On Biblical Translations in the Lectionary

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

Readers may be aware that the Bishops of England and Wales, along with those of Scotland, are in the process of approving a new lectionary for use at Mass. To be clear, the readings themselves will not change: part of being Catholic means that the readings we have at Mass in England are the same as the readings everywhere else in the world from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. It is the translation of the readings that will change.

For many decades – certainly all of my lifetime – Catholics in Britain, along with most other English-speaking countries outside North America, have grown used to hearing the scriptures from the Jerusalem Bible (JB). The JB was produced first in French at the Ecole Biblique, the Dominican centre for the study of the scriptures and biblical archaeology in Jerusalem, and an English version of it came out in 1966. It was the first Catholic translation into English directly from the Hebrew and Greek originals, rather than from the Latin Vulgate, and it has served to familiarise generations of Catholics with the riches of the Bible. So why change?

The readings themselves will not change: part of being Catholic means that the readings we have at Mass in England are the same as the readings everywhere else in the world from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe

The translation to which we will be switching is the English Standard Version (ESV). Space does not permit to give even a potted history of this translation: suffice it to say that it is closely related to the Revised Standard Version (RSV), itself a descendant of the Authorised Version so familiar to our Anglican brothers and sisters, and indeed a vital part of the English literary tradition. Indeed, it might be worth giving an example of the similarity, and comparing the JB. What could be more familiar than the beginning of 1 Corinthians 13? “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” So the AV. The ESV reads “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Compare the JB: “If I have all the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing.”

Notice that the metaphor of the tongue, which St Paul uses in the Greek, has been rendered as “eloquence”. This is a good example of the fundamental difference between the ESV and the JB. The former espouses the principal of “formal equivalence” or “word-for-word” translation, sticking as closely as possible to the literal meaning of what the biblical authors wrote. The JB prefers “dynamic equivalence” or “thought-for-thought” translation, offering readers very often a clearer, easier-to-follow reading that enables Mass-goers to engage with the fundamental meaning of, say, St Paul, without having to struggle with his notoriously difficult and writing style.

Formal equivalence is prized highly in theological work: where scholars are not engaging directly with the original languages, they expect at least to grapple with a very direct and literal translation. Should Mass-goers do the same? The Bishops have decided that we should, and not everyone is happy about it. This is not just a knee-jerk rejection of change: there is a particular and valid concern that the ESV uses gendered language even when it would be perfectly possible to render the Hebrew or Greek accurately – some might argue even more accurately – with gender-neutral words. Specific choices made by translators of each version will always be questionable, such that one can pick holes in any version. Indeed, a good many of my own sermons in the past have begun by picking holes in the JB, and I shall miss this quick and easy way into preaching!

Mass-goers will struggle with the new lectionary, and it will be for preachers to help them in this struggle.

However, I do think that there will be fewer holes to pick in the ESV, precisely because of the principle of formal equivalence. Permit me to give another Pauline example, this time from Romans 14:7. The JB offers “The life and death of each of us has its influence on others”, to which we compare the ESV’s much more literal “none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself”. While the New RSV shows that a word-for-word translation could have avoided the sexist “himself”, the JB shows the danger of what I call “over-translating”: St Paul’s point here is not that “no man (or woman!) is an island”, our lives and deaths part of the bigger story of humanity. That is certainly true, but it is not what he is saying. Rather, his point is that for Christians our lives and deaths are taken up into the story of God, as becomes clear from the following verse. Ease of understanding, in this example, is at the grave expense of correct understanding.

Mass-goers will struggle with the new lectionary, and it will be for preachers to help them in this struggle. Some preachers will relish this more than others. But the change is coming, and we can choose to see it as an opportunity for all Catholics to hear the scriptures afresh, and to hear more clearly the distinct voices and styles of the prophets and apostles from whom we receive them.

Fr Richard studied theology at Oxford at both undergraduate and graduate level; he studied history at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the Provincial Bursar of the English Dominicans.

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