The Revised Standard Version of the Bible has been used now for over fifteen years and has won many friends and suffered much attack. Even yet it is perhaps too early to gauge accurately its total influence on the Church. Obviously it has attractive features. It reads well. The translation is carefully prepared and dignified. And it embodies current scholarship. Why ask for another translation?

The answer is that the RSV also has serious faults.

First, it is clear that the RSV represents modern critical scholarship. Higher criticism does not accept the doctrine of the full trustworthiness of Scripture, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Nor does it believe that truly predictive prophecy is possible. These views are noticeable in the resulting translation.

Another problem is that the RSV is more than a translation. On many of the pages of the Old Testament there are footnotes, marked by Cn, correcting the Hebrew text on the basis of the translators’ ideas of what the text should have said. Often the Greek, Syriac, or Targumic readings are chosen over the Hebrew, but with no discernible regularity or definite principle. Many times the evidence is bypassed and the Hebrew is corrected according to the translators’ judgment. Doubtless some of these changes in the text may be justified. To conservative scholars, however, many of them seem quite unnecessary, and some seem entirely unwarranted and even prejudicial to the teachings of the Bible.

Here is the main problem in the RSV. Any version will have mistakes, but many of what the conservative sees as problems in the RSV seem tendential. They introduce unnecessary conflicts between Old Testament and New Testament and between one book and another. These conflicts become particularly numerous and important in the field of Messianic prophecy. The full force of this treatment can only be to weaken respect for the full truthfulness of the Bible and for the evidential value of Old Testament prediction.

Conjectures and Mistranslations

In the general field of conjecture it is of interest to test the authors of the RSV in the Book of Isaiah. About thirty conjectured textual alterations are noted in the footnotes of the RSV Isaiah, in addition to the places where the translators chose the Greek or another version over the Hebrew. Twenty-six of these corrections had been suggested thirty years ago in the footnotes of the third edition of Kittel’s Hebrew Bible, which is of critical slant. While the RSV was in preparation, the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah was discovered and published. It is interesting to note that not one of these thirty scholastic conjectures is supported by the Isaiah scroll (about 150 B.C.). Possibly a few of them are justified. In most of these places, however, it seems likely that critical scholarship has done an injustice to the Hebrew text simply in order to obtain an easier and smoother reading.

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A further troublesome matter in these corrections is that the footnotes, which claim to give the reading of the Hebrew as it stands, are not always sound. It is not clear which words of the text replace which words of the Hebrew as given in the footnote. And often the footnotes translate the Hebrew with such wooden, word-for-word equivalence that the rejected reading looks far more impossible than it really is. The net result is unfair to the Hebrew text.

Also of interest are passages where conservative scholars have alleged that there are mistranslations.

In Leviticus 16:8, 10, the RSV states that on the day of atonement two goats shall be taken for a sin offering for the congregation. One shall be sacrificed to the Lord; the other shall be “sent away into the wilderness to Azazel” (the ASV rendering is similar). Azazel is not explained here, but in standard dictionaries it is defined as a Jewish demon of the wilderness mentioned in Enoch and other apocryphal literature. The translation implies that the high priest was to placate both the Lord and the demons, thereby suggesting that Israel’s religion had low origins indeed. But this translation is quite unnecessary. The name can well be taken as a compound, “the goat of going out,” or “escape goat” (so the Septuagint), thus symbolizing the removal as well as the expiation of sin. No alternative reading is suggested by the RSV.

In Deuteronomy 1:2; 4:46, the RSV (like the ASV) refers to Moses’ final addresses as given “beyond the Jordan.” This is in accord with long-standing critical opinion that Deuteronomy was written not by Moses but by some later author living west of the Jordan river. However, concordance study will show that the phrase is applicable to both shores of the Jordan regardless of the author’s standpoint. In Numbers 32:19 it is even used of both east and west banks in the same verse, the second instance being translated by the RSV as “on this side of the Jordan.”

In Joshua 9:1, Joshua in Palestine refers to the west bank using this phrase. The KJV rightly translates it “on this side Jordan.” The RSV has the Palestinian author of Joshua 9:1 refer to Palestine as “beyond Jordan,” which is manifestly wrong. Like Deuteronomy 1:2, it is a misunderstanding of the Hebrew phrase.

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In Psalm 29:1 the RSV translates “sons of the mighty” as “heavenly beings” with a footnote that the Hebrew actually says “sons of gods.” This reading derives from parallels between this psalm and Ugaritic poetry and from a critical interpretation of a somewhat similar phrase in Genesis 6:4. The claim is made that Genesis 6:4 embodies the myth of illicit unions of heavily beings with humans. These views neglect the comparison with Psalm 96:7–9, where the words of Psalm 29:1, 2 are quoted verbatim except that the phrase “sons of the mighty” is given an equivalent expression “families of the peoples.” The Hebrews themselves evidently did not take the phrase to mean “heavenly beings.”

Messianic Passages

The greatest harm in such unwarranted translations occurs when Old Testament Messianic passages are altered in line with critical theory. Almost half the usual Messianic passages suffer in the RSV.

The Septuagint version (200 B.C.) of Psalm 45:6 is quoted in Hebrews 1:8 as a proof of the deity of Christ. This verse has long been considered a sign that Christ’s deity was taught in the Old Testament, too. But the RSV without warrant renders the noun “God” as an adjective, “your divine throne,” with the KJV reading given as an alternative in the footnote. The present writer is convinced that the Septuagint, the New Testament, the KJV, and the ASV are correct in their translations. The psalm is one of the royal psalms. It derives its imagery from the promise to David that his descendants would include the Messianic King. True, this King is described in a wedding song. But the symbolism of a wedding need not render the psalm non-Messianic in intent. Plain translation of the Hebrew requires the view that the psalm is directly applicable to the Messianic King.

A somewhat similar problem in another Messianic prophecy is found in Psalm 16:10. The word shachath is translated “Pit” in the RSV, “corruption” in the KJV, and the verb tenses are rendered present in the RSV instead of future. The translation suggests that the psalm was written concerning one of David’s many escapes and was not applied to Christ until the New Testament. There is no footnote to indicate a possible alternative translation.

The heart of the problem is the word shachath. Most critical scholars derive it from shûach (“dig”) and claim that it can mean only “pit.” But the word can also be derived from shāchath (“to go to ruin”) and rendered “corruption” (other very similar words have a double derivation; cf. nachath, meaning both “rest” and “descent”). The Septuagint many times translated shachath as “corruption” long before the New Testament was written. It seems proper and preferable to interpret verse 10 as a promise of resurrection and verse 11 as a reference to heavenly glory. The future tenses of the KJV are also the most natural rendering.

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The New Testament follows the Septuagint translation here and also informs us of David’s own faith. Peter reminds us that David was a prophet and that he understood God’s promise to raise up Christ from his royal line; knowing this, David predicted Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 2:29–31). Paul also says the verse cannot refer to David, for his flesh “saw corruption, but he whom God raised again saw no corruption” (Acts 13:36, 37). In the face of these apostolic testimonies, it is strange to see the translation “Pit” when the etymology of the word concerned allows “corruption” and the context demands it. Unfortunately, critical scholarship does not believe that David could have predicted Christ’s resurrection.

A brief word should be said about Isaiah 7:14. Reference even to Young’s Concordance will show that the disputed word ’almah (“virgin”) never refers to a married woman in the Old Testament. It is used of unmarried women and was translated “virgin” by the Septuagint long before Christ came.

Moreover, the claim that the birth was to occur during the time of King Ahaz is disputable. The child of Isaiah mentioned in Isaiah 8:1–4 was indeed contemporary to Ahaz in his struggle with Israel and Syria, and the fulfillment of Isaiah 8:4 came in the Assyrian invasion of Galilee in 733 B.C. But another child, a divine child, is spoken of in Isaiah 9:6, 7, and he is definitely not Isaiah’s son. Nor could he have been Ahaz’ son, Hezekiah, who was already a grown boy and not essentially different from other princes. The child of Isaiah 9:6, 7 had to be David’s greater Son, who would be of David’s line and would rule in an eternal, righteous reign.

Likewise, in Isaiah 7:14–17 the date of the coming of the child is not given. It is said that before the child is born and weaned, Israel will be overthrown and Judah will be depopulated by the Assyrians. But this did not all happen until years later, probably not till Sennacherib’s invasion in 701 B.C. Neither Isaiah nor Ahaz knew when the threat would be accomplished, only that it would be before the coming of the wonderful child, Immanuel. The situation reminds us of Christ’s warning in Matthew 25:13, “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour when the Son of man cometh.” The judgment came years later, the wonderful birth many years after that.

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Textual Criticism

We spoke at the beginning of alterations of the text in the interests of critical theory. This process can be dangerous indeed. Unfortunately, however, there has been some irresponsible criticism of the RSV at this point in its treatment of the New Testament text. The science of New Testament textual criticism has been studied well by both critical scholars and conservatives, and there is great agreement. Hence, the basic Greek text of the RSV New Testament does not seem to be a question of doctrinal argument, although, of course, there is room for difference on details, and doctrine is occasionally involved.

It is quite otherwise with the Old Testament. All our Old Testament Hebrew manuscripts known before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in very close agreement. They are not early; they date after A.D. 900. But the Hebrew text used by the RSV was no better than that used by the KJV except for the Dead Sea Scrolls of Isaiah and Habakkuk. And from these, correctly enough, only a very few new readings were adopted. The new thing the RSV did was to adopt many readings from the Greek Septuagint, the Syriac, the Latin, and Jewish Targums. Unfortunately, it seems almost as if the RSV translators chose whichever text made a smooth reading regardless of its inherent value. Surely many times they might better have chosen the harder reading.

Perhaps the strangest example is in Psalm 2:11, 12. The footnote says that the Hebrew is uncertain. But, there is no uncertainty in the Hebrew at all, except that critical scholars have refused for years to admit that the Aramaic word for “son” occurs here. The RSV takes two letters from a word in verse 11, jumps them over three words, and attaches them to the word bar (“son”) in verse 12, thus making a new word, “feet.” There is not the slightest warrant for this in any Hebrew manuscript or version. It may be noted, however, that after this scholastic legerdemain the verses lose their Messianic import. No longer is there an exhortation to trust in the “son”; he has been removed. How can a person who does not read Hebrew himself trust a translation that alters the text so greatly?

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Less violent but also objectionable is the treatment of Psalm 49:12 and 20. These two verses are identical in the Hebrew except for one letter. “Abide” is līn; “understand” is bīn. Perhaps the difference is deliberate, and original. However, it is hard to avoid the view that the Septuagint is correct in taking both verses to read like verse 20. This makes the passage not a denial of immortality but an exhortation to wisdom. The RSV takes the opposite tack and translates both verses like verse 12, thereby suggesting a pessimism rather contradicted by the context (vs. 15). Moreover, although on this very page of the RSV the old versions are referred to five times in various footnotes, there is no footnote at all to indicate that verse 20 has been translated against the Greek, against the parallel in verse 12, and also against many of the Hebrew manuscripts (some of which say “abide” and some “understand”).

A Constructive Version

Both translation and text problems are less numerous in the New Testament than in the Old. And there are a number of New Testament translations in modern English that can be studied and compared. In the Old Testament field, however, there is still a crying need for a modern translation that is dignified, plain, and attractive, and above all, true to the message that God spoke through holy men of God moved by the Holy Ghost. It is not that evangelicals want an evangelical translation; they have always held that every translation must be tested and controlled by the text of the original languages. But evangelicals want a contemporary version that does not damage the text and meaning of Scripture by embodying destructive critical ideas.

It is probably too much to hope that a version can now be produced that will satisfy all scholars. The KJV was the climax of several attempts. But no effort should be spared to achieve for our day something of what the KJV translators did for theirs.

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

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