Sunday, March 6, 2011

Reflections on the Soon to Be Released New American Bible (Revised Edition)

By: Msgr. Charles Pope at the Archdiocese of Washington:

We have talked before here about some concerns in regard to the New American Bible. Both the translations, and especially the footnotes, are matters of concern. Now comes the news that a revised version is being issued March 9. Here are excerpts of  the press release:

The New American Bible, revised edition (NABRE), the first major update to the New American Bible (NAB) translation in 20 years, has been approved for publication…..The NABRE will be available in a variety of print, audio and electronic formats on March 9, Ash Wednesday.

            The new translation takes into account advances in linguistics of the biblical languages, as well as changes in vocabulary and the cultural background of English, in order to ensure a more accurate translation. This issue is addressed in the apostolic exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, in which the pope says, “The inculturation of God’s word is an integral part of the Church’s mission in the world, and a  decisive moment in this process is the diffusion of the Bible through the precious work of translation into different languages.”

            The new translation also takes into account the discovery of new and better ancient manuscripts so that the best possible textual tradition is followed. The NABRE includes the first revised translation of the Old Testament since 1970 and a complete revision of the Psalter. It retains the 1986 edition of the New Testament. Work on most books of the Old Testament began in 1994 and was completed in 2001. The 1991 revision of the Psalter was further revised between 2009 and 2010.

I have seen a few samples of the text and there are things to affirm.

1.  The dreadful 1991 Psalter is gone. So significant were the problems with the 1991 Psalter that the Vatican rescinded approval for its use in the liturgy. Among the problems with the older Psalter was  an excessive use of “inclusive” language. One of the main problems with this is approach is that it shreds the messianic psalms of their reference directly to Christ. For example, in certain Psalms the text, “Blessed is the man” is often a reference to Christ who alone fulfills the psalm perfectly. Man,  in such cases, does not merely mean, “the person who.”  However, the 1991 Psalter in current NAB versions renders this phrase,  Blessed is the Man as Happy those. In so doing, they  lose, not only the gender, (for Christ is male), but they also make the reference plural. Hence a reference to Christ is wholly obscured. 
The new Psalter looks to have resolved this problem. I do not have access to the whole new Psalter so I cannot say if it will wholly resolve things. However, one psalm in the sample set  is psalm 8. The 1991 version crudely rendered verse 5-6 as What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor. The new text says, What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor.

2.  As for inclusive language in general the press backgrounder (found HERE) states the following: 

Does this Bible use inclusive language?  This edition reflects the original meaning of the texts. Much of the original material, especially in thee narrative books, was gender specific and remains so. All references to God retain the traditional use of masculine pronouns. Where the original reference was gender neutral, the translation reflects that.

This is hopeful, for although some support “inclusive” language, we must remember that we are dealing with a sacred text. It is dangerous to claim to be “more enlightened” than the sacred texts, and then set about editing the text. Hebrew and Greek make greater use of nuance in grammatical gender than English and we ought to respect that fact since,  it was in these languages that God chose to set forth his relevation. We conform to the text, we do not merely conform it to us.

3.  It’s time for a new translation. A lot has happened since 1970, to which most of the current NAB Old Testament translation dates. Biblical scholarship has clarified texts. In English usage certain usages have change.  Of this last point the press release gives a few examples:

Samples of longer text changes are at the end of this document, but some words that no longer appear include “booty” (replaced with “plunder”), “cereal” (replaced with “grain”), and “holocaust” (replaced with “burnt offering”). That is because they have taken on new meanings for modern readers and could distract from the original intent of the Scripture. [1]

All this said, there remain some on-going concerns remain.

1.  The 1986 New Testament remains unchanged. There are significant issues in regard to that translation. For example, it renders Gabriel’s salutation to Mary as Hail favored one! (Lk  1:26) instead of the usual and traditional (and probably more accurate) Hail full of grace!  There is also the tendency to render the Greek word porneia (sexual immorality) as merely “immorality” (which could mean anything). This is a consistent problem in the Pauline corpus. We have discussed more on these issues here: 

2. There may be an interpretive key in the new translation of the Old Testament that many do not favor. In a text I was not given access to it would appear that a historicist approach is being taken. Here is an excerpt from the USA Today article that describes the problem:

One change may set off alarms with traditionalists, in a passage many Christians believe foreshadows the coming of Christ and his birth to a virgin. The 1970 version of Isaiah 7:14 says “the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” The 2011 text refers to “the young woman” instead. It elaborates that the original Hebrew word, almah, may, or may not, signify a virgin.[2]

Now what this seems to indicate is what I call here a historicist approach. In this approach the interpretive key seeks to answer the question “How would a Jew of the 8th Century BC (in this case) understand this verse?” It is possible, and even probable, that a Jew of that era would think merely that a young girl would grow up, get married and have a baby.

But, frankly, I am not all that concerned with how a Jew of the 8th Century BC would understand it. For, as a Christian, I read the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament. And this text is clearly a reference to Mary and Christ. Almah signifies virgin, or young woman in Hebrew because, in that culture, young women were virgins (imagine that!).

New Testament Christians have rightly translated this verse as virgin because its reference to Mary is clearer and virgin is a perfectly acceptable way to translate Almah. But it looks like the editors of the NABRE want us to see it more as a Jew of the 8th Century BC would see it.

Catholic principles allow this interpretation but many do not prefer it since allusions are lost. St. Paul said regarding the Old Testament, these things were written for our instruction (Rom 15:4; cf 1 Cor 10:11). Jesus told the Jewish people of his day regarding the Old Testament: You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me (Jn 5:39).

Hence it seems more proper to read the scriptures not in an historicist sense, but as historical texts fulfilled in the New Testament, and understood in the light of the New Testament. I wish the NABRE would have used this approach which, at least according to this text, it did not.

3. The Footnotes of the New Testament are extremely problematic in places. At times they seem to directly question Catholic doctrine and the scriptural roots of it. We have talked more about that here:  I raised one problem, and commenters raised many other issues in the footnotes of the NAB New Testament.

It is my presumption that these bad footnotes will remain in the NT, even though the OT has been revised. Let us hope that the bishops will choose to pull the bad notes and replace them with better ones. Then the NAB will be “safer” for use by the inquiring faithful. Frankly, I struggle to hand it to the faithful with those footnotes. I have not seen the footnotes for the Old Testament in the NABRE and hope they will better annunciate the roots of Catholic teaching.

In the end, there is hope for this new translation. More will be known to us of this new translation next Wednesday when it goes live at the USCCCB website:  

The NAB remains the most widely used Catholic Bible and is tied to the liturgy. This new version will require further review at the Vatican before it is approved for liturgical use,  but it is likely to take its place in the Catholic liturgy in the next few years. I look forward with hope to on-going improvements in the New Testament sections and will receive the revised Old Testament with great and hopeful expectation this Wednesday.

Photo Credit: USCCB (right click for poperties)

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