From: Theology’s Impact on Translation: KJV to NRSV Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2013
Roman Catholic Translations
later than the King James Version, the Catholic clergy published their “orthodox”
substitute for it, known as the
being a beacon to encourage the aspirations of future Catholic translators, the
Furthermore, the European clergy was always cautious about conceding the value—if any—of vernacular translations of the scriptures in the first place. Although the English-speaking clergy gradually grew to be more tolerant on the subject, the older and continuing European hostility must have been an additional psychological burden for English-language Catholic translators to bear. In short, the Roman Catholic Church settled for a far inferior level of translation than its scholars were quite capable of producing.
Since we are primarily interested in translations readily available to the contemporary reading audience, we need not probe the intervening centuries and can move the discussion into the twentieth century.
The Catholic Bibles that we will consider. These are volumes that were available in the late 1980s when the bulk of this volume was originally compiled. References to other translations that have been since “updated” also refer to editions available in that same time frame.
Francis A. Spencer, C.P., prepared a New Testament (“translated into English from the original Greek”) which was published in its completed form by the Macmillan Company (New York, 1937). The first portion of Matthew to John had appeared in 1901. This was so popular that the completed volume went through four editions in the following four years.
Spencer then turned to the remainder of the New Testament, being in the process of putting the final touches on it when he died in 1913. Further minor revisionary work was undertaken before it finally appeared in print in the 1930s.
[Page 25] This was no slap dash effort, as noted by the “Introduction:” “On this work he spent the last twelve years of his life, going over it very carefully nine different times, and comparing it diligently with the Vulgate and the ancient Syriac versions” (page x). Spencer was “an accomplished linguist” in Latin and Syriac as well as Greek and Hebrew (page v).
“Msgr.” Ronald A. Knox is noted for being one of a mere handful of
men to have personally translated both testaments. The New Testament was printed by Sheed & Ward (
Unlike the other Catholic translations we are considering, Knox translated from the Latin Vulgate. To him the Greek and Hebrew were of importance but still secondary. The other translations placed the Greek and Hebrew front and center, though being careful (for confessional reasons if nothing else) to note significant differences from the Vulgate.
Knox clearly considered his work as among those we would call “modern speech translations.” His short volume On Englishing the Bible (London: Burns Oates, 1949) is a useful introduction to the rationale behind this type of rendition and to the type of difficulties all translators face. He makes plain that his approach was intensely controversial among his coreligionists and that he had encountered a tidal wave of severe criticism for taking it.
The James A. Kleist and Joseph L. Lilly New
Testament (“rendered from the Original Greek with Explanatory Notes;”
“The principal object in this new translation . . . has been to render the Greek into such modern English as I felt would approve itself to American Catholics,” writes the translator, Kleist (page vi). “Least of all was it my intention to produce a slavishly literally rendering of word for word, rather, my purpose has been to express, so far as possible, the exact meaning of the original text” (page vii)
In 1961 La Bible de Jerusalem
appeared and was immediately hailed as a landmark of modern French Catholic
scholarship. In 1966 the English version
appeared under the title The
Jerusalem Bible (
The Biblical text, however, is translated directly from the Hebrew and Greek. The input of the French-language scholars still dominated, however: wherever there are two ways to translate a word or phrase into English, the French language preference / equivalent is followed. Just as the English Revised Version reflected British English, the Jerusalem Bible exhibits an English as filtered through the eyes and distinctive ways of phrasing of Frenchmen.
Both the English and French Jerusalem Bibles have also been criticized for needlessly allowing the Septuagint and other ancient translations to override the available evidence from the Hebrew.
The New American Bible (Thomas Nelson, Inc.) appeared in 1970 and received far less publicity than it deserved. The appearance of the New English Bible and the [Page 26] justified controversies surrounding it, probably played a major factor in diverting attention.
The Confraternity New Testament had been published in 1941, with the intention of ultimately providing a translation of both testaments. It relied upon the Vulgate as its basis of translation.
However a new willingness was appearing at the higher levels of the American Catholic hierarchy to both allow and encourage translation from the original Biblical tongues. This led to the NAB rather than the completion of the Confraternity. The NAB rests on the foundation of the Confraternity, though that earlier effort was reviewed and redone as necessary to make it more faithful to the Hebrew and Greek. The translation is also interesting because it involved the inclusion of some Protestant translators. How times have changed!
1. Comparative RC Renderings
20th Century Translations
Two of the Catholic versions consist of just
the New Testament (Spencer and Kleist-Lilly) while three
compass both testaments (Knox,
A. “Original” (inherited Adamic) sin in Psalms 51:5
This is a classic proof text of both Calvinism and Catholicism, confidently introduced to prove that we are born totally depraved. However, from the non-Calvinist standpoint, the text does not assertion that David possessed sin at the time of his conception, but that his grown mother did—she shared the status of all adults of being a sinner at the time of her child’s birth:
“Behold I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (NAB). The second half of the verse is parallel with the first half and explains it. Going beyond this lies exegesis, which is the basis on which “original sin” is to be established if it is to be established at all: The text itself simply does not assert it.
This restraint is not observed by Knox who shades the passage in the direction of original sin by replacing “I was brought forth in iniquity” with the words, “I was born in sin,” which would most naturally be taken as an assertion that David himself was a sinner at birth.
[Page 27] The Jerusalem Bible makes the doctrine explicit: “You know I was born guilty, a sinner from the moment of conception”—omitting entirely the reference to David’s mother. The NAB seems to move slightly in the opposite direction: “Indeed, in guilt was I born, and in sin my mother conceived me.” Since we normally speak of “guilt” in terms of conscious reaction to our misdeeds, the expression would also have to refer to the speaker’s mother rather than to the speaker himself: at the time of conception the future / beginning baby was surely no “conscious” entity that could feel and acknowledge its guilt.
B. Human sexuality in 1 Corinthians 7:1-2
Spencer’s rendering sounds like the one we are accustomed to: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” Kleist-Lilly bring out the allusion to sexual conduct: “It is well for a man to have no intimate relations with a woman.”
On the other hand, Knox’s rendering either reflects British usage of English or falls over the line into a commentary-style interpolation of prostitution into the text: “A man does well to abstain from all commerce with women.” The Jerusalem Bible returns to: “it is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman.”
Four of the translations give the reason for Paul’s admonition as being the need to avoid “fornication” or “immortality” (verse 2). In contrast, the Jerusalem Bible seems to reflect a traditional clerical bias against even married sexuality by asserting, “Since sex is always a danger, let a man have his own wife. . . .”
C. Celibacy bias in 1 Corinthians 9:5
Since the Catholic Church requires that its clergy be unmarried and that its Pope have the same status, there would be a natural tendency to minimize the fact that Peter was a married man. The New American Bible resists the temptation when it comes to 1 Corinthians 9:5: “Do we not have the right to marry a believing woman like the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?”
The other four translations recoil from such candor and its implicit rejection of any celibacy requirement. The Jerusalem Bible refers to “the right to take a Christian woman round with us, like all the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas.” Knox: “Have we not the right to travel about with a woman who is a sister?” Spencer: “Have we not a right to bring about with us a Christian woman?” Kleist-Lilly: “Do we not have the right to take with us in our travels a woman who is a Christian?”
In addition to interpolating the term “Christian” into the text, this shaded reading opens the door for a leering snear from the unbeliever who would know full well that terms like “travel about with a woman” connotes in our society. Yet the translators themselves would surely have repudiated any insinuation even though their translation opens the door to it.
As do similar wordings found in conservative style translations. Might this not be a case where, textually justified or not, adding the word “marry” or “married” is the only way to accurately convey the text’s intention?
D. Peter and the “rock” in Matthew 16:18
The Roman Church teaches that the “rock” on which the church was built in Matthew was the apostle Peter himself. Since this is one of the fundamental teachings of Catholicism, it would not be startling to find some translators of that background attempt to make “explicit” the doctrine they claim is found in that verse.
clear of this temptation by translation, “Thou art Peter, and it is upon this
rock that I will build my church.” Kleist-Lilly and
The NAB chooses to stress the play on words found in the verse in such a way as to strengthen the Catholic interpretation: “I, for my part declare to you, you are “rock,’ and on this rock I will build my church. . . .” However this only alludes to the play on words without bringing out the full contrast that the word-play requires.
“Peter” means “rock;” this is true. But it also means a small rock, a pebble, while the “rock” on which the church is built is a Greek term indicating a massive ledge of rock. Rather than making Peter the rock, the word-play makes him different from the rock on which the church is erected. At the same time it is also a dart into the balloon of Peter’s pride: he is a mere pebble compared to the massive boulder on which the church is raised.
So if there is to be an indication in our English translation of the existence of the play on words, it should be one that stresses the difference between them. Perhaps “thou art a small pebble of a rock and upon this massive ledge of rock I will built my church.” Likewise the substitution of “but” for and would bring out the contrasting element inherent in the verse: “You are Peter, but on this rock I will build my church.”
brings out the contrasting element in the verse in a manner that likely is
intended to conflate the two as identical:
“Thou art a rock, and upon this rock I will built My church.” It can
equally well be read as stressing the contrast between the two rocks, an
unintended side-effect of the rendering.
E. The expansion of the gospel to the “gentiles”
Jerusalem Bible opts for an odd rendering of Acts 13:46: “Since you have rejected it (the word of
God), since you do not think yourselves worthy of eternal life, we must turn to
the pagans.” It has been rightly pointed
out that the proper contrast to “Jew” is not “pagan” but “Gentile” and it is so
rendered in the other Catholic translations being studied.
F. A premillennial-style concept of the ultimate salvation of all Jews in Romans 11:26
American Standard has the correct rendering:
“And thus (i.e., in this way, by this means) all
Kleist-Lilly substitute “shall” for “will” but otherwise
the rendering is identical. Spencer may
have the element of conditionality in mind when he renders, “So all
[Page 29] The remaining three translations clearly
convert the passage from a description of the means of salvation for all
In addition to being flat incorrect, these renderings also constitute a warning that even mistranslations do not always proceed from the particular doctrinal biases of the translators. How many Roman Catholics are going to go out of their way to uphold a distinctive doctrine of Protestant premillennialism? Hence a translation may be erroneous, but not out of the desire to advance a theological agenda.
G. Translation of ekklesia
Although the transliteration of this word into English as “church” is part of the accepted terminology of religious discussion, to translate “ekklesia” requires the substitution of language such as “assembly” or “congregation.” Here is how the five Catholic translations render “ekklesia” in several representative passages—
16:18: “church” in all five cases; three
capitalize the “c” (
Matthew 18:17: “church” in four cases; “community” in the Jerusalem Bible.
Acts (referring to
Corinthians 14:4 of spiritual gifts in the “ekklesia:” “church” in three instances (Knox, Spencer, NAB), “congregation” once (Kleist-Lilly);
and “community” once (
H. References to the personhood of the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is a Being, a Person. As such the correct way to refer to the Spirit is as a “He,” not an “it” since “he” in traditional usage covers all persons, all thinking and independent entities while “it” refers to something lacking thinking capacity and the ability to independently act on its own volition. The KJV uses “it” only once of the Spirit, but nearly all of us seem to use it far more commonly, perhaps because of the difficulty of picturing a “spirit” in “person” language. Here is how the RC translations handle the matter in several representative texts—
John 7:39: “the Spirit, which was to be received by those who learned to believe” (Knox). “Which” is also used in the Jerusalem Bible. This is the usage most congenial to describing the Spirit in “thing” and “it” (rather than person) language.
The other three translations do not make that mistake. “Here he was referring to the Spirit, whom those that came to believe in him were to receive” (NAB). “Whom” is also found in Spencer and Kleist-Lilly.
John 14:26: “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name” (NAB). The use of “whom” is also found in the other four translations.
Romans 5:5: “the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (New American Bible). “Who” is also found in Spencer and Kleist-Lilly. “Whom is substituted by Knox. In [Page 30] dissent, the Jerusalem Bible “depersonifies” the Spirit: “the Holy Spirit, which has been given us.”
I. Overview: Evaluation of the translations’ renderings
Although we have discovered some theological slanting, there can be no denying that, over all, these efforts all represent dramatic improvement over the Douay—a virtual tidal wave in comparison. Presumably in future years, yet further progress will be made in the direction of strict translator objectivity (or, at least, as near as struggling mortals can come). As with any other translations, there are “non-doctrinal” weak readings, of course but that is nothing unique to these versions as we will see as we continue along in this book.
Knox’s determination to translate from the secondary Latin rather than the primary Greek and Hebrew carries with it inherent problems. In addition, his desire to produce a “modern speech” translation allows an always alarming degree of subjectivity (which we will discuss in greater detail when we consider modern speech translations).
That leaves us with the Jerusalem Bible and the New American Bible to consider in more detail. Of the two, the NAB is certainly the better but that doesn’t exempt it from its share of problems.
2. New American Bible
In the category of outrageous blunder we must place this translation’s rendering of Proverbs 229: “So that your trust may be in the Lord, I have taught you today, even you” is the wording of the New American Standard. In contrast, the NAS has this startling interpolation: “That your trust may be in the Lord, I make known to you the words of Amen-em-Ope”! To believe that the Proverbist would utilize some Egyptian proverbs would not be overly startling since wisdom sayings could hardly draw national boundaries to confine them within any given country.
On the other hand, any allegation of borrowing would still be open to challenge as to whether this particular text has done so. However to interpolate it into the text itself substitutes commentary for translation. Commentary should go in notes and not the text.
In Mark 8:6 a different expression is substituted for “soul” and seriously alters the sense of the text: “What profit does a man show who gains the whole world and destroys himself in the process?”
Those crucified with Jesus are called “insurgents” (Matthew 27:38). That may well be a correct guess as to the kind of “robbers” they were (i.e., revolutionaries), but one would be hard pressed to prove it sufficiently to justify it as a translation. Since when are all “robbers”—even in a country torn by insurrection—members of that insurrection?
[Page 31] Those called “the sons of the prophets” in the New American Standard, may well have been, at least in effect, “guild prophets” as the NAB asserts (2 Kings ), but hasn’t the line been crossed again between translation into commentary.
Lewis discusses additional challenged readings (N. 1):
The innovations in the New Testament most likely to raise discussion
include the use of “reform” (Matthew 3:8, 11; Mark ; Luke ; Acts )
where the reader is accustomed to “repent.” However, “repentance” is sometimes
retained (Mark 1:4; Acts ), and “penance” also is found (Luke 24:47).
“Trust” is used where one expects “believe.” People are cured by “trust”
(Matthew 8:13). However, “faith” is not avoided in Hebrews 11 or in James.
As the name of God, we are accustomed to “Lord” (King James, Revised Standard, etc.) and “Jehovah” (American Standard). The JB substitutes “Yahweh” which is now widely accepted as correct by the scholarly world. This is a prime example of where a translation may be correct, but still not effectively communicate. The reaction of many (most?) Bible readers would likely be: “Who or what is an Yahweh?” “Jehovah,” for better or worse, that name they recognize.
“Hades” is rendered by that term (Acts , 31), but also by “the underworld” (Matthew ) which would seemingly suggest a geographic location beneath the earth, and by “Hell” (Matthew ). This variety in translation would be far more likely to confuse the reader rather than enlighten him or her as to the Biblical teaching of the life after death. Retaining the same terminology throughout—for the same word is under consideration—makes it more likely that they can work the passages into a synthesis.
A few additional distinctive renderings should be pointed out. The “ten commandments” are transformed into “the ten sayings” (Deuteronomy 10:4). Did God merely suggest or recommend these ten behaviors or was He demanding them—a concept far better expressed by the traditional “commandments.”
Instead of “blessed are” in the Beatitudes, “happy” is suggested. “Happy” typically carries with it the ideas of pleasure and something one enjoys doing. Not all the beatitudes necessarily fall into that category, do they?
The vaguer “fruit of the vine” used of the Lord’s Supper in Luke 228 is replaced with a specific type of fruit of the vine, “wine.” Although far from impossible and widely endorsed, the concepts of “unleavened” (bread) and “fermented” (wine) conceptually don’t seem to go together well. “Unleavened” and “unfermented” would seem to be a conceptual match.
As in some other translations, “good news” is substituted for “gospel” (in Romans , for example). Although “good news” is justified, there are a 1,001 kinds of “good [Page 32] news;” “gospel” does have the advantage of immediately specifying what / which “good news” the speaker has in mind.
4. “Catholicized” Protestant Bibles:
Catholic Edition of the RSV
By the expression “Catholicized Protestant Bibles” we mean Bibles that were originally produced with a Protestant audience in mind, but which were later approved by officials with the RC hierarchy for circulation within their own community. The first we examine is The Holy Bible—Catholic Edition, Revised Standard Version.
This edition includes the apocryphal books of the Old Testament that are accepted as part of the canon by the Roman Church—as well as more. The edition alerts the reader that these are challenged books not accepted even by the Catholic Church by printing a two column list. On the left hand is a column labeled “Apocrypha” and on the right is a column labeled “deuterocanonical books.” Several books included in the left hand column are described as “not included” in the right hand list, i.e., the Roman Church concurs in excluding them.
I’m not quite sure of the motive behind this procedure. Could the RSV translators have been nervous concerning possible criticism for including the Catholic apocrypha at all? If so, this double listing approach would allow them to contend that though they included the books their real opinion of their value was indicated by lumping them with other books even the Catholic Church rejects.
Yet Catholics could ignore that possible skepticism by pointing to the fact that in the “Contents” their additional books are scattered among the “Protestant” canon, as they would be in traditional Catholic versions. (Instead of being included in a separate section as typical among Protestant revisions that include them.)
Discounting the annotations/commentary (modest in length and placed at the end of the respective testaments), “sixty-seven changes (were made) in the New Testament . . . . all congenial to Catholic thought” of course (N. 2). This is really not as large a number of alterations as one might expect and indicates that the basic reliability of the better Protestant translations had at long last been conceded.
At the back of the RSV-Catholic Edition (RSVCE) (pages 254-259) the changes in text and translation footnotes are brought together and on the basis of this comparative list our following remarks are made.
Some of the changes represent options preferred—and even demanded—by rigorous conservative critics. Mark 16:9-20 is removed from footnote status and inserted into the text, where it has always properly belonged in my judgment. No indication in printing style—such as an extra line space—is given to indicate its being widely challenged. A footnote does acknowledge the controversy as well as providing a much less attested reading.
[Page 33] The woman taken in adultery (John ) is also reasserted into the text with the footnote notation: “Some ancient authorities insert either at the end of this gospel or after Luke , with variations of the text. Others omit it altogether.”
Matthew (“he who falls on the stone will be broken” etc.) is placed back in the main-body text. Likewise the blessing on the cup in Luke 22:19b-20.l. The reference to “Peter . . . running to the tomb” in Luke 24:12 is placed back within the text, along with the remainder of the verse. In Matthew 19:9 the RSV omits the words “commits adultery, and he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery”—words which the RSVCE restores.
In all these cases marginal notes/footnotes are given that indicate these readings are omitted by some “ancient authorities.” It never specifies how many: it prefers the vaguer and inadequate “other ancient authorities” to the more desirable and explicit “some ancient authorities” or “many ancient authorities.” Perhaps not surprisingly the identity of which “ancient authorities” are intended is also omitted.
If one were not aware of the religious community the volume was being edited for, other insertions might be looked upon as sure signs of an “evangelical” disposition determining many textual additions, such as those above and these as well:
· “This righteous man’s blood” (Matthew 27:24)
· “He is not here, but has risen” (Luke 24:5)
· “And was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51)
· “Worshipped him” (Luke 24:52)
Even more explicitly “evangelical” would be the replacement found in Romans 9:5. The normal RSV text (“Christ, who is God over all be blessed for ever”) is placed in the margin as an alternative reading. The main text refers directly to Christ’s deity: “Christ, who is God over all, blessed for ever.”
On a less doctrinal level, “To live according to Scripture” is replaced with the more familiar reading, “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6). Paul’s “I take it to mean” in Ephesians becomes “I mean in reference to.” A number of additional replacement footnotes involve statements as to the monetary value of various coins referred to in the New Testament.
So, this far at least, we have seen a startling number of adjustments that would please both the advocates of the textus receptus and those highly conservative advocates of a “critical” text whose judgment agree with the retention of some or most of the RSVCE readings. And, of course, if this were a self-designated “evangelical” translation we would expect this situation.
The fact that we find such readings where we might not anticipate them should put us on guard against allowing the presence of inadequate or improper readings to blind us to the virtues of a translation when they are present as well. This is far from “white washing” the failures; it is to consider the entire work in making an evaluation and not just part of it.
Since Jesus was the only child ever born to Mary—according to Catholic theology at least—the vaguer “brethren” is substituted in those passages referring to His physical kinsmen. However this is certainly not lack precedent in non-Catholic works as well (the KJV and ASV, for example).
[Page 34] Just as militant evangelicals have so cherished certain phrases that they are hostile to ever changing them, so do Catholics. “O favored one” as a description of Mary (Mary ) is returned to “full of grace.” Constant repetition has read into that phrase a meaning, among Catholics, that the text itself was never intended to bear.
In 1 Corinthians 7, the RSV text is altered several times: to “the unmarried” in verse 25, to “a girl” in verses 28 and 34, and to “betrothed” in verses 36, 37, and 38. Marginal notes are provided in each case to indicate that the Greek word utilized is for “virgins.” Although one could find here a suggestion of Catholicism’s excessive veneration of virginity (leading to celibate religious leadership, nuns, and monks), the word there is “virgin” and the noting of it is both proper and desirable when it is not placed in the main text translation.
All in all, we find an extremely modest degree of “slanting.” Compared to the excesses of the Douay version, it is the difference between night and day.
5. “Catholicized” Protestant Bibles:
The Common Bible RSV
Although labeled on the cover The Common Bible (Collins: 1973), the title page describes it a bit differently, The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version—An Ecumenical Edition. The apocryphal books are again included.
Those changes that might be regarded as peculiarly “Catholic:” “Brothers” remained “Brothers” rather than “brethren.” “O favored one” was retained rather than being replaced with “full of grace” (Luke ). The highly desirable footnotes concerning “virgin(s)” are retained in 1 Corinthians 7.
The “Preface to the Common Bible sums up those changes the RSV had made for it:
Two passages, the longer ending of Mark (16:9-20) and the account of the
woman caught in adultery (John ) are restored to the text, separated
from it by a blank space and accompanied by informative notes describing the
various arrangements of the text in the ancient authorities.
With new manuscript support two passages, Luke 22:19b-20 and 24:51b,
are restored to the text, and one passage, Luke 22:43-44, is placed in the note, as
is a phrase in Luke 12:39. Notes are added which indicate significant variations,
additions, or omissions in the ancient authorities (Matthew ; Mark ; 7:4;
Luke 24:32, 51, etc.). Among the new notes are those giving the equivalence of
ancient coinage . . . (page v).
N. 1 -- Jack Lewis, English Bible, page 223.
N. 2 -- Ibid., page 116.