Reading the NRSV

I remember as a teenager being told that the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) was the best and most accurate new translation.  When I went to Bible college, it was the required translation and the translation we had in exams.  It is usually considered the standard academic translation.  It was the translation I was given when I was first ordained.  For all that, I've only ever been to one church that used it as the pew Bible.  However, in 2013 I read the entirety of the NRSV (admittedly in the Americanised version, because that had my reading plan in).

So what did I think?

Those who know a bit about translation will know that, in a sense, the NRSV is descended from the King James Version, but through a few iterations.  It is probably best know in evangelical circles for gender inclusive language.  This is a complex issue for a number of reasons (e.g. English speakers vary in how they use gender language and determining if gender is inherent in a particular instance in the Biblical languages is difficult).  The NRSV doesn't engage brilliantly in those complexities and at times is painfully clunky (was "comrades" really a great translation compared to the older "brothers" in the mid-eighties height of the cold war!).  However, although I often thought the translation was ugly, if not plain unhelpful, it was always footnoted, which I feel largely dealt with the problem.

A second issue, which is especially noticeable if you read the footnotes, is the willingness to emend the Hebrew text in favour of other versions.  Scholarship seems to have changed on this (the introduction to the ESV talks of "the currently renewed respect among Old Testament scholars for the Masoretic text [the main Hebrew text]").  Again there are usually footnotes, but it takes a pretty educated reader to know what's going on here.

In terms of a translation to read, I increasingly find that you get used to the translation you are reading. Initially I found it a struggle, but after a few weeks I was used to it (I'm finding exactly the same with NKJV at the moment).  Perhaps the strangest thing about the NRSV is that I felt I couldn't decide what the translators were doing.  Sometimes it felt like they went for an uncomfortably word-for-word translation that made it hard to read, at others it felt like they had gone for quite a colloquial paraphrase.  Now there's probably always going to be some of this in translations that hang around the middle of the translation spectrum (between what is known as formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence). However, for me, it seemed clear that both the ESV and the NIV (whether 1984 or 2011) are better at this by being a bit more consistent.  This in particular made me wonder why the NRSV has become an academic standard (is it just because of the evangelical background to the NIV and ESV?).

I remember hearing someone quote F.F. Bruce as saying something like: almost any modern translation of the Bible, despite their inadequacies, would present the truth of Jesus to people.  The NRSV certainly falls into this category.  However, it seems to me you always have to read a translation understanding where the translators are coming from and I think given the issues above this is necessary with the NRSV.

So to sum up.  If I was in a church that had NRSVs, I felt it would be fine as a church Bible.  I wouldn't feel the need to change it, but I wouldn't choose it (currently I would probably choose the NIV or the ESV). For personal study, in some ways it navigates that middle line of formal and dynamic equivalence and would be perfectly acceptable, but again I think there are better options.  It's major strength I think is the footnotes (in which it is probably better than the ESV or the NIV), as they usually make clear the options and sometimes the background to a particular translation.  Even better here is the NET bible, but that is an unusual option still.

I honesty, I suspect the NRSV will go back on the shelf to be consulted only occasionally for a fresh perspective or to look at the Apocrypha (of which more in another post and it should be noted that if you want access to the Apocrypha the NRSV gives it to you).


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