The Eastern Orthodox and the RSV

As I mentioned in my last post regarding the reception of the New Revised Standard Version by Anglophone Eastern Orthodox Christians, the Revised Standard Version has long been the only modern translation other than the NRSV to include all the books of the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox Old Testaments (the two differ in the former including 4 Maccabees, and the latter including 2 Esdras, also known as 4 Ezra; both also include 3 Maccabees and Psalm 151 in addition to all the Roman Catholic deuterocanonical books). Of course, the text underlying the proto-canon of the RSV and NRSV is the Hebrew Masoretic text, while the Orthodox Christian Bibles are the Septuagint in the Greek Orthodox Church, or derivative translations of it in other jurisdictions, and these texts do differ extensively on occasion. Thus it is really the availability of the extended set of apocrypha/deuterocanonical books which was of such value to Orthodox readers. The last translation of a Bible to include them all was that of Sir Lancelot Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint in the late nineteenth century. The story of the extension of the Revised Standard Version, which initially only included the books of the Protestant canon, is very interesting, and we are fortunate to have various accounts of its development written by one of those people most involved in the work of both the Revised Standard Version and the New Revised Standard Version, the late Bruce Manning Metzger.

Someone fortunately conviced Professor Metzger to write an autobiography, entitled Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (Hendrickson, 1997). He has told the story of the work behind the RSV and NRSV in numerous articles and even in a short book on The Making of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, along with the other chief editors Robert Dentan and Walter Harrelson, which consists of several reworked articles. The information that follows is mostly drawn from Chapter 7 of Metzger’s Reminiscences…, “Translating the Bible: The Revised Standard Version” (pp 76-88).

The initial publication of the Revised Standard Version included only the New Testament, on 11 February 1946. The Old Testament (Protestant canon only) was then published 30 September 1952, fittingly on the festal day of St Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate. Shortly thereafter, the Protestant Episcopal Church (the Anglican Church in the United States) requested that a new translation of the Apocrypha be done. The Anglican and Roman Catholic Biblical canons are nearly identical. Whereas the former includes 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, and the Prayer of Manasseh, these books are in an appendix to the Old Testament in the Roman Catholic tradition (as 3 Ezra, 4 Ezra and Prayer of Manasses), as they were not named explicitly in the fourth session of the Council of Trent, held 8 April 1546, which decided the Roman Catholic canon, although they were typically included in Latin Bibles. All of these books were translated by a small committee, and the Revised Standard Version Apocrypha were published in 1957. The Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, in which the deuterocanonical books are interspersed among the protocanonical books in the Old Testament as in the Latin Vulgate Bible, was first published in 1966, though excluding 3-4 Ezra and the Prayer of Manasseh. Advances in the field of New Testament textual criticism led to the publication of a Second Edition of the Revised Standard Version New Testament in 1971. The Common Bible Revised Standard Version, which included all the Roman Catholic canon and then an appendix with a note regarding the status of 1 & 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh, was published in 1973 as the first explicitly ecumenically-intended Bible. On May 9th of that year, Bruce Metzger and others, including the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Athenagoras of Thyateira and Great Britain, were granted a private audience in Rome with Pope Paul VI, during which he was presented with a specially bound copy of the Common Bible. It was after this meeting that Archbishop Athenagoras made a point of noting to Professor Metzger that the Common Bible was not truly ecumenical in that it lacked 3 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees and Psalm 151, and his hope that this would be rectified in future. In fact, those books had already begun to be translated the previous year by another subcommittee, in answer to general growing interest in the apocrypha. The texts of these translations were released in 1976 to the various authorized publishers of the RSV. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Expanded Edition was the first to include them, published 19 May 1977. Professor Metzger presented a copy of this new edition to Patriarch Demetrios of Constantinople 18 December 1977, after nearly losing the volume by leaving it on the counter in the Istanbul airport after changing some money! It was this Bible that was the first to include all the books contained in Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox Bibles (though with the proviso that the textual base of the protocanonical books of the Old Testament were often quite different, as noted above). It was thus partly a result of general growing interest in the apocrypha, and the gracious accomodation of the requests of an Orthodox hierarch which led to the production of this first modern scholarly edition of the full Orthodox apocrypha.

Of importance is not just the quality of the translation of the books themselves, which is certainly very high, but there was also the feeling among Eastern Orthodox Christians in Anglophone countries that they had finally been recognized as equal partners in their “new” homes at last–they had finally “made it.” In those days, there were very few converts into the Orthodox churches. There was often a perception (from within as from without) that there was an ethnic barrier to their acceptance in various efforts, as though they weren’t even Christian. However, from the time of this gesture by the Standard Bible Committee in producing the Expanded Edition of the RSV Apocrypha the Orthodox Church has continued to be recognized in all various ecumenical endeavours as a witness not just to the ancient Church, but as a living and dynamic presence in the world with its own witness to share with others, whatever the merits or demerits of those ecumenical endeavours may actually be.

So it seems apparent that Eastern Orthodox appreciation of the RSV is twofold: 1.) it is the first modern English translation to include all Orthodox deuterocanonical books; and 2.) by being the first to do so, it gained a certain amount of prestige in Orthodox circles. With the publication of the NRSV, however, its apocrypha are now also available for the use of Orthodox Christians, though the texts of the Old Testament and New Testament are, from the Orthodox perspective, disfigured by a senseless accomodation to a requirement for gender neutrality of language. Orthodox exegesis rooted in the Church Fathers reads many of the generic singular masculine references throughout the Old Testament in particuar as prophecies of Christ. The NRSV has cut itself off from this ancient tradition, has cut itself off from Christianity itself some would say, in preference for the allaying of individual neuroses over Tradition. The RSV, however, does not suffer from any such accomodation, and so is still perceived as a non-ideologically motivated and useful reference, and is indeed used in Orthodox Bible studies in parishes throughout the English-speaking world.

Another note of Orthodox appreciation of the RSV is found in its being the base text of the large Greek-English Gospel lectionary commonly found in US Greek Orthodox churches (Holy and Sacred Gospel ΘΕΙΟΝ ΚΑΙ ΙΕΡΟΝ ΕΥΑΓΓΕΛΙΟΝ The Complete Text, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, Massachusetts, 1993). The text was altered where necessary to match the Greek lectionary text and to provide pericope openings, but it is by and large the RSV.

With the appearance now of the New English Translation of the Septuagint (or NETS), we now have a very exceedingly well-done scholarly translation of the ancient Old Testament of Greek Orthodox Christians. Although Orthodox find it is not without its problems in certain spots, it is still a translation based on the best texts available for the Septuagint, and will certainly make a useful addition to Orthodox Christian personal and group Bible studies.

I hope this has been a useful exposition.


  1. Goody! Then I’ve succeeded.

    One of the reasons I wanted to post this was the partly mistaken conflated account that seems to have become more common than not, that it was Patriarch Athenagoras who’d requested the books 3-4 Mac and Ps 151 be added, and the books were then translated. As Metzger notes, the translations were already underway (which I’m sure he was pleased to say) when Archbishop Athenagoras of Thyateira and Great Britain had requested it, indeed after the repose of Patriarch Athenagoras.

  2. I am glad you are stressing the importance of the masculine sg. pronoun in the Psalms as worth retaining, not because the use of the pronoun is not gender-indifferent on a historical reading (it often is), but because it allows the psalms to be read Christologically with less difficulty.

    I wonder, though, to what extent the NETS Septuagint will make its way into Orthodox Christian personal and group Bible study. I can’t quite put my finger on the reason I think it will not be widely used – maybe because it seems disorganic to Orthodoxy as I know it.

  3. Right, John. The loss of a Christological reading is not worth the grammatically faulty and awkward, and occasionally foolish workarounds implemented in the NRSV. It’s ahistorical on so many levels as to be laughable. The tradeoff of such a tradition of reading for a new tradition of inoffensiveness, moving the importance of the interpretive seat from the multimillennial Christian community to the individual contemporary reader, is just not worth it. It’s frankly scandalous.

    I’m certain that the NETS will never really become super-popular in Orthodox circles, but it will certainly be available as a tool for more advanced studies, and at least as an accurate English indicator of the Greek text for those unable to deal with the Greek (in Greek Orthodox parishes, this will rarely be an issue, as the group Bible studies are typically led by a priest, all of whom are fluent in Greek). Ironically, that new Orthodox Study Bible is even further disconnected from Orthodoxy than is the NETS, through its use of the New King James Version as a base text and editing it “only where necessary”–it’s a disaster, not even qualifying as a translation, which is why I refuse even to mention it as a translation of the Septuagint, and will never, ever recommend it to a reader who wishes to become familiar with the Septuagint in English translation. For that, I’ll always (until something better comes along!) recommend the NETS.

  4. It’s one example of the fact that the claim that NRSV is “ecumenical” requires serious qualification.

    The term “ecumenical” was and continues to be hijacked by a sociopolitical movement within Christendom whose emphases remind me a little bit too much of what one might hear on any given Sunday in a Unitarian-Universalist setting with a bit of pomp and circumstance and the preservation of a few ancient formulae alongside of new ones that undercut the old ones thrown in.

    It would be nice to get a few truly ecumenical projects underway in the field of biblical studies. I suppose a project like The Church’s Bible (Eerdmans, Robert Louis Wilken, ed.) qualifies. But I am unsatisfied by it because the excerpts lack sufficient introduction and context and in any case, I want to be able to compare translations with originals.

  5. Yeah, this use of ecumenical is particularly absurd: translating all the books so that a variety of communions’ canon-bases are covered, yet translating in a way which renders them useless to not only the majority of users, but would’ve even made the OT useless to the authors of the NT as well.

    Yet, lest we think that’s truly the case, the NRSV is such a hatchet job that we find in quotations in the NT from the OT that there is a disconnect: while the passages in the OT have been degendered, the passages in the NT have not been! Why? Because in the Greek context, as they explicitly state, the masculine is required both grammatically and contextually. So, which is the unlearned reader supposed to believe is the correct text?

    I’ve got the Revelation volume of the Blackwell series and The Church’s Bible volumes for Song of Songs, Isaiah, and 1 Corinthians (why that and not something more juicy?), too. I’m appreciative of them for light reading, but not really happy with the trend. It seems so eighteenth century, to be putting together translations of decontextualized excerpts when the entire works from which they are excerpted remain untranslated. Riches lie there!

  6. I’ve not fully read this article but it was very convincing.
    So would you advice me to buy an RSV? And what exact edition should I use?
    Do you know of any Dutch version which is accepted by the Eastern Orthodox Church? (I am not EOC but I am interested in that canon,…)

    1. I’m sorry, Tom, I’m not familiar with Dutch versions at all. And if you were to get an RSV, I’d recommend the Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. It’s still available in hardcover, I think. You just have to make sure that it’s the first edition. The second through fourth editions are NRSV versions.

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