Category Archives: Translation

What is the Catholic/Ecumenical “Message”?

I just received a copy of the new Catholic/Ecumenical Messsage Bible from the publisher. It came out in 2013, so I have no idea why they’re promoting it right now. This book includes Protestant seminary-professor-turned-pastor Eugene Peterson’s very loose translation of the Protestant canon and a new translation of the deuterocanon by the Catholic William Griffin.message

The Message and Canon Law

I have to say the first thing that struck me was the blurbs on the back include two Catholic priests and an Episcopalian bishop. Notably absent was the endorsement of a Catholic bishop. That’s probably because under Canon Law Catholic Bibles are supposed to be approved by the national bishops’ conference. In the case of the U.S., that means the USCCB. The relevant canons are as follows:

Can. 825 §1. Books of the sacred scriptures cannot be published unless the Apostolic See or the conference of bishops has approved them. For the publication of their translations into the vernacular, it is also required that they be approved by the same authority and provided with necessary and sufficient annotations.
 2. With the permission of the conference of bishops, Catholic members of the Christian faithful in collaboration with separated brothers and sisters can prepare and publish translations of the sacred scriptures provided with appropriate annotations.

These laws mean that a private Catholic individual is not supposed to publish his own translation of the Bible without appropriate ecclesiastical permission, even if that person is working on a Bible-publishing project in conjunction with Protestants.

When I asked the publisher of this Catholic/Ecumenical Message about this, I was told that they didn’t feel the need to request permission from the USCCB because the Message is a a “paraphrasal translation” only meant to supplement more formal translations. But in fact, Eugene Peterson is no slouch in biblical languages. He used to teach Greek and Hebrew and so the Message is not really a paraphrase at all, but a very, very loose (like spaghetti-noodle-knot-loose) translation of the original languages.

Canon law does not grant a dispensation, exception or legal loophole in the approval process to “informal” or “paraphrasal” translations of the Bible. Beyond that, since 1984, canon law has insisted that Catholic Bibles have “necessary and sufficient annotations.” That doesn’t mean that every Bible has to be a 3,000 page study Bible, but that Bibles do need to include some notes on the difficulties and obscurities in the text, particularly at places where people could easily get confused. The New American Bible, the Jerusalem Bible and even the RSV-CE provide these types of annotations.

Now, I’m no canon lawyer, but I must admit I do have misgivings about the publication of this “Catholic/Ecumenical Message” Bible without the approval of the bishops’ conference and with no imprimatur (The imprimatur indicates ecclesiastical approval for other religious books and is different from a bishops’ conference’s approval of a Bible translation).


The Message and Original Languages

            While Eugene Peterson translated from the original languages, the Catholic scholar who translated the deuterocanon, William Griffin, chose a different tack. I’ll give it to you in his own words:

            For my primary text, I could have used the Hebrew or, where necessary, the Greek manuscripts; but I didn’t. As I’ve already indicated, they seem to me to be the exclusive possession of the biblical scholars. Instead, I chose the Latin Vulgate—not the one put together by Jerome in the fourth century, but the revised and expanded edition called Nova Vulgata (New Vulgate) published in 1998.

Pope John Paul II wrote a brief preface to that translation in which he declared and proclaimed that the Nova Vulgata may be used as the authentic text when translating into English, especially in the Sacred Liturgy. And so that’s what I used.

Um, well, this is an interesting perspective, but I cannot agree with it. While Latin is the liturgical language of the Western Chruch, none of the Bible was written in Latin, so it’s a bit tendentious to suggest that it’s the best source for our vernacular translations.

Griffin refers to this little line in John Paul II’s Scripturarum Thesaurus (Apr 25, 1979):

This New Vulgate edition will also be of such a nature that vernacular translations, which are destined for liturgical and pastoral use, may be referred to it.

This line does not make the Nova Vulgata the base text for new Bible translations. It certainly does not override earlier magisterial statements about the importance of going back to the original languages. In fact, the Vatican has repeatedly encouraged the study of original languages and has often mandated that all vernacular translations of Scripture start with the Greek and Hebrew.

Pope Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu (Sep 30, 1943) insisted on the primacy of the original languages:

 …therefore ought we to explain the original text which, having been written by the inspired author himself, has more authority and greater weight than any even the very best translation, whether ancient or modern…

Pius XII is gentle in his mode of expression, but he’s basically saying that the original Greek and Hebrew texts of Scripture trump the Latin Vulgate (an “ancient translation”). His encyclical set off a tidal wave of new translations from the original languages.

Dei Verbum from Vatican II takes a similar line:

 …the Church by her authority and 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…

A pope and a Council both point to biblical translation from the original languages. Most Catholic Bibles now published all draw from Greek and Hebrew directly.

Late in the pontificate of John Paul II, a further instruction on translation for liturgical purposes was given. This document, Liturgiam authenticam (Mar 28, 2001), mandates:

Furthermore, it is not permissible that the translations be produced from other translations already made into other languages; rather, the new translations must be made directly from the original texts, namely the Latin, as regards the texts of ecclesiastical composition, or the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, as the case may be, as regards the texts of Sacred Scripture.Furthermore, in the preparation of these translations for liturgical use, theNova Vulgata Editio, promulgated by the Apostolic See, is normally to be consulted as an auxiliary tool, in a manner described elsewhere in this Instruction, in order to maintain the tradition of interpretation that is proper to the Latin Liturgy.

In case there was any lack of clarity on this point, the Congregation for Divine Worship (Nov 5, 2001) issued a letter where they further clarified the mandate

Given the nature of certain statements that have entered the public domain through articles, internet postings and the like, the scope for misunderstanding of the Instruction on the basis of a superficial reading has unfortunately increased. Indeed, some even seem to have reached the erroneous conclusion that the Instruction insists on a translation of the Bible from the Latin Nova Vulgata rather than from the original biblical languages. Such an interpretation is contrary to the Instruction’s explicit wording in n. 24, according to which all texts for use in the Liturgy “must be made directly from the original texts, namely the Latin, as regards the texts of ecclesiastical composition, or the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, as the case may be, as regards the texts of Sacred Scripture”. The Instruction in fact provides a clearer statement on the use of the original biblical texts as the basis for liturgical translation than the norms previously published in the Instruction Inter Oecumenici, n. 40a, published on 26 September 1964 (Acta Apostolicae Sedis 56 [1964] 885).

The point of piling up all these quotations is to say that the Catholic approach to Bible translation is to go back to Greek and Hebrew and then translate directly into the vernacular. The Nova Vulgata is helpful for indicating which books are to be included and which verses (where there are textual problems), it serves as the norm for traditional liturgical formulation, but it does not serve as the basis for new translations and it has not been commended to us as such by the magisterium. In fact, quite the opposite! Catholics should be reading Bibles translated from Greek and Hebrew.


The Message and Translation Philosophy

I readily admit that there are different legitimate translation philosophies and goals. They are usually put on a spectrum between the woodenly literal (like the NASB) and dynamic equivalence (Jerusalem). Usually in a separate category are the paraphrases like the Living Bible, which is truly a paraphrase of an English translation (the ASV). The Message tries to walk the line between paraphrase and dynamic equivalence. The point is to deliver to modern readers an intelligible, readable Bible that makes more sense than the supposedly clunky language of a typical Bible translation. Even Eugene Peterson did not want The Message to replace other translations or even to be read aloud in church services. He intended it as a study tool.

Just to give you a sense for how The Message upends traditional Catholic phrasing of biblical passages for a rather underwhelming “something else.” Take a look at the angel Gabriel’s greeting to theVirgin Mary:

The Message
RSV (for comparison) – Luke 1:28
Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.
full of grace,
the Lord is with you!


Need I say more?

The Catholic/Ecumenical Message does not carry ecclesiastical approval, translates the deuterocanonical books from a Latin translation and embraces a dubious translation philosophy. I’d spend your next Amazon gift card on something else.

Oh, and if you do need a very simplistic translation for a young person or someone who has trouble with English, take a look at the Good News Translation (also known as Today’s English Version) or the Contemporary English Version, both from the American Bible Society and both with ecclesiastical approval from the USCCB.


The Mysterious Disappearance of Wisdom 18:9b

Image: Wikipedia

I was studying this Sunday’s first reading, Wisdom 18:6-9 while working on my weekly column and noticed something rather odd: The second half of Wisdom 18:9 is simply missing from the text. The full verse in the NAB is:

For in secret the holy children of the good were offering sacrifice
and carried out with one mind the divine institution,
So that your holy ones should share alike the same blessings and dangers,
once they had sung the ancestral hymns of praise.

Yet the English Lectionary only includes:

For in secret the holy children of the good were offering sacrifice
and carried out with one mind the divine institution,

Now, often the Lectionary will include partial verses, but they are always indicated by a letter, so you might have Gen 18:1-10a, for example. But in this case, there is no letter indicated by the verse reference. I thought this mystery might call for a little Catholic Bible Student investigation, so I dug up a copy of the Ordo Lectionum Missio, editio typica altera from 1981. This is the official Latin listing of the Lectionary readings. And sure enough for Lectionary #117, Wisdom 18:6-9 are listed not 18:6-9a.


The abbreviation “Sap” is for “Sapientia,” Wisdom. After seeing this, I thought that the difference might be in the versification of the Nova Vulgata, on which the 1981 Lectionary is based. But no, the verse appears in full in the Nova Vulgata:

Absconse enim sacrificabant iusti pueri bonorum
et divinitatis legem in concordia disposuerunt;
similiter et bona et pericula recepturos sanctos
patrum iam ante decantantes laudes. (Wisdom 18:9)

You’ll also notice that the Ordo Lectionum also gives an “incipit” (Nox liberationis…) that clarifies the subject of the first line by adding a single word and omitting the first word of verse 6.

But in the end, we’re left with a puzzle. Why would Wisdom 18:9b be omitted from the reading in the English translation? Here are possible theories: (a) the Latin Lectionary actually omits the lines and the English translators followed suit, (b) the English translators made a mistake by omitting them, (c) the lines struck the English translators as problematic, so they deliberately omitted them. If we go with Theory C here, I still don’t understand why the lines would be problematic–perhaps because they mention the fact that the saints will share in dangers as well as good things?

Yet many other parts of Scripture talk about us sharing in suffering, so I can’t think that’s the issue here. In fact, the lines are included in the Spanish edition of this reading. I’d be curious to look at Lectionaries in other languages to see if these lines are present or omitted, but for now we’ll have to chalk this one up as a mystery!


Owl image credit: By Athene_noctua_(portrait).jpg: Trebol-a derivative work:Stemonitis (Athene_noctua_(portrait).jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons 


Akeldama – Aramaic in the New Testament (Post #6)

Over time, I’ve been doing a little series of posts on Aramaic in the New Testament. This is the sixth post.

This week, I came across an Aramaic term that I just couldn’t pass up. In Acts 1, we get a rather gruesome description of Judas’ suicide after his betrayal of Jesus. We’re told that the horrific hanging happened in a particular places called “Akeldama.” Here’s the passage:

18 (Now this man bought a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.
19 And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) (Act 1:18-19 RSV)

Note on the Location

You can go look up the location, but basically it was and is a field of red clay dirt that was used by artisans in antiquity as a natural resource for making clay pots. In Matthew 27, 7, 10, the place is referred to as the “Potter’s Field” (Greek: τὸν ἀγρὸν τοῦ κεραμέως), hence the notion that the clay dirt was used for making clay pots. When it is called “field of blood” in Acts 1, the origin of the term might not be Judas’ suicide, but rather the red color of the dirt. The other thing to say is that Matthew and Acts differ on who purchased the field. In Acts, Judas bought the field, but in Matthew 27:7, the priests who paid Judas to betray Jesus bought the field to bury him. Either way, the location is still around and orthodox Christians have built a monastery on the place creatively nicknamed “Aceldama Monastery.” The field has also been used as a burial place.

Note on the Aramaic Word “Akeldama”

Simply, the word Akeldama transliterates the Greek “Ἁκελδαμάχ” (transliterated more precisely, Hakeldamach, note the appropriate rough breathing) which transliterates a combination of two Aramaic words: חֲקָל דְּמָא (chaqal dema). Some Greek manuscripts have a better spelling: Ἁκελδαμά (Act 1:19). Oddly, the English eliminates the Greek rough breathing which aims to transliterate the consonant chet. The word, dema or dma, means “blood” and appears many times in various combinations in Aramaic texts, as listed in the online Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon. Here is the entry from Jastrow’s dictionary:



So the word, dam or dema, normally means blood, but can also refer to other fluids. The other word is chaqal, which means field. Again, CAL has a great listing and here’s Jastrow:


The word “Akeldama” represents then, the construct chain חֲקָל דְּמָא (chaqal dema). In which the first word, chaqal  is masculine singular construct and dema is masculine singular emphatic. The construct chain is definite since it is a proper noun–like “the king of Persia” in Ezra 4:24–hence “the Field of (the) Blood” is the best translation. Note that Luke refers to “their own dialect” (ta idia dialekto auton), which indicates both he and his intended reader, Theophilus, are not part of the group of native Aramaic speakers, but native Greek speakers.


I suppose there’s no rocket science involved in explaining Akeldama. I think the only thing to say is that the English could do a better job transliterating it – perhaps as Halkeldema. The word simply means what Luke says it means “field of blood.”


What is the Meaning of “Deep calls to Deep”?

Psalm 42:7 inspires the imagination, but do we actually get the translation right? Do we really understand what this verse means?

I’ll quote the King James here:

Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts:
all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me.

Ok, so for an updated-sounding translation, here’s the ESV:

Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.

Often, people use this verse to describe the nature of prayer–a “calling out” from deep within oneself to deep within God. You can get a sense for it from the songs which quote this verse like “Deep Calls to Deep” by Mary-Kathryn or Matt Redman’s song by the same name. You can get a sense for the Christian preaching inspired by this line from Benny Hinn talking about intimacy with God. There are many other sermons, homilies, songs and inspiring Christian reflections on this phrase. But, do we really get it right? I think not.

The typical interpretation in these Christian reflections tries to associate the phrase to a personal communication between God and the soul. However, I think our Psalmist is actually trying to poetically describe water. Yep, water. Notice the rest of the verse about waterfalls and waves. The phrase “tehom el-tehom qore“. The ever-helpful Blue Letter Bible gives us a dictionary entry on the significant word here, tehom “deep”:



Notice the relevant line: “‘wave calleth unto wave,’ i. e. wave follows wave without intermission.” The word tehom normally is referring to a big body of water like the sea. Here though, the psalmist is talking about moving water, wave after wave, or in the case of a waterfall, crash after crash of the water from above. “Deep calls to deep” describes as best as a poet can the awesome power, repeated crashing and visual impact of wave after wave, not the cry of the heart.

Now of course, this verse does come in the context of a poem about intimacy with God, which describes thirst for God, the joy of his presence and the terror of his loss. It deals with the depths of despair and conflict and the agony of tearful longing for God. But the personal dimension is at the end of this verse rather than the beginning. It says: “your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” The Psalmist feels overwhelmed by the darkness and despair he is experiencing, hitting him with wave after wave. He is mourning and oppressed (v. 9). He seeks hope, but finds taunting. His prayer is to be released from the overwhelming waters of darkness into intimate union with God. So, yes, this Psalm is about intimacy with God, but somehow we have a hard time getting the details right.


Is Christ All? How to Translate Colossians 3:11

Colossians 3:11 gives us one of Paul’s lists of formerly-significant people boundaries to indicate that now in Christ, we are all one and these boundaries no longer matter. The text reads:

 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Col 3:11 ESV)

ὅπου οὐκ ἔνι Ἕλλην καὶ Ἰουδαῖος, περιτομὴ καὶ ἀκροβυστία, βάρβαρος, Σκύθης, δοῦλος, ἐλεύθερος, ἀλλὰ [τὰ] πάντα καὶ ἐν πᾶσιν Χριστός.

Unfortunately, the very last part of the verse always sounds weird. I mean, “Christ is all”–what does that mean? The translations do not deviate much from this line. I’m sure that lots of translators have toiled over this verse, so I don’t mean to scoff at their hard work or claim any sort of omniscience. I merely want to make a suggestion. The copula, the verb of being, is absent in the Greek and therefore always inserted in the translations. Latin can follow the Greek without an “is”: “…sed omnia et in omnibus Christus.” If all I had was that snippet and no context, I’d be very tempted to translate either the Latin or Greek as “…but all and in all, Christ” or “…but all and Christ in all.” So, why not translate the verse that way?

To me it seems that list of divisions Paul rattles off between Greek and Jew, slave and free and so one simply terminates at panta, all. Let’s try another sentence with the same structure to see if this could work: “Here there is no longer short and tall, big and small, serious and silly, but everybody and in everybody is ice cream.” Doesn’t it seem that the final term in my list, everybody, could function as the terminus of the list rather than as a predicate nominative of “ice cream”? “Everybody is ice cream” sounds strange.

To me it seems that the drive to translate our phrase as “Christ is all and in all” comes from the context and the idea of putting on Christ and especially “Christ who is your life” in verse 4. But it really seems like an unnecessary stretch. Why does the adversative, alla, but, have to create a new independent clause, couldn’t it just be Paul’s way of punctuating the turning point in the comparison?: Before, we had all kinds of divisions that divided us, but now we are one. Lastly again, it comes back to trying to make sense of the “Christ is all” statement. What does that even mean? Paul is certainly not pantheist or something, so what could such a statement convey, that every Christian is in some mysterious way, Christ?? I’d prefer that Paul is simply saying in Christ, the divisions fall away and only “all/everybody” is left and in everybody dwells Christ. That seems to fit the grammatical demands and Paul’s theology. Inserting an “is” to me seems an overly creative translation twist.

(Of course, perhaps I’m overlooking something important, so please comment if you can explain why “Christ is all” is the best translation here.)


Does Lust Need a Purpose?

Aramaic in the New Testament (Post #5)



Matthew 5:28 records Jesus’ famous saying about the sinfulness of lust. Often it sounds like you can seriously sin by accident. Usually, the translation sounds something like this:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt 5:27-28 NAB)

Greek Background

However, a closer inspection of the Greek and the various translations reveals a difficulty. The Greek does not say “look at a woman with lust.” Rather, it says “…look at a woman in order to lust [after her]” or “…look at a woman for the purpose of lust.” In Greek grammar, this is what we call a purpose clause, indicated by the short words, pros to, plus an infinitive in the Greek. A good example is in Ephesians 6:11 – “Put on the full armor of God in order that you may be able to stand against the scheming of the devil” (my trans.).

Aramaic Background

Recent grammarians have, however, relied on a hypothetical Aramaic background to this Greek saying. Rather than translating the phrase as a purpose clause, they have looked to a possible Aramaic construction, where the pros to represents an Aramaic lamed, a letter that functions as a particle indicating one of any number of things: a genitive relationship, direct object, indirect object, ethical dative, purpose, direction (See Alger Johns, A Short Grammar of Biblical Aramaic, p. 11). Fr. Maximilian Zerwick explains the supposed Aramaic background of pros to in his Biblical Greek:

“Indeed the sense need not even be consecutive; in the passage in question [Matt 5:28] one would expect the sense ‘with concupiscence’ simply, and this may in fact be the sense intended, if the προσ το [pros to] can be understood as a servile rendering of a Semitic (Hebrew or Aramaic) le + infinitive which, though of it means ‘to(wards)…’ and so has final or consecutive sense, may also be used without any such connotation and simply with the sense ‘…-ing.’ (p. 135, sec. 391)

Notably, Fr. Zerwick relies a lot on what “one would expect.” The difference between the two translation options might seem inconsequential, but I think there’s an significant theological principle at stake.

Theology of Intention

What’s important here from a moral theology perspective is intention. When this passage is translated based on a hypothetical Aramaic reconstruction, rather than on the actual Greek text, it sounds as if one can seriously sin by accident. The typical translation weakens the intentionality of the act being indicated by the Greek grammar, making lust sound like an almost unintentional part of “looking” since “with lust” (or in RSV “lustfully”) merely functions as an adverb modifying the verb “to look.” But if it is translated as a purpose clause, which follows the Greek grammar most closely, then the teaching indicates that a moral intention must be involved—a decision to look for the purpose of lust or in order to lust.

A Better Translation?

And, if you really want to consider the Aramaic background, the le particle also works to indicate purpose, as I listed out above. So you can have your Aramaic cake and eat it too. The ESV translation, in my opinion, strikes the balance right, with this translation:

But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Mat 5:28 ESV)

You can’t sin by accident. Lust involves an intentional choice to commit evil, to violate God’s commandments.


What is “character” in Romans 5:4?

In Romans 5, St. Paul strings together several virtues wherein each leads to the next. Here’s the passage:

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame…(Romans 5:3-5a)

This is one of those passages that could simply sound like a nice saying, rather than having theological meat on the bones. I was especially interested in what Paul means by “character.” What is that? 031303-N-3228G-001.jpg

The Greek word for character is dokime (δοκιμη). This word is related to a bunch of words all having to do with approval: dokimazo (to prove or scrutinize), dokeo (to think, suppose), dokimos (accepted). The word has to do with outside approval. Paul is not talking about self-esteem, but moral approval by others–I think we are safe to say, especially the moral approval of God.

Notably Paul uses the word several other times: 2 Cor 2:9, 8:3, 9:13; Phil 2:22. He places an emphasis on this idea of testing or proving one’s character. For him, the true test of character is suffering. If a person can endure “affliction” or persecution or suffering for the sake of the Gospel and maintain their faithfulness to the truth, then they are “approved.” Interestingly, Liddell-Scott-Jones does not cite examples of this word prior to St. Paul. Perhaps it was a favorite of his.

This whole concept reminds me of spy movies where a spy is captured and tortured for information. The heroic ones stick it out and keep their mouth shut, while the cowards cough up secrets before the pain is too much for them to bear.

To me, this is why experience is so valuable. A person with great experience of life who has kept the faith stands as an example of proven character. Not all Christians will suffer at the hands of persecutors, but perseverance in the face of any suffering, whether through physical illness, moral trials or even emotional pain, can be an occasion for spiritual growth and growth in dokime.



Thomas a Kempis in Dei Verbum?

One of the famous phrases of the Second Vatican Council that has always stuck in my mind is from Dei Verbum, which teaches that “Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written” (section 12). That is the translation from the Vatican website. The Latin reads, “Sacra Scriptura eodem Spiritu quo scripta est etiam legenda et interpretanda sit.” Notably, the phrase “eodem Spiritu” means “same Spirit” not “sacred Spirit.” The old Walter Abbot translation gets this right and so does the Catechism (section 111). But the point is, where does this principle come from?

Well, if you take a look at the footnote to the line, you’ll see this:

EDIT 1/6/2014 (deleted text struck out and added text maroon):

9. cf. Pius XII, encyclical “Humani Generis,” Aug. 12, 1950: A.A.S. 42 (1950) pp. 568-69: Denzinger 2314 (3886).

9. cf. Benedict XV, encyclical “Spiritus Paraclitus” Sept. 15, 1920:EB 469. St. Jerome, “In Galatians’ 5, 19-20: PL 26, 417 A.

Great, so we have to go back and look at Humani Generis for this idea. The Denzinger reference 3886 equates to the 21st paragraph of the encyclical which talks about the value of biblical exegesis, that it renews theological inquiry, giving it a constant freshness. The paragraph does refer to Pius IX’s letter Inter gravissimas from 1870, but the funny thing is that the phrase about the “same Spirit in which it was written” does not appear anywhere in the encyclical.

I made a mistake in this original post by associating a footnote belonging to Article 11 to Article 12, as was pointed out to me by a friendly reader. The correct footnote points to Benedict XV and St. Jerome. The relevant text from Benedict XV’s encyclical is this:

35. But in a brief space Jerome became so enamored of the “folly of the Cross” that he himself serves as a proof of the extent to which a humble and devout frame of mind is conducive to the understanding of Holy Scripture. He realized that “in expounding Scripture we need God’s Holy Spirit”;[55] he saw that one cannot otherwise read or understand it “than the Holy Spirit by Whom it was written demands.”[56] Consequently, he was ever humbly praying for God’s assistance and for the light of the Holy Spirit, and asking his friends to do the same for him. We find him commending to the Divine assistance and to his brethren’s prayers his Commentaries on various books as he began them, and then rendering God due thanks when completed.

I have bolded the most important text, which is really a couple citations from St. Jerome. The two references are: “55. Id., In Mich., 1:10-15” and “56. Id., In Gal., 5:19-21.” The drafters of Dei Verbum point us to the second citation, from Jerome’s commentary on Galatians, the phrase there reads in Latin, “Quicumque igitur aliter Scripturam intelligit, quam sensus Spiritus sancti flagitat, quo conscripta est…” (Source: p. 417)This can be rendered in English, “Whoever, therefore, understands Scripture in any other way than the sense of the Holy Spirit by whom they were written…” This phrase seems to be underlying Dei Verbum‘s statement, but the wording is actually closer in yet another text.

So, here’s where Thomas a Kempis comes in. In his famous book, The Imitation of Christ, he talks about reading Scripture in Book I, chapter 5 and says that “it should be read in the same spirit with which it was made” (Harold Gardiner translation, 1955). So, is Vatican II quoting Thomas a Kempis without attribution? It’s hard to say. You can read the original Latin text online from this 1486 publication of the Imitation of Christ. Here’s an image for you:

Kempis_Chap5For those of you without a magnifying glass, the underlined text reads “Omnis Scriptura Sacra eo Spu debet legi quo facta est.” (“Spu” here is an abbreviated form of “Spiritu.”) My translation is then: “All of Sacred Scripture ought to be read in the same Spirit in which it was made.” However, a translation from 1938 that was republished in 1959 reads quite freely, “Each part of the Scripture is to be read in the same spirit in which it was written.”  I’m not suggesting that the Council Fathers were reading this translation and then formulating their Latin text, but that Thomas a Kempis was on their minds when penning this line. I would be interested to see if there is further evidence for this in some of the background documents of the Council. I just stumbled across it, and thought you would like it if I’d share it with you.


“Feeling” in Biblical Times

The Catechism offers guidance on how to interpret the Bible, explaining that we must take into account the “modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current” (CCC 110). This idea of “feeling” struck me as kind of strange since the other verbs have to do with expressing ideas, not one’s inner emotions. And besides, don’t all writing professors get upset when students write, “I feel…”? So, I thought this might be a translation issue. In fact, it is.

This Catechism paragraph is based on Dei Verbum 12, which in the Latin uses the phrase, “sentiendi, dicendi, narrandive modos” to indicate the teaching. Well, the idea of “sentiendi” is translated in the Abbot translation of Dei Verbum as “perceiving,” which is much preferable to “feeling” in my opinion. The verb underlying this participle is “sentio” which can mean “feel, think, perceive, sense, judge, observe.” The Council fathers seem to be getting at the way that the ancients apprehended ideas and expressed them, not at the way they “felt” in terms of their emotions. We’re after how they thought, not how they “felt.” Notably, the official Latin version of the Catechism agrees with Dei Verbum: “modorum sentiendi.”

Is it a mis-translation? No, not really, but I think that one of the other translation choices for the Latin sentio, would be preferable. We want to think hard about how the ancient biblical authors understood and explained ideas, not in how they felt emotionally.


Translating Jeremiah 1:17

In the Old Testament reading for Mass yesterday for the feast of the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, the Lectionary (NAB) translates Jeremiah 1:17 as follows:

But do you gird your loins; stand up and tell them all that I command you. Be not crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them; 

But if you take a look at most other Bible translations, you’ll see something different. Here I’ll use the ESV as an example:

But you, dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them.

The second line in the NAB sounds kind of nice–that God is encouraging Jeremiah positively and assuring him of his divine benevolence: “I wouldn’t leave you crushed! So don’t be discouraged.” is the message. However, the ESV (along with most other translations) reads the opposite. Here God is saying to the prophet: “Don’t let them discourage you! If you do, then I’ll personally discourage you.” It reads more as a stick than a carrot. God is basically threatening the prophet to do his duty courageously or there will be consequences. So…this brings us to the revised NAB or the NABRE, which was put out in 2011. It reads:

But you, prepare yourself; stand up and tell them all that I command you. Do not be terrified on account of them, or I will terrify you before them;

Here the NABRE reverts to a traditional translation and even emphasizes the severity of the threatened divine action: “I will terrify you.” This is a dramatic turnaround from the previous NAB translation which softened the message. Here the NABRE translators get it right. The message is that God doesn’t want his prophet to be spooked by the powerful people who will oppose his divine message and that if he cowers down and lets them intimidate him into silence, then God himself will step in and “terrify” the prophet in front of his opponents. It’s a kind of encouragement, a tough kind that we don’t like to give or receive, but a kind that is sometimes necessary to get us headed in the right direction.