“Take the veil from my eyes, that I may see the wonders to be found in your law” (Ps 119:18 REB).
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 while still feeling like a proper translation. 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method of translation and use of contemporary and beautiful English, has removed the overlay of ancient syntax and the outdated vocabulary of the KJV to reveal the brilliance and sparkle of the word of God.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”.
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: Private interpretation of scripture
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. 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, 2 Peter 1:20-21 in the REB: “But first note this: no prophetic writing is a matter for private interpretation. It was not on any human initiative that prophecy came; rather, it was under the compulsion of the Holy Spirit that people spoke as messengers of God”. However, the NIV, a distinctively evangelical version has: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit”.
It’s disappointing that the NIV has chosen to translate the verse this way because the second use of “prophet” is not in the Greek, and neither should it be translated this way. Whether the NIV translators like it or not, their role and responsibility as translators of God’s holy Word is to translate the text – intended interpretation is not part of their brief.
And now they’ve made the same mistake as some of the well-meaning scribes of the first centuries who changed the text they were translating in order to support or protect the prevailing theology. The Apostle Peter warned of this danger, and writes: “He [Paul] does the same in his other letters, wherever he speaks about this, though they contain some obscure passages, which the ignorant and unstable misinterpret to their own ruin, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Pet 3:16).
Theological bias: “Wind” or “Spirit”?
An evangelical translation of Genesis 1:2 has: “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (ESV, NIV); 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. So a choice has to be made as to which of the alternate readings to select; and theological bias naturally underlies that choice. And how can it not? However, while the REB is not an evangelical translation, it does agree with the ESV, NIV, and others in translating Gen 1:2 as “the spirit of God hovered over the water”. If a non-evangelical translation such as the REB supports the translation “the spirit of God” of most evangelical bibles, it comforts the reader that this is more than likely the most accurate reading.
Theological bias: 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 doctrines and practices. 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.
Theological bias: Baptismal regeneration
New birth through baptism (or baptismal regeneration) was universally believed and practiced in the early Church from the beginning. The REB reflects this in its 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. Interestingly, the NRSV supports REB by having exactly the same translation – “water of rebirth”.
But in another passage it clearly shows that baptism itself does not give new birth. “We have a great high priest set over the household of God; so let us make our approach in sincerity of heart and the full assurance of faith, inwardly cleansed from a guilty conscience, and outwardly washed with pure water” (Heb 10:22). Whether one thinks that this contrast undermines either of these two verses, the REB translators were not tempted to bring them into agreement and have translated them both faithfully.
And we find the balance between these two passages as we read in 1 Peter 3:21: “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”.
How one translates Titus 3:5 depends on the translator’s theology, and it can be legitimately translated either way. Evangelical theology is historically anti-Catholic and this is revealed repeatedly in their bible translations. But the REB (and NRSV) gets it right (in my opinion) as its translation is in keeping with the belief and practice of the first Christians.
Theological bias: 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 bishop 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, one being that 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 deacons; and he expected that the Corinthians to whom he wrote had the same understanding.
Theological bias: 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.
So 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”.
Another good thing for evangelicals who would like to use the REB is that the version with the Apocrypha (there is one without the Apocrypha) has them as a unit between the Old and Testaments, rather than in their proper place scattered amongst other OT books according to their genre, as in the Alexandrian canon. This means that the REB with Apocrypha can be used in group bible studies and in worship services because it is simply the standard Palestinian (Protestant) canon with the Apocrypha separate. The Catholic bibles can cause a little confusion because there are minor differences between the Alexandrian and Palestinian canons, thus causing problems in an evangelical group bible study as the user searches frantically for the required verse.
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 has retained 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. Even though these retained verses are numbered, they are still problematic because the changes were made by a committee of men and thus the bible text has been changed. The task of translators is to translate. When they move verses around like that, they become interpreters and commentators, and that robs from the integrity of the translation.
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 these paragraphs have headings. But an even more serious problem is that Psalm 119 has no headings. This psalm consists of 22 stanzas, each of which is headed by a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in consecutive order. But the text of the REB omits these letters at the head of each stanza. J. A. Motyer (1994, p. 566) introduces Psalm 119 as “….the greatest example of the art of the alphabet (‘acrostic’) psalm”; and then “…as always in Hebrew poetry, form is subordinate to thought and each alphabetic section is a carefully composed statement”. It is another example of liberties being taken with the text of scripture with insufficient justification and is unnecessary; and these omissions and changes let the REB down.
Carr, Archbishop Thomas, Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, “Lectures and Replies”, 1907, Sands and McDougall, Ltd., Printers, Melbourne, Australia.
Kubo, S, and Specht, Walter F, 1975, 1983, “So Many Versions?” publ. The Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
New Bible Commentary: Clines, David. J. A. 2000, New Bible Commentary, ed. Carson, D. A., France, R. T., Motyer, J. A., Wenham, G. J., Publ. IVP Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, Illinois, USA
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”.