Hilary Day: Postwar Bible Translations - The New English Bible and The Revised English Bible

It is significant that most of the major postwar Bible translations have already been revised so that this article on the first such new translation, the New English Bible - NEB - (1961, 1970) must perforce cover its revision, the Revised English Bible - REB - (1989).

The very circumstance of the NEB's being the first new translation of the whole Bible, going back to original texts, and not a further emendation of the AV, meant that many of the arguments surrounding the whole area of contemporary Bible translation centred on the NEB. The debate was essentially between those who apprehended a need for a Bible in twentieth century English and those who fiercely opposed any encroachment on what they perceived to be the preserve of the AV.

The idea of a new translation is said to have come from the fact that army chaplains in the Second World War noticed that their congregations had difficulty understanding 'biblical' language. The NEB broke new ground in a number of ways, apart from being the first new version since Tyndale. It was the first to be commissioned and prepared by members of different Protestant churches in Britain (with Roman Catholic observers) and it took twenty four years to complete. (By the time of the REB the Roman Catholic Church had representatives on the governing body of the revision team).

The Vice-Chairman and Director of the Joint Committee of the NEB, Prof C H Dodd, wrote a memorandum at an early stage of the work which laid out the philosophy behind and aims of the translation. 'It is to be genuinely English in idiom, such as will not awaken a sense of strangeness or remoteness. Ideally, we aim at a 'timeless' English, avoiding equally both archaisms and transient modernisms. The version should be plain enough to convey its meaning to any reasonably intelligent person (so far as verbal expression goes) yet not bald or pedestrian. It should not aim at preserving 'hallowed associations', it should aim at conveying a sense of reality... it is to be hoped that, at least occasionally, it may produce arresting and memorable renderings... We should like to produce a translation which may receive general recognition as an authoritative second version alongside the AV for certain public purposes as well as for private reading, and above all a translation which may in some measure remove a real barrier between a large proportion of our fellow-countrymen and the truth of the Holy Scriptures. [1]

It is noteworthy that at this stage of the project, the new translation was not intended to replace the AV in worship, but only aspired to 'recognition as an authoritative second version'. By the time the NEB was published, however, changes had occurred in liturigal worship (in 1965 the Church of England had adopted the Alternative Services Measure - another controversial issue), so that some of the language of the NEB, particularly its retention of the 'thou' form, was already out of date.

Dodd's target public was threefold: middle-class, educated, and predominantly secular adults; children in schools for whom he hoped the new translation would be used alongside the AV; and those churchgoers for whom the familiar AV had lost its force. It is not perhaps surprising then that in an increasingly mobile and pluralist postwar society, the NEB essentially missed its mark.

T S Eliot famously excused himself from involvement in the project, questioning, indeed, whether there is any need for a new translation of the Bible, and also whether contemporary English is likely to he good enough for the purpose. [2] He was not alone. Prof Kenneth Grayston, himself an NEB translator, although feeling the need for a clear, modern version, said, Modern English, it seems to me, is slack instead of taut, verbose and not concise, infested with this month's cliché, no longer the language of a proud and energetic English people, but an international means of communication. [3] This is no new debate. Tyndale himself wrote, they will say it cannot be translated into our tongue, it is so rude. It is not so rude as they are false liars. [4]

Whatever one's stance on this particular issue, there is little question that the NEB does contain some peculiarly infelicitous passages. I give the opening verses of the Letter to the Hebrews in Tyndale's translation, that of the AV and of the NEB. I think they speak for themselves.

Tyndale:       God in time past diversely and many ways, spake unto the fathers by prophets: but in these last days he hath spoken unto us by his son, whom he hath made heir of all things: by whom also he made the world. Which son being the brightness of his glory, and very image of his substance, bearing up all things with the word of his power, hath in his own person purged our sins, and is Sitten on the right hand of the majesty on high, and is more excellent than the angels, inasmuch as he hath by ingeritance obtained an excellenter name than they have.
AV:   1   God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets.
    2   Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds:
    3   Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins. sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high:
    4   Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.
NEB:   1   When in former times God spoke to our forefathers, he spoke in frag
    2   mentary and varied fashion through the prophets. But in this the final age he has spoken to us in the Son whom he has made heir to the whole universe by his word of power. When he had brought about the purgation
    4   of sins, he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, raised as far above the angels, as the title he has inherited is superior to theirs.

Critisisms of the NEB have ranged from those who found the language too 'high' - written by 'dons for dons [5] - to those who found it banal. The Prince of Wales said it was 'in the style of an internal office memo [6] It was the task of the NEB revision team to address these issues, and it is only fair at this point to append their version of the above passage in the NEB.

REB:   1   When in times past God spoke to our forefathers, he spoke in many and varied ways through the prophets. 2 But in this the final age he has spoken to us in his Son, whom he has appointed heir of all things; and through him he created the universe. 3 He is the radiance of God's glory, the stamp of God's very being, and he sustains the universe by his word of power. When he had brought about purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of God's Majesty on high, 4 raised as far above the angels as the title he has inherited is superior to theirs.

When Tyndale first set about his translation he can have had no inkling of the passion which was to surround the very many memorable phrases which he coined and which have found their way deep into the heart of our language. Such phrases have been described as 'icon phrases' [7], and I suppose we each have our own favourites. In a discussion recently I found myself becoming hot under the collar because of 'coals of fire'. To 'heap live coals' (NEB, REB) does not contain the resonances of Tyndale's phrasing of Romans 12:20 which was adopted by the AV.

The three main problems which the NEB revision team perceived were: the 'thou' language; words which were peculiar to these islands and carried other connotations in the rest of the English-speaking world; and gender-inclusive language - all matters with which Tyndale did not have to concern himself. There were also renderings of words which the NEB had adopted which the revision team thought were questionable, and the decision was made to revert to the traditional wording.

Where the NEB had retained the thou' form, the mere substitution of you' showed up other old-fashioned vocabulary and phraseology which necessitated a recasting of the whole passage. The prayer of Jonah provides an example. Again I give Tyndale and AV for comparison.

Tyndale:       In mine tribulation I called unto the Lord, and he answered me: out of the belly of hell I cried, and thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me deep down in the midst of the sea; and the flood compassed me about: and all thy waves and rolls of water went over me: and I thought that I had been cast away out of thy sight. But I will yet again look toward thy holy temple. The water compassed me even unto the very soul of me: the deep lay about me: and the weeds were wrapped about mine head. And I went down unto the bottom of the hills, and was barred in with earth on every side for ever. And yet thou Lord my God broughtest up my life again out of corruption. When my soul fainted in me, I thought on the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee, even into thy holy temple. They that observe vain vanities, have forsaken him that was merciful unto them. But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving, and will pay that that I have vowed, that saving cometh of the Lord.
AV:   2   .. I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; Out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.
    3   For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about; all thy billows and thy waves passed over me.
    4   Then I said. I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.
    5   The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.
    6   I went down to the bottoms of the mountains: the earth with her bars was about me for ever; yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption. O Lord me God.
    7   When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple.
    8   They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. 9 But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord.
NEB:   2   I called to the Lord in my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried for help,
and thou hast heard my cry.
    3   Thou didst cast me into the depths, far out at sea.
and the flood closed round me;
all thy waves, all thy billows, passed over me.
    4   I thought I was banished from thy sight and
should never see thy holy temple again.
    5   The water about me rose up to my neck;
the ocean was closing over me.
Weeds twined about my head
    6   in the troughs of the mountains;
I was sinking into a world
whose bars would hold me fast for ever.
But thou didst bring me up alive from the pit, O Lord my God.
    7   As my senses failed me I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer reached thee in thy holy temple.
    8   Men who worship false gods may abandon their loyalty,
    4   but I will offer thee sacrifice with words of praise:
I will pay my vows: victory is the Lord's.
REB:   2   'In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me; from deep within Sheol I cried for help,
and you heard my voice.
    3   You cast me into the depths,
into the heart of the ocean,
and the flood closed around me:
all your surging waves swept over me.
    4   I thought I was banished from your sight
and should never again look towards
your holy temple.
    5   'The water about me rose to my neck,
for the deep was closing over me;
seaweed twined about my head
    6   at the roots of the mountains;
I was sinking into a world
whose bars would hold me fast for ever.
But you brought me up, Lord my God, alive from the pit.
    7   As my senses failed I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer reached you in your holy temple.
    8   'Those who cling to false gods
may abandon their loyalty,
    9   9 But I with hymns of praise
shall offer sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I shall fulfil
Victory is the Lord's!'

If the NEB and REB had not indented the lines there would be no indication that the original was poetry, whilst Tyndale's phrases, rhythms and cadences sing out of the prose. Readers must make up their own minds about the Authorised Version.

The problems facing all translators into English today with regard to regional variations in meaning are evidenced in Matthew 21:5 '...thy King cometh ... sitting upon an (his?) ass'! That of gender-inclusive language in our feminist world presents complexities of which the Hebrew writers knew nothing. The revisers of the NEB decided 'to use a term which was inclusive or non-specific in gender wherever the sense was in their judgement consistent with the meaning of the original in its context, and acceptable in normal English style and usage.' [8]

I have to confess a certain regret that the NEB revisers decided to revert to the traditional rendering of Joshua 15:18;

NEB:       As she sat on the ass, she broke wind, and Caleb asked her, 'What did you mean by that?'
REB:       She dismounted from her donkey, and Caleb asked her, 'What do you want?'

The objective of the NEB translators was to produce a version for comparative study, not primarily for use in worship. The text was therefore presented more along the lines of a normal book of prose with indentations for the poetry. Verse numbers were down the side of the page and the divisions between verses were, therefore, not easy to discern. In the intervening sears the scope of the possible uses had considerably enlarged and the REB was from the first envisaged as a version for use both in Church and for private devotion. The layout vas accordingly altered so that the verse divisions and use of columns facilitated reading aloud in public worship.

The fact of its role as a pioneer in the field of modern Bible translation meant that the NEB helped establish some of the criteria for other versions vis à vis the AV; at the same time attracting criticism from many quarters. The rise in ecumenism over recent years has been fostered in a significant way by the working together on the REB by members of all denominations. Roger Coleman, part of the REB team, says

'Working together has the effect of making the Churches more conscious of the things which they have in common, and concentrate on using versions of the Bible which are acceptable to all. In the past, a new version of the Bible might well be the banner of a breakaway faction in the Church; now it is more likely to be a rallying point for groups which would otherwise go separate ways." I hear Tyndale saying 'Amen' to that.


  1. quoted in F F Bruce, History of the Bible in English, Lutterworth P,1986, p 7. hardbackpaperback
  2. quoted in Roger Coleman, New Light & Truth: The Making of the Revised English Bible, OUP and CUP, 1989, p 17. hardback
  3. quoted in Cecil Hargreaves, A Translator's Freedom: Modern English Bibles and Their Language, J S O T, 1993, p 143. paperback
  4. quoted in Tyndale's New Testament, ed David Daniell, Yale UP, 1989, p xxii. hardback paperback
  5. Coleman, p 48.
  6. Hargreaves, p 11.
  7. op cit, p 193.
  8. Coleman, p 48.
  9. op cit, p 72.

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