What’s In A Bible Version? Trump’s Choice of Photo-Op Bible Tells its Own Story

There’s been a lot of understandable outrage at Pres. Trump’s fascist theater/publicity stunt in front of St. John’s Episcopal, the so-called “church of presidents” across the street from the White House. I would say the image of him awkwardly waving around a Bible on a square cleared only minutes before by tear gas and flash-bang grenades might turn out to be his “jumping the shark” moment, except: look into his eyes. Trump is the shark.

I would also ask what kind of idiot public-relations team would create such ferkakte nightmare symbolism for an unpopular president given to bouts of authoritarianism, but I already know. It was Ivanka, apparently trying to cheer Daddy up after bad press about his weekend stay in the White House bunker. She even dutifully toted the prop Bible along in her $1500 purse.

And what a Bible it was! Despite some scuttle on Twitter that Trump was holding it upside-down, you can clearly see in photos by Washington Post journalist Sergio Peçanha that he does in fact know which direction to face the printed word. In one of the close-up shots, you can even make out the translation: Revised Standard Version. William Barber and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove relate that:

According to David Brody and Scott Lamb’s unironic “spiritual biography,” “The Faith of Donald Trump,” the Revised Standard Version was a gift from Trump’s mother, Mary Anne, on the occasion of his graduation from Sunday Church Primary School at the First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens.

Assuming that’s true—Trump’s weird response that this was a Bible aside—this particular copy would have been gifted somewhere around 1958 or 1960, and to give the president the benefit of the doubt, it does appear to have some wear and tear about it. Barber and Wilson-Hartgrove add:

Since his 2016 campaign, Trump has publicly claimed that the Bible is “very special” to him, using it frequently to authenticate his faith among what he calls “the evangelicals.”

If true, it’s a peculiar choice. The Revised Standard Version (RSV) was published by the National Council of Churches. You know, mostly mainline Protestants. You know: liberals. Evangelicals used to prefer the King James Version until modern paraphrase translations like The Way or Good News for Modern Men came around. These days, they tend to favor the New International Version for scholarly translation, the New King James Version, or any number of paraphrase Bibles. Likewise, Catholics—one of the other religious demographics Trump has recently been sliding with—seemed to have used the RSV for a while in the 1960s, until the New American Bible came out in 1970.

Of course, the largest single hit Trump has taken recently among white Christians has been with his own mainline Protestants, a whopping 18 point decline in popularity between March and April 2020. You might assume that parading around the RSV might help him connect with this constituency (assuming they could see what it was, and that he wasn’t handling it like someone who’d never held a book in his life). You would assume wrong: the RSV was superseded by the New Revised Standard Version or NRSV in 1989, which quickly became a standard for center-to-left churches.

In recent years, the Common English Version has become more popular, as have paraphrases like The Message. The RSV has hung on with some conservative types uncomfortable with the NRSV’s more gender-inclusive language, but it’s uncommon. For serious Bible readers, the RSV is exactly like what it is for Trump: a version you got as a gift a long time ago, put up on a shelf, and seldom if ever have looked at since. (I still have the copy I received at Confirmation nearly 40 years ago, and it’s in only marginally worse shape than Trump’s.)

What’s in a version, though? For the most part, not a lot. Contrary to common belief, Bibles are not copies of copies of translations. Since the late 1800s, most English versions have started with fresh translations from the original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, which are then compared to earlier translations in the same tradition: the NRSV builds on the RSV, which built on the American Standard Version, for example.

They’re also benchmarked against other contemporary translations, and of course, the world of scriptural scholars isn’t infinite. Generally speaking, translations agree with one another, a few wild cards and doctrinal disagreements aside. Most lay Christians would be hard-pressed to identify which version of the Bible they heard read on a Sunday morning.

But for those who do keep track of such things, it’s a small but telling point that the book Trump waves around like a talisman to prove his religious bone fides isn’t actually the version most of the people he’s trying to impress would know or be interested in.

In much the same way his monochrome silk ties and predilection for black marble and gold leaf indelibly mark his personal taste as hopelessly mired in the 1980s, his preference for an old, outmoded, mostly-forgotten Bible translation identifies him as someone who probably hasn’t given serious thought to scripture since that Sunday School graduation many, many decades ago. And that’s even before you get to the whole “Thou shalt not tear-gas peaceful demonstrators in order to use church property for partisan political gain” thing.