An Orthodox Critique of English Translations of the Bible

"Every translator is a traitor."
(attributed to Eusebius Hieronymus - St. Jerome)

"Because no translation of the Bible is perfect or is acceptable to all groups of readers, and because discoveries of older manuscripts and further investigation of linguistic features of the text continue to become available, renderings of the Bible have proliferated." (from "To the Reader" in the NRSV)

It was in A.D. 1382 - about 70 years before the invention of the printing press - that the first entire Bible was translated into English: The Oxford / Wycliffe hand-written edition. Last spring, the latest translation of the English language Bible (the New Revised Standard Version - NRSV) was made available from the eight publishers that were licensed to print it. The translating committee of the NRSV worked under the auspices of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, which also holds the copyright.

A FAMILY LINEAGE OF ENGLISH BIBLES

The NRSV is the most recent revision in a family lineage of Bibles. Here is a brief look at them:

The WYCLIFFE BIBLE (1382) was, in part, an absolutely literal translation of the Latin, Greek and Hebrew manuscripts then available. But it also contained very free renderings (almost paraphrase) into 14th-century colloquial English. The Wycliffe Bible was immediately condemned by the Western church hierarchy.

In England, the KING JAMES VERSION (1611) was considered by much of the reading public to be a "barbarous" translation. One London clergyman claimed that the KJV "sounds like yesterday's newspaper, and denies the divinity of Christ." The Pilgrims who came to the New World in 1620 thought that the KJV was less a true Bible than a written reflection of their contemporary secular culture. They refused to bring it with them across the Atlantic. The translators of the KJV were called "damnable corruptors of God's word." A fifty-year struggle ensued before it was finally "authorized" to be read in the Anglican and Calvanist Churches in Great Britain. It became known there as "THE AUTHORIZED VERSION."

The REVISED VERSION (1881-1895) was an update of the KJV. In its day, some considered it to be an "unfavorable paraphrase" of holy writ. The next Bible in this series of revisions was the AMERICAN STANDARD VERSION (1901). Conservatives immediately labeled it as too liberal in its renderings. The ownership of the copyright of the ASV passed to the International Council of Religious Education (one of the predecessors of the NCC's Division of Education and Ministry). This council eventually began work on the next Bible within this tradition of the KJV:

the REVISED STANDARD VERSION (RSV). It was released in piecemeal fashion amid both fanfare and controversy. The New Testament was published in 1946, the Old Testament was published in 1952, and the Apocrypha was completed in 1977, by which time the copyright was owned by the NCC. Many critics of the RSV, both during the mid-century as well as today, have called it "blasphemous and heretical."

The preparation of all these Bibles was purely a Protestant effort (although Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox advice was sought for the full edition of the RSV). All have used a modified Elizabethan or Shakespearean, 17th century-English. Up through the 1950s, people thought that the King James Bible was what the Bible should sound like (despite the fact that the Greek of the New Testament was in the "koine," or common tongue, and the Latin "Vulgate" Bible of the early 5th-century West was so called because it was rendered in the "vulgar," common, or universal language of the era).

Of these Bibles, the KJV and the RSV have proven to be the most enduring, despite negative reactions from certain circles. And now, within this same family lineage comes THE NEW REVISED STANDARD VERSION - the NRSV (1990). Like its 17th-century British predecessor, the NRSV has 1) used the most currently available scholarship and authoritative manuscripts of the Hebrew O.T. and the Greek N.T., and it has 2) reflected the English language of its contemporary culture.

WHY CONTINUE TO REVISE?

As alluded to above, one reason for Biblical revision is that continual development in archaeological discoveries of secular and sacred sites, artifacts, and manuscripts help translators further their understanding of the vocabulary, grammar, and idioms of the Greek and Semitic texts. The result of all this is that the texts of the ancient documents have become more and more clear through serious and faithful study. Thus, the glaring errors and misunderstandings of earlier editions of the Bible have progressively been addressed, and what was once considered to be a definitive translation eventually became outdated.

A second reason for Biblical revision is the continual development of the "living" English language. Words and expressions of one generation do not necessarily carry the same meaning in successive generations. What may be considered in one era to be a venerable, dignified, majestic, reverent, and uplifting rendering may, in a later era, be misleading or even meaningless to the reader, the hearer, the one who chants the proclamation of the Scriptures, or even - sadly - the homilist.

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE KING JAMES VERSION

The Old Testament of the KJV was based largely on manuscripts edited by Hebrew scribes between the 6th and the 9th centuries A.D. This text is called the "Masoretic" or Hebrew Bible. The N.T. of the KJV relied on very late Greek manuscripts that were based largely on originals from the 10th century. They were the only manuscripts available to the 17th-century scholars. Due to the obvious limitations of having only very late manuscripts from which to translate, the KJV is seen today to contain many defects and errors if compared to the most widely circulated (and thus, most widely accepted) and most ancient manuscripts.

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE REVISIONS

Between 1611 and the mid-20th century, more ancient and more accurate Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Aramaic manuscripts and manuscript fragments of the Bible were located. For the O.T., these pre date the manuscripts that were available for the translation of the KJV in some cases by one thousand years. For the N.T., these newly recovered manuscripts had been copied only two or three centuries after the original composition of the books. These earlier editions of the Scriptures contain fewer accumulations of copyists' errors that crept in over the centuries. (Take for example KJV 1 John 5:7: "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one." This is a very interesting and theologically profound statement. But it is absent from the RV and descendents. Critical study has found that this verse was a late addition to the Bible, and despite its theological significance, it has been deleted.) So, as each revision of the Bible was produced, more and more ancient manuscripts were compared: more and more authenticity and reliability was achieved.

Like the RV of 1895 and the ASV of 1901, the RSV of 1977 still remained faithful in many ways to the KJV. Thus, while clearly remaining within the linguistic tradition of the KJV, the RSV became a more accurate and faithful translation of the original Scriptures in recovering the original wording of the Hebrew and Greek texts than the KJV had been.

The RSV sought to "embody the best results of modern scholarship as to the meaning of the Scriptures, and express this meaning in English diction which is designed for use in public and private worship and preserves those qualities which have given to the King James Version a supreme place in English literature" (from the Preface to the RSV). Linguistically, this meant that 17th-century English usage was still the basis of the text. The RSV was clearly not a new translation of the Bible in contemporary language. It was, rather, a modification of Elizabethan English. The RSV preserved archaic forms (e.g., the use of thee, thou, thy, thine). It also preserved the verb endings -eth and -th. And it kept such archaic (obsolete?) expressions as it came to pass, peradventure, must needs, etc. But there were other words that, in 1611, had been accurate translations of the Hebrew and Greek. By the mid-20th-century these words had changed in meaning (e.g., "prevent" once meant "precede," "conversation" once meant "conduct," "ghost" once meant "spirit," etc.).

THE SEPTUAGINT AND THE ORTHODOX CHURCH

The SEPTUAGINT (LXX) is a 3rd-century B.C. translation of the Old Testament by Hebrew scholars into then-contemporary Greek, so that the Jews of the day could understand the Scriptures. (They no longer spoke nor understood Hebrew.) The LXX was the O.T. text most often (but not exclusively) quoted by the writers of the New Testament. The LXX was the version of the O.T. most widely used by the early Christian community. It was also the usual (but not exclusive) edition of the O.T. used by the Fathers of the Church in their writings and homilies. So the LXX, rather than the Hebrew Bible, became the authoritative version of the O.T. for Orthodox Christians. In the places where the wording of the LXX differs from the Hebrew (and this is frequent), the Church maintains that of the two, the LXX was made under the inspiration and revelation of the Holy Spirit. For example, see Psalm 51:5, Isaiah 26:17-18, or Isaiah 7:14 (and then Matthew 1:23) in various versions of the Bible. (See also T. Ware, THE ORTHODOX CHURCH, p. 208)

Neither the KJV nor any of its descendents mentioned in this article used the LXX as a primary text for the translation of the O.T. The LXX was a secondary reference, used only when the Hebrew or Aramaic Bible needed clarification. Thus, from the standpoint of the Eastern Orthodox Church (which considers the LXX as the official, authorized text of the O.T.) each version of the Bible cited here perpetuates a number of omissions, inaccuracies, and deficiencies.

At the suggestion in 1973 of His Eminence Athenagoras, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain THE OXFORD ANNOTATED BIBLE WITH THE APOCRYPHA - REVISED STANDARD VERSION was published in 1977. This version comprised the O.T., N.T., and the completed edition of the "Apocrypha" (as the Protestants call it) or "Deutero-Canonical books" (as the Roman Catholics call them). Archbishop Athenagoras then officially endorsed the use of this Bible. It should be noted that although this 1977 translation of the Apocrypha relied primarily upon a 1935 edition of the LXX, it remains a fact that in the overall translation of the RSV O.T., the LXX is largely absent. (Remember that the work done in the preparation of this Bible was overwhelmingly Protestant, so there was a Western bias against the use of the LXX.) Nonetheless, despite its limitations, this complete edition of the RSV has been used as a textbook in most Orthodox (and non-Orthodox) seminary and university courses in Holy Scripture. It has been the basis for more Orthodox and (non-Orthodox) scholarly works on the Bible than any other English translation. It has been used more often in Orthodox (and non-Orthodox) liturgical translations and services of worship, as well as in church school curricula than any other American translation. It has been a truly "standard" text for some time.

THE NEW KING JAMES VERSION

An American modernization of the KJV, revising punctuation, pronouns, and some of the archaic vocabulary of the KJV appeared in 1982. It was produced independently of the "family lineage" of the KJV mentioned in this article. It is called THE NEW KING JAMES VERSION - (NKJV). In its preparation, Greek LXX texts (together with the Latin Vulgate, and resources from manuscripts from the Dead Sea Caves) were consulted, but they were incorporated into this Bible only very minimally. The NKJV, being the work of American Evangelical Protestants, does not contain the Apocrypha (as do British editions of the KJV). Thus, the many omissions, errors, and deficiencies of the KJV have been perpetuated in the NKJV.

THE NEW REVISED STANDARD VERSION

For the past seventeen years, preparation of the NRSV has taken into account the continuous progress and developments in biblical scholarship, archaeological finds; clarification of Greek and Semitic texts and vocabulary; and the understanding of the historical, social, political, and religious backgrounds of scriptural writers. For its preparation, scholars were selected from throughout Christendom: twenty-four Protestant, five Roman Catholic, and one Eastern Orthodox. A Jewish scholar was also part of the translating committee. During the nearly two decades of preparation, the translators worked on the books of the Bible for which they were individually responsible, and then annually gathered for one week in January and one week in June to work together on the texts. The NRSV is termed, by the holder of the copyright, "A Standard for Our Time."

Since the English language has changed more during the past four decades than at any time in history - and although these changes have been subtle, they have been substantive - it has been felt that a new revision within the lineage of the KJV was needed. The NRSV was intended to express Biblical terms in the literary style of today. The NRSV was intended to be "somewhat more literal than the RSV." It departs less often from the Hebrew Masoretic text of the O.T. than the RSV. For the Orthodox, this fact creates obvious difficulties. However, even though the NRSV was to be as "literal as possible" in relation to the ancient manuscripts (Hebrew O.T. and Greek N.T.), it sought to be "as free as necessary" in order to guarantee that the English meaning is the same as it was in these original languages. Rather than continue with a modification of Elizabethan "churchley" language, the NRSV renders pronouns, verbs, and now-archaic expressions in the contemporary idiom. It corrects the often-confusing word order of the earlier versions, which followed the word order of an ancient language very closely, as in Zechariah 3:3 (compare KJV, RSV, and NRSV). It improves the clarity of the text for oral proclamation where it is impossible to distinguish between two homonyms, even given the context, as in Genesis 37:7 (again, compare KJV, RSV, and NRSV). The NRSV is not an "inclusive-language" Bible in the common understanding of that term. But, it thoroughly corrects the inaccuracies of the inherent masculine bias of the English language.

The initial reactions to the NRSV from Orthodox scholars (biblical and otherwise) have ranged from "I can find absolutely nothing good about it - nothing at all," to "As far as I am concerned, the NRSV is the best translation available." Most, however, being less zealous, give the NRSV qualified praise or qualified denunciation.

In order to keep any Orthodox Christian reaction to the NRSV in perspective, a noteworthy reminder would be that in Greece in 1901, the publication of a translation of the New Testament in contemporary Greek led to the downfall of the government and to student demonstrations in which eight people were killed. Although this is an extreme example, it typifies the intense concern for the Orthodox regarding the task of translating the Holy Scriptures.

ON THE POSITIVE SIDE...

The NRSV uses common-gender nouns and pronouns in referring to both men and women, when this was the context of the ancient texts. Unfortunately, in the past, these pronouns have been traditionally rendered in English in masculine form. The word "ish" in Hebrew and the Greek word "anthropos" have invariably been translated into English as "man". The original understanding of these terms was "human species," "human person: man and woman," not exclusively "adult male," or "husband" (which are specifically meant by the Greek word "aner"). The NRSV happily does not perpetuate the use of "man" or "men" when humanity (both men and women) is intended. An example of this is the declaration that "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom" (1 Corinthians 1:25).

Another instance of the use of common gender noun is the Greek "adelphos" or "adelphoi." Previously this word has been translated into English as "brother," "brethren," or "brotherhood." But the Greek (and its Hebrew equivalent) can mean either physical or spiritual relative/s or "brothers and sisters" and often referred to the whole Church. (See 1 Peter 2:17: RSV "Love the brotherhood." NRSV: "Honor the family of believers." - Vespers for Ss. Peter and Paul.) Note the manner in which most of the Epistles are introduced at Liturgy: "Brethren..." Clearly male exclusivity was NOT intended in the original texts. "Brother(s)" simply referred to the assembly of men and women which made up the local familial or ecclesial community. For examples, see Psalm 122:8 (RSV: "For my brethren and companions' sake..." NRSV: "For the sake of my relatives and friends...") and Psalm 133:1 (RSV: "Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!" NRSV: "...when kindred live together in unity"). Both of these are chanted at Daily Lenten Vespers and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. Other examples are Matthew 25:40 (RSV: "...one of the least of these, my brethren" NRSV: "...least of these who are members of my family" - Liturgy for the Sunday of the Last Judgement) and 1 Thessalonians 4:13 (RSV: "But we would not have you ignorant, brethren..." NRSV: "...brothers and sisters" - Liturgy for the Departed).

For the obvious distinction between brothers and sisters in the Greek, see Matthew 19:29 (Liturgy for the Sunday of All Saints). In correcting the innacuracies of the inherent masculine bias of the English language, the translators of the NRSV have attempted to undo the sexual bias of the original languages and cultures from which the Scriptures have been handed down. See Psalm 95:9; Luke 1:55, etc., where "father/s" and "forefather/s" mean "ancestor/s," and "forebear/s." In so doing, has the (historically factual, albeit inequitable) male domination within these cultures and their languages has been nuanced away?

HOWEVER...

When trying to be sensitive to the issues of legitimate gender-neutrality, and necessary intelligibility to the 20th-century reader, the English terms chosen by the translators at times provide awkward, forced, historically inaccurate, and even theologically questionable results.

In the NRSV, the terms "humankind" and "mortal/s" were often preferred over "people" or "humanity." Regarding "humankind," it might simply be a question of un-idiomatic grammar or lack of euphony. But the gender-neutral term "mortal" tends to focus not so much on humanity as such (the intended connotation of the original "anthropos"), but rather on mortality. Does this puzzle or enlighten? See Psalm 8:4 RSV: "what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?" NRSV: "what are human beings that you are mindful...mortals that you care for them?" (See also Psalm 144:3.)

The use of the stylistic title "son of man" (meaning "human") in Ezekiel 2:1,ff and Daniel 8:17 is rendered in the NRSV "mortal" where the particular human being addressed was in fact a male. In addition, the Savior used this apocalyptic, messianic title for Himself - Matthew 25:13, Mark 13:26, John 3:13-14, and Apocalypse 1:13. This title is traced back to Daniel 7:13. The NRSV relegates this term to a footnote, giving as the actual TEXT of Daniel 7:13 "one like a human being." Again, theological concerns might well be raised.

For further examples - good, not-so-good, and otherwise: Psalm 1:1 (RSV: "Blessed is the man who walks not in the council of the wicked..." NRSV: "Happy are those..." - Vespers on Saturday evenings and the eves of most Feasts); Mark 2:27 (RSV: "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath" NRSV: "The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath" - Liturgy for the first Saturday of Great Lent); John 12:32 (RSV: "...and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" NRSV: "And when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." - Matins for the Feast of the Holy Cross); 1 Corinthians 13:11 (RSV: "When I was a child (Greek = "infant"), I spoke like a child...; when I became a man (Greek = "aner," English = "male"), I gave up childish ways." NRSV: "...when I became an adult...") But St. Paul was in fact a male human being.

For further comparisons, see KJV, RSV, and NRSV: Ephesians 5:22,ff (for the Crowning of a Marriage); 1 Tim 2:3; 12 (Liturgy for the 26th Thursday after Pentecost) - compare this with Exodus 21:2 (LXX).

Gender-neutral sensitivity is one thing. Theology is another. In Galatians 4:4-7: "But when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman...so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hears, crying, 'Abba! Father!' So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir." (RSV - Liturgy for the Nativity of Christ). In each case, the NRSV changes "son/s" to "child/ren." The obvious parallelism between the "Son" and "son/s" is lost. Also, the term "child/ren" does not necessarily connote the implied filial relationship, but rather, a stage of development between birth and puberty. Has fidelity to the text (and by extension, fidelity to the faith and worship of the Church) truly been preserved in the best possible manner?

Serious theological implications are also evident in the translation of Matthew 10:38 (Liturgy for All Saints Sunday). The Greek (and RSV) is: "...he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me..." The NRSV, in a well-intended attempt to avoid the masculine pronoun, runs: "whoever does not take up the cross and follow me..." Is it the Savior's Cross, or our own individual Cross that must be taken up? Clearly the Greek means our OWN Cross. Vicarious suffering for us by the Lord Jesus is not the intent of this verse. All of the Saints (and that's us as well) are called to a mystical if not actual co-crucifixion, and co-suffering with the Savior in order to rise with Him and reign with Him (see Colossians 2:11-12 and Romans 6:3-4).

In attempts to render the message more intellegible for 20th-century readers, the NRSV has modified elements of the original texts which reflect specifically the culture, customs, and elements of the Mediterranean world in the 1st century. Take for example the fact that at the tax-collector Levi's banquet, the guests reclined at table - the usual manner of partaking of a meal (Luke 5:29 - Liturgy for the 21st Saturday after Pentecost). The NRSV reports that they were "sitting at the table," and the footnote states that "reclining" is the Greek term. Should "reclining" have been preserved in the text of the Scriptures, with an explanatory footnote about Middle East practice?

For the Orthodox, these issues warrant study for two reasons. Faithful translation of the actual text of the Holy Scriptures is just as vital as faithful transmission of the actual context and historical situation (however limited and fallen) into which the actual text of the Holy Scriptures was revealed, incarnated, and recorded.

Another special concern to Orthodox Christians is the NRSV rendering of Psalm 51:5. This Psalm is important because it occurs quite often in the liturgy of the Church. It is also important because it is one of the instances where the Scriptures articulate most poignantly and eloquently the basis of our understanding of Christian anthropology, original (or ancestral) sin, and the theology of salvation. Remember that the O.T. for the Orthodox is the LXX. The LXX reads: "Behold, I was conceived in iniquities, and in sins did my mother bear me..." This is quite different from the Masoretic Hebrew, used by the KJV, the RSV, NKJV, NRSV, and virtually all Western Bibles, English or otherwise. The emphasis of these Western editions is that: 1) in sin and/or guilt my mother conceived me; and 2) I was born guilty / in sin; etc. Although this is typical of the theology of Western Christendom, it is highly foreign to the theology of Eastern Christendom.

The greatly loved hymn of the Divine Liturgy, "Only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God..." (attributed to St. Justinian the Great) takes as its source the term "monogenes" from John 1:14; 3:16; 1 John 4:9 (see also 1 John 5:18). This is not the place for a detailed study of this expression. However, suffice it to state here that an only child (Luke 7:12: the son of the widow of Nain; Luke 8:42: Jairus' daughter; Hebrews 11:7: Abraham's son Isaac) AND the Only-begotten Son of God are simply different. The Risen Lord Jesus is the pre-existent, Only-begotten God, the Son. The NRSV has taken this title and rendered it "...the Father's only Son." Could a greater sensitivity to the Tradition of the doctrinal formuale and hymnography of the Church have been useful in rendering the translation of this term?

In the NRSV, the second verse of the very first book of the Bible (read at the Vespers of the first day of Great Lent and at certain feasts) becomes "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters." The footnote states: "OR while the spirit of God OR while a mighty wind." The KJV states: "And the Spirit of God moved..." The RSV: "the Spirit of God" (with the footnote: "OR wind") Other contemporary English Bibles vary from "spirit of God," to "a divine wind," to "a great wind." The Hebrew of Genesis 1:2 is "ruah;" the Greek is "pneuma." Both of these terms may be translated "spirit," "breath," "life," or "wind." For obvious reasons, Christians might prefer the use of the word "spirit" for this verse. All these meanings are equally revelatory and significant. Sometimes it is simply not possible to find a single English equivalent term to render the full bredth, meaning and overtones of a Hebrew or Greek original. Perhpas the KJV and RSV take just as many liberties to project upon this word the Christian interpretation with a capitalized "Spirit" as does the NRSV and other Bibles in rendering it "wind," "breath," etc?

This present First Edition of the NRSV may not actually become "a standard for our time." It is in many ways a verbal icon (if you will) OF our time. It has taken advantage of the very latest and best in the field of Biblical scholarship of the Hebrew O.T. and the Greek N.T. (but alas, not the LXX). Within the lineage of the KJV, it has consistently shifted English usage to the contemporary "koine" or "vulgate" of today's America. It has avoided the enticements of "feminist theology" that would androgenize the language concerning the Holy One that He Himself has revealed to us (see Psalm 118). It has not (unfortunately) avoided some insensitivity to theological and cultural issues that are part of the faithful transmission and Tradition of the Word of God to His people. Because it has attempted to be inclusive to some, it has become exclusive to others (a sign of our times).

The NRSV is a human translation of the Divine revelation. And despite the tremendous scholarship, untiring dedication, and meticulous care of this work - or any "synergia" (our cooperation or fellow-working with God), we will always end up with a fallible, human product: limited and fallen - no matter HOW good, correct, and orthodox.

An Orthodox assessment of the NRSV? This author is unqualified for such a task. However, we must not deny the legitimite good work done in the NRSV. We would do well to give thanks to God

for whatever in it is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8, NRSV). Where we see it to be less than illuminating, we would also do well not to curse its dark points, but seek to improve what calls out for improvement, fidelity, and enlightenment.

The NRSV may well prove to be just the catalyst to motivate English-speaking Orthdox Christians to begin the work of translating an edition of the Holy Scriptures. Perhpas the nine Orthodox jurisdictions belonging to the NCC (and any others, for that matter) could assign biblical and linguistic scholars from among their ranks to prepare an Orthodox Christian revision. (The Roman Catholics produced the RSV Catholic Edition in 1966.)

Biblical translating is an awe-some vocation. The translator stands on holy ground, bearing the tremendous responsibility of articulating the revealed language of Theophany in the common language of humanity. The effort of a pan-Orthodox team of translators and editors could pick up where the NRSV has left off. They could produce an accurate, Orthodox verbal icon of the Good News of salvation adequate to and authorized for proclamation in the midst of the contemporary American liturgical assembly. This Bible would not be so much an icon of the present age (there are enough of those). Rather, it could be a verbal icon of Him Whose glory is unto the ages of ages - Who was revealed and became incarnate within this age.


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