Translating the Bible

Scholars are still laboring to produce a contemporary English version of God’s Holy Word


PROTESTANTS, ROMAN CATHOLICS, EASTERN ORTHOdox Christians, and Jews alike affirm that the Bible is Holy Scripture, the inspired Word of God. Yet go to the bookstore in your local shopping mall and you will find the Word of God in half a dozen to a dozen different English translations, and in two or three, or more, editions of each translation. The translations may vary drastically in the style of their English, and some Bibles will contain more biblical books than others. For the uninformed consumer, shopping for the right Bible is a bit like buying a stereo system: the multiplicity of choices is bewildering and ultimately frustrating. And, like the manufacture of stereo components, Bible publishing is big—surprisingly big—business. According to the Christian Booksellers Association, Bible sales in this country total some $197 million annually.

Translations of the Bible do more than fortify the faithful and make money. The various translations reflect differing views of the Bible, and invariably a new translation produces controversy within denominational ranks. For example, in the past year and a half the National Council of Churches has issued two volumes of biblical passages in which the “male bias” of the Scriptures is ostensibly reduced to a minimum. In practically every major Christian denomination in North America vehement, often rancorous debate has ensued over whether to use these volumes in public worship services. While many congregations are unaware of the hubbub over masculine-dominated language in the Bible, others find it a sensitive issue and have split down the middle over it. The discussion, however, has underscored some perennial and fundamental questions: How do religious authorities decide which Bible translation should be used in church or synagogue? What is the role of tradition in informing such a decision? Are some Bible translations suitable for private reading or academic study but inappropriate for use in church or synagogue? And, finally, what distinguishes a good translation of the Bible from a bad or inadequate one?

The first English translation of the entire Bible was made in the late fourteenth century, by followers of the religious reformer John Wyclif. They did not work from the original languages—the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New. Instead, they used as their source the Latin Vulgate, the standard Bible of Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Not until the sixteenth century were English translations made directly from the Hebrew and Greek. The earliest was William Tyndale’s rendering of the New Testament, which was printed in Germany in 1525 and available in England, most scholars believe, early in 1526. Tyndale later issued translations of the Pentateuch (five books of Moses) and the book of Jonah; he also produced, but did not publish in his lifetime, English versions of several other Old Testament books.

Tyndale was a superior scholar of Greek and a fine Hebraist for his time, but he fairly brimmed with controversial theological opinions. Specifically, he shared many of the anti-ecclesiastical sentiments held by his fiery contemporary Martin Luther, who was in the process of turning the Christian world upside down. Tyndale publicized his views in polemical tracts and also through tendentious and even intentionally misleading glosses, or marginal notes, in his translation of the New Testament. These glosses, along with “prologues and prefaces which sounded to heresie, and rayled against the bishopes uncharitably,” were among the reasons that Henry VIII, in 1530, condemned Tyndale’s New Testament and banned it in England. The pioneer translator, now a marked man, stayed on the Continent and continued working on the Old Testament. But a few years later Henry succeeded in having him arrested, and in 1536 Tyndale was publicly strangled as a heretic and his body burned at the stake near Brussels.

Practically every English translation of the Bible made in the past 450 years owes something to William Tyndale’s work. His surviving translations formed the core of Miles Coverdale’s Bible (1535), which was the first printed English Bible, and of a series of revisions of Coverdale: Matthew’s Bible (1537; “Thomas Matthew” was the pseudonym of John Rogers, Tyndale’s associate and literary executor); the Great Bible (1539); the Bishops’ Bible (1568); and, in 1611, the King James Version.

The King James Bible, often called the Authorized Version, had its origins in 1604, when James I appointed “certain learned men, to the number of four and fifty,” to revise the Bishops’ Bible. After seven years they produced a work that was to have an incalculable influence on the development of the English language and that remained for three and a half centuries the Bible of English-speaking Protestants.

The King James Version borrowed more from its sixteenth-century precursors than is sometimes acknowledged. Studies reveal that some 60 percent of the wording of its New Testament is identical to that in earlier English Bibles; the most frequently tapped source is Tyndale. This is not to detract from the accomplishment of the King James translators. Again, their commission was to revise the Bishops’ Bible, itself a fourth-generation revision of Tyndale. Yet they did much more than sift through the work of their predecessors. The contributions of the committee, in terms of scholarship and literary style, were outstanding, earning for the King James Bible copious praise down the centuries. It is unquestionably a masterpiece.

Since much of the phraseology of the King James Version was taken directly from sixteenth-century Bibles, certain of the usages were already slightly archaic in 1611. By the nineteenth century the problem was acute. Many passages were understandable only because of their familiarity. In other cases readers relied on stock interpretations that had become part of the traditional currency of sermons and Sunday-school instruction. This was hardly what the King James translators had intended; one of the reasons for translating the Bible into the vernacular had been the democratic notion that the Word of God ought to be easily accessible to all.

In 1870 the Church of England authorized a revision of the King James Bible. Separate committees were appointed for the Old and New Testaments. Shortly after work on the project began, the collaboration of a group of American scholars was solicited. The product of this consolidated effort is known as the Revised Version; the New Testament was published in 1881, the Old in 1885. While the work was in progress, some sharp differences of opinion emerged between the British and American committees (which consulted with each other by mail only). One disagreement was over the translation of the Hebrew divine name, the Tetragrammaton. Whereas the British panel wanted to retain the traditional rendering, “the LORD,” the Americans wanted to use the name Jehovah instead. To satisfy both parties, the American committee was given permission to put out an edition of the Revised Version that would incorporate its preferred renderings of the disputed words and verses. This edition, the American Standard Version, appeared in 1901.

IN THE FIRST QUARTER OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY scholars continued to make excellent progress toward establishing correct texts of each of the biblical books. The study of ancient cuneiform languages—Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite, and others—helped to advance the interpretation of the Old Testament, occasionally providing philologists with the keys to rare words or odd grammatical constructions. The most important development, however, was the publication of several modern and idiomatic English translations of the Bible. A few were very good (notably the translation of the entire Bible made by James Moffatt, of Union Theological Seminary, in New York, and the New Testament of Edgar J. Goodspeed, of the University of Chicago), though each was idiosyncratic, in that it embodied one person’s view of the Bible.

A new era in the history of the English Bible was launched in 1928, when the International Council of Religious Education acquired the copyright to the American Standard Version. The council appointed a committee of fifteen American biblical scholars to determine whether a revision of the 1901 Bible was needed and, if so, to assume the task. Over the objections of Harvard’s James Hardy Ropes, who wanted to scrap the whole idea and revert to the King James text, and Goodspeed, who argued for a completely new translation in contemporary idiom, the committee voted in favor of a thoroughgoing revision. In 1936, when a long-term contract was negotiated with the publishing company of Thomas Nelson & Sons, work actually began. Advance royalties from Nelson would be used to cover the costs incurred by committee members in attending meetings; since membership was—and still is (a standing committee is responsible for preparing new editions of the Bible)—on a volunteer basis, no salaries, fees, or stipends were provided for in the agreement.

In formally authorizing the revision—which was to be called the Revised Standard Version (RSV)—the council directed the committee to produce a Bible that would “embody the best results of modern scholarship as to the meaning of the Scriptures, and express this meaning in English diction which is designed for use in public and private worship and preserves those qualities which have given to the King James Version a supreme place in English literature.” The committee hammered out a procedure that it has followed, with only minor changes, to the present day. The members were divided into an Old Testament section and a New Testament section. Each person on the committee was assigned one or more biblical books, for which he was to put together an agenda, or list of proposed changes. Copies of these agendas were then circulated among the other people in the appropriate section. When that section met (on a few weekends during the school year and for ten-day or two-week stretches every summer and sometimes over Christmas break), its members would discuss all suggestions presented in a given agenda—extending to such matters as the spelling of proper names, capitalization, paragraphing, the use of footnotes, and the placement of punctuation marks (every jot, every tittle!).

After debating a proposed change, the section members would vote on whether to recommend it to the total membership of the RSV committee. A simple majority of those in attendance was required for passage; if a proposal was defeated, or if the vote came out tied, the “basic text,” the American Standard Version, was left unaltered. All changes endorsed in this manner were incorporated into a clean draft of the biblical book under consideration. Copies were once again distributed to section members and this time to the members of an outside advisory board as well. Suggestions made at this stage, too, were reviewed, debated, and voted upon. Finally, all alterations of the American Standard Version text still had to be approved by the full RSV committee. Here a two-thirds vote was needed for adoption, although in practice the committee was not given to overriding the recommendations of its subgroups.

The RSV committee worked on through the war years, and in February of 1946 the Revised Standard Version New Testament was published. On the whole it was received warmly, above all in mainstream-to-liberal Protestant churches and seminaries. Yet, in spite of wide agreement that the RSV was destined to replace the King James, it did not cause a very great stir in 1946. Six years later the Old Testament was finished, and in September of 1952 the complete Bible appeared, accompanied by a smartly orchestrated publicity campaign.

The 1952 edition of the RSV, appearing as it did during the heresy-minded McCarthy era, was attacked by some religious fundamentalists for allegedly compromising, among other things, the divinity of Jesus, the integrity of the Trinity, and the historical reality of the Virgin Birth. Later criticisms were largely the measured observations of scholars, members of the clergy, and educated lay people who had spent time with the translation. Many suggestions that appeared in review articles and published notes, as well as some that were submitted directly, found favor with the committee and eventually led to changes in the RSV text. (A slightly revised edition was issued in 1962 and the second edition of the RSV New Testament—also a light revision—was published in 1971.)

IN THE THIRTY-TWO YEARS SINCE THE COMPLETE RSV Bible appeared, it has become the most popular Bible translation in the United States, and probably in the English-speaking world. Moreover, as the first widely accepted alternative to the King James Version (excepting the Douay Bible, the Bible of English-speaking Roman Catholics for three and a half centuries, a translation not of the original Hebrew and Greek but of the Latin Vulgate), the RSV prepared the way for a succession of excellent English Bibles that appeared in the 1960s and 1970s. These include the New English Bible (the work of British Protestant scholars), the Jerusalem Bible (a Catholic effort heavily dependent on La Bible de Jérusalem, a version produced by and for French Catholics), the New American Bible (sponsored by American Catholic authorities but done with the help of Protestant scholars), Today’s English Version, popularly known as the Good News Bible (produced by Protestant scholars working under the auspices of the American Bible Society), and the New Jewish Version (done by a committee that included Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jewish scholars, as well as the novelist Chaim Potok). Each is a fresh translation from the original languages; each has considerable scholarly and stylistic merit and makes a distinctive contribution to the heritage of the English Bible.

None of these versions, however, is used as extensively today as the RSV, chiefly because of the RSV’s success in updating the King James tradition. The revisers produced a Bible that is far more accurate than the King James Version, and much easier to understand. Yet to a remarkable degree the RSV preserves the feel of the King James—its dignified cadences, its euphony, its undeniable grandeur and power. This is an admirable balancing act, but it was not achieved without certain sacrifices. The original RSV committee held that the language of the King James Bible was too beautiful and majestic, too ingrained in the minds of churchgoers, and too freighted with emotional and spiritual associations to be jettisoned entirely. They did their best to retain piquant turns of phrase and to keep the wording of famous passages reasonably intact. However, they also excised obsolete or particularly archaic words and usages. These occasionally clashing impulses—to keep what was precious but to modernize the text overall—resulted in an odd linguistic compromise. The language of the RSV is modern enough to be lucid, but, unlike the language of some more recent translations, it is not really contemporary. Often the diction has an agreeable quaintness to it, but at times it is just stiff and stodgy. Yet to native speakers of English, whose whole notion of Scripture has been conditioned by the stately rhythms of the King James Version, the RSV sounds the way the Bible is supposed to sound. Producing a Bible that will sound more authentically contemporary and yet will continue to evoke the King James is one of the RSV committee’s fundamental goals as it moves ahead on a comprehensive revision of the RSV text, a project that has been in progress for several years. The committee hopes to publish a new edition of the complete Bible in 1990.

Whereas the 1952 Bible was produced almost exclusively by Protestant males, the new edition is being prepared by a more heterogeneous group. Of the thirty-three people on the present committee, six are Roman Catholic and one is Greek Orthodox; Harry M. Orlinsky, who worked on the 1952 RSV, is still the only Jew. Just four women serve, but given the very low proportion of established biblical scholars who are women, this number is not surprising.

Under its current chairman, the New Testament scholar Bruce M. Metzger (recently retired from teaching after forty-four years on the faculty of Princeton theological Seminary), the committee is following virtually the same order of procedure as before. One new twist is that the Old Testament section, in order to speed up its work, has split into three subsections, which meet simultaneously, twice a year. Most of the key translation issues are the same ones that occupied the committee in the thirties, forties, and fifties: what has changed is not so much the questions that need to be asked as the way the committee answers them.

THE QUESTIONS THAT TODAY’S BIBLE TRANSLATOR deals with tend to fall into four categories: canon, textual basis, interpretation, and English style.

The question of canon amounts to this: Whose Bible is being translated? The answer is usually predetermined by the denomination or organization sponsoring the translation. Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Jews differ on the number of books that constitute Scripture. In a few cases they disagree on the composition of particular books.

The Jewish canon consists of the thirty-nine books of the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament. It is represented in English translation by the Jewish Publication Society’s New Jewish Version, whose editor-in-chief was Harry M. Orlinsky.

The Protestant canon—represented by the vast majority of English Bibles available today—comprises the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. However, many Protestant Bibles have in them an additional fifteen works. Known collectively as the Apocrypha, these are usually placed between the Testaments. Though they are of ancient Jewish origin, the Apocrypha never appear in manuscripts or printed editions of the Hebrew Bible, and we have no firm evidence that ancient Jewish communities ever regarded them as “inspired”— that is, as Scripture. They are found in manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate, and, with one exception (the book known as 2 Esdras), in copies of the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament. In Protestant churches today, and especially among Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Lutherans, the books of the Apocrypha are accorded a kind of “recommended reading” status.

The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, includes twelve of these documents— all but 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, and the Prayer of Manasseh—in the canon of Scripture. Yet not until 1546, after centuries of debate and a considerable amount of confusion, were they officially declared to be sacred and canonical. Catholics refer to these twelve books as deuterocanonical (“second-listed”), to indicate that their status was formally determined later than that of the other sixty-six books of the Bible. Catholic Bibles often have the deuterocanonicals interspersed throughout the Old Testament, following the usual arrangement found in medieval manuscripts of the Vulgate.

Eastern Orthodox churches, in general, accept as canonical all the books included in the Roman Catholic canon, together with 1 Esdras, the Prayer of Manasseh, the third and fourth books of Maccabees, and Psalm 151 (the Hebrew psalter consists of 150 psalms; an extra psalm occurs in some manuscripts of the Septuagint). Finally, a few of the so-called Oriental Christian churches—the Ethiopian, for example—have incorporated still other ancient Jewish works into their canons.

The 1952 edition of the RSV consisted of the Old and New Testaments only. In the month following its publication the Episcopal Church asked the National Council of Churches, the holder of the RSV copyright, to authorize an RSV edition of the Apocrypha. The Council did so, a panel of revisers was appointed, and in 1957 the RSV Apocrypha appeared under separate cover. Some subsequent editions of the RSV contained the books of the Apocrypha, in a section at the end of the New Testament. (The vast majority of RSV Bibles printed since 1957, however, lack the additional books.)

A Catholic edition of the RSV, issued in 1966, contained the deuterocanonicals situated among the books of the Old Testament, in accordance with traditional Catholic practice. After the second edition of the New Testament was published, in 1971, the RSV committee resolved to make available an edition that would be acceptable (as far as the question of canon was concerned) to Protestants and Catholics alike. A compromise was worked out, providing for the publication of a Bible that would contain four sections, in this order: the Old Testament, the deuterocanonical books of the Catholic Church, the three books of the Apocrypha that do not figure among the deuterocanonicals, and the New Testament. This edition, which appeared in 1973 as the RSV Common Bible, won the approval of Pope Paul VI. Still, it did not meet the needs of English-speaking Eastern Orthodox Christians, and the RSV committee realized this. Even as the Common Bible was being shipped to bookstores, five committee members were busy translating 3 and 4 Maccabees and Psalm 151. In 1977 Oxford University Press published the New Oxford Annotated Bible, with the Apocrypha, Expanded Edition, Revised Standard Version, which includes these works. This edition is the closest thing to an ecumenical Bible that we have in the English language, although the presence of the New Testament naturally makes it unacceptable to Jewish authorities and inappropriate for use in synagogues. Nonetheless, while many Jews are uncomfortable with the idea of reading from a Bible that has the New Testament in it, nothing in the RSV Old Testament ought to prevent a Jew from using it for private study. (The same cannot be said of certain other English versions of the Old Testament, most notably that found in the commercially successful Living Bible—an inaccurate and tendentious paraphrase of the Bible that is popular with evangelicals but that has been repudiated by virtually all responsible biblical scholars.)

THE NEXT ISSUE THAT CONFRONTS THE BIBLE TRANSlator is that of the textual basis for the translation. We have no original text of any biblical book, and some books may have circulated in more than one version almost from the beginning of their existence as written documents. One theory has it that in the case of a number of Old Testament books three distinct texts emerged between the fifth and first centuries B.C., among the Jews of Palestine, Egypt, and Babylonia, respectively. Later, when ancient Jewish and Christian authorities defined the limits of the biblical canon, they did not fix the precise text of each individual book. To further complicate matters, all the books of the Bible have to some degree suffered the textual corruption that is the inevitable by-product of two to three thousand years of manuscript copying and recopying.

How, then, do Bible translators establish reliable working texts of the books that they are to translate? Even the assumption that a given book had a single prototype, an Urtext, is itself questionable and unprovable. What scholars can do is try to reconstruct, from surviving manuscripts, the earliest stage of the text that can be established with confidence. This is an extraordinarily tangled problem, one that requires scholars to sift through a prodigious mass of data. In some instances where the text of a verse is obviously corrupt, half a dozen plausible reconstructions of the verse have been proposed. Such conjectural solutions to textual cruxes are often quite ingenious. The job of a Bible translator is—or should be—to choose the most probable reconstruction, to discriminate between what is merely ingenious and what is in fact likely.

Establishing a good critical text for the New Testament is a less severe task than establishing a text for the Old. Most of the books of the New Testament were composed in the second half of the first century; a few—Jude and 2 Peter, for example—may stem from the second century. We possess complete manuscripts of the Greek New Testament that date from the fourth century, as well as copies of individual books that may be as early as the second century in origin. Therefore, the oldest surviving copies were made a maximum of three centuries after the books were originally written. Thanks to the existence of these early manuscripts, New Testament scholars, unlike their Old Testament colleagues, have been able to reach something resembling a consensus on the matter of a critical text. That something is a work entitled The Greek New Testament, published by the United Bible Societies. It contains a critical text of the New Testament, prepared by an international, interdenominational panel of specialists and intended especially for translators.

The text of the Old Testament is in places the stuff of scholarly nightmares. Whereas the entire New Testament was written within fifty to a hundred years, the books of the Old Testament were composed and edited over a period of about a thousand. The youngest book is Daniel, from the second century B.C. The oldest portions of the Old Testament (if we limit ourselves to the present form of the literature and exclude from consideration the streams of oral tradition that fed it) are probably a group of poems that appear, on the basis of linguistic features and historical allusions contained in them, to date from roughly the twelfth and eleventh centuries B.C. They include the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18, 21), the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:2-31), the Blessing of Jacob (Genesis 49:2-27), the Blessing of Moses (Deuteronomy 33:2—29), the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:1-43), Psalm 29, Psalm 68, and a number of other poetic compositions now embedded in longer works. So the Bible was written over a span of some 1,100 to 1,300 (or more) years. (The books of the Apocrypha belong to the period between the Testaments; they, together with a corpus of documents commonly known as the Pseudepigrapha, are often referred to as intertestamental literature.)

The Hebrew text of the Old Testament now in use is a highly standardized text that was consolidated, finetuned, and faithfully transmitted by Jewish scholars and scribes of the Middle Ages, called the Masoretes. Using as their guide the oral and written traditions that had been handed down from the ancient rabbis, the Masoretes worked to preserve and safeguard what they believed to be the definitive text of the Hebrew Bible. The same pious motives led them to suppress all competing textual traditions. In addition to conservation, they were responsible for an exceptionally important innovation. Up to the time of the Masoretes the Hebrew language had been written with consonants only. Hebrew, like Arabic, can be written pretty adequately using only consonants, but on occasion this creates ambiguity. A passive verb may be misconstrued as active, an attached preposition can be mistaken for part of a verbal root, and so on. The Masoretes, to ensure that the sacred words of Scripture would be understood and also pronounced correctly, employed vowel signs in the form of tiny strokes and dots, and added these to the consonantal text. They even added accents and cantillation symbols to guarantee the proper chanting of biblical passages in worship services. The resultant text, known today as the Masoretic text, exhibits only the most minute, semantically inconsequential variations from one manuscript to another.

The oldest extant manuscripts of the Masoretic text, upon which all modern editions of the Hebrew Bible are based, date from the ninth to the eleventh century A.D.— more than a thousand years after the latest book of the Old Testament was written. As a rule, ancient and medieval scribes felt obliged to copy the received text as accurately as possible, without making any changes or adjustments. Yet virtually every scribe who ever copied a biblical manuscript perpetuated the errors of others and introduced a few of his own. Imagine this process being repeated for one to two thousand years, and you have some idea of the vicissitudes that the Hebrew biblical text has endured. Compounding the problem was the occasional scribe who made a conscious alteration in the text, either for ideological reasons or because he sincerely thought he was correcting someone else’s mistake.

Until 1947 the only direct evidence for the pre-Masoretic Hebrew text of the Old Testament was a lone papyrus leaf dating from about 100 B.C.; this preserves the text of the Ten Commandments. But in 1947 the study of the Old Testament text was suddenly revolutionized by the discovery of the first Dead Sea Scrolls, in a cave at Qumran, near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. Over the next decade another ten caves in the immediate area yielded additional manuscript treasures. Among the finds (which also included an assortment of nonbiblical texts) were a complete Hebrew scroll of the book of Isaiah, a verse-by-verse commentary incorporating most of the Hebrew text of chapters one and two of Habakkuk, and leather and papyrus fragments of the Hebrew text of every other Old Testament book, with the sole exception of Esther. Although the age of the manuscripts was initially in question, scholars now generally agree that they date from the second century B.C. to the first century A.D.; a few may go back to the third century B.C.

When the high antiquity of the scrolls was realized, some scholars anticipated that the biblical text preserved in them would differ substantially from the medieval Masoretic text, thereby demonstrating that the Old Testament’s journey through the hands of generations of Jewish copyists had left its text in a most imperfect state. However, although the scrolls furnish numerous readings at variance with the Masoretic tradition, the Dead Sea and Masoretic texts of the Old Testament are strikingly alike.

The most important ancient version of the Old Testament is the Greek Septuagint, originally produced for Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt. Parts of it date from as early as the third and second centuries B.C. As a translation, it is uneven in quality. In some cases where the Septuagint and the Masoretic text disagree, the Septuagint passage is clearly a bad translation of an underlying Hebrew text that was identical to the version of the passage found in Masoretic manuscripts. But in other instances the discrepancies are too marked to have been caused by poor translation. Long before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars had guessed that in cases where the ancient translator did not appear to be at fault, the Greek text actually reflected a Hebrew original appreciably different from what survives in the Masoretic text. This theory was dramatically confirmed by the Dead Sea copies of the books of Samuel. The text contained in these ancient Hebrew biblical manuscripts corresponds much more closely to the Septuagint Greek version of Samuel than to the Hebrew text found in Masoretic manuscripts of the Middle Ages. This creates a dilemma for the translator: which text does one translate? The easy response is that one translates the reading that in one’s opinion is most nearly identical to the presumed original, the prototype. But on what grounds does one arrive at such an opinion? What if there is no convincing basis for preferring one reading to another? What if the biblical book in question, being a collection of traditions that circulated widely and in a diversity of forms before ever being committed to writing, seems to have crystallized from the very outset in a number of equally “original” written versions? Often the methodology that lies behind textual choices is unclear or inconsistent.

The RSV committee’s position with respect to the Old Testament text has changed over the years. Work on the first edition of the Old Testament was well under wav when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and even when the complete RSV Bible was issued, in 1952, scholars were just beginning to comprehend the significance of these ancient manuscripts for the history of the biblical text. The scrolls have furnished definitive proof that the medieval Masoretes faithfully preserved a textual tradition of exceptional antiquity, and the current RSV committee is much less inclined to opt for non-Masoretic readings than the pre-1952 committee was.

THE PROBLEM OF INTERPRETATION BASICALLY IS this: how do translators establish the precise meaning of a word, a verse, or a passage in the Bible? This is not the same thing as determining the best way to say it in English, although the two issues are closely intertwined and sometimes inseparable. A translator must first establish what the original text is saying before he decides how to express that meaning in the “target” language, the language into which he is translating.

The problem of interpretation, like the problem of the textual basis, is much worse for the Old Testament than for the New. New Testament Greek differs somewhat from the Greek of the classical authors but poses relatively few difficulties for modern scholars. Its vocabulary and syntax are for the most part well understood (though any language in the hands of a wordy writer like Paul can tax the ability and patience of skilled translators).

Biblical Hebrew presents more problems. Hundreds of words occur but once in the entire Old Testament. The meanings of many of these are obscure; the Old Testament words for various animals and plants, for example, cannot be defined with exactitude. Prose syntax is usually clear; however, the syntax of ancient Hebrew poetry is extraordinarily problematic. For hundreds of verses—in Psalms, Job, Isaiah, Hosea, and one or two other books— any English rendering is speculative or at best provisional.

Where does a translator turn when the meaning of an Old Testament word or passage is unclear (assuming he believes the text to be sound at that point)? The first place is the ancient versions, to see how they render the unit in question. Often, though, the translators of the Septuagint, the Vulgate, the Targums (Aramaic translations of portions of the Bible), and the other versions appear to have been as baffled by a particular word or passage as their modern counterparts are. Then other methods must be used.

Scholars have been able to figure out the meaning of many a Hebrew word by reviewing the corpus of Old Testament words derived from the same root and then examining how the first word is used in the sentence(s) in which it occurs. Sometimes context alone is a reliable guide to a word’s meaning. But scholars can also look for help outside the Old Testament, using what is called the comparative philological method—one of the most controversial strategies in all of biblical studies.

Biblical Hebrew, the form of Hebrew found in the Old Testament, is a member of the Semitic subfamily of languages, which in turn belongs to a larger group that many linguists are now calling the Afroasiatic family. The linguistic relatives of Hebrew include a number of presentday tongues—such as Arabic, modern Aramaic, and a group of languages spoken in Ethiopia—and an even greater number of dead languages, among them Akkadian, spoken in ancient Babylonia and Assyria; Ugaritic, the language of ancient Ugarit, an important Canaanite city-state situated on the Mediterranean coast of north Syria (the site of Ugarit was discovered in 1928); Eblaite, named after the ancient Syrian city-state of Ebla (texts in this language were first unearthed in 1974); Phoenician, a widely used commercial language of antiquity, originally spoken in what is today Lebanon; Moabite, Ammonite, and Edomite, the ancient tongues of what is now Jordan, each only scantily attested; ancient Aramaic, represented by a host of dialects from all over the Near East; Classical Ethiopic; and Classical Arabic. (For the sake of comparison, English—along with German, Dutch, Flemish, Yiddish, Afrikaans, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and Icelandic, among others—belongs to the Germanic subfamily of the Indo-European family. Language families are believed to descend from a single hypothesized parent language that was spoken at a time long before the invention of writing, and thus for which no documentary evidence exists.)

A typical word in a Semitic language is derived from a three-consonant root, which itself covers a semantic range, or area of meaning. Most roots occur in more than one Semitic language, and the general meaning of a root is usually the same from one language to the next. So, for example, the common Semitic root k-t-b covers the general idea of writing and things related to writing. It yields not only the basic verb “to write” but also, in one language or another, words for book, author, scribe, document, list, library, bookstore, school, desk, office, marriage contract, amulet, foreordained, secretary, and dictaphone. A much broader range of meaning attaches itself to a Hebrew or Arabic or Aramaic root than to an English infinitive.

In the comparative philological approach to Old Testament interpretation a lost meaning of a word in Biblical Hebrew is sought by studying the root’s cognates in other Semitic languages. Scholars look for a particular meaning that is well attested in another language to provide them with the true meaning of their obscure Hebrew word.

The language that has done more than any other to illumine rare Old Testament words is Ugaritic. The study of Ugaritic literature began soon after the first texts were found, in 1929; no archaeological discovery, not even that of the Dead Sea Scrolls, has had a more profound impact on our understanding of the Bible. The Ugaritic mythological and ritual texts, written in cuneiform script but in a language closely akin to Biblical Hebrew, have given scholars a direct window onto the Canaanite fertility religion against which much of the Old Testament is an undisguised reaction. The Israelite prophets rail repeatedly against Canaanite Baal-worship, but prior to 1929 their fulminations were our chief source of knowledge about Baalworship and the mythology behind it. The Ugaritic texts help fill in the Canaanite background of Old Testament religion by supplying us with the literature of the Baal-worshipers themselves.

The linguistic parallels between Biblical Hebrew and Ugaritic, as well as the cultural parallels between ancient Israel and ancient Ugarit, are naturally of great interest to Bible translators. One verse for which Ugaritic apparently provides the key that unlocks the true meaning is Psalm 68:6. The RSV, reflecting the traditional interpretation of this verse (much of the important work on Ugaritic has been published since the completion of the RSV Old Testament), reads: “God gives the desolate a home to dwell in; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity; but the rebellious dwell in a parched land.” A Ugaritic cognate suggests that the Hebrew word translated “to prosperity” should actually be rendered “with jubilation.” Another example is Judges 5:17. The RSV translates the first part of the verse: “Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan; and Dan, why did he abide with the ships?” Now, however, Ugaritic evidence makes it likely that “with the ships” is wrong. ‘The more probable rendering is “and Dan, why did he abide at ease?” The new edition of the RSV may or may not include these specific changes, though it is certain to include a number of alterations of a similar nature, based on the evidence furnished by Ugaritic.

The problem with the comparative philological method is that one can never be sure that the meaning of a root or a word in one language is the same as the meaning of its cognate in a related language. Take the common Hebrew word for bread. Its Arabic cognate means “meat,” and in another, little-known Semitic dialect, the equivalent word denotes “fish” or “shark.” The English word worm is related by origin to the German Wurst, “sausage.” Our knave goes back to the Old English cnafa, which simply meant “youth.” The French verb achever can sometimes mean “to achieve,” but its usual meaning is “to finish, to put the finishing touch to.”

In the case of Biblical Hebrew and Ugaritic, a given root frequently has the same meaning in both languages—but not always. Hebrew was spoken in ancient Palestine; Ugaritic had its home far to the north, in northwestern Syria. The city-state of Ugarit was at its cultural zenith from roughly 1450 to around 1200 B.C.; Ugaritic literature therefore predates most of Old Testament literature by hundreds of years, and this fact alone ought to make anyone wary of drawing precise analogies between the two.

THE FINAL ISSUE IN THE TRANSLATION PROCESSand one that goes hand in hand with determining the meaning of the original text—is putting the text into appropriate English. Bible translations can and do differ markedly in the way they handle questions of canon, textual basis, and interpretation, but style is the main criterion by which most readers distinguish one version of the Bible from another.

Although the question of archaic language has already been touched on, a few more things need to be said, if only because this issue obstinately refuses to die. Some still feel that the English Bible should be couched in oldfashioned, King Jamesian language. Many worshipers who grew up with the King James Version feel strongly that its antiquated vocabulary and syntax are invested with a special dignity, an indescribable aura of holiness. The archaic language helps to inspire in them a sense of religious awe. Some who are willing to concede that the scholarship of the King James Bible is outdated and that certain obsolete words and phrases do need to be replaced still argue that any revision of the King James ought to preserve the generally archaic tone of the language. Others simply claim that the Bible, being an ancient book, is supposed to sound “old.”

The idea that archaic biblical language has an awe-inspiring quality cannot be dismissed easily. For 374 years the King James Version has had a powerful hand in molding our attitudes toward Scripture, religious language, and language in general. Only in the past few decades has the deeply rooted notion that the King James Version is the Bible begun to slip out of the minds of native speakers of English. This process will surely accelerate as the King James continues to lose ground to contemporary English versions of the Bible.

The preference for a Bible that sounds antique is easilyexplained, but archaism is not a defensible option for translators. Too often archaic language is an obstacle to understanding. It interferes with the reception of the Bible’s message; at times it renders that message unintelligible. The idea that putting the Bible into clear, contemporary language somehow diminishes the magnificence of the Word has an ironic aspect: the majority of the Bible was written in language that sounded clear and contemporary to people living in the era in which it was written.

Exceptions can be found, but these only prove the rule. “The whole point of the New Testament language is that it’s written for the most part in the Koine language of the people and not in an archaizing dialect,” observes George MacRae, of Harvard Divinity School, a member of the RSV committee since 1972. “There are a number of examples where you can bring that out very clearly. A really clever translation of Luke, for example, should translate the first two chapters—the infancy story—in somewhat archaic language, because they’re written in imitation of the Septuagint. The Greek would have sounded archaic— what we would call ‘biblical’—to people in the first century A.D.”

The RSV deserves some of the criticism it has received for its ambivalent attitude toward the use of archaic language. In some places the RSV sounds pleasantly quaint; in other places it sounds antiquated and musty. Almost never does it sound genuinely contemporary—and this was true even in 1946, when the RSV New Testament first appeared.

Two things should be said in the RSV’s defense, however. In the 1930s and 1940s, when most of the work on the first edition was completed, the study of linguistics was still in its infancy, and translation theory lacked the sophistication and methodological rigor it has since acquired. Also, the forthcoming edition of the RSV will contain far less archaic language than previous editions contained. For example, the archaic second-person pronouns (thou, thee, thy, thine) and their corresponding verb forms {art, wilt, didst, dost, enrichest, and so forth) will be dropped altogether. The original committee did away with these pronouns everywhere but in the language of prayer; thus, they were retained in the Psalms and all other prayers addressed to God. Eliminating them actually brings the English into closer conformity with Hebrew and Greek usage, for in the biblical languages the same second-person pronouns are used to address both human beings and God. Committee members promise that the vocabulary overall will have a more contemporary flavor.

A related matter is what might be called the level of language in a translation. How formal and literary should the language be, as opposed to informal and colloquial? One answer is that ideally the English should mirror the level of the original Hebrew or Greek—which clearly varies from book to book and sometimes from passage to passage. A few translations have made efforts in this direction. However, Biblical Hebrew and New Testament Greek are long-dead languages, and we will never have the kind of sensitivity to their nuances that would permit translators to pin down the level of formality of every verse in the Bible. Furthermore, even where the stylistic level of the original text is relatively obvious, to replicate it faithfully in English is no mean task.

A more practical answer is that the level of language should depend on the intended audience. The existing RSV tends to use fairly formal diction, as one might expect from a translation that was conceived with an eye toward its use in the churches. To the extent that the King James phraseology is retained, a formal tone is inevitable. The RSV hasn’t the stylistic elegance of the New English Bible, a British effort that is probably the most graceful and polished of the modern renderings, but the RSV certainly aspires to be literary rather than colloquial.

In contrast, the American Bible Society, the sponsor of Today’s English Version (the Good News Bible), wanted to produce a translation that could be easily understood by all speakers of English, including those who speak it as a second or third language. The translators employed language that is common to both contemporary standard written English and natural, everyday, informal (but not slangy) speech. They avoided not only archaic and arcane terminology but also words that a person of average education might be unfamiliar with, and they put clarity and simplicity ahead of elegance and euphony.

All of the above-mentioned choices between opposites—archaic and contemporary, formal and informal, literary and colloquial—are aspects of the issue of “how to say it in English.” A more fundamental choice is between literal and idiomatic, although professional translators sometimes formulate it differently. “In the trade of Bible translating, we speak of a dynamic equivalence translation as opposed to a formal equivalence translation,”says Roger Bullard of Atlantic Christian College, a member of the Old Testament and Apocrypha panels for Today’s English Version. “By a formal equivalence translation we mean what most people would simply call a literal translation, in which the sentence structure of the original language is reflected in English. The RSV is pretty much a formal equivalence translation. It is not very venturesome in altering sentence structures. It is venturesome—or was, for the 1950s—in breaking away from the traditional King James vocabulary and verb forms. But when it comes to monkeying with the structure of the original, it’s quite conservative.

“Today’s English Version and the New English Bible could be called dynamic equivalence translations, where the intent is not to translate word by word or phrase by phrase but to translate the meanings of the sentences. They feel perfectly free to change actives into passives, to take long subordinate clauses and make independent clauses out of them—or often in the Old Testament the other way around—or to take a short, staccato pattern of sentences and make something a little longer and more fluid out of it.”

How does a dynamic equivalence translation differ from a paraphrase? The answer hinges on how one understands the term paraphrase. The Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary (1963) defines it as “a restatement of the meaning of a passage, work, etc., as for clarity.” On the basis of this definition one can say that every translation is to some degree a paraphrase—an assertion that no responsible translator would argue with. At the same time, when translators say that someone else’s translation is a paraphrase, they often mean it pejoratively. A paraphrase in this sense renders the original text in so loose a fashion that it is not worthy of being called a translation. One frequently hears Today’s English Version referred to as a paraphrase, yet many experts maintain that it is no less deserving of being called a translation than the RSV is. What is the source of the disagreement?

We can eliminate some confusion by setting aside the loaded word paraphrase for the moment. The real issue seems to be how we determine what merits the title of translation and what doesn’t. And the best response is that a translation is a competent and conscientious attempt to convey fully the meaning of the original text. That is, when a translator takes a text in one language and converts it into another language, he must try to capture every bit of meaning that he believes the text had for the readers and hearers for whom it was intended. No element of meaning that inheres in the original should be left out; no additional meaning should be included. To be sure, a good deal of subjectivity is involved in establishing the meaning of a text. The point is that this definition of translation centers on the concept of meaning; no importance has been attached to reproducing the original text’s sentence structure, word order, grammatical features, and so on.

If one accepts this definition of translation, then Today’s English Version and the New English Bible (also sometimes dismissed as a paraphrase) should properly be called translations. Formal equivalence translation, which tends toward the literal, and dynamic equivalence translation, which strives to be more idiomatic, are both acceptable methods of rendering a text.

Any serious student of the Bible will want to own the RSV and at least one Bible, that represents a dynamic, or idiomatic, approach to translation. An excellent way to enhance one’s understanding of a difficult passage in Scripture is to place a number of English versions side by side and compare their renderings. Here is how the RSV and Today’s English Version handle two representative, fairly straightforward passages:

Esau Sells His Birthright to Jacob (Genesis 25:29—34)


Today’s English Version

Once when Jacob was boiling pottage, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red pottage, for I am famished!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

One day while Jacob was cooking some bean soup, Esau came in from hunting. He was hungry and said to Jacob, “I’m starving; give me some of that red stuff.” (That is why he was named Edom.)

Jacob answered, “I will give it to you if you give me your rights as the first-born son.”

Esau said, “All right! I am about to die; what good will my rights do me?”

Jacob answered, “First make a vow that you will give me your rights.”

Esau made the vow and gave his rights to Jacob. Then Jacob gave him some bread and some of the soup. He ate and drank and then got up and left. That was all Esau cared about his rights as the first-born son.

Jesus Walks on the Water—Mark’s Account (Mark 6:47-52)


Today’s English Version

And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw him, and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” And he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, while Jesus was alone on land. He saw that his disciples were straining at the oars, because they were rowing against the wind; so sometime between three and six o’clock in the morning, he came to them, walking on the water. He was going to pass them by, but they saw him walking on the water. “It’s a ghost!" they thought, and screamed.They were all terrified when they saw him.

Jesus spoke to them at once, “Courage!” he said. “It is I. Don’t be afraid!” Then he got into the boat with them, and the wind died down. The disciples were completely amazed, because they had not understood the real meaning of the feeding of the five thousand; their minds could not grasp it.

ONE POPULAR ENGLISH BIBLE REALLY DOES NOT DEserve to be called a translation. Though the Living Bible is billed by its publishers as a paraphrase, implying that it is something less than a full-fledged translation, many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians— normally proponents of biblical literalism—have made this curious text their Bible of choice, holding it to be a valid alternative to the other versions of the Scriptures. However, in numerous places the Living Bible actually distorts the biblical message.

The Living Bible appeared in seven installments between 1962 and 1970, before these were combined under one cover. (A new edition recently came out under the title The Book.) It was produced by one man, Kenneth Taylor, who makes no claim to have translated from the original languages. Instead, using as his sources English translations that were available at the time, Taylor simply recast the biblical text in modern language. But he did not consistently strive for that equivalency of meaning which is the hallmark of a genuine translation. On the contrary, he regularly expanded upon and otherwise subtly altered the biblical message. Taken individually, the examples can seem inconsequential, but in their totality they impart to the Living Bible a fundamentalist theological bias. A peculiar kind of arrogance underlies Taylor’s method—few devout Christians or Jews would be so presumptuous as to make changes in a text that they consider to be divinely inspired.

Here are a few examples (collected by Eldon Jay Epp in his article “Jews and Judaism in The Living New Testament,” which appeared in Biblical and Near Eastern Studies, edited by Gary A. Tuttle): In 1 John 3:9, where the RSV has “he is born of God,” the Living Bible renders “he has been born again” (Living Bible’s italics). For the RSV’s “justification” in Romans 5:16, the Living Bible’s term is “glorious life.” In Galatians 1:6 and 1:11 “gospel” in the RSV becomes, simplistically, “way to heaven” in the Living Bible. And Galatians 5:5, which the RSV translates as “For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness,” appears in the Living Bible as “But we by the help of the Holy Spirit are counting on Christ’s death to clear away our sins and make us right with God.”

Another weakness of the Living Bible is its seemingly casual denigration of Judaism. Epp, who has catalogued numerous instances of this phenomenon, has written that “the [Living New Testament] appears almost to take pleasure in castigating and chastening the Jews and Judaism— to punish them by tongue-lashing and to reprimand them for failing to accept ‘their Messiah’—while all along wishing also, it would seem, to preach the gospel to any Jewish readers.”

Where Jesus speaks in the RSV of “this evil generation” and “an evil and adulterous generation” (Matthew 12:45; 16:4), the Living Bible has “this evil nation” and “this evil, unbelieving nation.” The RSV translates Luke 17:25 as “But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation”; the Living Bible reads, “But first I must suffer terribly and be rejected by this whole nation.” In John 1:17 the RSV says simply, “the law was given through Moses,” but the Living Bible expands this to “Moses gave us only the Law with its rigid demands and merciless justice.”

For the RSV’s “we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe” (Galatians 4:3), the Living Bible has “We were slaves to Jewish laws and rituals.” In Galatians 4:9 what the RSV translates as “weak and beggarly elemental spirits” the Living Bible renders as “another poor, weak, useless religion of trying to get to heaven by obeying God’s laws.” And in Galatians 5:1, where the RSV has “stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” the Living Bible reads, “Now make sure that you stay free and don’t get all tied up again in the chains of slavery to Jewish laws and ceremonies.”

ONE FINAL ISSUE OF BIBLE TRANSLATION IS OF QUITE recent origin. Over the past ten to fifteen years speakers of English have become increasingly sensitive to what is variously refferred to as “male-oriented,”“masculine-dominated,” “patriarchal,” or “sexist” language. Many Americans are now uncomfortable with the generic use of such words as man, men, mankind, and brother(s), as well as the use of he and him to refer to an indefinite person who could be of either sex. They are making an effort to replace such terms with what has been labeled “inclusive” language—language that is inclusive of both sexes and free of male bias. Whether the English language will change in this direction is no longer in question. Tremendous change has already occurred, and we are sure to experience more. The questions now are how extensive the changes will be—for instance, whether the majority of Americans will come to use humankind as a substitute for mankind— and how soon certain changes will gain a secure foothold among various segments of the population.

Not one of the major English Bibles—not even the New International Version, which was published in 1978—fully reflects the dramatic changes in English usage that have taken place already with respect to male-oriented terminology. This is scarcely surprising, because the changes did not really begin to make themselves felt until about 1970, and work on the most recent major versions, Today’s English Version and the New International Version, started in the sixties. The translators were aware that change was occurring. “When we began our project, in 1967, the feminist issue of inclusive language had hardly been raised,” Roger Bullard says, commenting on his involvement with the Old Testament panel for Today’s English Version, “but it began to be felt as we were doing our work, and we felt the linguistic ground shifting beneath our feet. It seemed that we were translating at a very unfortunate time, because before our work was over [the Old Testament was published in 1976], it seemed evident that the English language was destined to change in some unforeseen ways and our translation would then appear dated.”

When the RSV committee was at work on the first editions of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Apocrypha, the issue of inclusive language was nonexistent. Now, however, committee members are excising all unwarranted male-oriented language as they overhaul the text for the forthcoming revised edition. Unwarranted is a crucial word. “The basic principle that the RSV committee uses is that we will remove all masculine-dominated language that has been introduced by the translators,”says George MacRae, who serves on the New Testament panel. Thus, no attempt will be made to disguise the fact that every book of the Bible is the product of a thoroughly male-dominated society. To pretend that the ancient Near Eastern world of the Bible was not radically different from our own world would be to deprive Scripture of its historical context. “I think it’s part of God’s revelation in history that we take history, and we take the time-boundedness of a biblical writer, seriously,” says William Holladay, an Old Testament panel member who teaches at Andover Newton Theological School, in Massachusetts. “Then, it’s the teaching task of the church or the synagogue, it seems to me, to say, ‘Well, all right, Jeremiah said it this way. What God intends through those words may be something a little bit different, so let’s talk about that for a while.’ ”

Where inclusive language can legitimately be substituted for male-oriented language, rephrasing the verse or passage in question is usually a simple task. The RSV committee has made public some examples of changes that it has already approved or is likely to approve for the revised edition. In John 2:10 “Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine” does not in fact refer exclusively to males. The committee has proposed to change it to “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.” Similarly, in Romans 2:16, for “God judges the secrets of men,” it has proposed “God judges the secrets of human beings.” In Paul’s letters, when he uses the word “brethren,” he is surely addressing both male and female members of the church. The committee is weighing such alternatives as “brothers and sisters”—which some committee members feel has too much of a revival-tent ring to it—and “friends.”

In trying to expunge male-oriented phraseology, the committee has improved some renderings in unexpected ways. George MacRae says, “There’s a famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13 that talks about love being the higher way, and it begins, ‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.’ The term men there, though it is the Greek generic word for ‘men,’ is completely unnecessary, and it obscures the contrast. If we translate it ‘If I speak in the tongues of human beings and of angels, but have not love.’ then the contrast is brought out much more sharply, because the contrast is between angels and human beings. We find lots of instances like that, where a change that we’ve become sensitive to because of the women’s issue of inclusive language enables us to improve the translation.” Often, however, the committee refrains from making a change that would result in what it considers contrived or awkward English. Currently 1 Corinthians 11:28 reads, “Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” This will be changed to “Let a person examine himself. . . English lacks a common-gender singular pronoun in the third person, and the committee feels that “himself or herself” would interrupt the smooth flow of the verse.

A different committee is behind An Inclusive Language Lectionary, which, like the RSV, is being prepared under the auspices of the National Council of Churches. The first volume of the lectionary, representing the first year in a three-year cycle of readings from Scripture, appeared in October of 1983. The second volume was published last October, and the third is due this year. A lectionary, as the introduction to the first volume explains, is “a fixed selection of readings, taken from both the Old and the New Testament, to be read and heard in the churches’ services of worship.” The Inclusive Language Lectionary project was created in 1980 on the recommendation of the National Council of Churches Task Force on Biblical Translation. A committee of twelve was appointed “to create for use in services of worship inclusive language lectionary readings based on the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, with the text revised only in those places where male-biased or otherwise inappropriately exclusive language could be modified to reflect an inclusiveness of all persons.”The lectionary committee, separate from the RSV committee, was free to develop its own approach to the question of inclusive language.

Two controversial principles distinguish the lectionary committee’s method from that of the RSV committee. Whereas the goal of the RSV people is to “remove all masculine-dominated language that has been introduced by the translators,” the lectionary panel is attempting to revise the RSV text “in those places where male-biased or otherwise inappropriately exclusive language could be modified.” The lectionary committee’s efforts to eliminate male-oriented language that is intrinsic and integral to the original Hebrew and Greek text of the Bible go far beyond what the RSV committee feels is necessary and appropriate. The second fundamental point of difference is that the lectionary committee has not hesitated to make editorial additions to the biblical text in order to counterbalance what it interprets as “male bias” in certain passages.

Here are some specific examples of how the inclusivelanguage lectionary recasts the RSV. Justifying its choices with references (in the appendix of the first volume, Readings for Year A) to “God’s bisexuality” and to God as “the motherly father of the child who comes forth,” the lectionary committee has elected to change “God the Father” to “God the Father [and Mother]” or, at times, “God the [Motherand] Father.” The Hebrew divine name, rendered “the LORD” in the RSV, becomes “GOD” or “the SOVEREIGN ONE” in the lectionary. In the New Testament, “Lord” is normally replaced by “Sovereign.” “Son’ and “Son of God,” used in the New Testament to denote Jesus, become “Child” and “Child of God.” “The Son of man,” another New Testament designation for Jesus and a term that has a long and complex history in the Old Testament and in intertestamental Jewish literature, is rendered “the Human One.” In many passages where the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are mentioned, the lectionary adds in brackets the names of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel. In Matthew 3:9 Abraham’s concubine, Hagar, is thrown in for good measure.

The lectionary committee goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid using masculine pronouns. He, him, his, and himself are never used to refer to God, to the pre-existent Christ, or to the risen Christ. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16) becomes “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Child.” John 1:10-11 in the RSV reads, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” The lectionary has “The Word was in the world, and the world was made through the Word, yet the world did not know the Word. The Word came to the Word’s own, but those to whom the Word came did not receive the Word.” “Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20-21) is rendered “Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like Christ’s glorious body, by the power which enables Christ even to subject all things to Christ’s self.” Instead of “Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:13-14), the lectionary gives us “Jesus Christ, who gave self for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for Christ’s self a chosen people who are zealous for good deeds.”

What is wrong with all of this? Well, a number of things. We can begin with “God the Father [and Mother].” Certainly, the biblical expression “God the Father” is an example of metaphorical language. Furthermore, a surprising number of biblical passages—especially in the Old Testament— use female metaphors for God. Many of these are examined by Phyllis Trible in her groundbreaking study God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Fortress, 1978), a thoughtful book that obviously left a strong impression on the lectionary committee. Yet, as Trible acknowledges, the Bible “overwhelmingly favors male metaphors for deity.” Elizabeth Achtemeier, of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, points out that “God is never addressed as ‘Mother,’ never invoked as ‘Mother,’ in the Bible.” Bruce Metzger, the RSV chairman, says, “There’s a mystery as to what God is like internally, in the Godhead, and I think it’s right to say that God transcends gender differences. But the way in which we believe God revealed himself, the way in which the writers of the Old and New Testaments perceive him, is as a father, as a king. We need to teach people God is not an old man sitting on a throne. But this is the work of Christian educators, not of Bible translators.”

Although translation is more an art than a science, a responsible translator still aims to convey the meaning of the original text as precisely as possible—that is, as precisely as the target language will allow. In this the lectionary committee fails miserably. “A young woman shall conceive and bear a son” (Isaiah 7:14) becomes “a young woman shall conceive and bear a child.” In the parable of the three servants (Matthew 24:14-30) “a man going on a journey” becomes “someone going on a journey.” His servants address him as “Master” in the RSV, but in the lectionary the title is “Sovereign.” John 9 is the story of a man born blind, but in the lectionary he (it?) becomes “a person blind from birth,” “the blind person,” “the one born blind,” “the blind one,” “the one who had been blind,” and “someone born blind.” ‘The RSV’s “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11) is clear. The lectionary’s “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Jesus go into heaven” is unidiomatic and confusing; one wonders if two different Jesuses are being spoken of. Matthew 14:21 in the lectionary reads, “And those who ate were about five thousand men and women and children”—implying a total of five thousand people. Yet that is not how the RSV and other English Bibles understand the verse. The RSV has, “And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.” Today’s English Version translates, “The number of men who ate was about five thousand, not counting the women and children.” And the New English Bible renders the verse “Some five thousand men shared in this meal, to say nothing of women and children.” Must a concern for inclusive language usurp the concern for accuracy, not to mention grammar and syntax?

Virtually everything having to do with the Bible is more complicated, more ambiguous and open to debate, than most Christians and Jews—even educated church and synagogue members—are aware of. To put it another way, too many people give too many easy answers to questions about the Bible. This is true not only with respect to the present subject, Bible translation, but also with respect to the history of biblical times and the theology of the Scriptures. The truth of Christianity or Judaism does not hinge on the answers to questions of these kinds about the Bible, but frequently intellectual honesty is at stake.

For Bible translators, whose work may reach an audience in the tens of millions, intellectual honesty is not simply an academic matter but a matter of responsibility. This is where the Living Bible and An Inclusive Language Lectionary fall short. Regardless of the specific audience—fundamentalist, feminist, or otherwise—for whom a translation is intended, if the translators are not doing all they can to convey the meaning of the original text accurately, they are not going to produce a responsible translation of the Bible.