What began as a project trying to discern possible futures of the New American Bible has recently become an investigation of its past. Last time, I looked at the psalms and canticles of the Easter Vigil lectionary. What interested me was the evolution of the NAB Psalter from its beginnings, through its unpopular 1991 revision, to the NABRE, which boasts a well-respected psalter which has gained plaudits even from the normally sour-faced online cognoscenti.

Adding the 1991 Psalter to the comparison mix was fun for me. I discovered that much of its reputation was deserved, but that those revisers did much of the work for which the NABRE receives acclaim.

What about the 1970 New Testament?

Here is the knowledge I bring to the table: When the liturgical reform brought the vernacular to Catholic worship, many new translations of texts, whether biblical or liturgical, were necessary. Ecumenical spirit and optimism about engaging with contemporary life was also at this time an influence on the American Catholic hierarchy (as well as in the mainline Protestant denominations). The Confraternity Bible was going through another stage of its permanent and confusing revision history when its name was changed to the New American Bible. This name highlighted its status as the first from-scratch major translation ever done by American scholars. The name also was far more ecumenical than was suggested by the word “confraternity”, which still has associations with the parochial mindset of American Catholics before they entered mainstream American life in the years after World War Two. It wasn’t just advertising. There were indeed non-Catholic scholars who assisted with the translation, a practice which has continued throughout the NAB’s history.

The first edition of the NAB was released in 1970. The only two new sections of this biblical “ship of Theseus” were the book of Genesis and the New Testament. The rest had been published in various editions of the Confraternity Bible. The oldest sections were Exodus through Ruth, which had been originally published in 1952 and would survive until the NABRE replaced them.

Some have said that while the Confraternity translation was done with great care, the newly translated books were done in a hurried manner. While Genesis had only been lightly revised, the work on the New Testament had been a complete overhaul which could have benefited from a few more years of work. It also seems that different groups of translators were not collaborating with each other about vocabulary choices, leading to differences between sections of the synoptic gospels which should have been exactly the same. At any rate, the translation was seen as unfit for liturgy and not very useful for study.

The original 1970 New Testament has been out of print for my entire lifetime, but is still the translation used for the biblical readings in the Liturgy of the Hours in the United States. It is difficult to tell, but I believe the lectionaries of some Eastern Catholic Church eparchies in the United States may be based on the 1970 NAB New Testament without very much in the way of edits.

One must remember that the NAB New Testament was not the only translation to be influenced by these same forces, face the same resistance, and require similar revisions. In fact, an entire generation of dynamic equivalence translations went through the same experience, though for some reason receiving far less criticism than the NAB. The New English Bible, whose Old Testament was released the same year as the NAB, also was pilloried for inconsistent renderings of the same Greek terms and received middling reviews as a text used in Anglican liturgies. The Jerusalem Bible received criticism from scholars and was revised in less than 20 years as well, but has maintained a cult following in Catholic circles. I suppose it pays to have JRR Tolkien and Mother Angelica in your corner. In contrast to the reception of the Jerusalem Bible (which is still the basis of the Lectionary in the British Isles), the English translation of the Roman Missal was rarely defended and oft criticized until its replacement was rolled out on the First Sunday of Advent, 2011.

So, let’s check out this period piece from the heady days around the Council!

As differences between the 1986 revised New Testament and the Lectionary will be so few, I will recount the differences, blow by blow, in my comments. Bolded text will call to attention the differences between the 1970 text and subsequent ones.

One thing to keep in mind is that the Lectionary is not a static liturgical book—in the time of the Mass of Paul VI, there have been two editions of this text used in the United States. The first was printed in 1970 and was based on the 1970 NAB. The current edition was released in 1998 and is based on the 1986 NAB New Testament and 1970 NAB Old Testament.

Some of this information is from the website catholic-resources.org, written and maintained by Felix Just, SJ. Those of you interested in this topic ought to visit that site and read more!

Epistle: Romans 6:3-11

Lectionary

Brothers and sisters:
Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?
We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death,
so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead
by the glory of the Father,
we too might live in newness of life.

For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his,
we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.
We know that our old self was crucified with him,
so that our sinful body might be done away with,
that we might no longer be in slavery to sin.
For a dead person has been absolved from sin.
If, then, we have died with Christ,
we believe that we shall also live with him.
We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more;
death no longer has power over him.
As to his death, he died to sin once and for all;
as to his life, he lives for God.
Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin
and living for God in Christ Jesus.

NAB 1970

Are you not aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Through baptism into his death we were buried with him, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life. If we have been united with him through likeness to his death, so shall we be through a like resurrection. This we know: our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed and we might be slaves to sin no longer. A man who is dead has been freed from sin. If we have died with Christ, we believe that we are also to live with him. We know that Christ, once raised from the dead, will never die again; death has no more power over him. His death was death to sin, once for all; his life is life for God. In the same way, you must consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus.

Comments

The NAB ’86 text has the word “or” preceding this passage, and lacks the incipit, “brothers and sisters”. The only other difference is the NAB’s occasional placing of words which perhaps ought not be in the text in brackets: in this case the word “being” from the phrase “you must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.”

The NAB ’86 New Testament is my daily reader. My spirituality is Mass and praying the hours, which in the United States means you will get a lot of the ’86 NT at Mass and the ’70 NT in your breviary. I had no idea how utterly fundamental and pervasive the differences were between the two editions.

My preconceived notion was that this unpopular English rendering was sound in its fundamentals, and some surface fixes improved it markedly. This was my surprising conclusion regarding the ’91 Psalms, which are way closer to the NABRE psalter than anyone admits. This turned out to be totally wrong. I’m having a hard time seeing the similarities at times—I could have easily highlighted what was the same instead of what was different! (This might be advisable for those who print this out, in order to save on that precious laser jet ink.)

The NAB ’70 is easier to read and not entirely graceless. It lies comfortably between the New English Bible and the Good News Translation—a zone that I think no one in the world was asking be occupied.

Gospel: Luke 24:1-12

Lectionary

At daybreak on the first day of the week 
the women who had come from Galilee with Jesus 
took the spices they had prepared
and went to the tomb.
They found the stone rolled away from the tomb;
but when they entered,
they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
While they were puzzling over this, behold,
two men in dazzling garments appeared to them.
They were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground. 
They said to them,
“Why do you seek the living one among the dead?
He is not here, but he has been raised.
Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee, 
that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners
and be crucified, and rise on the third day.”
And they remembered his words.
Then they returned from the tomb
and announced all these things to the eleven
and to all the others.
The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James;
the others who accompanied them also told this to the apostles,
but their story seemed like nonsense
and they did not believe them.
But Peter got up and ran to the tomb, 
bent down, and saw the burial cloths alone;
then he went home amazed at what had happened.

NAB 1970

On the first day of the week, at dawn, the women came to the tomb bringing the spices they had prepared. They found the stone rolled back from the tomb; but when they entered the tomb, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were still at a loss over what to think of this, two men in dazzling garments stood beside them. Terrified, the women bowed to the ground. The men said to them: “Why do you search for the Living One among the dead? He is not here; he has been raised up. Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee—that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” With this reminder, his words came back to them.

On their return from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and the others. The women were Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. The other women with them also told the apostles, but the story seemed like nonsense and they refused to believe them. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. He stooped down but could see nothing but the wrappings. So he went away full of amazement at what had occurred.

Comments

The NAB ’86 is the same as the Lectionary text, except for the usual things the Lectionary must do when a section of scripture is removed from its context: The word “but” is excised from the very start of the passage, and “they” is replaced with “the women who had come with them from Galilee”, the antecedent from the end of chapter 23.

This pericope is even more bolded than the last! I don’t feel as if I can comment intelligently on these changes. There are far too many. It is obvious there was a huge change in how the New Testament was translated. People talk about how uneven a translation the NAB was from ’91 to the NABRE, but I’d say the NAB was most uneven in the beginning. While no one would confuse it for the NASB, or even the RSV, the original Old Testament was far more rigorous, literal, and graceful than the 1970 NAB.

The question must be asked, what was kept from 1970 to 1986? It seems that the ’86 NT was not a totally new work, but so much is changed that it might have been faster for them to start from scratch! One interesting thing, though, is that two things associated with the NAB from the beginning were retained: the use of the word “netherworld” to translate “hades” and the handling of the “I AM” statements in John. (That being said, there is at least one place in the ’86 NT when they added an I AM which had been rendered differently in the earlier edition.) My guess is while they retained a vocabulary, they changed the translation philosophy when they revised the NAB New Testament.

I know I won’t, because I am uninterested in carrying an entire library around with me, but this has made me wonder if I ought to read another translation of the New Testament in the Office of Readings. I don’t think I will. I enjoy the breviary’s self-contained nature, and am not looking for something else to be smug about.

Conclusions

Here are some conclusions gleaned from these NAB/Lectionary comparisons from the Easter Tridiuum:

  1. The Lectionary doesn’t seem more likely to go to the traditional renderings based on the Vulgate, even during this holiest of seasons.
  2. Rather, they base the Lectionary very closely on the 1970 Old Testament and 1986 New Testament of the New American Bible
  3. The 1991 Psalms are severely flawed but were well on their way to the greatness of the NABRE Psalter.
  4. The 1970 NAB sticks out like a sore thumb—different in philosophy to any other translation that has appeared under the NAB banner.

Happy Easter!

2 thoughts on “The Epistle and Gospel of the Easter Vigil — Guest Post by Bob Short”

  1. I enjoy the readings from the 1970 NAB NT in the Liturgy of the Hours. Clearly, the examples here show that the 1986 revision was substantial. But for the most part, the changes come down to differences in wording with very similar meaning.

    I’m curious to see how the Confraternity NT differs from the 1970 NT for the same readings. I’ll pull my Confraternity Bible off the shelf later today to take a look.

  2. The 1970 NAB NT is used as the lectionary for the Divine Liturgy for the Byzantine Catholic Church of America to this day. I don’t know if they will adapt the NABRE in its final form around 2025.

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