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Are All Bibles the Same?

Last week I shared some thoughts on why it is important for us to read the Bible (see “Have You Read From the Bible Lately?”). Today I would like to offer some thoughts about which Bible we use.

Which Bible? Is there more than one? In the sense of the Bible as inspired by God to lead us to be good disciples, of course, there is only one Bible. However, there are many different translations. Even when printing Bibles, publishers may choose to include different materials such as maps and introductions to include. How we select a Bible?

The first question is the language translation. 39 of the 46 books found in the Old Testament were originally written in Hebrew. Remember, Hebrew was the language of the Israelites. The remaining 7 books of the Old Testament were written in Greek, a common language of the time these books were written. The New Testament was written in Greek. If you can read Hebrew or Greek, I encourage you to read the Bible in its original languages.

After Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity with the Edict of Milan circa 313 A.D, Latin (the common language of the Roman Empire) began to be used in Christian writings and the Mass. St. Jerome was largely responsible for assembling a complete Latin translation of both the Old and New Testaments. It was known as the Vulgate and was used for many centuries.

After the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century (along with the invention of the printing press in 14th century), translations of the Bible into various languages were produced. Perhaps the most common English translation from the reformers that is still in use today is the King James Bible. It was a common translation for Protestants. The common 20th century translation of the Bible for Protestants that I am aware of is the New International Version.

In the United States, the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE) is the official translation produced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is the translation used for the Lectionary from which our readings at Mass are taken. I like it for that reason as well as its inclusion of footnotes, cross-references, and introductions to each book of the Bible (I will talk about these shortly).

Another common Catholic translation into English in North America is the Revised Standard Version (RSV) or the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). If you look at the RSV or the NRSV translation, please be sure you are have a Catholic version as there are Protestant versions (you can find these as well as many other translations on www.biblegateway.com).

What’s the difference between the Catholic and Protestant translations? There are some minor differences in some books such as the Book of Daniel and how the 150 psalms are numbered. The most significant difference lies in what I mentioned above regarding the Old Testament books written in Hebrew and Greek. As Christianity formed and grew, the Septuagint was the common version of the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the New Testament) in use. Thus, it was the version used by Christians. It was written in Greek. Thus, it included all 46 books. The Protestant Reformers chose to use only the 39 books of the Old Testament written in Hebrew. They did not recognize the 7 books (1 & 2 Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, Baruch, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon) as inspired by God. Thus, they do not include them in the Bible (some publishers do include them in an appendix).

So how does one know what is a good translation? For Catholics in the United States I recommend the NABRE I mentioned above. For Catholics you can also look for a nihil obstat and/or imprimatur that show the content has been reviewed and is in keeping with the Catholic faith. These are normally found on the same page as the copyright information.

Other translations might include some notes showing they have been approved by a national committee of a church or similar body. Does it really matter? Anyone can translate a Bible to suit their needs and personal beliefs. In choosing to use an official translation, one seeks to keep to a common understanding through the Holy Spirit rather than the personal beliefs of a specific translator.

In choosing a Bible, I recommend Bibles that include footnotes and cross-references between bible passages, as well as an introduction to each book of the Bible to help you understand God’s Word. The NABRE Bible includes all these. I encourage you to use a Bible where the publisher also includes maps of the regions mentioned in the Bible (the St. Joseph Edition of the NABRE does this).

Biblical footnotes are standard type footnotes providing explanation and context. Introductions to each book help provide the setting (time, place, struggles and successes of the time).

The cross-references I refer to help us connect different verses in the Bible, such as Old Testament passages that lead to something in the New Testament or where the same stories are told in different parts of the Bible. One example of this can be the four Suffering Servant passages in the Book of Isaiah that are some of our first readings during Holy Week that prophesized the sufferings Jesus endured in his Passion.

In the NABRE, cross-references are noted by a superscript letter in the body of the Bible passage. At the bottom of the page, you will find the same letter followed by the related Bible verse citations.

Such cross-references are important to help use understand the value of both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Both are important. We need both to best understand our faith. The New Testament does not supersede the Old Testament. The use of the labels “new” and “old” merely signify which was written first. With that in mind, I will end today with the following quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“Christians therefore read the Old Testament in the light of Christ crucified and risen. Such typological reading discloses the inexhaustible content of the Old Testament; but it must not make us forget that the Old Testament retains its own intrinsic value as Revelation reaffirmed by our Lord himself.  Besides, the New Testament has to be read in the light of the Old. Early Christian catechesis made constant use of the Old Testament.  As an old saying put it, the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New ” (129).

Peace,

Fr. Jeff

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