In search of a common Bible: the Revised English Bible

My prior efforts [here and here] on identifying a common Bible in the English language fizzled after a promising start, mainly due to lack of time and sleep as summer colds seized my wife and sons. Now that their health has generally returned, I’m hoping now to revisit some of the issues that came up in the earlier discussion.

One of the key sticky wickets for a Bible that would be useful for Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians is the inclusion and availability of the deuterocanonical books or “Apocrypha”; they simply are not included in most popular Protestant Bibles, e.g. ESV, HCSB, TNIV, NLT, published today. So we must either limit the discussion of a common text to Bibles that include these books (and then the debate is which ones), consciously remove them from the ecumenical canon (which does not seem likely to be acceptable by our Catholic and Orthodox friends) or resort to publishing with/without editions (most likely, but still requires a translation effort of the books).

Of Bibles with deuterocanonical books, the NRSV is widely viewed as the most ecumenical option available and current holder of the title “Most Likely to be the Common Bible”, though I severely doubt that conservative American evangelicals would touch it as a recommended text due to “liberal” text choices and an aggressive gender-neutral translation philosophy. Certainly the pastor at the Baptist church we’ve been visiting would have been horrified if that suggestion was made.

If you dislike the NRSV, but insist on a selection of Deuterocanonical books, then one option well worth considering is the Revised English Bible (REB). Produced in the 1980s by the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland, the REB is a conservative revision of the breath-taking New English Bible (NEB), a new ecumenical translation that was one of the first to break away from the KJV tradition.

In my opinion, the REB is a literary masterpiece. There is a richness, a variety, a depth of language that illuminates the text in ways other translations have not. It makes no claims to be a literal Bible, as does the NRSV, but it is by far one of the easiest-to-read Bibles I have on my shelf. The translation removes complex theological terms, but bends no knee to the full range of expression in the English language. Where the NLT breaks apart the text into simple bite-size sentences to make it more readable, the REB plows forward with sprawling phrases joined by turns of phrase that grasp the reader, as these examples from 1 Timothy illustrate:

“When I was starting for Macedonia, I urged you to stay on at Ephesus. You were to instruct certain people to give up teaching erroneous doctrines and devoting themselves to interminable myths and genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation, and do not further God’s plan for us, which works through faith.

This instruction has love as its goal, the love which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a genuine faith. Through lack of these some people have gone astray into a wilderness of words. They set out to be teachers of the law, although they do not understand either the words they use or the subjects about which they are so dogmatic.” (1 Timothy 1:3-7)

“Anyone who teaches otherwise, and does not devote himself to sound precepts – that is, those of our Lord Jesus Christ – and to good religious teaching, is a pompous ignoramous with a morbid enthusiasm for mere speculations and quibbles. These give rise to jealousy, quarrelling, slander, base suspicions, and endless wrangles – all typical of those whose minds are corrupted and who have lost their grip of the truth.” (1 Timothy 6:3-5a)

The REB was the first translation that really made Paul (mostly) intelligible and come alive to me. However, whether that illumination is from the original authors or of the translators is a question worth asking. We seem to struggle often these days with whether translation teams have overlaid the text with theological bias or ideological agendas. The REB seems not to suffer so much from these concerns, so much as whether the essential character of the original texts has been accurately duplicated or whether it has been elevated to a higher literary character, especially in the New Testament.

The REB was one of the first Bibles to be sensitive to gender issues in translation, but I must say that the extent of changes is much more conservative than the NRSV or even the TNIV; there is no lack of masculine language, especially singular pronouns, throughout the texts. See this post for an example. [See also the update notes below.]

I used the NEB in college (1990s) and have had a REB in one form or another for the past 10 years. It is currently my favored translation for devotional and “everyday” use, in combination with my NASB and TNIV for more literal formal study.

Unfortunately the REB is only available in a limited number of editions; as far as I know, the translation has only been published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press; a Study Bible is available from Oxford.

P.S. For another viewpoint on the REB, be sure to check out Rick Mansfield’s review as part of his Top 10 Bibles list.

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Update: Since writing this post, Doug at Metacatholic made the following observation about the REB’s choices re gender language:

“The REB is so inconsistent [regarding “men” as masculine or generic”] that it is very difficult to know if there is any interpretation involved. I think myself that the translators themselves were all so accustomed to the older use of generic “men” that they didn’t always notice when they were doing it. Generally in the UK the language change happened (in my experience) between (roughly) the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, covering much of the time that work on REB was being done.”

It is fair to say that the REB’s “more conservative” approach (as I described it above) can also be characterized as “inconsistent”, as Doug has commented.

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Update: Andrew Dunning has sent me a copy of a 1992 review of the NRSV and REB by John Barton in the Journal of Theological Studies (Vol. 43, p. 545-550). In this article, Barton includes this note about the REB’s methodology for gender-inclusive language:

In the REB the method is to avoid ‘gender-specific’ language at the beginning of a passage or at the noun level, but to use masculine pronouns and adjectives thereafter: thus Psalm 1 begins ‘Happy is the one who does not take the counsel of the wicked for a guide’, but it continues, ‘His delight is in the law of the LORD’ […] This perhaps represents the level that discussion of ‘inclusive language’ has reached in Britain: avoidance of conscious ‘sexism’, but with a feeling that the language presents some unavoidable obstacles to carrying through a complete programme of ‘degendering’ the translation.” (Barton, p.548-549)

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One Comment

  1. Ken Diercouff
    Posted January 23, 2008 at 12:50 PM | Permalink

    The REB is in places a literary masterpiece. Most of it reads great and somewhat poeticallly. However, this is a British translation, and it is filled with a lot of Britishisms. I don’t have my copy with me now or I would give some examples. Also, the REB uses several renderings for “flesh,” which could confuse a new reader.

    I wish that a scholarly American group could get the copyrights to the REB and modify some of the difficult passages.

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