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The RSV-Ecumenical Edition
By Bruce M. Metzger
STRANGE as it may seem, the churches of the English-speaking world have had to wait until 1977 to see the publication of the first truly ecumenical edition of the Bible. Now, at long last, Eastern Orthodox readers, as well as Roman Catholics and Protestants, for the first time have available in one volume an English rendering of all the books regarded as authoritative by each of the three main branches of the Christian church. This is the expanded edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible with the Apocrypha.1 The story of the making of this version is an account of the slow but steady triumph of ecumenical concern over more limited sectarian interests.
Toward the close of the nineteenth century, it became more and more evident that the venerable Authorized Version, or King James Bible of 1611, needed revision. Developments in the English language meant that certain words and expressions of the Elizabethan era used in that version gradually became archaic and even obsolete. Still more important was the acquisition of older and more accurate manuscripts of the New Testament than those available to the seventeenth century translators. These sources now provided a more reliable text as the basis for a much needed revision.
Unfortunately, however, the English Revision produced by British scholars in 1881 and its variant, the American Standard Version of 1901, were slavishly literal, word-for-word translations, which followed the order of the Greek words, so far as this was possible, rather than the order which is natural to English. In 1929, in order to recover some of the beauty and power of the King James Version, and also to incorporate the further advances that had been made in Hebrew and Greek lexicography and manuscript studies, the International Council of Religious Education, which held the copyright of the American Standard Version, took steps to form the Standard Bible Committee. This Committee was composed of scholars from the United States and Canada, representing the main Protestant denominations. After repeated sessions of the entire committee as well as smaller groups, in 1946 the
Bruce M. Metzger is Professor of New
Testament Language and Literature, Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the
author of several books dealing with the text and literature of the New Testament.
He is a past president of the Society of Biblical Literature and of the Studiorum
Novi Testamenti Societas. He has served as a member of the continuing RSV Bible
Committee (of which he is Chairperson), the International Greek New Testament
Project, and the board of managers of the American Bible Society.
1 The New Oxford Annotated Bible, with the Apocrypha, Expanded Edition, Revised Standard Version (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), xxviii + 1564 + xxiv + 340 pp., 14 maps, $15.95.
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Revised Standard Version of the New Testament was completed. The RSV Old Testament followed in 1952. That same year a sub-committee was formed to translate the books of the traditional Apocrypha; these were issued in 1957.
Almost at once the RSV Bible became popular and soon was adopted for liturgical and educational purposes in many denominations. Today it is widely read in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand-in fact, wherever the English language is used
The RSV Committee, a continuing body, is charged with the responsibility of making from time to time such improvements in the RSV Bible as appear to be necessary. The composition of the committee, now comprising twenty-four members, has been extended beyond the main Protestant denominations. Since 1945, a Jewish scholar has served as a member of the section on the Old Testament. In 1969, six Roman Catholics (two of them from Great Britain) became members of the committee, and in 1972 a representative of the Greek Orthodox Church was added as well.
In the course of the preparation of the second edition of the RSV New Testament, published in 1971, steps were taken to produce an edition of the RSV Bible with the traditional Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical books set forth in a manner that would find approval by Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox alike. In 1973, such a "common" Bible was issued by Collins of Great Britain and America. Arrangements were made to present a specialty bound copy to Pope Paul. In a private audience granted to a small group, comprising the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Athenagoras, Lady Priscilla and Sir William Collins, Herbert G. May, and the present writer, Pope Paul accepted the RSV "Common" Bible as a significant step in furthering ecumenical relations among the churches.
Worthy as the "common" Bible is, however, it fails to live up to its name, for it lacks the full canon of books recognized as authoritative by Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Greek, the Russian, the Ukrainian, the Bulgarian, the Serbian, the Armenian, and other Eastern Churches accept not only the traditional Deuterocanonical Books received by the Roman Catholic Church, but also the Third Book of the Maccabees. Furthermore, in the Greek Bible, Psalm 151 stands at the close of the Psalter, and the Fourth Book of the Maccabees is printed in an Appendix to the Old Testament. Inasmuch as these texts were lacking in the "Common" Bible presented to Pope Paul, on that occasion Archbishop Athenagoras expressed to the present writer the hope that steps might be taken to produce a truly ecumenical edition of the Holy Bible.
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Actually, in 1972 a sub-committee of the RSV Bible Committee had already been commissioned to prepare a translation of 3 and 4 Maccabees and Psalm 15 1. The members of the sub-committee were Demetrios J. Constantelos, Sherman E. Johnson, Robert A. Kraft, Allen Wikgren, and the writer, who served as chairman. In 1975, the completed translation of the three additional texts was made available to the five publishers licensed to issue the RSV Bible. Oxford University Press immediately took steps to produce an expanded form of The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, an edition of the RSV which had earlier received the imprimatur from His Eminence, the late Richard Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston.
At the close of 1976, the writer presented to His All Holiness Demetrios I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and titular head of the several Orthodox Churches, a pre-publication copy of The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, expanded edition. In accepting the gift, the Ecumenical Patriarch expressed satisfaction at the availability of an edition of the Sacred Scriptures which English readers in all branches of the Christian church could use.
The year 1977 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the completion of the work of the original RSV Bible Committee (New Testament, 1946; Old Testament, 1952). Now, a quarter of a century later, the RSV Bible with an expanded edition of the Apocrypha, embracing all the Deuterocanonical books, marks a significant step forward in promoting ecumenical relations. For the first time, members of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Churches alike will be able to use the same edition of the English Bible containing the complete range of Canonical and Deuterocanonical books.