Biblical Illiteracy and Bible Babel

One of the disappointments of the post-Vatican II period has been the glacial pace of the growth in Catholic biblical literacy the Council hoped to inspire.  Why the slow-down? Several reasons suggest themselves.

The hegemony of the historical-critical method of biblical study has taught two generations of Catholics that the Bible is too complicated for ordinary people to understand: so why read what only savants can grasp? Inept preaching, dissecting the biblical text with historical-critical scalpels or reducing Scripture to a psychology manual, has also been a turn-off to Bible-study. Then there is the clunkiness of the New American Bible, the pedestrian translation to which U.S. Catholics are subjected in the liturgy: there is little beauty here, and the beauty of God’s Word ought to be one of its most attractive attributes.

Credit: salon.com

But it was not until I read “Our Babel of Bibles” by Baylor University’s David Lyle Jeffrey, published in the March/April 2012 issue ofTouchstone, that I began to understand that the proliferation of modern biblical translations and editions is also part of the problem. Not only are there a plethora of different translations from which to choose; as Dr. Jeffrey points out, there are now “niche” Bibles:

“If you are tired of your mother’s old Bible, which printed the words of Jesus in red, you can choose a more trendy Green Bible, with all the eco-sensitive passages printed in green ink. If you are a feisty woman unfazed by possibly misdirected allusions, then maybe you would like the Woman Thou Art Loosed edition of the NKJB (New King James Bible). If you should be a high-end of the TV-channel charismatic, there are ‘prophecy Bibles’ coded in several colors to justify your eschatology of choice.”

And that’s before we get to the super-trendy editions like the Common English Bible, which renders Psalm 122:1 (“I was glad when they said unto me/Let us go to the Lord’s house”) as “Let’s go to the Lord’s house.” This is not just dumb;  as Dr. Jeffrey points out, is also “verges on a grotesque secularism at the level of ‘Let’s go to Joe’s place – he has the biggest TV.’” And lest you think Jeffrey exaggerates, please note that the CEB renders “Son of Man” as “the Human One.” Yuck.

Dr. Jeffrey’s dissection of our Bible Babel also makes an important point about the use of sacral vocabulary, noting that Venerable Bede and the other first translators of the Bible into Anglo-Saxon understood the limits of their own vernacular and borrowed words from Latin to express what the biblical text meant. A minor point? Not really, because these words came into English that way: alms, altar, angel, anthem, apostle, ark, canticle, chalice, creed, deacon, demon, disciple, epistle, hymn, manna, martyr, priest, prophet, psalm, Psalter, rule, Sabbath, shrift, and temple. Later in the process of making English English, more words entered our language via the Vulgate: absolution, baptism, beatitude, charity, communion, confession, confession, contrition, creator, crucifixion, devotion, faith, homily, mercy, miracle, obedience, passion, pastor, penance, religion, sacrament, saint, sanctuary, savior, temptation, theology, trinity, virgin, and virtue.

All of which is an answer to those who fretted that Anglophone Catholics couldn’t handle “consubstantial” in the new translations of the Roman Missal. As Dr. Jeffrey writes, “What would have happened if someone had said, in that time and place, ‘We just have to find dynamic equivalents in Anglo-Saxon?’ There weren’t any. Appropriately, the first translators were not intimidated by the prospect of teaching people the meaning of biblical and sacral terms not to be found anywhere in their ordinary language. They gratefully borrowed the language of Scripture as they found it in another tongue.”

What to do today? My suggestion is to get yourself the Ignatius Press edition of the Revised Standard Version, and read it over and over again until its language works its way into the crevices of your mind and the texture of your prayer. Maybe, some day, we can hear that translation at Mass.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. 

Cover Photo Credit: livingtext.wordpress.com

George Weigel

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George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • Voice

    George, with all due respect, you’re all over the place ranting in this article.    The main premise is inaccurate.  The simple fact is that Catholics today DO read and study and understand the Word far more than they did 50 years ago.  The fact that there are dualing Bibles or competing methods of study or interpretation simply reflects our divided culture and Church AND that all the amateurs are involved.   It has been a good thing, and your hero JP2 said as much (with proper cautions) in Veritas Splendor.  A wise Scripture scholar once shared with me that “every translation is an interpretation”.    Please note the word EVERY.    Written revelation (man interceding, even under “divine inspiration”) has both its limits and yet cannot be limited because the Word that we read is not THE WORD we hope to see someday face to face.

  • chaco

    Thanks for sharing Voice,    I could have a wrong premise as well; but you sound alot like someone I know who refused to call himself a Relativist ( There is no Truth except what is RELATIVE to each individual’s own appetites or experience).  This person also suggested that all of history was written from the author’s point of view, suggesting that we make our OUR OWN REALITY.  Such reasoning, for me anyway, seems to “Fly in the Face”  of Jesus’ words to Pilot; “I have come to bear witness to the Truth. Those who seek truth hear me.”  I appreciate attempts to articulate a more exact meaning of “The Word” handed down to us through the concerted efforts of councils that can trace their credibility back to those who spoke directly to “The Word Made Flesh”. [ In our human form, words that actually have meaning seems essential in conveying what God wishes us to know.] Are you suggesting that we don’t need the scholarly adherence to tradition preserved through Apostolic succession ?

  • Elizabeth Hansen

    Oh, I could not agree more, Mr. Weigel!  Bible translations and versions seem to be as numerous as each person’s sorry needs, thereby reducing the very Word of God, Holy Scripture, to common magazine subcultures.  Like you, I hope one day for the language of the Liturgy of the Mass to be the Revised Standard.  I was in the Anglican Church for a large number of years, and the Book of Common Prayer’s language is at once majestic and common, inspiring one to worship.  I think the new Mass Liturgy is tending in that direction as I pray through the collects, antiphons, readings and prayers of the daily Mass.  We are moving in the right direction.  It is a sad worship that dums-down Liturgy and Scripture for people and sends them away totally uninspired but able to check-mark their Sunday worship obligation, and unable to witness to, practice, and live the Christian life as given to us by Jesus through His apostles.  We need language and worship that enables us to truly lift up our hearts to the Lord, to worship Him for Who He is and not for what we selfishly desire.  Thanks for your article!  Thanks be to God.

  • David Elton

    At the bookstore, I saw the “Extreme Bible”, with a picture of a kid skateboarding, and  urban, graffiti-style illustrations on the cover.  Betcha those skateboarders really snapped ‘em up!

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