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Q21 : NRSV and NKJV Bible Translations

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Q21 : NRSV and NKJV Bible Translations

Do you think that the NRSV translation itself is good to study from (without the [more liberal] Oxford study notes)? Also, you seem to like the NKJV. I heard that although the NKJV is also based on the Majority text I have also heard that the NKJV is definitely not the same textual basis as the KJV. I haven't explored the NKJV too much because many people have told me to say away from it. My conservative church thinks that the NKJV is too liberal. (Obviously I've told no one that I borrowed the NRSV Oxford Bible from the library to see what it was like.) I try to be open minded about translations and wanted your opinion about how the KJV and the NKJV compare. Is the NKJV really "safe" to use when compared with the KJV? I've been interested in other translations because the KJV even with study helps is very difficult to understand at times.

A21 : by Tony Garland

As to the suitability of the NRSV (apart from the liberal-leaning Oxford study notes), it would depend upon your comfort with a translation philosophy which takes some liberties from a strict formal-equivalence approach (word-for-word representation of the Greek into English) in order to appeal to some modern readers:

This translation is not the genuine heir to the RSV, being instead a dynamic equivalent translation that regularly turns the concretion of the original into abstraction and takes liberties with gender references to accommodate feminist concerns. In terms of translation philosophy and literary excellence, the true heir to the RSV is the English Standard Verse [ESV].1
A complete revision of the RSV was undertaken and published in 1990 as the New Revised Standard Version. Prompted by the woman's movement, and after consideration over two decades, the RSV committee, chaired first by Herbert May and then by Bruce Metzger, had decided that the frequent readings of 'man' and 'men' were not supported by the original Hebrew and Greek; the archaic second person singular (thee, thou, thine) was removed in prayers addressed to God.2
While respecting the historicity of the ancient texts, the NRSV translators attempted to make this new revision more palpable to readers who prefer gender-inclusive language. They did this by avoiding unnecessarily masculine renderings wherever possible. For example, in the New Testament epistles, the believers are referred to with a word that is traditionally rendered “brothers” (adelphoi), yet it is clear that these epistles were addressed to all the believers—both male and female. Thus, the NRSV translators used such phrases as “brothers and sisters” or “friends” (always with a footnote saying “Greek brothers”) in order to represent the historical situation while remaining sensitive to modern readers.3

As you can see, the main liberty the NRSV translators took was to impose gender-neutrality in areas where they deemed it was not damaging to the text, but would appeal to some modern readers (who were basically offended about the male-oriented terms and were unable to grasp the intended application of these terms to “mankind” in general, where this was the intention).

Some are not too concerned about such changes, but I see it as the first step in a questionable approach which assumes that it is the text which needs to be conformed to the attitude of the readership rather than the the other way around. It was not that modern readers failed to understand that terms such as “brothers” and “men” apply to mankind in obvious places, but that they disliked this historic use of the terms and felt the need to modify the text to alleviate a sense of male-exclusivity that these terms engendered to them. To me, this seems like a misplaced approach to dealing with the text—and the tip of the iceberg on the slippery slope which results in translations which move ever further in this direction resulting in serious distortion of God's Word (such as the TNIV Bible, see http://www.no-tniv.com/statement.html).

I am not familiar enough with the details of how the approach taken by the NRSV works itself out in the plethora of passages where changes were made, but it should be recognized that the motivation is not primarily one of making the text more readable, but of making it more palatable to those with certain sensitivities—which are arguably unbiblical to begin with (e.g., a desire to avoid the male emphasis in roles and headship reflected by Scripture).

The text at 1 Timothy 3:2 provides a good example of the dangers of this approach. The NRSV introduces two errors into the text:

NKJV: A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; (1Ti 3:2)
NRSV: Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, (1Ti 3:2)

Notice the different way in which the NRSV renders the underlying Greek (which is mias gunaikos andra, “[a] one woman man”). The first error comes from the desire to be gender-neutral in a context where the gender is important—where man does not denote man or woman. So the NRSV erases the maleness of the bishop (episkopos = overseer = elder) and implies that all that is necessary is for that person, whether a man or a woman, to only have been married once. This is a perversion of Scriptural teaching that a woman is not to be in authority or teach over men (1Ti. 2:12). The second error comes from the NRSV's willingness to interpret the meaning of the Greek—rather than simply translate it for the reader to study. Here, “one woman man” is interpreted to mean “married only once.” The problem here is that “married only once” is but one of numerous possible interpretations of the underlying Greek “one woman man.” The NRSV interpreters have chosen the one meaning they prefer and denuded the text of all alternate meanings and the reader is left with no clue this has happened. (For an excellent discussion of the possible alternative meanings of this phrase, see The Meaning of "The Husband of One Wife" in 1 Timothy 3:2a by Andy Woodsb.)

As one can readily see, two aspects of the NRSV in this passage render it unsuitable for detailed study: (1) the perversion of gender role distinctions and, (2) the tendency to over-interpret rather than simply render the underlying Greek text.

Although I do not side with those who believe the KJV is the inspired English version of Scripture, I do believe it is an excellent translation to which we owe a great deal. It would perhaps not be an overstatement to say that the KJV is, in many ways, the historical basis of Western civilization.

Having said that, I also believe there are other modern translations which are every bit as accurate in rendering the underlying Hebrew and Greek as the KJV—and even improve upon it in places. The NKJV is one such translation. The NASB is another example. Although the NASB is based on a different family of Greek manuscripts, the Critical Text (CT) family—which some believe is more reliable, although I do not necessarily agree.

Like the KJV, the NKJV is based on the Textus Receptus (TR), but also pays attention to the Majority Text (MT) witness behind the TR. In the vast majority of cases, you will find the changes from the KJV to be very minor and to still adhere to the TR. A particularly helpful aspect of the NKJV is its footnotes which call attention to variations between the TR, the MT, and the CT. Some say this is a distraction, but I find it quite helpful when teaching, because it alerts me as to when some of my students will be reading different variations of a passage (usually reading the NIV or NASB—frequently-encountered translations based on the CT). For a more in-depth treatment of the NKJV in relation to the KJV, I can recommend Gary F. Zeolla, Differences Between Bible Versionsc (n.p.: 1stBooksd, 2001).

I do not agree with those who hold that the NKJV (and usually any other translation than the KJV) is too “liberal.” I have used both KJV and NKJV for many years and find no basis for this claim. In my mind, the NKJV has the following advantages (over the KJV and the NASB):

  1. Stands in the line of the KJV (gives priority to the TR).

  2. Benefits from a wealth of study aids keyed to the KJV (Strong's Concordancee, Nelson's Cross Reference Guide to the Biblef, etc.).

  3. Very readable to people who struggle with 1611 terminology. (Yes, this can be overcome by using dictionaries and so forth, but the average person simply is not familiar with terms such as beeves.)

  4. Shows where other modern translations are likely to depart in significant ways (based on differences between the TR, MT, and CT). This can be helpful in a Bible study or home group.

Yet the KJV and NASB are also very useful translations which I personally would not be without. For those who do not know the Greek (or lack experience using language tools such as Strong's numbers), the NKJV has the drawback of failing to distinguish between singular and plural forms of some pronouns (e.g., you versus ye). This is an inevitable trade-off caused from trading “the King's English” for modern language.

As to whether the KJV is “safe” to use, you will of course meet with a wide variety of response to this question. My answer is, “yes.” I recognize and respect that not all will agree.

If I were to list my preferences with regard to Bible translations, they would be in this order:

  1. Preference should be given to a formal-equivalence translation (i.e., one that attempts to carry across each word from the original language—even carrying over ambiguity in the original text as ambiguity in the English). Examples include the KJV, ASV, NASB, NKJV, ESV. The rule of thumb here is: if it contains italicized words—indicating where additional words beyond the original language have been added for clarity—then you are on the right track. If it doesn't have italics, then I wouldn't rely on it for detailed Bible study. (Note that by this criteria, the NIV does not qualify as a reliable translation for detailed study.)

  2. I prefer translations based on the Byzantine family of manuscripts (MT, TR) rather than the Alexandrian (CT). I am not convinced that the very few older texts (some fragmentary) are “the most reliable manuscripts” as the CT translations boldly assert. Having said that, I also believe that careful use of translations based on either family will result in orthodox doctrine—the differences are simply not great enough to put any significant teaching of Christianity in question. If one lacks the ability to benefit directly from the Hebrew and Greek, I would have English translations based on both the Byzantine and Critical texts—such as the NKJV and NASB (my preference in both cases)—and refer to both in my study.

  3. I would advise staying away from translations which move further from the underling Greek and Hebrew words of the text. This is because I believe in verbal inspiration—that the very words of the original text are inspired and should be preserved in the translation process—to the degree this is possible. Translations which employ dynamic equivalence (thought-for-thought, such as the NIV) place an additional layer between you, the student, and God's Word. They are performing two steps: a translation and an interpretation by the translator. Although every translator is also an interpreter to some degree, this should be minimized, as with a functional equivalence (word-for-word) translation. I would avoid paraphrase versions such as The Messageg, which take great liberties modifying Scripture to such a degree that important subtleties are lost and distortions introduced into the text which are not present in the original. (How far afield must a paraphrase move from the original text before it is flirting perilously close to violating the warnings of Deuteronomy 4:2 and Revelation 22:18 by introducing new meaning or subverting intended meaning? How does this differ, in effect, from removing or adding actual words?4 How bold we are to assert the benefits of the latest paraphrase while assuming accuracy is a distant concern of God in regard to His Word!)

1 Leland Ryken, The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation h(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002), p. 53.

2 David Daniell, The Bible in English: Its History and Influencei (London: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 743.

3 Philip W. Comfort, “History of the English Bible,” The Origin of the Biblej (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992, 2003), p. 305.

4 Compare The Message at John 3:3-4 with a word-for-word translation.

The NKJV: “Jesus answered and said to him, 'Most assuredly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.'

The Message: “Jesus said, 'You're not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the “wind hovering over the water” creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it's not possible to enter God's kingdom. When you look at a baby, it's just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can't see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.


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