nerdy Catholic details about Bible translation and study

I’m a Catholic nerd, so when I got inspired a few months back to delve deeper into the Bible (and what a blessing it’s been, but that’s another post), I did what a Catholic nerd does: I spent hours and hours reading-up on Bible translations to find the best one. (I probably overdid it.) Unsurprisingly, there’s not a whole lot of consensus. Bottom-line, though, is that there are generally three trusted versions of the Bible for Catholics:

  • Douay-Rheims (with notes by Bishop Challoner and another version with further notes by Fr. Haydock)
  • Revised Standard Version — Catholic Edition (often called the RSV-CE)
  • The Jerusalem Bible

Let me give you the brief skinny — in lay-speak, as that is all I know — on each of them and then let you know what I do with each translation. Then I’ll let you know of some very, very good news for the future! Finally, I’ll explain why I don’t use the American bishops’ New American Bible that often.

The Douay-Rheims is very old (originally published in 1582) and is written in old-style English that probably appeals to the same aesthetic tastes as the Protestant King James version. The notes by Bishop Challoner are very sound, but old and obviously not reflective of even the good modern scholarship. It’s available for free online here.

Furthermore, in 1859, Fr. Haydock made extensive annotations, which are a gold-mine of thoughts of the Church Fathers and other sound commentary. Thanks to the hard work of a transcriber, these notes are also available for free online here.

I don’t use the Douay-Rheims as often as I probably should, mostly because the Challoner notes are minimal, I do not have a print version of the Haydock (which is very pricey, well over $150 most places), and I prefer not to do Bible study online. Also, I find the old English text and some of the commentary hard to digest — not impossible, but involving more effort than I usually can give. Nonetheless, if I want to really dig deeply into a particular passage or topic, this is where I go.

The RSV-CE is a modern translation that preserves much of what is sound and poetic in older versions. (I understand that it is also good for use with some Protestants, as they use a less-complete version of the same translation, the RSV.) Unfortunately, there are almost no notes and those that it does have are often printed in an appendix rather than on the proper page. There is a Second Edition, but I understand that many prefer the original. A “bootleg” copy is available online, but I don’t vouch for its reliability, let alone its legality!

This is the translation I quote from and often read from for reflection (I have the original Ignatius version, which is nicely printed and inexpensive.). I’m not alone, as it used a lot by those who explain the Catholic Faith to others (apologists). It is proper and elegant, which makes it a joy to read, and its word choices often inspire a slightly richer meditation on a passage than other versions.

The Jerusalem Bible of 1966 is not to be confused with The New Jerusalem Bible, an inferior revision. The original is an evocative modern translation with excellent modern study notes (for the most part). Like all Bible notes, these are not inspired and guaranteed by the Holy Spirit, and must be read with intelligence and the mind of the Church. If you are considering purchasing the 1966 text, be sure to try to get a copy with the notes. I don’t think this translation is available online, legally or otherwise.

This is my favorite Bible! I went through a good deal of trouble and expense to buy an old and relatively rare copy with the notes online, but it has been worth it. The text, though somewhat British, makes good sense to the modern reader, and the notes provide good background and explanation.

That brings me to the good news! Ignatius Press, one of the best Catholic publishers (their most notable author is Pope Benedict!), is in the process of compiling the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, including the contributions of noted convert Scott Hahn, using the RSV-CE (Second Edition). Several books of the New Testament are already available for about $10 each (softcovers), but my understanding is that the entire Bible, in one volume, will be available in the next couple of years. Many of us are awaiting this publication with enthusiasm (and hoping that it will be more affordable than buying each individual volume)! I have the volumes that contain Matthew and Acts and I find them very good, at least as useful as my Jerusalem Bible. In addition to copious footnotes in understandable terms, they also have sets of questions in the back for study and for reflection.

Finally, regarding the American bishops’ New American Bible, which is used at Mass: It is easy to understand, but is often a clunky and (as I have read) less-than-faithful translation, so I prefer not to use it for study or meditation. I have read that many English-speaking peoples use the Jerusalem Bible at Mass, but our bishops have mandated the use of their translation, so this is not an option for us. Ditto for the RSV-CE and certainly the Douay-Rheims.

I would be glad to post more on this in the future and probably will.