The Augustine Bible:
English Standard Version, Catholic Edition
augustine institute, 1,232 pages, $49.95
Of the making of Bibles, it seems, there is no end. When I was growing up in the eighties and nineties, there were three dominant translations: Mainline Protestants had the Revised Standard Version (the major American Bible in the Tyndale–King James tradition), and then the inclusive-language New Revised Standard Version; Catholics had the New American Bible; and evangelicals had the New International Version.
But because language evolves, because churches and individuals are never quite happy with existing translations, and because Bibles sell whether or not they are actually read, Bible translations and editions have proliferated rapidly. In 2005, the Today’s New International Version was issued as an inclusive-language replacement for the older NIV. In the Common English Version (2011), mainline scholars and progressive evangelicals produced a translation in line with their theological and linguistic leanings. More recently, N. T. Wright and David Bentley Hart have done their own translations of the New Testament. There are also the Green Bible, the Life Recovery Bible, the Duck Commander Faith and Family Bible, the American Patriot’s Bible, and many others. Most important for our purposes, evangelicals of a conservative persuasion issued the English Standard Version in 2001.
Do we need yet another Bible? Catholics certainly do. The New American Bible, the Bible most commonly used in Catholic liturgy, is frequently clunky and offers questionable translations of important passages. The second Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version is serviceable, far better than the NAB, but is essentially an ad hoc project. The first Catholic RSV lightly adapted the mainline RSV for Catholic use. The second brought certain scriptural passages of liturgical significance into accord with the later Liturgiam Authenticam, the Church’s 2001 document concerning the right use of the vernacular in the liturgy. The great weakness of both editions of the Catholic RSV is that they often fail to show how the Old Testament prefigures the New and the New fulfills the Old. The new English Standard Version–Catholic Edition (ESV–CE) stands, like the RSV, in the Tyndale–King James tradition, but it is much more faithful to the way the Church reads the Scriptures. It ought to be the translation of choice for English-speaking Catholics.
The Catholic ESV has its roots in India, where the Catholic bishops felt the need for a new English translation of the Bible. They turned to the conservative Protestant ESV and appointed a team of Scripture scholars and theologians to review and emend it for Catholic liturgical use. The Catholic ESV received an imprimatur from the bishops of India in 2018, and now the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado, makes this project of the Catholic Church in India available to the rest of the Catholic world. It is a reminder that the Catholic Church has been enriched by the spoils drawn from various Protestant traditions, and that Catholics in Europe and North America have much to gain from the witness and work of their brothers and sisters in the Global South.
The Indian bishops’ translation team made several dozen important changes on academic and theological grounds. The changes move the translation in a Catholic direction, but far from being a tendentious exercise, the changes have good text-critical warrant, are justified interpretations of the ancient texts, and are doctrinally illuminating.
For instance, in the original divine promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3, the current Catholic RSV renders the Hebrew as the Lord saying: “and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (v. 3). The ESV (and likewise, now, the Catholic ESV) reads: “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” This latter translation makes it possible for readers to understand the New Testament claims that the promises to Abraham are fulfilled in Christ, who is savior of both Jews and Gentiles, and so Gentiles—and thus all the families of the earth—may be blessed in Abraham through Christ (see Galatians 3:14).
Most modern translations of the Bible look askance at the New Testament’s use of the Old, preferring to see the “Hebrew Bible” as a self-contained entity. Take the classic case of Isaiah 7:14, which Christians have long regarded as a prophecy of the birth of Christ. The RSV translated the Hebrew almah therein as “young woman,” whereas the Gospel of Matthew, drawing on the Greek Septuagint’s version of Isaiah 7:14 (which has parthenos), presents Isaiah as prophesying the virgin conception and birth of Jesus: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive . . .” (Matt. 1:23, Catholic ESV, and all other modern English translations). It is true that almah can mean “young woman,” but it’s not clear in Isaiah 7:14 that the almah’s virginity is excluded, and it is significant that the Septuagint itself renders almah as parthenos, understanding the almah to be a virgin. If we as Christians believe the New Testament makes patent that which is latent in the Old, we are within bounds in rendering almah as “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14. “Virgin” is a valid linguistic option, and as St. Augustine reminds us in De Doctrina Christiana, the Rule of Faith helps us provide determinate interpretations when the text seems indeterminate.
Influenced by the historical-critical school that flourished in the nineteenth century, most modern translators have adopted a low Christology. Any scriptural passage that seems to affirm the divinity of Christ is regarded as a later interpolation. Many modern translations accordingly downplay such language. A classic case is Romans 9:5. The NRSV has “from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever.” For its part, the revised NAB has “theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Messiah. God who is over all be blessed forever. Amen.” The Greek is perhaps vague, but ho Christos (“the Christ”) seems to pair with ho ōn epi pantōn theos (“God over all things”). And so the Catholic ESV (like the Catholic RSV) renders the phrase “the Christ, who is God over all,” thus making the divinity of Christ clear.
In John 1:18, by contrast, even the Catholic RSV makes a textual judgment that leaves the divinity of Christ obscure, when it is otherwise clear as the summer sun throughout the Gospel of John. It renders the verse, “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” The Catholic ESV follows the reading present in one of the best manuscripts (p66), a rendering that accords with the emphasis on Christ’s divinity present elsewhere in the Gospel. It translates John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” This is in accord not only with responsible textual methods but also with the Church’s own traditions.
Above all, the Catholic ESV is pleasing to the ear. The NAB infamously translates Isaiah 9:5: “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” The Catholic ESV, drawing on the tradition going back to the King James and Douay-Rheims, renders the verse, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” You can hear Handel’s Messiah.
Each Bible translation is informed by certain theological assumptions, and the ESV has been criticized for tendentious renderings. One suspects the Catholic ESV will be as well. In fact, the historical-critical assumptions that these translations are faulted for departing from have their own confessional history and theological tendency. Historical-critical method holds forth the promise of overleaping the centuries in order to gain unmediated access to the original text. One examines the best Hebrew and Greek manuscripts to determine what a biblical author actually wrote, then uses the methodologies of modern linguistics to render that meaning into English with scientific exactness. This approach was promoted by Harnack, Bultmann, Tillich, and other liberal Protestant luminaries, who drew on Luther’s idea that written Scripture is a husk and the living Christ its kernel. Husks are discarded, and so liberal Protestantism felt quite free to discard what, say, St. Paul meant in the first century in favor of what he means for “modern man.” (Of course, modern man was generally a progressive-minded German, not a conservative believer in Africa.)
There is another way to translate ancient texts, one that doesn’t aspire singlehandedly to bridge the centuries. Both the RSV and the ESV follow this method, the former less successfully. This method seeks to connect with biblical authors through the tradition out of which they wrote and which they have borne forth to us. This is the way of Hans-Georg Gadamer, the philosopher who so incisively criticized the modern process of trying to secure truth by method, especially in the humanities. Historians (Bible scholars among them) sought an Archimedean point of neutral objective reference from which they could apply a rational method in the examination of texts and arrive at their objective meaning. What ancient texts like the Bible might mean for the present day was a matter then for philosophers and theologians (who were usually happy to leave history and the results of historical criticism in the past). Gadamer’s insight was that we are within history, and the past has produced our present. Traditions of all sorts have made us who we are. The historian must recognize this, and only then can he engage in a fusion of horizons with ancient authors and interpret (that is, accept, reject, or modify) them for the present.
Bible translators stand in two intertwined streams of tradition: the tradition of the language into which they’re translating, and the tradition of the Faith, with its dogmas, doctrine, practices, and culture. In Christian societies, earlier Bible translations have shaped the very language into which translators are bringing the ancient texts. In English, no translator should act as if the religious imagination of his audience had not been influenced by the Authorized Version. To ignore its rhythms and sonorities is to take too narrow a view of the English language, and so to fail in the act of translation. Likewise, the Bible is not just a collection of ancient words in dead languages. It is the living and active word of God bound up with the Church—its liturgy, dogma, and life. The Catholic ESV is faithful to both these traditions. No other modern translation is more stylistically successful or theologically sound.
Leroy A. Huizenga is professor of theology at the University of Mary.