Scriptural Translations

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Scriptural Translations

ROME, 10 OCT. 2006 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I was raised Presbyterian, but with the help and guidance of my wife and a close friend, I joined the Church in 1995. However, one thing that concerns me to this day is the inclusion of the readings in the missal, as opposed to providing a Bible in the pews. How can one be sure of the accuracy of the translation used in the missal? How can one be sure that the entire, unabridged reading is provided? It is as if they are being taken out of context. I understand from my Catholic friends that the English translation used in the missals in the United States is a very poor one, and does not even have the "nihil obstat" or "imprimatur." For example, the texts have been reworked to be more inclusive (gender-neutral). These friends all point me to English translations that are pre-Vatican II. Recently, I learned that there is a new English translation in the works. Is this true? — J.L. Dallas, Texas

A: There are basically two questions involved. One regards translations and the other the use of partial texts in the liturgy.

There will always be debate and differences of opinion regarding the quality of biblical translations. No translation is perfect, and even our Protestant brethren have their literary squabbles regarding so-called inclusive language and whether it is proper to maintain certain archaic forms.

The choice of which translation to use falls upon the bishops' conference of each country, though the Holy See's approval of its use in the liturgy is also required.

Because of this, English-speaking countries use several different translations. Most use the original Jerusalem Bible. The United States uses an adapted version of the New American Bible (NAB). Canada has temporary permission to use the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), even though the Holy See did not approve this Bible for liturgical use.

Recently the bishops of the Antilles received permission for a lectionary based on a second edition of the Revised Standard Version (RSV Catholic Edition) — recently published in a new edition by Ignatius Press — which many consider the best contemporary translation.

A project has begun to develop a lectionary based on an adapted version of the NRSV to substitute the one used in most English-speaking countries, although the United States will not participate. Practically all lectionaries now in use have some form of permission from the Holy See.

In some cases the translations on which the lectionary is based are now out of print. In other cases, such as the NAB and NRSV, the Holy See, because of disagreement regarding some aspects of the translating principles, does not approve the whole translation as such for liturgical use but permits it to be used as a base text for a lectionary. Each text of the lectionary is then revised to make sure that it conforms to the Church's translation principles as enshrined in the instruction "Liturgiam Authenticam."

The result usually leaves most texts intact but changes those where different translating principles might have theological consequences. For example, some translators might substitute "human being" for the biblical expression "son of man" and this could be a literarily accurate translation. Theologically, however, in some situations such a procedure might obscure a possible messianic reference and also make it difficult to understand some interpretations made by the Church Fathers and other classical Catholic writings.

Thus, while the Holy See does not usually pronounce judgment regarding the accuracy, scientific precision, or literary quality of a given translation, it does seek to safeguard that a new translation does not undermine the interpretative tradition in liturgical proclamation.

This is one reason why Catholics cannot at present simply have a Bible in the pews. At the moment, only the above-mentioned lectionary from the Antilles corresponds exactly to a currently published Bible.

This issue, however, is somewhat more delicate, especially for Catholics raised in the evangelical tradition. Why does the Church read selected portions from the Bible, and at times even deliberately leave out some verses of a given passage?

At the risk of sounding facetious, in part it is because the liturgy is older than the Bible.

The liturgy certainly precedes the formation of the New Testament and the definition of the books pertaining to the Old. Indeed the liturgy's relationship with the sacred text is very complex, as the liturgical use of a specific book sometimes determined its inclusion or exclusion from the canon of Scripture.

From a practical point of view, until the advent of the printing press in the 15th century the possession of a complete manuscript of the Bible was a rare luxury. Christians, who were mostly illiterate anyway, received their knowledge of Scripture from the texts read in the liturgy, and from the Bible stories related in sermons or in painting, sculpture and glass.

The selection of readings was first developed in the first centuries of Christianity for the major feasts in order to transmit the essential elements of salvation history. As the celebrations of the Church year reached maturity so did the selection of readings.

In making this selection the Church occasionally "centonized," that is, selected, those passages and verses which best served to transmit a specific message regarding the mystery of salvation. While this process may have left out a verse or two when these touched upon another theme, it never went so far as to create a new text or join texts from distinct passages.

Far more often, it connected passages from different books by reading them within the same celebration thereby establishing an authoritative interpretative relationship between texts. The best example of this are the readings of the Easter Vigil.

These principles still hold even though the Scripture selection available in the present liturgy is vastly greater than before and many Catholics are, thankfully, far more biblically literate than in ages past.

The Church has never doubted its authority to make these selections as within its fold the task of authoritative scriptural interpretation is an ecclesial, not a private or individual, endeavor and one in which it is assisted by the Holy Spirit.

This guidance assures us that the selection the Church has made over the centuries is trustworthy and will never betray the true sense of God's Word even though some selections might not be immediately intelligible to our minds.

Furthermore, the scriptural readings were always considered as being intimately connected with the mystery being realized on the altar. The readings had to be seen as part of the greater picture of salvation history that embraced Scripture, Tradition and the sacramental system.

Scott Hahn's recent book, "Letter and Spirit," on the relationship between liturgy and Scripture would probably lay to rest the doubts of many converts to Catholicism regarding this theme. ZE06101027

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Follow-up: Scriptural Translations [10-24-2006]

After our Oct. 10 piece on the use of Scripture in the liturgy, an English priest wrote: "I wish Father McNamara had included in his answer that the Church encourages the private reading of the Bible, that much can be gained from reading the context of the passages used at liturgy, and that our inquirer should be encouraged to maintain his devotion to Scripture."

As they say, better late than never, and I happily add my full agreement with our correspondent's suggested addendum.

A reader from Virginia wrote: "The subject article on scriptural translations touches on an important aspect of using the Bible. In speaking about the Bible, in forming thoughts for the day, and in literary discourse, people frequently quote the Bible, many times from what they have memorized. With the multiplicity of translations, especially within one language, we have generated another Tower of Babel, a work of the devil. Do the bishops realize the confusion they have created?"

In all fairness, I do not believe that the bishops are in any way responsible for the confusion mentioned by our correspondent, if indeed such confusion really exists. Indeed, in the long run, using a single liturgical translation for each country is likely to bring about greater, rather than lesser, harmony in biblical knowledge within a nation.

Certainly some difficulty might be caused in international settings, but people who travel frequently are also likely to be equipped to handle these minor differences.

I would also observe that while the King James Bible held sway for a long time in Protestant English, other translations were on offer. And Catholics could also choose from several English versions from well before the use of the vernacular entered into the liturgy.

Thus, there has never been much uniformity in translations and people memorized and quoted whatever Bible they happened to have.

Another question entirely is if the bishops' choice of translation is really the best, from the point of view of literature, pastoral use, and other criteria. On such questions experts may disagree. But in the end all must respect the bishops' choice as they have weighed all of the issues and have opted for what they considered best for the people of God.

Another reader asked: "I was wondering why the New American Bible (St. Joseph Edition) has verses divided up different from the 'Protestant' Bible. For instance, Job 41:1 in the New American Bible is 41:9 in the King James version. Also, periodically through some of the New American Bible the verse numbers are changed around. For instance, in Job 31 it goes verses 2-8 and then goes to 38-40, then to 1 then to 9. What would the reason be for that?"

Chapters and verses do not form part of the original text but were inserted over the centuries by scholars and printers. They are therefore open to question on some points and may sometimes be revised.

Contemporary biblical scholars have access to more ancient manuscripts that did the translators of the King James Bible and one of their tasks is to establish, as far as possible, the original text of each book. They therefore have to judge possible copyist's mistakes and other such interventions.

After much painstaking work, most modern interpreters consider that the above-mentioned verses in Job 31:38-40 were erroneously placed at the end by an earlier copyist and the proper order is as described above. Likewise most experts now consider that Job 41:1-8 really belongs to the conclusion of Chapter 40.

In order to respect the traditional division of chapter and verses, and allow for comparisons between different versions, some modern English Bibles start Chapter 41 at verse 9 instead of creating a new system.

Biblical texts in the liturgy must follow the chapter and verse division of the New Latin Vulgate so as to be sure as to which text the Church proposes for liturgical proclamation.

Finally, some readers asked, When can we expect the new English translation of the Missal?

As one high prelate involved in the process once said: "Two years ago I replied to reporters that the translation would be ready in about two years. Today I can say I am sticking to my original estimate."

The process of translation and approval is slow but is constantly progressing. Seeking a translation that can stand up for many decades and even centuries is no easy task and it should be worth waiting another "two years." ZE06102428

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