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Autobiographical. Metzger and Me: More on the NRSV



Two rather humorous stories connected with my work as the administrative assistant for the revision of the Revised Standard Version.

In that capacity I was, of course, present for the various deliberations of the committee. Among the many issues they discussed was what to call the new revision. Ultimately it stood in the tradition of the “Authorized Version” – the technical name of the King James Version. In 1881, the KJV underwent an “official” revision (i.e., authorized by the ecclesiastical authorities who owned the copyright) in the Revised Version. Its committee received a lot of flak for the changes it made. Even though it was an English revision, there were several Americans who were on the committee. As part of their terms of involvement, they agreed not to publish and American version of the translation (making changes as they saw fit and bringing spelling and punctuation into conformity with American usage) for 20 years; and so in 1901 was published the American Standard Version.

As I mentioned before, this version was revised to bring the language up to date and to make necessary changes based on advances in scholarship some 50 years later, with the publication of the Revised  Standard Version.    And now, about 30 years or so later, the revision was being revised again.  This too was an “authorized” revision – in this case, authorized by the National Council of Churches in the USA, which held the copyright to the RSV.


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Bruce Metzger is the author of several books including The Early Versions of the New Testament and The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, And Restoration.

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  1. Avatar
    Adam  August 26, 2012

    Do you know where the box of ashes is now?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 27, 2012

      I don’t know for sure. I *think* Speer Library may still have a room dedicated to the NRSV archives; if so, that’s where it would be. I haven’t returned there for probably fifteen years….

  2. Robertus
    Robertus  August 26, 2012

    Funny. What did the “P” stand for in RSVP?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 27, 2012

      So far as I know, nothing; it was just a joke. And one I rather like….

  3. Avatar
    theology64  August 26, 2012

    I thought virgin meant “hand Maiden”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 27, 2012

      Nope. English “virgin” usually means “person who has never had sex.” Hebrew had a term for that as well (BETHULAH), but it’s not the term used in Isa 7:14, which uses instead the term ALMAH (“young woman”).

  4. Avatar
    maxhirez  August 26, 2012

    Did the “P” in your suggestion stand for anything or was it just because it was suggested by the “RSV?” (I would totally read that version.)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 27, 2012

      It was just a joke — I don’t think it stood for anything.

  5. Avatar
    SJB  August 27, 2012

    “…if someone does not like a new edition of the Bible, they burn a copy of the translation, rather than the translator.”

    Now that is progress is it not?

    So just out of curiosity and not wanting to get down too far in the weeds, but looking back from the perspective you now hold as a seasoned scholar, any instances where you think the NRSV committee blew it? Any substantive tweaks to be made?



    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 27, 2012

      Great question: I’d like to answer that in a post on my blog. There are a couple of places I find really irritating and bad!

  6. Avatar
    hwl  August 27, 2012

    Funny story. Metzger must have a reputation for his witty sense of humour.
    Most popular English translations (e.g. TNIV, NIV, ESV) retain “virgin” in Isaiah 7, leaving the more accurate alternative “young woman” in the footnote. No doubt the desire to retain a cherished traditional belief played a role in this choice. But I suppose the translation committees would cite purported scholarly considerations as the official reasons. Any idea what they are?
    There is something that has long puzzled me: evangelical and fundamentalist churches place immense emphasis on the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, they devote the bulk of their services and regular meetings to Bible readings and studies, and apologists stress the inerrancy of the original manuscripts. Yet very few of these churches, even the megachurches which invariably have the resources and manpower, offer their lay members classes in Greek or Hebrew so they can understand the original literal words of God. Muslims have great emphasis on the Quran as the literal inerrant words of God, and for this reason, most devout Muslims teach their young Arabic because translations of the Quran are not viewed as the real thing. This mindset never caught on in Protestantism.
    If conservative Christians revere the Bible so much, why don’t they allocate a small fraction of the time already devoted to Bible studies, to studying the biblical languages? Any idea why not?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 27, 2012

      Great question. I don’t have a great answer. I think the church leaders probably don’t know the languages so well themselves, but what they do know they want their congregants to “trust them.” I do know of some churches that teach Greek — but they are surely exceptional. My general sense is that the doctirne of the inerrancy of the autographs is meant to provide assurance to those who doubt, rather than anything else.

  7. Avatar
    hwl  August 27, 2012

    All translations have biases of one sort or another. Compared to other popular translations, do you think the WatchTower Society’s New World Translation is fairly accurate? Conservative Christians want to draw out the highest christology throughout the New Testament, including reading Trinitarian doctrine into passages that don’t lend such a position. WatchTower Society, with their Unitarian position, goes the other extreme. However, it seems this bias actually helps to bring out the more accurate rendering in some cases e.g. instead of referring to the disciples “worshipping” the resurrected Jesus, The New World Translations renders the word “do obeisance” which probably is more accurate.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 27, 2012

      My sense is that the New World translation is more theologically driven than most other translations, but I have not studied it much. You might look at Jack Pearl Lewis book on The English Bible (deals with all the major translations in a fairly even handed way, including the New World, which he does not like at all, and gives reasons for). I think I do like “obeisance” for “worship” though — it does give a better sense of what the word means.

      • Avatar
        hwl  August 28, 2012

        In “Truth in translation – accuracy and bias in English translations of New Testament” (University of America Press, 2003, page 163), Jason BeDuhn – professor of religious studies at Northern Arizona University – makes a counter-intuitive and unexpected conclusion:

        “While it is difficult to quantify this sort of analysis, it can be said that the New World Translation emerges as the most accurate of the translations compared (NW, NAB, NRSV, NASB, and KJV). Holding a close second to the NW in its accuracy, judging by the passages we have looked at, is the NAB . Both of these are translations produced by single denominations of Christianity. Despite their distinctive doctrinal commitments, the translators managed to produce works relatively more accurate and less biased than the translations produced by multi-denominational teams, as wel l as those produced by single individuals. I have pondered why these two translations, of all those
        considered, turned out to be the least biased.”
        He ranks NW (and NAB) ahead of even NSRV – a questionable conclusion not least based on the known high calibre of scholars on NSRV’s translation committee versus that of the anonymous translators of NW.

        All translations have theological biases in different ways. For example, by retaining the traditional rendering of “virgin” in Isaiah 7, many modern translations show their conservative bias.

        In unusually strong terms, Tom Wright points out the evangelical/Reformed bias in rendering of Romans:
        “But I do know that if a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about…Yes, the NRSV sometimes lets you down, too, but nowhere near as frequently or as badly as the NIV…But there are many who, having made the switch to the NIV, are now stuck with reading Romans 3:21-26 like this: ‘But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known…This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe…[God] did this to demonstrate his justice…he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.’ In other words, ‘the righteousness of God’ in Romans 3:21 is only allowed to mean ‘the righteous status which comes to people from God,’ whereas the equivalent term in Romans 3:25 and Romans 3:26 clearly refers to God’s own righteousness — which is presumably why the NIV has translated
        it as ‘justice,’ to avoid having the reader realize the deception.” (N.T. Wright, Justification, IVP, 2009)

        In Wright’s view, it was not merely an inaccuracy, but a “deception”.

      • Avatar
        hwl  August 28, 2012

        In your forthcoming book on how Jesus became God, it would be helpful to discuss whether Paul, the synoptic authors (including Matthew – a very Jewish evangelist) and the Johannine author had in mind a similar or very different idea whenever each of them in different contexts refer to “worshipping Jesus”. I understand that critical scholars generally are skeptical of the idea of finding a high christology in the synoptic gospels. I also note the textual variants in Luke 24:52, where some ancient manuscripts lack reference to worship.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 29, 2012

    If you get a chance, I would love to read some of your ideas about the origin and rise of Biblical literalism.. Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 29, 2012

      I’d suggest looking at the books by George Marsden, the real expert on this.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 30, 2012

    Thanks so much. I will do that.

  10. Avatar
    Mohy  March 3, 2014

    Isaiah 7:14, properly, as saying “A young woman [instead of “virgin”] shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call him Immanuel”
    Could you elaborate why Christians refer to this as a prophecy of Jesus i mean no body said that Jesus was called Immanuel , what does Immanuel mean?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 3, 2014

      Immanuel literally means “God is with us.” Christians take this to refer to Jesus because in him God was present.

  11. Avatar
    Shadiherz  January 16, 2017

    Doesn’t the Septuagint use the word “virgin?”

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