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It's the Church's Bible

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | May 05, 2006

In a recent issue of First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus criticized the New American Bible and commented on some problems plaguing modern Biblical translations in general. One of the contributors to the revised NAB wrote in to defend the scholarship of the translators. Fr. Neuhaus replied that the Bible is “the Church’s Bible, not the Bible of the academic guild.” What can this possibly mean?

Determining Meaning

One of the examples Fr. Neuhaus used was Genesis 1:1-3. What has been traditionally rendered as “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” has recently been changed to “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,” which fails to capture the full force of the Christian understanding of “the beginning”. Of course, this is not so much a quarrel over the translation of a particular verse as over a trend. For example, we see a similar loss of force in the Christian understanding of Psalm 23:6. In this verse, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” becomes “I will dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.”

Richard J. Clifford, SJ of the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, the defender of the NAB in this instance, argues that scholars rightly based their new Genesis translation on such things as “the phraseology of comparable Near Eastern cosmogonies, and the Masoretic vocalization” of the text. He further notes that at the time of the psalms, Israel “had no belief in life after death in a modern sense”, and one cannot push later interpretations onto early texts. “Tradition,” says Fr. Clifford, “should not determine biblical translation.” This seems quite sound.

A Unique Text

But is it really? It is certainly true that a translator ought not to impose on the text a meaning that it cannot bear, no matter what his theological presuppositions lead him to prefer the text should say. But when the language used can admit of a variety of interpretations, or when the meaning simply isn’t completely clear, translators face an unusual challenge with Scripture. The challenge is to remember that the Holy Spirit is the primary author. It is, therefore, the Holy Spirit’s mind the translator must ultimately try to read, not the mind of the human agent who drafted the text.

With apologies to Fr. Clifford, tradition can and must affect how Scripture is translated. Tradition is reflective of Faith which, in turn, is reflective of the mind of the Holy Spirit. Knowing more about the truths the Holy Spirit wishes to convey than did the original human authors of the Old Testament, the Church sometimes comes to see a particular fullness of meaning in a Scriptural verse which a good translator is bound to respect. In other words, the role of the translator is not to do his best to return us to the understanding of reality held by the human agent who penned each ancient book. Rather, the translator must attempt to translate in such a manner that the greatest possible range of meaning inspired by the Holy Spirit is conveyed.

This is a daunting but not an impossible task. It is possible precisely because “it is the Church’s Bible, not the Bible of the academic guild.” In other words, what may sound to some like petulance on the part of Fr. Neuhaus is not petulance at all. It is, in fact, the sine qua non of Biblical translation. Without this precise attitude, the Bible becomes just another book, one of a great many interesting products of the human mind.

For Years to Come

Take the translation of Psalm 23:6. The verse employs a Hebraism perhaps best translated as “for length of days”, which is not an idiomatic expression in English, though it can be (and has been) translated that way, with perhaps not unsatisfactory results. Now, among many possible choices for translation of this Hebraism, let us consider two: “forever” (the traditional translation) and “for years to come” (in the NAB). Which is better?

Admittedly, the question is not simple. It seems reasonable that the Hebrew refers to a great length of time. But if we consider the sketchy understanding of the after-life in those days, we naturally think a little harder about whether it really means “forever”. Given the Hebrew propensity for poetic intensification or even hyperbole, however, we can see that “forever” might well have been understood at the time in an accommodated sense, even without a full theological understanding. Thus, for example, on our wedding days we all expect to be married forever. Even, perhaps, forever and a day.

What to do? Well, the Church knows something about the mind of the Holy Spirit that the human author didn’t know. The Church knows that we will ultimately dwell in the house of the Lord forever in the fullest eschatological sense, and the Church also knows that this is one of several layers of meaning the Holy Spirit intended in this text. Because the Church knows this, as reflected in the tradition of her interpretation, it is the translator’s job to select a phraseology which is faithful to the literal text without unnecessarily obscuring this richer meaning.

Clearly, then, the translation “for years to come” fails. And it fails precisely because it divorces Scripture from the mind of the Holy Spirit, insisting instead that its meaning is exhausted by the conceptual limitations of the human agent who penned the words in a particular time and place. The translation “forever”, in contrast, leaves the text open to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to whom all the sequential stages of Revelation are equally present. And it does this without imposing upon the actual words a meaning which they cannot bear.

The Church’s Bible

I’ve emphasized several times in other contexts (with no originality whatsoever) that the Bible must be interpreted in the heart of the Church. Because no language, especially no ancient language, can be translated into another with exact correspondence, translation is in part an act of interpretation. The richer the text, the more difficult it becomes to convey in the new language all the shades of meaning present in the original. This task becomes even more difficult when the translator himself, perhaps inevitably, does not perceive all the meanings the text contains.

In dealing with the works of a living author, of course, the translator should consult the author. But this is also possible with Scripture, for which purpose there is only one way to consult the Holy Spirit. Now we understand what Fr. Neuhaus means when he says: “It’s the Church’s Bible.”

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