Photograph: Guest poster, Alec Seelau, is a former agnostic turned Protestant, whose search for the objective truth led him to Catholicism. When he isn’t calling out heretics in his free time, he is teaching RCIA, drinking too much coffee, or spending time with his family.
All the readily available Catholic Bible translations in English are perfectly fine for devotion, and many of them are more than adequate for casual study. A good number of translations should be consulted when engaging in serious study, but the fact is that it’s unlikely that any of the modern translations are going to lead you headlong into heresy, any more than the original documents themselves would.
I very often recommend the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSV-CE), or the Second Edition of the same (RSV-2CE) to people who ask what Bible they should pick up. I sometimes recommend the New American Bible or the Revised Edition of the same (NAB and NABRE, respectively) if the reader wants something closer to the Lectionary used in Mass, as long as they promise me they won’t read the often problematic commentary and notes that accompany those translations. If you read the Jerusalem Bible, I imagine you’re a little more on the poetic side; the Confraternity edition, you’re probably into more formal language and touched with a bit of nostalgia. If you prefer the Douay Rheims, then I fancy you a lover of Shakespeare or a convert from a King James-only brand of Protestantism.
I read all these translations, and more, but I will admit that none of them pass my true litmus test. There are hundreds of passages I might rightly check in looking for a Bible translation I can live with, but in the process of sifting Bible translations for my personal use, I will share my top three, quick-and-dirty tests.
Like a… Young Woman?
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el.” Isaiah 7:14, RSV-2CE
This one is used by Evangelical Protestants and Catholics alike to check for a translator’s theological bent in the Christological prophecy of the Virgin Birth found in Isaiah. With a word that can be translated variously (and correctly) as “young woman”, “girl”, “maiden”, “virgin”, etc., it is helpful to read this passage and see if the translator chose a word that reflects the (fulfilled!) Christological reality of this passage. The RSV-CE, for example, uses “young woman” with a footnote suggesting “virgin” as an alternate.
Translation is hard work, and very often context does not give sufficient evidence for how a passage is best translated. Indeed, sometimes passages just can’t be adequately translated from one language to another. In cases where a translator must choose a word from among many, there is no avoiding bias. There is no “neutral” way to translate this passage—either you believe it points to a fulfilled prophecy in Our Lady and Jesus, or you don’t—and you translate accordingly. Just like being subject to the bias of a history book writer (even if he only writes names and dates, the history author is still using his bias to determine which names and dates are actually important), when we read the Scriptures we are subject to the translator’s bias.
You’re Full of It
“And he came to her and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” Luke 1:28, RSV-2CE
Here we have the quintessential Catholic litmus test for a Bible. Is Mary “full of grace”, or simply a “highly favored one”? There is a lot more going on here than we have time to get into, but suffice it to say that the traditional “gratia plena”—“full of grace”—has a lot of history behind it, and a lot more meaning is packed into that phrase than you can probably imagine. This is one of those passages that, like Isaiah 7:14, is highly politicized. Unlike Isaiah 7:14, however, Luke 1:28 isn’t just about belief in the Virgin Birth and fulfilled prophecies of Christ–it speaks to the heart of our very understanding of Our Lady and her place in salvation history. Most Protestants are on board with Christological prophecies, but far fewer are ready to involve Our Lady in the economy of salvation, and so Luke 1:28 suffers from a lot more polarization. Even the USCCB-produced NAB and the NABRE render the phrase “favored one”. The whole affair is like a Catholic Scopes Monkey Trial.
Sift All Y’all Like Wheat
“And the Lord said: Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.” Luke 22:31-32, Douay Rheims
This one is less political and biased, and more an issue of limitations of modern English. Old translations, like the Douay Rheims above, preserve the distinction in English between second personal singular and second person plural. It’s easy—if you see thou/thee/thy/thine, we are talking to or about ONE person. If you see ye/you/your/yours, we are talking to or about MULTIPLE people. So who did Satan want to sift like wheat? The Douay Rheims tells us “you”, meaning, though he specifically is speaking to Simon Peter, Satan has desired to have all of Jesus apostles. In the New Southern Translation, Jesus would say, “Listen up, Pete—the devil wants to sift all y’all like wheat.”
That is what makes Jesus next statement more remarkable. Who did Jesus pray for, and for their faith to be preserved? “I have prayed for thee [singular, referring to Simon Peter alone], that thy faith [Peter’s faith] fail not; and thou [Peter], being once converted, confirm thy [Peter’s] brethren.” This passage has much to say about the primacy of Peter and the papacy in relation to the college of bishops. It’s a very papal passage, and that’s often lost in modern English where we use the generic “you” for both singular and plural.
Look at the RSV-CE: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” The most obvious interpretation, based on this rendering, is that Satan demanded to have Peter, and Jesus said, “No.” Peter will be tested and will pull through (because of Jesus’ prayer) and will confirm the brethren. However, what we know really happened (from the Douay Rheims and others) is that Satan demanded to test them all, and that Jesus *allowed* Satan to sift them *all* like wheat, except for Peter; He preserved Peter alone, so that Peter could go back and confirm, strengthen, and re-establish their faith through his own, supernaturally preserved faith. The RSV-CE is somewhat inconsistent, in that it preserves the traditional second person singular when speaking about God, yet it does not preserve the second personal singular when talking about people. Thus, in this passage, the retention of the more formal sounding English isn’t used, and the meaning is largely lost.
Let’s examine one final rendering of this passage—one in modern English that manages to maintain the meaning, even if through some linguistic gymnastics. The NAB and NABRE both produce: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.” The qualifier “all” in “all of you”, or “own” in “your own faith”, are not strictly present in the text, but are justified due to the lack of clarity otherwise allowed by modern English.
The Perfect Translation
We all know there is no perfect translation. One could argue that the Douay Rheims passes my three litmus tests above. This is true, and while I do love Shakespeare and while I did spend a good stint of my time in the Protestant realm heavily utilizing the King James Version, the fact is that the Douay Rheims both employs some confusingly archaic language, and also has phrasing that was modified over time (the Douay Rheims we use today is actually a heavily modified version of the original, revised by Bishop Challoner in the late 19th century) that sometimes, while not linguistically incorrect, renders a passage in a way that doesn’t always reveal its true character. For example, the choice to render a Hebrew word as “anointed one” in the Old Testament and a Greek word as “Christ” in the New Testament, even though we, as Christians, believe they are speaking of the same anointed one—Jesus, the Christ.
With the development of English as a living language, I don’t know that even the original Douay Rheims would clarify much, particularly with its dogged adherence to the word order of the Clementine Vulgate (word order doesn’t matter in Latin, so transposing Latin word order straight into English can be, at the very least, downright confusing). Yes, if Challoner’s Douay Rheims or the RSV-CE used the word “X” instead of “Y” it would be more clarifying / Christological / “Catholic” / whatever, but my reading it in the original Douay Rheims, in the middle of a sentence using a convoluted Latin word order, doesn’t necessarily help me that much, especially in my daily devotional reading.
So perhaps it could be said that the weakness of many modern translations is substantive, and the weakness of many older translations is stylistic, but the fact remains that I don’t know of one that satisfies my requirements for both form and function to the degree that I would like. Some people have a great fear of “reading in” to the text something that isn’t there. This is a real danger, but of greater concern for a Protestant who bases his beliefs “solely on the Bible.” The Church does not have a right to corrupt a Bible translation, but she does have the right to interpret the Bible, infallibly, for the edification of the faithful. In the many, many places where translators have legitimate liberty to choose how to render a word, a phrase, or a passage, I would like to see a translation that is unabashedly Catholic and reflects a Catholic translational bias. The Church has the right to translate the Scriptures for clarity in that way, and even if it would produce a translation that would be maligned as being “partisan” by non-Catholics, the fact remains that it would serve as a good devotional and a legitimate teaching tool, teaching both the faithful and outsiders alike what the Catholic Church believes about each passage. It would accomplish this, not through any extra commentary, but through the very rendering of the text itself, marrying legitimate scholarship with the inerrant and enduring interpretation of the Church. Alas, until that dream becomes a reality, perhaps I should brush up on my Latin, dust off my Clementine Vulgate, and dive in.
Pax Vobiscum, Nerds!