It is a relatively common fallacy to classify all post-1881 translations into English as one type of translation. To put it simply, this is an oversimplification. In reality, translations vary tremendously in many ways:
- Translational philosophy
- Individual or committee translation
- Composition and operation of the translation committee
- Reason for translation
- Dependence on a previous translation or a completely new translation
- Underlying text choice
These situations are oversimplified in many ways in argument, and we’re not going to put together an exhaustive list of ways that they enter the conversation. Instead of arguing for or against this or that position, let us consider what the translators themselves have to say. First, we shall consider the revision translations:
Revisions of the Authorized Version
A revision translation is one which begins with the Authorized Version and attempts to update it. The degree to which they are updated varies widely. They are distinguished from the initial revisions of the Authorized Version which were more updates of spelling, additions and corrections of versification and other typesetting issues. These revisions (conducted several times between 1611 and 1769) are generally considered acceptable by King James Only advocates whereas the latter revisions come under serious criticism.
English Revised Version (1881-1885) & American Standard Version (1901)
These two translations were undertaken more or less simultaneously. Strictly speaking, they were not translations but revisions of the Authorized Version of 1611 (having last been revised in 1769).
The character of the Revision was determined for us from the outset by the first rule, ‘to introduce as few alterations as possible, consistently with faithfulness.’ Our task was revision, not re-translation. (Preface to the English Revised Version)
The American Version was more or less an American edition of the English revision but was published independently with some of the readings the American committee preferred over the English committee’s published choices. In the preface to the ASV, the American committee noted the major differences, which were mostly in the Old Testament:
- The transliteration of YHWH as Jehovah instead of LORD or GOD.
- The transliteration of sheol instead of translating it variously as “grave” or “pit.”
- Updated spelling and prepositional use.
- Several returns to the Authorized Version reading because of general usage.
- Changes for consistency’s sake.
- Limited use of marginal notes, which the RV used rather heavily.
In short, the American committee felt that the RV was too much of a departure from the AV and sought to retain some of its more majestic language while updating it stylistically and in some places textually.
We are not insensible to the justly lauded beauty and vigor of the style of the Authorized Version, nor do we forget that it has been no part of our task to modernize the diction of the Bible. But we are also aware that the rhetorical force and the antique flavor which we desire to retain do not consist in sporadic instances of uncouth, unidiomatic, or obscure phraseology. While we may freely admit that the English of the Scriptures can, as a whole, hardly be improved, yet it would be extravagant to hold that it cannot be bettered in any of its details.
These revisions were not widely accepted, although the RV was used in some versions of the Common Book of Prayer. Because it was based on the works of Westcott and Hort, who were among the translators, it caught considerable criticism who felt that their critical edition of the Greek New Testament was lacking.
Revised Standard Version (1946-1952, 2nd edition 1971)
The RV/ASV was clearly a translation in trouble. It was not as clear or as universally accepted as the Authorized Version had been. The ASV gained popularity in many American seminaries and had some influence in Britain as well. In 1928, the copyright of the ASV was obtained by the International Council of Religious Education and with financing from Thomas Nelson and Sons, they commissioned a panel of 32 translators to begin work. When the New Testament was presented by the translators, the dean of the translation committee said that it was meant to be a supplement to and not a replacement for the AV and the ASV.
The RSV was a very ecumenical translation, commissioned by a group that would become the World Council of Churches. It is generally thought of as a step backward from the ASV. In many places in Isaiah, the translators followed the newly discovered Dead Sea Scrolls simply because they were new and not for any textual reasons. They muddied perfectly clear translations from the AV and ASV.
The RSV did, however, benefit from knowledge that had not been available at the time of the RV/ASV translation.
The revisers in the 1870’s… lacked the resources which discoveries within the past eighty years have afforded for understanding the vocabulary, grammar and idioms of the Greek New Testament…The New Testament was written in the Koine, the common Greek which was spoken and understood practically everywhere throughout the Roman Empire in the early centuries of the Christian era. This development in the study of New Testament Greek has come since the work on the English Revised Version and the American Standard Version was done, and at many points sheds new light upon the meaning of the Greek text. (Preface to the Revised Standard Version)
It is unfortunate that – as F.F. Bruce would put it later – the RSV translators, “blurred some of the finer distinctions in New Testament wording which … have some significance for those who are concerned with the more accurate interpretation of the text.”
New American Standard Bible (1971, 2005)
Despite the weaknesses of the RSV, it still managed to become something of a standard in mainstream denominations. Seminarians were endlessly frustrated with it. The RSV was considered too liberal and too ecumenical. The Lockman Foundation commissioned a separate revision of the ASV, which was published in its entirety in 1971 as the New American Standard Bible.
Unlike the RV and RSV translations, the NASB was the first to be submitted to external review – a practice employed in the translation of the Authorized Version but not since.
Furthermore, in the preparation of this work numerous other translation have been consulted along with the linguistic tools and literature of biblical scholarship. Decisions about English renderings were made by consensus of a team composed of educators and pastors. Subsequently, review and evaluation by other Hebrew and Greek scholars outside the Editorial Board were sought and carefully considered. (Preface to the New American Standard Bible)
The NASB went the opposite direction of the RSV. The translating committee was made up of conservative theologians and language experts who revised the ASV text to be more literal and in keeping with doctrinal purity. Gone where the fadish translations from the Dead Sea Scrolls, replaced by the most up-to-date edition of the Masoretic text, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia.
For the New Testament, the NASB translators worked primarily from the 26th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament. This edition was vastly improved from the 17th edition used for the RSV.
New Revised Standard Version (1989)
The NASB gained widespread acceptance, particularly in American seminaries and conservative churches. It was, however, strictly a Protestant Bible. There was no Apocrypha or Catholic edition (something done with the AV, as well as the RV and ASV). It was the first fully American version of the Bible.
The World Council of Churches decided to revise the RSV to meet this ecumenical need. To appeal to more conservative groups, they followed many of the same steps the Lockman Foundation had pioneered with the NASB. The translation reverted to the more archaic terminology (thee and thou) of the formal liturgies, but also developed ‘gender neutral’ language to accomodate the growing number of female clergy in mainstream denominations.
During the almost half a century since the publication of the RSV, many in the churches have become sensitive to the danger of linguistic sexism arising from the inherent bias of the English language towards the masculine gender, a bias that in the case of the Bible has often restricted or obscured the meaning of the original text. The mandates from the Division specified that, in references to men and women, masculine-oriented language should be eliminated as far as this can be done without altering passages that reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture. (Preface to the NRSV)
The committee states quite directly in the preface that this Bible was translated to be ecumenical, although they later also claim that it is “essentially literal.” The difficulty that arises from the tensions of trying to produce a denominationally/doctrinally neutral text while remaining literal should be obvious.
English Standard Version (2001)
Frustrated by the proliferation of translations that were more dynamic in their translation (look for these in part 2) and the liberal lean of the Revised Standard Version, a group of American conservative scholars under J.I. Packer as editor began a conservative revision of the RSV, which was published in 2001. Remarkably, Packer obtained permission from the very liberal National Council of Churches to produce a revision of the RSV.
Perhaps the highest praise for the English Standard Version comes from its critics:
I have heard a number of Christian leaders claim that the ESV is the “Bible of the future”—ideal for public worship and private reading, appropriate for adults, youth and children. This puzzles me, since the ESV seems to me to be overly literal—full of archaisms, awkward language, obscure idioms, irregular word order, and a great deal of “Biblish” …This is because the ESV too often fails the test of “standard English.” (Mark L. Strauss, 2008, Evangelical Theological Society)
As I have pointed out previously, this type of ‘intentionally archaic’ language was one of the hallmarks of the Authorized Version. Packer and the ESV translators worked very hard to produce a worthy successor of the Authorized Version, something that struck the balance between formal translation, majestic language and readability.
The words and phrases themselves grow out of the Tyndale–King James legacy, and most recently out of the RSV, with the 1971 RSV text providing the starting point for our work. Archaic language has been brought to current usage and significant corrections have been made in the translation of key texts. But throughout, our goal has been to retain the depth of meaning and enduring language that have made their indelible mark on the English-speaking world and have defined the life and doctrine of the church over the last four centuries. (Preface to the ESV)
Unlike the previous revision translations, the ESV made dramatic returns to the underlying philosophy of the Authorized Version. While not perfect (it was quietly, revised in 2007), it was translated to be a readable, theologically conservative, literal translation.
Author’s Note, Added 7/29/10, 10:22am
The question of why I did not include the New King James Version in this post has come up a couple of times, so I am adding this note to clarify. The New King James Version is a unique case which will receive its own treatment in the fourth article in this series. While a revision, it does not follow the same thread as the versions presented here. It is instead a direct revision of the Authorized Version. It will be treated separately, with notes about KJV2000, the Modified King James Version and other various (but minor) attempts.