On Sept. 24, 1967, my Methodist Sunday school teacher gave me my first Bible, the Revised Standard Edition, as a gift upon entering the third grade. When I was a girl, I carried it out to the woods near my house to read privately and pray–enthralled by the Psalms, stories of Old Testament heroes and Jesus’ teachings.
I read it like a book, starting with Genesis and trying to read to the end. Every summer, I attempted to read the whole thing. I cannot even remember how many times I read Genesis and the early bits of Exodus–only to stop somewhere around the Ten Commandments and skip around to whatever interested me.
That Bible now sits on a shelf behind my writing desk, its yellowed pages growing brittle. Next to it sit other Bibles I have owned.
In 1974, I began attending a conservative evangelical church. My new friends said that the RSV was theologically suspect–having been published by the liberal National Council of Churches. They told me to buy a New American Standard Bible, the first Bible I ever purchased. Tucked on the shelf next to the RSV, its cover falling off, it is highlighted with colored markers and full of marginalia like “Praise the Lord,” “Jesus saves” and “Please, God, send me!”
The NASB went to college with me; I attended an evangelical school in California. There, during my freshman year, I took my first Bible course. Although I had taken my RSV to college as well, my Bible professors, like my church friends, preferred the NASB. They praised it as the most literal of all biblical translations, the closest to the original Hebrew and Greek.
During my sophomore year in 1978, they switched to the just-published New International Version. Despite its literalness, the NASB was a clunky English translation. One professor assured us that the NIV would become the standard evangelical Bible. Upon their advice, I used the NIV for private devotions and personal and academic study. It went with me to seminary and shaped my knowledge of Scripture, interpretation and theology.
In 1989, when I was a doctoral student at Duke University, the New Revised Standard Version appeared. The Duke faculty required students to use the new translation. By then, I had become an Episcopalian and attended the Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill. Every Thursday night, a group met for Bible study. I decided to familiarize myself with the NRSV by using it as my primary Bible at that study.
When reading Ephesians, my friends thought it would be funny to have me–the only woman with a theological degree–lead the study on Chapter 5: “Wives, submit to your husbands.” Preparing for that night, I looked up Ephesians 5:21-33, a text that had long riled me, in my new Bible. What I saw stunned me: The version in the NIV was different from the NRSV!
The editors of the NIV had separated Ephesians 5:21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” from the rest of the passage, disconnecting the call for mutual submission from the rest of the instructions. To further distance verses 21 and 22, the NIV inserted a heading, “Wives and Husbands,” that breaks the flow of the text. Thus, the NIV makes it appear that the teaching begins with the line, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.”
The NRSV surprised me because no division existed. The text moves smoothly from verse 21 to 22, reframing wifely submission as part of a whole teaching on servanthood as discipleship. It also translated “submit” as “be subject to,” a rendering closer to the Greek.
For more than a decade, I had struggled with that teaching in Ephesians–only to discover that my struggles were not with Scripture. Rather, I was struggling with an interpretation of Scripture provided by the editors of the NIV.
I put that Bible away, never to trust it again. And I busied myself reading my new NRSV, often finding that difficult passages were clearer through its translation and notes. Reading the NRSV was like a reunion with an old friend, familiar but new. As an adult, my childhood Bible had come back to me, only better. We had a lot of catching up to do.
The old NIV now sits next to the RSV and the NASB on the “memory” Bible shelf, a token of the journey. The NRSV sits on the “working” Bible shelf with five additional study editions alongside. For almost 20 years, it has been my companion along the way–opening the word to me anew, guiding me in prayer and giving me insight to write, speak and preach.
Diana Butler Bass is the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper San Francisco, 2006), a popular conference speaker and a member of The Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D.C.
Reprinted with permission from Episcopal Life.