Hatin’ on the NRSV

This weekend’s Gospel foregrounds one of my pet peeves about the NRSV; it’s translations can be down-right misleading in ways that obscure some fascinating stuff. In this Sunday’s reading they fooled around with Matt 22:20 in a way that covers up a great sacramental reading of the story.

NRSV: ‘Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”’



KJV: ‘And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?’

NIV: ‘and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”‘

The Greek word variously translated as ‘head”, “image” and “portrait” is eikon–the same word from whence we get the word “icon”. I much prefer the translation “image”. In a similar way, the second is epigrammata. “Inscription” works fine in my book. The problem is that the NRSV attempts to give a precision that is not present in the original. As a result, it closes off the possibilities for readings that are available with the other (better) translations. Preeminently, it obscures the fact that the word really is image, something that I think factors theological in Jesus’ retort. The coin made with the image of Casar belongs to Caesar—however the human beings made in the image of God belong to God! Especially if those humans have been marked with an inscription—like, say, a cross upon the forehead—the sealing of baptism.

I think that’s a sacramentally rich reading of the passage—but one completely hidden by the NRSV.

21 thoughts on “Hatin’ on the NRSV

  1. The Postulant

    Indeed. When I preached on this on Wednesday night, I just pretended that the translation said ‘image’ so I could get right to that point. I did, however, take a second to note that it’s not “give” to the emperor, etc., but “give back” — another important point that the NRSV loses, but AV/RSV/NASB “render” keeps.

  2. trueanglican

    I belong to a congregation committed to the use of contemporary language that for years resisted the NRSV in favor of the New Jerusalem Bible. Alas, we finally gave way. The predominance of the NRSV became too powerful to withstand. So some of us, me at least, continue to wince at one ham-handed bungling or another of perfectly obvious translation choices. I noticed the other day for the first time that “tetrarch” has been censored away in favor of “ruler.” Why the dickens should not the modern reader (or hearer) be pushed into learning what a tetrarch was? The New Revised Standard Version urgently needs a Newer Revised Standard Version.

  3. Christopher

    Also, I will note we forget the literary resonance that biblical texts have in our culture to our ruin.

    RSV is my use given its also 1979 use:

    And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”

  4. bls

    Two questions:

    What was the origin of the NRSV, does anybody know? Why and when was it developed?

    Also, I thought that the “preferred translation” for TEC was the RSV; did I just make that up, or is that true?

  5. Derek the Ænglican

    The way this works is that the KJV was the “Authorized Version” for we Anglicans for centuries. Over those centuries, however, starting with a vengeance in the 19th, biblical scholarship began uncovering older and older Greek texts. By comparing literally hundreds (if not thousands) of *really* old texts and witness from the Fathers, we have been able to get a sense of the state of the text in the 3-4th century. These were compiled into what we call the “eclectic text”. The KJV was printed from a version of the Greek that is called the “received text”, i.e., the text handed down by the Greek Church through the centuries. It was becoming increasingly obvious as the discipline of text criticism grew that there were some substantive differences (and many minor ones too) between the “received text” and the “eclectic text”. So, in the 1940’s, a group of biblical scholars sat down with the aim of updating both the language and the textual veracity of the KJV. The result is the RSV. Hence, the “R” means it’s a revision of the KJV.

    Archeologically, much progress was made and we discovered all sorts of cool texts in the Ancient Near East. Some of it was papyri with even earlier NT texts on it, but we also found and deciphered a bunch of languages that are cognates with biblical Hebrew–Ugaritic, Akkadian, etc. and had a much broader set of earlier comparative texts to draw on. Additionally, the biblical texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, helped us get an even better sense of the antiquity and veracity of the MT–the Masoretic Text from which we translate the Old Testament. Furthermore, new issues of language and translation like inclusive language were coming to the fore-front. As a result, the NRSV was commissioned and prepared by scholars from the Society of Biblical Literature–the main guild of biblical scholars.

    It was a revision of the RSV based on a newer and better version of the eclectic text, newer linguistic learning, and having a mandate to further update and modernize the language and to use inclusive language.

    So–that’s where we are today.

    Actually, check the front of your local NRSV–it may have a preface on the translation that lays all of this out in greater detail (and accuracy…)

  6. Derek the Ænglican

    I don’t remember what General Convention has said about the RSV vs. NRSV but Church Publishing has tried to phase out all of the RSV resources as far as I know.

    M and I had a time tracking down the Daily Office sets with the RSV but we’re glad we have them…

  7. Christopher

    It does however stand to reason that when the psalms and canticles used are RSV–or near takes on such, that lessons would correspond accordingly.

    In my opinion, the RSV still maintains a sense of connection with our literary and liturgical inheritance in a way NRSV does not. I find the NRSV clunky.

  8. Derek the Ænglican

    The standard for translation is “accuracy” or “veracity”. But, to my mind, those are notoriously moving targets–accurate to what, for what? true in what way?

    I say it again and again: every act of translation is an act of interpretation.

    Partly that’s the case because every act of translation is acting for a specific purpose or goal.

  9. Christopher

    Right, and in his case, he was concerned that past translations held to close to standard Christian doctrinal commitments.

    Allchin made the important observation about scripture for Anglicans that we value scholarly inquiry as well as liturgical meanings that emerge out of the “building” blocks. See my latest post. To my mind, this liturgical aspect is not taken seriously when doing a translation/interpretation.

  10. backrowbass

    Good stuff. We didn’t get that in our sermon yesterday, unless it was mentioned during my coughing spell when I slipped out for a bit.

    I really should dig out my Greek NT and start working on it.

  11. Tobias Haller

    Amen and Amen. I preached on this text some years back and had to make that emendation. “Head” — why “head” of all things? Because the other side if “Tails”???? I suppose one could redeem this with a reference to the Headship of Christ vs Caesar, but then, that’s not what the Gospel is talking about.

  12. bls

    (I don’t really know one version from another, except for the KJV. I don’t think I have an NRSV, but will check.)

  13. Kendall Sims

    I have an orthodox study bible. It says “Whose image and inscription is this?”

    The notes say the New Testament is from the New King James Version.


  14. Derek the Ænglican

    Yes, that’s correct, Kendall. The key thing for the Orthodox is that the Greek text underlying their New Testaments is the Byzantine Majority text which is the received text that the Anglican Fathers used to translate the KJV.

    Thus either the KJV or the NKJV–which just modernizes the language away from 17th century uses–is perfectly acceptable to them. The real problem is the OT. The Orthodox OT comes from the Septuagint (LXX), the pre-Christian translation of the OT into Greek which has some substantial and theologically significant departures from the Hebrew text. the Orthodox Study Bible–I’m told–uses the NKJV for the NT but an amended version of it for the OT that brings it into line with the LXX.

    Does that help?

    (Also note that it comes from Thomas Nelson Press, the evangelical publishing house who holds the copyright to the NKJV… Hence the OSB often comes in for online criticism that it’s for evangelicals who want to play Orthodox…)

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