From: Theology’s Impact on Translation: KJV to NRSV Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2013
“Modernism” in the
RSV and NRSV Old Testament:
Treatment of Messianic Prophecy
The passages we have examined so far concerned alleged “Modernist” slanting of the New Testament. The RSV and NRSV come off (by and large) surprisingly well. However, a far more negative picture is found when we shift our attention to the Old Testament alterations
In addition to issues concerning specific individual texts, there are three broad subdivisions into which challenges fall:
First, there is the matter of the failure to capitalize references to the coming Messiah. We have already criticized this approach for not adequately conveying the sense conveyed on the passages by the New Testament users. It should be noted that this lack of capitalization does not eliminate the Messianic element—it simply indicates the refusal of the translators to accept it as such or to even admit that it was interpreted as such by the New Testament. (Hence if capitalization is lacking, one would surely anticipate at least a footnote, indicating “Interpreted in a messianic sense in [giving the NT text].”) At the worst, it simply means we have to pay more attention lest we miss what would otherwise have been immediately noticed.
A second problem area lies in the difference in translation between Old Testament renderings and their New Testament citations. The RSV has been subjected to vigorous attack for not bringing into complete verbal consistency the OT and NT presentations of the same texts.
[Page 95] f one understands that some of the problem exists because two different original languages are being translated one at least moves part way in dealing with the matter. We translate the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew. The OT citation found in the New Testament has actually undergone a double translation: from Hebrew into Greek and by our contemporary translators from Greek into English.
Sometimes the New Testament authors use the Septuagint, sometimes (apparently) a different version, and in yet other cases their own rendition or even a semi-paraphrase. In light of this, we would expect some differences in how texts originally appeared in the Hebrew and how they are found when quoted.
How do we deal with that phenomena?
When the text can be read more than one way, should the NT approach be taken as decisive? If one believes—as we do—that the inspiration of the apostles and evangelists guaranteed their accurate use of the Old Testament texts, then the question obviously must be answered in the affirmative.
Indeed, even upon the basis of a doctrine of non-inspiration, one would expect the citations to play the decisive role since they bear witness to the way the text was commonly understood—or, at the absolute minimum, could be understood. Whether we would handle the text that way is almost an irrelevancy; it proves it could be and that it was. Second guessing two thousand years later does seem to reek of arrogance, does it not?
But what if the NT approach isn’t what we would normally expect the Hebrew wording to be saying or we are left puzzled with how they get it? Again, if one believes in their full inspiration, then what they say may or may not establish the literal text of the Old Testament, but their inspiration certainly guarantees that they always establish the literal intent of the Torah and prophets.
Which should be our guideline then: literalness or intent? If translators feel torn, might not the appropriate policy once again be a footnote when there seems a divergency, noting how the relevant NT passages understand or present the text as saying? This way the “tension” is noted, but neither reading is thrown out.
The third subdivision of our subject and the one on which we will spend the remainder of the chapter is the alleged Modernist-inspired mis-translations of Messianic prophecy. Again, as in the previous chapter, we can not treat every accusation, but we can certainly examine a representative cross-section.
One prominent critic presents his case in this manner (N. 3):
Another of these victories in reverse, of the RSV New Testament
Committee over the Old, is in this same great tribute to Jesus in Hebrews 1. “Thy
throne, O God” is said to the Messiah in Psalm 45:6-7. But when we get back to
that Psalm, lo, anti-Messianic unbelief has conquered the New Testament by the
translation: “Your divine throne endures for ever and ever,” which, of course, is
nonsense as referring to any man.
I confess to a certain awe at this point: Taylor, a man who has been bemoaning the chronic Modernist mistranslation of the New Testament suddenly discovers the NT translators to be virtual pillars of orthodoxy. Life is indeed strange.
Although the overtly Messianic interpretation is acknowledged in a footnote (“or, Thy throne, O God”) this acknowledgment is offset by including yet a second anti-Messianic interpretation in the footnote (“or, Your throne is a throne of God”). You present your two key options and you have a kind of balance between pro-messianic and anti-messianic interpretation; you including main text and a footnote in the anti direction and it’s tempting to read the implication as, “we had to include the pro-messianic rendering but please don’t pay any attention to it.”
Perhaps my cynicism sharpened by almost 50 years following partisan politics leads me astray. Or, perhaps, that evaluation is all too just.
As to the Hebrew of Psalms 45 Oswald T. Allis (N. 4 contends that this is not a passage where the original language is obscure but a reasonably plain one whose Christological implications—the deityship of Christ—are found objectionable. Hence, he argues, various “reconstructions” are urged—not to clear up a difficult text—but to substitute for a clear but disliked one.
The three avowedly conservative translations unanimously reject the RSV substitution. “Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever” reads both the NSB and NKJV. Only slightly different is the NIV with its, “Your throne, O God, endures forever.” The NRSV provides no refuge and does not even provide a footnote to take refuge in: “Your throne, O God, endures for ever and ever.”
“The scepter shall not depart from
In both versions the text is obviously (1) prophetic of the future, (2) concerns someone of importance, indeed (3) someone who will be Divinely chosen ruler. Ironically the KJV’s wording of “unto him shall the gathering of the people be” is remarkably weaker than that of the RSV’s verse ending: “to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” The plural “peoples” might even be interpreted as much broader than “the people” of the KJV—as all peoples, of all nations, rather than just Jews.
Allis, who vigorously
opposed the RSV rendering of several Messianic prophecies, conspicuously avoids
attacking the translation of this one.
Rather he aims his [Page 97] fire at an inadequate footnote
which omits any explanation of the cause for the divergency: the similarity of shelloh
Revised Standard moves in a different direction than its predecessor by rending
the question phrase “until tribute comes to him.” In a footnote it jumps all around the map,
giving possible alternatives: “Or ‘until
Here the Revised Standard has “by you [Abraham] all the families of the earth will bless themselves” instead of the KJV established now traditional “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (It does provide the KJV translation in a footnote, however.)
The avowedly conservative translations unite in rejecting the RSV substitution. The NKJV renders the expression, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed;” the NASB provides the identical translation. The NIV alters it only slightly, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Allis explains that the English reading has been altered because “the RSV changes the passive voice of the AV-ASV rendering to reflexive” (N. 6). He concedes that the RSV choice is technically feasible; however he stresses the improbability of its correctness:
(1) In the Hebrew itself three of the occurrences of the promise (Genesis 12:3; ; 28:14) are found in the form of the reflexive voice that “is very frequently used as a passive. In two (; 26:4) the Hithpael is used. It was originally reflexive, but like the Nimpal it is also, though much less frequently, used as a passive.” He points out a number of times when the RSV itself so translates the word.
(2) The Septuagint Greek Old Testament “uses the passive in rendering all five passages,” which produces a KJV-ASV style wording instead of that of the RSV.
(3) In the two times it is quoted in the New Testament, it is rendered in the passive as in both the KJV and the RSV itself. (As we argued earlier, the New Testament form of the quotation should be inherently decisive when the evidence can be read two ways.)
(4) Finally the exegesis required from the RSV translation is unfeasible: “will bless themselves” is interpreted as meaning that they would “seek for themselves blessings much as Abraham enjoyed.” Allis overstates his case in rebutting this by [Page 98] contending that “Abraham was not a striking example of a ‘prosperous’ man.” The contrary indication is found in Genesis 13:2 where we read that “Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold.”
Even so he still fell short of the prototype of the ideal for future generations: After all, he was a stranger and sojourner, moving up and down a land in which he had no settled roots nor land to call his own. He was ever an outsider among strangers. Tolerated, respected, surely—but always carrying the stigma of being an outsider. Hence the exegesis required by the RSV rendering of Genesis 12:3 seems untenable.
This is a self-created and unneeded error by the translators. Perhaps implicity conceding the validity of the anti-RSV criticisms, the NRSV returns main texts the traditional, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Yes the RSV approach is still there but “hidden” in a footnote as an alternative reading.
is Quoted in
Acts and Acts
Although hostile critics of their translation have commonly looked upon the RSV New Testament as far more accurate than their Old Testament treatment of prophecy, this is one case where the situation is reversed.
In Deuteronomy 18:15 we read in the RSV: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren. . . .”
In Acts we read it quoted this way: “The Lord God will raise up a prophet from your brethren as He raised me up. . . .”The NASB, NKJV, and NIV, however, continue to use “a prophet like me.”
In Acts the RSV repeats the wording: “God will raise up for a prophet from your brethren as he raised me up.” Both the NKJV and NASB speak of how “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren. . . .”
In all fairness, the ASV margin (1901) contains the reading “as he raised me up.” In contrast the RSV places it in the main text without any notation about the propriety of the alternative rendering.
Allis notes that though the RSV rendering “is a perfectly possible rendering of the Greek,” the same can be said for the traditional one. In this case the Hebrew text is not questioned but is translated “a prophet like me,” by the RSV itself. Since the citation can be read this way and since the Old Testament wording is not challenged and since the traditional reading would be a significantly more powerful argument for the speaker to have used in both cases, why in the world would they have intentionally weakened its evidential value? Hence it is far easier to see the change produced from whatever was in the translators’ minds than from anything in the text itself.
[Page 99] The NRSV returns to the traditional reading of “a prophet like me” in Acts , but retains the RSV alteration in Acts . Deuteronomy becomes its particular target for change. The first part of the verse continues the conventional reading: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people.” However, the RSV spoke in terms of this being fulfilled in one specific individual (i.e., the Messiah): “him you shall heed.”
The NRSV generalizes the prophecy: “you shall heed such a prophet.” As if that were not sufficiently a stripping of its Messianic intent, the footnote takes it a step further, “prophets” (plural). “Such a prophet” would seemingly require that it describes multiple individuals; “prophets” makes it undeniably explicit. If this is not repudiation that the text was ever Messianic—or even the prediction of any single individual, Messianic or not—what would be required to make it such? It is extraordinarily hard to see this as anything but agenda driven and by a fundamentally anti-Biblical one at that.
5. Zechariah and Its Prophecy
of the Joint Priestly-Regal Role
of the Messiah
The RSV presents this text in a way to dilute the traditional reference to the Deityship of the Messiah: “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one who mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born.”
Here the RSV has again taken an ASV marginal note and placed it in the main-body text as the probable and preferred translation. In contrast, however, the ASV labels the reading “him” (in place of “me”) as the reading of “some manuscripts.” The RSV makes no such remark and entirely omits any mention of the “traditional” reading.
Although the NRSV has a similar reading—the one whom they pierced”—it adds in a footnote, ‘Hebrew, ‘on me.’ ”
Now, as to how the conservative versions treat the text: “me upon whom they have pierced” is preserved by the NASB and the NKJV. The NIV changes it only slightly to “me, the one they have pierced.”
Although the text would retain an obvious Messianic application even with the alteration, its assertion of the Deityship of the Messiah would be stripped from the verse. Although other texts could be appealed to make the point, this one would not have been available. (Nor its assertion that Christ retained His Deityship “essence” even on the cross, an obvious direct repudiation of an ancient heresy—whether because it already existed or as “preventive medicine” to discourage it being developed.)
7) refers to an edition of the RSV which defends the change on the basis of Theodotion’s second century A.D. Greek Old Testament, which
contains the disputed [Page 100] alteration. Allis rebutes this
evidence by pointing out that the Septuagint,
The widely respect F. F. Bruce (N. 9) seems to take some modest pleasure in perturbing critics of the RSV as to how they handle this particular passage: Normally they contend that Old Testament citations should be made to conform to the way they are quoted in the New Testament. In this case, however, the NT appears to allude to Zechariah 12:10 in Revelation 1:7: “And every eye will see him, every one who pierced him.”
More importantly, it directly quotes that verse in John 19:37 as “him whom they have pierced.” Where then goes the objection to so rendering Zechariah 12:10 with the same wording?
6. Zechariah and Its Prophecy
of the Joint Priestly-Regal Role
of the Messiah
In the NASB we read in this passage: “Yet it is He who will build the temple of the Lord, and He who will bear the honor and sit and rule on His throne. Thus, He will be a priest upon his throne, and the counsel of peace will be between the two offices.”
The NKJV renders it: “ . . . And shall sit and rule on His throne; so He shall be a priest on his throne, and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.”
The NIV speaks in similar terms: “ . . . He will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two.”
Note that all three conservative / evangelical style translations unite the priestly and kingly roles in one person. In contrast, the RSV separates the two: “It is he who shall build the temple of the Lord, and shall bear royal honor, and shall sit and rule upon his throne. And there shall be a priest by his throne, and peaceful understanding shall be between them both.”
The NRSV retains the two person scenario adopted by its predecessor: “There shall be a priest by his throne, with peaceful understanding between the two of them.”
Allis effectively points out that this requires a grammatical change in the sense of the verse that runs against the ongoing pattern of one single person being under consideration throughout (N. 10):
A literal rendering of the verbs would be: “And he shall build . . . and he
shall bear . . . and he shall sit and he shall rule . . . and he shall be . . .” In each
case the same form of the verb is used; and in the case of the first two the pronoun
continues the same. This is indicated by AV and ARV [i.e., the ASV, RW]. RSV
changes the subject of the last verb by rendering “and there shall be a priest,”
which would be literally “and a priest shall be.”
This rendering is possible. But it involves an abrupt change of subject
which is not prepared for in any way. Besides this the RSV reads: “and there
shall be a priest beside his throne” [apparently utilizing a different RSV edition,
RW]. This means that RSV has translated the same phrase in two different ways
in the same context, “upon his throne” and “by his throne.” Yet “rule upon his
throne” would favor if not require “be a priest upon his throne.”
In the conservative translations the closing words are “the counsel of peace shall be between them both” (NKJV) and “there will be harmony between the two” and, in all fairness, the expression could be used to argue that there are, as in the RSV, two separate individuals involved. Unquestionably there are “two” involved but is it two people or two posts united in the same, one individual? The NASB brings out both the number and their unity in one individual by rendering the text: “the counsel of peace will be between the two offices.” The tension that could easily exist between king and high priest would be absent because the same person would be exercising both responsibilities.
7. Isaiah 7:14
If one specific Old Testament text has been singled out for more criticism than any other in the Revised Standard it would surely be Isaiah 7:14: the prediction of the virgin birth. “Virgin” is reduced to “young woman” by the RSV and the howls of protest had not stopped by the time the NRSV appeared and repeated the same rendering. And rightly so.
The RSV does include “virgin” as the alternative in a footnote. The NRSV has a footnote that implies the origin in the traditional reading, “Greek, ‘the virgin.’ ” For comparison, the NASB, NKJV, and NIV all retain the King James’ “virgin” translation.
There are at least four major objections to the alteration:
First, it has been vigorously challenged that in the four times the Hebrew word found here is used (in the singular form) that it ever means a married: the other contexts (N. 11):
A reference to Rebekah meeting the servant sent to find his master a wife (Genesis 24:43); obviously he wasn’t looking for a married woman or she would not have meet the standard being looked for.
A reference to Moses’ sister Miriam
keeping an eye on the floating child in the river in
[Page 102] In Proverbs 30:18-19, of the incredible things to think about, the last listed is the way of a man and an almah; is this almost certainly a reference to “courting” himself a wife—in their society the wife being sought being a virgin?
The three cases of the use of the plural (alamot) are not as clear cut. In Song of Songs 6:8 they are contrasted with queens and concubines, the category would seemingly have to be virgins. In 1:3 it is the alamot who are in love with the man and in Psalms 68:25 they play tambourines—neither passage with much to work with either as to “virgin” or young woman who may or may not be married.
In short, the evidence is really got as good as it might seem for the substitution. At the most it would seem to require a footnoted, “Possibly, ‘young woman.’ ”
Second, the “young woman” versus “virgin” debate is—in its original societal context—an absurd one. If she is a young woman and not married, she had better be a virgin—the societal norms of the day (love them or lambaste them) demanded such. To translate “virgin” is to only acknowledge the social norm, within which the ancients would have interpreted the meaning.
On the other hand, if she is pregnant outside marriage—young but pregnant—then her childbearing would have been considered a mark of sin. Her child could hardly have been regarded as being something special or her childbirth as signifying any good thing at all. Hence it could hardly be a “sign” to either a ruler or the people. And the child spoken of by Isaiah was to be exactly that.
If we flip the situation over and say she is married and pregnant, how in the world is that a “sign” of anything special? To a ruler or any one non-family member? Now if she had been childless for decades as Sarah in antiquity, well, yes, that would be a sign. But this was a youthful individual—whether we translate “virgin” or “young woman.” It is not a woman who has been trying to have a child for years.
So the mother is—by societal norms—to be scorned if bearing a child outside wedlock. If she is bearing a child inside wedlock, it means next to nothing except to immediate family. But if she is a virgin, yet married and pregnant (as we are told was the case between Mary and Joseph) then we unquestionably do get a “sign” of something magnificent and unprecedented happening in human affairs.
Those who do not believe fulfillment has a legitimate impact upon translating the Old Testament—often repudiating the very idea of such a phenomena actually existing—still have their grievous difficulty of making sense out of this text. Pregnant and unmarried, they have a woman who would be branded a harlot; married and they have nothing more than what routinely happens in a marriage. The “sign” factor gets totally eliminated and Isaiah, genuine prophet or not, insists that this event will be a “sign.” And there is none.
Third, the Septuagint was translated long before Christianity came into existence. This was the widely used, virtually definitive standard in its day--thinking in terms of it being the KJV Old Testament of its day won’t steer you far off in providing how central a translation this was. Yet they still rendered almah in Isaiah 7:14 as virgin. Where then comes the “Christian” bias against using the English equivalent unless one wishes to concede an anti-miraculous prejudice was dominant among the translators of the passage?
[Page 103] What they thought it applied to was probably far different from what we, with the New Testament apply the text to. Perhaps they thought some woman who was a “virgin now” would ultimately marry to everyone’s surprise and bear a child. But, if so, the context leaves us clueless as to who is in mind. Furthermore, the line of reasoning we developed in the second point would argue powerfully against such being in mind. Either way we are reduced to the most credible interpretation of virgin and NOT “young woman!” The proper rendering needs to be inserted back into the text.
Fourth, the RSV reverses its normal policy of allowing certain early versions (translations) of the Hebrew to determine how and where they will alter the previously traditional rendering. (This reversal of policy would suggest conscious or subconscious bias of some type.) Allis writes in regard to this reversal (N. 12):
The rendering “virgin” is supported by Greek, Syriac, Vulgate, three of the
ancient versions most frequently appealed to by the RSV in support of its
“corrections” of the text. Consequently it would be injudicious, to say the least, to ignore them completely in so important a passage as this. But the RSV never appeals to the versions except when it adopts or uses their readings. Conse-
quently to say, “Greek, Syriac, Vulgate support Hebrew “virgin” would violate their rule with regard to the use of the versions and it would also advertise the fact that they have ignored the witness of their favorite versions.
Although a “virgin” would typically be a “young woman,” the former refers to sexual status and the latter to chronological age. And our text chooses to stress the former. Hence needless unjustified confusion can be created when comparing Isaiah 7:14 with its New Testament citation when one substitutes “young woman.”
If one wishes to argue that the New Testament has misused the Isaiah text, then let us argue over exegesis. But to improperly alter the Isaiah text itself should be out of bounds to begin with.
In our analysis of “classic” alleged New Testament Modernist slantings, we found only a modest amount of valid evidence supporting that assertion in regard to the RSV. We noted, however, that there are some NRSV specific renderings that are not so easily dismissed.
When examining the subject of Old Testament Messianic prophecy, there seems no alternative but to concede that both the RSV and its success, the NRSV, have given in to one of two biases: the openly Modernist bias that rejects the supernatural element in Bible prophecy or the pseudo-neutrality bias that conceives “fairness” as requiring the [Page 104] removal of as much as possible of that which has traditionally been interpreted as explicit prophecy of the coming of Christ.
To burn down the cornfield to save
it from locusts seems, however, rather ludicrous. If you do not grasp my point, consider it
this way: to “save” the texts from
excessive fundamentalist enthusiasm by deleting, minimizing, or removing the
prophetic element that is there is nothing short of clear-cut abuse of
the role of translator. Preventing
“abuse” by others by grievously abusing it oneself is a betrayal of
N. 1 -- William C. Taylor. The New Bible—Pro and
N. 2 -- Ibid.
N. 3 -- Ibid., pages 116-117.
N. 4 -- Oswald T. Allis. Revised Version or Revised Bible? A Critique of the RSV of
the Old Testament.
N. 5 -- Ibid., page 30.
N. 6 -- Ibid., pages 39-40.
N. 7 -- Ibid., page 33.
N. 8 -- Ibid.
N. 9 -- F. F. Bruce. The English Bible: A History of Translations from the Earliest
English Versions to the New English Bible.
N. 10 -- Allis, page 50.
N. 11 -- Of many places that discuss the matter, one might find that of Avram Yehoshua a good beginning point: “Isaiah and the Virgin Conception of Messiah.” Part of the Joys of Messianic Live site. At: http://www.seedofabraham.net/virgin.html. [September 2012.]
N. 12 -- Allis, page 45.