A Review of and Prediction for the New American Bible, Revised Edition
By CARL HERNZ
When you walk up to it where it currently stands on display in the Art Institute of Chicago, it is the amazing color that strikes you. Not so much vivid as they are ordinary, the realism of the tones (as they dance between the shades and sunlight upon the subjects pictured) make you wonder how the artist mixed and developed the colors he used and made sure they would not lose their effect due to the brushstrokes he employed.
But as you walk closer and closer to the painting, the colors begin to wash away. Then the shapes begin to lose their integrity, and when you find yourself standing right before the painting you realize that there are neither brush strokes nor any of the colors you saw from afar. Nothing but a network of dots of primary colors swimming in what appear to be a structure of nonsense stands before your nose. It was all an illusion—a powerful combination of science and imagination. A masterpiece.
The work, of course, is George Seurat’s famous impressionist piece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” It is an amazing example of pointillism, a technique which employs the use of small dots of tones that, when viewed from afar merge together in the brain to form images and colors, much like a newspaper photograph or the screenshot on a television are composed of minute specs of color and light.
Seurat’s work is so well done that one might find it hard to imagine how rejected it originally was. Many were outspoken on both the technique and the result when it was presented in the mid-1880s. Critics sneered at it and compared its graceful poses to stiff “tin soldiers.” So depressed by the horrible things people said about both the creator and the work, Seurat hid it from public sight. It would not be until after he had passed away that its rediscovery made “Sunday…” into the cherished piece it is now. So popular today, it is the most reproduced piece of art in history…ever.
Such is the life of a masterpiece.
A Catholic Bible Comes of Age
People with complaints will always find a way of getting others to hear them, while people who are satisfied generally exercise their contentment in silence.
This is characteristic of those who use the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States of America. Despite there being a very vocal, often quite loud cry of dissatisfaction regarding this translation of Scripture (and admittedly there is more than a little validity to the concerns often expressed), the New American Bible is widely accepted and admittedly the popular choice not only for American Catholics but many English-speaking Catholics around the world. So popular is this Bible that upon the release of its 2011 revision, the New American Bible Revised Edition or NABRE (pronounced like the word “neighbor”) became a best seller. While precise numbers are very hard to come by, to date the 2011 revision alone is by one market estimate to have surpassed 150 million copies in circulation.
Now each of us has our favorite Bible translation, and each of these translations has their merits, but there is a significant reason to reconsider what has been done to the NAB text in its 2011 revision. While most of the changes can be rightly labeled as small and compared to adding but tiny nuances to a painting, sometimes the addition of just a few readjustments can take something which was mediocre and turn it into a masterpiece. The newly revised NABRE is very much on the cusp of this.
Little Things Mean a Lot
A good rendition of the Bible will do more than give you God’s Word in a fashion you are accustomed to or that delights your ear. It will challenge you to examine for yourself its accuracy and move you to compare it with other versions. It will be suitable not only for personal reading but public proclamation such as at Mass. The text should be easy to compare with other versions and easily matched with the original text such as via an interlinear translation for in-depth study. It should be easy enough to understand but not so “hip” as to lose dignity as God’s Word. The NABRE is a Bible that does all this.
While space does not permit a complete overview of all the improvements to the New American Bible Old Testament text that appear in the 2011, NABRE, here are three examples that are characteristic of what you will find throughout this latest revision.
Most translations, such as the original NAB and the RSVce, rendered Genesis 1:24 as follows:
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth…”
—RSVce 2nd Edition.
But the new NABRE renders the same verse with a thought-provoking and accurate update:
Then God said: Let the earth bring forth every kind of living creature: tame animals, crawling things, and every kind of wild animal.—Italics added.
“Cattle” has now become “tame animals,” and “beasts of the earth” are more accurately rendered as “every kind of wild animal.” “Cattle” on the other hand are not necessarily the opposite of “beasts,” but in the original text the Hebrew word for “tame animals” is meant to oppose the word for “wild animal.” Through Genesis the NABRE’s improved precision is definitely one its best features.
Hebrew is Detailed, and in the Details
The same precision occurs throughout the rest of the NABRE, but especially in Exodus where improvements in the text include not only accuracy, but a delicate rendition of the specific shades of meaning that the original Hebrew is endowed with.
To illustrate, the original NAB had God saying the following at Exodus 3:5:
Remove the sandals from your feet,
for the place where you stand is holy ground.—Italics added.
But the NABRE now reads:
Remove your sandals from your feet,
for the place where you stand is holy ground.—Italics added.
Not much of a difference, no? But the NABRE is now matched with the way God says this in the Hebrew text. The sandals in question are those of Moses, and in Hebrew the expression is “your sandals” and not “the sandals” as if Moses borrow them from someone else.
A tiny change you say. Well, almost each sentence in the NABRE introduces precision-changing terms like this throughout. It adds to the flow and literary style of the text. Compare the words, experience the adjectives, and note the new rhythms these changes make by reading Exodus chapters 1-4. Compare them with either the previous NAB or another Bible of your choice. These tiny details make for a text that is now quite alive and rich, even making you see something new that perhaps you don’t see in other versions. The Israelites are no longer “dreaded,” (RSVce; NAB) they are “loathed” by the Egyptians. (NABRE, Ex 1:12) No longer are they made to “serve with rigor” (RSVce) or left to “the whole cruel fate of slaves.” (NAB) They are instead “cruelly oppressed in all their labor.” (Ex 1:14, NABRE) And the angel of the Lord no longer appears to Moses “in a flame of fire” (RSVce) or “in fire flaming out of a bush.” (NAB) But as the NABRE is now careful to explain the Hebrew thoroughly, we read: “The angel of the LORD appeared to him as fire flaming out of a bush.” (Ex 3:2, italics added.) The Theophany does not take place in a burning bush, the Theophany IS the flame of fire in the bush.
Making the Beautiful Even More So
Perhaps the star of the Old Testament in the NAB has been the poetry. The NABRE is no different. Job is startlingly new via its many tiny improvements (though one might find challenging the new expression “the satan” introduced here—a totally new expression for the English language; see the NABRE footnote to Job 1:6).
Another shining example of majestic employment through improvements is the Song of Solomon. Finally a translation of the Canticle of Canticles that is both clear and literary!
But the masterstroke of the NABRE is Isaiah. While the previous NAB version was also strikingly beautiful, the new revision is definitely a work of translation perfection. While some take issue with Isaiah 7:14 or the very accurate rendering of the Hebrew of 9:6b (I understand from reports that the 2025 update will change 7:14 as the NABRE is updated to meet the requirements of Liturgiam Authenticum), the work as a whole is both powerfully accurate and notably rhythmic.
The best of the best is Isaiah 55 which seems to be endowed with the “sprung rhythm” of the Grail Psalter throughout. Again the improvements are like tiny dots here and there, but compare Isaiah 55 from the NABRE with any other version currently available and feel the difference. There is a cadence, meter, a rare merging of academia and art. It reads like no other version, ever faithful to the original, ever faithful to its target language. The work put into verses 10 and 11 of this chapter are my favorite. They dance with almost the exact same steps that one comes across when reading the original Hebrew. It is beautiful, so very beautiful.
Yet just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me empty,
but shall do what pleases me,
achieving the end for which I sent it.
--Isaiah 55:10-11, NABRE.
Back to the Future
Of course many may not see what I, a Jewish Catholic, see here. Hebrew can seem foreign even to me, though I grew up speaking it in Ladino and pray the Shema in the original tongue of the Jews every day. So I don’t know if I can give justice to what gems I find in our new official Catholic Bible. Like “Sunday in the Park…” that hangs in Chicago, you have to make the examination for yourself.
There is also the question of what will be done in the revision of the New Testament due out in 2025. If the work done to the New Testament is similar, if attention will be given to fleshing out the detail and making it more literary like the NABRE Old Testament has become (and once the principles of LA are applied to the main text, which will make many a Catholic very happy), something tells me we will have as close to a masterpiece on our hands as we could ever expect.
The NABRE is not perfect. There are things I don’t necessarily like about the choices that make it up in all places. But there is nothing inaccurate in it. The footnotes can stand improvement, not in the information given but in explaining to the Catholic readership how the data supplied can be made to work with Apostolic Tradition. The tiny changes throughout the Old Testament (which I pray will be made to the New), minor of course here and there, can only be appreciated if one steps back and looks at the work as a whole. It’s very different when one stops picking at the details and takes it all in as one extremely large and powerful work. The NABRE is far more than the “dots” that make it up.
With the fact that most Catholics in the United States use the NABRE now and that the upcoming revision of the New Testament will include adjusting the entire text to read the same in our hands as it does in the Liturgy (and giving a little more time to get people used to what has been done so far), I think American Catholics as well as many other English-speaking people will find in its pages a new standard. Generations from now when the 2025 NABRE has become dated and preparation is being made for its revision, Catholics will protest. By then the NABRE will be considered what it is just beginning to become right now, a masterpiece of Scripture transmission and a faithful rendition of the Holy Word of God.
CARL HERNZ is an award-winning graphic designer and copy writer. Gifted with a high IQ, Carl began studying languages at a young age, learning and speaking as much as eleven by age 18. A stereographic photographer and artist at age 10, he is best known for discovering that the 1925 silent film classic, The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney, was originally captured on film in 3D. He is an international advocate for persons living with Parkinson’s (like himself) and a humorist on the subject. Along with the 3D restoration of Phantom, Carl is currently producing “All Monsters Have PD,” a comedic short to help raise awareness of both the disease “and bad monster movie-making in general.”