Eastern Orthodox Blessing of the NRSV

A while ago now, Iyov brought up some interesting points in a discussion on the merits or demerits of another blogger’s description of the ecumenically popular New Revised Standard Version (henceforth NRSV).

Now, one of the great claims to fame of the NRSV, as seen on the About the NRSV web page, is that “[The NRSV] received the blessing of a leader of the Greek Orthodox Church.” Now, this claim was certainly surprising to me, as I was (like other Orthodox Bible readers) familiar with Bishop Tikhon’s report regarding the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America (or as a certain beloved friend calls it, the Metropolia) deciding “not to permit the use of the NRSV in liturgical services and in bible study.” This decision was made in October 1990, roughly a year after the publication of the NRSV. Because of this oddity, I decided to track down the source of this apparent contradition, that an Orthodox synod of bishops could advise against the use of a Bible, while another bishop would actual bless it.

I can’t recall the precise chain of events that led me to the solution, but it involved email, telephone and library drudgery in some tedious combination. Yet at last, I reaped the fruits of such dreary labor, preserved in two slightly tatty photocopied pages now. In the Introduction to the 1989 edition of the NRSV Common Bible, one of the first NRSV editions to be printed, we read the following from Archbishop IAKOVOS (of blessed memory) of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America (p. iii):

I wish to express my gratitude for the NRSV and my appreciation of the forthcoming Common Bible. The inclusion of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant biblical scholars assures an ecumenical integrity in this work. Further, the common arrangement of the text provides another important bridge for our learning from one another among our various Christian communities. The Orthodox faithful have my encouragement and blessing in making full use of the NRSV Common Bible. The translation and study of Scripture together is an precious gift in the service of Christian unity.

Now, two things leap out from this statement. This “blessing” is obviously the source of the claim noted in About the NRSV above; it is, however, a figurative blessing, not a liturgical one, in case anyone thought that was the case. The other is that Archbishop Iakovos apparently had not yet read the NRSV Common Bible, as he notes it to be “forthcoming,” so it is not a stretch to understand that he hadn’t read it yet when writing this statement, but was perhaps reacting to a press release of some kind which solicited his statement (a not uncommon occurrence for Archbishop Iakovos).

There are some more subtle nuances of the Archbishop’s note that would fail to be appreciated by non-Orthodox, which I think are worth explaining. First, note that he places Orthodox first in the list of biblical scholars, though only one of the scholars involved in the project was Orthodox (Fr Demetrios Constantelos, who worked on both the New Testament and Apocrypha), obviously emphasizing the Orthodox role in the production of the NRSV, not too surprisingly. Second, there is the strange formulation “ecumenical integrity.” In Orthodox circles, ecumenicism (as generally understood) is derided, in some circles more strongly than in others. This is because our ecclesiology declares the Eastern Orthodox Church to be The Church; there is no other, therefore Orthodox Christians can only be a witness to others in such “ecumenical” settings in order to draw them to The Church. It is to be understood, therefore, that without an Orthodox scholar, this ecumenical project will have had no integrity from an Orthodox standpoint, of course. This subtext is present even here in Archbishop Iakovos’ endorsement of the NRSV Common Bible, where we read that “translation and study of Scripture together is a precious gift in the service of Christian unity.” His Eminence uses the phrase “in the service of Christian unity,” that is, leading toward a Christian unity, not “in the expression of Christian unity,” for that surely does not exist; but the witness of the Orthodox in a shared environment of Bible study may further that unity, so that others might be drawn to The Church. Such subtleties must be appreciated.

In the end, however, we are still left with Archbishop Iakovos’ “encouragement and blessing” for Orthodox faithful to use the NRSV Common Bible, which seems to contradict the OCA Synod’s later decision noted above. The NRSV Common Bible is essentially just a full NRSV, including all the NRSV apocryphal/deuterocanonical books in a section between the Old Testament and New Testament (this same “common arrangement” of books is found in all editions of the NRSV which include the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books), and with a few Study Articles prepended to the volume, namely: “The Transmission and Translation of the Bible” by Bruce M. Metzger; “The Bible in the Church” by J. Stephen Freeman; “Major Themes in the Bible” by Gina Hens-Piazza; “Archaeology and Bible Study” by Marsha A. Ellis Smith; and “How to Study a Bible Passage” by John O. Gooch). I think Archbishop Iakovos was particularly impressed by the inclusion of the full number of the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books (as in the 1977 full edition of the RSV) which appear in the Greek Orthodox Old Testament (the Septuagint), and their potential to be a witness to Orthodoxy, as well as sustaining Orthodox faithful. Until the NRSV, of all the modern translations only the RSV included all those books (there is now also the NETS), so any new translation of these neglected books would naturally be celebrated by a pastor whose flock had been deprived of grass from the best meadow. In view of this, it seems appropriate to question whether Archbishop Iakovos had read the entire translation; it is very likely not the case that he did. The gender-related language issues with the NRSV, as noted by the OCA Synod, are a serious drawback. If the Archbishop had spent time with the NRSV to familiarize himself better with its text (during all his free time in caring for the needs of Orthodox faithful on two continents), he may have come to give a less ringing endorsement, or none at all. As he terms the NRSV Common Bible “forthcoming,” it is safe to conclude that he had not seen the full text, and knew only of the plan to include the apocrypha/deuterocanonicals. In any case, the above quotation from the NRSV Common Bible is the source of the NRSV’s claim to “the blessing of a leader of the Greek Orthodox Church.”

In addition, however, to Archbishop Iakovos’ encouragement and blessing, another Eastern Orthodox hierarch provided an endorsement, Metropolitan PHILIP, Primate of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America (p. iv):

I am delighted to add my name to the endorsers of the NRSV Common Bible. We pray that this edition of the Holy Bible which will include the Deutero-canonical books will be a blessing to all those who read and study the Holy Scriptures.

Again, note that it is the deuterocanonical books which gain a Hierarch’s attention. His Eminence is quite apparently impressed, as was Archbishop Iakovos, by the inclusion in the NRSV Common Bible of all the Eastern Orthodox Old Testament books. He explicitly equates their presence with a blessing on the reader. It also sounds, however, as though Metropolitan Philip had not actually seen or read the Bible, but is reacting to a statement on its forthcoming release. Perhaps that was the case. In any case, he does not display a deep familiarity with the text outside of a knowledge that it is to include (some? all?) deuterocanonical books.

So, it seems clear that the “blessing” granted to the New Revised Standard Version by these Eastern Orthodox hierarchs was based less on a familiarity with the entire text and was more related to the inclusion of all the deuterocanonical books in the Greek Old Testament, which would be edifying for both Eastern Orthodox readers and for others who may come to understand something more of Eastern Orthodoxy through them. Celebrating this new translation of such books, after such a long time using the stilted translations of Brenton or even the RSV, would have been easy to do, as they are excellently done, and eminently readable. Especially nice in the NRSV is the full translation of the Greek Esther, rather than simply the disjointed Additions, as is the translation of the longer text of Tobit, and the very, very nicely done Sirach, the textual issues with which book are extremely daunting. I myself, on the whole, find the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonicals in the NRSV to be its best-done section, of better quality overall than either the NRSV Old Testament or New Testament, or even the both together.

Thus endeth the lesson, so to speak.

8 Replies to “Eastern Orthodox Blessing of the NRSV”

  1. Kevin,

    Thank you for this very interesting post. I also have problems with the “gender-related language” of the NRSV.

    I have a question for you: what version of the Old Testament does the Orthodox Church use in the Liturgy? The Septuagint? If so, what translation?

    Claude Mariottini

  2. You’re very welcome, Professor Mariottini!

    The Orthodox churches all use lectionaries, so there’s no point at which we actually use a continuous text Bible of a modern translation in services. The NT lectionaries are based on a traditional Byzantine lectionary text (split into the Evangelistarion and Praxapostolos), and the OT readings come from the Prophetologion, likewise of ancient standing, which is very similar to, but not identical with, any of the modern LXX texts. Very often these days, however, all the readings are printed in service volumes specific to the season (like a book of the full services for Holy Week and Pascha), so that all the book-swapping is kept to a minimum. So, the translations, for those churches which do read them in English (many don’t, but in Greek or Slavonic), are done usually by the editor of the service volumes, and not drawn from any modern translation wholesale, though they may have referred to them in their work. The only full English translation of the Septuagint until last year’s publication of the NETS was Brenton’s of the late nineteenth century. These two are still the only full translation of all the books of the Greek Septuagint. Even the new Orthodox Study Bible omits (for whatever reason) 4 Maccabees.

    Anyhow, I hope that answers your question!

  3. Fine investigative work, my friend! This puzzling mystery is now authoritatively solved.

    You know, I had thought that in addition to the Metropolia, SCOBA (i.e., The Clergy Association for Bishops without Any Canonical Authority Whatever) had also issued a condemnation of the NRSV, but I’m probably wrong.

  4. Well, thank you very much! I’ll go digging about the SCOBA thing. That does ring a bell.

    If memory serves, it was something very, very short, more along the lines of a blurb or press release than the Metropolia/OCA essay, which gave some relevant examples and such.

  5. I have no interest in reading the the NRSV OT or NT books. But it would be nice if the NRSV copyright owners would issue a single volume of the deteuro-canonicals. They’ll probably never do it though. The market is too small.

  6. Well, Matt, I’m not really sorry to disappoint you, for what you want does in fact exist! Fortunately someone disagrees with your market analysis!

    There is The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha. This is for the Augmented Third Edition, whatever that might be. On Amazon I saw used copies listed too, so those might be from the Second Edition (which I have and like, as it was Metzger and various others involved in the translation who did the notes, which are few and spare, like I like ’em!) or the Third Edition (long, chatty and generally stupid notes by all kinds of people I’d never heard of: meh).

    There’s also The NRSV Cambridge Annotated Study Apocrypha. I haven’t seen this one, so can’t comment on it.

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