By Peter J. Thuesen
New York, NY
Oxford University Press, 1999, 238 pp., $27.50
Well do I remember the furor that arose over the claims that were made when the Revised Standard Version was released. If such controversy began with the appearance of the Revised Version of 1881/85, it reached its apex with the RSV.
In this study, Thuesen considers the theological implications of Bible translation controversies in modern American Protestantism. He argues that these differences between liberals and conservatives arose in the nineteenth century due to modern assumptions that both groups held in common, and resulted by the mid-twentieth century in the tacit repudiation of some of the same assumptions by combatants on both sides.
The battleground concerning the RSV centered on the translation of Isaiah 7:14, where the RSV dared to render the Hebrew word “young woman” instead of “virgin.” The fact was that the RSV translators did not take virginity lightly, but the rendering of the Hebrew almah as “young woman” rather than “virgin” was simply a matter of linguistic honesty. The Hebrew had a specific term for “virgin” but it was not used in this verse. Although Protestants from 17th century Westminster divines to the 20th century Bible annotator C. I. Scofleld, had professed unswerving trust in translated Scripture, Isaiah 7:14 raised for the first time a widespread public mistrust in the orthodoxy of a major church-sponsored translation.
In the minds of many evangelicals, the sponsorship of the RSV by the National Council of Churches only added fuel to the fire of doubt regarding the RSV’s reliability. As late as 1962, the NCCs promotional literature referred to the RSV as the “fifth authorized English Bible.” The claim that it stood in direct succession to the Great Bible of 1539, the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, the King James Bible of 1611, and the Revised Version of 1885 wasn’t very reassuring, especially when the RSV had changed the KJV’s “virgin” to “young woman.”
Add to this the allegation that the RSV was a “Red Bible,” after the U.S. Air Force published a training manual in early 1960 that warned recruits to avoid the RSV. Even though this manual was quickly withdrawn, the damage had been done so far as the confidence of many was concerned. The suspicions of many were further strengthened when FBI director J. Edgar Hoover suggested in an Oct. 1960 article in Christianity Today that the communists were attempting to co-opt the Christian clergy by appealing to their sense of economic justice.
Since most ministers had forgotten most of whatever Hebrew and Greek they had once learned, many judged the RSV on other —often political — grounds. And it was on the political front that support for the RSV among wavering conservatives often broke down.
This situation contributed to a decision to develop an alternative translation, the New International Version. And Thuesen lays bare this story as well. The NIV has now been accepted by a sizeable number of American Christians. Meanwhile the RSV has been revised. I recommend his recounting of the translation baffle. Theusen weaves in the sub-themes of Carl Mclntire and the American Council of Christian Churches as well as the acceptance of the altered RSV by Roman Catholics, not to mention the RSV Bible-burnings, and the forcing of the International Bible Society and Zondervan Publishing House to abandon its inclusive-language version of the NIV.
It appears that American Protestant battles over Bible translations are not over though more recent struggles are given only brief acknowledgment in this book. Thuesen currently is Assistant Editor of The Works of Jonathan Edwards and is a lecturer in American Religious History at the School of Divinity, Yale University.