Bible Babel

by Richard John Neuhaus

First Things, May 2001.

“If I had the authority,” declared the leader of an evangelical parachurch empire, “I’d almost be ready to decree that we go back to the King James.” That in response to my having written here that, if I had the authority, everybody would use the Revised Standard Version. The sorry fact is that English-speaking Christians have largely lost a common biblical vocabulary as a consequence of the proliferation of translations—and of paraphrases passing as translations—over the last forty years. I am told that there are nearly two hundred English translations on the market now, and Bible printers keep churning out new ones, for there seems to be a near insatiable market. There are designer translations for teenagers, mothers, business people, speakers of ebonics (stereotyped black talk), and just about any other market niche or itch that one can imagine.

The result is that little or nothing can be taken for granted when it comes to the recognition of biblical passages or phrases. It is not exactly a matter of biblical illiteracy, for it would seem that millions are regularly reading the Bible, which is a very good thing. But there is little shared biblical language among Christians, and, predictably, ever fewer biblical references in the public culture. The last consequence is not entirely due to the multiplication of versions, of course, but that, one cannot help but believe, is part of it.

When in the 1950s J. B. Phillips published his loose but suggestive translation of parts of the New Testament, it seemed like a breath of fresh air. No less a literary authority than C. S. Lewis wrote an appreciative introduction for Phillips’ Letters to Young Churches. But now things have gotten quite out of hand, as every Bible student who has a new idea about what the text really means decides not to write a commentary on the text but to rewrite the text. Catholic lay people, it is no secret, were not heavy-duty Bible readers before the Second Vatican Council. But for public and private purposes, the English text was the Douay-Rheims translation of the Latin Vulgate, first appearing in the sixteenth century and updated until 1763. After the Council, Catholics, too, got into new translations, notably with the Jerusalem Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, and then, from the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, regular updatings of the New American Bible.

At present, three translations are approved for Catholic liturgical use: the New Jerusalem, the RSV, and the New American Bible (NAB). The lectionaries and the several publishers of Mass guides, however, use only the NAB. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a wretched translation. It succeeds in being, at the same time, loose, stilted, breezy, vulgar, opaque, and relentlessly averse to literary grace. The bishops had the NAB updated to the Revised New American Bible (RNAB), but Rome had objections to that and hurriedly appointed a committee to fix it up into what might be called the Amended Revised New American Bible (ARNAB), which will soon become mandatory in lectionary use. Technically, the RSV and New Jerusalem are still permitted but, with ARNAB as the mandatory translation of the future, nobody has any interest in printing lectionaries or Mass guides using those versions. There is the additional oddity that you cannot buy an ARNAB Bible, since only the pericopes (liturgical readings) exist in ARNAB-talk. So Catholics do not have a Bible for personal or group reading that uses the same text that they hear at Mass.

An additional wrinkle is that the Canadian bishops approved for liturgical use the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), with its gender-inclusive and dumbed-down language. Rome overruled the bishops, but the Canadians said, in effect, “Too bad, but thousands upon thousands of lectionaries have already been printed in NRSV.” So Rome said that no more could be printed, but the ones already printed could be used. Not surprisingly, there is reportedly a very brisk business of “progressive” priests in the U.S. importing Canadian lectionaries. It is, all in all, a sorry tale.

As if the above is not confusion enough, there is in addition the Liturgy of Hours, the breviary for daily prayer. There the psalms are from the 1963 Grail translation, with other biblical canticles translated by the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) and yet others by the International Consultation on English Texts (ICET), with the result that, as also in daily Mass guides used by the people, the very same texts frequently appear in different translations. The antiphon to a psalm that is taken from the psalm being read, for example, is often worded differently from the way it appears in the psalm. The banality of the translations does not invite the memorization of biblical texts, and the different and frequently conflicting translations make such memorization impossible. The incessant patchwork meddling and updating of liturgical reform in the last several decades has produced what critics describe as a “destabilizing of the sacramental order.” That destabilization is dramatically evident also in the mish-mash that has been made of biblical translations.

The Conciliar Vision

That, one may suggest with considerable confidence, is not what the fathers of the Council had in mind. Section 22 of Dei Verbum (The Word of God): “But since the word of God should be available at all times, the Church with maternal concern sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books. And if, given the opportunity and the approval of Church authority, these translations are produced in cooperation with the separated brethren as well, all Christians will be able to use them.” At least in the English-speaking world, that maternal concern has been seriously delinquent; there are no common translations among Catholics, never mind translations used by all Christians in common. Again, the word of God in the ARNAB version to be used in liturgy, unsatisfactory as it is, is not available at all in the form of a complete Bible. In the absence of a quality English text, it seems that Catholics will have to put up with a linguistic destabilization of Babel-like proportions.

A not uninteresting sidelight is that St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, sometimes described as a training camp for liturgical terrorists, is spending several million dollars to have a scribe illuminate on vellum the entire Bible. You may have noticed the news stories on that. It’s a lovely idea, except that the text to be used is the NRSV. So here we will have a beautifully illuminated vellum manuscript that will last a thousand years, with a trendy text—and, not incidentally, a text officially disapproved by Rome—that is as dated as last year’s edition of the politically correct handbook.

There are some fine and generally felicitous translations available: The New American Standard, the New International Version (NIV), the New Jerusalem, and, above all, the RSV. The NIV is by far the most used among evangelical Protestants who don’t use the King James Version (which is often used in one of several modified forms, such as the New King James, which pretty much limits its revisions to replacing obsolete words and phrases that would not be understood today). Catholics will, for the foreseeable future, be stuck with ARNAB in public reading, and then whatever version for personal and group study. Of the many versions available, one hopes they will choose to counter the rude liberties taken by ARNAB with the gracefully accurate text of the RSV.

More on Bible Babel

First Things, January 2006.

Back in May 2001, I wrote in this space, under the title “Bible Babel,” about the translation that is the unfortunate New American Bible (NAB). It is a subject that should not be dropped. Not, mind you, that I expect anybody to do anything about it any time soon. But some day, please God, there will be a real reform of the misguided reforms of recent decades, and the NAB (along with the Revised NAB and the Amended Revised NAB and whatever version of the NAB that crops up in this Sunday’s Mass guide) should be on the agenda. Robert Louis Wilken has written wisely that the Bible is the lexicon of the Church and the liturgy is the grammar of the Bible. Among Catholics subjected to the NAB, and all are now subjected to it, the lexicon takes a terrible beating.

Everyone who has sung or listened to Handel’s “Messiah” knows the words: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6, KJV). Magnificent. Here, as of this week’s amended Missalette, is the New American Bible: “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” Try singing that. Whether under the rules of literal accuracy or of what, taking liberties, translators call “dynamic equivalence,” that is no more than a pedantic transliteration of the Hebrew. It is not a translation. It is a string of possible signifiers. It is not English. To be fair, the passage is not representative. Most of the NAB is English, albeit of a down-market variety.

One has to wonder what those in charge of Catholic translations thought they were doing since the NAB project was launched. An answer commonly given is that they wanted to produce the most literally “accurate” translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts. It is usually said that Catholics are not biblical literalists, but that appears not to hold in this instance. Even literalism does not explain the many eccentricities introduced in the NAB. Probably the best known of all psalms is Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” In the KJV and the RSV, the psalm concludes with, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Readers of the Douay-Rheims express the confidence that they will “dwell in the house of the Lord for length of days.” That is very open-ended and may be very much like “forever.”

Even the more recent and trendy New Revised Standard Version invites me to believe that “I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” My whole life long will, please God, be life eternal. Then comes the NAB: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.” For years to come? It inevitably prompts the question of how many. Ten? Twenty? Fifty? Whatever the answer, it would seem to be far short of forever. Note that there is nothing in the Hebrew that requires or even suggests such a change. But what’s the point of doing a new translation unless it is different from earlier translations?

The problems begin with the very first verse of the Bible. In the English tradition, solidly grounded in the Hebrew as well as in Jerome’s Latin translation, Genesis 1 begins with the majestic words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Here is what the NAB offers us: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.” Compare that with the English tradition, followed almost exactly by Douay-Rheims: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” Apart from the NAB’s deaf ear to poetry and theological suggestiveness, the very first words of the very first verse of the Bible raise a question of no little importance. Note the difference between “In the beginning God created . . . ” and “In the beginning, when God created . . . ”

“In the beginning God.” Homilies and theological reflections beyond numbering have pondered and probed those four words. It is God and God alone who is in the beginning; He is the source and acting subject of all that follows. If we do not get that right, we will not get right all that follows. Very different is the NAB’s rendering, “In the beginning, when God.” Here there is no invitation to ponder and probe what and who is meant by God. The knowledge is taken for granted; the reader’s attention is immediately turned from the acting subject to His actions. “In the beginning was the Act.” That is not, from the beginning, how Christians have understood the matter. The writer of the Fourth Gospel begins with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The great student of the Fourth Gospel, C.K. Barrett, writes, “John intends that the whole of his gospel shall be read in the light of this verse. The deeds and words of Jesus are the deeds and words of God; if this be not true, the book is blasphemous.” That, says Barrett, is the significance of the tie to Genesis 1, “In the beginning God . . . ”

From the apostolic and patristic eras up through magisterial and theological writings of the present day, the parallel between Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1 has been the source of the most profound reflections. God who was in the beginning is now revealed in Jesus the Christ who is God. The great Augustine, writing in the fifth century, insists upon the parallel wording. As in the beginning is God, so in the beginning is the Word who is God. Here he is preaching against the Arian heresy which claimed that the Son is not truly God but was created as an agent for creating the world. No, insists Augustine: As in the beginning God, so in the beginning the Word. That parallel, so crucial to the entire gospel story, is quite thoroughly obscured by the NAB. From the beginning, the NAB introduces unwarranted novelties that not only further erode what remains of a common biblical vocabulary but are often blithely indifferent to the Church’s tradition of theological reflection.

Consider the parable of the prodigal son: After his dissipation in a “far country” (NAB has “distant country”) the RSV, following the English-language tradition and the Greek text, says “he came to himself.” NAB says “he came to his senses.” No, he didn’t just become more sensible. He came to himself; he returned to who he truly was, the beloved son of the loving father. The theologically literate preacher is regularly compelled to correct the NAB translation prescribed for public reading. Those responsible for the NAB and its perpetual updatings are not heretics and I am sure they do not intend to be doctrinally subversive. It would appear that they are simply indifferent to the great tradition of the Bible in English, frequently indifferent to the history of scriptural interpretation in the Church, and almost always indifferent to good English usage.

So why do they, and so many other translators, do what they do? The answer is undoubtedly related to the fact that, without the production of novelties and revisions, translators would be out of a job. A telling indictment of the NAB is that it is not used or even referred to by non-Catholics and is seldom employed by Catholic biblical scholars who, quite sensibly, prefer other translations. It is a translation that is used at all only because its use has been made mandatory.

But perhaps a few more examples are in order. In Mark 10:9, Our Lord says of marriage, “What therefore God has joined together let not man put asunder” (RSV). The NAB renders this, “What God has joined together, no human being must separate.” No human being must separate, but a human being may separate? Perhaps angels must separate? Then there are the much quoted words of Psalm 111, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Compare that to the never-to-be-quoted rendition of NAB, “The fear of the Lord is the first stage of wisdom.” St. Paul exhorts Timothy to “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season.” In the NAB—in the event you were wondering what clunky means—that becomes, “be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient.” It is too easy to imagine an NAB version of the Gettysburg address: “Approximately eighty-seven years ago, political leaders developed a system of government . . . ”

The NAB assumes that readers and listeners may be a bit slow on the uptake. Here is Genesis 18 in the RSV: “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’” Here is the NAB read at Mass: “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years, and Sarah had stopped having her womanly periods. So Sarah laughed to herself and said, ‘Now that I am so withered and my husband is so old, am I still to have sexual pleasure?’” Just in case you didn’t get it, the story is about sex. A little before that, the NAB says, “He had intercourse with her, and she became pregnant.” The RSV: “And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived.” Like the high school health text, the NAB is worried that we may miss the point.

The NAB picks up on cultural ticks. Some while back I was in conversation with a national columnist who regularly used “righteous” as an adjective of denigration. For instance, she would criticize “righteous political leaders.” I suggested that surely she meant “self-righteous,” to which she responded that righteous and self-righteous are today synonymous. I thought of this again when working on a Sunday homily. The text was Luke 18, and the NAB renders verse 9 this way: “Jesus spoke this parable addressed to those who believed in their own self-righteousness while holding every one else in contempt.” The KJV, RSV, NIV, and other standard English translations all speak of those who trust in their own righteousness, correctly translating the Greek dikaioi. It is of more than passing interest that the NAB translators seem to agree with the columnist that righteousness today means self-righteousness. But what sense does it make to say that they believed in their self-righteousness? Imagine someone boasting, “I’m more self-righteous than you are!”

Examples can be multiplied almost book by book and chapter by chapter. In 2 Timothy, St. Paul declares, “I have fought the good fight.” Fight the good fight. The bracing phrase echoes and re-echoes in high culture and everyday life. What does the NAB give the Catholic people? “I have competed well.”

In the face of every affliction, Paul says in Romans 8, “we are more than conquerors” (RSV). The NAB says “we conquer overwhelmingly.” On the Church’s relationship to earthly powers, the words have rolled down the centuries: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The NAB: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” We have taken something from Caesar and from God that we must repay? Don’t ask. The line of Matthew 22:14 is still commonly heard: “Many are called but few are chosen.” NAB: “Many are invited, but few are chosen.” What is gained by the change? What is lost?

St. Paul to the Philippians: “Have this mind among you, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” NAB: “Have this attitude in you which was in Christ Jesus.” Jesus had an attitude? There is a significant difference between having the mind of Christ and having the attitude of Christ. Not to mention that literate speakers of English do not speak of a person having an attitude “in” him. In the translation of the four gospels, the NAB regularly says that Jesus “cured” rather than “healed” people. In standard English “cure” connotes a medical remedy while “heal” connotes making a person whole. At least the NAB does refer to Jesus as a healer rather than a “curer.”

The tone-deaf linguistic wreckers of the Catholic Biblical Association have a great deal to answer for. But it seems that few bishops are prepared to fight the good fight against the atrocities being perpetrated. The tradition of the Bible in English is mangled and banalized at almost every opportunity; the poetic is flattened into the prosaic and the suggestively allusive is forced to submit to the arbitrarily chosen obvious. Literalism joined to a penchant for the insipid succeeds in producing a text that is, at the same time, irritatingly quirky and surpassingly dull. It might be argued that a merit of the NAB is that it discourages—indeed, precludes—the dubious practice of teaching the Bible as literature.

Nevertheless, for the foreseeable future Catholics are stuck with the NAB in its ongoing revisions of revisions. There seems to be little chance that the bishops or the liturgy industry will make available lectionaries or entire Bibles in the RSV or in the more recent and quite splendid English Standard Version, which rivals the RSV in respecting the tradition of the King James and Douay-Rheims. Of course, younger Catholics, those born since 1970, for instance, never knew that tradition. It is their great loss.

The imposition of this embarrassingly third-rate translation is made definite by a provision of the otherwise welcome 2001 instruction from Rome’s congregation for worship, Liturgium Authenticum. The instruction says that “in order that the faithful may be able to commit to memory at least the more important texts of the Sacred Scriptures and be formed by them . . . there should exist only one approved translation, which will be employed in all parts of the various liturgical books.” The American bishops, alas, chose the NAB. Had they chosen a more worthy translation, there would have been a fierce uproar from the guild of Catholic biblical scholars who perpetrated the NAB. In addition, there is a thoroughly misplaced proprietorial pride in this being a Catholic translation: It may not be very good, but it is ours.

The result is a loss keenly appreciated by those who grew up with what literary critic Alan Jacobs describes as “a shared language, of particular words and phrases that resonated in the common ear—words and phrases whose meanings could be tested, considered, deployed, and redeployed in an infinitely varied set of contexts.” Think of those generations of English-speaking peoples “separating the wheat from the chaff,” “lying down in green pastures,” sometimes being “weighed in the balance and found wanting” but at other times “fighting the good fight” and “putting on the whole armor of Christ” —the whole vast array of discourse (much of it richly poetic) demonstrating that it is very difficult to share thoughts when we do not share words. Because Christians are counseled to “be of one mind,” we should be more attentive to the particular words that shape and form our minds. To have once again a widely shared English Bible would be a significant step towards that one mind in Christ.

It is a great pity that our churches and our culture have largely lost a common biblical vocabulary. The blame rests with academic Bible scholars and with the hustlers of the very big business of multiplying and marketing ever-more-novel versions of the biblical text. But the decay of a culture- and soul-forming tradition is also the fault of the bishops, and it is their very particular fault that the Catholic people are saddled with among the clunkiest of translations, the New American Bible. Yes, I know that there is not much to be done about it, or at least that those who could do something seem not to be interested. And yes, I know that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. But sometimes it is necessary to curse the darkness as well, just to prevent our getting used to it.

Literate converts coming into communion with the Catholic Church, of whom, despite all, there are more and more, are regularly struck by the banalities and eccentricities of scriptural readings and liturgical texts. They are grateful for being received and do not wish to complain, but the blunting of literary sensibilities should not be a price exacted for becoming Catholic.

And now I will let this subject rest for a while. I do not promise that I will not return to it at some later time. It is important that Catholics who are week by week subjected to the NAB know that someone—in the words of a former president—feels their pain. And they should know that they are not limited to this inferior translation in their personal reading and Bible study groups. Then too, those responsible for the translation might be embarrassed into reconsidering their trashing of the tradition of the Bible in English. Finally, the bishops might reconsider their choice of the NAB, or at least petition Rome to allow the liturgical use of other and worthier translations. Or maybe not. In which case, we will during the scriptural readings at every Mass have occasion to remember Flannery O’Connor’s sage observation that we frequently must suffer more from the Church than for the Church.