Op-Ed: A new edition of the Bible, with 20,000 revisions, should spark 20,000 thoughtful conversations
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:35)
This sentiment is expressed in at least five other places in the Bible, and yet perhaps the most erudite institution of biblical scholars has just released 20,000 changes in the Bible.
An update to the New Revised Standard Version was released digitally this month and is to be in print next May. As you can imagine, such a task is not undertaken lightly. The update represents more than four years of intense work of the National Council of Churches and a large group of scholars in the Society of Biblical Literature.
The result is careful and creative revisions. Like all new biblical translations and updates over the past millennium, including the King James Version, this brings new meanings to biblical texts. Each iteration of the Bible addresses some need in the culture at that moment. I hope the updated edition (known as NRSVue) fuels a wider public discussion about what the Bible is becoming in our era. For instance, the reasons for revisions vary greatly, prompting the overall textual meanings to spin out in many directions and broadening dialogue.
For the past 70 years, the Revised Standard Version and 1989’s NRSV have been the go-to English Bible for students and scholars. This month’s NRSV update is especially well suited to opening a broader public conversation because it is not revised with a single-minded agenda by one denomination or faith, but with multiple nuanced goals by a joint working group including Jewish, Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic scholars. For the public then, these revisions are not so much fine-tuning of doctrine as expansion of the Bible’s range.
A handful of examples give a taste of that potential.
- Mark 14:69 (and similar verses)
NRSV: And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.”
NRSVue: And the female servant, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.”
This revision brings — with good reason — feminist consciousness to take away a demeaning translation that calls a woman a girl. So the “female servant” quickly becomes someone with more agency and character. Literally the revision makes her a bigger person, and the readers of the Bible today themselves have more room to be engaged.
- Leviticus 4:8 (and more than 125 other verses with the same issue)
NRSV: He shall remove all the fat from the bull of sin offering.
NRSVue: He shall remove all the fat from the bull of purification offering.
The scholars explain that this improves upon an earlier distortion of Hebrew hatta’t. The notion of “sin” has been removed, because they believe “purification offering” more closely reflects the ancient Hebrew word. This revision opens up new biblical conversation and subject matter without taking “sin” out of the larger biblical picture. With this revision, the 21st century Bible now joins the many world cultures in which “purifying” is a regular practice but is less entangled in “sin” considerations.
- Matthew 4:24
NRSV: So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.
NRSVue: So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, people possessed by demons or having epilepsy or afflicted with paralysis, and he cured them.
The scholars explain: “When context permits, NRSVue avoids translations that identify people in terms of a disability.” This brings a modern sensibility to bear, because we now believe that an illness or symptom is something a person has, not who they are. This rewording is helpful for scholarly, church and public readers. The reference to demon possession … well, modern audiences can make of that what they will, no matter how we phrase it.
Each change illuminates not only how the old and new language speak to us, but also how we filter and frame the texts we consume. As this edition attempts to both modernize and improve historical accuracy, we need to notice some of the stunning cross-purposes in play within and about the Bible in any particular era.
To consider these 20,000-plus revisions, and to observe how our own understanding changes, is to see why many scholars refer to “living” biblical texts. The real character of such material develops and is alive in new ways for each different time and situation.
Over the past 10 years I have been part of a project considering a fecund moment almost 2,000 years ago in the formation of texts that eventually became Christian canon. Our findings, presented in “After Jesus Before Christianity,” portray a living and often shifting “word.” One sees that ancient meaning-making, even among the early authors and audiences in the original languages, was strikingly similar to today’s expanding territory for Bible engagement through swirling conversations, translations, revisions and interpretations.
Those texts from the first few centuries of multiple Jesus groups were full of creativity, rich with nuance from a time of great diversity. The word “christian” certainly did not mean a member of a religion in the early centuries. The word hardly existed at all in the first century and varied widely in meanings among the second and third century users of the term. These authors’ concept of gender was full of fluidity, which manifested in word choice and practice.
Modern audiences might squirm over these agendas and ambiguities, but they are intrinsic to texts that come to be called scripture. Biblical scholar Vincent Wimbush has coined a term for the process, “scripturalizing,” which acknowledges the aliveness of texts and how they become present through modifications in words and meanings. He now uses scripturalizing particularly in the ways the Bible belongs to African Americans throughout the last 400 years. Integrating earlier scholarship in cultural studies while challenging white domination of biblical study, Wimbush writes: “This means seeing scripture as reflective of the basic ‘play-element’ in culture, as rites, performances, and their varied veiling and unveiling operations and effects.”
Don’t look to the latest biblical revision to settle theological questions, but to raise important new ones, urging us to look deeper and wider into the texts as well as into ourselves. The updated edition of the New Revised Standard Version is its own act of unveiling.
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