The Revised New Jerusalem Bible, Study Edition

Dom Henry Wansbrough OSB
ISBN: 978-0232533620
Darton, Longman & Todd 2019
Hardback 2399 pp £39.99
Pastoral Review bookshop £36.00

This is a remarkable piece of work, and Dom Henry has to be thanked for achieving it; we may also wish to ask him how on earth he has managed it while holding down several other demanding jobs, not least his editorship of the CTS New Catholic Bible, which is of course the intermediate ancestor of the present volume.

The origins of the Revised New Jerusalem Bible (hereinafter RNJB) lie, of course, in the 1966 Jerusalem Bible (JB); some of us can recall the queues in Oxford bookshops when it first appeared, over half a century ago. It had then an immediate impact, which it has not yet lost. The JB, of course, is the translation still used today in Catholic churches, in this country and others. It was in those days an immense revolution for people to have in their hands a new translation of the entire Bible into English, with scholarly notes to allow readers a glimpse of the context from which the biblical texts emerged. Not all of us, however, realised that the main point of the JB in the mind of its first editors was not so much the translation as the notes. Rather than offering us a fresh version of Scripture, the JB’s aim was, in the light of the recently-finished Second Vatican Council, to convey some of the richness, theological and otherwise, of the work of the Dominican scholars of the École Biblique; the aim was to give readers a sense of what was going on in the text. The translation of the text was in effect made on the basis of the French text of the Bible de Jerusalem; and it employed the ‘dynamic equivalence’ approach, which some found very disconcerting indeed. The JB’s origins go back, of course, far beyond Vatican II; for it belongs in the wake of that great encyclical of Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), which encouraged the serious work of biblical scholarship, urging us all to learn the appropriate languages and get to grips with modern studies of the Scriptures. Since many of the scholars at the École Biblique were involved in the early days of the investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), with all they have taught us of the background from which the New Testament emerged, inevitably, and importantly, that area of study informed much of the notes that appeared in the JB.

Obviously, however, both scholarship and language move on in fifty years; we are still digesting the impact of the DSS and other advances in the academic reading of the Bible, and Christians, particularly Catholic Christians, nowadays show a greater openness to the work of contemporary biblical scholarship. A great deal has changed in our reading of the Bible, perhaps at greater pace than at any time in the history of Judaism and Christianity. Language is always changing, and for a variety of reasons, it is possible to argue that English has changed more rapidly since the JB appeared than at any time since the creative years of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. For that reason, the appearance of the RNJB is decidedly timely.

We have already indicated that the original idea of the JB was to offer the translation as a vehicle for the new scholarship. This was mainly the work of the great Alexander Jones, though he gathered around him some distinguished litterateurs and scholars (J. R. R. Tolkien, for example, and the great Anthony Kenny). The scholarly notes were, and remain, of great importance, not in order to overwhelm the reader with learning, but to give them a better chance of understanding these very diverse writings.

Traduttore, traditore, as the Italians put it, and one can always take issue with this or that translation, or to ask why this particular verse was given an explanatory note, while that (much harder one) was not; for it always seems to be precisely the verse that is hardest to understand that a translator or editor passes over in lofty silence, as though its meaning were pellucid. Perhaps more important for readers today is being forced to think about why at this point a much-loved translation has been replaced by another, less familiar, one. For that reason, every Bible reader should have at least two versions, preferably with scholarly annotations, open before them. This will serve as a reminder that every attempt at translation and every scholarly footnote has a merely provisional quality, and is not as irrevocable as the ‘laws of the Medes and the Persians’. So, for example, a biblical scholar reading the RNJB might occasionally find herself, or himself muttering, ‘well – I would not put it quite like that’ or ‘I’m not really convinced by that translation’, or ‘Why does he not say something about the maddening obscurity of that verse?’; but then complaining is what we biblical scholars do for a living, and does not detract from the merit of this translation. It is clearly a step back in the right direction that the RNJB is based, not on the French text of the Bible de Jerusalem, but on the Hebrew and the Greek. It is a praiseworthy aim always to use the same English word for the same word in the original, though my own experience suggests that it is impossible. It is excellent that the editor has tried to bring out the differences between the Synoptics; the danger of a committee translation is that they produce a kind of puréed sludge, where every author sounds just like every other author. The difficulty with this procedure, I have discovered, is that when you try to set out the Gospels synoptically, it is very difficult to reflect the Greek adequately. Like the admirable scholars who produced the King James Version, Dom Henry has opted for what you might call ‘proclaimability’, in particular abandoning the JB’s ‘broken speech’. There will be a variety of views about the propriety of translating the Hebrew word ‘almah at Isaiah 7.14 as ‘virgin’. There is in the RNJB a detectable shift towards formal rather than (as in the JB) functional or dynamic equivalence as a model for translation, and I think that is a decided advantage, although you can never get away from the question about whether a translator (and especially a biblical translator) should be attentive more to the demands of the source language than those of the target language. There is, too, a highly serviceable ‘Index to the Notes’, which enables a thematic approach to the scholarship, and will, if properly used, allow the reader a deepening acquaintance with the texts of the Bible. But all this, and the slight tension that is detectable in the attitude to inclusive language in this volume, is just part of the general point that we need to make: that translation, and especially translation of the Bible, is an extraordinarily difficult task. No translation is perfect, and the RNJB is no exception to this general rule; but it is a great gift to us all and should be widely used.

All of which, just at the present juncture, raises an important question, namely ‘what are the chances of having the RNJB as the translation of choice for Catholic churches in England and Wales, or even wider?’ For it seems to me that in comparison with other suggested versions, the RNJB has a more contemporary ring, the scholarship is more up-to-date, and the option which (for the most part) it makes for inclusive language is today an essential element in making it clear that the Bible is for everybody, not just for males. There is also, of course, the fact that we have been using the JB for half a century. This means that there will be less of a culture-shock for Catholic congregations in employing the RNJB than if we use any other suggested version. There has been for some years a widespread sense that the JB has, as they say nowadays, ‘passed its sell-by date’, and a variety of suggestions have been made about how to replace it. One idea was to put together the leading Catholic biblical scholars in a room, like the seventy who (according to legend) produced the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, until they came up with a version on which they all agreed. Another was to use the (in many ways admirable) NRSV; but that fell foul of copyright law. Most recently the suggestion has been touted of using the English Standard Version, a largely literal translation of evangelical origin (and perhaps none the worse for that); but it is hard to see how that will work for Catholic congregations today. Is it too late to plead for second thoughts, and another look at the RNJB?

Nicholas King SJ, Campion Hall, Oxford

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