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A Bible Translations Series: Which Translation Do I Prefer And Why? (Part II of II)

by Carson T. Clark on October 18, 2011

Preface: It’s taken 10 months but I’ve finally finished the Bible translations series. If you’re interested, click here for Part I. Also, a word to the wise: When it comes to Bible translations, don’t put too much stock into the opinions of a dyslexic blog writer.

Let’s face reality. Our current world and languages are so far removed from those of the Bible that nothing approaching a perfect translation is possible. Translating it into English isn’t like putting 18th century French into 21st century Spanish where there’s endless linguistic and cultural similarities. The good news is that, from everything I’ve read and learned, almost all of the major English translations are solid. Sure, they’ve all got strengths and weaknesses that reflect their purposes and intentions,11. For example, the NIV is readable but not particularly reliable for precise theological study while the NASB is the opposite. but when it comes right down to it they do a pretty good job accurately communicating the ancient text to a contemporary audience. That’s why I’m not a translation Nazi.22. Of course, this isn’t to say that discussions of linguistic philosophy are unimportant or should be approached with apathy. On the contrary, as divinely-inspired Scripture, faithfully representing, preserving, and communicating the biblical text are tasks deserving of our utmost reverence and labor. Indeed, this must be one of our highest priorities.The sole thing I really put up a fuss about is archaic language. Even though the ol’ King Jimmy remains the official Anglican translation, I have zero patience for the KJV-only crowd. That being said, the translation I prefer is the New Revised Standard Version.

In my experience, Christians all over the ideological spectrum tend to assume two things when you tell them you like the NRSV. First, you’re not conservative, which to their mind is to say that you’re a raging liberal. Second, you’re all about the gender-neutral language because you’re a raging liberal. As for the former point, I won’t waste your time disproving the assumptions of liberalism nor rehashing my credentials as a hardlining moderate. It’s enough to just mention those things. As for the latter, yes, I like the NRSV’s treatment of gender issues but I readily acknowledge the problems with that approach. Ultimately this just isn’t a big deal for me.

People often laugh or cringe when I say this, but the seven reasons I prefer the NRSV have little to do with linguistic theory and are more existential, theological, and ecclesiastical:

  1. Virtually all of the other translations bring me back to unfortunate periods in my spiritual journey that I’d just as soon not relive.33.The NIV reminds me of my childhood in the Assemblies of God, which includes a healthy, suburban church in OK and a vile, rural church in MN. The NKJV reminds me of my time as an independent Pentecostal in my late teens. The NASB and NLT both bring me back my year at Moody, reminding me of the respective Dispensational literalism and theological disillusionment that I experienced there. The ESV reminds me of my Reformed days as a Piperite. The TNIV and HCSB remind me of the heresy accusations leveled against me by the Baptist fundamentalists at Toccoa Falls College. Even my beloved Philips Bible reminds of the the spiritual and psychological turmoil I faced there. It’s a bizarre experience. The closest thing I can compare it to is visiting your hometown after years away only to find yourself mysteriously thinking and feeling exactly as you did in high school. It’s as though you’re re-becoming your former self. There’s this strange spiritual-psychological link between those translations that I wish to avoid.
  2. I take Christ’s prayer in John 17:20-21 extraordinarily seriously. His clear desire is that the Church would be one so that the world would know that the Father sent the Son. Division harms our witness. Shame on us all for dismissing and/or downplaying the significance of that passage. Although complete unity and reconciliation within the Church will never be a reality in my lifetime, I seek to tangibly pursue it however possible without violating my conscience. What could be a more powerful show of unity and goodwill than an ecumenical Bible translation? To my knowledge, the NRSV is the sole English translation produced by scholars from each of the three major traditions–Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Moreover, it was endorsed by 33 Protestant bodies, received the imprimatur of the American and Canadian Conferences of Catholic bishops, and was blessed by bishops within the Orthodox Church. Personally, I love the Anglicized Catholic Edition. Every time I open it is reminds and convicts me of Christ’s will for His Body.
  3. The late Bruce Metzger is one of my favorite scholars. He had a top-notch mind, was a true gentleman, and chaired the Committee on Translators for the NRSV. His work in textual criticism was well-respected by thinking evangelicals and frightened (or enraged) fundamentalists, all of which endears him to me.4.Plus I love his ecumenical spirit. He had the honor of presenting the NRSV to Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Demetrius I of Constantinople. I’ll avoid waxing poetically, but I will say that I couldn’t imagine selecting a more qualified and competent person for the job.4
  4. I’m not down with self-described “conservative translations” of Scripture.55.To be clear, this isn’t to say I’m flippantly dismissing the validity of some of the concerns prompting such efforts. What I’m saying is that it smacks of partisan and ideological bickering. And I’m especially not cool with a new translation that was produced in order to be an explicit conservative rebuttal to an earlier translation deemed to be liberal by conservatives, which is the story behind the ESV.66.Spearheaded by J.I. Packer, it aimed to be a conservative translation in the King James lineage that bypassed the supposedly liberal bias of the Bruce Metzger-led NRSV. Again, I see this as partisan bickering. On an emotional and intellectual level, rather than exciting me for the ESV that drives me back to the NRSV. In referring back to Part I, I’ll take the NRSV, Metzger, ecumenism and the Oxford Study Bible over the ESV, Packer, partisanship, and the Reformed Study Bible any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
  5. Whereas most translations marketed toward conservative evangelicals only occasionally contain the Apocrypha, the NRSV usually contains it. This is important to me because I affirm its deuterocanonical status.77.Coming from the Greek, deuterocanonical means “belonging to the second canon.”For those Protestants now having anxiety attacks, rest assured that it’s going to be OK. The Apocrypha’s presence within the Bible doesn’t somehow destroy the faith or undermine the biblical canon. If anything, I think it helps us honor the canon by facilitating a right understanding of it.88.At Moody I was taught about the so-called “400 Years of Silence” from Malachi to Matthew, but that label fails to do justice to the continued societal upheaval faced by the Jews. The Apocrypha’s value is immense, then, in that it bridges the narrative between the Testaments, helps rightly frame our understanding of the New Testament by grounding it in its specific cultural-historical context, and provides a basic template for understanding God’s work in the non-canonical period in which we live. In my experience, the reason conservative Protestants freak out about the Apocrypha is that it undermines their simplistic, binary categories of inspired and non-inspired, biblical and unbiblical. This idea that there might be texts that are genuinely inspired but in some lesser sense really screws with their schema, which is especially so for those holding to a 19th century, foundationalist understanding of inerrancy.
  6. A unique concern for Anglicans is the congruence of the Book of Common Prayer with the Bible translation used in their Eucharist services, the Daily Office, etc. Because the BCP so intimately joins worship and belief in a way that’s reminiscent of Orthodoxy, a lot of Anglicans get testy about their views on this one. That’s perfectly understandable. Personally, just like I’m not a Bible translation Nazi, so I’m not a Prayer Book Nazi. Still my favorite is the The Episcopal Church’s ’79 BCP. And wouldn’t ya know it just so happens to use the NRSV. If nothing else that makes it convenient.
  7. From what I understand, the NRSV is the translation of choice for most of my favorite theologians. That speaks volumes.

I conclude with a biographical memorial for Dr. Bruce M. Metzger:

  • Matt Brench

    Thanks for the pro-NRSV plug, I’ve been waiting to hear one from someone! I never knew about its acceptance among the Big Three, so to speak. Personally I’ve become a fan of the RSV, but I’m very aware that it’s largely due to my personality quirks, and that most people would benefit from something more modern.

    And on a side note, I offer you a round of applause on #5.

    • Carson T. Clark


      I too am a fan of the RSV, but, yeah, it’s dated and can even be hard to find.

    • Charles Wingate

      As far as I can tell, that’s because the NCC is trying to discourage using it. They told UVA to take down their online version of it, for example.

    • David Brainerd

      You pretty much have to go to a Catholic bookstore to buy an RSV now days. They do have the big ones at Barnes and Nobles, but if you want a compact, you’ll only find it at a Catholic bookstore.

  • B. J. Parker

    Great post.

    • Carson T. Clark

      Thanks, man.

  • Anonymous

    Glad to see you implemented Disqus! Also, I have tried the NRSV, and there are things I love about it. I too am not thrilled about the genesis of the ESV, but the end result was pretty good. It’s something like 98% the same as the RSV and comparing the ESV and the NRSV side by side they are often identical! That said, after examining a couple passages I thought the NRSV took the gender thing a bit too far (even though I am generally in favor of “brothers and sisters,” etc as it more accurately reflect the original meaning). Also, ESV retains the Lord’s Prayer in the traditional wording, as well as Psalm 23. This isn’t the biggest of deals of course, but it keeps me using the ESV as my go-to translation–it’s more consistent with the Scripture I already have memorized.

    Still thanks to you I own an NRSV and enjoy reading from it! I don’t think the ’79 BCP is nearly as horrible as many would make it out to be, however they did butcher the Psalter. I still use the ’79 all the time though for various prayers, daily devotions, and my church uses liturgy from it often.

    • Anonymous

      Also, it’s tough to find a really nicely bound edition of the NRSV. :(

    • Carson T. Clark

      Really? I haven’t had any problem. Just the other day I saw the edition I use at Barnes & Noble.

    • Anonymous

      Here’s the edition I use, and I really like it:

      One best Bibles out there in terms of quality for the money. Beautifully typeset and a joy to read.

      However, the amount of editions are limited, and the really nice Bible binders (R.L. Allan, Cambridge, Oxford) don’t offer the NRSV as far as I know…

    • Carson T. Clark

      For me the 7 things I highlighted outweigh the problems with word selection, but I can see how/why people would feel otherwise.

  • Adam Cirone

    These two posts about translations were interesting. I will have to give the NRSV another look when I get the chance… I believe that it was the translation we used in my Biblical literature courses during college.

    That being said, I prefer the ESV because I have found it somewhat more readable than other “word-for-word” style translations. Yet I rarely read from the ESV today because most of my reading is from my “The Books of the Bible” printing from the International Bible Society:

    … which is unfortunately only available in TNIV. However, considering that there are no “serious” differences between this translation and others, presentation trumps specific translation issues. I find that my reading comprehension and enjoyment are improved significantly when chapter and verse notation is removed and natural (guesswork involved of course) paragraph breaks are introduced.

    If a similarly formatted Bible in the NRSV or ESV translation were available, I would buy it without a second thought, and it would probably become my primary reading Bible.

    • Carson T. Clark

      “I find that my reading comprehension and enjoyment are improved significantly when chapter and verse notation is removed and natural (guesswork involved of course) paragraph breaks are introduced.”

      Yeah, man. All the hermeneutics stuff I learned in college said to read the Bible as though the chapter and verse references aren’t there… BUT THEY ARE! It’s impossible to ignore them. That’s a big part of why I fell in love with the Philip Bible.

  • Chad Brooks

    Carson-great thoughts about why you choose the NRSV. It parallels my decision as well. I really enjoyed how important the church was in your logic. Thanks for sharing.

    • Carson T. Clark

      Thanks, Chad! I appreciate the encouragement… Yeah, I think that way too often we forget that the Bible–or at least the NT, anyway–was written to the Church by leaders of the Church… But that’s another blog post :)

  • Joel H

    I’m frequently asked which translation I recommend for accuracy, and even though the best I can say about it is that it’s generally unsurpassed, I recommend the NRSV.


    • Carson T. Clark

      I’m sorry, Joel. I’m not tracking with what you said. Can you rephrase that?

    • Joel H

      I generally recommend the NRSV as unsurpassed. My point is that the NRSV is far from perfect in my opinion. But, at least, when the NRSV gets the translation wrong, usually the other versions do too.

      I bring it up because my reasons are entirely linguistic.


    • Carson T. Clark

      “I bring it up because my reasons are entirely linguistic.”

      I can appreciate that. Though that’s not where I am, I certainly understand how/why others would think/feel that way.

    • David Brainerd

      Very good point. The ESV is so similar to the NRSV that this is the deciding factor between the two. Where the NRSV is wrong, the ESV is exactly the same (sometimes worse) and the NRSV includes the Apocrypha, so NRSV wins.

  • Robert McLean

    I like the NRSV and used it in classes at university almost exclusively, but I have a soft-spot for the Revised English Bible (a revision of the New English Bible) which came out about the same time as NRSV. One of the reasons I like it is that the translation has a dignity, I think, in the same way the Authorized (“King James”) Version has, yet using contemporary English.

    The REB, though, cannot compete with this version for quirkiness:

    • Carson T. Clark

      Interesting. I don’t believe I’m familiar with the REB.

    • Robert McLean

      More of a British translation, Carson, but I think you might like it. That said, not so many resources use it, unlike NRSV.

    • Charles Wingate

      The REB is the NNEB.

  • Anonymous
    • Anonymous

      Just checked that out on Amazon; looks like a great edition…

      ~ Nathan R. Hale
      Romans 12:2 |

  • Anonymous

    Just ran across this post, Carson. Well done. I can so relate to #1. Grew up Baptist, attended an Independent Christian College (Restoration Movement) and eventually made my way to Anglicanism. That being said, I can hardly pickup a NASB or NIV and not be taken back to my earlier days as a believer.

  • M.A. Moreno

    I love the NRSV and ESV equally. Rather than picking one over the other, I use them interchangeably and appreciate their complementary value. My sentimental favorite is still the KJV, but its fundamentalist fanbase is enough to turn anyone off. The NASB and NKJV aren’t too shabby either, and the REB is a hoot–totally underrated in the States! I could do without the rest.

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