The lectionary debate

The recent lockdown has impressed on many Catholics the importance of the Liturgy of the Word. Any translation must be faithful to tradition, open to new scholarly insights and use vibrant English. Adrian Graffy, parish priest and member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, examines two translations.

For those of us who directly experienced the impact of the Second Vatican Council, the publication in 1966 of the Jerusalem Bible in English was a moment of immense significance. English Catholic Bibles, such as the Knox version, translated from the Vulgate, and the Revised Standard Version (1952, with a Catholic Edition in 1965), were of a certain style, retained today by many Protestant Bibles. The text was densely packed, with no divisions of passages, and certainly no explanatory notes. It was the Jerusalem Bible, the creation of the École Biblique in Jerusalem in its first edition in French published in 1956, which changed everything and has since fed the Catholic world, with versions in multiple languages.

As Catholics were drawn to greater understanding and love of the Bible, particularly by the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, the English translation of the JB played a key role. The various editions were people-friendly, with the biblical text divided into sections, and explanatory notes as mandated by Dei Verbum (n. 25). It was refreshing and enlivening to engage with this new kind of Bible.

The worldwide Catholic Biblical Federation, which was founded to promote implementation of Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, has been serving the Church for fifty years. It is sufficient to visit the website of the CBF to be aware how Catholic biblical engagement has progressed.1

With the widespread use of the English translation of the JB in the liturgy, Catholics were gently drawn in to the very best Catholic biblical scholarship. The JB was not perfect, but it was the most suitable tool by which generations of English-speaking Catholics learned to appreciate the Table of the Word.

Rapid progress in biblical studies over the years, as well as constant change in the use of English, meant that as time passed Dom Henry Wansbrough, monk of Ampleforth and tireless champion of intelligent and up-to-date translation, was head-hunted by Fr Pierre Benoit OP of the École Biblique to lead a revision of the English Jerusalem Bible. The New Jerusalem Bible, which related much more closely to the original languages, was produced in 1985, but was never adopted for the lectionary. Over many years, Dom Henry revised the NJB, and the Revised New Jerusalem Bible (RNJB) was published in 2019 by Darton, Longman & Todd.

Biblical understanding does not remain static and cannot stagnate in forms of English belonging to yesteryear. We cannot deny to the people of God the new insights which regularly emerge from scholars. At the same time the links with traditional Catholic understanding must be preserved.

The RNJB is a deeply Catholic Bible. As Dom Henry explains in his enlightening foreword, a more literal approach is taken in this third generation of JB, but not to the detriment of understanding. To the delight of many, it reinstates classic English formulations of texts such as the Beatitudes: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ The JB had translated ‘Happy’, giving rise to complaints that this translation of the Greek makarios was light-weight and secular. Jesus in all four Gospels is once again heard to say: ‘Amen I say to you’. This replaces ‘I tell you (most solemnly)’. No Bible translation is perfect, but the RNJB combines freshness of language, acknowledgement of recent scholarship and continuity with a profoundly Catholic tradition of translation. Furthermore, in response to the sensitivities of believers, and of society at large, it employs a measured use of inclusive language, while other biblical translations continue to insist on awkward masculine emphasis. This new Bible is the outstanding and obvious choice for an English lectionary.

After his Motu Proprio entitled Magnum Principium issued in September 2017, Pope Francis provided clarifications in a Letter to the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. At that point he identified the ‘three fidelities’ to be observed in liturgical translation: fidelity to the original text, fidelity to the receptor language, and fidelity to the intelligibility of the text for the recipients. In his work of translation Dom Henry has managed to respect all three.

Over fifty years since its publication, the English Jerusalem Bible lectionary is in need of updating. English has changed; biblical scholarship has been enriched and renewed; congregations are ever more cosmopolitan, reflecting the global Church, with many people multi-lingual and often not having English as their first and best language. The RNJB goes a long way to satisfying the needs of today.

Theological issues in the ESV
The English Standard Version (ESV) belongs to the noble translation tradition which started with the King James Bible (Authorised Version). This is a profoundly Protestant evangelical Bible. Originating in USA in 2001, it has been described as a moderate and conservative revision of the Revised Standard Version (1952 and 1972). Evangelical scholars have noted that it takes positions which are regressive in relation to the RSV. The ESV is an over-literal translation, which often sounds awkward. Scholars of the Indian Catholic Church were given the task of ensuring that the ESV meets the requirements of Catholic orthodoxy.2

Is this ‘Catholic edition’ really suitable for use in the Catholic liturgy of English-speaking countries? Theological issues raised by ESV deserve serious scrutiny. A random search for possible texts has uncovered several. A more thorough search might well uncover more.

One does not have to go far into the ESV to come across a highly problematic translation, which conflicts with centuries of understanding and imposes a totally unwarranted new slant on a biblical text apparently driven by contemporary ideology of a rather unpleasant sort.

God’s words to Eve after the transgression in the garden declare that the woman will suffer pain in childbirth, and that the relationship between woman and man will become stressed. The RNJB follows the traditional understanding with ‘your yearning (RSV desire) shall be for your husband, and he shall rule you’ (Gen. 3.16). The surprising new rendering in ESV is ‘your desire shall be contrary to your husband but he shall rule over you’. With no support from the original Hebrew ‘for’ has become ‘contrary to’. The result is that woman is portrayed as antagonistic to her husband, who therefore must dominate her. The genuine and traditionally accepted meaning that the ‘desire’ or ‘yearning’ (Hebrew teshuqah) of the woman is for her husband is echoed in Song of Songs 7.11, where it is the woman who says, ‘I belong to my love and his desire is for me’. The two texts express positive mutual attraction between man and woman.

The effect of this completely unjustifiable change in the ESV translation is to legitimise domination of the woman by the man. Genesis 3.16 has effectively been made a proof-text for the subordination of women, and even risks legitimising abusive behaviour by men. The new interpretation, first proposed in 1975, responded to evangelical unease at the advance of feminism.3 Biblical texts were sought out which might counter what certain Christians viewed as a dangerous trend.

This regressive and erroneous translation was introduced in the third edition of the ESV in 2016 and is present in the 2017 Catholic Edition. It has been described by a Baptist biblical scholar as making the ESV ‘the laughing stock of biblical translations’. It was at this time that the ESV publishers decided to make their biblical text ‘permanent’, a decision later revoked after protests.4 The idea that a translated text should never be changed despite new understanding of the original text and changes in the receptor language is at odds with Catholic biblical understanding.

A second important text which presents difficulties for Catholics is the familiar address of Gabriel to Mary in Luke 1.28: ‘Hail, full of grace’. ESV renders weakly as ‘favoured one’. This is the biblical introduction of Mary, mother of the Messiah, to God’s holy people, as she prepares to receive the eternal Word. The Greek participle kecharitomene has at its heart the word charis, grace, gratia, a word of immense importance in Christian faith. Mary is, literally, ‘the graced one’. This is not simply Catholic piety, but a profound truth of Christian faith.

The Greek participle was rendered in the Vulgate as gratia plena – ‘full of grace’. The Catholic revision of the 1952 RSV engineered the change from the secular ‘highly favoured one’ to ‘full of grace’. To translate the perfect participle passive differently is both inaccurate and inadequate, and frankly alien to Catholics. The King James Bible has ‘highly favoured’, and the RSV and ESV ‘favoured’, and it is a point of regret that JB and NJB adopted this weak translation.

The RNJB has restored ‘full of grace’, the more precise translation used by early English biblical translators such as Wycliffe and Tyndale. This again illustrates the readiness of the RNJB to reinstate where appropriate a correct rendering which has been hallowed by centuries of Catholic tradition.

A difficult text of considerable Christological and soteriological importance is Romans 3.25. The key point being made is that God has offered Christ to us so that we may reach salvation by faith. Paul says that the Father ‘put forward’ Christ as hilasterion. This Greek word is the translation of the Hebrew kapporet, which denotes the ‘mercy seat’ or ‘lid’ made of gold and placed over the ark in the Holy of Holies (Exod. 25.17). We are dealing with the mystery of God’s merciful justice and how it is made accessible in the sacrifice of Christ. The King James Version used ‘propitiation’, and the RSV in line with later insights softens to ‘expiation’, but the ESV reverts to the harsher ‘whom (Christ Jesus) God put forward as a propitiation’. What modern translations have generally sought to avoid as alien to Paul’s thought and to Christian faith is the suggestion that Christ is the one who ‘propitiates’ God, ‘appeasing’ God’s wrath, which somehow has to be assuaged. As Joseph Fitzmyer explains, this interpretation of hilasterion finds no support in the Old Testament or in Paul’s other writings.5
Benedict XVI considers Paul’s use of hilasterion: ‘But here it is not a case of a cruel God demanding the infinite. It is exactly the opposite: God himself becomes the locus of reconciliation, and in the person of his Son takes the suffering upon himself.’6 The English Jerusalem Bibles (JB, NJB, RNJB) all use the word ‘reconciliation’ at this point, and RNJB reads ‘God put him (Christ) forward as a reconciliation’. The ESV is in conflict with Catholic understanding.
Two ecclesiological texts can be briefly considered. Once again, a distance is set up between this profoundly Protestant translation and traditional Catholic understanding. The first case is unique in that the ESV goes against the King James Version, the RSV and many other translations. In 1 Timothy 3.15, the Greek is such that English and other languages need to insert a series of definite articles (‘the’). A literal rendering would read: ‘I write so that you may know how one should behave in [the] house of God, which is [the] church of [the] living God, [the] pillar and buttress of the truth.’ Insertion of the definite article is legitimate and necessary due to the differing use of the article in Greek and English. What is surprising is that the ESV has naturally and repeatedly added ‘the’ in all instances but one. It reads ‘the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth’. This presents the Church in a way which conflicts with the ecclesiology of 1 Timothy and with Catholic understanding. While previous translations rightly described the Church as ‘the pillar and buttress of the truth’, ESV presents a diminished ecclesiology. If the Church is indeed ‘a pillar and buttress of the truth’, what, one wonders, are the other pillars?

1 Peter 2.25 describes Christ as the ‘shepherd and guardian of your souls’ (RNJB). The word episkopos is best translated ‘guardian’, one who ‘looks after’. The Authorised Version had rendered, anachronistically, ‘bishop’, but RSV wisely changed to ‘guardian’. ESV once again complicates the issue by introducing the term ‘overseer’. It is wrong to use specific ministerial terms from later centuries for a first century text, and they are particularly inappropriate in a description of Christ. Translation of the biblical text requires respect for the context of the writing. Once again, the translation principles used for the ESV conflict with Catholic hermeneutical practice.

Over-literal translation
In addition to the doctrinal issues raised by ESV, the policy of literal translation has produced innumerable instances of problematic wording. In the chapter of accusations against the scribes and the Pharisees Jesus says: ‘Fill up the measure of your fathers!’ (Mt 23.32, ESV), while RNJB has ‘Finish off the work that your ancestors began!’ The Magnificat includes in ESV the difficult and dated rendering of Luke 1.48, ‘he has looked on the humble estate of his servant’, while RNJB more fittingly reads ‘he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant’.

Things become more complex with the sometimes difficult language of Paul. Romans 2.1 reads in the stilted language of ESV: ‘Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges.’ RNJB translates: ‘So, no matter who you are, if you pass judgement you have no excuse.’ In the ESV translation of Colossians 4.5, Paul urges his hearers to ‘walk in wisdom towards outsiders’ in a confusing metaphor referring to their general behaviour as Christians. RNJB offers instead ‘Act wisely with outsiders’.

The ESV uses ‘And’ at the start of sentences nearly 8,000 times. The Semitic use of waw and its reflection in the Greek kai are not always to be translated with ‘and’. Modern study has shown that waw is more versatile, and accurate translation leads to it being omitted or rendered by other conjunctives.7 A similar point could be made about ‘Behold!’, found over one thousand times in ESV. Literal translation is not always accurate translation.

Commitment to literal translation sometimes gives rise to absurdity. Proverbs 30.25–26 reads: ‘The ants are a people not strong, yet they provide their food in the summer; the rock badgers are a people not mighty, yet they make their homes on the cliffs.’

Many more examples of unfortunate translation choices could be given. The important point is that, while fidelity to the text is crucial, literalist translations make Scripture inaccessible, they undermine the journey of faith of Christ’s people, and make the Table of the Word a place of confusion.

The ESV translation is problematic not only due to its awkward use of English, but also, as we have seen, due to translation choices which conflict with points of faith taught by the Catholic Church in its interpretation of Scripture. Crucially, ESV deprives the Word of its vibrancy. An evangelical scholar has stated: ‘The ESV is a stilted translation that obscures the transforming message of the Bible. This unclear “Biblish” perplexes congregations and can even deafen our ears to God’s word. That’s a pastoral crisis.’8 A Catholic biblical scholar has confided that, in his view, ‘ESV deprives the Word of God of the dynamism that rightly belongs to it’.

In his Motu Proprio establishing the Sunday of the Word of God (Aperuit illis), Pope Francis states that ‘believers are bound to listen attentively to the Word of the Lord, both in the celebration of the liturgy and in their personal prayer and reflection’.9 It is essential therefore to use a translation which makes sense to the people of God today, respects Catholic principles of interpretation, is enriched with the scholarship of the ages, and entirely consonant with the faith of the Church.

2 The Holy Bible – English Standard Version – Catholic Edition, Asian Trading Corporation, Bengaluru, India, 2017.
3 Foh, S. T., ‘What is the Woman’s Desire?’, Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1974/1975), pp. 376–383.
4 Mariottini, C., ‘The Permanent Text of the ESV’, and ‘The Permanent Text of the ESV – No More!’, (2016).
5 Fitzmyer, J. A., Romans, Anchor Bible, New York: Doubleday, 1993, pp. 349–350.
6 Ratzinger, J., Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Entrance to Jerusalem to the Resurrection, San Francisco: Ignatius Press and London: Catholic Truth Society, 2011, p. 232.
7 Curtis, B., ‘Why the ESV Falters as a General Purpose Bible’, Selected Works of Byron G Curtis (2013), p. 6,
8 Curtis, B., Selected Works, p. 2.
9 Pope Francis, ‘Apostolic Letter on the Sunday of the Word of God’, Aperuit Illis, CTS, 2019, n. 7.