You have heard it or read it before. “The New American Bible is the bible you hear at every Catholic mass.” This was probably an introduction to a lengthy screed about the barbaric English style, tin ear, and modernist leanings of what for most U.S. Catholics is the bible.
My name is Bob Short. I'm a 30 year old school teacher who reverted to the faith when he found the Eucharist on the ground in a Stop n Shop parking lot.
I have a great love for literature, and so for most of my time as a Catholic-by-choice, I bounced around between the translations everyone suggests as literary: JB, NEB, REB, NRSV, even the Knox. Many times I return to these translations—wooed by their cachet among the internet commentariat and their page layouts and book designs which assume that the bible is to be read, not simply chucked into a desk drawer with the other cheap stuff your parish ordered in bulk to hand out to the CCD kids.
I'll go through a stage when I fall in love with one of these dynamic equivalence translations—devouring the Book of Job for a couple hours, reading Acts of the Apostles in two sittings, etc. But I always put them down for various reasons. I find the use of “Yahweh” distracting in the Jerusalem Bible, and find that I'm capable of reading a a couple pages in a row before realizing, “did any of that stick into my brain?” The Knox bible is wonderful, but it seems an awful lot like a period piece to someone like me who cut his teeth on Hemingway and not the masters of 19th century English literature. The New English Bible is wonderful, even with its odd habit of falling flat on its face about once every 20 verses. The Revised English Bible, much like the New Jerusalem Bible, seems to have resulted from a sober minded decision to make an idiosyncratic translation slightly more acceptable to scholars and students who are just going to ignore it in favor of the RSV and NRSV anyway.
So I keep coming back the the New American Bible. Living in a city in a heavily Catholic part of the country, its quite easy for me to make daily mass part of my spiritual practice. The NAB is the language that I'm used to, language I find pleasurable.
“My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.”
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, then I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.”
“You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing, as they rejoice before you as at the harvest, as people make merry when dividing spoils.”
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
And so on. The New American Bible is the source of my “memory verses” and no amount of poorly formatting or St Joseph Edition art inserts will take that away from me. Yes, of those four examples I just gave, at least two of them are snatches of scripture which, frankly, are unspeakably beautiful in any translation. My point, however, is simply that the setting I find these scriptures in most often and with the most comfort is in the NAB. Unlike Carl Hernz's appreciation of the NABRE a few years back, I am incapable of making any case based on knowledge of source languages. What I have is my own emotions. To many readers, I'm sure RSV 2nd edition is that pleasing to the heart, soul, and mind.
To the ashamed NAB readers, hiding in the shadows, I say: Come out! It's okay!
I won't defend the NAB footnotes, though I am of the opinion that they aren't nearly as bad as their reputation suggests.
When people speak badly about the notes, they are usually speaking about the ones from earlier editions. Often, though, the criticism revolves around the text itself. But which New American Bible are they talking about? For the uninitiated, there are quite a few.
The 1970 edition?: Which featured a freshly translated New Testament and an Old Testament cobbled together from the never-quite-completed Confraternity Old Testament. It is on the dynamic-equivalence side of things, and in many places reads like the Jerusalem Bible. It's poetry is quite good—if you don't believe me recite the Canticle from the book of Daniel that pops up on Week One Sundays in the Liturgy of the Hours. It has become almost a meme to make fun of its rendering of Isaiah 9:5, but to many of us, that is the most familiar version of this passage, one with a music all its own. (The idea that many Catholics grew up hearing the NAB at the liturgy and that it is what we think of when we hear the phrase “bible English” probably causes a good deal of wailing and teeth gnashing, even here!) Where might you know the 1970 NAB from? Its Old Testament is still used in the lectionary, as well as its psalter, though some parishes use the Revised Grail Psalms, as is allowed. It's New Testament was almost instantly found wanting when it came to oral proclamation and was heavily edited for the lectionary. It appears unedited in the readings from the Liturgy of the Hours, for good (many canticles) and ill (oh dear, that halting and sloppy rendition of the Epistle to the Hebrews we read every Lent and Holy Week).
Or were they talking about the 1986 edition with the revised New Testament?: The Old Testament is unchanged, but the New Testament features the revisions made to make the NAB acceptable for oral proclamation at the mass. This New Testament is quite good—clear and vivid at an appropriately elevated tone. Things have gone in a formal equivalence direction, solving instances where the 1970 New Testament had slid into banality. It's rendition of the Gospel According to John is a tour de force, revealing Christ's divinity in all its challenge and ruggedness. If the worst thing you have to say about a bible are its footnotes and whether they chose “hades”, “hell,” or “netherworld,” you've got yourselves a pretty good bible. It also has included some very light inclusive language. When people speak about what a responsible and conservative use of inclusive language, the Revised English Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible are most often proposed, but I put it to you that the '86 New Testament (and later NABRE Old Testament) are particularly good examples of expressing the non gender specific nature of the original languages without rendering the text bland or butchering English.
Perhaps the 1991 edition with the revised psalter was the one they meant?: With a dignified New Testament which very nearly matched what was heard at mass, the next step was obviously to update the Old Testament in order to make the NAB a consistent reading experience, fine for study, prayer, and following the liturgy. Well, instead they just got together and ruined the psalter. Trust me, this not a well liked translation. Even people who liked the 1995 ICEL Psalter don't like this thing. It removed the familiar and replaced it with the aimless. What was left was a bible featuring an dynamic equivalent Old Testament with no gender inclusive language, a psalter that is a lesson on how not to do inclusive language which featured widely varied style from psalm to psalm, and a formal equivalence New Testament with very well done inclusive language. Of the 47 years the New American Bible has existed, this edition was in print for 20 of those years.
At long last, was it the 2011 NABRE?: This latest edition features an improved, more literal Old Testament, including a wonderful new psalter that was translated the the liturgy in mind. Finally, we have a consistent New American Bible! Will we hear it at mass? Err, no. Rather, it seems to be the first step of a master plan to have a single translation which will be featured in the mass and the liturgy of the hours. For the foreseeable future the lectionary will still feature the 1970 Old Testament and the 1986 New Testament.
So, if you are interested in a bible which will match up with the liturgy, you will need to find one printed between 1986 and 1990. Good luck.
And so I leave you with the following unsupported conclusions:
1. The 1986 edition of the NAB is quite good.
2. The NABRE is even better, though it does not match the mass as well. It seems reminiscent to me to what an in-house Catholic NRSV would read like: rich in insight to the literal Hebrew and Greek, yet flowing with some amount of beauty as well.
3. I hope no copyright holding bishops read this, but the format of many New American Bible editions are so resistant to actual long periods of reading that I think I'm going to copy/paste the text of the NAB gospels into a PDF and have some copy shop print them out in book form for my own personal use. The longer I reflect on it, what draws me toward deep dives in dynamic-equivalence translations like the NEB aren't the translations themselves, it is their single-column layouts, readable fonts, and lack of asterices, brackets, and assorted gobbledegook interrupting the text.
I will be submitting for consideration to this blog occasional comparisons of the lectionary text we receive at mass with the different printed editions of the New American Bible.
We deserve, I think, a bible that matches the liturgy.
I even put it to you that this will be a good first step toward many of us (first and foremost, me) abandoning debates about the different translations of the bible in favor of actually reading the thing!