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New Frontiers in Politically Correct Bible Translation!

A new translation, the NRSVue, makes Scripture's condemnation of homosexuality basically imperceptible

They are two of the last four verses of the Bible. And among the most haunting:

I [Jesus] warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

The warning in Revelation 22:18-19 is specific to that book—Revelation. But it can also be taken as a warning regarding the Bible as a whole.

Scripture scholars, whether of the dynamic equivalence or formal equivalence school of translation, usually strive to give the sense of the original meaning of the text. Most major English translations are not trying to skew the text for ideological reasons. But there have been exceptions. And one of those exceptions now appears to be the canary in the coal mine.

I am referring to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), a Bible published in 1989 by the National Council of Churches. I bought the NRSV-Catholic Edition when it first appeared in 1993. It is from that Bible’s translation of Rev 22:18-19 that I quote above.

Most Catholics in the United States are familiar with the New American Bible (NAB). It has gone through several revisions since it first appeared and is now the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE). It is the translation of Scripture that we have heard at Mass for the last fifty years.

But because of copyright issues surrounding the NABRE, and a general disdain for its literary quality, most faithful Catholic publishing houses tend to use the Revised Standard Version-Second Catholic Edition (RSV-2CE) instead. It is a slight modernizing of the RSV published by Ignatius Press in 2006. And that Bible, the original RSV, is where all these stories intersect.

The publication of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible was a landmark event in the religious history of the mid-twentieth century. It marked the first time English-speaking Catholics and Protestants had a common Bible. And the RSV-Catholic Edition marked the first time there was a Catholic translation in the lineage of the King James Bible, which did so much to shape the language and culture of the English-speaking world.

The RSV-CE never caught on with most Catholics, owing to the publication of the NAB a few years later. But it remained a favorite of scholars and serious students of the Bible. It was the translation the Vatican chose for the English edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

In 1989, the National Council of Churches, a coalition representing many Protestant ecclesial communities, released the NRSV, an updating of the RSV based on new Scripture scholarship. In many ways, the NRSV lived up to the high standards of its predecessor. In many respects, it was a good, sturdy translation.

But it had one fatal flaw that doomed it from the start. As explained in the NRSV’s “To the Reader”:

During the almost half a century since the publication of the RSV, many in the churches have become sensitive to the danger of linguistic sexism arising from the inherent bias of the English language towards the masculine gender, a bias that in the case of the Bible has often restricted or obscured the meaning of the original text. . . . In the vast majority of cases . . . inclusiveness has been attained by simple rephrasing or by introducing plural forms when this does not distort the meaning of the passage.

These fights over “gender-inclusive language” roiled the field in the 1990s. Ignatius Press responded to the NRSV by reissuing the RSV-CE, now repackaged as the Ignatius Bible. Fr. Joseph Fessio, Ignatius’s publisher and a student of Joseph Ratzinger, almost singlehandedly spiked an “inclusive language” version of the new Catechism. (Indeed, while the rest of the world marks 1992 as the year the Catechism was published, it was not available for purchase in English until two years later precisely because of this fight.)

The NRSV translators’ ideological crusade against male pronouns affected their work.  Though it may seem minor in retrospect (Bishop Barron’s beautiful Word on Fire Bible uses the NRSV), a further development has proven Fr. Fessio and other critics to be prophetic.

The National Council of Churches has now released the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition (NRSVue). According to Robert A.J. Gagnon, a Presbyterian scholar whose expertise on the Bible is respected across ecclesial divisions, the NRSVue “gaywashes” the Bible.

Gagnon first blew the whistle on the NRSVue in a Jan. 5 Facebook post:

They have now changed ‘sodomites’ to the nebulous ‘men who engage in illicit sex,’ [in 1 Corinthians 6:9] which does not indicate to English readers the connection to homosexual practice provided by the Greek word, contrary to both morphology and context. A textual note added by the NRSVue committee claims that the term is unclear. It isn’t.

The NRSVue now becomes the first major modern English committee translation of the Bible to eliminate any reference to homosexual practice.

The Washington Times picked up on the story a day later:

At issue: Does arsenokoitai (ἀρσενοκοῖται), a Greek word used only twice in the New Testament, mean all same-sex relations or only illicit ones?

The reporter’s framing of the issue already gives away the game. That the Bible makes moral distinctions between different types of homosexual relationships is an ideological novelty, as Gagnon ably demonstrates.

But what is interesting about the Washington Times article is that the NRSVue committee members do not defend what they did. They act more like a guilty party that has been found out.

Laura Nasrallah, Yale Divinity School’s Buckingham professor of New Testament criticism and interpretation, says it wasn’t her that chose the words for those verses. John F. Kutsko, an affiliate professor of biblical studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, said he couldn’t identify a single individual as being responsible for the change. Rev. Jim Winkler, executive director of the National Council of Churches, said, “Who discussed what, I don’t know.” Even Jennifer Knust, the general editor for the 2021 edition’s New Testament, a professor of religious studies at Duke University, and the person whom Gagnon accused in a second FB post of being the one responsible for the change, told the Washington Times, “I do not remember precisely who proposed this change.”

As someone joked on my Facebook, “The responses are like Aaron’s in the Golden Calf story: I put this gold in there and this calf just kind of popped out.”

It is funny—but also deeply disturbing.

The pronoun wars of the 1990s were the canary in the coal mine. And the NRSVue’s betrayal of its own text is a big deal—this is mainline Protestant Christianity, the same people who gave us the beloved RSV in the twentieth century.

That the Seven Sisters of the Protestant Mainline have apostatized on the permissibility of homosexual activity is hardly news. But to have what was once the de facto religious establishment of the United States rewrite Scripture to conform to that agenda takes it to a whole new level. As Gagnon writes: “Since the NRSV has long been considered a flagship English translation, this is very bad news for scholarship and the integrity of the academy.”

We should note how the changes in Mainline Protestantism’s flagship Bible always seem to reflect whatever ideological crusade happens to be au courant at a given moment. In the 1990s, gender-inclusive language was all the rage. Presto! An NRSV that did away with male pronouns when referring to mankind. Today, LGBT is the cause célèbre. Lo and behold, the National Council of Churches produces a gaywashed NRSVue.

Fortunately, Catholics have the authority of the Magisterium to guide us—and guard us. We have been blessed to have Catholic editions of great Protestant translations of the Bible like the RSV or, more recently, the English Standard Version.

The bishops should use that same authority to prevent the publication of an NRSVue-Catholic Edition until such time as the NRSVue’s errors are corrected.

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