Here I continue with some reminiscences of my work with my mentor Bruce Metzger.


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 lengthy 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 every proposed revision, suggest ones of their own, and then came 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.   I was 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 that works is XXX; yes but the Akkadian is YYY; and in the Septuagint it is translated as ZZZ; yes but in Ezekiel 9 it clearly 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.