The New American Bible (NAB), an unfortunate translation episcopally imposed upon Catholics for readings at Mass, has prompted earlier comment in First Things (see here and here). The problem keeps coming back, not least in pastoral counseling. Take the woman who had had it with her husband’s lying to her. I mentioned to her Our Lord’s admonition to forgive “seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22). That’s the way it reads in every widely used English translation, including the Douay-Rheims, an earlier English translation used by Catholics. Jesus obviously intended hyperbole, indicating that forgiveness is open-ended. Keep on forgiving as you are forgiven by God, for God’s forgiving is beyond measure or counting.
But this woman had been reading her NAB, according to which Jesus said we should forgive not “seventy times seven,” but “seventy times.” She had been keeping count, and her husband was well over his quota. Then there is Matt. 5:32 and 19:9, where in both passages Jesus says: “But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress.” In other widely used English translations, it is “unfaithfulness” or “marital unfaithfulness.” The Douay-Rheims says “excepting in the case of fornication.”
In both passages, the NAB puts it this way: “But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery.” Meaning a previous marriage had not been annulled by the diocesan marriage tribunal? Whatever.
Now to be perfectly fair, in the three passages mentioned there are ancient authorities that lend some support for the NAB translation. For instance, some ancient texts of Matthew 19 read “he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery,” which is closer to the NAB version. But in the tradition of translation, scholars have overwhelmingly decided that the manuscripts referring to unchastity or unfaithfulness are to be preferred.
Again and again, when manuscript authorities differ from one another, the NAB chooses against the scholarly consensus and the centuries-old tradition of English translation. Why is that? Is the purpose to deliberately destabilize the faithful’s already shaky familiarity with biblical texts? Maybe the idea is just to be different. What’s the point of a new translation if it isn’t very different from other translations?
The NAB is a banal, linguistically inept, and misleading translation. Why did the bishops force it upon the Catholic people, demanding that it and it alone be used in the readings of the Mass? Various answers are given: Because it was produced by the guild of Catholic biblical scholars and, while it may not be very good, at least it is ours. Because the bishops hold the copyright, and charges for using the NAB in Mass guides and elsewhere is a cash cow for the financially strapped bishops conference. Because the bishops really don’t care whether Catholics use a worthy and reliable translation of the Bible.
Whatever the reason, it is a continuing scandal that the bishops do not permit the use of other translations that are more reliable, readable, intelligible, and worthy of the written word of God. The best of them is the Revised Standard Version (RSV), but there are others. (For personal and group Bible study, the Catholic edition of the RSV, published by Ignatius Press, is recommended.)
It is worth noting that the NAB, unlike a number of other translations, is used only by Catholics in the United States and used only by them because they are required to use it in the liturgy. In their own writings, Catholic biblical scholars and other writers generally avoid the NAB. Not surprisingly, the NAB is defended by those who are responsible for producing it, and people who choose to do so are free to use it. It is quite another thing for the bishops to impose the exclusive use of a grievously flawed Bible translation upon the Catholic faithful at Mass.
Yet, on this and other matters, one prays for endurance, taking comfort from Saint Paul’s memorable and bracing words to Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have run the race, I have kept the faith.” One hopes to be able to say at the end of one’s days, “I have fought the good fight.” Or, as the NAB puts it, “I have competed well.”
The above is from “The Public Square” in a forthcoming issue of First Things. To become a subscriber, click here.