuation, attaining greater accuracy, clarity, and euphony, and the elimination of masculine-oriented language.

Regarding archaisms, the NRSV attempted to finish what was started in the RSV. It completely eliminates the archaic second person plural personal pronouns (thee, thou, thy, thine) that the RSV retained only in reference to God. But the translators of the NRSV were very inconsistent, for not only does the NRSV retain many of the supposedly archaic words found in the Authorized Version (AV)—words like eventide, flagon, gird, haunt, milch, suppliants, and villainy—it often replaces a simple word or phrase in the AV with a more difficult word: the word knop is changed to "calyx" (Exo. 25:25), the word wanderers is changed to "decanters" (Jer. 48:12), and the word nations is changed to "goiim" (Jos. 12:23).

Regarding punctuation, there is one notable change for the better. In the notorious passage in the RSV that attacked the deity of Christ (Rom. 9:5), the original period was changed to a comma. The original RSV reading, however, is retained in a footnote.

Regarding greater accuracy, clarity, and euphony, the NRSV falls short. Instead of the wise men coming to worship Christ, they come "to pay him homage" (Mat. 2:2) Yet, the word worship is retained when Satan tells Jesus to "fall down and worship me" (Mat. 2:9). Even though cetology is the branch of zoology dealing with whales, the Greek word ketos, from which we get "cetology," is translated "sea monster" in the Lord’s account of Jonah (Mat. 12:40). The NRSV fails to correct the RSV’s "grow up to salvation" (1 Pet. 2:2). Instead, it merely changes it to: "grow into salvation." It is debatable if the introduction of the word "intercourse" (Num. 5:13, 20; Jud. 19:22; Hos. 3:3; Rom. 1:26, 27) contributes to euphony.

The main change found in the NRSV, and that which has been the most controversial, is its elimination of masculine-oriented language. The NRSV was the first major "inclusive-language" translation.

The preface to the NRSV laments 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."

There are a number of ways in which the NRSV "desexed" the Bible. The chief technique was to use the plural instead of the singular, but other conventions included using generic terms, using indefinite pronouns, altering third person constructions to first or second person, and replacing active verbs with passive ones.

So instead of God creating man, he creates "humankind" (Gen. 5:1). Carried to its logical consistency, this gives us: "For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human" (1 Tim. 2:5). In an effort to get rid of the word brethren, the NRSV many times adds the phrase "and sisters" without any support from the Greek text it professes to follow (e.g., Rom. 12:1; 1 Cor. 4:6; Gal. 5:13; 1 Thes. 2:1; 1 Tim. 4:6; Heb. 2:11). But getting rid of the word brethren also introduced a strange irony. The RSV was criticized as Communist Bible because it was produced by the National Council of Churches. Yet, it was not until the publication of the NRSV that the word "comrades" was introduced (Rev. 12:10, 19:10, 22:9)—a word with definite communistic overtones.

Because of the controversy surrounding the use of gender-inclusive language in Bible translations, another revision of the RSV was published in 2001—one that would correct its inaccuracies, update some of its archaic language, and make it more literal. There was a problem, however, since the designation NRSV was already taken, another name had to be chosen. The name decided on was The English Standard Version (ESV). So now we have in the marketplace two rival revisions of the RSV—the NRSV and the ESV—both claiming to be legitimate successors.

The ESV has its roots in the discussions that took place back in 1997 at the Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado regarding the controversy over the proposed inclusive-language revisions to the NIV. An agreement was reached in 1998 with the National Council of Churches to use the text of the RSV as the basis for a new translation.

The preface to the ESV claims that "each word and phrase in the ESV has been carefully weighed against the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, to ensure the fullest accuracy and clarity and to avoid under-translating or overlooking any nuance of the original text." The ESV seeks to "capture the echoes and overtones of meaning that are so abundantly present in the original texts" and to "carry over every possible nuance of meaning in the original words of Scripture into our own language."

There are three areas addressed in the preface to the ESV that are the direct result of criticisms leveled at many recent modern versions.

First, the ESV claims to be "an ‘essentially literal’ translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer." The preface openly criticizes the "thought-for-thought" instead of "word-for-word" translation philosophy of the NIV and other translations.

Second, the ESV "carries forward classic translation principles in its literary style." This refers to the retaining of theological terminology—words like grace, faith, justification, sanctification, redemption, regeneration, reconciliation, and propitiation. As was pointed out earlier, the RSV had removed words like propitiation from the Bible.

And third, the ESV has as its goal, in regards to gender language, to "render literally what is in the original." This means that although "anyone" might replace "any man" and "people" might replace "men" where there are no words corresponding to "man" and "men" in the original languages, the words man and men are "retained where a male meaning component is part of the original Greek or Hebrew." The use of the generic "he" is usually retained "because this is consistent with similar usage in the original languages."

The publisher, Crossway Books, has assembled an impressive translation team. The advisory council includes well-known personalities like Max Lucado, Paige Patterson, Carl Henry, Timothy George, R. C. Sproul, Joseph Stowell, Joni Eareckson Tada, and John Walvoord (now deceased). The Translation Review Scholars were chosen to review selected books of the Old or New Testament based on their special expertise. This group includes Daniel Block and Thomas Schreiner of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary, Darrell Bock and Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary, Moises Silva of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Daniel Gard of Concordia Theological Seminary, Robert Gordon of Cambridge University, and Scott Hafemann of Wheaton College. The Translation Oversight Committee, which was responsible for the final review and approval of the ESV, includes J. I. Packer (the general editor of the entire project), Robert and William Mounce, Vern Poythress, R. Kent Hughes, Wayne Grudem, and Paul House.

A variety of special features and ancillary materials are already available to complement the ESV. A comprehensive concordance to the ESV, compiled by one of the translators, was published last year. The text of the entire Bible is available for search on the publisher’s website. A CD-ROM with the complete text of the ESV is included with many editions. The ESV is also available for various software applications. An anglicized edition with British spellings for some words is available from HarperCollins UK. Future plans for the ESV include large and giant print editions, a study Bible, and an audio version of the New Testament.

The ESV does correct some of the more egregious errors found in the RSV. "Virgin" is restored to Isaiah 7:14. The deity of Christ is restored in Romans 9:5. "Son" is restored to Psalm 2:12. However, because the ESV follows corrupt Greek texts (the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament, 4th ed. and the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th ed.), it is filled with corrupt readings and omissions of phrases and entire verses.

Some corrupt readings include: Joseph is Christ’s "father" in Luke 2:33, the words of Malachi are ascribed to "Isaiah" in Mark 1:2, Christians will give account at the "judgment seat of God" in Romans 14:10, the day of Christ is changed to the "Day of the Lord" in 2 Thessalonians 2:2, an "eagle" speaks in Revelation 8:13 instead of an angel, God is not manifest in the flesh in 1 Timothy 3:16, just an unnamed "He," those after the church age who "wash their robes" can partake of the tree of life instead of those who "do his commandments" (Rev. 22:14), and in the genealogy of Christ, the kings Asa and Amon are replaced by "Asaph" (Mat. 1:7) and "Amos" (Mat. 1:10).

The ESV completely omits the following verses from the New Testament: Matthew 17:21, 18:11, 23:14; Mark 7:16, 9:44, 9:46, 11:26, 15:28; Luke 17:36, 23:17; John 5:4; Acts 8:37, 15:34, 28:29; Romans 16:24. In no instances, however, are the verses renumbered to account for the missing verses—the number of the omitted verses is simply skipped.

Omissions from verses include: "without a cause" (Mat. 5:22), "and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery" (Mat. 19:9), "and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt" (Mark 9:49), "but by every word of God" (Luke 4:4), "struck him on the face" (Luke 22:64), "even the Son of man which is in heaven" (John 3:13), "going through the midst of them, and so passed by" (John 8:59), "I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem" (Acts 18:21), "who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit" (Rom. 8:1), "Thou shalt not bear false witness" (Rom. 13:9), "for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof" (1 Cor. 10:28), "Lord" (2 Cor. 4:10), "that ye should not obey the truth" (Gal. 3:1), "of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph. 3:14), "through his blood" (Col. 1:14), "Lord" (1 Tim. 1:1), "our Saviour" (Tit. 1:4), "by himself" (Heb. 1:3), and didst set him over the works of thy hands" (Heb 2:7), "for us" (1 Pet. 4:1), and "before the throne of God" (Rev. 14:5). Half of Luke 9:55-56 is also omitted, as is half of Acts 9:5-6 and 1 John 5:7-8.

Like their predecessor, the NRSV and the ESV claim to be in the "Tyndale-King James legacy." The Revised Version of 1885 even made the same claim. It had to—if it wanted to sell. The claim, however, is just as false now as it was then. How can a Bible be in the "Tyndale-King James legacy" that removes the command to study the Bible (2 Tim. 2:15), claims that all who left Egypt rebelled (Heb. 3:16), removes the warning against science (1 Tim. 6:20), changes corrupters of the Bible to peddlers (2 Cor. 2:17), removes the warning against being effeminate (1 Cor. 6:9), changes the reference to giants being on the earth before the flood (Gen. 6:4), changes the command to abstain from all appearance of evil (1 Thes. 5:22), and says that the love of money is not the root of all evil (1 Tim. 6:10)?

So even though the ESV is a substantial improvement over both the RSV and the NRSV, it still has a major obstacle that it will never overcome—the "inestimable treasure that excelleth all the riches of the earth": the King James 1611 Authorized Version.

Laurence M. Vance, Ph.D., is a teacher, an author, a publisher, a freelance writer, the editor of the Classic Reprints series, and the director of the Francis Wayland Institute. He holds degrees in history, theology, accounting, and economics. The author of seven books and two collections of essays, he regularly contributes articles and book reviews to both secular and religious periodicals. Dr. Vance's writing interests include free market economics, government spending and corruption, the socialism and statism of conservative pundits and Republican politicians, Baptist theology, English Bible history, Greek grammar, and the folly of war. He is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and blogs for LewRockwell.com, Mises.org, and Antiwar.com. Dr. Vance is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, the Grace Evangelical Society, the Society of Dispensational Theology, the International Society of Bible Collectors, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute.


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