An Evaluation of the NRSV: Demystifying Bible Translation

by J.J.M. Roberts

From Insights: A Journal of the Faculty of Austin Seminary 108/2 (1993), pp. 25-36.

Shortly after the NRSV appeared in print a reporter from the Trenton Times in Trenton, New jersey, asked me for a phone interview about the new translation. I foolishly agreed to the interview and failed to be as careful in picking my words as one should always be anytime a reporter is around. I expressed both lavish praise and harsh criticism for the NRSV. The criticism, expressed in the unfortunate but direct quotation, “it sometimes stinks,” caught someone’s attention, the story was picked up by the wire service and the quote appeared in the London Times. Bruce Metzger, the chair of the NRSV committee, read the London Times story, was irritated by the quotation, and chided me the next time he saw me in the Seminary mail room. Stunned at the time, I stammered some feeble response and let the matter drop, but since then I have reflected on that encounter many times. Though I would admit that my choice of Words in the interview was ill-advised, Bruce badly misconstrued my comment. The NRSV is a very good translation in some ways and in some places, but it is also a very poor translation in some ways in some places. Moreover, neither its strengths nor weaknesses can be directly correlated with my votes as a member of the translation committee.

Any evaluation of a translation must bear in mind the goals the translators hoped to achieve. The NRSV was not intended to be a completely new translation. It was to be a revision of the RSV. As such, it was expected to maintain the style, tone, and dignity of the original RSV. Within those constraints, the translators were charged with the threefold task of 1) removing obsolete grammatical forms, that is, replacing “thee,” “thou,” “thy,” “thine,” and the like with contemporary English usage; of 2) eliminating non-inclusive, sex­biased vocabulary; and of 3) incorporating the genuine advances in understanding the biblical text made by contemporary Bible scholarship on the basis of new evidence or more profound analysis of old evidence. 1 Obviously, one could question the wisdom of opting for a revision rather than a completely new translation, but that decision was a given; it was not a decision made by the translation committee itself, or at least it had been made far earlier [26] than the time most of the younger members were added to the committee. One could also challenge the appropriateness or relative importance of the tasks set for the committee, but, given those goals, the committee did a reasonably good job of accomplishing them. The remaining archaic language of the RSV has been removed, the NRSV is far more inclusive in its avoidance of unnecessary male-biased language, and it has incorporated many of the new lexigraphical, syntactical, and exegetical insights of contemporary biblical scholarship. In my opinion, these accomplishments make the NRSV the English translation of choice for general usage. I require it for all my classes, but I do not expect it to totally supplant the old RSV or the other modern English versions, nor do I think it would be a good thing if it did.

Every translation, including the NRSV, has its flaws, and no student of the Bible who is limited to reading it in translation should ever restrict himself or herself to one English version. A comparison of the various English translations is a healthy corrective to misplaced confidence in the absolute reliability of any translation. This is an important point, because there seems to be a compulsion on the part of religious communities dependent on a translation of a canonical text to invest that translation with a bogus, superhuman accuracy. Such a claim appears in the early legend about the translation of the Septuagint, later in the authority claimed for the Vulgate, and even now in the tenacity with which many fundamentalist Christian groups still hold on to the King james Bible as the only acceptable English translation. The NRSV is too new to enjoy much loyalty, but the reaction of the general religious public to the publicity campaign for this new translation is worrisome. I am pleased by the relatively positive reception the NRSV has received. What worries me is the nimbus of piety and respect with which the public imbues the translation process, thus obscuring its very human and provisional side. In the popular Christian imagination, the ideal combination of profound piety and flawless scholarship would produce the perfect translation, but even if that dubious premise were true, such a combination does not exist in real people. It is far healthier to accept the real world, to demystify the work of Bible translation, to understand translation as the very human, error-prone, provisional process that it is in actuality. Such recognition of the human limitations of any translation process does not undercut the authority of scripture, but it does force one to rethink more carefully the nature and mode of such authority.

In underscoring the human dimension in the translation of the NRSV, three points are worth noting: 1) the committee process for arriving at a translation; 2) the role of the editorial committee in revising that translation; and 3) the impact of the inclusive language policy on the accuracy of the translation. Much of the background for this discussion may be [27] found in the little monograph on the making of the NRSV written by Bruce M. Metzger, Robert C. Dentan, and Walter Harrelson, three of the members of the NRSV translation committee with the most seniority. 2 This easily accessible, 92-page monograph gives the necessary historical background to the origins of the NRSV, a general orientation to the way in which the NRSV translation committee was organized for its work, and a description of the evolving goals that guided the committee’s work, 3 so the following discussion of the NRSV will limit itself to those aspects of the three areas mentioned above where the book seems inadequate or in need of critical supplementation. 4

The Passion and Peril of Translation by Committee

When I joined the NRSV committee in 1979, the Old Testament committee was broken up into three subgroups which met in separate locations and worked on different Old Testament books. Each subgroup consisted of about six members plus a graduate assistant who was responsible for recording the decisions of the group. As Dentan has indicated, one member of the group was responsible for providing an agenda of proposed changes for the particular biblical book assigned to that group. The group discussed the proposals seriatim, sometimes approving the proposed changes, sometimes rejecting them in favor of the older RSV reading, and sometimes approving an alternate change suggested by another member of the committee. Sometimes additional changes not on the prepared agenda were suggested by other members of the committee, and they too were then debated and either approved, altered, or rejected by the subgroup. Dentan has described this process, but his description does not do full justice to the powerful dynamics at work in the process.

On the positive side, it was a very stimulating experience to work verse by verse through a biblical book with five other experienced scholars. The joint struggle to understand the original text and to find just the right English words to give expression to that understanding has been one of the most intellectually rewarding experiences of my scholarly career. No doctoral seminar in which I have participated either as a student or as a professor was as productive of creative new insights as the collegial debates within those NRSV subcommittee meetings. In many cases the debate led to a far better understanding of the Old Testament text and to a significant improvement in the English translation of the text. On the other hand, no member of the committee was pleased with every decision reached. The debate was often quite heated, and, being human, every member of the committee soon learned what kind of argument would sway the other members of the committee to his or her proposed translation. Occasionally the resulting translation suffered from this [28] very human side of the process. This problem may be illustrated from one incident that still haunts me.

We were working on Isaiah, for which I had prepared the agenda, and we came to Isa 9:3 (=9:2 Heb). The Hebrew text begins with haggoy lo higdalta hassimhah, which should result in the straightforward translation, “You have multiplied the nation, you have not increased the joy.” So the Vulgate and King James. It is clear from the continuation of the verse, however, that this cannot be correct. The prophet goes on to say, “They rejoice before you as they rejoice at the harvest (kesimhat baqqasir) as they exult (yagilu) when they divide the spoil.”A successful harvest and the division ofthe spoil after victory in battle were two of the most joyous occasions in the life of ancient Israel; it would be contradictory to introduce such an account of Israel’s rejoicing with the negative statement that God did not increase their joy. To avoid this difficulty many scholars correct the negative to the suffixed preposition “for him/it,” and translate, “You have multiplied the nation, (for it) you have increased the joy.” This follows an old exegetical tradition reflected in the Syriac, the Targum, and a few Hebrew manuscripts. This solution does not resolve all the difficulties, however. The parallelism between “multiplying the nation” and “increasing the joy” is odd, and the solution ignores the clear word play on the synonyms for rejoicing. ]ust as the verb samah, “to rejoice,” is balanced by the verb gil, “to exult,” so one might expect the noun simhah, “joy,” to be balanced by the noun gilah “exultation.” One need only correct haggoy lo to haggilah in order to obtain the parallelism that reflects this play on words: “You have multiplied the exultation, you have increased the joy. They rejoice before you as they rejoice at the harvest, as they exult when they divide the spoil.” The change presupposes that an original consonantal text hgylh was misdivided as hgy lh, which then led to the further corruption to either hgwy l’ or hgwy lw. Such corruption is easy to explain, since final h was used in preexilic Hebrew as a vowel letter to indicate either a long a or a long o (as well as e), and w and y were graphically similar in many periods of the Hebrew script. The correction does involve an emendation of the Massoretic Text (MT), but the existence of two MT readings, both contextually awkward, suggests that both MT readings resulted from just such a corruption of the more original Hebrew text of Isaiah. The emendation was suggested long ago and has been accepted by most major commentators on the book of Isaiah since the time of Bernhard Duhm. 5

Given the superior reading this emendation provides and in light of its relatively universal acceptance in contemporary critical commentaries, I suggested correcting the old RSV to reflect this better reading. I expected no opposition to what I assumed was a self-evident improvement of the RSV translation. To my astonishment, however, one member of [29] the subgroup objected to the change as an unwarranted emendation of the MT. In his view, one was never justified in emending the MT as long as one could squeeze a passable sense from even an obviously corrupt text. At one point in the debate that followed, this scholar even admitted that the text as emended was in fact probably what the prophet Isaiah had written, but he claimed that our task was simply to translate the traditional Hebrew text as it had been transmitted to us by the Massoretes, not to correct their errors. The debate over this point was very long and at times extremely acrimonious. Another member of the group threatened to resign from the NRSV committee if the group gave in to what he disparagingly referred to as “Massoretic fundamentalism.” Finally, when things threatened to get out of hand, the chair of our subgroup suggested that we break for coffee. Tempers cooled during the coffee break, and by the time we returned from the break there was little enthusiasm to continue the debate. In order to get on with the rest of the agenda, the group by a small majority rejected the proposed change and voted to keep the old RSV translation.

I was unhappy with the decision, but what happened next was, on reflection, even more appalling. I had not expected any debate on my proposal for Isa 9:3, but I was sure the next proposal on my agenda would generate significant disagreement within the group. Though I have mercifully forgotten the details of the following proposal, I remember that even I regarded my next proposed change in translation as somewhat daring and problematic. But no debate took place. As a consolation for accepting defeat on the previous proposal, the group simply gave me the following proposal without discussion. My point is that one should not underestimate the human dimension of translation. Even when a translation is done by a committee of eminent scholars, the translation decisions made do not always arise out of purely scholarly considerations.

The Danger of Absolute Editorial Control

As long as translations are done by human beings, translations will suffer from the inevitable errors to which humans, both individually and collectively, are prone. In the case of the NRSV, however, this exposure to human error was heightened by an ill-considered decision that invested far too much power in a final editorial committee. Once it had completed the basic work of translation, the full NRSV committee remained concerned about the overall translation’s stylistic consistency. Given the long years that the full NRSV committee worked on its translation, the changing makeup of the committee, and the evolution in the committee’s understanding of its task, certain inconsistencies were almost inevitable. In order to keep these inconsistencies to a minimum, someone needed to work through the completed translation with a [30] primary concern for stylistic consistency, but this was obviously not a task for a committee of the whole. Thus the general committee elected an editorial committee of five persons to attend to this task. The editorial committee consisted of Bruce Metzger, two other representatives from the New Testament subcommittee, and two representatives from the Old Testament subcommittee, Robert Dentan and Walter Harrelson, both of whom had also worked on the Apocrypha. Metzger presided as chair over both the New Testament and Old Testament editorial subcomrnittees which met separately. Dentan describes the work of these two subcommittees as follows:

The Old Testament and New Testament subcommittees met for sessions lasting a week or ten days, frequently at two-month intervals, and made a final review of every verse and almost every punctuation mark in the entire Bible, looking for inconsistencies in general style and the rendering of individual words, endeavoring to pull the whole together so that the NRSV would seem a unified work, not simply a collection of discrete translations. 6

Unfortunately, the members of this editorial committee understood their task as involving far greater authority to revise the translation than the full committee ever intended. According to Dentan, “This editorial committee was given power to determine the final form of the text before publication.” 7 Such a formulation is dangerously ambiguous. What the full committee understood and intended as the task of the editorial committee was actually quite limited; while respecting the basic work of the full committee, the editorial committee was expected to make the relatively minor changes to the finished product that were necessary for the sake of stylistic consistency. At least in the case of the Old Testament editorial subcommittee, that is not what happened. Some hint of the far more intensive reworking carried out by this very small committee of one New Testament and two Old Testament scholars on the NRSV translation of the Old Testament can be seen in Dentan’s account of nonscholarly consideration that colored their work:

The editorial committee was able to give thought to some matters, not strictly academic, that were of necessity largely passed over in the general committee, where pure scholarship tended to hold the floor. Inasmuch as the NRSV is sponsored by the National Council of Churches, it is intended for use in the services of the churches as well as for the private reading, study, and spiritual instructions of their members. For this reason attention needed to be given to the rhythm of sentences and the sound of words as they would [31] be heard in public Worship, and the general appropriateness of the text for a liturgical setting. Finally, since the NRSV was intended to be a revision of the RSV, not a new translation, it was important that it maintain, as far as is possible in modern English, the mood, tone, style, and uniform dignity of the KJV, which was the original standard Bible. 8

The editorial committee made thousands of changes, some quite substantive, to the translation of the Old Testament made by the full committee, and when members of the full committee became aware of the extent of these changes, many were outraged, feeling that much of their own work on the translation over the years had been irresponsibly gutted.

One might dismiss such outrage as mere personal pique had the editorial committee shown any respect for translational decisions made after much debate by the larger Old Testament subgroups or those reached by the Old Testament section meeting as a committee of the whole. Normally the decisions of the individual subgroups were simply accepted as a decision of the whole committee, but, if a particular decision seemed controversial, it was taken up again by the whole committee when the subgroups met together. Dentan and Harrelson had served as chairs of two of the three subgroups, so they had participated in the earlier discussion that had resulted in the decisions of those two subgroups. The third subgroup, however, had no representative on the editorial committee, and thus there was no one present during their discussions either to explain or to defend the decision of that subgroup. When galleys of the editorial committee’s work were sent to Patrick Miller, the chair of the third subgroup, he was immediately alarmed by the number of changes made to his subgroup’s work, and Dean McBride, who had prepared the agenda on Deuteronomy for that subgroup, responded to these galleys with seven single-spaced pages of what he regarded as unjustifiable changes that the editorial committee had made to the subgroup’s work in just one short section of Deuteronomy. These objections to the editorial committee’s decisions were simply dismissed, however. Moreover, it is not at all clear that the decisions made in the other two subgroups fared much better. One of the students who served as a recording secretary for the editorial committee reported that the committee members often could not remember why the original subgroup made a particular translation decision. So, rather than worry with the earlier discussion, they simply substituted their own ideas. Such a procedure obviously disturbed those of us in their subgroups who often voted against the opinions of Dentan and Harrelson. It is no doubt unfair to assume a conscious intent—on many debated points most translators probably could not remember, a year later, which side of the argument [32] they supported—but one could not help feeling that Dentan and Harrelson’s control of editorial revisions allowed them to salvage the translational points they had lost by vote in the earlier debate.

Even those controversial decisions that were submitted by the individual subgroups to the committee of the whole for fuller discussion and that were then voted up or down by the whole Old Testament committee after thorough debate were not safe from the tyrannical and arbitrary authority of this editorial committee of three. One example will have to suffice. The Hebrew word sekar occurs in twenty-one different Old Testament passages, often in parallel with the Hebrew word for “wine.” The old RSV translated as “strong drink” in all but one occurrence, but, as members of one of the Old Testament subgroups pointed out, in contemporary American English “strong drink” implies a distilled liquor, and distilled liquors did not exist in ancient Israel. Within that subgroup it was argued that sekar was the designation for an alcoholic beverage distinct from wine and that beer, particularly barley beer, was the most likely candidate. Cognates in Aramaic and Akkadian designate types of beer, and that is the meaning sekar has in modern Hebrew. Moreover, the pair “beer and wine” represent two of the most common alcoholic beverages in contemporary culture, so this translation would not pose any difficulty for the modern audience. After a thorough debate, the subgroup adopted the proposal to translate sekar consistently as “beer,” but, since this change would affect other passages not dealt with in the subgroup, the subgroup submitted the proposal to the whole committee for further debate. The issue was fully debated again in the whole committee, Where Dentan, Harrelson, and, unless memory fails me, Metzger were all present. The full committee voted with a clear and substantial majority to accept the translation “beer” for wherever the word occurred in the Old Testament. Yet when the NRSV appeared, that majority discovered that their vote did not count; the three-person editorial subcommittee had simply overruled the vote and, without any explanation or justification, had changed the translation back to “strong drink.”

The Price of Inclusive Language

When the NRSV committee began its work, there was no mandate to use inclusive language, but that concern was gradually introduced, and during the last ten years of the committee’s work a generally agreed upon policy for the use of inclusive language was followed. 9 Harrelson has given a good description of the gradual adoption of that policy, the nature of the policy, and a number of examples of inclusive language translation that he regards as particularly felicitous. 10 Although it is clear that Harrelson would have preferred for the committee to have pushed the [33] use of inclusive language even further than it did, 11 he is convinced that the NRSV “is by far our most inclusive Bible,” 12 a judgment this writer would also share. This is a major accomplishment and responds to a genuine concern felt by significant circles within the church. In my opinion, however, that accomplishment comes at a far greater price than Harrelson is willing to admit. The NRSV’s inclusivity may make it the Bible best suited among all the newer translations for liturgical public reading, but that virtue raised questions about Harrelson’s related claim that the NRSV is the most accurate study Bible available in English. 13

Some of the translation changes introduced out of the concern for more inclusive language actually enhance the accuracy of the translation, and some have little or no effect on the issue of accuracy, but others raise more serious questions. One common device used to avoid masculine forms was to translate Hebrew singulars as English plurals. 14 In this fashion the exclusive, “Blessed is the man who … his … he …,” was transformed into the inclusive, “Happy are those who … their … they…” (Ps 1:1-3). It is unlikely that the Psalmist intended to exclude women from this blessedness, and the plural clearly preserves the general sense of the passage, but one wonders whether something of the particularity and emphasis of the original is not lost in this transformation. The fact that Hebrew uses both singular and plural formulations in such constructions suggests some difference in emphasis between the two formulations, and to collapse both formulations into the same plural rendering in translation is to lose the distinction. A similar concern is raised by the NRSV’s translation of the direct speech in Psalm 41 as indirect speech. Such a change obscures the literary form of the Psalm as well as “diminishing the concreteness and vividness of the Psalmist’s language,” and it is hard to agree with Harrelson that “little has been lost” in this process. 15 One may also fail to share Harrelson’s excitement over the translation of Greek “brothers” as “brothers and sisters.” 16 It is likely that Paul was using the Greek term “brothers” in an inclusive sense to address the whole Christian community, including the women, and on that basis to justify the translation. Nonetheless, Paul did not highlight a concern for inclusivity by using the compound expression “brothers and sisters.” To articulate this concern in translation by expressing what Paul left unexpressed is to impose a twentieth century, western cultural agenda on a first century text. Such anachronistic glosses make sociological or cultural appraisal of the world of the original text more difficult and cast doubts on the reliability of such a translation for serious historical work. Moreover, to translate “my brothers” as “my friends” 17 is even worse. The language of “friendship” was a commonplace in the Hellenistic world in which Paul was writing, yet Paul studiously avoids the Hellenistic language of “friendship” for “kinship” language. Thus, to translate “brother” [34] as “friend” is both inaccurate and a major obstacle to grasping the early Christian comrnunity’s self- understanding.

At some points the NRSV’s overanxious concern for inclusive language actually subverts a profound inclusivity within the text that a more restrained translation policy would have preserved. In Proverbs 2, for instance, in a passage that speaks of the role of wisdom in preserving a young man 18 from various temptations, identical constructions are found in verses 12 and 16. Both verses begin with the suffixed infinitival construction lehassilka, “to deliver you,” followed by the preposition min, “from,” and an expression designating a person who could lead a youth into wrongdoing. A relatively literal rendering of the two verses would result in the following translations:

To deliver you from the way of the evil (man), from the man who speaks perverse things …” (Prov 2:12).

To deliver you from the strange woman, from the foreign woman who makes her words smooth …” (Prov 2:16).

Note that both the evil man and the strange woman threaten to lead the youth into sin through speech, though the continuation of the two passages suggest that the nature of the sin differs in the two cases—violent crimes in the first instance, adulterous sex in the second. In any case, temptation may come either in the form of a smooth talking man or a smooth talking woman. The inclusive and balanced parallelism is clear and sharp.

In the NRSV’s translation, however, the concern for inclusivity has taken the evil man out of verse 12: “It will save you from the way of evil, from those who speak perversely …” Yet the wicked woman is retained in verse 16: “You will be saved from the loose woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words …” Though the intention of the translation is to make the text more inclusive, by obscuring the clear parallelism between verses 12 and 16, and by submerging the evil man in the gender undifferentiated plural mass of those who speak perversely, the translation actually succeeds in putting undue focus on the evil woman as the source of temptation. The NRSV translation does not require the reader to think in terms of evil men at all.


These criticisms are not intended to discourage readers from choosing the NRSV as their standard English translation. It would be easy enough to detail inappropriate and inaccurate renderings in any of the other English translations, and, if one had the inside information, one would undoubtedly discover very human elements in the particular translation [35] process that lies behind each of these English versions. The NRSV remains a good translation. It is the English translation that I prefer. But no translation deserves unreserved loyalty. All are flawed, provisional, and only a witness to the earlier Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts that lie behind the translation. One must recognize the provisionality of all translation before one can use any translation, including the NRSV, wisely.


1. Compare Dentan, The Making of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, 8.

2. The Making of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1991).

3. See especially Dentan’s comments, pp. 1·21.

4. Since I was a member of the Old Testament subcommittee of the NRSV translation committee (since 1979) and never participated in any discussions of the subcommittees for the New Testament or Apocrypha, the following treatment will focus primarily on Old Testament issues.

5. So, for example, Bernhard Duhm. Das Buch Jesaia [Göttinger Handkommentar Zum Allen Testament; 3rd ed.. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1913) 65; Karl Marti, Das Buch Jesaja (Kurzer Hand-Commentar zum Alten Testament; Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1900) 92; Otto Procksch, Jesaia I (Kommentar zum Alten Testament; Leipzig: A. Deicherische Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1930) 145; George Buchanan Gray, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Isaiah (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1912) 164; Edward J. Kissane, The Book of Isaiah, Vol. I (Dublin: Richview Press, 1941) 106; Hans Wildberger, Jesaja (Biblischer Kommentar Altes Testament X/I; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1972) 363-4; R.E. Clements, Isaiah 1-39 (New Century Bible Commentary: Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980) 106: John D.W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33 (Word Biblical Commentary 24; Waco: Word Books, 1985) 129; John H. Hayes and Stuart A. Irvine, Isaiah, The Eighth-century Prophet: His Times & His Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987) 179; and Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12: A Commentary (The Old Testament Library; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983) 203.

6. The Making of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, p. 14.

7. The Making of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, p. 14.

8. The Making of the New Revised Standard Version, p. 14.

9. Walter Harrelson, “Inclusive Language in the New Revised Standard Version,” The Making of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, 73-84.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., 83-84.

12. Ibid., 184.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., 76.

15. Ibid., 78.

16. Ibid., 80.

17. Ibid., 80.

18. The less inclusive “my son” fits both the grammatical and imaginative shape of the text far better than the inclusive “my child” (Prov 2:1). It is the student envisioned as a young man who must be warned away from sexual involvement with the loose woman (Prov 2:16-19).