Bruce Metzger (1914-2007) was a giant of biblical scholarship, of the sort we are unlikely to see again. A scholar of the Greek New Testament, he was on the board of both the American Bible Society and the United Bible Society and taking part in the judgement of textual variants which influence virtually all modern translations of the New Testament, no matter the language. He wrote commentaries on the Greek New Testament, the landmark book The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, and contributed to the translating of the Revised Standard Version. He was a man considered trustworthy by those on both sides of the conservative/liberal divide in American Protestantism and was a fixture at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Later, he would be the major force behind the completion of the NRSV and was on hand when a copy of this bible was brought to Pope Saint John Paul II and Patriarch Demetrius I of Constantinople.

In this article, though, we will limit ourselves to an extremely minor work of his: The Bible in Translation: Ancient and Modern Versions, a slim volume published in 2001. In the words of Catholic biblical scholar Joseph Fitzmyer, SJ, the book is “a highly informative and interesting account of the history of the English Bible. Professor Metzger has pointed out the qualities—good and bad—of all the versions, from that of John Wycliffe to the New Revised Standard Version of 1990. He has not neglected the Jewish translations of the twentieth century or the simplified, easy-to-read versions, and even includes the various paraphrases of the English Bible. All of this is done with clarity, humor, and sound judgment. His book will be a valuable guide for all pastors, students, scholars, and general readers.”

So, in this article, I will summarize his opinions on some widely used Catholic translations, as well as ecumenical ones that have love among the people of the Church.

The Rheims-Douay Bible (1582-1610)

The first 66 pages of the book are a report on ancient translations from the Septuagint through the various Syriac and Latin versions, including the mighty Vulgate which is translated here. The history of Bishop Challoner’s revision (which is almost every bible we know of as the Douay-Rheims) is covered in a single paragraph, without commenting at all upon its literary or scholarly merit. In all, Metzger spends about two pages discussing the original D-R compared with 10 pages for the King James Bible. That might seem a bit unfair to some of us, but given the KJV’s role in history, giving the D-R 20% of that space is probably generous.

-He notes that the translation was “painstaking and reached a high standard of consistency, but was often too literal to be suitable for use in public worship.” He notes its love for technical Latinisms, “supersubstantial bread” being the most famous of these renderings.

-“It is, however, unfair,” he writes, “to dwell on this negative though real side of the Rheims version”. He then goes on to quote several examples of “plain colloquial expression and clear rendering”. Examples he uses include “have a good heart” (Matthew 9:2), “throttled him” (Matthew 18:28), and “why make you this a doe? The wench is not dead, but sleepeth” (Mark 5:39).

-About the original Douay-Rheims’ infamous footnotes, he notes that they “rival those in the Geneva Bible in profuseness and exceed it in polemic nature.” His example is a note from Matthew 6:24: “Two religions, God and Baal, Christ and Calvin, Masse and Communion, the Cotholike Church and Heretical Conventicales”

-Professor Metzger gives a motive for Bishop Challoner’s revision: “by the middle of the eighteenth century, its literalistic Latinate rendering was largely unintelligible to the rank and file of English-speaking Roman Catholics.” His other comments on the Challoner revision are little more than a publication history (more complicated than I had supposed). I would have liked him to have commented upon the Challoner revision, and the truth or rumor of whether the changes were mainly to bring the text in line with the KJV. I seem to remember a John Henry Newman quote to that effect, at least. I don’t own a copy of the Douay Rheims or the King James, or else I’d do the comparison legwork myself.

Knox Bible (1945-1950)

Just kidding. He doesn’t review the Knox Bible.

The Revised Standard Version (1952)

Professor Metzger was part of the translation effort behind the RSV, and so this 5 page treatment is partially an apologia for the need for a new English translation at that time, partially a brief report on the abortive attempt during the war years to incorporate English involvement on the committee, and partially a report about the accusations of modernism levied against it. Metzger does not write a single word about the Catholic Edition of the RSV, which was published in 1966. He reports some of the changes in the text in its 1971 2nd Edition, not noting that several of them had been first seen in the RSV-CE (notably, the restoration of the woman caught in adultery and the ending of Mark to the text from the footnotes.) He spends the rest of the essay commenting with approval the effort behind the Common Bible, and the later translation and publishing of editions featuring Psalm 151 and 3 and 4 Maccabees, books considered deuterocanonical by the Orthodox Churches.

Jerusalem Bible (1966)

The first Catholic translation commented upon by Professor Metzger since the Douay Rheims, the Jerusalem Bible is the subject of a 3 page essay. He notes its complex relationship with the Bible de Jerusalem, and reports that some books were translated from the original languages and others were renderings of the French translation which were later compared to “the Hebrew or Aramaic by the General Editor [Alexander Jones] and amended where necessary to ensure complete conformity with the ancient text”. This quote Metzger takes from the preface to the Jerusalem Bible. Mentioning Hebrew and Aramaic (and not Greek) leads me to believe that this practice occurred only in the translation of the Old Testament. To me, this is very similar to the method that Monsignor Knox reported as his working methods when translating the Vulgate.

He recognizes it as the first complete Roman Catholic Bible in English translated from the original languages, as well as being the first to “take major advantage of the Dead Sea Scrolls thus far discovered”.

Here’s what else he says:

-He notes that the translation is meant to reflect current English usage, but that it “ventured to paraphrase sometimes not altogether happily.” He singles out the first two verses of 1 Corinthians 7 in particular. Where a clause in the Greek reads that “because of fornications” one should have his own wife or her own husband. This probably means, in Professor Metzger’s estimation, “because there is so much sexual immorality.” The Jerusalem Bible reads, though, “because sex is always a danger”.

-Metzger reports but does not venture an opinion on the tetragrammaton being rendered as “Yahweh” in the JB, but notes that the commentary by the translators points out that “for those who may care to use this translation of the Psalms can substitute the traditional “the Lord’”.

-Metzger lists but provides no judgment on several interpretations: their use of “maiden” in Isaiah 7:14, “rejoice so highly favored” in Luke 1:28, and the references to the “adelphoi” of Jesus translated as “the brothers of Jesus” but with a footnote noting that these were not Mary’s children for reason of the Semitic use of the term.

-The professor notes that the JB “usually reflects current judgements widely held among Protestant and most Roman Catholic scholars”. This is a phrase I find problematic, especially being that it was written in about 2001. Perhaps Catholic biblical scholarship was lagging behind some Protestant scholars as it pertains to the literal/historical sense of the text before the 1940s, but the gap has been narrowed past its vanishing point. It is an example of a fallacy that sometimes creeps in: Professor Metzger, being a mainline American Protestant he seems not to see fundamentalists and various charismatics, et al, as being part of his religious movement, and yet all Catholic scholars are in the same bucket, so to speak. To give an example, it seems that Metzger would have dismissed, say, Peter Ruckman as a crank of no consequence, but not whoever his Catholic counterpart would be. This speaks to why we Catholics must hold ourselves and all representatives of the Church to an incredibly high moral standard. When a minister of a storefront Pentecostal church commits some sexual or financial sin, it reflects badly on the (fictional) “First Church of Abundant Blessings of the Mighty God Pentecostal Apostolic Chapel”. When a volunteer (or an employee, or a priest, or a cardinal) does the same in the Catholic Church, it is hampering the ENTIRE CHURCH’s ability to preach the gospel.

-A specific example of the JB going out on a textual limb is in their rendering of John 1:13, where they put “who was born”, a rendering which abandons “the evidence of all Greek manuscripts on the basis of several Old Latin and Syriac manuscripts, with limited Patristic support.” (The NAB reads “who were born”, which fits the sense better, but does not so clearly defend the doctrine of the Incarnation.)

-Metzger also mentions a rare edition of the Jerusalem Bible called “The Bible in Order” published by Doubleday in 1975. It rearranges all the written material of the Bible and places it in the order it was composed. Used copies of this book may be found on Amazon, among other places. I flipped through one at a used book store once. It is a very interesting text of the sort that doesn’t get published anymore as the scholars have retreated from such optimism of what exactly can be known about the composition and conditions lying behind the text. I suppose they cultivated humility.

New American Bible (1970)

The partial translations appearing throughout the 40s and 50s are not commented upon by Metzger and the revised New Testament is covered later in the book.

-Metzger starts off by unraveling the complex story of the birth of the NAB. “This version,” he writes, “represents capable and dedicated scholarship and provides a rendering of the Scriptures in modern American idiom, along with a brief introduction to each biblical book as well as many literary and theological annotations.”

-He points to the fact that the translators “departed more than a few times from the Masoretic Hebrew text”, especially in 1 and 2 Samuel, where they were very influenced by the Dead Sea Scrolls and in its Psalter, which was translated from the Hebrew text backing the Latin Psalter of the Church from 1945. He mentions the original NAB’s habit of rearranging verses that its translators thought were mixed up in ancient times. Metzger points out the Minor Prophets in particular, but from my reading of the 1970 NAB he could just as easily have mentioned Job. (I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison of the NAB and NABRE on this count, but I think the NABRE has kept the verses pretty much in order, even when some mix-up in transmission seems likely based on its context.

-He applauds the translators’ decision to render the Tetragrammaton as “the Lord” rather than “the utterly un-English Yahweh”. He kept this opinion to himself during the JB essay, but it couldn’t be kept to himself forever!

-On the original NAB Psalter (which predates the NAB by a decade and a half), Professor Metzger is very complimentary! “With regard to fitness of language,” he writes, “the book of Psalms gives the impression that meticulous care was taken to provide a rendering with a certain liturgical and literary timbre. In general, the language is dignified without being archaic, and expressions are used that evoke a sense of grandeur and the numinous.” “Only rarely have the translators nodded,” he writes—and then notes an example from Psalm 24 where the words “The Lord’s are the earth and its fullness” are more clear for the eye than the ear. (Metzger is saying how one could interpret it as the earth and the fullness of the earth are lords if one hears it. To that I say, context is a big part of comprehension, and being in the context of a house of worship of a monotheistic religion probably clarifies that particular example.

-After giving love to the NAB Psalter, he proceeds to take the 1970 NAB New Testament out behind the woodshed. “In other parts of the Bible,” he writes, “the reader is struck by a certain typically American quality of English idiom—plain, flat, and matter-of-fact.” This would seem to cover the entire bible outside of the Psalter, but the examples he uses are entirely from the New Testament. He brings up examples of long Greek sentences being broken into smaller pieces. (The NAB, of course, was not the only offender here, if this is even an offense!) He lists three examples of “rather uninspired, pedestrian renderings”: Matthew 16:6 (“Be on the lookout against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees”), Matthew 17:27 (“for fear of disedifying them”) and Revelation 3:18 (“Buy ointment to smear on your eyes.”)

-He then moves on to the 1970 NAB’s inconsistencies in rendering Greek words like “makarios” (“blest” in Matthew and Luke, “happy” in Revelation) or “basileia tou theou”. This phrase “occurs forty-six times in Mark and Luke. Sixteen times it is rendered “the kingdom of God,” once “God’s kingdom,” once “kingdom of heaven” (!), and the remaining instances “the reign of God.” He then lists several places where the same Greek phrase is translated different ways in adjacent chapters, or even adjacent verses! In the most severe criticism of a mainstream bible translation I’ve seen in the book, he writes, “It is difficult to believe that the committee of translators (who were technically trained scholars) would have been guilty of perpetrating such slipshod work.” He then speculates that the issue was with the subcommittee on English style making changes to the text which were not signed off on by the translators due to time concerns. These issues would be fixed with the 1986 NAB, which will be commented upon later.

-He devotes more than a page to discussing the footnotes of the NAB, but says not a single word about the controversies in the New Testament notes. Rather, he focuses on Christian interpretations of the Hebrew Scripture given in the footnotes and section headings of passages with messianic import. He reproduces the footnote for Isaiah 7:14, a passage which reads “virgin” in the original NAB Old Testament, but not in the NABRE revision.

The New Jerusalem Bible (1985)

In a section called “Revision after Revision”, Professor Metzger runs through the very many revisions of the 80s and 90s. He devotes slightly less than a page to the NJB.

-A new version of the Bible de Jerusalem was printed in 1973, “making it necessary to prepare a new English edition as well”. He points out that the NJB is not “just a translation of the French, but an edition in its own right, with textual improvement and explanatory notes, under the direction of the new editor, Dom Henry Wansborough of Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire.”

-He spends much of this space discussing the “reduction of masculine-oriented language in passages that clearly involve both men and women.” In Zechariah 3:8, “men of good omen” becomes “an omen of things to come”, in Micah 6:12 “rich men” becomes “the rich.” Several other examples are listed, all from the minor prophets and psalms.

-Professor Metzger highlights the NJB’s return toward traditional language: “happy” becomes “blessed”, “I tell you most solemnly” becomes “in all truth I tell you”, and “my dear people” becomes “my dear friends.

Revised New Testament, New American Bible (1986)

The 1970 NAB New Testament saw the normally calm Professor Metzger raise an eyebrow in disapproval. What does he say with his one and a half pages of comments on this revision?

-Most of the space is taken up with a drab retelling of the history of the revision and a block-quote from the preface to the New Testament. Worth noting are the words, “The experience of actual use of the New Testament of the New American Bible, especially in oral proclamation, has provided a basis for further improvements.”

-Metzger notes how the translation moved in the direction of formal-equivalence, and that care was taken to consistently render a Greek word when it was used in different places with the same meaning. Also, parallels in the synoptic gospels were rendered to be…well…parallel!

-He makes quick mention of the reduction in masculine here, citing Matthew 23:13 (which changed from “you shut the doors of the kingdom of God in men’s faces” to “you lock the kingdom of heaven before human beings.”). “Apart from being a more literal translation,” he writes, it “reflects accommodation to gender-neutral language insofar as fidelity to the original allows.”

-He concludes by writing, “In short, the revised edition is a substantial improvement over the previous edition.”

The New Revised Standard Version (1990)

Metzger spends 8 pages on the NRSV, a work he was chiefly responsible for. So, without surprise, we find that what he has written is more an apologia for that work than a review. That’s ok. It is still interesting.

-For several pages, he provides actual comparison charts, giving examples of how the NRSV altered the text of the RSV. The charts are titled “greater accuracy”, “improved clarity”, “more intelligible English”, “more natural English”, “adjustments of renderings that could be misunderstood”, “avoidance of ambiguity in oral reading”, “better euphony”, “elimination of ‘man’ or ‘men’ when neither occurs in the original text”, and “elimination of unnecessary masculine renderings.” Each features at least three examples.

-The last page focuses on the translation’s ecumenical potential and the changes made for the English market to better reflect British English.

-As I am allergic to advertising, you will need to get the book if you are interested in more specifics about he has to say about the NRSV!

Eugene Peterson’s The Message (NT 1993, OT Wisdom books 1997, OT Prophets 2000)

Just for Timothy, let’s see what he says about the Message!

-He first remarks that it “attempts to do for the 1990s what The Living Bible did for the 1970s”.

-He notes that while Peterson is aiming for an informal paraphrase, he doesn’t seek out the simplest English word, but rather ones that “forcefully convey the meaning to the reader.”

-In going beyond dynamic-equivalency, we are leaving the literary world of first century Judea and entering the present, where Jesus “sounds like a twentieth-century American”. Peterson also “pads the text with additional details in the interest of heightening the vividness and drama.” His example is from Colossians 1:20: “not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the Cross.” Speaking only for myself, that passage to me shows the best of what a biblical paraphrase could and should be. To not paraphrase with such passion and force would seem to me to present a rather wan collection of writings. A paraphrase isn’t going to be useful for study anyway—it may as well be allowed to be what it truly ought to be.

-Poker faced as always, Metzger (with a subtle prairie-ish smile) chooses the verb “transmogrified” while referring to his renderings of the Sermon on the Mount.

I limited myself to writing about these, but some other editions he comments upon are the KJV, the NEB, the REB, NASB (along with its revision) and the other 20th century paraphrases (Good New for Modern Man, JB Phillips, the Living Bible).

The book was published in 2001, and so he does not comment upon the NABRE Old Testament and Psalter, the NLT, the RSV 2CE, or the ESV. Those latter two revisions of the RSV are editions I would very much enjoy hearing the late professor’s opinion on. As an old lion of the mainline Protestant tradition, I suspect he would have been suspicious of these texts as a step backward, but perhaps I am wrong. Someone who had spent so much time in Church must know that it’s not just the register of the language which makes for a bible fit for the Church, but also the renderings of the messianic prophecies, among other places.

May God bless you all!

4 thoughts on “Bruce Metzger on Catholic Translations of the Bible — Guest Post by Bob Short”

  1. Marc,

    Thanks for this. I consider Metzger one of the great Biblical/textual scholars of the twentieth century and always recommend his work.

    Funny that you mention his review of The Message and your insightful comment on paraphrase, since I am formulating a post (in my mind at the moment) which will be a sort of apologia for Peterson’s translation of Luke 1:28. Hmmm……

  2. A few corrections are in order. Metzger has nothing to do with the translation of the RSV, he only joined the committee sometime in the 1970s. He did oversee the creation of the NRSV, but only one scholar was on both the RSV and NRSV committees: Old Testament scholar Harry Orlinsky.

    Also, the book was not written in 2001, it was originally written around 1970 and updated periodically to talk about new translations he thought were interesting. But his revisions only added new text, he didn’t revise the text that was already there. The passage in the review of the JB that you objected to was not written in 2001.

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