Saturday, May 23, 2009

The American Standard Version

I was asked today what I thought about the American Standard Version. The truth is that I haven't thought about it much at all apart from the fact that it was one of the few free English Bibles my wife could get for free on her iPhone with Olive Tree Bible Software. I assume that it was free primarily because it's in the public domain and otherwise out-of-print. However, it's an important version as the grandfather or great-grandfather of many current English versions (RSV, NRSV, ESV, NASB).

The American Standard Version (ASV) of 1901 was a thorough American revision of the English Revised Version (ERV) completed in 1885. The distinctive feature of the ERV was that it was the first English Bible to use a Greek text based on the codices that had come to the attention of scholars since 1611 - Alexandrinus in the 1600s and Vaticanus in the 1800s.

One of the publications from the ERV committee states:
The Greek text followed by these Revisers is of far higher authority than that known and followed by the King James' revisers. Their Greek text was based on manuscripts of the later parts of the Mediaeval Ages, but ours has been Perfected by the discovery of far more ancient manuscripts, and by an abundance of quotations from the early fathers of the Church, and use of ancient versions. (Source)
The version is literal in translation approach, very similar to the KJV. In fact, part of their object was to remain as similar to the KJV as possible - revealing the strong influence that translation had on religious life for the English-speaking world even 250 years later. The chairman of the American Revision Committee is reported to have said: "The revision will so nearly resemble the present version, that the mass of readers and hearers will scarcely perceive the difference[.]" (Source)

The same publication quoted above in reference to the ERV states their approach explicitly:

From the outset the object sought by the revisers has been "to adapt King James' version to the present state of the English language without changing the idiom and vocabulary,'' and further, to adapt it to "the present standard of Biblical scholarship." Since 1611 this latter has made great advances, especially during the last quarter century.

One of the Committee stated his understanding of the object sought in these words: "The new Bible is to read like the old, and the sacred associations connected with it are not to be disturbed; but within these limits all necessary and desirable corrections and improvements on which the best scholars are agreed will be introduced: a good version will be made better; a clear and accurate version clearer and more accurate; the oldest and purest text is to be followed; errors, obscurities and inconsistencies are to be removed; uniformity in rendering Hebrew and Greek words and proper names to be sought. In one word, the revision is to give, in idiomatic English, the nearest possible equivalent for the original Word of God as it came from the inspired organs of the Holy Spirit. It aims to be the best version possible in the nineteenth century, as King James' version was the best which could be made in the seventeenth century." (Source)

Of the handful of readings I reviewed in the ASV, it seemed substantially similar to the KJV - even keeping "thee", "thou" and "thy." The one idiosyncratic thing I noticed was the substitution of "Jehovah" for the divine name instead of "LORD." They note their particular decision to translate that way in the preface to the ASV:

The change first recommended in the Appendix - that which substitutes "Jehovah" for "LORD" and "GOD" - is one which will be unwelcome to many, because of the frequency and familiarity of the terms displaced. But the American Revisers, after a careful consideration were brought to the unanimous conviction that a Jewish superstition, which regarded the Divine Name as too sacred to be uttered, ought no longer to dominate in the English or any other version of the Old Testament, as
it fortunately does not in the numerous versions made by modern missionaries.

The change was not followed by the main subsequent English versions, and it is now known that "Jehovah" was never the proper pronunciation for the divine name anyway (being the vowels of one word written with the consonants of another).

The version is still important as the first American translation to incorporate the results of biblical scholarship, especially related to the New Testament text. All but a few English versions now use Greek texts based on those same earlier manuscripts. It's also important as the starting point for many of the more formal-equivalent translations used today. The RSV, NRSV, ESV, and NASB are all related to the ASV.

To get a taste for the ASV as a translation, here's Psalm 23.

Psalm 23:1-6

1 Jehovah is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: He guideth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Yea, thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou hast anointed my head with oil; My cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and lovingkindness shall follow me all the days of my life; And I shall dwell in the house of Jehovah for ever.

If you're interested in the history of English Bible translations, I've found Michael Marlowe's Bible Research website to be an excellent source of information. The translators' preface and many other relevant primary documents can be found there.

All in all, the ASV is a solid, literal translation of the Bible. The language is a bit archaic, even for the late 19th century, but I suppose that was necessary to retain the flavor of the KJV as much as possible.


  1. The ASV is a great english translation of the Bible, but I'd prefer that it modernizes its language and change Jehovah back to LORD or even YHWH/Yahweh. That's why I use the RSV for most of my bible research. I don't like the extreme gender neutrality of the NRSV or the conservatism of the ESV.

    There's also the World English Bible (WEB) which is a modern-language revision of the ASV. It does not try to update the translation of the text, but just the language, replacing thees and thous with its modern equivalent. And it uses Yahweh instead of Jehovah. And it's public domain, which makes it available in a lot of formats. I even have one in my cellphone.

  2. The ASV is indeed a great translation among English versions. It is actually the most "modified-literal" of all those that are available. (By the way, there is a small bible publishing company in Fort Worth, Texas, Star Bible and Tracts that still publishes both leather and hardback editions of the ASV). There is not a widely available English bible that aims for "one to one correspondence" except the ASV. It was commonly known as the "Rock of Biblical Integrity" for that very reason. It does not add as many italicized words to the text as the NASB because it aims to be as close to the original as possible. The NASB adds words where such is not necessary, and so, includes a mass of commentary within its text that counteracts its claim to be the "most literal." The NASB is a good translation, but it is not the "most literal." The ASV is by far the better study bible, and its footnotes are a wealth of information! As far as modified-literal goes, no other English version is its equal.

    The World English Bible (WEB) claims to be an updating of the ASV, but it's choice of textual foundation/base is the Majority Text.

    The main drawback of the ASV for our day is its archaic language. If it were not for that, it would be the bible of choice for the person seeking the best possible means of reading from English back to the Hebrew and Greek texts.

  3. Danny and Robert, thanks for your comments. I haven't used the ASV extensively and I use original language versions (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia or Nestle-Aland Greek NT) for most of my research. That's why I think the best possible means of moving from an English text back to the Hebrew and Greek is through learning the languages, not through using a literal translation of any kind. I used the ESV and NASB extensively side by side with the original languages when I was learning Hebrew and Greek. I found both to be very accurate, though the NASB is more transparent back to the wording and syntax of the original.

    I did find the archaic language of the ASV to be a bit much, even for its time. All formal-equivalent translations have to fudge from time to time between their commitment to being "literal" and the requirement to give the reader an intelligible English text. Some versions mark the latter almost to a fault - the KJV and NASB with italics, the HCSB with brackets. I say "to a fault" because it doesn't seem necessary to me to italicize "is" or "was" every time Hebrew has a verbless clause (where the verb "to be" is implied) as the KJV and NASB do. However, that addition of a word often is necessary for the sentence to work in English. I disagree that it adds a "mass of commentary" to its text (quoting Robert). You'd have to show me an example where they added something where it was truly unnecessary (even then, I could probably give you a reason based on the original text why the translator thought it was necessary). All English translations do that - balance between telling you what the text says as accurately as possible while still giving it to you with proper English sentences.

    Since you have such high praise for the notes in the ASV, I may have to track down a print version just to check them out. Even so, I doubt many people would second your claim that "no other English version is its equal" since I know many die-hard fans of the NLT, NIV, TNIV, and ESV who believe their version surpasses all the others. That's why I was so careful to point out how much personal preference influences our opinions of which Bibles are the best back when I ranked my top ten English translations.

    My Ranking of English Bible TranslationsThanks for your input on the post. I'm glad to know that there's still a way to get a print version of the ASV.

  4. Doug, I will note a few of the many places where the NASB italicizes a word or words, and that by doing so unnecessarily adds a "mass of commentary" to the actual text. There are more than 2000 instances in the NT in which the NASB supplies italicized words. In many of these instances, the commentators have added "commentary," and by doing so have in some instances excluded other exegetical choices, and this has dampened their claim to being the "most literal." It is quite a modified literal version, but the ASV, due to its closeness to the original Hebrew and Greek is the better study bible provided one can navigate through the archaic language. I will cite examples from the NT of the 1977 edition.
    1. "as a forerunner" Lk.1:17
    2. "for certain" Lk.1:18
    3. "real" Acts 19:40
    4. "only" Rom. 11:20
    5. "of the moment" Eph. 4:29
    6. "carefully" 1 Thess.5:21
    7. "too" 1 Tim. 5:22
    8. "actually" 1 Tim. 6:6
    9. "only" Heb. 10:1
    10. "all of which took" Acts 13:19
    11. "Christian" 2 Pet.1:7
    12. "people" John 12:5
    13. "the one" Acts 3:15
    14. "in the case of" Acts 8:7
    15. "Gentiles" Acts 17:17
    16. "at all" Acts 19:26
    17. "to the governor" Acts 24:2
    18. "at the same time" Acts 25:3
    19. "be found" Rom. 3:4
    20. "refreshing" Rom. 15:32
    21. "I have decided" 1 Cor. 5:5
    22. "you would...have" 1 Cor. 4:15
    23. "in fact" 1 Cor. 5:7
    24. "what matters is" 1 Cor. 7:19
    25. "an attitude of" Col. 4:2

    I know many bible translators who have worked on past and current translation projects. They also extensively use Biblia Hebraica and the Aland or UBS Greek texts, yet every single one of them also supplements their work in the original languages with researching the "scholarly" versions. Why? They want to see what translators in previous generations and those who are contemporaneous with them saw in the Hebrew and Greek texts. No scholar whether it is A.T. Robertson, Bruce Metzger, Bruce Waltke, Gordon Wenham et. al relies exclusively on their knowledge of Hebrew and Greek. They search all the literature, including the versions of their mother tongue (and other languages) as thoroughness of research and accuracy of argument are two of the key elements of the PhD level of academics.

    Robert Dillard

  5. Robert, thanks for the examples. I'm not an apologist for the NASB, so I won't try to dispute them. In fact, I agree that examples like those are unnecessarily adding something. Perhaps they do it less frequently in the Old Testament (my primary area of study). I stopped using the NASB regularly about 5 years ago now, and the ESV is now the primary English version that I use.

    I find it interesting that the ESV is the most accurate for your first example - Luke 1:17 when compared to the ASV and NASB, especially if adding words is the litmus test.

    Here's Luke 1:17 in all 3 versions.
    I've italicized what was italicized in the translations.

    ASV And he shall go before his face in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to walk in the wisdom of the just; to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him.

    NASB-'95 "It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, TO TURN THE HEARTS OF THE FATHERS BACK TO THE CHILDREN, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

    ESV and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared."

    If I were to make as literal of a translation as possible from the Greek that still sounded like English, it would look pretty much like the ESV. No words are added, unlike the ASV that adds "to walk" and "for him." So - the ESV is more accurate and there is no archaic language to work around.

    To respond to your last paragraph, I didn't mean to imply that I use BHS and Aland exclusively. Rather, my primary area of research is Hebrew Bible, not Bible translation. Translation studies is a secondary interest that I have, and when I'm analyzing a translation question, I consult many English versions to see how they handled the problem. I'm sure that if I ever have the opportunity to work on a translation project, I will do the same. You're absolutely correct that it's essential to know what previous translators and scholars have seen in the original text.

    Thanks for your input, Robert, and thanks again for the many examples of over-interpretation in the NASB translation.

  6. Doug, thanks for your courtesy and integrity regarding to this discussion.

    During the last three decades I have read and/or heard many people say that the NASB is the most literal English bible. The statement is far from true. The NASB is a good modified-literal text, but it is often lexically inconsistent and incorrect. As previously stated, the fact that it very often (in both old and new testaments) adds unnecessary words and/or phrases makes it more paraphrastic that its proponents will sometimes admit. It also tends to inexcusably follow a late Textus Receptus (KJV) type text in some places when its translators claim to use the Nestle text for the NT. (Some have said that this is to "appease" a KJV readership.) Whatever the reason, it appears inconsistent, not to mention unscholarly.

    I am often asked "Which English versions do I recommend for the non Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek student who has a critical eye for detail, can exercise good discretion when attempting to determine why the versions differ?" So, if I may, without an unnecessary on anyone's time, I would like to give my preferences and the reasons for each.

    I recommend the ASV because it does not amend the text of the old testament unless absolutely necessary. It is built on a good new testament critical text. It is almost as literal as possible while maintaining some semblance of readable English. Many of my colleagues still use it as a point of reference for research papers, commentary bibliography, lexical comparison, etc.

    I also recommend the RSV primarily because it was the first step forward as a post ASV text that utilized the great discoveries of the late 19th and early to mid 20th century (particularly the Dead Sea scrolls papyri). It still holds it own among the modern versions in textual fidelity , though the archaic language is somewhat of a distraction.

    I recommend the NRSV as a good balance of modified literal philosophy and idiomatic/paraphrase. There are many places in which the NRSV is the best translation that I have researched. My main complaint with it is the inexcusable mishandling of the gender issues. Changing singular masculine pronouns to plural in order to neutralize or "desexualize" male language does not do justice to God's word.

    I recommend the TNIV with some reservation. I do believe that it has received a "bum wrap" from misguided uninformed critics who generally do not know the biblical languages nor English usage. The TNIV is not perfect, but it is is a useful translation and when used alongside the ASV, the two make an awesome pair. They tend to provide a channel to a balanced approach to study. A combination of modified-literal and idiomatic/paraphrase. The insights acquired can be grounds for enriching opportunity and knowledge.

    I also recommend the ESV. It is an
    excellent translation for reading, study, and memorization. I believe the main strength of the ESV is the fact that it is the revision of the RSV. The NRSV went too far with the gender-neutral (accurate?) aspect of translation and the ESV didn't go far enough, but it is the best available at this point. The ESV is in my judgment, the RSV with a suit and sunglasses on.

    Finally, I have been asked, "assuming a person can only afford three of the five you recommend, which three get the nod?" The ASV, TNIV, and the ESV. Why? With the ESV you get an updated RSV. With The TNIV you get an updated/corrected NIV, and it out distances the NRSV with its handling of gender language. The ASV because for the non-linguist, it being arguably the "best" modified-literal translation, "reins in" the TNIV and illuminates the strengths of the ESV.

  7. Robert,

    I respect your preferences, but I'm a bit confused about why you take the NRSV to task for its handling of gender language but don't specifically mention that issue regarding the TNIV. In my opinion, the TNIV went further than NRSV in neutralizing potentially offensive gendered language. I don't consider myself a misguided uninformed critic either, but it's the reason I don't recommend the TNIV. Compare Isa. 19:16 in the NRSV and TNIV for an example.

    I tend to direct people to translations that they can find in their local bookstore whenever I'm asked for a recommendation. On the other hand, if one is comparing different translations online or using a Bible software program, an older version like ASV or RSV would be a fine translation to reference.

  8. Doug, you are correct regarding the TNIV's erroneous and inexcusable handling of Isa. 19:16. The TNIV's rendering of the Isaiah passage is as irresponsible as what the NRSV did to Matt. 18:15. The reason I gave the TNIV the nod over the NRSV in the context of my response was the fact that the TNIV represents a more "loose" side of the translation spectrum, and thereby provides a good counter balance to the modified-literalism of the ASV. Most of the time I prefer the NRSV readings over the TNIV. Realistically, both translations do injustice to the "gender" issue. I believe in gender accuracy, but the shift from singular to plural to avoid the use of the masculine singular is probably not the answer, and it does seem to distort the meaning of the text in numerous cases. I have said that the NRSV could have been an ideal translation, but the ESV is closer to what I personally like among the modern formal equivalent versions. Nevertheless, I must admit that the NRSV made many wonderful exegetical choices and in most places it is highly accurate. I often refer to it for private study and public reading and teaching. Realistically, except for the handling of gender related issues, the NRSV is probably a better overall translation than the ESV. Example, I like the NRSV's use of "worry" instead of the ESV's use of "anxious" in Matthew 6:25-34. There are several other places where the NRSV made better exegetical choices.

  9. Robert, thanks for clarifying. I think we're on the same page regarding the TNIV. I actually recommend the NLT to balance out the other side of the spectrum as a more "loose" translation. (I prefer "idiomatic" or "dynamic" over "loose".) I usually recommend either the ESV or the NLT or both depending on what the person is looking for. I also use the NRSV for my university classes, and I like it overall, too.