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Autobiographical. Metzger and Me. The NRSV Bible Translation Committee

A CONTINUATION OF MY RECOLLECTIONS OF BRUCE METZGER, MY MENTOR.

When I was still a graduate student in the PhD program at Princeton Theological Seminary, Metzger invited me to serve as a secretary for the committee that was producing the new revision of the Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible. The RSV (on which the new translation was to be based) had come out in 1952, and it had caused a huge furor at the time. It was an “official” revision of the King James Bible, that was supposed to update the language (English has changed a lot since 1611), to take into consideration new manuscript discoveries (especially important for the New Testament, since the KJV was based on only a few medieval manuscripts that were not of very high quality; hundreds of better ones had since been discovered, and to incorporate the findings of modern Biblical scholarship).

The RSV of 1952 was an “official” translation because it was authorized by the National Council of Churches in the U.S. But in the opinion of very conservative Christians it was an outrage, the product of liberal biblical scholarship, not of true believers. (!)

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Metzger was on the original RSV committee in the 1940s and 1950s, and when the committee was recommissioned in the 1970s he was asked to be the chair.   Their goal and mission was to update the translation yet again in light of the (rather large) changes that had again occurred in the English language and the (rather significant) new discoveries and advanced scholarship that had taken place.

The committee was made up of scholars from a range of Christian denominations, several Jewish scholars, and at least one person who was an agnostic (I think: I never asked him, but I’m pretty sure he was not a believer) (although he had been raised evangelical Christian).   The whole committee was divided into four subcommittees, three for the OT (which is obviously much longer than the NT) and one for the NT.    The committee met twice a year for a week in Princeton:  one week over Christmas holidays and one week in the summer.   It was a vast amount of work.

The way it worked was this.   For each book of the Bible, one committee member went carefully over the RSV translation and decided what had to be changed and updated, and what could be left the same.   He or she (there were several women on the committee) would then write up a length report with their findings and suggestions, circulate them in advance, and everyone would consider them before coming together for the weekly meeting.   All of these scholars were expert, of course, in the relevant languages.   For the Old Testament, that meant being fully expert in Hebrew, but also in the cognate languages:  Ugaritic and Akkadian,  for example, as well as in the languages into which the Hebrew Bible had been translated, such as Greek and Latin.    For the New Testament the translators worked directly with the Greek but also had to be able to handle ancient translations into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and so on.

During the weekly meeting, then, the subcommittees would discuss the proposed new translations (which were actually proposed revisions of the translation found in the RSV).   Some books required far more additional revision than others.    The work of the committee, during the week, involved going verse by verse, line by line, word by word, and hammering out the revision of the text, as proposed by the person who had written the report.  S/he had no greater say over the final outcome than anyone else.

The sub-committee would consider ever proposed revision, suggest ones of their own, and then the key element.   They would vote.

You may wonder how translation committees decided on a translation of a text (why this translation of the verse instead of that one).  It is done by a show of hands.   Some people may not like that idea, but there is no way around it, if you want to have a committee as opposed to an individual person doing the translation.   And having a committee is so much better, because the idiosyncrasies  of each translator are then taken out of the equation, and you get a translation that represents a consensus of scholarship.

The problem is that if there are seven persons on the subcommittee, and four vote one way and three the other – well, the majority wins.  And not every member can make it to every committee meeting.  So the translation ends up being the one acceptable to the majority of committee members who happen to be there at that time.

So – back to my involvement.  I was just a graduate student, and was obviously not a committee member myself.  These were some of the very top biblical scholars and philologists in North America.   I was a secretary for the committee.   The four subcommittees all met at the same time, covering different books of the Bible, and so there were four secretaries.   Iwas appointed to one of the subcommittees (as were the other secretaries), and I recorded the votes.

It was an amazing experience, hearing these OT scholars debate back and forth how to translate the books of the Bible.   They were operating at a very intense and high academic level:  do we want to translate this word in that way?  Don’t forget, the Ugaritic cognate work is XXX; yes but the Akkadian is YYY; and in the Septuagint it is translated as ZZZ; yes but in Ezekiel 9 it clear means WWW; right, but the vulgate has UUU, etc. etc. – word after word, verse after verse, for the whole Bible.

As secretaries we had other duties (a committee member would ask, for example, “remind us how we translated it in 6:11”).   When we had recorded all the votes, we submitted the results to Metzger who had someone else coordinate all the efforts of all the subcommittees.  A few years later I was the one doing all the coordinating, as I’ll explain in the next post.[\private]


The NRSV Bible Translation Committee (Part 2)
My First Teaching Position

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    brandyrose  August 21, 2012

    My goodness, that is fascinating. For accuracy, etc., do you still recommend the NRSV even 20+ years later?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 23, 2012

      Yup — I think it’s the best thing going!

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 21, 2012

    Fascinating stuff which demythologizes the process some. Thanks for sharing. Did the committee ever pray for divine guidance before starting work? Just curious.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 23, 2012

      Well, Metzger would begin each session with prayer. But I don’t think anyone imagined they were divinely inspired!

  3. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  August 21, 2012

    Could you speak more on the languages of Ugaritic and Akkadian please? I have heard them mentioned numerous times, but have no idea why they are significant for the OT. I assume they were translated from Hebrew like the Septuagint, but what era? Also, do you know how they came up with the idea to put John 7:53 (Adultry) at the end of the NRSV? and maybe just not include it entirely? Is it at the end of the RSV?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 23, 2012

      Yup, sure. These are not ancient languages into which the Bible was translated. They are languages that are cognate with Hebrew, so that where there are Hebrew words that are otherwise unknown, but their parallel forms in these other languages *are* known, the translator is given traction for the translation of the Hebrew word. Make sense? (We don’t have ancient Hebrew texts outside the Bible — from the same time period — so there is no extensive literature to appeal to in order to establish what words must mean, as there is for both Latin and Greek, for example)

  4. Avatar
    Scott F  August 21, 2012

    Well, it’s not QUITE like making sausages but interesting nonetheless.

  5. Avatar
    Zainab  August 22, 2012

    Interesting! So in your experience & educated opinion, is the NRSV the ‘best’ translation to use/read or the most accurate to the ‘original’? As you stated that you used the NRSV for the translation of the Hebrew Bible in your book: ‘Did Jesus Exist?’

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 24, 2012

      Yup, it’s my preferred translation still.

  6. Avatar
    ZachET  August 22, 2012

    Concerning Paul and the synoptics not thinking Jesus was God, how do you explain Colossians 2:9.
    Also Jesus is worshiped in ,Matthew 14:33,Matthew 2:11, Matthew 28:9.

    Surely they must of thought he was God to worship him

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 24, 2012

      I don’t think Paul wrote Colossians. On worship: you may want to do a word study of PROSKUNEO in ancient Greek. I’ll be dealing with all of this in my next book on How Jesus Became God.

  7. Avatar
    hwl  August 23, 2012

    There is something that has long perplexed me: how do we actually know the meaning of words and the grammar of ancient dead languages, such as biblical Hebrew, Koine Greek and Latin? In the Greco-Roman world, did the literary elite actually use dictionaries and grammar books of some sort when learning Greek, for example? I presume there are no extant proto-dictionaries or proto-grammar books of biblical Hebrew or Aramaic?
    Can you make some recommendations on up to date work on translation studies, as I imagine the process of deciphering ancient dead languages is quite complicated and at times quite conjectural. I know there are many excellent textbooks on learning Greek and Hebrew, but these books simply present vocabulary and grammar and stylistic conventions as matters of fact. They never explain how these facts are derived. I am aware that scholars debate certain rarely used or specialised words (e.g. “to justify”, “God-breathed”) using contemporary literature outside biblical text to ascertain the meaning. However, this already presupposes the bulk of vocabulary and grammar.
    Also how do we figure out how letters and words of ancient dead languages were pronounced?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 24, 2012

      Ah, that’s too much of a question for a quick response! But short answer: philologists work on this kind of thing for a living; the evidence is not easily summarized; and almost all the scholarship — so far as I know — is in highly erudite journals, not in anything like a popular publication. If anyone knows of anything that is accessible to the non-scholar, I (we!) would be happy to hear of it! (OK, that was more an indirection than an answer: the answer is that the philologists figure out meanings of words by context and by cognate languages.)

      • Avatar
        hwl  August 24, 2012

        If you can cite some scholarly books dealing with the principles and methods of philology applied to the biblical languages (Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic), it would be helpful. I am not so much interested in the specifics of particular words or grammatical rules; I am interested in the principles and methods, though I suppose the principles and methods only become apparent when applied to specific words and rules. I am happy to dig into scholarly works and articles – if i am not equipped to tackle them right now, I will read into the prerequisites gradually over the next few years. I have a working knowledge of Latin and Greek, and I plan to learn Hebrew and Aramaic sometime over the next few years so I can understand scholarly discussions of biblical texts (e.g. Maurice Casey’s Aramaic-based approach to solving the Son of Man problem).

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  August 26, 2012

          I’m afraid I’m not abreast of the current theoretical discussions. You might start, though, with something like The Semantics of Biblical Langauge by James Barr. For other issues about modern trasnslation efforts, maybe try the books of Eugene Nida? More broadly, search for translation theory on Amazon. Hope this is of *some* use….

  8. Avatar
    Zainab  August 24, 2012

    My question asked on August 22:
    “Interesting! So in your experience & educated opinion, is the NRSV the ‘best’ translation to use/read or the most accurate to the ‘original’? As you stated that you used the NRSV for the translation of the Hebrew Bible in your book: ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ “

  9. Avatar
    Zainab  August 24, 2012

    p.s I can see other people’s questions and your answers to them now, but those were not visible when I asked mine 🙂

  10. Avatar
    Mohy  March 4, 2014

    i understand that RSV was issued in 1952 and the years latter a second issue took place in which the last 12 verses of Mark16 were restored and other modifications which were written in the Preface am i right?
    and when the NRSV was issued please?

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