English Bible Translations

What's the best English bible? I don't know.

There are so very many translations available; it’s overwhelming. In general let’s divide them into two categories: close translations and paraphrased works. The close translations attempt to translate each word, word for word. Paraphrased bibles just focus on giving an overall re-telling of each story or section; such translations are very much the works of their editors. Examples of paraphrased bibles are the Good News Bible (GNB) or the Living Bible (TLB). Examples of close translations are the Revised Standard Version (RSV) or the King James Version (KJV). Note that many popular translations are known by their abbreviation.

The great majority of English translations were done by Reformed Christians (Protestants) and so do not include the deuterocanonical books. Some of these include these ‘Catholic’ books in an appendix, such as the New Oxford Bible.

Some people refer to ‘Catholic bibles,’ by which they typically mean those approved by some ecclesiastical body. In the United States & England, we have three such English translations: The New American Bible (NAB), the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSVCE), and the Jerusalem Bible. The first two are translations from the original texts; the Jerusalem Bible was translated from the original texts to French, then to English. The RSV-CE is a close translation. The NAB and Jerusalem Bible are perhaps in-between a close translation and a paraphrase.

Let’s talk about Catholic translations. The most important early translation of Scripture into another tongue was the Latin Vulgate of St Jerome, in the 5th century. St. Jerome lived in Palestine, to immerse himself into the Hebrew and Greek and into the ways of Palestinian peoples. His exegetical works are among the best of the Church Fathers. His Latin Vulgate became the liturgical norm of the Roman Church for millennia. In the 1980’s, a refresh of his translation was undertaken by the Vatican, resulting in the New Latin Vulgate, which is now the official source of liturgical Scripture (Latin being the normative language of the Roman Catholic liturgy).

The first translation into English under ecclesiastical oversight was the Douay-Rheims Bible (DRB) of the 16th century. The OT was translated from the Latin Vulgate at the English College associated with the University of Douay in France. The NT was translated at Rheims, France, also from the Latin Vulgate. This DRB translation included copious annotations, shedding light on the texts from a patristic point of view. Such annotations offering insight into the texts became a standard feature of such Catholic bibles thereafter. The DRB was the norm for Catholic bibles in English for 400 years.

With the rise of the Historical-Critical school of exegesis, the American bishops desired a new translation of the bible into modern English, although still using the Latin Vulgate as the base. The resulting translation was the Confraternity (of Christian Doctrine) (CCD) version of the 1950’s. Modern exegetical methods were used to make this new translation from the Latin, and new annotations were prepared. The CCD offered a companion volume of additional explanatory notes, to augment the copious annotations already included in the published bibles.

A desire to replace the CCD with a direct translation from original languages resulted in the New American Bible of 1970. This translation, coordinated by the USCCB, became the source of liturgical Scripture in the English translation of the liturgy. This is the version we hear at Mass.

The RSVCE was published in 1966 by the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical body that does not include the Catholic Church. They produced the RSV to begin with, which was an update of the KJV, applying the latest translational methods from the original languages. The Catholic Edition was a joint venture between the NCC and the Catholic Biblical Association in England. What makes it ‘Catholic’ is mainly the inclusion of the deuterocanonical books and placement of these books in the order found in Catholic bibles, rather than in an appendix. The RSVCE is used in the English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as the lectionary used in England. This bible blog uses the RSVCE . I prefer it because I believe it is reasonably close to a literal word-for-word translation from original texts into modern English. Not perfect, but the best there is for translational accuracy. The RSVCE has very minimal explanatory notations.

There are actually many more English bibles among Catholics, some very good. For example, I have a New Testament freshly translated by the famous Fr. Ronald Knox in 1945 (the Knox Bible). Nevertheless, a typical American Catholic would be best equipped with either the NAB or RSVCE, both very plentiful in the USA and both in easy to read modern English. If using the NAB, I might suggest either the 1st edition (NAB) or the 4th edition (New American Bible Revised Edition, or NABRE); I do not recommend the 2nd or 3rd editions (Revised New American Bible, or RNAB). As I tend to analyze each word and phrase in detail, I prefer the RSVCE. I urge you to use whatever you prefer.

I do much of my analytical parsing with the help of interlinear bibles. These show the original text on a line, with the line immediately below showing the direct translation of each Greek or Hebrew word above. It requires some very minimal understanding of Greek & Hebrew. Such interlinear bibles can be found online, for example the Blue Letter Bible, which requires no prior knowledge of Greek or Hebrew.