Does it matter which Bible?

by Eleanor Kreider
(Bible Collectors’ World – Jan./Mar. 1994)

Amidst the array of new versions and translations of the Word of God, is it possible to find one which is reliable in us scholarship but which at the same time also serves a  1990s congregation of men, women, and children with unobtrusive inclusivity in its language?

I’ve bought another Bible. It’s the New Revised Standard Version. It joins the colorful array of Bibles already on my shelf: RSV, AV, NIV, NEB, REB, JPS, Phillips, TEV, JB, NJB, two Greek NT’s, and Greek/English Interlinear. So why yet another Bible?

It’s not about collecting Bibles. I find all of them useful. It’s great fun comparing them and the differences are fascinating. One of the things I look for is which versions reveal sensitivity to inclusive language issues. What a tall order: finding a version which is both reliable in its scholarship and which serves a 1990s congregation of men, women, and children with unobtrusive inclusivity.

Since every one of my Bibles is a filtered product, an approximation of the original biblical Greek and Hebrew texts, it is useful to follow the translators around. I enjoy seeing how they coped with their difficult work of finding the best way to say it in English.

“What did it mean in the original?’ and “How do we express that in English today?”: these are two questions that keep plaguing Bible translators.

Neither question is easily answered. Barriers of time, language, and culture prevent quick solutions to the question of original meaning. Sometimes modern translators build on previous versions.

For example, one “family” of English translations includes the King James Bible, the Revised Version, the Revised Standard Version, and the most recent descendant, the New Revised Standard Version. All translator teams include good Greek and Hebrew specialists. Some teams also include Jewish Bible experts and scholars of languages that were contemporary to the Old and New Testament.

Translators must express what they think an original text meant in the words of the “new” language. I can just imagine some of their debates. The choice of words and the literary style require careful deliberation.

Modern Bible versions are often intended for a particular readership. For example, students using an English Bible (those who aren’t able to read Hebrew and Greek) will often choose the Revised Standard Version. That is because it stays as close to a literal translation as possible. The New Jerusalem Bible was translated by similar principles. But for those who never read a book at all, the Good News Bible is an obvious choice. Its limited vocabulary avoids religious jargon. Short sentences and direct language make it easy to read aloud. This “common language” translation is acceptable to the best educated as well as intelligible to the least educated.

All Bible versions must pass the read-aloud test if they are to serve in public worship. The New English Bible aims at not sounding at all like the Authorized Version. It reads beautifully, provided that one is able to handle the rich and allusive vocabulary. The Good News Bible is a fine choice for children or inexperienced public readers.

When translators produce a version which is meaning-to-meaning, rather than a more literal word-to-word translation, they provide what is called “dynamic equivalence.” An example is J.B. Phillips’ “hearty handshake all round” for the biblical “holy kiss” of Romans 16:16.

Translators’ concern for precise rendering, their bias, or their choices of dynamic equivalence reveal what they think is important. A few passages in several modern versions are most revealing. In Isaiah 7:14, for example, should the Hebrew almah become virgin, maiden, young girl, or recently-married-young woman? This verse has been a hot potato for Catholics and conservative Protestants alike. The word “virgin” is important to both groups. Notice how the Catholic scholars rendered it in the New Jerusalem Bible. Its “young woman” has six lines of footnotes. The New International Version says “virgin” but also has a long footnote. Both versions are choosing carefully. But it is obvious that much more is involved in translating sacred texts than finding word-for-word equivalents.

Is inclusive language important? It is to some translators. Let’s look at some New Testament texts to illustrate Romans 12:1:

“I urge YOU brother” (NIV)

“I appeal to you... brothers and sisters” (NRSV)

“Therefore, my friends (REB)

The Greek text plainly uses the word “brothers.” Isn’t the obvious translation to use the equivalent English word? NIV does so. But observe that the Revised English Bible equivocates with its dynamic “friends.” But why does the NRSV add “and sisters”? Are they just trying to make the feminists happy? It is true the feminists have compelled translators to reexamine their presuppositions as well as their grammar. But it’s more than reacting to feminists. In this example the NRSV scholars have given us a translation more accurate to the original language, and at the same time more usable for all the brothers and sisters in our churches.

It is more accurate because it bridges an important difference between biblical languages and modern English. In English the words “brother” and “man” are gender specific. Brother and man (in 1990s English) are always of the male gender, so grammarians call them “marked” words. It isn’t that simple in biblical languages.

When the NRSV translators came across the word “brothers” in Romans 12:1 they realized that it refers to believers in the church, both men and women. In order to express that in English. they might have had to use three words: “brothers and sisters.” Or they might have decided to use the word “believers.” What was important was to ensure that the English translation of this verse he inclusive. It must not be gender specific.

Every time the translators have done this, they have put in a footnote that say, “Gk. brothers.” The reader can see exactly what they have done. Romans 14 includes the Greek “brother” five times, translated “brother or sister” and “another,” each time with a footnote, “Gk. brother.”

Literally, Romans 13:8 reads, “He that loves the other" 

“He who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law “(NIV)

“The one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (NRSV)

“To love the other person is to fulfill the law” (NJB)

It is clear from the context that a male person is not meant exclusively. This teaching is directed to the entire Roman congregation. Notice that the NIV has chosen the marked “he,” and it has also introduced into the sentence an unnecessary “fellowman.”

The Greek text has four “he’s” in this passage. Romans 12:6-8:

“If a man’s gift is…let him (serve, teach, etc.)” (NIV)

“Gifts that differ… prophecy… ministry” (NRSV)

“Different gifts...let us use...if you (give)” (REB)

“Gifts that we have differ...we should…let us “(NJB)

Three versions have rendered it with ease and accuracy but avoided the gender-marked “he.” NIV has not just the four literal “he’s,” but it has given us one “man,” one “his” and seven “him’s.” It’s not that the NIV translation does not opt for literal accuracy. Instead, it chooses dynamic exclusivity.

Further spot-checks in the New Testament reveal the committed inclusivity of the NJB and NRSV:

Matthew 5:9

“Blessed are the peacemakers…children of God “(NRSV and NJB)

“Blessed are the peacemakers...sons of God “(RSV and NW)


Matthew 7:21

“The one who does the will of my Father “(N RSV)

“The person who does the will “(NJB)

“He who does the will” (RSV)


I Corinthians 13:11

“When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways...” (NJB and NRSV)

“When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (RSV)


Now for a few examples of what translations did with the Old Testament we go to the Psalms:

Psalm 1:1-2

“Blessed is the man…his delight is in the law “(NIV and RSV)

“Happy are those...their delight is in the law” (NRSV)

“Happy is the one . . .his delight is in the law” (REB)

The NIV and RSV have used the literal English equivalent “man” and the male pronoun throughout the Psalm 1. This is accurate. Our difficulty with it is that we speak 1990s English. The word “man” for us is marked, gender specific. The NRSV translators saw the Hebrew word for “man” to he unmarked, not gender-specific. They thought this was significant enough to justify casting the whole psalm in a plural form. They decided that the singularity of “a man” who is like “a tree” must give way to a communitarian rendition.

“As for mortals, their days are as grass” (Ps. 103:15) and “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts...” (Ps. 24:4) are two examples of the NRSV translators stepping carefully, yet solidly, in providing Psalm texts eminently usable today.

I enjoy my multicolored row of Bibles, and I will continue to use all of them in studying any text seriously. But I have discovered which ones I will both hide in my heart and read out in public. Those are the versions that are not only accurate and easy to read hut also committed to corporate and inclusive expressions.