From:  Theology’s Impact on Translation:  KJV to NRSV            Return to Home         

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2013





[Page 105]



Chapter 8:

Feminism and the

New Revised Standard Version:

Justifications and Goals







  1.  The Public “Justifications” for the New Translation



            Every new translation requires a “justification” for its existence, for public relations reasons if for nothing else.  This in no way means that the given “reasons” are adequate ones—especially in this era when so many rival versions are readily available.  Three major lines of reasoning have been developed to prove the “need” for the issuance of the New RSV in particular.


                        The first centers around the amount of time that has gone by since the original RSV was issued.  A pre-publication advertisement—presumably written by the publisher itself or rewritten from one of its press releases—puts its first stress upon this “time passage” fact, “The original RSV has been the scholar’s choice translation for forty years.  But the English language has changed and vast strides have been made in archaeology and linguistics.  It’s time for the NEW RSV!”  (N. 1)

            Yet other notable scholarly efforts have certainly appeared within that time frame—even “moderates” and liberals both will have to concede the considerable merits of the New International Version though they might be more grudging concerning those of the New American Standard.  Or they might select the (Roman Catholic) New American Bible or some other rendition.  Our point is this:  Why yet another translation when these more recent ones are both available and widely circulated?

[Page 106]                   One possible explanation would be that the theological assumptions of the New International and New American are too “conservative” for their taste.  Such an admission is unlikely to be made since it would be a concession that a basic, underlying bias of the New RSV lies in the opposite direction.

            Another possible explanation would be to perpetuate the RSV for the simple value of perpetuating it.  “Keep a good thing going at its prime,” so to speak.  But the New RSV comes from the same organizational and corporate interests that had already produced modest mini-revisions of the RSV through the decades that gave the opportunity for needed changes.  Of course, if what one really intends is a fundamental change in one or more basic translation principles, well, that would be incompatible with that process.  It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that anything short of that could easily be accommodated within the RSV’s already on-going revision procedures.

            (An aside:  Should a translation undergo such mini-revisions in the first place?  One can imagine a “preliminary” edition and then a “permanent” one, but why adopt the premise of never ending revision of the same translation, ruling out there ever being a truly permanent authoritative version of it?  Isn’t there a time to let a translation “stand on its own two feet” and face the ultimate verdict of history?  This also applies to other translations that do the same thing, of course.) 

            Scholars have sometimes been accused of making a life-time endeavor of what should require a far shorter period—the interminable length of the translation work on the Dead Sea Scrolls comes to mind as the premier example.  To the cynic, one might suspect that the RSV translation committees—and those of other contemporary translations that adopt the same approach—have established for themselves a life-time work.  To the cynic, one might suspect that they have decided to make those bodies eternal, non-ending entities who never vanish even after the work is finished, because they have effectively defined their task as unfinishable.  On the individual level, a permanent and repeated line on their resume.

            But if one insists upon the desirability of such an approach, surely major discoveries and new insights could easily be incorporated within these new editions.  Unless one’s real intent is to construct something very, very different from what had been done previously.

            The third possible explanation is also rather cynical, but yet quite reasonable:  the cynic might well suspect that the “upgrading” from a periodic mini-revision to that of a “new” version was to meet the financial and corporate interests of the publisher, to provide the “newest” translation to relentlessly market against the erosion of its existing market share by rival versions. 

            It is no great secret that by the 1980s Bible translation had become “big business” and there was quite good money to be made by those who good bring out and steer to popularity a new translation.  (I wouldn’t for a second exempt any theological persuasion as being exempt from this temptation!)

            On its own grounds of being a useful and valuable translation, is there something so sacred, so holy, or at least so overwhelmingly superior to all other versions that it requires the non-ending perpetuation of the RSV?  Even the most ardent champion of the RSV / NRSV would surely stop short of making such a claim.

            It is asserted that “vast strides have been made in archaeology and linguistics.”  But to return to our earlier point, didn’t the periodic RSV mini-revisions exist to deal [Page 107]  with just such major breakthroughs?  With a ten year revision schedule, surely nothing major had been overlooked and, if it had, surely could be corrected in the next scheduled revision.  So one would seem forced to conclude that either the prior minor revisions were fiascos (and missed important, badly needed alterations) or that the claim of a “need” for a completely new revision was born from the need to justify a decision fundamentally rooted on dramatically different grounds.


            The previously mentioned advertisement suggests a second reason for the translation, to meet the changing needs of spoken English.  “The entire text has been carefully scrutinized and recast in fresh vocabulary and construction, without compromising the accuracy for which the RSV is justly famous” (N. 2).  They speak of “forty years” passing from RSV to NRSV.  Has translation English altered that much in a mere forty years? 

How one would write fiction has altered for the way of sentence structure and speaking has shifted and fiction changes with it.  On the other hand, if one is dealing with how one translates, the aim is not to be surfboarding on the edge of changing language, but to provide a text that is comprehensible both today and decades into the future.  What motivates one in changing a translation is when enough words have altered their meaning or usage that it no longer effectively communicates what it once said.

Can one seriously contend that the RSV was already as antiquated as the KJV?  Mustn’t one go back at least to 1900 or earlier to find much in the way of translations that fail this test?  We are being generous here because some of them still hold up amazingly well. 

Again we find the public justification not being quite “kosher.”  Its excellent rhetoric but has no necessary connection with requiring what they assume must be done—replace the RSV and its mini-revision process.

An Associated Press pre-publication survey of the translation spoke in similar terms, “Seeking greater accuracy, clarity and more natural, intelligible and flowing English, the revision refines phrasing in what has been America’s most broadly endorsed version of Scripture, the RSV” (N. 3).

The AP article provides six examples of where the reading flow certainly has been improved.  (It wisely skips over awkward phraseology that has been needlessly injected into the text to serve feminism’s degenderizing demand.  It seems that degrading wording flow can become an absolute virtue—but only when its necessary to meet this agenda.  There it doesn’t need to be removed and its perpetuation, strangely enough, becomes an absolute virtue.)

Deuteronomy 29:5:  “Your sandals have not worn off your feet” (RSV) becomes “Your sandals have not worn out on your feet.”  The change had already been adopted by the NKJV and is essentially the same in the NIV.  Even unchanged, would any reader be likely to miss the point being made?

Hebrews 11:16:  “God prepared for them a city (RSV) becomes, “God prepared a city for them.”  Actually the RSV is misquoted:  the first word is “He,” not “God.”  With the exception of reading “He” in place of “God,” both the NIV and NKJV had already adopted the New RSV rendering.  It is never reassuring when one relies upon a misquotation to lay the foundation to show that a translation needs to be “improved.”  [Page 108]  Neither is it that reassuring that a change other translations have already embraced argues that your group must produce its own new translation to do the same thing.

Psalms 50:9:  “I will accept no bull from your house” (RSV) is altered to, “I will not accept a bull from your house.”  The revised word order is also utilized by the NKJV though with a slightly different choice of words.  The NIV opts for a more interpretive rendering of, “I have no need of a bull from your stall.”  (Which also rules out the colloquial use of the word “bull” as well.)

1 Samuel 24:11:  “Though you hunt my life to take it” (RSV) becomes the more natural sounding, “Though you hunt me to take my life.”  The NIV adopts essentially the same reading of the New RSV; the NKJV follows along with basically that of the original RSV.

2 Corinthians 6:11:  “Our mouth is open to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide” (RSV) becomes, “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you.”  The NKJV adopts the second half of the New RSV wording and only moderately alters the first half.  The NIV differs in the first half by substituting “freely” for “frankly;” the second half is changed to, “opened wide our hearts to you.”

Psalms 98:8:  “Let the hills sing for joy together” (RSV) becomes the more fluent, “Let the hills sing together for joy.”  The NIV had already opted for the New RSV’s word choice, merely substituting “mountains” for “hills.”  The NKJV, however, renders, “Let the hills be joyful together before the Lord.”

Perhaps the most fascinating thing in these New RSV readings selected by the Associated Press is their lack of originality—how they are so similar to those already utilized by the NIV and NKJV.  Why then does the need for greater “fluency” require the issuance of the New RSV?  Not to mention that these could have been handled in the normal course of the RSV’s mini-revisions.

Are there inadequacies in other passages of the NIV and NKJV?  Doubtlessly—and also there’s no doubt that a prolonged examination of the New RSV will reveal stumblings by that translation as well.  For example, to alter “by his (i.e., Jesus’) resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4, RSV) to “by the resurrection from the dead” is certainly a step away from reader friendliness since one specific resurrection is under discussion, that of Jesus.  To describe animals ceremonially unclean under the Law of Moses as “common” (Acts 11:8, 9, RSV) may not be fully adequate, but to call them “profane” has overtones that makes it even less communicative.

Indeed, the New RSV is open to the valid objection that it seeks greater clarity and ease of reading than the original texts permit.  The fact that God “keeps him” who is  born of God (1 John 5:18, RSV), includes the fact that He “protects them” (NRSV) but is surely not limited to that alone.  “To serve the living God (Hebrews 9:14) requires that our entire lifestyle is altered in service to Him.  Hence it covers far more than the New RSV’s apparent limitation of the meaning to being, “to worship the living God.”

Accepting the fact that no translation will ever be perfect nor eventually need major revision (but in only forty years—really???), the substantial degree of progress exhibited by such evangelical and conservative translations as the NKJV and NIV surely ruled out any real “need” or “necessity” for a New RSV being produced in order to guarantee such improvements be available to the reading public.

The first two lines of justification therefore sound suspiciously like excuses rather than reasons.  Only when we move into the next explanation do we encounter a genuinely [Page 109]  compelling argument—if we embrace its validity in full, rather than argue that the wording of the original text should itself ultimately be the decisive factor.


The third ground used to prove the need for an entirely New RSV has been the alleged need to degenderize the English version of the Bible.  A prepublication ad made the argument in this fashion, “And it’s gender-inclusive—where the original languages implied both men and women, the correct English forms are used.  Now more than ever, the New RSV is accurate, understandable, and elegant for private study and public worship” (N. 4).

To anticipate what will be documented in greater detail at a later point, two preliminary observations should be made.  First of all, until the 1970s, using terms such as “he,” “him,” and “man” to cover the entire human species was not only correct English but standard English.  Indeed only the historically recent loud agitation by a special interest minority has called into question the historically validated usage. 

Out of courtesy and respect for others, one may—as this author—be receptive to a generaldegenderizing,” while vigorously resisting the demand that it be made “total” or all-inclusive in defiance of the “male” language utilized in the original text.  Text should reign supreme in translation decisions; not theological / ideological desires.

Furthermore, even if excessive “male” language is removed, that in no way provides carte blanche for the New RSV’s pet abuse of substituting what they wished the text had said for what it really says.  In other words, it’s wholesale reworking of the original text to make it readable in a degenderized English form.

One critic concisely summed up the techniques, “The chief technique was to use the plural instead of the singular, but other conventions included using generic terms, using indefinite pronouns, altering third person constructions to first or second person, and replacing active verbs with passive ones” (N. 5).  

Original text and intent plays the proverbial “second fiddle” to presenting a “translation” that does adequate homage to newly entrenched theological interests to whom such factors are unimportant in comparison to the “truth” they are convinced they are conveying.  Yet is deliberately altering the “sacred text”—in whatever sense one prefers to use the term—an honorable endeavor to those who regard scripture as normative or even to be respected?   






  1.  What the Extreme (Dominant?) Fringe

of Feminists Really Wanted:

The Example of

An Inclusive-Language Lectionary

– Year B


[Page 110]


            To set the New RSV’s conduct in perspective, we need to examine what the more militant elements wanted and unsuccessfully pushed for—at least for the time being.  Then we will be in a better position to fairly judge what the New RSV actually gave them—a freely rewritten Biblical text but one that falls considerably short of their theological ideal.  Which is not to praise the New RSV, but only to concede that the catastrophe could have been far, far worse.

            Beginning in the Seventies, a powerful ideology of Feminism quickly evolved before the public eye.  In its moderate form, it was based upon such widely appealing principles as equal pay for equal work and the opening up of all feasible job opportunities for women who were qualified and the giving of long overdue respect to the feminine sector of the work force.  Intellectuals and ideologues pushed the movement in a far more radical direction, however.  The insistence on abortion as an inherent and absolute right—no matter how trivial the reason or the stage of the pregnancy—and the endorsement of the morality of  homosexuality are two of the more obvious examples of where the extremes clearly used these wider appealing desires to gain ideological control to shape the movement.

            In the realm of religious endeavor, the idea of women publicly preaching and holding official church leadership posts over males was claimed as an unquestionable “right.”  A male monopoly was denounced as unfair and lobbies within various denominations were formed to promote a revolutionary change in the practice and thought of most of those involved.  (“Women preachers” were, of course, not totally unknown prior to this but were uncommon or nonexistent in so-called “mainstream” Christian religions--either in those considered such by social commentators or deserving such recognition by pure force of large membership.)

            Whether an individual approved or rejected this trend, it became a threat to all respecters of the scriptures when it took the form of a movement to “revise” the Biblical text in a gender free manner by altering the fairly translated Biblical text.  Rather than maintain a strict tie-in between original language and the English version, it could be altered in whatever manner necessary to accomplish the desired result.  If the scriptures did not already say what the feminists wanted, it was made to say it.

            For those who took the Bible extremely seriously, this hit a raw nerve.  To intentionally alter the sacred text knowing full well that such was being done, was perceived as an insult to God.  “Ill advised” and “improper” were temperate evaluations; yet to others only the term “blasphemy” seemed to do full justice and that, itself, considered an incredibly self-controlled reaction.

            There can be no question that the scriptures themselves are defiantly opposed to altering of the text.  The last book of the New Testament asserts the principle this way:


For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book:  if anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book (Revelation 22:18-19).   


[Page 111]                   At first the ultra-feminist textual changes took the form of revised lectionaries (books of scripture readings collected for public worship).  Finally, the RSV decided to issue a “new” version rather than a mini-revision, which would include as a central characteristic the absence of the alleged “sexist” language that offended extreme feminists.  Faithfulness to the underlying original text became a near irrelevancy so long as the proper “thought” was retained and the language appropriately “sanitized” to avoid attacks from the newly emergent theological elite.

            As extreme as the result was, it is only fair to recognize that what was obtained was still not as extreme as what the most vocal and vehement feminists supported.  To illustrate their agenda we have selected for analysis An Inclusive-Language Lectionary:  Readings for Year B.  This is the “Revised Edition” of 1987, which makes it of special interest since an earlier version had been done and the passage of enough time had ensued to permit them a fuller evaluation of their methodology.  In short, this was no hastily done rendition done in order to “have something out there” to illustrate their approach.

            Nor was this a single person effort, but that of a committee representing varied denominations.  Hence it can not be dismissed as representing some individual’s private idiosyncrasies.  To use the rather lengthy title page description, this volume was, “Prepared for voluntary use in churches by the Inclusive-Language Lectionary Committee appointed by the Division of Education and Ministry, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S. 

           It was co-published and issued by no less than three denominational presses.  As the title page tells us, it was “published for The Cooperative Publication Association by John Knox Press, Atlanta, The Pilgrim Press, New York, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia.”  Hence this volume can not be dismissed as the work of the fringe, but as representing the kind of “mature,” “fully developed” ultra-feminism acceptable to national religious bodies and the Nation Council of Churches as early as the 1980s.

            Both in the front of the volume and at the end, the writers have summarized their word choices and something of the reasoning that led them to it (N. 6).

            “King” (when referring to God or in Messianic texts) is replaced with “ruler” or “monarch.” 

            “Kingdom” indicated an alleged male bias and therefore is replaced with “reign,” “dominion,” and (most often) “realm.”

            “Lord” is evaluated as borderline sexist, but is retained in Old Testament passages “because of a certain ambiguity about the extent to which ‘Lord’ is heard as gender-specific” (N. 7).  That is not as generous a concession as it might sound since “Lord” is placed in brackets with the word “or” in front of it.  In other words, it is a permitted substitute, not the preferred reading.

            “God” or “Sovereign” or “Sovereign God” are the preferred readings for the various Old Testament terms normally translated as “God,” “Lord,” or “Lord God.”  In the New Testament, the common word kyrios (translated “Lord” in the RSV) is replaced with “Sovereign,” “Christ,” or “God” depending upon the context.  Note that textual substitution is involved since “Christ” and “God” are placed in the text when the words are not present in the original and what is actually there (“Lord”) is removed as theologically improper to use. 

[Page 112]                   This is not done to make a vaguer term more explicit as to its immediate contextual reference, but because what is in the text is unacceptable to full-fledged feminist theology.  For those not willing (as of then at least) to banish Biblical language, “Lord” is placed in brackets as an alternative reading.

            “Master” (as a description of Jesus) is replaced by the word “teacher” even though His physical incarnation was as a male.  How in the world can it be truly sexist to use male language of a physical male?

            “He” is never permitted as a synonym for God even if it requires the seemingly endless substitution of “God” in each case.

            God being described as “father” is viewed as unforgivably male chauvinist and therefore textually expanded to present imagery acceptable to feminist theology (N. 8):


In the New Testament sections, the formal equivalent in this lectionary for “God the Father” or “the Father” is “God the Father [and Mother]” or “God the [Mother and] Father.”  The words that have been added to the text are italicized and in brackets.  If (our emphasis, RW) the reader chooses to omit the bracketed words, the sentence will read exactly as rendered in the RSV.  


            In most cases, bracketed words are those rejected by the ultra-feminists; in this case the words they preferred are themselves bracketed, perhaps in recognition of how explosive the changes might sound to those outside their ranks.  The inclusion of the “Mother” references with zero textual backing unquestionably indicates just how far a substantial and powerful element of feminist thought will go in interjecting their theology into the Biblical text.  That they clearly view the Bible writers as having gotten it wrong in their original wording is obvious; hence they take upon themselves the obligation of duly correcting the apostles and prophets of old.

            That prudence against backlash rather than conviction or moderation produced this bracketing can be seen in the fact that they feel the need to stress the validity of the addition.  This is done in two ways.

            `First of all--and quite true—God is above and beyond gender.  In human / earthly terms, He is neither male nor female.

            However, God inspired the Bible writers to utilize predominantly—yea, overwhelmingly—“male” descriptions of Himself.  Since God chose to paint Himself in such terms, then what is human wisdom to say:  that God isn’t smart enough to provide the basic metaphor by which to describe Himself?  However by also teaching that He is above human physical gender, He also warns us not to read into it more than we should.

            (In passing:  the bulk of feminists backing such interpolations would be unconcerned with what the “inspired” Bible says because to their underlying Modernism it is simply the gifted effort of erring mortals in the first place.  An “inspiration” that somehow controls and assures the accurate presentation of Divine reality is simply beyond the boundaries of their thinking.)

            A second defense of such textual alterations is found in the fact that, Biblically, God is occasionally described in terms of feminine imagery.  The Lectionary cites Isaiah 42:14, for example, as well as Christ making a woman the central figure in the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10).  What they do not stress is that feminine imagery represents the occasional, secondary, and one is tempted to say almost rare usage to describe God’s [Page 113]  relationship with humanity.  Indeed, nowhere near even a significant percentage of the total “gender” allusions referring to God utilize “feminine” language and imagery.  And even if it did, who gives the translator the right to alter what the original text says in a way that fundamentally misleads as to what is really there?

            To put on a textual equality the occasional usage with the dominant one would surely not be accepted when applied to any other Biblical term or doctrine.  We have smiled or laughed at the earlier examples of other “translations” freely rewriting the text.  If these aren’t satisfactory, you might wish a more recent example than we have gone into--think of the Jehovah Witnesses insertion of “Jehovah” into the New Testament; some say it amounts to 237 times!  Why should our attitude of scorn toward such treatment of the text suddenly be converted into praise when a different theology so freely alters the text to fit its theology?

            The Lectionary compilers make plain that what they are upset with is not just the translation into English but that they also have a fundamental revulsion at the wording as found in the original text (N. 9):


Gender-specific language, however, is not unique to English translations of the Bible; it is characteristic of the languages in which the Bible was written.  Both the Old and the New Testament were written in languages and in cultures that were basically patriarchal; and as the English language is also patriarchal; the patriarchal character of both Testaments has slipped easily into the great English versions of the Bible.       


            So the issue is not one of merely “inaccurate” or “inadequate” English renderings . . . the extreme feminists abhor the way God inspired the wording in the original manuscripts (to the extent that they will even concede His active, overseeing presence at all in the composition).  Accuracy is not behind their demands, but a very dogmatic theology that is at open and clear-cut variance with the texts they feel must be mutilated—I’m sorry “revised” or “corrected”—to more accurately present Divine truth. 

            Of course this raises the profound question of why their theology should be determinative on such matters in the first place?  On what basis should we regard that of the two testaments as fundamentally flawed and theirs as fundamentally superior?  Newer, of course; but superior as well?

            It does not require a lot of thought to imagine the indignant response the prophets of ancient Israel would have had.  Or that of Jesus who rebuked His foes for following their tradition (in effect, their own theology) in place of scripture.



The “Ultras” and References to Jesus



            As already noted, in this Lectionary when “Lord” is applied to either the Heavenly Father or to Jesus, it is downgraded to an alternate reading.  When referring to the physical person / body of Jesus, “he” is permitted.  However, when speaking of Jesus in a messianic / Christological connection it is a different story:  “Son of God” is changed to “Child of God.”  “Son of Man” becomes “the Human One.”  In both cases the physical [Page 114]  incarnation envolved is unquestionably male, but there is this strange and stubborn theological refusal to use the male language His contemporaries used of Him.




The “Ultras” and References to Humanity



            Although they concede that “brethren” includes both males and females in its Biblical usage (N. 10), “brothers and sisters” or the vaguer “friends” is substituted.

             If God can not be permitted to be described as “Father” without a feminine element being added to the text, it is hardly surprising that similar textual rewriting is permitted in regard to the human species though (surprisingly) to a lesser degree.  As they note, “In a few instances, women’s names have been added to the text (in brackets, rw) in this lectionary.  These names are included where generation or origin of the people is a major concern” (N. 11).

            The justification:  In Isaiah 51:1-2 Sarah is mentioned along with Abraham.  Hebrews 11:1 is also cited (though it does not mention any woman by name).  The difference between Isaiah 51 and what the lectionary revisers do can be summed up in one sentence:  The Biblical writers were supernaturally guided as to what to place in the text; the Lectionary (re)writers were NOT.  Joseph Smith had no right to make textual changes unsupported by evidence in his “Inspired Version” of the Bible and feminists have no right to either.  At least Smith was wise enough to realize that to justify such his version had to be considered “inspired” or it would have no justification at all.  (We are not referring to the Book of Mormon here; we are referring to his Bible translation, the first few chapters of Genesis in particular.)


            To summarize:  We find in all this an extremely alarming mentality:  The willingness to DRASTICALLY change the text in order to support a theology, in this case that of militant feminism.  In many of these cases there is little or no pretense that accurate translation requires the change.  Indeed, elaborate rationalizations have to be resorted to as grounds to avoid translation accuracy and to justify interpolation of additional or substitute terminology. 

Conveying the “proper” theology becomes the standard for translation and not the accurate rendition of the text.  And, of course, if you oppose such, you are automatically a “sexist” for who else would dare stand on the platform of accurate translation when it fails to produce the “truth” that feminism has discovered and decreed that all must embrace?      







N. 1     --         Christian Book Distributors bi-monthly publication of books carried, May-June, 1990, page 1.


[Page 115]  N. 2          --         Ibid., page 1.


N. 3     --         No author cited, “New Bible Translation Designed to be Clearer, More Accurate,” Richmond New Leader (Richmond, Virginia), Saturday, April 28, 1990, page 2.


N. 4     --         Christian Book Distributions, Ibid., page 1.


N. 5     --         Laurence M. Vance.  “The NRSV vs. the ESV.”  At:  July 2013.              


N. 6     --         An Inclusive-Language Lectionary:  Readings for Year B.  Revised Edition, 1987, pages 9-13, 247-255.


N. 7     --         Ibid., page 249.


N. 8     --         Ibid., page 13.


N. 9     --         Ibid., page 11.


N. 10   --         Ibid., page 253.  


N. 11   --         Ibid.