Bible Translations, III: 19th and 20th Century Revisions

For over three hundred years the King James Version was the Bible in English. By the nineteenth century many Greek manuscripts had been discovered which preserved more authentic and faithful readings of the original than the Textus Receptus Greek text base of the KJV; English as a language had undergone many changes. In 1870 the Church of England in Canterbury commissioned a revision of the King James Version in light of new textual evidence and understanding of Hebrew and Greek, leading to the 1881 Revised Version (RV). From the Revised Version, and especially its American counterpart, the American Standard Version (ASV) of 1901, all further modern translations would flow.

The major difference between the Revised Version and the American Standard Version involves the Divine Name, rendered “LORD” in the RV and “Jehovah” in the ASV. They both represent substantially the most literal translation designed for use within the churches; in many places in the New Testament a person familiar with Greek can essentially see the Greek text in the RV/ASV since it tends to replicate Greek sentence structure and grammatical peculiarities. The RV/ASV maintain the literal strength of the KJV and are based on more ancient Greek manuscripts. Like the KJV, the RV/ASV are no longer copyrighted, and can be freely quoted without fear of compromising copyright law.

The main strength of the RV/ASV is also its weakness: it is a wooden translation of the text, more “translationese” than English in many places. Its intentional use of archaic language is understandable in its context (to sound more like the KJV familiar to all English-speaking Christians) but a hindrance to understanding. The vocabulary of the RV/ASV is set at a high school age reading level. The use of “Jehovah” as the Divine Name in the ASV is unfortunate (YHWH is more accurate), although it does help to differentiate God’s name from the title “Lord.” Until recently it was hard to obtain access to the RV/ASV: the RV is only published as a part of a RV/KJV interlinear, and the ASV is only in publication as a New Testament by Star Bible. Only now with the prevalence of Bible software have the RV and ASV become more accessible.

The Revised Version and/or American Standard Version are quality Bible versions which ought to be consulted in any significant study of Scripture, especially involving semantics and discussion about language and phraseology. They represent great study versions, but their limited access in publication, archaic language, and wooden translation make them difficult primary versions for preaching and teaching.

In the 1930s the copyright holder of the American Standard Version recognized the value and importance of a revision to that text to modernize its language and incorporate evidence from new findings, particularly the Dead Sea Scrolls. This led to the creation of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) in 1952. The Revised Standard Version, and its later revision of 1989, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), would become the standard Bible of mainline Protestantism and within the community of scholars; in its day the RSV proved to be the first version to seriously challenge the hegemony of the KJV among English speaking Christians.

The RSV and NRSV are quality formal equivalence (“word for word”) translations which generally maintain faithfulness to the Hebrew and Greek texts while presenting them in more recognizably modern English. As with all later offshoots of the ASV the RSV and NRSV return to “LORD” as opposed to “Jehovah;” the RSV maintained archaic forms of address for God (“Thou, Thee,” etc.); the NRSV modernized them. The NRSV alone of all versions has incorporated an addition to the text of 1 Samuel found in the Dead Sea Scrolls:

Now Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had been grievously oppressing the Gadites and the Reubenites. He would gouge out the right eye of each of them and would not grant Israel a deliverer. No one was left of the Israelites across the Jordan whose right eye Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had not gouged out. But there were seven thousand men who had escaped from the Ammonites and had entered Jabesh-gilead (1 Samuel 10:27 NRSV).

This reading has explanatory value and power regardless of what one may think of its placement in terms of canon and theology. The translation of the Hebrew prophets in the NRSV is of exceptionally high quality, effectively capturing the nuances of the message of the prophets.

The translation of ‘almah as “young woman” rather than “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 in the RSV prompted much controversy, as did the mandate for gender-inclusive terminology in the New Testament of the NRSV. The strong acceptance of the RSV and NRSV within mainline Protestantism and its prevalence among scholars led to great suspicion and skepticism of those versions within Evangelicalism. The gender-inclusive terminology in the NRSV often borders on the ridiculous (e.g. “friends” for “brethren,” Galatians 6:1, etc.). While the RSV and NRSV have more modernized English and better English style than its forebears, they still are translated at a twelfth grade reading level.

Despite their reputations the Revised Standard Version and New Revised Standard Version remain quality English translations of the Scriptures and are worth considering in study. The elevated vocabulary and adaptations with gender neutral language can hinder them from effective use in preaching and teaching.

By the 1960s many within Evangelicalism desired a revision of the American Standard Version which would remain theologically conservative, rather literal, and yet more modern in idiom. The Lockman Foundation thus developed the New American Standard Bible (NASB; also known as New American Standard Version, or NASV), published in 1971. In 1995 the Foundation published an updated version, the New American Standard Update; the update, sometimes called NASU or NASB95, has essentially replaced the original, which itself is now often known as NAS77.

The NASB is as advertised: it is the most literal of the modern offshoots of the ASV but in more modern language. It does not incorporate gender inclusive language, and its translation does not provoke concern regarding theological liberalism. The NASB usefully italicizes English words added to the translation not explicit in the original Greek and renders quotations of the Old Testament in the New Testament in small caps. The NASB95 handles the future perfect of Matthew 16:19 accurately.

Yet, as with the ASV, so with the NASB: its commitment to literalism means its English style and structure often prove awkward. It maintains a twelfth grade reading level and thus proves inaccessible to many. Its theological commitments occasionally get in its way, as with depersonalizing Azazel as the “scapegoat” in Leviticus 16:8-10, and speaking of a father and not a betrothed prospective husband in 1 Corinthians 7:36-38.

The New American Standard Bible remains a high quality Bible version, valuable for study, and often used in preaching and teaching. May we use all such versions to come to a better understanding of God and His purposes in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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