Why I ♥ the New Revised Standard Version

A week or two ago I tweeted in excitement on finding a non-ugly online version of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV). This puzzled at least one of my friends on Facebook: why would an atheist be excited about a Bible translation?

Well, first of all, the NRSV is an update of the Revised Standard Version (RSV), which a North Carolina pastor once publicly burned with a blowtorch because it was a “a heretical, communist-inspired Bible.”* Why the hell would he do that? Well, I don’t know exactly what was going on inside his head, but apparently a major issue was RSV’s translation of Isaiah 7:14 (yup, there’s an entire Wikipedia article on this one verse).

The story behind Isaiah 7:14 is that the first-ever Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, was kinda crummy. And one mistranslation found in the Septuagint is the mistranslation of the Hebrew word “almah” (young woman) as the Greek “parthenos” (virgin). Hence a prophecy about a young woman giving birth became a prophecy about a virgin birth, and you can see where that’s going…

But it isn’t just that Christians later matched the stories in the Gospels with the prophecy in Isaiah after the New Testament was written. The Septuagint was around when the New Testament was written, and the mistranslated line was cited as a fulfilled prophecy by Matthew. Think about that. One part of the Bible, which something like a third of Americans claim to believe is literally true to the last word has among its many errors an error regarding the translation of a previous part of itself.

This is something non-Christians have been pointing out since at least the time of Celsus, but not surprisingly most Biblical translations done by Christians have backed up the mistranslation found in the Septuagint and Matthew. The RSV, however, bucked the trend and translated “almah” as “young woman,” and this translation was kept for the NRSV.

And this, actually, is why it took me so long to find a decent online version of the NRSV. When I want to read the Bible online, I often go to BibleGateway.com, a nicely done website with a truly ridiculous number of different Bible translations on offer, and not just in English. The only problem is that it specifically omits the RSV and NRSV.

I don’t have the inside scoop on BibleGateway.com’s decision making process, but it’s a safe bet that Isaiah 7:14 was a key factor here. Many Christians actually regard Isaiah 7:14 as a key litmus test for whether a translation can be trusted or not. Which might not be a bad idea, if you did the test the opposite way from what the fundamentalists intend.

Because it’s not just Isaiah 7:14. What really makes the NRSV valuable for a heathen like me is that far too many other translations these days will repeatedly try to translate away immoral, contradictory, or even mildly embarrassing passages in the Bible. One example I just stumbled across while in the process of tweeting my way through the Bible is Isaiah 3:16-17, where God announces what he’s going to do to the women of Jerusalem for being “haughty.”

But what exactly is God going to do to them? The King James Version and NRSV says he’s going to “discover” or “lay bare” their “secret parts.” However, the New International Version (NIV, probably the most popular translation among evangelicals) says god was going to “make their scalps bald.” I’m really not sure how that helps, here, since the idea of punishing women for being “haughty” is pretty bad no matter what exactly the punishment was going to be, but… yeah.

So if you want an accurate translation of the Bible, read the NRSV, and consider using the website I recommended above. On the other hand, if you’re going to argue with fundegelicals about the Bible, there’s a case to be made for using the NIV–if a problem exists in the NIV, you can be sure there was no remotely plausible way to make it disappear with an alternative translation (and some of the things the NIV does are quite a stretch once you understand the issue).

Oh, and even though the translators of the King James Version didn’t do much in the way of translating away problems, I still can’t recommend it except for its historical significance and poetry. A minority of fundamentalists cling to it, but they’re so rare and hopelessly ignorant that I personally ignore them completely. (If anyone has experience dealing with them, I’d be curious to hear from you in the comments.)

Incidentally, a month ago Bart Ehrman did a post series on problems with the NRSV, though he says that in spite of the few small problems he highlights it’s still “the best translation available.” If you have access to the pay version of his site, I recommend his thoughts on gender-neutral language in the NRSV in particular.

*Source: Bruce Mezger, The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions, chapter 8.


  • http://thebronzeblog.wordpress.com Bronze Dog

    Fun. Nice to get a little more context on how the fanfic formed. Don’t normally involve myself in translation arguments, but I know it’s a real can of worms.

  • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

    That story about Isaiah reminds me of the famous passage in Leviticus about homosexuality, which, properly translated from the Hebrew, basically just says that a man is still cheating on his wife even if he does it with another dude, and that infidelity is still no good.

    • Chris Hallquist

      I’m extremely skeptical of that. The Torah was the product of a polygynous society where wives could cheat on their husbands but not vice versa.

      • Greg G

        Did you type that right? If the man suspected the wife of cheating, he could make her drink poison. If she sies, she was guilty. She couldn’t do that to him.

        • Chris Hallquist

          Uh, that’s what I meant to type. But I should have been clearer.

          What I mean here is that, in a society where men can have multiple wives, “man cheats on his wife” just didn’t compute. When I say women “could” cheat on their husbands, I don’t mean they were allowed to, I just mean it was a possibility in their conceptual framework.

      • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

        A word for word translation of the Hebrew is, roughly, “And with a male thou shalt not lie down in beds of a wife; it is an abomination.” (it is unclean might be better). (And yes, the plural/singular do not agree, which has led some scholars, iirc, to posit that this is cobbled together from separate passages.

        Feel free to interpret it how you wish — regardless, it seems quite clear to me that the various manipulations of this into a general prohibition of homosexuality play quite fast and loose with the text.

        • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

          N/m on the cobbling together, I was thinking of a different passage.

  • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

    Even if it unequivocably meant “virgin”, it still shouldn’t be considered a prophecy about Jesus. What comfort would the birth of Jesus give to Ahaz in that context? The dude’s kingdom is about to be invaded; waiting around for 700 years isn’t exactly a good strategy.

  • MNb

    You might like to know that the Dutch catholics got the translation of Isaiah 7:14 right since 1978 in their Willibrord translation. The Dutch reformed though stick to the virgin.
    As for Isaiah 3:17 the Dutch catholics read “lay bare their foreheads”. The Dutch protestants prefer “scabies on their foreheads”.

    • Chris Hallquist

      “Stick to the virgin.” That sounds dirty.

  • http://quinesqueue.blogspot.com Quine

    Thanks Chris, I’ll bookmark that. It might be helpful in a project I have going. I am trying to trace where the Christians came up with the idea for the “Holy Ghost.” I am checking the possibility that it is from another mistranslated part part of the Hebrew texts such that “breath” became “spirit” became “ghost” and then deified.

    • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

      The original Christians — at least, the ones who wrote the NT — couldn’t read Hebrew, so that would be a dead end. They read Greek, and so they were reading the LXX. In the LXX there are multiple instances of “holy spirit” (πνεῦμα ἅγιόν, or pneuma hagion). The word pneuma (where we get the word pneumonia) in Greek means “breath” or “spirit”; spirit and ghost being interchangable in not-so-modern-English. So Matt 1.18 says that Mary was impregnated by the holy spirit. He uses πνεύματος ἁγίου (pneumatos hagiou).

  • alnitak

    I don’t think I’ll find much use for the Bible study tools site, because the Oremus Bible Browser has the NRSV on steroids. You can search by passage, by list of passages, or by word, and control how the text is displayed (+/- verse numbers, footnotes, etc), and you can create a bookmark to repeat the search: I have one the finds every passage in Q, so you whap the bookmark and it all comes back.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Unfortunately, it’s an ugly site, and I care about stupid things like that ;)

  • Brent Bennett

    Just figured I’d chime in and say that my wife and inlaws swear by the KJV. They don’t believe in any other translation.

  • lamja00

    The NRSV leaves out verses that are in the KJV, such as Matt 17:21 and Matt 18:11. Does anyone know why?

  • hoshie

    Hi Chris, Very good post! I have used the NRSV for almost 20 years! I read from it in my high school’s baccalaureate service in 1999. I have used it because it is faithful to the original Greek/Hebrew texts, uses gender-inclusive language, and the NRSV is literal as possible. Have a good day!

  • Grotoff

    As an update, Bible gateway includes the NRSV and various Catholic bibles now.