I recently discussed how I became a secretary for the New Revised Standard Version translation committee as a grad student.  Several people have asked me what I think of the translation, and if I have any problems with it.  My answer is pretty straightforward and comes in two parts: I think it is the best Bible translation out there and I have lots of problems with it.  (!)  The reality is that *every* Bible scholar has *lots* of problems with virtually every Bible translation.  Even the best.

Generally speaking, I have two kinds of problems with the NRSV: some have to do with the translation itself, others have to do with the Greek reading that the translators decided to translate.  I’ll deal with the first set of problems in two posts, and second in the next two posts.

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 are a few 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, and 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 one of them.  It’s one of those things that seems like a small and insignificant detail but has some rather interesting and even important significance.

John 3:22: “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside.”

“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 to 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 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 on which the NRSV is based.)

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.

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.