I found this amazing clip today. It offers an inside-the-room, fly-on-the-wall view of a debate among the translators of the ESV. In this video, they debate how to render Hebrew and Greek words indicating “slave” or “servant.” In particular, it shows them voting to approve the change from “slave” to “bondservant” in certain NT passages. The video features Translation Oversight Committee members Paul House, Wayne Grudem, Gordon Wenham, Peter Williams and Jack Collins. It gives a sense of the serious nature of the translation debates and the types of evidence members would marshal to support their arguments:
In the promulgation of the new ESV-Catholic Edition, I’ve heard a lot of Internet chatter about various Bible versions in English. Many English-speakers have their favorite translation and will defend it to the hilt. I’d prefer everyone simply learn Greek and Hebrew, but since that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, we’re stuck with vernacular translations. Translation, by its nature is an imperfect science.
Read the Bible
Ok, wait–before going any further, I’ll just say that I’d much prefer that everyone simply read the Bible a lot in whatever translation they find useful! So if you like the RSVCE, the RSV2CE, the NABRE, the ESVCE, the Douay-Rheims, the JB, the NJB, the RNJB or whatever, keep on reading the Word of God and don’t give up. This book will transform your life. Translation concerns are secondary to the actual practice of reading the Bible.
Back in Time
It is too easy to over-simplify the history of the Bible in English with quick notes like, King James 1611 and Douay-Rheims 1610, but such notes are misleading. Bible translations are big, years-long processes involving lots of people and places. Over time, whether we like it or not, the editions actually printed vary and change whether on purpose or deliberately. The Douay-Rheims Bible, lauded by some as the best Catholic translation, started with a New Testament in 1582, and then an Old Testament in 1610, but it was later substantially revised by Bishop Richard Challoner in the 1700’s. It was translated from the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome in the Clementine edition. Unexpectedly, Bishop Challoner was often revising the text of the Bible in order to conform to the King James Version familiar to all English-speakers. An American bishop, Francis P. Kenrick, launched his own revision of the Douay-Rheims in the 1850’s and its New Testament was published in 1862 shortly before his death. The American bishops debated making this version the new standard, but eventually the idea was abandoned. (See Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J., American Catholic Biblical Scholarship [San Francisco: Harper & Row 1989] 14-34).
The Origin of the Catholic Biblical Association
The need for a new Catholic Bible translation for the American Church was never abandoned. Indeed, it resurfaced in the 1930’s. Bishop Edwin Vincent O’Hara of Great Falls, MT organized an editorial board for a revision of the Challoner-Rheims edition, which invited all Catholic Scripture scholars to a meeting in New York for October 3, 1936 (Fogarty, 201). The meeting helped launch the Catholic Biblical Association, which produced a revision of the New Testament, published in 1941, the “Confraternity edition” (Fogarty, 206). Eventually, in light of Divino Afflante Spiritu and Dei Verbum, as I will explain below, the project of revising the Challoner-Rheims edition was abandoned and a completely new translation from the original languages was begun.
But what about the Vulgate?
The Vulgate, the Latin translation of St. Jerome, was preserved and printed in many editions. It really became its own textual stream in the tradition of biblical manuscripts, but was somewhat codified by the Sixto-Clementine Edition of 1592. It’s important to note that this edition replaced the 1590 Vulgata Sixtina hastily prepared by Pope Sixtus V, who was apparently still making changes after it went to press with his approval in the bull Aeternus Ille. This edition was forcefully recalled by Pope Clement VIII early in his papacy and replaced by the new Sixto-Clementine edition. If you seek out a Vulgate today, I’d recommend checking out the critical edition from the United Bible Societies. The official Sixto-Clementine Vulgate has been replaced by the Nova Vulgata (1979), which “is the point of reference as regards the delineation of the canonical text” (Liturgiam authenticam, sec. 37).
Translating to English from the Vulgate?
Most English-speaking Catholic authorities in the nineteenth century took it for granted that Catholic Bible translations into the vernacular be made from the Latin Vulgate. They were ignoring, perhaps, Bishop Challoner’s revisions of the Douay, which brought it more in line with the King James (translated from Greek and Hebrew). Even in 1859, a Catholic reviewer named Orestes Brownson would argue that “There is nothing in the decree of the Council of Trent, that requires our English translations to be made from the Vulgate…and a translation made directly from the original tongues into English will always be fresher, and represent the sense with its delicate shades, far better than a translation made from them through the Latin” (Brownson’s Quarterly Review; Fogarty, 22-23). While Brownson might have been prescient, he was ahead of his time.
Later, in 1934, the Dutch bishops asked Rome about whether a translation from the original languages of Scripture, not the Vulgate, could be read in liturgy and the response from the Pontifical Biblical Commission (AAS 26, 1934, p. 315-warning! giant PDF!) was negative. Fogarty insists that this is “the first time” that the Vatican weighed in on the side of vernacular translations of the Vulgate over against translations from the original languages (p. 200). Whether he is right not, I’m not sure, but it would become a moot point in under ten years.
Pius XII and Original Languages — 1943-44
In 1943, Pope Pius XII would publish the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, (drafted by Augustine–later Cardinal–Bea) where he would encourage translations directly from the original languages with the following sentences:
22. Wherefore this authority of the Vulgate in matters of doctrine by no means prevents – nay rather today it almost demands – either the corroboration and confirmation of this same doctrine by the original texts or the having recourse on any and every occasion to the aid of these same texts, by which the correct meaning of the Sacred Letters is everywhere daily made more clear and evident. Nor is it forbidden by the decree of the Council of Trent to make translations into the vulgar tongue, even directly from the original texts themselves, for the use and benefit of the faithful and for the better understanding of the divine word, as We know to have been already done in a laudable manner in many countries with the approval of the Ecclesiastical authority.
Just before this encyclical was released, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a clarification of its 1934 response cited above. This clarification (AAS 35, 1943, pp. 270-71–warning! giant PDF!) explicitly granted permission for biblical translations from the original languages. Taking its cue from this clarification from the Biblical Commission and from the new encyclical, the Catholic Biblical Association decided at its meeting in August 1944 at Notre Dame to abandon the project of revising the Challoner-Rheims edition and instead launched a new project to translate the whole Old Testament from the original Hebrew and Greek. This project would eventually become the New American Bible.
The CBA was additionally encouraged and congratulated on pursuing this project by the apostolic delegate, Archbishop Cicognani (his letter was published in Catholic Biblical Quarterly 6 [October, 1944] 389-90: https://www.jstor.org/stable/43723781). The Archbishop lauds the CBA for its efforts, acknowledging that the association is “translating the Old Testament from the original languages into English” and that “This news is a source of great pleasure, since the deep learning which forms the background of their work, and their well-known devotion to the Holy See are already in themselves auguries of success in the monumental work to which they have so resolutely set themselves.” Later in the letter, he nods in the direction of Rome, showing his interpretation of Divino: “Conformably to the recommendations of His Holiness, the members of the Catholic Biblical Association are laudably engaged in translating the Old Testament from the original languages for the use of the laity.” Here we see that the Roman trend in the direction of the original languages is affirmed and made more explicit by the Archbishop.
This direction was affirmed, albeit softly, by the Sacred Congregation of Rites in its document, Inter Oecumenici (Sept 26, 1964), 40.a:
The basis of the translations is the Latin liturgical text. The version of the biblical passages should conform to the same Latin liturgical text. This does not, however, take away the right to revise that version, should it seem advisable, on the basis of the original text or of some clearer version.
This slim legal language emphasizes the importance of the Vulgate, but defers to the original languages for revision.
“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” (Dei Verbum, sec. 22)
This statement by the Council affirms that the hierarchy was moving away from Vulgate-only translations toward focus on the original languages.
Liturgiam authenticam 2001
Pope St. John Paul II’s document, Liturgiam authenticam, will actually cite the 1964 law in extending the legal requirement to mandate that all biblical translations be made from the original languages, not from other translations.
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.
One might think that this instruction contradicts the very idea of JPII launching the Nova Vulgata in 1979, but the document anticipates such concerns, saying, “Furthermore, in the preparation of these translations for liturgical use, the Nova 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.” So the Nova Vulgata is normative for 1.) finding the canonical verses in the original language and for 2.) understanding the proper tradition of interpretation for the Latin Liturgy. However, it does not serve as the basis for the translations, but only as “an auxiliary tool.” Though it is true that Pope Francis issued a Motu proprio in 2017 which limits the application of Liturgiam authenticam, it seems to have little effect on the topic here.
The complex task of Bible translation cannot be distilled down to any one principle. Indeed, any good translator should have respect for all of the available textual traditions, whether Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Syriac, or otherwise, and have a good sense for the strengths and weaknesses of each tradition. In previous eras, access to good instruction in the original languages was scare, but now much more common. Also, good manuscripts and critical editions were harder to come by, but now they can be readily had in libraries and on the Internet. Much of the text-critical work being done in older editions of the Vulgate has been transferred to the guild of text critical scholars of the Greek New Testament (one thinks immediately of the committee put together by Kurt Aland). The relative values of the Masoretic text and the Septuagint have not yet been fully ironed out and I imagine biblical scholars will be arguing about which should have priority until the sun sets on history. Yet from the above historical overview, we can see very clearly that the Catholic Church has been moving away from a Vulgate-only translation philosophy and toward a legal requirement that all biblical translations be made directly from the original languages. But again, whatever translation you are using: Read the Bible!
A little video I did introducing the English Standard Version (ESV), Catholic Edition Bible:
I got one! Yes, I think I might be the only Catholic in the United States to hold in my hands the new English Standard Version Catholic Edition Bible (ESVCE). Through my super-secret trading channels, I was able to secure one and now will offer a review and a backstory, just for you, my faithful reader. The Bible is printed on thin, high quality Bible paper in a very readable font. It feels just right in the hand—a bit smaller in form factor than your typical Bible with smallish print throughout. It contains a short Foreward, a Preface, a few grayscale maps and a chart of weights and measures. Thankfully, these materials explain the exact texts on which the translation was based.
Update 12/13/2019: ESV Catholic Edition Now Available in the United States!
A Breath of Fresh Air!
Finally, we Catholics get a new translation in clear English with serious attention to exact fidelity to the original text: the English Standard Version Catholic Edition, just released by the bishops of India. The same debate has been raging since the 1960’s in the English speaking world—on the relative merits of the New American Bible (1970), Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (1966) and the Jerusalem Bible (1966). While we have received welcome updates on these translates like the NAB revised New Testament (1984), the New Jerusalem Bible (1985), the NRSV Catholic Edition (1991), RSV-Second Catholic Edition (2006), and the updated Old Testament in the NAB Revised Edition (2011—notice the 27-year delay between revised NT and OT), this ESVCE is a truly new Bible translation for us. Though it takes its cues from the 1971 RSV, the ESV stands on its own with its own translation philosophy and its strong commitment to clear and meaningful English that stays truly faithful to the original languages. (I’m not even including the simplified or quasi-paraphrase translations like the Good News Bible.)
Students, Bishops and the old Douay-Rheims
Catholic students of the Bible (who both read and write this blog!) have been arguing for years round and round about whether the RSV or NAB is better. Not only that but bishops’ conferences in the English-speaking world have been going round and round about which translation to use at Mass. The old Douay-Rheims translation (and its “Confraternity edition” followups) was discarded as antiquated after the Second Vatican Council. Besides, the old D-R was based on the Vulgate and did not take the Greek and Hebrew witnesses seriously. But after discarding the Douay, bishops were left with a problem on their hands. Fortunately, for American Catholics, the U.S. bishops had commissioned the Catholic Biblical Association of America to produce a new translation back in 1943, after the publication of Pope Pius XII’s encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu.
A Footnote from 1943
It’s an odd footnote to biblical history that the CBA had originally been commissioned to produce a new translation from the Latin Vulgate which was scrapped after Pope Pius XII encouraged recourse to the original languages (see paragraphs 14-16). The encyclical, which was drafted by biblical scholar Augustin Bea (later a cardinal), insisted that “we [ought] 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” (§16). This one line, along with the developing knowledge of biblical languages promoted by the Pontifical Biblical Institute, was instrumental in getting Catholics off the couch and into Greek and Hebrew courses. It sidelined Vulgate-only translations and insisted on fidelity to the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek) in new translations.
Back to the Bishops
The bishops, since 1943 (and with renewed zeal after the Council), have been casting about for good Bible translations. Other language communities have perhaps done a better job cooperating, but the English-speaking world has been characterized by fierce competition. In particular, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops actually owns the copyright to the New American Bible, so it is in their financial best interest to promote, and yes, to require, the use of the NAB/NABRE in liturgical settings. Though the USCCB does approve of other translations for non-liturgical use. The other English-speaking bishops (UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India) have been none too thrilled about paying royalties to their brother prelates, so have normally opted for the Jerusalem Bible, but have also approved the New Jerusalem Bible, and the RSV. The Canadian bishops have adopted the NRSV as of 2008. The Antilles adopted the RSV-2CE for its lectionary. My sense is that many bishops’ conferences are none too thrilled with these options. The complaints, though often whispered, are easy to summarize:
- The Jerusalem Bible is too inexact, preferring dynamic equivalence over word-for-word translation. Same goes for its update, the NJB.
- The RSV is too old (from about 1950) with too many “thees” and “thous”.
- The NRSV has too much gender-inclusive language.
- Many complain about the NAB/RE, but frequently the complaints are directed at the New Testament footnotes in addition to the translation itself.
The ESVCE gives the bishops conferences a new option and indeed, several English-speaking bishops conferences have reached out to the Indian bishops to explore the possibility of using the new ESVCE lectionary in their countries.
ICEL, Liturgiam Authenticam, Vox Clara
To understand the backroom politicking at work, we must at least nod at some big decisions at the Vatican. After Vatican II, the English-speaking bishops set up the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) to translate liturgical texts—including the Roman Missal, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Roman Martyrology and so forth. However, Bible translations, while often handled separately, had to be approved in the form of Lectionaries. In 2001, the Vatican issued a document entitled Liturgiam Authenticam which laid down rules for liturgical translations, which included Lectionaries. The Congregation for Divine Worship issued a new edition of the Latin missal in 2002,which served as the basis for the translation of the liturgy released in 2011. In order to implement Liturgiam Authenticam in the English-speaking world, the Vox Clara Commission was set up to oversee the work of ICEL (an angry history of it HERE). The Vox Clara Commission included some well known conservative churchmen (George, Pell, Olmstead). Notably, it also included Cardinal Oswald Gracias, who gave the imprimatur to the ESV-Catholic Edition and wrote the foreward. Recent news has seen Pope Francis moving to roll back a bit of the centralization of translation.
Back to Bible Students
Now, we Bible Students care little for the squabbles of high prelates: How faithful is the actual translation? Here’s where we get into the weeds to compare actual texts. I’m going to use the NABRE, the RSV-CE and the ESVCE to show you what we have on our hands. I’ll just present a bunch of examples without comment in no particular order. You can judge for yourself:
|Prov 18:24||There are friends who bring ruin, but there are true friends more loyal than a brother.||There are friends who pretend to be friends, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.||A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.|
|Luke 1:28||And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.”||And he came to her and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!”||And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O highly favored one, the Lord is with you!”|
|Eph 5:3||Immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be mentioned among you, as is fitting among holy ones,||But fornication [2CE: immorality]and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints.||But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.|
|Isa 9:6||For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. [v. 5]||For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”||For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.|
|Gen 1:1||In the beginning, when God created…||In the beginning God created||In the beginning, God created|
|Gen 1:2||and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters||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||The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.|
|Mark 10:9||Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.||What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.||What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.
|Gen 18:11||and Sarah had stopped having her menstrual periods||it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women||The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah.|
|Matt 5:28||But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.||But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.||But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
|Eph 5:19||singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts,||singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart||singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,
|Rom 9:5||…theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Messiah. God who is over all be blessed forever. Amen.||…to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, be blessed for ever. Amen.||To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.|
|Jer 20:7||You seduced me, LORD, and I let myself be seduced||O LORD, thou hast [2CE: you have] deceived me, and I was deceived;||O LORD, you have deceived me, and I was deceived;|
|Sir 22:3||An undisciplined child is a disgrace to its father; if it be a daughter, she brings him to poverty.||It is a disgrace to be the father of an undisciplined son, and the birth of a daughter is a loss.||A father’s disgrace is in the birth of an undisciplined son, and the birth of a daughter is a loss.|
Obviously, I could go on listing examples forever, but here I will stop. The long and short of these examples is that the ESV preserves both accuracy and decorum with beautiful English in the King James tradition while updated with the most recent manuscript evidence.
Other Thoughts on the New ESV-Catholic Edition
It’s important to note that the ESV preserves the typical English verse numbering (along the lines of KJV, RSV, etc.) rather than reverting to the Hebrew numbering, which the NABRE tries to do. The Old Testament is translated from the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and the Göttingen Septuagint. The New Testament is translated from the Novum Testamentum Graecae, Nestle-Aland, 28th Edition. Tobit is a textual anomaly, so they used “the longer Greek text (Sinaiticus) supplemented by the shorter Greek text (Vaticanus) and the Old Latin version at points where the longer text lacks some verses” (p. xvi.).
Team of Catholic Scholars
The ESV Catholic Edition, while it comes from the translation done by American Protestants, was reviewed by a panel of Catholic scholars before receiving approval from the Indian bishops. The names of those scholars who reviewed the text are listed in the Foreward:
- Rev. Dr. Lucien Legrand, MEP
- Rev. Dr. Assisi Saldanha, CSsR
- Rev. Dr. Govindu Rayanna
- Rev. Dr. A. Alfred Joseph
- Rev. Dr. David Stanly Kumar
- Sr. Dr. Prema Vakayil, CSST
- Rev. Dr. Shabu Joseph Thottumkal, SDB
- Rev. Dr. Stanislas Savarimuthu
The publication was made possible by a licensing agreement between Crossway and the Asian Trading Corporation. You can try ordering a copy of the ESVCE at the ATC website, but I didn’t have much luck. It has received official approval and Imprimatur from the Catholic Bishops Conference of India.
Pretty soon, when you attend Mass in India, you will hear the ESVCE being read from the pulpit. I think it won’t be long before the ESVCE shows up in the hands of many Catholic Bible Students who are gathering in church basements, Catholic schools, Newman Centers and coffee shops for a good old-fashioned Bible study. The translation is solid, new and refreshing. I will be digging into it for more insights over time. The ESVCE could be a close competitor with the RSVCE/2CE. It’s hard to say which will win out or if they will live a peaceful coexistence. Bravo to the Indian bishop and to Crossway for gifting us with a powerful ecumenical collaboration that produced such a great translation. I think this new translation will be a blessing to many, many English-speaking Catholics. Once it is available for sale in the U.S. (or wherever you are), I recommend adding a copy to your Bible shelf!