Open Bible on a rock with a blurred forest in the background.

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Starting the new church year reading the NRSVue

November 30, 2023

I’m at that stage of life where I have begun asking myself, “Do we really need a new translation of the Bible? Can’t we just keep using the ones we have?” I feel the same way about new hymnals and even new Metallica albums. I’m thankful, therefore, that early in my career I adopted a policy. The policy is simple: Update.

When a new hymnal comes out, get the new hymnal. When the new Metallica comes out, give it a listen (tip: the 2023 album is incredible).

But back to the Bible. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is the translation most widely used liturgically in our denomination. If you join us for worship, it’s the translation you’ll hear read by the lectors (although we have during some seasons substituted translations like Wil Gafney’s Women’s Lectionary).

Without going into lots of detail, essentially the NRSV is the mainline Protestant translation. At this point, it’s probably also the most ecumenical and interfaith translation.

It’s not the one you will find widely distributed in bookstores. Last I looked at Barnes & Noble, it was actually kind of hard to find on the shelf. In the bookstore, conservative Christianity reigns supreme, so you’ll find more copies of the NIV, KJV, etc.

It’s not that the NRSV is a liberal translation. It’s just that it is, well, it’s a really good translation, an academic translation, commissioned by the National Council of Churches (NCC) and translated by a team of translators organized by the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), and those organizations tend to… not be fundamentalist.

The NRSV has had a long run, over 30 years, but in 2017 the NCC commissioned the SBL to create an updated translation. Published in the fall of 2022, the NRSVue (updated edition) claims it is not a new translation, but a “a better version of an already good translation.” There are good reasons for a “better version,” some cultural and some scholarly.

Cultural: As the English-language has shifted and cultural norms around gender bias have become more just, the NRSVue “offers a version as free as possible from the gender bias inherent in the English language, which can obscure earlier oral and written renditions.” The earlier NRSV tried to avoid what translator Bruce Metzger called “linguistic sexism,” which means “the inherent bias of the English language toward the masculine gender.”

Scholarly: The SBL notes that “The forty years between the Revised Standard Version and the New Revised Standard Version likewise witnessed many developments in biblical scholarship, textual criticism, linguistics, and philology. The same has occurred over the last thirty years, including the publication of all the biblical texts discovered near the Dead Sea, and these developments warrant this update.”

My congregation will begin reading from the NRSVue at the beginning of the new church year, the first Sunday of Advent. I am looking forward to continuing the journey with them with this “update.”

Perhaps few of us have followed all the discoveries that have occurred with the steady release of texts discovered near the Dead Sea, but in some instances the impact on the new translation is extensive. For example, Tobit in the Apocrypha is now translated from the longer Greek version; there are three additions to the book of Daniel; and the book of Esther has received an update contextualizing portions that previously were published in the Apocrypha.

The new version includes approximately 20,000 changes, and incorporates new biblical archaeology and textual research that has deepened scholars’ understanding of the texts. If your primary way of hearing or “reading” Scripture is during Sunday worship, it’s likely very little will come across as different to you…

… at first.

However, there is a cumulative impact on all of us when we attend to the reading of sacred scripture. Reading a long work in short snippets will never have an instantaneous major impact.

But slow drips carve caverns and form pillars. This is why translation teams take such great care in their work. The back and forth between a reading community and an ancient text is transformative, especially over time.

Because the Bible is such a big book, containing portions in multiple languages and written in widely different historical contexts, it took a big team to do the heavy lift of updating the translation.

John Kutsko, the head of the SBL, says, “Each of the three teams—the Hebrew Bible, Apocrypha, and New Testament teams—met at least monthly for 30 months. Each biblical book was assigned to one or more book editors. Each of our 50-some book editors made their updates in a tracked document with a corresponding log document that contained their rationale. Each submission was then reviewed by a team of editors, with a primary general editor taking the lead to review each submitted book.”

Perhaps most intriguingly to me, this translation of the Bible had an audience review process. Pastors, lay persons, reviewers and educators all had the opportunity to give feedback to the translation team. I believe this happened at least in part because “reader response criticism” has become a more crucial hermeneutical approach to interpretation and translation.

So, then this leaves me asking: how will you as an audience approach this new translation? Will you pick up a copy of the NRSVue for private reading? Will you access the already available online version for study?

My congregation will begin reading from the NRSVue at the beginning of the new church year, the first Sunday of Advent. I am looking forward to continuing the journey with them with this “update.”

Rev. Clint Schnekloth is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a progressive church in the South. He is the founder of Canopy NWA (a refugee resettlement agency) and Queer Camp, and is the author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He blogs at Substack.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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