You Say Potato, I Say...

A benefit of Catholicism’s long historical perspective is its ability to discern the difference between the essential and the inessential, between the constant dustups that win headlines and God’s slow and silent work in the world.

The current confusion among Catholics concerning English translations of Scripture is a case in point. The news stories focus on the struggles between Rome and American bishops and the Catholic Biblical Association over the inclusive language used in the New American Bible, struggles fraught with ideological and ecclesiological implications. Even for those accustomed to scandal, there is something unseemly about such wrangling over God’s Word. Can’t something as simple and straightforward as translating Scripture be free of controversy?

The translation of Scripture has never been simple or straightforward-ask any translator-and it has certainly never been without controversy. Pope Damasus I commissioned St. Jerome in 394 to produce the Vulgate because there were so many competing Latin versions afloat. Despite this papal commission, St. Augustine objected strenuously, and with considerable point, to Jerome’s translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew rather than from the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. Augustine’s reasons were not linguistic but theological (ideological) and pastoral.

English translations have always been controversial. The brilliant William Tyndale, whose English renderings affected every subsequent translation, was hounded and finally put to death by Henry VIII, then still “Defender of the Faith.” Henry’s daughter Elizabeth, in turn, strenuously sponsored the Bishop’s Bible as a way of countering the ideological tendencies of the popular Geneva Bible, used by Bunyan and Shakespeare, which not only provided strongly Calvinistic notes that appealed to the English Puritans, but in its translation reduced New Testament “priests” to “elders” and “churches” to “congregations,” thus threatening England’s established episcopal order. The King James Bible (Authorized Version) by which so many fundamentalists swear, was the product of translation committees committed to restoring the traditional designations changed by the Geneva Bible.

The reason why translations stir controversy is that the stakes are high. We are, in a real sense, what we read, and especially when it comes to the public reading of Scripture in the liturgical assembly, it matters whether translations are faithful. But there is also the rub: What does it mean to be “faithful”? Those who translate from the Hebrew and Greek know that “fidelity” is itself ambiguous: Do we mean a literal fidelity to the original language, or a faithful rendering of the meaning in contemporary idiom? And when it comes to a knotty problem like “gender-inclusive language,” we are not likely to get it right all at once. Human frailty affects all our efforts.

The larger and more important story here, though, is not the one in the headlines, but the story of how U.S. Catholics, since Pius XII’s Divino afflante Spiritu in 1943, have entered ever more fully into the riches offered by Sacred Scripture,. They have been enabled in those efforts by the scholars of the Catholic Biblical Association, who have labored sedulously at translation, produced commentaries and monographs on Scripture, and taught students headed for both the ministry of priesthood and of scholarship at the highest level. In impressive numbers, these scholars have made their insight available in popular publications and in presentations to local parishes and diocesan workshops. That Scripture matters to Catholics more than ever before is due mainly to the ways in which Scripture has been made available to Catholics through the faithful (and mostly thankless) labor of scholars.

Catholics, as a result, are increasingly sophisticated about Scripture. They understand that a multiplicity of translations is more a resource than a scandal. They grasp that even if they themselves knew Hebrew and Greek, they would still have a bewildering variety of textual variants with which to contend, as well as the frustration of not knowing the languages nearly well enough to be confident in getting them right. Most of all, Catholics have come to understand that through all this deeply flawed human effort, God manages to communicate God’s Word with stunning and still shocking power. That is the important story.

Having a long view of history doesn’t mean that we are exempt from fighting the battles of our own day. Issues like gender-inclusive translations are significant as well as difficult. We need to engage them. But even as we struggle, our sense of history enables us to relax a little, knowing that the One who works slowly and silently uses every human strategy to accomplish a good that none of us can glimpse except occasionally and from a distance.

Published in the 2006-08-11 issue: 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor. Among his many books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).

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