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Religion: Farewell To Thee’s and He’s

4 minute read
Richard N. Ostling

“Of making many books there is no end.” The famous wary complaint in Ecclesiastes could aptly apply to the Bible itself. For, verily, there is a Babel of Bibles. No fewer than 26 modern English translations have appeared during the past generation, beginning with the landmark Revised Standard Version of 1952. This week a major verse-by-verse overhaul of that work, sponsored by the National Council of Churches and known as the New Revised Standard Version, is being shipped to bookstores around the country. It will be used by millions of American Christians, for both private reading and public worship.

For more than three centuries, most Protestants knew only one English Bible: the King James Version, on which the 1952 R.S.V. was based. Bibles for Catholics and Jews long employed quite similar Elizabethan cadences and wording. But as more and more new translations and revisions jostle for market position, the familiar King James phrases are gradually being obliterated from the common memory bank of the English-speaking peoples. Barring a miracle, it appears there will never again be a single standard English Bible — and that is a wrenching change for Christendom.

The New R.S.V. goes its separate way too. Like other modern renderings from the ancient Hebrew and Greek, it systematically abandons the archaic thee and thou forms in addressing God. More important, in the words of the Rev. Bruce Metzger, the chief translator, it circumvents the “inherent bias of the English language toward the masculine gender.” During the 1980s the National Council of Churches, in response to insistent feminist demands, published three sets of highly controversial rewrites of certain Bible passages. The texts referred to God as “Father ((and Mother)),” inserted women’s names that did not appear in the original, and refrained from calling God the King or Jesus the Son of God or Son of Man.

But the New R.S.V. translators (four of the 30 are women) refused to play games with God. They use inclusive terms only when the manuscripts clearly intend to speak of humans in general. To avoid “he” or “him” in these cases, many verses use plural pronouns. Unfortunately, the third-person-plural wordings are less personal and often less pointed than the singular forms. The word man, which occurs in many well-known verses of the R.S.V., is replaced by such synonyms as “mortal” or “humanity.”

Also eliminated are some phrases that sound especially odd to modern ears, such as “I will accept no bull from your house” (referring to animal sacrifice in Psalm 50) and “once I was stoned” (St. Paul in II Corinthians 11, speaking of his stoning). Gone as well are some tongue twisters (“you who hew” in Isaiah 22) and ambiguities, like Zechariah 3’s “Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed in filthy garments.” (Joshua’s garb was filthy, not the angel’s.) The poetic exclamation “behold” has given way to the prosaic “look.” Sex is bluntly called “intercourse.”

The New R.S.V. drew upon the hundreds of ancient Bible manuscripts that have become available since the earlier version appeared. Four sentences based upon one of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been tacked onto Chapter 10 of I Samuel, for instance, and Greek manuscripts provided an optional short ending for Mark. But such substantive changes are surprisingly few, indicating, says Metzger, how reliable the biblical texts were all along.

Though the 1952 project was a purely Protestant effort, the New R.S.V. team of translators (all unpaid) included five Roman Catholics, a Greek Orthodox and a Jew. Some editions will print only the 39 Old Testament books recognized by Protestantism and Judaism, while others will include additional books that Catholicism and Orthodoxy regard as Scripture. In time, a Catholic edition of the New R.S.V. is expected.

Americans have bought 55 million copies of the 1952 version, and several million New R.S.V.s should be snapped up this year alone. But the newest U.S. Bible will face stiff competition from other popular texts that use more traditional, noninclusive wording. For example, the New International Version (1978), the Evangelical favorite, has sold as many copies as the old R.S.V. in only one-third as many years. Other competitors include the perennial King James and the “New” King James (1979). What of the old R.S.V.? The National Council of Churches had originally planned to kill off its 1952 version once the new rendition was out, but has decided to keep it available for at least five more years because of popular demand. For good reason: the new text reads best when it sticks closest to its predecessor.

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