The Revision of the New Testament of the New American Bible

by Francis T. Gignac, S.J.


Bible translation into English has had a long and glorious history. The earliest translations, into Old English or Anglo-Saxon, were poetic; the seventh-century narrative verse of Caedmon was noted for its vigor, simplicity, and earthy figures of speech. The West Saxon Gospels (ca. 1000) represent an early prose style with a striving for literary beauty. The translations from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries into Middle English dialects continue this tradition.

The first translation of the entire Bible into English was done in 1382-84 by John Wycliffe, with the assistance of others, especially Nicholas of Hereford for much of the Old Testament. This version was a noble attempt to put the Scriptures into plain, direct English; extant copies are small, unadorned, and closely written, indicating that they were meant for the common person. For his efforts John Wycliffe was singularly dishonored; some forty-four years after his death his remains were exhumed by express order of the Pope and burned publicly.

In 1477 Caxton set up his printing press in the shadow of Westminster Abbey. No longer did each book have to be copied laboriously by hand. The first English Bible printed in 1535 was the translation of William Tyndale. Some 90 percent of Tyndale’s version stands unaltered in the Authorized Version (the King James Version) of 1611, so its influence on the English language can hardly be overestimated. Tyndale was determined to make the Scriptures clear to the unlettered; he declared vividly, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause the boy that driveth the plow shall know more Scripture than thou (priest, doctor, abbot, deacon).” He was burned at the stake a year later in 1536. May modern translators escape the same fate!

The immediately succeeding English translations were largely adaptations of Tyndale’s, including “Matthew’s Bible,” published by John Rogers in 1537 under the name of Thomas Matthew, and the so-called Great Bible, first published in 1539, primarily the work of Miles Coverdale, who had ably assisted William Tyndale and from whose version he took, with some revision, the Pentateuch, Jonah, and most of the New Testament.

The Geneva Bible of 1560, produced by Protestants who had fled England under Bloody Queen Mary, was the first Bible in English printed in roman as opposed to the black-letter type that imitated handwriting, as well as the first to use the chapter and verse divisions introduced by Stephanus into his third edition published at Paris in 1551, and the first issued in handy quarto size, including tables, maps, and notes. It is commonly referred to as the “Breeches Bible” because of its translation of Gen 3:7, “They sewed fig leaves together and made themselves breeches.” It contributed many stylistic features that were mined by later translators; it was the Bible of Shakespeare and remained the most popular English Bible well into the seventeenth century. It is a solid work far superior in accuracy to the Great Bible, but because of its controversial notes and distinctly Calvinist marginal comments it was not allowed to be used in English churches. For this purpose the Bishops’ Bible of 1563 was prepared; it offers few distinctive features but makes use of the best of the earlier translations.

The famous Authorized Version of 1611 (called in American usage the King James Version, correctly giving credit to the moving power behind a uniform translation free from ecclesiastical bias) was called by Alfred, Lord Tennyson the “noblest monument of English prose.” It is a mystery how a committee of scholars was able to produce a unified level of prose beauty that ever since has permeated English literature and fixed the standard for centuries to come. The King James translators numbered probably forty-seven, divided into six companies. They were bidden to consult earlier English translations and to retain “old Ecclesiastical Words,” e.g., church (not congregation, as in the Geneva Bible). The originator of the project was John Reynolds, President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, described as “a prodigy for reading, his memory being a living library.” Perhaps the most famous reviser was Sir Henry Savile, the great editor of the complete works of Chrysostom. Then there was Bishop Launcelot Andrewes, who was so learned in languages, they said, “that he might have been interpreter general at Babel.” Others were so humble that, as they wrote in the preface, they strove “only to make a good translation better.” But their collective ear and taste produced a Bible that, as Macauley said, “If everything else in our language should perish, it would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power.” When today we say “the skin of my teeth,” “the fat of the land,” “the powers that be,” we are using the sonorous phrases of this magnificent version.

While these noble translations were being produced in Protestant England, English Catholics working in exile on the continent produced a counter-translation from the Latin Vulgate, though taking account of the original texts and existing English versions. The New Testament was done by Gregory Martin and others and published at Rheims in 1582; it was itself used extensively by the King James revisers. The Old Testament, edited by William Reynolds, brother of John Reynolds of the King James Version, was translated and published at Douai in 1609-10. The Douai-Rheims version, with its deliberately Latinized diction, stood apart from the tradition established by Tyndale; it was subsequently revised primarily for English style by Bishop Richard Challoner in 1749-50 and served all English-speaking Catholics until well into the twentieth century.

Various other translations of the Bible, in whole or in part, appeared from time to time in the next two-and-a-half centuries. Most of these were done for purposes of literary effect. For instance, there was Daniel Mace’s 1729 version in the racy style of the eighteenth century; his translation of 1 Cor 7:36 is, “If any man thinks it would be a reflexion upon his manhood to be a stale bachelor. . . .” In 1768 Edward Harwood published his New Testament aimed at clothing “the ideas of the Apostles with propriety”; and so, in the transfiguration scene of Matt 17:4, he has Peter cry, “Oh, Sir! What a delectable residence we might establish here!” Rodolphus Dickinson in his New and Correct Version of the New Testament published in Boston in 1833 tried to avoid the “frequently rude and occasionally barbarous style” of the King James Version; so he rendered Luke 1:41, “When Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the embryo was joyfully agitated.” But the King James Version remained the “Authorized Version” of English-speaking peoples.

Of course, various editions of the King James Version, produced by careless publishing houses, also contributed to the stock of humorous biblical versions. For instance, the 1631 edition, the so-called Wicked Bible, omitted the negative in the seventh commandment, which thus appeared, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Then there was the Whig Bible of 1562, with its “Blessed are the placemakers.” And the Bride Bible of 1770, which translated Prov 26:3 as “a bride (instead of bridle) for the ass.”

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the development of biblical studies and of the science of textual criticism, along with the discovery and publication of many ancient manuscripts, made a revision of the King James Bible imperative. The task was undertaken by authority of the Church of England in 1870; the English Revised Version was published in 1881-85. The American Standard Version, a variant of the former embodying the preferences of the American scholars associated in the work, was published in 1901. In 1937 a further revision of the American Standard Version was commissioned and the results were published as the justly renowned and commonly used Revised Standard Version in 1946. It was subsequently revised by some forty scholars under the direction of Bruce M. Metzger of Princeton and published as the New Revised Standard Version in 1990. A Catholic edition of this, with the Deuterocanonical Books in their proper order among the Old Testament books, was prepared by Alexander A. Di Lella, O.F.M., of The Catholic University of America and published in 1992. All of these versions preserve the basic literary style of the King James Version. But a new tradition of independent translation began with the publication of the New English Bible in 1961, followed by many others, including the Jerusalem Bible in 1966 (the New Jerusalem Bible in 1984), the Good News Bible (Today’s English Version) in 1966-76, and the New International Bible in 1978.

In England, between 1913 and 1935, a group of Jesuit scholars produced the Westminster version of the New Testament. Its literalness and archaic English style were almost on a par with the Rheims-Challoner version, but its typographical presentation was modern and, most significantly, it was translated not from the Latin Vulgate but directly from the original Greek, a presage of things to come.

In the United States, the first effective proposal for a revision of the Douai-Rheims-Challoner version was made by Bishop Edwin O’Hara, chairman of the episcopal committee for the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, at a meeting of biblical scholars convened by him on January 18, 1936. This meeting led to the establishment of the Catholic Biblical Association in 1936 and to the publication of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly beginning in 1939. The new association decided to proceed first with a fresh rendering of the New Testament and then to continue with the Old Testament. Both were to be translated from the Vulgate and to constitute a revision of the Douai-Rheims version. The New Testament was published in 1941 and was widely used by American Catholics for more than twenty years. Two years later the Old Testament version was well underway and the deadline for remaining manuscripts had been set for June 1, 1944.

This was all changed by the appearance in September 1943 of the encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Divino afflante Spiritu, which authorized the publication of Catholic translations from the original languages. The CCD project was consequently reoriented toward this goal. Since the New Testament was already in circulation, attention was concentrated upon the Old Testament, which was newly translated from the original Hebrew and Aramaic and gradually appeared in four volumes over the next two decades, in 1951, l955, 1961, and 1969. While this work was well underway, a committee was formed in 1956 to proceed with a translation of the New Testament from the original Greek. The firstfruits of this work appeared in the provisional Mass lectionary of 1964; the complete New Testament, with many suggestions received and incorporated from the experience of several years of liturgical proclamation, was published together with the existing Old Testament in a complete edition under the name of the New American Bible on September 30, 1970.

Reasons for Revision

In the years following the publication of the Second Vatican Council’s constitution Sacrosanctum concilium in 1963, the New Testament committee had been under great pressure to prepare translations for the books that began to be produced for the vernacular liturgy, and there was considerable controversy over which version or versions would be approved for liturgical use. This pressure led to a certain haste in completing the New Testament, which consequently was not produced with as much care as the Old Testament, to which twenty-five years had been devoted. It nevertheless became widely accepted as a basically reliable and contemporary English version and well known to American Catholics through the liturgy; while lectionaries were also published containing the Revised Standard Version and the Jerusalem Bible, they did not remain long in print and the New American Bible is read in most churches. It is also used to some extent by Catholics in other English-speaking countries and also by many non-Catholics.

The translation, however, suffered from certain defects that prompted the board of control to initiate a revision process less than eight years after its publication. In January the board of control, consisting of Stephen J. Hartdegen, O.F.M., Msgr. Patrick W. Skehan, and Addison Wright, S.S., through the executive secretary of the Catholic Biblical Association, Joseph Jensen, O.S.B., invited the following to serve as a steering committee to organize the work and serve as the editorial board: Msgr. Myles M. Bourke, who had been chairman of the board for the New Testament of 1970, Francis T. Gignac, S.J., who served as chairman for the revision, Stephen J. Hartdegen, O.F.M., who served as secretary, Claude J. Peifer, O.S.B., and John Reumann from Lutheran Theological Seminary.

Among the defects of the New American Bible that came to the surface in liturgical and private use and were voiced by thoughtful, responsible, and well-motivated critics with competence in the field were the following.

1. Many real errors were introduced into the translation by a succession of literary editors and slipped through in the haste of publication, which did not allow time for the texts to be returned to their original revisers. A notorious one is at Luke 1:17, where NAB1 reads, “God himself will go before him, in the spirit and power of Elijah,” where the subject of the sentence is John the Baptist!

2. There was inconsistency in the use even of significant terms. Since lexical consistency was subordinated to variety of expression (as it was also in the KJV lest, “if they dealt unequally with a number of good English words, some of them might be banished forever”), terms like “reign,” “kingship,” and “kingdom” were used interchangeably even within the same author or body of literature, as in the synoptic gospels.

3. There was insufficient attention to oral proclamation. Even though this was one of the stated purposes of the NAB, many passages proved difficult to read publicly, especially in cases of direct quotation where useful introductory phrases like “he said” were placed in the middle or at the end of a quote, in violation also of the original Greek word order.

4. The tone was colloquial, the style rather casual. The level of contemporary English found in NAB1 is generally that of everyday functional speech rather than the more elevated discourse appropriate to formal situations. Think of the all-too-familiar “You worthless, lazy lout!” of Matt 25:26. Even though, e.g., “ass” was changed to “donkey” to keep children from giggling in church, there was a widespread impression that the language of NAB1 was not sufficiently dignified for liturgical use, in which people often desire a more stately and traditional language.

5. The translation was one of dynamic rather than formal equivalence. Dynamic equivalence attempts to express the thought of the original in a linguistic structure suited to the target language, even though this structure may differ greatly from the corresponding Greek structure. While it often results in fresh renderings, it has the strong disadvantage of causing a more or less radical abandonment of traditional terminology and phraseology; further, it tends to degenerate into paraphrase and leads to expansions of the text to include what more properly belongs in notes or commentaries.

6. Explanatory materials were inconsistent in quantity and quality. Introductions and notes that accompany a Bible translation need frequent revision to keep them abreast of scholarship and contemporary needs, and a uniform approach is desirable.

Aims of the Revision

In consequence of these considerations, the board of editors, while recognizing the merits of NAB1 and the services it has rendered since its publication in 1970, undertook a thoroughgoing revision that for all practical purposes amounted to a new translation. What they attempted to achieve in the revision may be briefly summarized as follows:

1. The primary aim of the revision was to produce a version as accurate and as faithful to the meaning of the original as is possible for a translation. This was the overriding consideration. Consequently, they moved in the direction of a formal equivalence translation, matching the vocabulary, structure, and even word order of the original Greek as closely as possible in English.

2. At the same time, they wanted to produce a version in English that reflected contemporary American usage and was readily understandable to ordinary educated people, but one that would be recognized as dignified speech, on the level of formal rather than colloquial usage. These aims were not in fact contradictory. There are different levels of language in current use: the language of formal situations is not that of colloquial conversation, though people understand both and may pass from one to the other without adverting to the transition. The liturgy is a formal situation that requires a level of discourse more dignified, formal, and even hieratic than the world of business, sport, or informal communication. People readily understand this more formal level even though they may not often use it; one’s passive vocabulary is much larger than one’s active vocabulary. Hence this revision, while avoiding archaisms, did not shrink from traditional biblical terms that are easily understood even though not in common use in everyday speech. The level of language consciously aimed at was one appropriate for liturgical proclamation with dignity; this would also permit the translation to serve the purposes of devotional reading and serious study—the threefold purpose of the original New American Bible.

3. A particular effort was made to insure consistency of vocabulary. To try to translate a given Greek word always by the same English word would lead to ludicrous results and ultimately to infidelity to the meaning of the text. As the Preface to the first edition said (in a sentence that does not bear being quoted out of context), “Any striving for complete fidelity will shortly end in infidelity.” But in passages where a particular Greek term retains the same meaning, it has been rendered in the revised NAB in the same way so far as this was feasible; this is particularly significant in the case of terms that have a specific theological meaning. The synoptic gospels were carefully translated so as to reveal both the similarities and the differences of the Greek.

4. An especially sensitive problem today is the question of discrimination in language. In recent years there has been much discussion about allegations of anti-Jewish expressions in the New Testament and of language that discriminates against various minorities. The board of editors received many requests from the Bishops Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and other groups and individuals to eliminate any reference to Jews that could be construed as anti-Semitic, e.g., by substituting “some Jews” for simply “the Jews,” or “King of the Judeans” for “King of the Jews.” Many other interest groups also requested special consideration, including the physically handicapped and the gay community. Above all, however, the question of discrimination against women affects the largest number of people and arouses the greatest degree of interest and concern. At present there is little agreement about these problems or about the best way to deal with them.

In all these areas the revised NAB attempts to display a sensitivity appropriate to the present state of the questions under discussion, which are not yet resolved and in regard to which it is impossible to please everyone, since intelligent and sincere participants in the debate hold mutually contradictory views. Again, the overriding primary concern of this revision was fidelity to the original text. Therefore, when the meaning of the Greek is inclusive of both sexes, the translation sought to reproduce such inclusivity insofar as this is possible in normal English usage, without resort to inelegant circumlocutions or neologisms that would offend against the dignity of the language. Although the general sense of “man” is traditional in English, many today reject it; its use was therefore generally avoided, though it is retained in cases where no fully satisfactory equivalent could be found. English does not possess a gender-inclusive third personal pronoun in the singular, and this translation continues to use the masculine resumptive pronoun after “everyone” or “anyone,” in the traditional way, where this cannot be avoided without changing the meaning.

The translation of the Greek word adelphos, particularly in the plural in the form of direct address, posed an especially difficult problem. While the term means “brothers,” the plural is used even in classical Greek for siblings of both sexes. It was adopted by members of the early Christian community, who were conscious of a new familiar relationship to one another by reason of their adoption through faith in Christ as children of God. They are consequently addressed as adelphoi. This has traditionally been rendered into English by “brothers” or, more archaically, “brethren.” This designation obviously includes all the members of the Christian community, both male and female. Given the absence in English of a corresponding term that explicitly includes both sexes, this translation retained the usage of “brothers” with the inclusive meaning that has traditionally been attached to it in this biblical context (but in the preparation of the readings for the lectionary, “brothers and sisters” was adopted).

Since the New Testament is the product of a particular time and culture, the views expressed in it and the language in which they are expressed reflect a particular cultural conditioning, which sometimes makes them quite different from contemporary ideas and concerns. Discriminatory language should be eliminated as far as possible whenever it is unfaithful to the meaning of the New Testament, but the text should never be changed to adjust it to contemporary concerns. This translation therefore did not introduce any changes of, additions to, or subtractions from the original text. It further retained the traditional biblical ways of speaking about God and about Christ, including the use of masculine nouns and pronouns derived from a patriarchal society.

It was a further aim of this revision to supply explanatory materials more abundantly than in the first edition. In most cases the introductions and exegetical notes were entirely rewritten and expanded and the cross-references checked and revised. It was intended that these materials should reflect the present state of sound biblical scholarship and be presented in such a form that they could be assimilated by the ordinary intelligent reader without specialized biblical training. But while they were written with the ordinary educated Christian in mind, not all technical vocabulary could be entirely dispensed with in approaching the Bible, any more than in any other field. It is hoped that these materials, even if they sometimes demand an effort, will help the reader to a fuller and more intelligent understanding of the New Testament and a fruitful appropriation of its meaning for personal spiritual growth.

The New American Bible is primarily a Roman Catholic translation. This revision, however, like the 1970 edition, was accomplished with the collaboration of scholars from other Christian churches, both among the revisers and on the editorial board, in response to the encouragement of the Second Vatican Council (Dei Verbum, §22).

In his great encyclical, Divino afflante Spiritu, which opened for Roman Catholics the doors to the academic study of Scripture, Pope Pius XII urged that the work of translators of the Bible “be judged not only with equity and justice but also with the greatest charity.” Conscious of our personal limitations for this task, we who have prepared this text cannot expect that it will be considered perfect. We only hope and pray that our eight-and-a-half years of hard work may help to increase the faith and knowledge of all who read and hear this translation.