My problems with the NRSV. One of the pleasures and difficulties I am finding with this blog is that it is oh so easy to get sidetracked from my original plan and intention.  The current series of posts was originally a response to the question of how Bruce Metzger reacted to my loss of faith.  (To anticipate the final answer: I don’t think he had much of a reaction at all!)   But instead of dealing with that question directly, I decided to use it as an opportunity to talk about my long-term relationship with Metzger; this has occupied a large number of posts.

The most recent of those had to do with my work for/with him on the New Revised Standard Version.  In response to those posts, several people have asked me questions about the NRSV, and now I am dealing with/ responding to these.  But I promise: I will get back to the original question eventually!

Problems with the NRSV

On the NRSV, several people have wanted to know if I had problems with any of it.  As I briefly mentioned in my earlier post – yes I do!  Even though I do think it is the best translation available)  There are two kinds of problems that I have:

I’ll deal with the first set of problems in two posts and the second in the next two posts.


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What is Wrong with the NRSV Bible?

Every biblical scholar will have problems with the way translators have rendered this, that, or the other passage.  Scholars disagree on everything!  (Well, almost everything – there’s scarcely one who disagrees with the existence of Jesus for example)

There are a couple of passages that have always irritated me from the NRSV.  If I dug harder, I’m sure I would find others.  I almost never read the English Bible, so I don’t try to track down problems; like most scholars, I tend to read the Bible – especially the NT, my area of expertise, in the original language.  But here, for what it’s worth, is the first of the two that I have found particularly problematic.

A Mistranslation?

John 3:22: “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside.”  This is a mistranslation and I think it was probably motivated by a desire to keep John from sounding like it contains a discrepancy.  I sometimes have my students look at John 2:23-3:22 and explain the geography.  Because in fact, the geography doesn’t seem to “work.”

In 2:23 Jesus is in Jerusalem.  While there, in Jerusalem, starting in 3:1, he has a conversation with the rabbi Nicodemus.  He finishes this conversation in 3:21.  And then we have the curious statement that the NRSV has been mistranslated. But the Greek actually says, “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea.”  (It is correctly translated in the RSV).

Why Do Mistranslations Matter?

And why does this translation matter?  Because, of course, Jerusalem itself is in the land of Judea.  And so it makes no sense to say that after his discussion with Nicodemus Jesus went into the land of Judea since he is already there!  You get a similar problem in John 5 and 6; Jesus is in Jerusalem in chapter 5, and then at the beginning of ch. 6 we are told that he went to “the other side” of the Sea of Galilee.  Well, he can’t go to the “other side” of the lake unless he is already on one of the sides, but according to the account, he is not – he is way down south, many miles away, in Jerusalem!

The reason for both of these geographical mistakes: the author of the Fourth Gospel has utilized various sources for his account and has spliced them together.  When he has done so, he has inadvertently left “literary seams” that show what he has done.  Almost no one notices these things unless someone points them out to them.   But there they are.

NRSV – Problem Solved

But in the NRSV there is no problem any longer, because of the mistranslation (of 3:22) (6:1 is a problem even there – – there’s no way to get around the geographical faux pas by retranslating the passage in that case).  The Greek of 3:22 says that they went into the “land” (GHN) of Judea, not into the Judean “countryside” (XWRIS).

This matters because if in fact Jesus and his disciples went into the countryside, it simply means that they left the city and went to the rural places outside.  No contradiction.  But if translated correctly, there is in fact a discrepancy.  And I think there is no doubt at all about why the translators changed the RSV in this case.  It was precisely to eliminate the possibility of the geographical discrepancy.   But in mistranslating the phrase, they have done more harm than good.   IMHO.