Bible Study | June 27, 2023

Making a good translation better

Bible in front of sun setting over lake
Photo by Aaron Burden on

The publication of the New Revised Standard Updated Version (NRSVue) may slip by unnoticed by many people. It is not a new translation of the Bible. Rather, it is an update of the NRSV that incorporates changes based on both biblical scholarship and English language usage. John Kutsko, former executive director of the Society of Biblical Literature, refers to the work on the NRSVue as “regularly scheduled maintenance,” with the goal of making a good translation better.

The New Revised Standard Version was first published in 1989. Over the last three decades new biblical manuscripts have become available for study, and scholars have gained new insights into the Bible’s languages and historical contexts.

A few examples provide insight into the updated version.

In Luke 2:7, the NRSV (and other English versions) explain that when Mary gives birth to Jesus in Jerusalem, she lays the infant in a manger, because “there was no place for them in the inn.” The NRSVue revises this to read that “there was no place in the guest room,” because the Greek word kataluma in this context likely refers to a guest room in the home of friends or family, not to an “inn.”

Scholars now understand the Hebrew and Greek terms translated “leper” and “leprosy” to refer generally to a form of skin disease, rather than specifically to what is called “Hansen’s disease.” Consequently, the NRSVue replaces “Miriam had become leprous” with “Miriam’s skin had become diseased” (Numbers 12:10). The same is true in the New Testament (see, for example, Matthew 8:2-3, Mark 1:40-42, and Luke 7:22).

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew term satan occurs with a definite article (the satan) in Job and Zechariah, where it is understood to be a title or occupation, not a personal name. The NRSVue translates this as “the accuser” in these two books. In 1 Chronicles 21:1 and in the New Testament, it occurs as a personal name, and the NRSVue retains the name “Satan.”

For at least 50 years, scholars have been debating the meaning of the Hebrew noun translated in the NRSV as “sin offering.” In some cases, this offering is prescribed in situations that do not involve sinful behavior. Neither childbirth (Leviticus 12:6) nor the nazirite vow (Numbers 6:14) is a sin, but they do require purification, presumably to recognize the person’s changed condition. The NRSVue replaces “sin offering” with “purification offering” to reflect this more accurate understanding.

Translation considers the context in which a term is used as well as its range of meanings. The Greek word adelphoi means “brothers,” which is how it is usually translated, but it can also be used inclusively to mean both brothers and sisters. Where the context indicates a broader, inclusive context, the NRSVue translates “brothers and sisters” (e.g., Matthew 28:10, Luke 14:12, Acts 13:26), but where the context suggests the text refers only to males, it does not make that move (e.g., Acts 15:1). The NRSVue goal is to be historically accurate, not to produce an inclusive language paraphrase of the Bible.

Other revisions result from changes in English language usage (if the historical context supports the change). Young women of marriageable age are referred to as “young women,” rather than “girls.” “Female servant” replaces “servant girl.” The words “plunder” or “spoil” are used in place of “booty” (which has a different connotation now for many readers).

The updating of the NRSVue has been the joint project of Friendship Press, the National Council of Churches, and the Society of Biblical Literature. More information on the project and a list of editors and reviewers can be found at the Friendship Press website.

Christina Bucher, a member of Elizabethtown (Pa.) Church of the Brethren, is emerita professor of religious studies at Elizabethtown College. She is co-author of the new Brethren Press book Luke and Acts: Turning the World Upside Down, and serves on the editorial board of the Believers Church Bible Commentary Series.