Abraham Smith, Professor of New Testament at Perkins, was part of the team of scholars who collaborated for two years on an updated edition of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The NRSVue eBible is now available for purchase and download on Amazon, and the print version will be available May 1, 2022.
The NRSV, published in 1989, has ranked among the most used translations of the Bible, behind the King James and the New International Version. The NRSV updated edition (NRSVue), the most respected Bible among English-speaking scholars and mainline churches, was sponsored by the National Council of Churches, with its 38 member communions. The Society of Biblical Literature, which developed the mandate for the updated edition in collaboration with the National Council of Churches, recruited the translators and managed the editorial process for the NRSVue.
With some 20,000 changes, the NRSVue incorporates recent biblical archaeology and research that has deepened scholars’ understanding of many texts. According to the publisher, Friendship Press, the NRSVue “is the most extensively updated English-language Bible translation available on the worldwide market to date.”
Another Perkins faculty member, Richard D. Nelson, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Hebrew and Old Testament Interpretation, also contributed to the project as editor of the book of Judges.
In an email interview, Smith offered his insights into the updating process, his contributions, and the changes made.
Why undertake an update now?
Given that the NRSV was originally published in 1989, the time was ripe for a revision that would incorporate a variety of new textual tools, newly discovered or newly accessible ancient manuscripts, and new insights on the meanings of words as they were used in their original languages. Thus, with its revisions of the NRSV in accordance with the most up-to-date modern scholarship, the NRSVue has become the most historically accurate, compellingly clear, and broadly vetted English translation in the world. Academic reliability and everyday readability meet each other on every page.
What are some examples of the changes that were made?
In the NRSV, Paul informs the saints at Philippi that he has prayed for them to have a love grounded in “knowledge and insight,” which would help them “to determine what is best” (Philippians 1:10). The Greek words (ta diapheronta) behind the expression what is best more clearly, though, reflect a form of organizing thought into categories such as the things that matter vs. the things that do not matter. Thus, given the weight that Paul repeatedly places on the weighing of options throughout the letter to the Philippians, the NRSVue translates the expression more accurately as “the things that matter.”
To avoid defining a person by a disability, the NRSVue makes a good faith effort to adopt person-first diction. Thus, Matthew 4:24 in the NRSVue speaks of “people possessed by demons or having epilepsy or afflicted with paralysis.”
Likewise, to make a distinction between a person’s identity and a condition imposed on that person, the NRSVue of Galatians 4:22 uses the expression “an enslaved woman,” as opposed to a “slave woman.”
In the tradition of the NRSV, the NRSV tries to avoid what famed translator Bruce Metzger called “linguistic sexism,” which means “the inherent bias of the English language toward the masculine gender” (see the “To the Reader” preface in the NRSV). So, in Romans 16:1, the NRSVue retains the word “deacon” for Phoebe as opposed to the belittling “deaconess” terminology found in a few other translations. Going beyond the NRSV, however, the NRSVue replaces the belittling “servant-girl” expression in Mark 14:69 by referring to the woman of that text as a “female servant.”
Finally, the NRSV regrettably had used lowercase letters to describe some Jewish calendrical observances. Lest doing so be interpreted as disrespectful, such observances as the Sabbath and Passover are now rendered in capital letters. Accordingly, in John 5:9, the NRSVue reads “Now that day was a Sabbath,” which replaces the NRSV’s reading: “Now that day was a sabbath.”
You are listed as a member of the staff coordinating the review and update. Can you describe the process and how you participated in it?
The review and update process worked in three stages. The first stage was a planning stage, which was initiated by the NCC in consultation with the Society of Biblical Literature. In 2017 of this initial stage, two groups of editors were selected: book editors and general editors. All the books of the Bible were assigned to book editors (a gender diverse and ethnically diverse group of 56 scholars who would review the NRSV and offer suggestions for changes). Richard D. Nelson, professor emeritus of Biblical Hebrew and Old Testament Interpretation at Perkins, was one of the book editors. Furthermore, SBL selected a group of seven general editors who ultimately would review and evaluate the changes that individual book editors recommended. The group of seven was further divided into three teams of editors to cover each corpus of the Bible: the Old Testament (aka Hebrew Scriptures); the Apocrypha (aka the Deuterocanon); and the New Testament.
My own contribution to the project began during the second stage (2018-2020), the review and update stage. During this stage, the book editors edited the individual books and made recommendations for changes to the general editors. The staff coordinating the submission of changes and managing the Zoom meetings to discuss those changes was led by administrators from the SBL and two liaisons from the NCC’s Bible, Translation, and Utilization Advisory Committee. In April of 2018, I was asked to become a part of this Advisory Committee and to serve as one of the two liaisons representing the interests of the NCC. In November of 2018, I met with all the members of that editorial board. I then began to meet via Zoom once a month with the NT editorial board and SBL’s staff appointees to discuss the changes that individual NT book editors had recommended for review and evaluation.
I also participated in the third stage (2020-2021), the vetting and finalizing stage. During this stage, an ecumenical and interfaith group of book reviewers initially vetted all of the changes that the coordinating staff had approved and made recommendations for slight changes to improve the readability of the product in worship and liturgical settings. Thus, as a member of the Bible, Translation, and Utilization Committee, I worked to edit the final form of the project in a way that would embrace the reviewers’ comments without losing the imprimatur of the coordinating staff from SBL. Thus, the final edition of the NRSVue, which was fully endorsed by the SBL for accuracy, was approved by the governing board of the NCC in October 2021.
Some laypeople may ask, why do we need to change the Bible?
Translators or editors do not have as their goal to change the content of the Bible. Still, given that any modern-language Bible arrives as a translated text (from the Bible’s original languages such as Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), the Bible as we know it already is appreciably different from any of the individual texts that were composed singularly and later collected into what has become an anthology of value for wisdom, study, and faith.
What, then, are the goals of the NRSVue? The NRSVue seeks to make the Bible clearer, to render its wording in English more accurately, and to reap the benefits of all that scholars have learned since 1989. Yet another goal of the NRSVue, and one dear to me, is to produce a product that that has been carefully reviewed and updated by a wide variety of the finest scholars in the academy today. Thus, the architects behind the NRSVue embraced inclusivity from the very beginning. The goal all along was to be as gender diverse and ethnically diverse as possible and to welcome teams of translators that were both ecumenical and interfaith in their composition.
Anything else you’d want readers to know?
Standing in the shadows of the Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthew, Great, Geneva, and Rheims Bibles, the editors of the King James Bible stated in their preface in 1611, “we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one … but to make a good one better.” No less is it true for the editors of the NRSVue. The desire was always to take the NRSV and to make something better. Thus, woven into the warp and woof of the NRSVue’s approximately 20,000 substantive edits is something better—better in the diversity of its translators, better in the accuracy of its renderings, better in the consistency of its formatting, and better in the means by which it was vetted. Along the way, perhaps this long and often arduous undertaking has not just produced a better product. Maybe it has produced better people—better in their patience, better in their quest for truth, and better in their empathy with one another. To paraphrase Psalm 118:23, this, I think, was “the deity’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.”