Thoughts on the Revised English Bible

“Take the veil from my eyes, that I may see the wonders to be found in your law” (Ps 119:18 REB).

In 1989 I was eagerly awaiting the release of the Revised English Bible (REB) and purchased a copy as soon as it was released.  I liked it from the start but wasn’t able to appreciate it fully because of my own lack of insight and understanding.  I gave it away after a few years as newer versions came on the market.  But the other day I found an REB in a charity shop and started to read it again immediately.  The difference between it and the King James Version (KJV) – and even some of the modern versions – was striking.  I read through John’s gospel and then Galatians; until then I didn’t realise how much I’d been missing by only using the KJV.  It was like reading the bible for the first time again; each time I opened it to read, every few seconds I was saying, “Oh, wow!  Oh wow!” as the meaning of the passage I was reading jumped out at me.  I became so excited as God’s word got in my face with such clarity, sparkling and powerful.

The REB is a revision of the hugely successful New English Bible (NEB); consequently many of both the strengths and the weaknesses of the NEB are found in the REB; but it also has the improvements in accuracy and style which the NEB needed.  The NEB, conceived in 1946, was a completely new translation of the bible, not a revision of an existing version, and it did not follow or depend on any other version.  “The NEB purports to be a completely new rendering of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and not just a revision of older English versions….The New English Bible has abandoned the Tyndale-King James tradition, and attempted an entirely fresh translation into clear and contemporary English” (Kubo, S, and Specht, Walter F, 1975, 1983, p. 199).

The REB is beautifully fresh to read and lifts the veneer of traditional language and translation methods of the King James Version (KJV) to reveal the sparkle and brightness of the word of God.  For example, while the KJV was once an accurate translation, its value and effectiveness has been reduced over time as English usage and meaning has changed, so much so that some words in the KJV now have the opposite meaning to our current English usage; consequently it has become inaccurate.  But it is not only the grammar and vocabulary which have been improved in the REB; the syntax (or sentence structure) has received a major overhaul, thus making it a true and useful modern bible version.

Many King James-onlyists claim that the KJV is still the easiest version to read, and they even give statistics to prove their contention.  But modern English speakers don’t speak the same way as those in the 17th and 18th centuries.  The structure of sentences in the KJV is more convoluted than ours and this, with the differences in vocabulary and syntax, make the KJV more difficult to read, statistics or not.  This is not to say that the KJV is too difficult to read and that and people should abandon it; far from it.  The KJV can be, and is, still very readable, beautiful, and understandable.  But for all that, it is also still archaic and, because of that, its usefulness is diminishing.  It is not until a person reads a version such as the REB that they discover how much of the meaning they’ve missed by using the KJV.  And the Bible, unlike any other book, was not meant to tickle the ears or the mind with beauty of expression, but to bring people to the knowledge of God and the Gospel (Jn 20:30-31); and to teach us how to live in a way that is pleasing to God: “Your instruction is wonderful; therefore I gladly keep it.  Your word is revealed, and all is light; it gives understanding even to the untaught” (Ps 119:129-130).  So, however it is attempted, the will of God as revealed in the Bible should be the goal and focus of every bible translator and every bible version.  And the KJV, due to its ancient vocabulary and syntax, no longer makes God’s word clear, as it once did; and English readers need to find a modern version which will enable them to engage with God as clearly and as fully as possible.

The REB, with its dynamic equivalence method of translation and use of contemporary and beautiful English, has removed the overlay of ancient syntax and the outdated vocabulary of the KJV to reveal the brilliance and sparkle of the word of God.  In this it is like the restorers of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel who removed the centuries old accretions of water seepage and mildew, glue-varnish, dirt, grime, and so on, to reveal the breathtaking beauty of Michelangelo’s masterpiece.

A mixed reception

When the NEB hit the market it met with enormous and instant success. It was fresh, vibrant, exciting, and clear.  Unfortunately, all was not rosy in the garden as it was also somewhat vulgar at times.    “Because of its scholarly translators, the New English Bible has been considered one of the more important translations of the Bible to be produced following the Second World War. Biblical scholar F. F. Bruce declared that ‘To the sponsors and translators of the New English Bible the English speaking world owes an immense debt. They have given us a version which is contemporary in idiom, up-to-date in scholarship, attractive, and at times exciting in content…’ T. S. Eliot, however, commented that the New English Bible ‘astonishes in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial and the pedantic.” Henry Gifford argued that “the new translators … kill the wonder’.

But C. H. Dodd, vice chairman of the Committee said of the NEB: “…free, it may be, rather than literal, but a faithful translation nevertheless, so far as we could compass it”.

New English Bible – Wikipedia

What I like about the REB

I’ve already commented on its clarity and freshness, so a couple of comments on the text.

Theological bias

The first thing is that the REB is not an Evangelical translation.  By this I mean that there are some bibles e.g. NIV and NLT among several, in which the evangelical theology of the translators is obvious and biased.  Sometimes it seems as if they use their translation as a means of persuading the reader to their theological view.  Theological bias in translation is impossible to avoid, of course, and any translation will reflect the theology of the translator to some degree because choices have to be made as to what a particular word means in a particular situation.  For example, an evangelical translation of Genesis 1:2 has: “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (ESV); whereas the NRSV has: “a wind from God swept over the waters”.  The meaning between the two is very different and I don’t know which is correct.  But the margin of the NRSV shows that there are several readings from which to choose, which indicates that this is the reason for the differences between the two versions.  But even in the choice of which of the alternate readings to select, theological bias underlies the choice.  And how can it not?  In choosing a bible, this single verse can help the reader assess the translators’ approach – the evangelical theology of the ESV; or the slightly liberal view of the NRSV.  However, the REB is not an evangelical translation but it does agree with the ESV, NIV, and others in translating Gen 1:2 as “the spirit of God hovered over the water”.  But the Septuagint (LXX) has “Spirt of God” so that settles the matter for me because the early Church used the LXX as their OT scriptures.

REB has readings which reflect Early Church belief

Another thing I like about the REB is that it has readings which reflect early Church belief and practice. This is important because in the early centuries the churches were united on several key issues.  The apostle John was still alive until about 97 AD and there were people who knew him; one such was Irenaeus.  Others knew Christians who knew John.  So at that stage it would have been very hard for a heresy to continue for long without it being challenged by those who knew the Truth.  We know what the early heresies were because we have many of the writings in which the early Fathers opposed them.

Baptismal regeneration

New birth through baptism (or baptismal regeneration) was universally believed and practiced in the early Church from the beginning.  The REB therefore gets it right in their translation of Titus 3:5: “….not for any good deeds of our own, but because he was merciful, he saved us through the water of rebirth and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit”.  This term – “water of rebirth” – is one of the terms the early Christians used for baptism; they also called it “water of new birth”, “the regenerating water”, “the laver of saving water”, and so on.  The NRSV supports REB by having exactly the same translation – “water of rebirth”.

Justin Martyr (110-165) has this to say about the candidates for baptism: “Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated….For Christ also said ‘Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’….And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason”.  From “The First Apology of Justin” chap lxi.  He has much more to say on baptismal regeneration.

This is in contrast to the NIV which has “the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit”; ESV has “washing of regeneration”, thus softening the focus, and making baptism symbolic rather than effectual, by ignoring the water.  But the verse has both water and Holy Spirit involved in the work of regeneration.  And this is exactly what Jesus taught: “…no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born from water and spirit” (Jn 3:5).  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus again shows the necessity of baptism and faith: “Go to every part of the world, and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.  Those who believe it and receive baptism will be saved; those who do not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:15-16).

And Peter stresses the role of water in baptism.  In his famous sermon in Acts, when the people were convicted of their sin by his preaching, “they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Friends, what are we to do?’  ‘Repent’, said Peter, ‘and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah; then your sins will be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:37-38).  Here we see the absolute necessity of baptism in the new birth. 

Furthermore, Peter again shows the importance and effect of baptism when he compares it to the Flood: “This water symbolized baptism, through which you are now brought to safety.  Baptism is not the washing away of bodily impurities but the appeal made to God from a good conscience; and it brings salvation through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Pet 3:21).

And Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was not completed until he was baptized: “Do not delay.  Be baptized at once and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).

Baptism is not simply a rite which in itself brings salvation; it must be accompanied by faith, repentance, and the Holy Spirit.  But it must be part of the mix.  Jesus said so!

So I believe that the evangelical translation of Titus 3:5 is biased and tries to negate the effect of the water of rebirth by changing the focus to the washing of regeneration.  This (false) theological bias has resulted in Evangelicals regarding baptism as simply a rite which can be safely ignored.  Evangelical theology is historically anti-Catholic and this is revealed repeatedly in their bible translations.  But the REB and NRSV get it right and their translation is in keeping with the belief and practice of the first Christians.

Bishop instead of elder

St. Clement (Phil 4:3) knew St Paul, Luke, Timothy, Epaphroditus and others.  He wrote his letter “The First Letter of Clement to the Corinthians” shortly before he died (around the end of the 1st century); thus at about the same time that St John wrote “The Revelation”.  He was a presbyter in the church at Rome and became the 4th Pope, following Peter, Linus and Anacletus. Irenaeus writes of him “This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes” (“Against Heresies” Bk III ch iii. 3).  He is regarded as the first of the Apostolic Fathers.  So, considering Clement’s position and his familiarity with the apostles and the churches of the New Testament, what he says carries an enormous amount of authority. 

In his letter he shows, among many things, that the Church was Episcopal (chap xliv).  In chap xl-xlii the episcopate is compared to the Old Testament system of High Priest (bishop), priest (presbyter or priest) and Levite (deacon). 

The REB translators have chosen to translate the Greek episkopos as bishop in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:7.  The translation as “overseer” in the NIV and ESV again demonstrates their evangelical view and dislike of anything that evens hints at the Catholic Church.  Admittedly, “overseer” is not technically a wrong translation of episkopos because that is one of the meanings of the Greek word.  There is a view that “overseer” may have been used in small house churches at the beginning when Christianity was just getting started, but by the end of the century the word had come to designate the leader of the local church.  But Clement would have been aware of this usage if it was extant, yet he still refers to the Episcopalian system of bishops, priests, and deacons as the government of the churches, rather than the modern evangelical system of pastors, elders, and sometimes deacons; and he expected that the Corinthians to whom he wrote had the same understanding.  So I prefer the accuracy of the REB.

Tradition

Polycarp (110-140 CE) believed in Apostolic Tradition.  Irenaeus wrote of him that he “…always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down…”.  This is the correct meaning of Tradition (upper case T), not that of which the Pharisees were guilty (Mk 7:1-23).  Neither is it that “tradition” (lower case t), which refers to various traditions within churches.  Evangelicals do not like even the thought of any kind of tradition and their bible versions demonstrate this. 

For example, the REB translates 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “Stand firm then, my friends, and hold fast to the traditions which you have learned from us by word or by letter”.  And 2 Thessalonians 3:6: “…hold aloof from every Christian who falls into idle habits, and disregards the tradition you received from us”.  Here we are shown that Tradition was the teaching of the apostles, both written and unwritten. 

Irenaeus has clearly expressed the Church’s understanding of Tradition, and this view goes all the way back to the beginning.  “But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the successions of presbyters in the Churches, they (the Gnostics) object to tradition…” and “…these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to Tradition” (“Against Heresies” Book III chap ii.2 and iii.2).

And the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus (about 130 CE) also tells us that Tradition was not written scripture but unwritten teaching handed down from the apostles.

However, the NIV translators prefer: “…hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you…” (2 Thess 2:15; and: “….according to the teaching you received from us” (2 Thess 3:6).  Perhaps I’m nit-picking here but I can’t help but prefer the word which the early churches used i.e. tradition.  The NIV translation “teaching” is technically correct, but it seems to pander to an evangelical readership, whereas “tradition” is acceptable to all branches of the Church.  But it’s pleasing that the ESV translates paradosis as “tradition”, not “teaching”.

Problems with the REB

“The REB occasionally takes great liberties in rearranging the biblical text, “correcting” what it assumes to be corruptions in the transmission of the text (see Job); and although this sounds questionable, it is actually very helpful  Revised English Bible | Sinaiticus (wordpress.com)

Kubo and Specht provide some examples of the way the NEB rearranges the text.  Unfortunately, the REB retains some of these changes.  “…in Genesis 26, verse 18 is placed between verses 15 and 16.  Verses 6 and 7 of Isaiah 41 are inserted between verses 20 and 21 of Isaiah 40….Amos 5:7 is transposed to follow verse 9…” (Kubo and Specht 1975, 1983, p. 203).  However, while I’m glad to say that the REB has omitted other of the changes made by the NEB and restored them to their rightful place in the text, I’m disappointed that some of them have been retained.  But the verses are numbered so all is not lost.

Kubo and Specht praise the NEB: “For the most part, the NEB translators have done an outstanding piece of work in conveying the thought of both Testaments into modern English” (1975, 1983, p. 205).  This praise applies even more so to the REB because it has made significant improvements in its revision of the NEB. 

But there is one improvement which could have been made but wasn’t.  It is that the text of the REB could have been broken down into more paragraphs, and that the paragraphs have more headings.  By comparison, the NRSV Catholic edition which I use has many paragraphs with headings.  And even better is that the headings in the gospels cross-reference the passage to the other gospels where they are the same.  These two reader’s aids in the NRSV are so helpful to me and make it very easy to find what I’m looking for as I flip through the pages. 

For a good review of the REB – Review: Revised English Bible | Protestant Bibles (wordpress.com)

References

Kubo, S, and Specht, Walter F, 1975, 1983, “So Many Versions?” publ. The Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Unless otherwise stated, the scripture references in this article are from the Revised English Bible.  “Copyright Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press 1989.  The Revised English Bible.  First published 1989”.

“The Scripture quotations contained herein are made from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition copyright 1993 and 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.”  “Published by Catholic Bible Press, a division of Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee 37214”.