Assessing Bible Translations: Confraternity Bible Is Newly Republished
The return of the Confraternity New Testament in new editions is welcome in the evolution of the Catholic English Bible and biblical scholarship.
More people should know about the Confraternity Edition of the New Testament, which is a peculiar artifact of history and remains one of the great “what-might-have-beens” of U.S. Catholic Bible translation and liturgy.
Two editions from Sophia Institute Press and Scepter Publishers remind us of this missed opportunity and also show us that not all may be lost.
The Word in English
The Catholic English Bible tradition begins with the Douay-Rheims version published between 1582 and 1609 by Catholic exiles in France. As time went by and the language shifted, Bishop William Challoner revised the original between 1749 and 1777. This Challoner-Douay-Rheims edition became the standard Bible in America until well into the 20th century. During the 1930s, the Catholic Biblical Association of America, under the aegis of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, undertook a revision of Bishop Challoner’s work for contemporary readers. When the New Testament was completed and published in 1941, the scholars turned their attention to the Old Testament.
The New Testament of 1941 became known as the Confraternity Edition and was published in various editions over the years. It struck a fine balance of maintaining the more elevated language of the Challoner-Douay-Rheims tradition while making adjustments to obsolete syntax and word use. Furthermore, the scholars were now able to compare the Sixto-Clementine Vulgate (1592) to older manuscripts closer to St. Jerome’s original Vulgate.
This attention to the Latin text may puzzle modern readers who are used to Bibles translated from Hebrew and Greek, but until 1943, the Catholic Church required use of the Latin as the base for all translations into vernacular languages. In 1943, as the Confraternity team was working on their edition of the Old Testament, that changed with the release of Divina Afflante Spiritu by Pope Pius XII. This encyclical instructed Bible translators to make use of the original languages, with due reference to the Vulgate, and inaugurated a new era of Catholic Bible study and translation (not always for the better). The Confraternity team switched gears and published various books of the Old Testament under the new rules. Their work ultimately segued into an entirely new translation of the complete Bible, based on original languages and sundered from a continuing tradition of English-language Bibles that had sustained the Church for 400 years.
A Study in Contrast
The result was the deeply problematic New American Bible (NAB), which has been through multiple revisions since it first began appearing in 1970. A frequently wooden translation, with many troubling annotations derived from passing fads in biblical scholarship, the NAB seems to have been plonked down on the page by people with little sense of the weight and poetry of the English language or the tradition of the Bible in English. As the official translation of the Church in the U.S., it is what’s proclaimed (with some modifications) at Mass and handed out to students and converts, much to the consternation of Catholic Bible-lovers.
The Confraternity Edition shows us that it didn’t have to be this way. It is a less-literal adaptation of the Latin than the Douay-Rheims and strikes a fine balance in the way it deploys archaisms. Thee, thou and thy is still used for the second-person singular, but the second-person plural ye is now rendered as you, your or yours. This helps modulate the formal tone and makes for smoother reading. The result is an effective and engaging translation that is reverent without being stuffy and elegant without being inaccessible. It simply reads well.
An example or two will suffice. In the NAB version of John 3:5-7, we read: “Jesus answered, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit.’”
Contrast this with the Confraternity’s: “Jesus answered, ‘Amen, amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.’”
Likewise, the elegant Greek opening of Hebrews (1:1-4) is absent in the NAB: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word. When he had accomplished purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, as far superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
The Confraternity Edition better captures the building grandeur of this passage: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all in these days has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the world; who, being the brightness of his glory and the image of his substance, and upholding all things by the word of his power, has effected man’s purgation from sin and taken his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much superior to the angels as he has inherited a more excellent name than they.”
The Confraternity version of this passage is very similar to Bishop Challoner’s, with moderate updates in language, providing a good example of how the revision maintains a connection to the tradition of the Bible in English wherever possible.
There are some issues with the Sophia Institute Press edition (Catholic Reader’s Bible: Confraternity Edition — The Four Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, 301 pages; The Epistles and Revelation, 346 pages; $24.95 each).
It seems like the worthy goal of making Catholic Scripture translations available to more readers has led to a rushed product. It’s not a particularly well-made book, with a simple glossy cover, plain endpapers and glued bindings.
The internal material also seems to have been handled rather haphazardly. There are lines on the copyright page for information such as “cover design,” “cover image,” and even where the Library of Congress number should appear, but there is no data. The copyright is listed as 2020, even though this is clearly the 1941 edition, with the identical three-part introduction of the original Confraternity New Testament.
The imprimatur is the original from the Most Rev. Thomas H. McLaughlin, bishop of Paterson, who died in 1947. This isn’t a problem for a reprint, but considering the alterations to the original edition, the mingling of old and new copyright and imprimatur information suggested a new imprimatur.
Furthermore, in creating a “Reader’s Bible” with just the text and no annotations or chapter/verse numbers, there’s the question of compliance with the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which states, “Books of the sacred scriptures cannot be published unless the Apostolic See or the conference of bishops has approved them. For the publication of their translations into the vernacular, it is also required that they be approved by the same authority and provided with necessary and sufficient annotations” (Canon 825).
While the Confraternity Edition is an approved text, it’s the second part of the canonical rule that’s at issue here. The amount of notes covered by the phrase “necessary and sufficient annotations” is certainly up for debate, but I think we can agree that “none,” which is what the Catholic Reader’s Bible has, is neither necessary nor sufficient. This is no minor issue. Concern for the complexity of scriptural texts and their ability to be warped to suit varying interpretations has led to centuries of skepticism in the Church about vernacular versions. The notes are there to prevent heretical interpretations common to “Bible-only” Christians and contrary to the Catholic faith. Going all the way back to Douay-Rheims, annotations are a vital part of the Catholic tradition of Biblical translation.
Of course, that edge cuts both ways, as we see in the deeply problematic notes that remain in the “official” New American Bible translation. (See the NAB note for Matthew 16:21-23, for example.) If the lack of notes opens readers to the dangers of heresy, certainly the inclusion of heretical notes in the NAB suggesting Jesus’ passion predictions in Matthew are not authentic is even more troubling. The original introductions provided for each book of the New Testament perform some of the functions of annotations, but it would certainly seem that a Reader’s Bible without approved explanatory notes may not be in compliance with the Code of Canon Law.
On the other hand, the editions of the Confraternity Bible from Scepter Publishers, which recently added a leatherette version, are quite well done. These are pocket New Testaments (a little more than 5x3 inches), and as such feature smaller fonts. The bold print, however, is still quite readable, and the books have copious chapter headings and subheadings printed in red, as well as section divisions to guide readers through the entire text in six months by reading five minutes a day. The new leatherette ($11.95) version joins an older vinyl edition ($7), and they are excellent travel New Testaments that fit comfortably into a pocket.
Editions and Subtractions
The return of the Confraternity New Testament in new editions is welcome, since this is a largely forgotten treasure of Catholic biblical translation. If the New American Bible had continued on this path instead of wandering into the weeds of disreputable biblical modernism, the last 50 years of Catholic Bible study would have been very different.
Thomas L. McDonald is the curator of WeirdCatholic.com and a candidate for the permanent diaconate.
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