Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Uncomfortable Facts About The Douay-Rheims

by James Akin


A look at the origins, strengths and weaknesses of the Douay-Rheims and Douay-Rheims-Challoner translation of the Bible, which is commonly but incorrectly regarded by Traditionalists as the only "pure" and "official" translation. To demonstrate that this view is erroneous, James Akin explains that while the Douay-Rheims translation is based on the Vulgate, this does not necessarily indicate that it is a perfect translation.

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Catholic Answers Inc., San Diego, CA, February 2002

Following the forced conversion of England to Protestantism and the subsequent persecution and martyrdom of Catholics in that country, many Englishmen fled to the Continent. The expatriates felt the need for a new English translation of Scripture. Consequently, an edition of the New Testament was prepared and released in 1582 at Rheims, France, and an edition of the Old Testament was prepared and released in 1609 at the French town of Douay. The resulting fusion became known as the Douay-Rheims.

The original translation was based on the Latin Vulgate. However, it was revised from 1749-1752 by Bishop Richard Challoner, who corrected it according to the Clementine edition of the Vulgate (published by Clement VIII in 1592, after the Rheims New Testament) and the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. He also updated the spelling, vocabulary, and sentence structure. Today, all Douay-Rheims Bibles in print are actually the Douay-Rheims-Challoner version.

The Douay remained the standard version for English-speaking Catholics until the twentieth century. It is apologetically significant in dealing with two groups: anti-Catholics who deny the existence of vernacular translations before the King James Version (KJV) and certain Catholic Traditionalists who insist on using only the Douay. For both groups there are uncomfortable facts about the Douay.

King James Not The First

Many anti-Catholics accuse the Church of having hidden Scripture from the faithful by refusing to translate it into the vernacular tongue.

The Douay-Rheims provides a particularly telling counterexample. It was completed in 1609, making it older than the KJV, which was not published until 1611. The fact that the Rheims New Testament was published in 1582 meant that it appeared almost thirty years before the KJV New Testament.

Further, the translators of the KJV make specific reference to the Douay version in their translators' preface, where they devote space to attacking the word choices made by the translators of the Douay. "We have shunned the obscurity of the Papists, in their [use of words like] AZIMES, TUNIKE, RATIONAL, HOLOCAUSTS, PRAEPUCE, PASCHE, and a number of such like [words], whereof their late Translation is full" ("The Translators to the Reader," King James Version, 1611 ed.).

But while the King James translators rejected some specific translations in the Douay, they emulated others. It is commonly acknowledged that, in preparing the KJV, the translators made use of the Rheims New Testament and adopted many of its readings in preference to those of other English editions. The KJV in many places thus bears a Douay-Rheims "slant" absent from prior translations.

Both the Douay and the KJV served as virtually the only Bible many English speakers used for centuries, and both in Protestant Fundamentalism and in certain parts of Catholic Traditionalism an insistence has arisen that only one translation — the group's traditional one — may be used. Protestants who insist on using the KJV are often called "King James Onlyists," and one may call the parallel phenomenon "Douay-Rheims Onlyism."

Douay-Rheims "Onlyism"?

Douay-Rheims Onlyists have not gone to some of the extremes of King James Onlyists. For example, they do not claim, as do some King James Onlyists, that their preferred translation was made under divine inspiration. However, they do often parallel King James Onlyists in arguing the superiority of their preferred translation due to the manuscript tradition on which it is based. King James Onlyists frequently argue that the KJV is superior because it is based on the Textus Receptus tradition, and Douay-Rheims Onlyists often argue for the Douay's superiority from the fact that it is based on the Vulgate.

They argue that the Vulgate is superior on four grounds: (1) It is the official Bible of the Catholic Church, (2) it has been declared free of moral or theological error, (3) Jerome had access to manuscripts that we do not have today, and (4) he was a stupendous translator.

The first point is not true. There was a time when the Vulgate could be described as an "official" translation of Scripture for the Latin rite of the Church, but not the whole Church. It also never superseded the original language versions in authority (a point Pius XII made in Divino Afflante Spiritu 21). But while the Vulgate in its latest edition — the "Neo-Vulgate" promulgated by John Paul II — has a privileged position based on its use in ecclesiastical documents, the law has changed such that there is no "official" translation of Scripture for the Latin rite.

The second point is true — ecclesiastical documents have acknowledged that the Vulgate is free of doctrinal and moral error. However, not containing doctrinal and moral error is not the same thing as being a perfect translation. In fact, it isn't even the same thing as being a good translation. If someone utters the Spanish sentence "La manzana es verde" and I translate that as "The apple is red," then I have not committed a moral or theological error, but I have committed a translation error (verde means green, not red).

In the same way, as Pius XII pointed out (DAS 20), this does not mean that the Vulgate always reflects accurately what is in the original texts. Sometimes it doesn't.

The third point is true — Jerome did have manuscripts that we don't have today — but this is misleading. He also lacked manuscripts that we do have, and he lacked the critical apparatus we have for sorting through textual variants.

One scholar, however brilliant, working in an age when textual criticism was still embryonic, was not as good as today's community of scholars who are able to critically cross-examine each others work in an age in which the rules of textual criticism have been worked out much better. Further, no matter how many manuscripts Jerome had access to, it was not the thousands used by biblical scholars today.

Ronald Knox puts the manuscript point wryly when he writes, "You cannot, I think, be tied down to the statement that Saul was one year old when he came to the throne, merely because that is the construction which the Vulgate has put on an obviously defective Hebrew original" (Trials of a Translator, 29).

Finally, Jerome did not even translate certain books of the Vulgate; he simply incorporated extant Latin translations. Consequently, John Paul II notes that the Neo-Vulgate revision "was quite demanding in certain books of the Old Testament which Saint Jerome did not touch" (Scripturarum Thesaurus). These books scarcely provide an illustration of definitive textual criticism.

The fourth point — that Jerome was a stupendous translator — is true, especially for his era. He also had the advantage of being much closer to the time the biblical dialects were spoken, though koina Greek (the dialect the New Testament is written in) already had evolved into a new dialect before his birth.

But to his disadvantage, Jerome learned these languages in a time before dictionaries and foreign language grammars had been invented. As a result, if a translator didn't know a rare or unusual word or grammatical form, he couldn't look it up. No matter how good a translator is, the worthiness of his work will be proportionate to how much he exerts himself — and sometimes Jerome did not exert himself very much. For example, he translated the book of Tobit in a single night.

Recently, I read one Douay-Rheims Onlyist booklet that actually praised this as a demonstration of Jerome's linguistic prowess. One can only say that this demonstrates a lack of familiarity with how translation works.

Nobody trying to do a careful job of translating a book of Scripture will rough out a translation in a single night and leave it at that.

The Church owes an enormous debt to Jerome for the Vulgate, but one must not fail to acknowledge that it — like all translations — fails to capture perfectly the sense of the original. Sometimes this is due to the limitations of the language he's translating into (Latin), and sometimes it's due to translator error.

The Vulgate In English?

Douay-Rheims Onlyists often represent the Douay as the only English translation of the Vulgate. It's not. Ronald Knox's translation of the Bible is also based on the Vulgate.

Even then, the Douay is not simply a translation of Jerome's original. There is no pure edition of the Vulgate available, any more than there is a single, pure edition of the original Greek and Hebrew. When the Douay was translated, there were a number of editions of the Vulgate that differed from each other in varying degrees.

Furthermore, the editions of the Douay now in circulation are the Douay-Challoner version (or even more properly, revisions of the Douay-Challoner version), which has been corrected in light of the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, meaning that it is not a pure translation of the Vulgate.

Challoner's revisions were extensive — more than Douay-Rheims Onlyists commonly admit. They were not limited to updating spelling and punctuation. Regarding the extent of the revisions, Bernard Ward notes, "The changes introduced by him were so considerable that, according to Cardinal Newman, they 'almost amounted to a new translation.' So also, Cardinal "Wiseman wrote, 'To call it any longer the Douay or Rheimish Version is an abuse of terms. It has been altered and modified until scarcely any sense remains as it was originally published'" (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910 ed.,s.v., "Douay Bible").

Free Of Protestant Bias?

While translator bias is a fact to be contended with, Douay-Rheims Onlyists often accuse contemporary translations of being tainted by Protestant translations.

But there's another side to that story. Just as the original Douay came to influence the KJV, the KJV itself came to influence the Douay. Ward notes: "In nearly every case Challoner's changes took the form of approximating to the Authorized [i.e., King James] Version."

The fact is that Bible versions on both sides of the confessional divide influence each other. This is because serious translators don't read only works done by one side. Sometimes the other guys come up with a way of better capturing what's written in the original language, and when that happens the serious translator wants to know about it, not to hide his head in the sand.

All of this is not to say that the Douay-Rheims is a bad translation, or that it is not to be read, or that individuals may not prefer using it to other translations. It is only to indicate that the Douay-Rheims ought not be put on a pedestal.

©2002 by Catholic Answers, Inc.

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