The Revised Family of Versions of the New Testament - Part 1

Herbert Dennett, Sompting, Sussex

Part 1 of 2 of the series The Revised Family of Versions of the New Testament

Category: Study

Readers of Precious Seed will often have noticed at the head of an article the line, “Quotations are from the Revised Version”. Some will be aware that this version is an improvement on the older Authorized Version, but all may not know what place it holds among the many recent versions of the New Testament.

Though it has never fully replaced the older version, the Revised has been regularly used by students and serious readers of the Scriptures right through the eighty years of its life. There is a good reason for this. In spite of the fact that its language is not so beautiful as that of the Authorized, and that. it still uses a number of out-of-date expressions and words., there is scarcely a paragraph in the whole of the Revised New Testament where it is not possible to find more accurate renderings than those in the 350 year old Authorized Version.

One result of the failure of the Revised Version to gain universal acceptance has been the appearance since the beginning of the century of a large number of independent translations and revisions of the New Testament. Because the careful reader of Scripture is less concerned with beautiful language than with knowing exactly what God has really said in His Word, it can be profitable to look at some other versions. It would, however, be wearisome to examine in detail the many private translations which have appeared in recent years, and in any case some of them are unreliable or seriously biased in doctrine. So for the purpose of this article only the family of versions, of which the Revised is the second in line, will be discussed.

The Origin of the Authorized Version

The “head” of this family of versions is, of course, the Authorized, as it is called, of 1611, though indeed this is itself a revision rather than an original work. Its translators were bidden to follow the Bishops’ Bible of 1568-9 as far as accuracy allowed, but even that version was again a revision of an earlier one. In fact much of the wording of the great Authorized Version goes back to the pioneer work of William Tyndale in 1525-35.

The translators of the Authorized Version did a remarkably good job with the material available to them, but the weakness of the whole series of versions from Tyndale onwards was the Greek text upon which they were based. This text was largely the work of the Dutch scholar Erasmus, who had but a handful of Greek manuscripts from which to work, and none of them very reliable judged by present-day standards. Hence his text was faulty in many places, but such is the power of human tradition that what became known as the “Received Text” acquired a false sanctity which lasted until the latter part of the 19th century.

The Work of the Revisers

One of the most important things which the translators of the Revised Version did was not generally understood by the public. It was the editing of a Greek text vastly superior to that used for translating the Authorized Version, for it was based on many times the number of manuscripts, most of them of much earlier date. There was some truth in C. H. Spurgeon’s comment that the translators of the Revised Version were strong in Greek but weak in English, for as mentioned above their diction left much to be desired.

Working in co-operation with the British translators of the Revised Version was a committee of American scholars. As the initiative for the whole work was taken in this country, it was agreed that on final points of difference in rendering the text the British Company should have the casting vote. To balance this the British University Presses promised to print the American preferences in the form of an Appendix in every copy of the Revised Version over a period of 14 years, and this was duly done.

The American Standard Version

It became evident after the publication of the complete Revised Version of the Bible that the British Company of revisers regarded their work as done, but the American Committee continued in being until the end of the agreed 14 year period. Then in 1901 they published what is known as the American Standard Version. In this work some hundreds of the American preferences from the Appendix of the Revised Version were transferred to the text; so also were many alternative renderings which appeared only in the margin of the Revised. On balance the American Standard is an improvement on the Revised Version, though to a moderate extent only, for it still retains a number of out-of-date expressions and grammatical forms.

No further development occurred in this family of versions for the next forty-five years, but in 1946 the Revised Standard Version was published in America. Its name is due to the claim that it is a further revision of the American Standard Version, though to a considerable extent it is a fresh translation. There were several reasons put forward for undertaking this work. One was that since 1901 a great many fresh discoveries of ancient manuscripts had been made. Many of these manuscripts were written on papyrus, and though they did not contain parts of Scripture themselves, they helped scholars better to understand the style of language in which the Scriptures were originally written. Another reason was the need to bring the language of the English Bible more into line with the modern idiom. In accordance with this requirement, the second person singular pronouns “thee/ thou”, etc., and their attendant verbal forms in “-est” were abandoned except in language addressed to God.

The Use of Modern Speech

A good example of the modern turn of speech used in the Revised Standard Version is found in Matthew 6. 16, where the Authorized, Revised and American Standard Versions all have, “be not … of a sad countenance”. The Revised Standard has, “do not look dismal”, which is not only modern style, but is even closer to the original than are the earlier renderings.

The sales of the Revised Standard Version have been immense, and that in spite of fierce criticism directed against it from many quarters. It should be remembered, however, in this connection, that there was bitter opposition to the use of the Revised Version itself 65 years earlier. The fact is that there is no translation of the Scriptures, either within or outside this particular family of versions, which cannot be justly criticised on certain of its renderings.

The New American Standard Version

In spite of the great popularity of the Revised Standard Version, there were many in America who were sorry to see that the American Standard was fast disappearing from the scene. Hence it was decided that a moderate revision of it should be made, one which, while equal to the Revised Standard in accuracy, should still retain the general flavour and familiar language of the older versions. It would seem that this purpose has been largely achieved, for the changes in the New American Standard Version are for the most part thoroughly acceptable.

This further revision is more conservative than the Revised Standard in its treatment of passages which in the original text are open to query. In a number of such passages the Revised Standard omits a verse or phrase with a small footnote that “some authorities insert …”, whereas the New American Standard inserts the queried words in the text., with a warning that “some authorities omit…”, which is a very different thing.

In the following issue it is hoped to show how a wider range of versions differ, and to illustrate the points of contrast by a number of New Testament passages.