Tuesday, January 10, 2012

In Praise of the Revised Standard Version

In 1946, perhaps the most monumental event in Bible publishing in the 20th century took place- the publishing of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) New Testament. The Complete Bible was released in 1952, and it immediately became the standard for the mainline churches in America. The New Testament was revised in 1971. For me, the RSV is the greatest English translation currently available, combining literal accuracy and literary beauty. The RSV is held in high esteem by nearly all Christians- Anglicans, Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, liberals and conservatives alike.

In its preface, the RSV is described as “…an authorized revision of the American Standard Version, published in 1901, which was a revision of the King James Version, published in 1611.” The RSV retains much of the familiar phraseology of the King James Version. The title page of the RSV reads: “The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version containing the Old and New Testaments, translated from the original tongues: being the version set forth A.D. 1611, revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901: compared with the most ancient authorities and revised A.D. 1946-52. — 2nd ed. of New Testament A.D. 1971.”

The RSV was the pew Bible in mainline churches, until 1989 when it’s successor, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), was released. Much derided by conservative Christians upon its initial release, the RSV has ironically become the Bible of choice for many theologically conservative Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants.

The RSV is the most ecumenical Bible since the Reformation. In 1957, an edition of the RSV with the Deuterocanonical/Apocryphal books, requested by the Episcopal Church, was published. In 1966, upon a request from the Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britain, the RSV Catholic edition (RSVCE) was published which interspersed the Deuterocanonical books in the traditional Catholic order in the Old Testament. In 1973, the RSV Common Bible was released. Finally, in 1977, Oxford released an edition with all of the Deuterocanonical/Apocryphal books found in the Greek Septuagint, including 4th Maccabees and Psalm 151, making the RSV more acceptable to Eastern Orthodox Churches.

In 1962, Oxford published the Oxford Annotated Bible, a study Bible featuring the RSV. It was published with the Deuterocanonical/Apocryphal books in 1965, and received an imprimatur from Richard Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston. In 1977, the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) RSV was released, which contained the fuller version of the Deuterocanonical/Apocryphal books (see above). The NOAB RSV is still readily available, and has been a staple in Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox seminaries for decades. It is traditionally the preferred study Bible for scholars. It is the only edition of the ecumenical version of the RSV still available as far as I know.

Although the RSV quickly became the pew and pulpit Bible for mainline churches, it was not initially well liked by fundamentalists and evangelicals. There were many omissions in the RSV text from the King James text which, though supported by textual criticism, was initially off-putting to many conservative Christians.  The story of the woman caught in adultery, traditionally John 8.1-11, was dropped from the text for want of textual support, as was the longer ending of Mark's Gospel (Mark 16.9-20).

But perhaps the biggest objection for conservative Christians at the time the RSV was released was the translation of Isaiah 7.14. In the traditional King James Version, the verse reads: "
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel."  But in the RSV, the text reads: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman'u-el." The word translated young woman in Hebrew is almah which is a young woman of marriageable age, but it is not the specific word for virgin, which is "betulah." It is the Greek Septuagint (which Christian traditions such as Eastern Orthodoxy considers inspired in its own right) that features the word parthenos in Isaiah 7.14, which is definitely the word for virgin. Matthew quotes the Septuagint in Matthew 1.23 to buttress the Virgin Birth. The RSV is translated from the Hebrew, so it seems that young woman is a perfectly acceptable translation for Isaiah 7.14.  If you Google this question on the internet, you will find very passionate and scholarly arguments on both sides about whether almah should be translated "young woman" or "virgin." Not being a scholar of the Biblical languages myself,  I will not pontificate on the issue.  

Initially, evangelicals shunned the RSV. But as time went on they began to appreciate it more. Baptist Bible Scholar Harold Lindsell produced a study Bible called the Harper Study Bible based on the RSV in 1962. Evangelicals began to appreciate the virtues of the RSV, and many began to reconsider it, and gradually accepted it for its scholarship and beauty.

The fact that the RSV has spawned several revisions is a tribute to its greatness.

Originally released in 1965 and 1966, the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (RSVCE) was a great milestone along the way to a common Bible. The RSVCE went out of print after a time, but in the 1990's Ignatius Press and Scepter Publishers began reprinting the RSV Catholic Edition in order to satisfy a demand for a more reliable and dignified Bible translation for Catholics. Conservative and traditional Roman Catholics, who have been greatly disappointed by inclusive language and skeptical commentary notes in the official Catholic New American Bible version, have turned to the RSVCE. In 2006, Ignatius Press also published Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition, which eliminates archaic language ("thees" and "thous") and makes some other changes, such as the use of the word virgin in Isaiah 7.14.
The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which was intended to be the RSV for the 21st century, has been greeted with both enthusiasm and hostility. In many ways, it continues many of the virtues of the RSV, being generally a literal and literary translation. But the NRSV has met with some fierce criticism, reminiscent of some of the initial rejection of it parent in 1952. The NRSV makes use of inclusive language, or what some proponents call “gender accurate” language. Although I believe that in most cases the inclusive language is appropriate, it does appear to be ideologically at times, especially where it produces some inelegant and inaccurate translations.

The NRSV nevertheless is the choice of scholars, and is the pew Bible for mainline churches, including the Episcopal Church. It is what we use for our lectionary readings.

The NRSV continues the tradition of the New Oxford Annotated Bible, being available now in the 4th edition of the NOAB.

One Bible scholar I know believes that the NRSV has a much better grasp of the Hebrew than the RSV, and that the NRSV still has many admirable features. But I still prefer the original RSV. 

In 2001, the English Standard Version (ESV) was published. Evangelicals had made a request to the National Council of Churches back in the 1960’s for an Evangelical version of the RSV, but their request was spurned. However, later in the 1990’s, Crossway Books bought the rights to adapt the 1971 RSV text as a basis for a new revision. Because they bought the rights, they do not have to pay royalties to the National Council of Churches. Anglican scholar J.I. Packer led a team of Evangelical scholars in revising the RSV. Although considered a distinct translation, the ESV is actually a very light revision of the RSV, and represented initially only a 6% text change from the 1971 RSV text. The ESV may be seen as a legitimate heir to the RSV tradition, especially now that there is an edition with the Deuterocanonical/Apocryphal books produced. There was a revised of the ESV in 2007. I am not pleased with the way 1 Timothy 3.16 is translated, which I feel downplays the church as a source of truth. I have been tempted to use the ESV more, but I think the fact that there is only one edition available with the Deuterocanonical/Apocryphal books has been a drawback for me.

The RSV Today
Unfortunately, the RSV is becoming increasing difficult to find new copies of the RSV for purchase. Oxford Press and Cambridge Bibles in the US have both recently dropped their text editions of the RSV.  Plume still publishes a paperback edition of the 1952 RSV Bible, available on Amazon for a very affordable price.

Luckily, Oxford still published in both hard cover and leather, the New Oxford Annotated Bible. The Revised Standard Version Catholic edition is still widely available, with Oxford publishing several attractive editions, as well as Ignatius and Scepter.  Used RSV Bibles still appear relatively abundant in used book stores, eBay, and Amazon.com, and sometimes are available for a very small price. Grab one when you find it.

The RSV has gained in stature over the decades and is no doubt the most venerable modern English translation. Many have embraced the RSV because of it accuracy and dignified language. With the onslaught of paraphrases and inclusive language versions, the RSV is now seen for the beautiful, dignified and reliable version it has always been.

I urge you to consider owning and using the RSV if you do not already. It is magnificent translation of the Sacred Scriptures, and a joy to read. The Revised Standard Version is still the choice of scholars, it is reliable and has elegant language. What a Masterpiece it is! I will take it over its offspring, the NRSV and ESV any day of the week. When you read the RSV, you know you are reading the Bible!

Wikipedia Articles on the various editions of the RSV and its revisions:

Purchase the Revised Standard Version:

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