Examining the Positive & Negative Qualities
Of Various Versions & Translations
Of God's Holy Scriptures

A Critical Analysis

by Al Maxey


#1 --- There has been a major debate over the years as to which type of Greek text is the most reliable. Although most modern translations rely primarily upon the Critical Text, some still prefer the earlier Received Text (the Textus Receptus). The translators of the RSV chose to ignore both, and instead followed The Eclectic Principle, which states, "No one type of text is infallible; each reading must be examined on its own merits." For this reason these translators did not feel bound to abiding by the most popular translations of certain passages. Instead, they chose to translate the passages as accurately as they could based on the best textual evidence, even if it meant making changes to popular and traditional wording. It has departed from the Hebrew Masoretic Text more than any other translation (over 600 departures). Thirteen changes were made to the text of Isaiah alone based on material taken from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

#2 --- The English of the RSV is very readable. It is not "translation English," which can sound very artificial and stilted. "It is almost, for 20th century America, as good as the 1611 KJV was as far as its ease and flow of reading is concerned" (Warren Wilcox). Dr. Lemoine Lewis, of Harvard University, considers it "the best Bible available in English for the serious student today; the leading contender to become the Bible of the Christian world" (20th Century Christian, March, 1972).

#3 --- Rather than arranging each verse in its own separate paragraph (as most translations do), the RSV chose to present the text in "thought units." That is, the text was arranged into paragraphs according to thought, as most common secular texts are today. It was believed that this would help facilitate ease of understanding. Other versions of the Bible have since followed suit (such as the NIV).

#4 --- The RSV has agreed to issue corrected editions of their text every 10 years, and (like the NIV) they have agreed to review any and all suggestions for changes or corrections. Between 1952 and 1959 some 2000 criticisms were considered by the committee, and changes were made in some 200 cases. Following are a few examples of these changes:

Issuing corrected editions, and being willing to listen to criticisms from readers, can be a very positive quality. Some criticisms are valid, and should be heeded. However, this becomes a dangerous weakness when translation committees are willing to alter a text to appease the religious biases and preferences of its readers.


Following are some weaknesses, both valid and perceived, of the RSV:

#1 --- Isaiah 7:14 is probably the most controversial passage in the RSV. It reads, "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." Some other translations read "virgin." The Hebrew word used here is "almah." It has been charged that the RSV denies the virgin birth of Jesus. However, in Matthew 1:23, where the above passage from Isaiah is quoted, the RSV reads, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Immanuel." The Greek word used in the Matthew passage is "parthevos" which means "virgin; one who is chaste" (this is also the word the Septuagint uses in Isaiah 7:14).

The real problem centers around how to translate the Hebrew word "almah." It literally means "a young woman; a maiden," and may or may not refer to one who is in a virginal state. The idea inherent within the word is one's youthfulness, not one's virginity. The Hebrew word for "virgin" is "bethulah." In the writings outside of the Bible, the word "almah" was commonly used for any young woman (even those who were married). It was also a term used for young prostitutes (obviously with reference to their youth, rather than their virginity)!

"Almah" appears only seven times in the OT writings, and interestingly enough the KJV translates it "virgin" in only four of these occurrences! The KJV translates it "maiden" twice (Exodus 2:8; Proverbs 30:19) and "damsel" once (Psalm 68:25). The four other occurrences are Genesis 24:43; Song of Solomon 1:3; 6:8; Isaiah 7:14.

The philosophy of translation of the RSV is that it will not read New Testament theology back into the Old Testament writings, but rather will let the OT say exactly what it says and leave the interpretation to others (a policy it should have followed more consistently, as was previously noted). Thus, by translating "almah" as "young woman" (which is exactly what this Hebrew word means) instead of "virgin" (which would have been a different Hebrew word) these translators have been severely attacked. It was their belief (though not always consistently followed) that translators did not have the right to read their theology (however correct) into a passage, but rather must let it stand exactly as written. Dr. Jack P. Lewis writes, "The RSV scholars decided not to read Christian theology into their translation of the OT passages that have been traditionally interpreted messianically, and they have been taken to task for it."

It's interesting to note that the Catholics also tried their hand at textual honesty in 1970 with the New American Bible. The translators desired to translate "almah" as "maiden" instead of the more traditional "virgin." The Catholic Church, however, refused them permission, as they felt it would violate one of their doctrines about Mary. Therefore, they demanded that the word "virgin" remain, even if that was not what the original Hebrew word actually meant!

Some people still maintain that the RSV denies the virgin birth of Jesus because of their translation of this passage. However, there are numerous passages in the RSV (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-31 ... just to name a couple) that quickly put this fear to rest. It's not the virgin birth the RSV is denying, it's the notion that the Hebrew word "almah" MUST be rendered "virgin" in order to sustain a particular doctrine. One can deny the second without denying the first.

#2 --- In John 3:16 the RSV reads, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son." The traditional and popular reading "only begotten Son" has been dropped (something several other translations have done as well). This caused quite an outcry in the religious community. For a discussion of why the RSV, and other translations, made this change, see my discussion of monogenes.

#3 --- In Colossians 1:14 the KJV reads "In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins." The RSV (and other modern translations) omits the phrase "through His blood." This has caused some to charge that the RSV does not teach the forgiveness of sins through the shed blood of Christ. This, however, is shown to be false in several passages from the RSV, of which the following are just a few:

  1. Ephesians 1:7 --- "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace."

  2. Romans 5:9 --- "Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God."

  3. Matthew 26:28 --- "...for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."

The phrase "through His blood" was omitted by the RSV (and other translations) from the above passage to the Colossian brethren for the simple reason that there is virtually no textual evidence supporting its inclusion in that passage. The science of Textual Criticism has clearly demonstrated that it was not a part of the original text, but was added much later by a scribe who sought to harmonize this passage with Ephesians 1:7.

#4 --- The RSV does not make use of italics to indicate which words have been added to the text in order to smooth out their translation. Thus, the reader is not sure, by using the RSV alone, which words have been added to facilitate the translation process and which words are part of the original text.

#5 --- Genesis 9:20 in the RSV says that Noah was "the first tiller of the soil." This is not what the Hebrew really says. It says he "became" a tiller of the soil. If indeed Noah was the first, then we have a case of Scripture contradicting itself, because Genesis 4:2 says, "Cain was a tiller of the ground."

#6 --- There are some renderings in the RSV which are inconsistent. For example: Jonah 1:17 reads, "a great fish" swallowed Jonah. But then, in Matthew 12:40 the RSV says Jonah was in "the belly of the whale."

#7 --- One problem most translations seem to have is their tendency to want to interpret I Corinthians 7:36-38, rather than translate it. The word "virgin" is what actually appears here (which, to their credit, is correctly translated by the KJV and NAB --- two of the very few versions which do not seek to impose an interpretation on this passage). The RSV has changed this to "betrothed" ....... the NIV has "the virgin he is engaged to" ....... the ASV, NASB and LAMSA have "virgin daughter" ....... the NEB has "partner in celibacy" ....... the TEV has "engaged couple" ....... the NWT has "his own virginity" (in a similar vein, the LB speaks of the person having "trouble controlling his passions") ....... the SEB has "bride-to-be." All of this just demonstrates again the necessity of translators translating, and leaving the interpreting to others.

#8 --- Some have attacked the RSV because it uses "Thee, Thou, Thine and Thy" in some places within the text, but uses "You and Your" in other places. In the newer editions of the RSV, the plan is to totally remove the former and utilize only the latter. It was felt that the time was not right, however, in the late 40's and early 50's for such a "drastic departure from the wording of the KJV." Therefore, they tried to do it gradually to accustom the people to the change. Thus, Jesus is sometimes addressed in the text as "You" rather than "Thou." This has caused some critics of the RSV to charge the translators with denying the deity of Jesus. In case you find this hard to believe (and it is a ludicrous charge), note the following quotes from V.E. Howard's tract: Dangers of Modern Versions, pages 28-29:

These critics need to realize, as most people with any common sense already do, that there is nothing at all "holy" about the words "Thee, Thine, Thou and Thy," nor was there anything "holy" about them when the KJV first came out --- this was simply the common expression of that day and age. There was nothing "holy" or "sacred" about the words in the Greek NT either; it was "koine" (common) Greek, and the very same words were used to address both God and man! The problem lies in the fact that some have taken the wording of the KJV and made something out of it that even the KJV translators themselves never intended --- they have taken the English of the 17th century in England and turned it into a "holy language." To then accuse someone of denying the deity of Jesus Christ simply because they choose not to use the English pronouns common over 400 years ago in Britain, is absolute insanity!! This just illustrates the problem of placing tradition above translation.

#9 --- In Romans 11:20 the RSV reads, "You stand fast only through faith." The word "only" has been added to the text. There is only one place in the entire Greek NT where the phrase "faith only" occurs (James 2:24), and there it is condemned! The doctrine of justification by faith only, or standing fast only through faith, is not a biblical one.

#10 --- In Habakkuk 1:1 the RSV reads, "The oracle of God which Habakkuk the prophet saw." The phrase "of God" has been added to the text. Although this oracle which Habakkuk received did come from God (we know this from the context), nevertheless the text does not state it specifically in that location. This is another case of an assumption of a translator (even though a correct one) being written into the text of the Bible. This is a dangerous practice, especially given the fact that the assumptions of translators are not always correct (as seen in #7 above).

#11 --- Some have accused the RSV of having premillennial leanings. For example: Matthew 19:28 reads in the RSV, "Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man shall sit on His glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." The phrase "new world" is not in the text. It is really the Greek word palingenesia which simply means "new birth; regeneration; renovation." The only other time this word appears in the NT writings is in Titus 3:5 where it refers to individual renewal by the Holy Spirit. This word may indeed be referring to the physical world, and to a new heavens and new earth, but it may also be referring to individual regeneration. Again, translators are assuming and interpreting, when that task should be left to others.


"The publication of the RSV marked both the end of one era and the opening of another in the effort to communicate God's Word to the English reader. For many its publication marked the end of the age in which 'The Bible' meant the KJV. The RSV opened the era of the multiple translations flooding today's market, all competing with each other" (Dr. Jack P. Lewis).

The RSV has been both praised and faulted; it is loved by some, hated by others. Some feel it is too radical, others find it too conservative. Some will use no other version, while others have publicly burned it. The RSV symbolized for many people the first major challenge to the KJV/ASV domination of the English Bible field. As such, and as was to be expected, it was "torn limb from limb" by those who saw it as a threat to their cherished, virtually "inspired," versions. The translators were even accused of having connections with the Communist Party, and that this version was part of a "communist plot" to subvert Christianity in America, with the ultimate goal being to overthrow our nation. Such accusations forced the translators to issue "An Open Letter Concerning the Revised Standard Version" in which they denied this, and other, such absurd charges.

Although the RSV is in many ways an excellent version of the Scriptures, most scholars agree with the assessment of Warren Wilcox, who writes, "the RSV still has a way to go before it gives us a totally accurate concept of all of God's Word."

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