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The NRSVue Controversy

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

No Bible translation is perfect. I’ve not seen one I have no quibbles with. But of all the translations out there, my favorite and that of many scholars has for years been the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). In my opinion it has the best balance of faithfulness to the original, readability, and scholarship.

Now this translation has an updated edition, the NRSVue. It is intended to replace the NRSV, which at some point will be taken out of print. It is an impressive venture. It incorporates much recent scholarship, especially readings from the Dead Sea Scrolls, meaning more deviations from the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible, which some may like and others may not. Language has been modernized: “prostitution” instead of “whoredom” (a welcome change), “people having epilepsy” instead of “epileptics” (I guess that’s OK), “those with a skin disease” instead of “lepers” (I don’t know; eczema is a skin disease), and the like. There is nothing really objectionable about these changes, and many of them will just sound better to modern readers.

But there is one change that has received an outsize share of attention, as well as some vehement criticism. It is the translation of an infamous passage in 1 Corinthians. Here are both the NRSV and NRSVue versions:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers - none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, NRSV)

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, men who engage in illicit sex, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, swindlers - none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, NRSVue)

The controversy surrounds the words “male prostitutes, sodomites” in the NRSV, and “male prostitutes, men who engage in illicit sex” in the NRSVue. Debates on these passages have gotten quite involved, but the essence of the argument is this:

The rendering “male prostitutes” for the Greek malaki in both the NRSV and the NRSVue is too restrictive. Nothing in the text or its context implies that only those offering sex for money are indicated. Additionally, “male prostitutes” could be either heterosexual or homosexual, which is not what the text implies in this case.

The next term, arsenokitai, has been even more hotly debated. “Sodomites” in the NRSV is admittedly a poor choice. The intention is to indicate the dominant homosexual partner, but homosexuality was not the behavior for which Sodom was condemned. Yet unfortunately that term has persisted. The NRSVue was right to take it out.

However, so the critics maintain, what they put in its place is even worse. “Illicit sex” is a nebulous term that could mean just about anything. And so from the translation “male prostitutes, men who engage in illicit sex” one might not even know that homosexual activity is intended. This completely misrepresents the intention of Paul’s text.

This argument has met fierce resistance from liberal readers and scholars who insist the Bible does not condemn “homosexuality.” And so the debate goes on.

Notwithstanding, the critics of the NRSVue are right. But for the wrong reason.

It is very clear, from this passage and from another one in Romans chapter 1, that Paul means to condemn homosexual behavior. I won’t recap the argument here; I have provided a full analysis of this question elsewhere on this website. I agree with the critics that the NRSVue rendering is tendentious and reflects the intentions of the translators more than Paul’s. I just question the critics’ motives.

Before getting to that, let’s take a look at what the NRSVue’s defenders say. Paul could not have condemned homosexuality because he didn’t know what homosexuality was. Paul knew nothing about sexual orientation or about loving gay relationships. Besides, the Greek term arsenokitai is rare, unclear, and cannot be translated with confidence.

I find these arguments disingenuous. First, for reasons explained in my analysis cited above, the term in this context is not unclear at all. Yes, it is rare, and Paul himself may have coined it from words used in the LXX version of Leviticus 20:13. All this signifies is that in this case, etymology actually is a valid clue to the word’s intended meaning. Second, the NRSVue apologists’ use of the term “homosexuality” conflates two different meanings in a way that is deceptive. On the one hand, the term may refer to loving interpersonal relationships. But on the other, it may refer to same-sex behavior. Of course Paul was not speaking about the former; there was no awareness of any such thing in his day. But it is beyond question that Paul considered the latter unnatural and meant to condemn it.

If we twist the text of the Bible around until it says what we want it to say, then we don’t have the Bible anymore; we have something of our own creation. Of course this is not uncommon when reading the Bible. A prime example is the way most of us read the four Gospels. We tend to read them as if all four were telling exactly the same story, just mentioning or leaving out different details. Yet what we have in the Gospels are four sometimes very different views of the life, ministry, and death of Jesus that do not always mesh with each other. In fact, the differences can be quite fascinating. If we just put them all together in one “supra-gospel” then we have a gospel of our own creation, not any of the four in the actual Bible.

Yes, Paul’s language is often unclear, as 2 Peter 3:16 famously tells us. But not in this case. Taken together, the passages from Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 are crystal clear regarding what Paul thought about homosexual behavior. I can’t think of any issue in the Pauline corpus where he states his views more clearly (except perhaps his view of circumcision as expressed in Galatians 5:12).

But we can’t just leave it at that. As I mentioned, the motives of the critics are suspect. They want to justify their belief that God does not accept gays and will bar them from the kingdom of heaven. This contention is completely unacceptable. But what is the best way to counter it?

Recreating Paul in our own image is not the way. Rather, we should question the premises on which the anti-gay contention is based. Paul was a human being like you and me, who lived in a certain time and place and within a certain culture. He inherited the Jewish culture of his time, based upon scriptures originating thousands of years ago. When Paul wrote his letters, addressing specific situations in specific locations on specific occasions, he had no idea he was writing holy scripture. The fact that, at some point in history, someone included Paul’s letters as part of the canon we know today as the New Testament, does not make the word of Paul the word of God. In fact the earliest Jewish Christians, known as Ebionites, did not even recognize Paul’s authority. And yet today we treat all the words and phrases in Paul’s letters as if they had the force of divine decree. But Paul was human, had the human frailties common to us all, and could even lose his temper at times.

Paul was also wrong when he predicted the return of Jesus within his lifetime. So is that expectation, expressed in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 1 Corinthians 15, also the word of God? To enshrine every word Paul wrote as inviolably sacred for all time relieves us of our moral obligation to grapple with these issues. It is not only irresponsible, it is a form of idolatry.

How would Jesus have reacted to people in same-sex l relationships? Jesus never dealt with such a case, and whether he would have approved of such behavior, or just said “Go and sin no more” as he did to the adulterous woman, we cannot say. After all, he came from the same Jewish culture Paul did, which viewed homosexual behavior very differently from the Greeks and from the way we have come to see it now. But one thing we do know: Jesus always reached out to people who were marginalized by society, and did not condemn them. Had he encountered people in same-sex relationships, I think we can be certain he would not have condemned them.

If we begin with Jesus and his ministry of acceptance but end up with a religion that is intolerant and exclusionary, then at some point we must have taken a wrong turn. We have a moral duty to wrestle with our scriptures, to bring our best insights to them with the aid of scholarship not available to previous generations of interpreters, to understand the context of the writers before we apply it to ourselves, and to do our best to discern the will of God. A rigid application of an “inerrant” Bible made to serve our own cultural preferences is not in true service to God.

Where does this leave the NRSVue? It is unfortunate to find such an instance of translators using their own culture rather than biblical culture as their guide to the text’s meaning, because it raises the question whether some of its other renderings might be similarly untrustworthy. I’ll be keeping an open mind about the NRSVue, but I’ll also be looking to see to what extent the choices of words may more reflect the translator than the biblical writer.

March 2023