A taxonomy of Catholic Bibles in English
The variety of Bible translations in English is staggering, yet only a few may be used by the Catholic faithful for private prayer and study - namely those approved “by the Apostolic See or a local ordinary prior to 1983, or by the Apostolic See or an episcopal conference following 1983.” Ironically, our limited selection can make it harder to find the right Bible for the right occasion. If you’ve tried to find a list of approved full-Bible translations, you know what I mean. Unlike the Episcopal or United Methodist Churches, the Catholic Church finds it challenging to look beyond descriptions of its canonical process to deliver what the average inquirer is actually looking for: a simple list of which translations “are Catholic” and which are not. At best we get unofficial chronological lists that can actually muddy the origins, purpose, audience, or relationship of one translation to another. This can be a problem for all Catholics, but especially for inquirers and the newly confirmed who may already be well-versed in Scripture but want guidance when picking a translation to share, deepen, shift - or even defend - their Catholic faith.
That’s why I’ve started thinking in terms of species: rather than looking at approved Catholic Bibles in English as standalone texts, I’ve started organizing them “genealogically,” along lines of descent that contain discrete textual traditions in successive generations. Though hardly surprising, the results shift my own perspective a bit, revealing some interesting relationships and adjusting some of my preferences and priorities when choosing a translation. This post looks specifically at the approved, full Bible translations in English, not the many fine “partial” translations of Psalms, Gospels, and New Testaments that are available for Catholic use.
An Episcopal mandate
The first differentiator that emerged was the subset of translations that came about because of an Episcopal mandate. That is, while all the translations above received ecclesial approval in the form of an imprimatur, there is a distinct subset which came into being because a Bishop or Bishops’ conference produced them. I am surprised how often this factor goes unremarked in discussions of Catholic Biblical translation since it’s actually a rather important differentiator in light of apostolic tradition and the teaching role of bishops.
Though the venerable Douay-Rheims itself was the academic and pastoral product of exiled Churchmen at the English college at Douai, the revisions made by Bishop Challoner and approved later by Cardinal Gibbons constitute the first English-language full Bible translation produced by a Bishop for Church use. Produced from the Latin Vulgate, Challoner-Rheims was essentially the Bible in English produced by the Church for the Church for more than 200 years.
Despite the popular attention to Vatican II, today’s explosion of modern translations is really the result of Pope Pius XII’s Divino afflante spiritu in 1943, calling Catholic Biblical scholars for the first time to employ textual criticism of the original Biblical languages. Within thirty years, the playing field was full of new contestants: a Catholic edition of the RSV, the Jerusalem Bible, the New American Bible, and many more. Here’s where it gets interesting to look with a genealogical eye, rather than a chronological one.
Arranging the modern translations into family lineages, a slightly revised picture emerges especially when looking for that Episcopal mandate. In other words: if the Rheims-Challoner was the English Bible provided by the Church, which of the subsequent translations are the direct inheritor of its lineage? Yes, we have a variety of new translations, all received into and approved by the Church for Catholic use. Of those, however, only two were specifically sponsored by Church hierarchy as a revision or continuation of the Rheims-Challoner tradition.
In the U.K., that mandate belongs to the Knox Bible:
It had been the desire of a succession of bishops for almost a 100 years to create a new Bible translation to replace the Douay Rheims edition….In 1936 the bishops of England and Wales asked [Msgr. Ronald Knox] to translate the Latin Vulgate of the Holy Bible into modern English.
While the official Protestant efforts to revise the Authorized “King James” Version had begun the century before, resulting in the British “Revised” and American “Standard” versions at the turn of the century, it was the Knox project that represented the Church’s first official steps toward modernizing the language of its own Scripture tradition for liturgy. Though literary and acclaimed in its day, Knox’s translation remains a standalone experiment in greatness. Begun before the 1943 publication of Divino afflante spiritu, its reliance on the Vulgate caused it to fall out of favor among the following generation of scholars who placed a premium upon translations from the best sources of the original texts. As such, Knox is a bit of an evolutionary dead-end, a beautiful one-time experiment that stands on its own but does not continue the Challoner lineage through subsequent living revisions.
Not so across the pond. At precisely the same time, the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) in the U.S. sponsored its own effort to modernize the Challoner-Rheims text for use in worship and study:
The occasion for the formation of the Catholic Biblical Association was the outcome of the desire of Bishop Edwin O'Hara, chair of the Episcopal Committee on the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, to improve quality of the New Testament normally used by Catholics by having the Challoner-Rheims New Testament revised. In 1936 O'Hara called a meeting of American Catholic Scripture scholars to help plan and carry out the project.
The result was a nearly century-long American experiment, officially sponsored by the Church, to revise the Challoner-Rheims texts for use in liturgy and study. Like Knox, the project started with the Vulgate. Unlike Knox, after Divino afflante spiritu they started over from the original languages even though they had completed a large chunk of the Old Testament. The iterative series of “Confraternity” editions appeared from 1941 to 1969, mashing up the new texts with remnants of Challoner. The first completely refreshed new translation from American Catholic Biblical scholars appeared in 1970, twenty years after Knox, and was called the “New American Bible” (NAB).
Because of its switch away from the Vulgate and toward original languages, the NAB did not become a standalone closed text. The translators revised the New Testament in 1986, refreshed the Psalms in 1991, and a completely overhauled the Old Testament (and its Psalms!) in 2010. The current corpus is now the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE), and the project continues today with an NAB NT revision project now under way. The final iteration of Bishop O’Hara’s 1936 initiative is likely to bear fruit in 2025 with a single text finally “suitable for individual study and devotion, catechesis, and proclamation within the Sacred Liturgy.” Hopefully, at that point, the committee will be open to rebranding the final product, in much the same way they did when replacing Challoner with “Confraternity” and later “New American” Bibles. A more universal name might clarify the status of this text as the Church’s own officially sponsored continuation of the original Challoner-Rheims and encourage its use throughout English-speaking liturgy (I propose the “Bible for Catholics in English” or BCE).
But we already have that, you say. Both the Jerusalem Bible and the Revised Standard Version (RSV-CE) before it have had their day in the liturgy. True, but looking at the texts as a taxonomy, they represent slightly different species in parallel evolution. Both are respected and scholarly English translations, ranging from literal to literary. Yet neither came from the same kind of “Episcopal mandate” as either Knox or the NAB textual families. Both essentially began as the independent work of scholars and were “received into” the Church upon completion and approval.
The Jerusalem Bible began as a collaboration between English translators and a French translation team affiliated with the Dominicans of the École Biblique in Jerusalem. The RSV Catholic Edition was “confirmed” from even farther afield, as the Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britain reached out to the American Protestant translation team behind the RSV, asking permission to make authorized changes to their existing text that would render it suitable to Church authorities for Catholic readers. I am not saying these translations are any “less Catholic” than Knox or the NAB lineage, just that the Church didn’t directly “produce” them in quite the same way. They are examples of what His Holiness Pope Pius XII meant when he wrote:
It is the honorable, though not always easy, task of students of the Bible to procure by every means that as soon as possible may be duly published by Catholics editions of the Sacred Books and of ancient versions, brought out in accordance with these standards, which, that is to say, unite the greatest reverence for the sacred text with an exact observance of all the rules of criticism. (Divino afflante spiritu 19, emphasis mine)
Especially the RSV Catholic Edition which, in 1966, predated either the Jerusalem Bible or the NAB: a rigorously translated Protestant Bible confirmed Catholic so the Church would have a suitable translation from original languages “as soon as possible” after the Pope’s 1943 encyclical.
In a sense, the RSV-CE and Jerusalem Bible are a pair of academic cousins: the fruit of two branches of British scholarship, one turning West and the other East to fill a gap in the Church’s own Biblical resources of the day. Rather like the original Douay-Rheims in 1582, in fact, both stem first from the work of academic bodies, and are only “brought into the fold” by bishops later. More significantly, both also spawned textual families of their own. Where Knox represents an evolutionary branch that “died out” after one generation because of its reliance on the Vulgate, both the RSV and the Jerusalem Bible continued to “be fruitful and multiply,” each creating its own genus through descent with modification (to borrow a phrase from Darwin). The translation team behind the RSV later produced the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) in a Catholic edition in 1989, receiving an imprimatur though famously denied a place in North American liturgy outside of Canada. After the École Biblique revised the French Bible de Jérusalem, the Jerusalem Bible similarly passed on its mantle to the 1985 New Jerusalem Bible, and didn’t stop there. Now with a third edition in French, it has begun a new working edition in English currently known as “The Bible in its Traditions.” [PDF] (It is interesting, however, that despite its prominence in the English Catholic Biblical tradition, the French Bible de Jérusalem remains an academic project, and does not carry the episcopal mandate for use in the liturgy. Like Knox, and later the NABRE in English, that honor belongs to the French bishops’ own official translation, LA BIBLE: Traduction officielle liturgique, now the official text of French-speaking Catholics around the world. Approved for use in liturgy as well as personal study and devotion, this new French Bible gives us a sense of what the NAB translators are aiming for in English.)
Another interesting parallel, though a subject of a post all its own, is that both translations also spawned publishers’ proprietary house revisions. Ignatius Press issued its own “second” Catholic edition of the RSV when it aligned its lectionary revisions to the specific requirements of Liturgiam authenticam. Similarly, when the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments” (CDWDS) published its “Letter to the Bishops’ Conferences on ‘the name of God,” the Catholic Truth Society issues its own “New Catholic Bible” stripping the 1966 Jerusalem Bible of the word “Yahweh,” and replacing the Psalms with the Grail version used liturgically in England and Wales. That makes this volume unique, as one of the only printed Bibles directly mirroring a working lectionary used in current worship. However, it remains to be seen whether such publisher-led initiatives can maintain ecclesial approval for the changes they make to the text of Scripture and be deemed official “Catholic Bibles” in the fullest sense.
Perhaps most intriguing are various scriptural subspecies, each a single member of its own genus. Some like the Catholic Living Bible and the Good News Translation came into the Church from the Protestant and evangelical spheres. Others like the Catholic Community Bible (and perhaps some day a full Bible in the New Catholic Version) were produced within the Church itself. The common denominator among them all is that they were all adopted by the Church for pastoral or missionary purposes, to introduce editions tailored to audiences at different levels of ability reading in English.
The Catholic Living Bible, also published as “The Way,” represents an interesting offshoot. Published first in 1972 by Kenneth Taylor, it is often dismissed today as one of those early 1970s experiments in street language paraphrases. In other words, not a proper translation, but a Bible for the “Jesus Freaks.” However, most don’t realize that it was the American Standard Version Taylor was paraphrasing, the immediate precursor to the RSV. That makes the Catholic Living Bible an interesting critter: not only a child adopted from the Evangelical Protestant arena, but like the more literal RSV-CE, a direct descendant of the Authorized “King James” Version. Together, the Catholic Living Bible and the RSV-CE family carry the King James tradition across the divide to Catholic readership at different levels of reading ability and formal equivalence. Unfortunately, after the 1988 publication, Tyndale House Publishers began a revision process that ultimately replaced the original Living Bible with its New Living Translation, which has not yet secured an imprimatur. Though a bit dated, and hard to find in print now, the original Catholic Living Bible is still readily available used online. It makes a decent - and officially sanctioned - alternative for those who like the sound and reading level of “The Message” but realize that its so-called “Catholic / Ecumenical” edition lacks proper episcopal approval for Catholic use.
The Good News Translation Catholic Edition is another good alternative, somewhere between the Catholic Living Bible and the RSV-CE. As a United Methodist growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the original “Good News Bible” (technically “Today’s English Version”) was my Bible all the way until college. When my own son had his first communion, this was the Catholic Bible I bought for him. Written at about a fourth grade reading level, this Bible is best known for its brilliant and cross-cultural line drawings by Annie Valloton, and is sadly overlooked as a first Bible. This is because the original Good News Bible of the 1970s, like the Living Bible, was a freer thought-for-thought paraphrase edition and didn’t receive an imprimatur. Since then, however, a second edition of the Today’s English Version was published in 1992, based more directly on the original Hebrew and Greek texts and rebranded the “Good News Translation” to reflect its improved textual basis. Today, it is significantly improved over the original, while still retaining both the look, feel, and voice of the original. Published by the American Bible Society, the Catholic Edition makes a good “Bible to grow on.” A full Bible, not a “children’s Bible,” it can be read to - and by - young readers but held onto into adulthood. I recommend it as a solid Catholic alternative to more colloquial “all ages” translations like the Contemporary English Version (CEV).
The Christian Community Bible is perhaps the most interesting to me, because it is the hardest to track down. Like the Jerusalem Bible family, it stems from a successful non-English precursor, in this case the Spanish la Biblia Latinoamericana of 1971. The product of Rev. Bernardo Hurault’s translation work in 1960s Chile, the missionary father translated Hebrew and Greek texts himself and combined them with his own homiletics as commentary materials. The Christian Community Bible is the 1986 English translation produced by a Claretian missionary in the Philippines who saw the need for an English version, like Huaralt’s, that could be read and understood by “ordinary poor people.” Approved by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, this translation has been in print constantly for nearly 30 years, yet seemingly impossible to find in U.S. bookstores! It is published by the Pastoral Biblical Foundation and Claretian Publications in the Philippines, which issued a new revised edition in 2013, and is available in a number of different formats. It is also the basis of numerous co-branded vernacular editions in non-English languages, that share the same trade dress, illustrations, and commentaries. It has a somewhat unfair reputation of being the “Liberation Theology” Bible, yet when I came across a copy during my own LT phase in the 1990s, I was surprised to find it so dogmatic and pastoral. Similar to what we’ve seen of the New Catholic Version New Testament (also approved by the Bishops of the Philippines), it is a full translation written in English that is non-technical but also non-conversational. It isn’t folksy like The Catholic Living Bible or The Message. It’s more formally equivalent than the Good News Translation, but easier to read than the NABRE or NRSV. In short, it’s a pretty solid Catholic reading Bible, tailored to the language abilities of most English speakers. In that sense, I hold it up as an approved Catholic alternative to the Common English Bible (CEB), a translation focus-tested to make sense to the widest range of English-speakers.
So where do you fall? Rather than looking just at your “favorite translation,” describe where you and your Bible reading fall on this taxonomy of approved Catholic translations?
Christopher Buckley holds an M.A. in Religion from the Claremont School of Theology. He began as a United Methodist and passed through the Episcopal Church before being confirmed into the Catholic Church as an adult. He lives and works in Seattle with his wife and two children, and blogs occasionally at StoryWiseGuy.com. Connect with him on Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, Flickr, and LinkedIn.