Biblical Illiteracy and Bible Babel

One of the disappointments of the post-Vatican II period has been the glacial pace of the growth in Catholic biblical literacy the Council hoped to inspire.  Why the slow-down? Several reasons suggest themselves.

The hegemony of the historical-critical method of biblical study has taught two generations of Catholics that the Bible is too complicated for ordinary people to understand: so why read what only savants can grasp? Inept preaching, dissecting the biblical text with historical-critical scalpels or reducing Scripture to a psychology manual, has also been a turn-off to Bible-study. Then there is the clunkiness of the New American Bible, the pedestrian translation to which U.S. Catholics are subjected in the liturgy: there is little beauty here, and the beauty of God’s Word ought to be one of its most attractive attributes.

But it was not until I read “Our Babel of Bibles” by Baylor University’s David Lyle Jeffrey, published in the March/April 2012 issue of Touchstone, that I began to understand that the proliferation of modern biblical translations and editions is also part of the problem. Not only are there a plethora of different translations from which to choose; as Dr. Jeffrey points out, there are now “niche” Bibles:

“If you are tired of your mother’s old Bible, which printed the words of Jesus in red, you can choose a more trendy Green Bible, with all the eco-sensitive passages printed in green ink. If you are a feisty woman unfazed by possibly misdirected allusions, then maybe you would like the Woman Thou Art Loosed edition of the NKJB [New King James Bible]. If you should be a high-end of the TV-channel charismatic, there are ‘prophecy Bibles’ coded in several colors to justify your eschatology of choice.”

And that’s before we get to the super-trendy editions like the Common English Bible, which renders Psalm 122.1 (“I was glad when they said unto me/Let us go to the Lord’s house”) as “Let’s go to the Lord’s house.” This is not just dumb;  as Dr. Jeffrey points out, is also “verges on a grotesque secularism at the level of ‘Let’s go to Joe’s place – he has the biggest TV.’” And lest you think Jeffrey exaggerates, please note that the CEB renders “Son of Man” as “the Human One.” Yuck.

Dr. Jeffrey’s dissection of our Bible Babel also makes an important point about the use of sacral vocabulary, noting that Venerable Bede and the other first translators of the Bible into Anglo-Saxon understood the limits of their own vernacular and borrowed words from Latin to express what the biblical text meant. A minor point? Not really, because these words came into English that way: alms, altar, angel, anthem, apostle, ark, canticle, chalice, creed, deacon, demon, disciple, epistle, hymn, manna, martyr, priest, prophet, psalm, Psalter, rule, Sabbath, shrift, and temple. Later in the process of making English English, more words entered our language via the Vulgate: absolution, baptism, beatitude, charity, communion, confession, confession, contrition, creator, crucifixion, devotion, faith, homily, mercy, miracle, obedience, passion, pastor, penance, religion, sacrament, saint, sanctuary, savior, temptation, theology, trinity, virgin, and virtue.

All of which is an answer to those who fretted that Anglophone Catholics couldn’t handle “consubstantial” in the new translations of the Roman Missal. As Dr. Jeffrey writes, “What would have happened if someone had said, in that time and place, ‘We just have to find dynamic equivalents in Anglo-Saxon?’ There weren’t any. Appropriately, the first translators were not intimidated by the prospect of teaching people the meaning of biblical and sacral terms not to be found anywhere in their ordinary language. They gratefully borrowed the language of Scripture as they found it in another tongue.”

What to do today? My suggestion is to get yourself the Ignatius Press edition of the Revised Standard Version, and read it over and over again until its language works its way into the crevices of your mind and the texture of your prayer. Maybe, some day, we can hear that translation at Mass.

George Weigel


George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II⎯The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.

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  • Jason

    Thankfully, you can hear that translation now in the Anglican Ordinariate!!

  • I think we ought to stick with the Douay Rheims! It is beautiful and has a rich history for the English speaking Catholic Church. It is my favorite! The Ignatius Bible is my second favorite though 🙂

  • Dwyatt Gantt

    The problem is not the versions.  The whole inside world of the seeking believer opens into the eternal world and the realm where Truth lives when that same seeker goes first of all to Him Who is the Word and was son in the beginning with God.  The “Come to Me and learn of Me” invitation is still and always will be open.  Anyone reading any version but coming into the bended humilty of seeking the Lord to teach him will know the Truth that truly sets free.

  • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

    When I was considering reverting (mid 80s) this was one of the biggest issues: if Protestantism is proliferating so many translations (as it was just beginning to do), perspicuity is false. If perspicuity is false, then we need an authoritative interpreter…

    The rest is history.

  • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

    “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”, as the KJV puts it. I’m betting the ‘proceedeth’ isn’t there by accident.
    There is a Word who is Alpha and Omega and therefore every word, that proceedeth (and doesn’t ‘come from’) from the mouth of God…

  • Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick

    The RSV was allowed in the Catholic liturgy for some time. I have an RSV Lectionary, and a Jerusalem Bible Lectionary. I used them both at Mass until they were outlawed in the late 90s.

  • Steve F.

    “Please note that the CEB renders ‘Son of Man’ as ‘the Human One.’ Yuck.”
    Certainly a learned man such as yourself can provide a reasoned and intelligent explanation for your distaste of “the Human One”. Perhaps you would prefer “Daughter of Woman”?

  • Al_Kilo

    One problem is that Catholics are afraid to open and read the Bible. Instead of “studying” the Bible, like protestants do, why not “pray” with the Bible? St Ignatius gave a template 500 years ago in his Spiritual Exercises, why not use it? Same passages may offer new instructive insights over time, depending on circumstances in life. Bible “studies” tend to degenerate into translation comparisons, pseudo experts commenting on “historical context”, etc… Some Catholic groups use extensive, at times rigid “commentaries”. People end up spending more time dissecting such “commentaries” than reflecting on the Bible passage. What people (including me at first) often do not realize is that most of the Gospel text is straight forward. Jesus spoke to ordinary folks. There are difficult passages (5-10%), in large part due to issues related to translations, etc… My old school Jesuit mentor advised to simply skip such passages, and not worry. 

    I like the Jerusalem Bible, French version,  the New American Bible is fine, but what is important is what God wants to tell us. The literature part, if the translation is well done, could be nice, but secondary to how God’s word can change us, if that makes sense…

  • Guest 2

    Um, I hope I am hearing no nostalgia for the s0-called King James Version, as it is Protestant and rife with error.  Its influence came as the result of the smash and grab of the Catholic Church in England known as the Reformation.  Its excellence is incidental to the age.   Rheims-Douay is not only older but–remember?–Catholic.  Anybody who makes great claims for the KJV while taking it out of context and without comparing and contrasting Rheims-Douay is seriously mistaken.  

    I also cannot believe I am hearing some echo of arguments put to rest around the time of the CCD New Testament in the middle 40s, especially the ‘poetry of the Bible,’ meaning the only faithful translation is a period (preferably paratactic) sentence with florid language.  The best cure against that pious error is knowing Hebrew and Greek, as the Bible is a library of books written at different times by different authors in different styles.

  • Guest 2

    “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we saw his glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”  The author of the article Mr. Weigel touts thinks the KJV translators got John wrong: “oddly,” the good professor says, the word “dwelt” appears.  Actually, I think they got it right–but not before Rheims got it right decades before: that is their passage which appears in quotations here.  “Pitched his tent among us” sounds of course close to the Greek, but most unfortunately not to the English language.  Jesus Christ, boy scout from the sky, pitched his tent among us.  Nothing more foolish sounding than being literal here.  Examples available ad libitum.  What the professor and Mr. Weigel fail to stress, if they even mention it at all, is that the problem is not a Bible babel, but a Church babel.  So many sects, so much time to mangle the text of the book entrusted to the one true faith.  

  • Usarownow

    Hey, Hey Hey; what about the Bible we favor here; The Jersalem version?

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  • I have heard that the King James Bible uses beautiful language, is there an equivalent Catholic version? What Catholic version can match its beauty and language? 

  • Well, I do some poking around in Greek and Hebrew. 

    The KJV is superb.  The translators weren’t too smug to use earlier translations as guides, so indeed the Douay is an influence upon KJV, as were others.  Over and over, as I compare the Greek (or Hebrew) with the English, I see the translators struggling to render into English the whole spectrum of meaning suggested by the word, without however descending into absurdity when a literal translation would obscure the primary figurative meaning.  I like the Douay an awful lot, but it is a translation directly from the Latin Vulgate, and every once in a while we feel the loss: as when Psalm 23 (22) begins, “Dominus regit me,” and the whole image of the shepherd is lost (and it is there in the Hebrew).

    There aren’t enough words to describe how awful the new translations are … ungrammatical, clunky, vague, abstract, bureaucratic … “Look at the wild flowers” for “Consider the lilies of the field.”  Ugh.

  • On “The Human One”: utterly horrible in every conceivable way.  It sounds like a phrase from a Star Trek remake.  Son of Man is what the Hebrew says — ben-adam — and there is no reason not to translate accordingly, above all since the person of Christ is also the Son of David and the Son of God, and since Jesus Himself ratifies the name by using it of Himself.

    I have written on the irreplaceability of “man” in English in the sense in which it is used in “Son of Man”.  We require a noun that is universal, personal, concrete, and singular, all at once.  “Human” is an adjective used as a noun, and is not a universal singular: Bambi’s mother cannot, in English, reasonably say to Bambi, “Be afraid of Human.”  “Human beings” is plural and not singular, and is a generality rather than a universal term.  It is roughly equivalent to “people”.  “Man and woman” introduces an irrelevant distinction of sex, and excludes children.  “Mankind” is not personal, not concrete.  “Humanity” is an abstract quality employed to do the work of “mankind.” 

    There is no substitute.  By the way, Greek “anthropos” in the NT is very commonly employed to mean “adult male,” with the masculinity not emphasized.  “A man had two sons” — anthropos.