Metzger on the New American Bible

The following review of the 1970 edition of the New American Bible by Bruce M. Metzger first appeared in The Princeton Seminary Bulletin 64 (March 1971), pp. 90-99.


In 1944 the Bishops’ Committee of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine invited a group of Catholic biblical scholars to undertake the first Roman Catholic translation of the Scriptures in America to be made from the original languages. The committee inherited the work that had been begun in the preceding decade, when many of the same group of scholars started translating the Bible from the Latin Vulgate (the New Testament volume of which had been published in 1941). A few years ago, when the work of the forty or so surviving members of the Committee was drawing to a close, four Protestant scholars were added to the Committee. Three are specialists in Old Testament, and one in New Testament; namely, Frank M. Cross, David Noel Freedmen, John Knox, and James A. Sanders.

During the past two decades several volumes of the translation have appeared, each containing one or more biblical books of the new rendering. The present reissuing of these earlier materials has permitted the introduction of certain modifications. For example, the Book of Genesis, first published in 1952, has been completely retranslated and is now provided with new and expanded exegetical notes that take into account the various sources or literary traditions. 1

The completed work represents capable and dedicated scholarship, and provides for the user a rendering of the Scriptures in modern American idiom, along with brief introductions to each biblical book, many literary and theological annotations, a glossary of biblical theological terms, half a dozen maps, a survey of biblical geography, and the text of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation issued at Vatican II. The following comments on these materials are grouped under the headings of (1) the text chosen as the basis for translation; (2) the literary qualities of the rendering itself; and (3) the introductions and annotations.


In the Old Testament the translators have departed more than a few times from the Masoretic Hebrew text. According to information provided in the Preface, “the Masoretic Hebrew text of 1 and 2 Samuel has in numerous instances been corrected by the more ancient manuscripts Samuel a, b, and c from Cave 4 of Qumran, with the aid of important evidence from the Septuagint in both its oldest form and its Lucianic recension.” In the case of the book of Tobit, which exists in differing recensions, the Committee decided to follow the recension preserved in codex Sinaiticus, which is in substantial agreement with a number of Aramaic and Hebrew fragments of the book recovered from CAve 4 of Qumran. 2 In the case of the Psalms the basic text is not the Masoretic text but, as the Preface states, “one which the editors considered [to be] closer to the original inspired form, namely, the Hebrew text underlying the new Latin Psalter of the Church” (the reference is to the Liber Psalmorum cum Canticis Breviarii Romani, 2d ed., 1945). In comparing the present form of the translation of the Psalms, as well as the annotations, with the earlier publication (1950), one observes only occasional modifications, generally of an inconsequential kind. The enumeration of the Hebrew text is followed, instead of using the double enumeration of the earlier edition according to the Latin Vulgate and Hebrew texts, and the proper names (e.g., “Core,” “Mosoch,” “Cedar”) are conformed to the ones customarily used in Protestant renderings of the Bible (“Korah,” “Meshech,” “Kedar”; such conformation of spelling, it should be mentioned, has been introduced throughout the Bible).

Here and there in the Old Testament, and particularly in the minor prophets, the Committee has rearranged the sequence of verses and sections of material where scholars have reason to think that the original order of lines was accidentally disordered in the transmission of the text. With regard to the Tetragrammaton, happily the translators have used “LORD” rather than the utterly un-English “Yahweh,” which disfigures the Jerusalem Bible (1966).

In the New Testament the Committee adopted as its basic text that of the Nestle-Aland (25th ed., 1963) though “additional help” (the Preface discloses) “was derived from The Greek New Testament (editors Aland, Black, Metzger, Wikgren), produced for use of translators by the United Bible Societies in 1966.” Here and there the Committee departedfrom these texts and occasionally adopted one or another variant reading from the critical apparatus. Sometimes the alternative reading, with an English rendering, is provided in the annotations (as John 5:3 f.), but at other times the reader is simply informed in the annotation that the translators have omitted a certain verse “with many [or, some] MSS” (as Matt. 23:14; Mark 9:44 and 46; Luke 17:36; 23:17). Such irregularities in the handling of variant readings are most unfortunate, and the reader of the second type of annotation will feel irked that he must consult some other edition of the Bible to discover the wording of what was omitted.

Somewhat different is the occasional presence of square brackets, which are used, we are old, to indicate a gloss. In most cases in the New Testament these have been used judiciously, but the enclosing of the third beatitude (Matt. 5:5) within square brackets is hard to justify on grounds of either textual criticism or “Sachkritik”—if indeed the latter is properly within the province of the translator.


As is true of every translation of the Bible that was prepared by a committee, the several books of the Scripture are the work of different translators. In all such cooperative work, therefore, it is not surprising to find differences among the books as respecting the technique of translating and the style or “color” of the rendering. To some extent the reader of the New American Bible is forewarned of such diversity by the statement in the Preface that “the editors did not commit themselves in the synoptic gospels to rendering repeated words or phrases identically.” Undoubtedly the latter statement has primary reference to such frequently occurring words and phrases as καὶ ἐγένετο and εὐθὺς or εὐθέως in Mark. One discovers that the former is often omitted in translation and the latter is rendered in a variety of ways (“immediately,” “at that point,” “from that point,” “then and there,” “at once,” etc.) or is sometimes omitted altogether. Such freedom in rendering can be justified and is in accord with the policy adopted by the New English Bible as well as several other modern speech renderings.

On the other hand it is difficult to justify the many apparently arbitrary divergences in the rendering of several technical or quasi-technical words and phrases such as the following. The word μακάριος is translated “blest” in the Matthean and Lucan beatitudes, whereas in the seven beatitudes of the book of Revelation it is rendered “happy.” The expression ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ occurs forty-six times in Mark and Luke. Sixteen times it is rendered “the kingdom of God,” once “God’s kingdom,” once “kingdom of heaven”(!), and the remaining instances “the reign of God.” Within a single chapter (Luke 18) and even in adjacent verses one finds the following disparate renderings (italicized here): “Let the little children come to me. Do not shut them off. The reign of God belongs to such as these” (verse 16 ). “Trust me when I tell you that whoever does not accept the kingdom of God as a child will not enter into it” (verse 17 ). “It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (verse 25 ). “There is no one who has left home or wife or brothers, parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God …” (verse 29). A similar type of arbitrary divergence occurs in Matthew 3:2 and 4:17 . In the former passage John the Baptizer preaches, “Reform your lives! The reign of God is at hand,” and in the latter Jesus begins to preach, “Reform your lives! The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In both cases the Greek has ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν. It is difficult to believe that the board of translators (who are technically trained scholars) would have been guilty of perpetrating such slip-shod work. One may hazard the guess that, after the scholars had finished their painstaking work, having utilized a concordance and a harmony of the Gospels to make certain that parallels are treated as parallels, the sub-Committee on English “style” made quite arbitrary alterations here and there, which, perhaps because of the press of time in meeting the publisher’s deadline, were not submitted to the scholars for their final approval.

With regard to fitness of language, the book of Psalms gives the impression that meticulous care was taken to provide a rendering with a certain liturgical and literary timbre. In general the language is dignified without being archaic, and expressions are used that evoke a sense of grandeur and the numinous. Only rarely have the translators nodded, as when, for example, in Psalm 24:1 what is meaningful to the eye will almost certainly be confusing to the ear: “The LORD’s are the earth and its fullness …”

In other parts of the Bible the reader is struck by a certain typically American quality of English idiom — plain, flat, and matter of fact. The long and involved Greek sentences in Ephesians (e.g., one sentence extends from 1:3 to 14!) and elsewhere in the epistles are properly broken into smaller units. At the same time one can point out a number of rather uninspired, pedestrian renderings. For example, it is difficult to regard the following as idiomatic or felicitous English: “Be on the lookout against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadduces” (Matt 16:6); “For fear of disedifying them [the kings of the world]” (17:27); “Buy ointment to smear on your eyes” (Rev 3:18).


The introductions and annotations to the books of the Bible display a happy combination of information concerning sources, authorship, date of composition or redaction, and outline of contents, along with attention to the religious and theological dimensions inherent in the material.

The critical position of most of the annotators corresponds in general to views widely held today by scholars of different schools of thought. Although Moses is not to be thought of “as the author of the books of the Pentateuch in the modern sense,” he nevertheless had “a uniquely important role, especially as law giver.” The book of Isaiah is “an anthology of poems composed chiefly by the great prophet, but also by disciples, some of whom came many years after Isaiah.”

Among the deuterocanonical books, Tobit and Judith, along with Esther, are declared to be “examples of free composition—the religious novel used for purposes of edification and instruction. Interest in whatever historical data these books may contain is merely intensified by the addition of vivid details.”

As concerns the Synoptic Problem “both Matthew and Luke, neither of whom can be proved to have copied from the other, seem to have had, besides the Gospel of Mark, another source of some 240 verses which Mark does not include.” The Gospel of MArk originally ended at 16:8, and the so-called longer ending (verses 9-20) was written by someone other than Mark. Matthew’s Gospel was published at about A.D. 85. The authorship of the three Pastoral Epistles is left undecided, with the conclusion that “the problem of the literary authorship has not disproved the authenticity of their content.” Concerning the authorship of 2 Peter the reader is told that “it is not unreasonable to conclude that 2 Peter was written by an unknown author who followed the pseudonumous convention of the time in order to attract readers to his work.” He probably wrote it in the period between 100 and 125. In the introduction to the Epistle to the Ephesians the statement is made that it is “impossible to give a categorical pronouncement for or against authorship by Paul. He was probably not the author of Ephesians in the same sense as of the other epistles such as Romans, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians.” On the other hand, in the annotation on Col. 4:16 the reader is told that “the reference [to a letter coming from Laodicea] is perhaps to a letter Paul wrote to be read in a number of Christian communities in the area of the Lycus Valley, that eventually became known as the letter to the Ephesians.” Concerning the Epistle to the Hebrews, “the identity of its author is a matter of pure speculation. Among those considered, Apollos seems more likely than Luke and Barnabas.”

From this sampling of the critical stance taken by the several commentators one can appreciate how far Roman Catholic scholars in America have moved since the period early in the twentieth century when the Papal Biblical Commission issued such pronouncements as that the book of Isaiah is by one author, the prophet himself; that Matthew’s Gospel was the first to be written, and its composition is prior to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70; that it is not lawful to doubt the Pauline origin of the Epistle to the Hebrews, or the full Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles.

Attention to theological interpretation varies from book to book, but in general it is adequate. For example, the comment on the final words of Luke 2:14 (“Glory to God in high heaven, peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests”) is as follows: “An allusion to the mystery of divine election that bestows the gift of faith upon people of divine choice. To these, the messianic mission of Jesus also brings a special gift of peace, the restored friendship between God and man.”

In this connection it is appropriate also to consider the Glossary of Biblical Theology Terms, consisting of almost three hundred definitions of such terms as Adam, Altar, Amen, Angel, Anger, Anointing—to mention only the first half dozen items. As those who have tried their hand at drawing up simple, short, meaningful definitions of biblical theological terms know, the task is not an easy one. With rare exceptions (the definition of “justification” contains overtones of what should more properly be designated sanctification—but the latter is omitted) the standard attained in the several definitions is high indeed.

The Messianic interpretation of various Old Testament passages is suggested both by annotations and by section headings. The lengthy annotation on Genesis 3:15 concludes with the statement that “the passage can be understood as the first promise of a Redeemer for fallen mankind. The woman’s offspring then is primarily Jesus Christ.” At Genesis 49:10, which by a slight change in the Hebrew text is translated, “while tribute is brought to him [Judah],” one is told that “a somewhat different reading of the Hebrew text would be ‘until he comes to whom it belongs.’ This last has been traditionally understood in a Messianic sense. In any case, the passage foretells the supremacy of the tribe of Judah, which found its fulfillment in the Davidic dynasty and ultimately in the Messianic Son of David, Jesus Christ.” Of Balaam’s prophecy that “a star shall advance from Jacob” (Num 24:17) the reader learns that “many of the Fathers have understood this as a Messianic prophecy, although it is not referred to anywhere in the New Testament; in this sense the star is Christ himself.” Psalm 45 is described as a “Nuptual Ode for the Messianic King,” and the annotation declares that “Catholic tradition, in keeping with the inspired interpretation given in Hebrews 1, 8f., has always understood this psalm as referring, at least in a typical sense, to Christ and his bride, the Church.” Psalm 72 is given the heading, “The Kingdom of the Messiah.” Both Isaiah 52:13–53:12 and Psalm 22 are applied to the Passion of our Lord. The words, “the Lord begot me, the firstborn of his ways” (Prov 8:22), so hotly debated during the Arian controversies in the early Church, is furnished with an annotation that concludes with the statement, “Here that plurality of divine Persons is foreshadowed which was afterward to be fully revealed when Wisdom in the Person of Jesus Christ became incarnate.”

The controversial passage of Isaiah 7:14, which is translated, “The virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel,” has, as one would expect, a lengthy annotation, part of which may be quoted here: “The church has always followed St. Matthew in seeing the transcendent fulfillment of this verse in Christ and his Virgin Mother. The Prophet need not have known the full force latent in his own words; and some Catholic writers have sought a preliminary and partial fulfillment in the conception and birth of the future King Hezekiah, whose mother, at the time Isaiah spoke, would have been a young, unmarried woman (Hebrew, almah). The Holy Spirit was preparing, however, for another Nativity which alone could fulfill the divinely given terms of Immanuel’s mission, and in which the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God was to fulfill also the words of this prophecy in the integral sense intended by the divine Wisdom.”

Although the Song of Songs is correctly regarded as a sheaf of love lyrics to be sung at a Palestinian wedding, the traditional interpretation in terms of the union between Christ and the church is mentioned in the introduction to the book and in the annotation on 5:1.

As regards the book of Wisdom, an annotation states that the passage l :12-20 has often been “applied to the Passion of our Lord; many have understood these verses as a direct prophecy:” On the other hand, the striking passage in 18 :14f. (“When peaceful stillness compassed everything and the night in its swift course was half spent, your all­powerful word from heaven’s royal throne bounded”), which the Fathers misapplied to the birth of Christ, is very properly passed over without any such Messianic annotation, even though the traditional Roman Missal incorporates these words in the Introit of the Mass for the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas as well as in the Introit of the Mass for the Vigil of Epiphany.

In the annotations on the New Testament occasional reference is made to pronouncements by Councils, especially when authoritative interpretations were issued on the meaning of particular passages. Thus at John 3:5 (“No one can enter into God’s kingdom without being begotten of water and Spirit”) the reader is informed that “the Council of Trent declared that water here is not a metaphor but means real water. This passage has had an important role in baptismal theology.” The passage at John 20:22 has the comment, “According to the Second Council of Constantinople, the Spirit was truly given here and the breathing on the disciples was not merely symbolic .... ” Other pronouncements made by the same two councils are quoted on John 20:23, 20:28, and James 5 :15. On John 21:15ff. the reader is told that “the First Vatican Council cited this verse in defining that the risen Jesus gave Peter the jurisdiction of supreme shepherd and ruler over the whole Rock.” In this connection it is significant that the annotator of Matt. 16:16-20 adopts the view advocated by Oscar Cullmann, that the account of Jesus’ interrogation of the disciples at Caesarea Philippi, which culminated in Peter’s confession, “You are the Messiah,” and in Jesus’ declaration that he would build his church on Peter the Rock, is probably a misplaced account of a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples.

From what has been cited above, it is clear that the point of view of the annotators is that of a moderately advanced critical position, combined with faithful adherence to traditional dogmatic and ecclesiastical theology.

If one now considers the literary style of the introductions and annotations, it ought to be stated that, in general, they are clearly and concisely formulated, but are lacking in any kind of literary grace. Here and there an unidiomatic expression occurs; for example, at Luke 1:5–2:52 the annotator says that the infancy narrative “centers about the similarity and the contrast between the religious mission of John the Baptizer and that of Jesus.” But something cannot center about another, despite the growing frequency of this illogical usage of English. The sub-standard usage of “where” instead of “when” occurs in the annotation on John 7:53ff. The comment on John 7:37f., “… there is some MS evidence for the omission of greatest as a copyist’s clarification,” is misleading in the extreme. Instead of implying that copyists may have omitted the word greatest [actually two words are involved, and greatest] in order to clarify the passage, the annotator (who is here condensing Raymond E. Brown’s commentary) must have intended to say that the words may have been previously added by a copyist in order to clarify the meaning of the Evangelist, and that some modern scholars prefer to omit them.

Although the annotator on the Fourth Gospel correctly uses the abbreviation “A.D.” before the numeral designating years, most other annotators illogically place the letters alter the numeral (since “AD.” stands for the Latin phrase “in the year of the Lord,” the numeral of the year properly follows the abbreviation). Another inconsistency involves the meaning of the Aramaic phrase Maranatha. The annotator on the words, “Come, Lord Jesus,” in Rev. 22:20, appropriately refers to I Cor. 16:22 and divides the expression into the two words Marana tha, which he correctly translates, “Our Lord, come!” The annotator on I Cor. 16:22, however, is not sure whether the phrase should be divided Marana tha, meaning “Lord, come,” or Maran atha, which he says means, “The Lord is coming.” The transliterated form atha, however, represents not the present tense bur the preterit, and therefore must mean “has come.”

Another kind of inconsistency occurs in the annotation on Deut. 24:1, where Christ’s words concerning divorce are quoted in a form quite different from that given at Matt. 19:8f. (The explanation must be that the annotator was working with the 1941 Confraternity New Testament.)


By way of conclusion several remarks can be made in comparing the New American Bible (NAB) with the Revised Standard Version (RSV, 1946-1952), the Jerusalem Bible (JB, 1966), and the New English Bible (NEB, 1961-1970). 3

It goes without saying that the Roman Catholic versions have the dozen or so books which Catholics call deuterocanonical (and which Protestants call apocryphal) interlarded among the books of the Hebrew canon of the Old Testament. Protestants, of course, have access to the same books (plus 11 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh), for they were translated by the RSV and the NEB Committees and are available in separate volumes, or in editions of the Bible which segregate them from the books regarded as canonical by Protestants.

Another difference, perhaps less obvious to the casual user, between the two Protestant and the two Roman Catholic versions is that the latter, in the strict sense, have no alternative translations. 4 — which are a familiar feature of both Protestant sponsored versions. Of course, since by canon law Catholic Bibles must be provided with comments, such alternative renderings, as well as alternative readings of the manuscripts, can be placed—and several are placed—among the annotations.

As for the number and the length of the annotations in the two Roman Catholic Bibles, the NAB is considerably more sparing than the JB, and very, very much briefer in the introductions to the several biblical books and groups of books.

The style of the English in the JB and the NEB, as one would expect from their having been produced in Great Britain, is markedly more elevated than that of the NAB. Unlike the other three versions, the RSV retains many graceful rhythms and cadences that derive from the Tyndale and King James tradition, some of which are familiar expressions embedded in English literature. In prayers to the Deity both the RSV and the NEB retain the use of “thou,” “thee,” and “thine,” with the second person singular forms of verbs, whereas the two Roman Catholic versions make no distinction between speech addressed to God and to men.

All in all, it is cause for satisfaction that there is now available on the market another standard version of the Scriptures in English embodying the insights and contributions of American Catholic biblical scholars. The satisfaction, however, is somewhat tempered by the utterly misleading statements made by the publisher concerning the new version. On the front of the dust jacket one reads the astounding statement: “The first complete American Version of Holy Scripture translated directly from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.” Surely the publisher knows that the Revised Standard Version (which received the imprimatur of Cardinal Cushing in this country and of Archbishop Gordon Gray of Britain) was translated by American scholars from the original languages. Earlier in the century J. M. Powis Smith, E. J. Goodspeed and other American scholars finished the “Chicago” Bible, which (with the deuterocanonical books) was issued as The Complete Bible, an American Translation. Furthermore, on the inside front flap of the dust jacket the first sentence begins, “The New American Bible, the first completely American translation of Holy Scripture to be made available, …” This statement, by making no reference to the original languages, considerably enlarges the scope of the publisher’s claim and is therefore more erroneous than the previous one. What of the translation made by John Eliot in 1663 from the English text of the King James version for the Algonquin Indians of Massachusetts? What of American translations made from the Latin Vulgate into English? What of Spanish versions made by American translators? If, however, in mitigation one were to suggest that perhaps the publisher really meant to claim that the NAB is the first completely American translation undertaken by Roman Catholics, even this would be untrue. In 1859 Dr. Francis Patrick Kenrick, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Philadelphia, completed a task lasting for over a decade and published the final volume of his translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate. The moral of all this is that exaggerated promotional fanfare can cast a cloud over the integrity of an honest piece of work.

1. The curious typographical error that had crept into the first printing of Leviticus (1952) has been, of course, long since corrected. The text of Lev. 11:29-30 once read, by a printer’s error, as follows: “Of the creatures that swarm on the ground, the following are unclean for you: the rat, the mouse, the various kinds of lizards, the gecko, the chameleon, the agama, the skunk, and the mole.” The translators had used the little-known word skink, which was “corrected” by the printer into something that made more sense to him!

2. In the New English Bible the book of Tobit was translated from the same Greek recension, whereas in the Revised Standard version the rendering was made from the Greek text of codices Vaticanus and Alexandrinus.

3. Extended reviews of each of these, written by the present reviewer, are available in the Princeton Seminary Bulletin: for the RSV, vol. 39, no. 4 (1946), pp. 18-23; for the ]B, vol. 60, no. 2 (1967), pp. 45-48; and for the NEB, vol, 55. no. 1 (1961), pp. 56-63 and vol. 63, no. 1 (1970), pp. 99-104.

4. Near the close of the Preface the NAB Committee states: “The omission of alternative translations does not mean that the translators think them without merit, but only that in every case they had to make a choice.”