The American Standard Version occupies a special place in my heart, even though I’ve never used it as my go-to, daily-use Bible. When I was a kid, I had the privilege to hear many sermons delivered by my dad (here’s an example, from one of his visits to Lincoln). Throughout my childhood, and even when I left for college, he read, and preached, from an ASV. Why? My guess is that it was just the bible given to him by his parents when he was a teenager or young adult, and it happened to be well-built enough not to have fallen apart on him in a quarter-century’s heavy use. Nevertheless, it’s the translation I immediately associate with my father, and the multitude of lessons I learned from him as a child.
In the past ten years or so, I’ve encountered quite a few people who cling tightly to their ASV’s, and perhaps each of them has a similarly sentimental reason to revere it above all others, but they’ve all shared with me a different reason: “The ASV is the most accurate and literal translation of the original languages.” Well, it is accurate and literal, but strangely, I’ve never heard someone who can actually read Hebrew or Greek make this argument for the ASV. I wonder, why is that?
Let’s back up. The American Standard Version was published in 1901. Prior to that (and for quite a time subsequent to that, frankly) the most popular and readily available Bible by far was the King James Version—by 1901 a wizened 290 years old, and manifestly in need of an overhaul for several reasons. A British team of scholars began this undertaking, and their work eventually yielded the Revised Version; their American counterparts eventually turned an offshoot of this project into the American Standard Version.
Their goals, like those of the British team, were basically twofold: update the language of the KJV (for American and British readers, respectively), and update the textual bases of both Old and New Testaments to reflect the scholastic advances made in the three centuries since the KJV. For the OT, this mostly just meant taking the Septuagint a bit more seriously, since the Masoretic Text was still the most robust Hebrew OT available; but for the NT, major changes were at hand.
In 1611, the field of NT textual criticism was barely an embryo, but during the 19th century, several scholars made this field of study explode into relevancy, demonstrating convincingly that the Textus Receptus (the standard Greek New Testament and basis for the KJV NT) was severely lacking, in comparison with other, semi-independent textual traditions, and that a reasoned comparison of all available manuscripts, along with a critical assessment of their origins (and thus their credibility), could yield a much more accurate Greek New Testament, and in turn a better English one.
The ASV was the first North American endeavor to make use of this new scholarship, and as usual in major efforts at Biblical translation, they did an admirable job, all things considered. They gave preference to the LXX when it seemed reasonable to them to do so, and made excellent use of the critical editions of the NT, published by Tregelles and partners Wescott and Hort. The state of biblical scholarship really hasn’t advanced terribly far beyond these in the 115 years since the ASV’s completion. It also is, as I said before, an accurate and very literal translation—much like the KJV before it! For these reasons, it was for a time widely used by both scholars and the public, and it has retained some of its following even today.
However, it’s still not perfect. American English has changed even more in the past century, and so a bit of a language barrier is present for today’s readers. On top of this, the ASV is rather tough to find in print these days. Since the expiration of its copyright, it is readily available in electronic form, but many people (including me) still prefer hard copies of the Bible. This difficulty in finding one makes it tough to recommend the ASV, but is not as much of a problem as the advances in both OT and NT scholarship since 1901. As I said above, these haven’t been enormous, but they are nonetheless important. Rather few relevant NT MSS have surfaced in all that time, but huge numbers of papyri* have, written in Koine Greek—the dialect of the NT. These have greatly affected our understanding of the dialect, and have thus affected the translation of the NT as well. Likewise, the Dead Sea Scrolls began to be discovered several decades after the ASV’s publication. These have not drastically altered the tanakh either, but there are certainly clarifications, confirmations, and further variations to be considered now for the OT, all outside the purview of the ASV. One more shortcoming was earlier listed as an asset—the ASV’s literalness. Frankly, this is overrated, and serves to confuse and mislead readers who would be better served with a translation that aims at getting the sense right, rather than methodically replacing word by word as if Hebrew or Greek words had exact equivalents in English. That’s simply not how language works, and when people don’t understand this, they tend to prefer a translation they are told is more literal because they assume it means more accurate as well. This is not necessarily so, and in fact excessive literalness tends to yield a less accurate and less understandable translation—hardly conducive to the meticulous study and application of God’s word!
These reasons are precisely why the New American Standard Bible exists—to paraphrase the author of Hebrews, if that first ASV had been faultless, then would no place have been sought for a second. We’ll look at the NASB in more detail in the next installment.
For now, what’s the bottom line on the ASV? Well it’s a great Bible. Better than most versions, not as good as some others, and certainly not faultless. Nevertheless, a perfectly serviceable Bible. Use it wisely, and don’t be fooled by the appeals to its literalness to make its word final.
*Many of these were actually discovered before the ASV was published, but much of their analysis and the realization of their repercussions would have to wait until well into the 20th century.