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I recently ran across this comment suggesting that the ESV translation was undertaken because the NRSV was ‘too liberal.’ I’ve often been curious what prompted this split in the KJV-lineage group, and I've heard similar statements from others about doctrinal (or political?) motivations. I’m aware of the Isaiah 7:14 issue,* and I see that the ESV and NRSV diverge frequently in their decisions about gender language. But I’m not familiar with other major discrepancies.

Among those who consider the NRSV ‘too liberal,’ what other decisions or categories of decisions are commonly cited?


*Although that one was actually an RSV decision (reversed in the ESV), not new to the NRSV. I’m also not clear that this should be considered a liberal vs conservative issue, but it’s often cited that way.

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    Issues with translations are a interest of mine, however, you use the terms liberal and conservative in a manor which (it seems) addresses some measurement unexplained by your question. My understanding of different translations is that they are done to be more easily understood by the modern reader. Unfortunately, with some of the newer translations, much is lost, especially those from the 70's that reference the mythical Q documents and the like. That said, I think your questions has less to do with Christianity and more to do with hermeneutics.stackexchange.com – Marc May 12 '15 at 11:37
  • @Marc My intention was to ask about the distinct doctrinal influences behind these two translations, which is why I asked here and not on hermeneutics.SE. As for what the meaning of ‘liberal’ is, I’m only attempting to identify the viewpoint reflected in the linked comment, which is not difficult to find stated by others. If you have any suggestions about how to state it in a way that is more clear, please feel free to edit. – Susan May 12 '15 at 11:47
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    I should have said "thought to be too liberal"! How a translation is first received makes a huge difference. The TNIV had what amounted to a smear campaign against it, while the 2011 NIV is doing great, even though they're extremely similar. Moral of the story: don't get American Baptists offside if you want your translation to succeed. – curiousdannii May 12 '15 at 12:20
  • @curiousdannii I wasn’t trying to be critical of your comment by any means. I’m just very curious of the doctrinal 'politics' that motivated these, and I’m not sure how to ask without using language that (I’m realizing) is simultaneously vague and potentially inflammatory....please do feel free to edit if you think this can be helped to be more appropriate here. – Susan May 12 '15 at 12:23
  • How much is political and how much is based on actual content is not easy to determine. Sponsored by the NCC, including apocraphal books rouses suspicion. I found a good review: faithalone.org/journal/1990ii/Farstad.html – disciple May 13 '15 at 22:16
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The decisions you mention really are the major issues, but one other point has gotten notice as well.

Inclusive Language

The article The NRSV vs the ESV, while critical of both translations, says of the NRSV:

The main change found in the NRSV, and that which has been the most controversial, is its elimination of masculine-oriented language. The NRSV was the first major "inclusive-language" translation.

The article The Gender-Neutral Language Controversy, a survey of the "inclusive language" issue from a conservative standpoint, says:

The first version to use gender-neutral language in a really thorough and systematic way was the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which appeared in 1990. This version was created under a mandate from the copyright holder, the National Council of Churches, to eliminate “sexist” language. It did not however substitute gender-neutral language in reference to God, and it did not incorporate many of the misinterpretations proposed by feminists, and so it did not satisfy many liberals.

The article concludes:

Gender-neutral Bible versions originated as an attempt by feminists to transform both the language and the beliefs of Christians. They were welcomed in liberal circles, but were met with strong resistance among evangelicals. The creators and defenders of these versions have suffered a loss of reputation among evangelicals, and publishers are not likely to market them successfully among evangelicals in the near future.

It may be worth noting that the ESV uses some inclusive language, but only when the original language was inclusive, as pointed out in this review:

As far as gender is concerned, "anyone" rather than "any man" is used where there is no word corresponding to "man" in the original, and "people" rather than "men" is used where the original refers to both men and women.

Un-Messianic Renderings of the OT

The other major category of issues includes the Isaiah 7:14 issue you mentioned, as described in this review of the NRSV from bible-researcher.com:

The deliberately non-Christian interpretation of the Old Testament which made the RSV unacceptable to many Christians is continued in this revision. The most notorious verse of the RSV, Isaiah 7:14, “a young woman shall conceive,” is revised only to put the verb in the present tense and add the definite article: “the young woman is with child.” In some places the NRSV is worse than the RSV in this respect. For example, in Genesis 1:2 the RSV’s “and the Spirit of God was moving” has been changed to “a wind from God swept.” In Psalm 23 the RSV’s traditional renderings “valley of the shadow of death” and “dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” are changed to “the darkest valley” and “my whole life long.” We do however notice an improvement over the RSV in the NRSV’s translation of נברכו “be blessed” in Genesis 12:3, 18:18, and 28:14; and התברכו “gain blessing for themselves” in Genesis 22:18 and 26:4.

This is in contrast with the ESV, as the same review quoted earlier establishes:

The language and style are basically those of the RSV, but with the elimination of archaisms and a slight updating of vocabulary. In the Preface it is stated that the one hundred member publishing team "shares a common commitment to the truth of God's word and to historic Christian orthodoxy" (p. x), and the conservative stance of the translation is sometimes apparent where OT passages are treated with reference to the NT, e.g. "virgin" (Isa. vii 14; cf. Matt. i 23), "Kiss the Son" (Ps. ii 12) and "offspring" rather than "descendants" (Gen. xii 7; xxii 17; cf. Gal. iii 16).

OT Translational Novelties

Finally, there's an issue where NRSV translators would translate a passage based on conjecture rather than direct textual evidence, as detailed in this article (which also details the other issues quite well):

The RSV generally uses the Masoretic Text (traditional Hebrew). However, it has been widely criticized by conservatives for frequently revamping that text. Since the ancient text used only consonants, by inserting different vowels than the Masoretes wrote in, modern scholars are able to come up with some very striking variant readings—often strictly conjectural. These have often been labeled "Cn" for correction.

However, changes made without this warning have caused many to mistrust the RSV OT text in some places, especially where it impinges on conservative theology (e.g., Christology).

The NRSV follows the RSV in this. It also bases its text on the ancient versions in other languages much more than the NASB, NIV, or NKJV would, for example.

There are many footnotes referring to the Qumran mss. of Samuel (abbreviated "Q MS"). "Four sentences based upon one of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been tacked onto Chapter 10 of 1 Samuel, for instance."3

Many of the footnotes in the RSV are decidedly helpful to those who want to study the Bible in detail, but the liberal presuppositions of the NCC and its translators should be kept in mind by the Bible-believing reader.

  • Thank you! FYI this prompted another question. (Well, actually it was one I had had in mind for a while, but this answer and the source it quoted pushed me to finally ask it.) – Susan May 24 '15 at 7:14
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    I'm not certain this is what's going on, but this may be one more example, of a more subtle type. (Awaiting an answer there, but it looks to me a lot like the NRSV is intentionally excluding the first of those quotations -- from Isa. 53 -- from association with the named prophet and author of Isa. 6.) – Susan Apr 10 '16 at 9:24

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