The giant print edition of the New Catholic Bible (NCB) organizes the footnotes at the end of each biblical book. There are no separate cross-references, although the footnotes frequently refer to parallel passages or cross-references. Similar to most editions of the NABRE, the NCB uses an asterisk (*) in the text to indicate a footnote.

On the whole, there are fewer footnotes in the NCB than the NABRE for the Gospel of Luke and St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. The content of the notes is also very different, revealing differing goals that the editors of each translation were trying to achieve.

The NCB notes routinely focus on personal and spiritual aspects of a passage. Many of the notes come across as “mini-homilies.” They offer historical background and highlight important passages in the Old Testament, but they also explicitly draw conclusions from the passages for personal and Church life. They are written from the perspective of a modern Catholic evangelist, who sees the biblical writings in the broader context of Catholic theology and draws insight from them for living the Catholic faith.

The NABRE footnotes follow a more limited objective. The vast majority of them are laser-focused on understanding each biblical book on its own terms and in its own historical context. As such, the NABRE starkly highlights cases where modern perceptions of biblical passages differ from their original meaning. It also comments at length on details in the biblical text that do not jive with other historical sources.

Overall, I find both sets of notes useful in different ways, and both have occasional shortcomings. The NCB offers some truly excellent reflections that gave me new insights about particular passages. On the other hand, its ambitious attempt to integrate historical, literary, theological, and spiritual insights on the text sometimes leads to sweeping generalizations and statements that strike me as hagiographical and overly effusive.

With its more limited goal, combined with a larger quantity of notes, the NABRE offers a wealth of historical details — much more than the NCB. I was also struck by the NABRE’s excellent literary notes, which provide an overview of the themes in a biblical book and explain how the current section fits with those broader themes. The NABRE does a much better job than the NCB at communicating uncertainty and offering multiple explanations, but even so, it is occasionally prone to taking speculative hypotheses too seriously. The NABRE also leaves more work to the reader. After delving into the historical background of the text, the reader is left to re-integrate the richer historical understanding with modern Catholic teaching and life.

The same general themes apply to the book introductions. The NCB’s introductions are impressive. They do a masterful job of integrating historical-critical theories with literary themes and spiritual significance. On the other hand, they do not offer as much historical detail as the NABRE’s introductions, which focus entirely on historical and literary details.

In the following examples, I’ll include some of my favorite notes from the NCB, which highlight its successes at integrating details and yielding spiritual insights. I’ll also point out examples of sweeping generalizations and hagiography. At the end, I’ll include a comparison between the NCB and the NABRE notes to illustrate the differences between the two.

Excellent Examples from the NCB

On the temptation of Jesus (Luke 4:1-13), the NCB offers this reflection:

By means of images, we are shown the drama Jesus experienced in his conscience, his struggle to follow with determination the great options of his existence. He knows the temptations for immediate success, domination, and prestige, the temptations to which Israel succumbed during its sojourn in the desert and that remain the lot of the Church, every believer, and every person. Jesus refuses to use his powers for his own benefit but accepts poverty and destitution; he does not seek the glory of a political Messiah and does not yield to the idols of power. He turns away from the seduction of prestige; when he goes to Jerusalem it will not be to mount the pinnacle of the temple but to carry the supreme trial of the cross.

There is, in this choice without compromise, a radical recognition of God and the true values he is forever giving us to reflect upon. The victory of Christ over the forces of evil foreshadows the power of his mission (see Lk 10:18; 11:22; 12:16), which is achieved through patience on the cross and the triumph of the Resurrection after the final attacks of the spirit of evil (see Lk 22:3,53). To live with Christ is to accept this struggle humbly and resolutely.

NCB Footnote on Luke 4:1-13

On Jesus rejoicing that the Father has hidden the truth from the wise and learned and revealed them to children (Luke 10:21-24):

In this inspired prayer, Jesus lays bare the profound movement of his heart and the very mystery of his person. He is gripped by the revelation made to the poor (i.e., children); he lives, in an inexpressible fashion, in unity with the Father in the Spirit. The expectation of kings and prophets, i.e., of the Old Testament, is now accomplished, for Jesus is here and shares with human beings God’s mysterious presence. The Church knows that by herself she is nothing in the world, but she is astounded to bring forth for all people this great revelation of God. This text constantly brings her back home to the heart of the Gospel.

NCB Footnote on Luke 10:21-24

These three notes on the Last Supper (in Luke 22:14-27) draw reflections on how the events of the first Eucharist continue to apply to each of us:

In a prophetic gesture Jesus proclaims and establishes the new covenant between God and humanity (see Ex 24:8; Jer 31:31), which he is preparing to seal by his freely accepted sacrifice. In this action, by changing the bread and wine into his body and blood (see 1 Cor 10:6; 11:23-27), he institutes the Eucharist, which calls to mind and renders present to the gathered community his act of love for humanity (see Acts 2:42, 46). Along with Paul, Luke has preserved for us what is perhaps one of the earliest texts of the first Christian Eucharists.

NCB Footnote on Luke 22:19-20

The announcement of Judas’s plan stresses the initiative of Jesus, who does not deviate from his sacrifice. Celebrating the Eucharist, believers and the leaders of the community must question themselves concerning their loyalty toward the Lord.

NCB Footnote on Luke 22:21-23

To celebrate the Eucharist means to abandon one’s search for honor and to discover that all authority in the Christian community has no other title except that of service.

NCB Footnote on Luke 22:24-27

Generalizations and Hagiography

In its note on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the NCB gushes that “The entire prayer of the Old Testament converges upon this one.” In one sense, this is true, but it comes across as a sweeping generalization to me:

The Magnificat, which is very similar to the canticle of Hannah (see 1 Sam 2:1-10) and has become the Christian song of thanksgiving, lends itself to the prayer of those who have suffered but have never lost their hope in God. The entire prayer of the Old Testament converges upon this one, but with a wholly renewed power; it is easy to see why the Church never tires of reciting it. It is one of the gems of the Church’s daily office of Evening Prayer (Vespers).

NCB Footnote on Luke 1:46-55

Reflecting on the annunciation, in which the angel Gabriel announces that Mary will conceive and give birth to Jesus, the NCB offers this note, which paints a hagiographical portrait of Mary that glosses over the details in the text:

Mary, a young girl, is betrothed, despite the fact that she has the unusual intention of remaining a virgin; “betrothed”: that is, according to the custom of the time, she was legally married but did not yet live with her husband. Confronted with this surprising message, she gives no sign of fear or doubt: she reflects, meditates, believes. This woman has the “grace,” that is, the favor of God; she is greeted as if Messianic joy were being proclaimed to the Daughter of Zion, the new Jerusalem (see Zep 3:14; Zec 9:9).

NCB Footnote on Luke 1:26-38

Compare that note to the NCB’s translation of Luke 1:29: “But she (Mary) was greatly troubled by his words and wondered in her heart what this salutation could mean.” Again in Luke 1:34, the NCB translates Mary’s words as: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” I find it hard to defend the NCB’s assertion that Mary “gives no sign of fear or doubt” in this passage. I would also note that while the NCB interprets Mary’s question to indicate that she intended to remain a virgin, this is by no means a universal opinion among scholars. Catholic theologians and apologists have commonly drawn this conclusion, but it has not been convincing to many biblical scholars.

Comparing the NCB and NABRE

Here’s a nice example from the end of Galatians, where the NCB and the NABRE offer reflections that are based on similar fundamental points, but they each follow their individual styles. The NCB offers a single, long note, and the NABRE offers a few shorter notes.

NCB:

Paul himself underlines the importance of the letter (v. 11) and for one last time situates the problem of the Galatians before the mystery of the cross. There is an old world, that of circumcisions and human successes, and a new world, in which God calls the new Israel, i.e., all Christians, true children of Abraham. Christians belong to this world. For them, the cross is something to be shared. They agree to suffer for Christ and with him. It involves more suffering than being circumcised, but they have become “new” people (2 Cor 5:17), delivered from the world, i.e., sin. There is no other way of salvation except the cross of Christ, nor any other assurance before God. Paul knows this from experience, for he bears in his body the traces of the blows received in the exercise of his missionary work (2 Cor 6:5; 11:23-27).

NCB Footnote on Galatians 6:11-18

NABRE:

The Jewish Christian opponents wished not to be persecuted, possibly by Jews. But since Judaism seems to have had a privileged status as a religion in the Roman empire, circumcised Christians might, if taken as Jews, thereby avoid persecution from the Romans. In any case, Paul instead stresses conformity with the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ; cf. Gal 2:19–21; 5:11.

NABRE Footnote on Galatians 6:12-15

This rule: the principle in Gal 6:14–15. The Israel of God: while the church may be meant (the phrase can be translated “to all who follow this rule, even the Israel of God”; cf. Gal 6:10; 1 Cor 10:18), the reference may also be to God’s ancient people, Israel; cf. Ps 125:5; 128:6.

NABRE Footnote on Galatians 6:16

The marks of Jesus: slaves were often branded by marks (stigmata) burned into their flesh to show to whom they belonged; so also were devotees of pagan gods. Paul implies that instead of outdated circumcision, his body bears the scars of his apostolic labors (2 Cor 11:22–31), such as floggings (Acts 16:22; 2 Cor 11:25) and stonings (Acts 14:19), that mark him as belonging to the Christ who suffered (cf. Rom 6:3; 2 Cor 4:10; Col 1:24) and will protect his own.

NABRE Footnote on Galatians 6:17

8 thoughts on “In-Depth with the New Catholic Bible (Part 3 — Footnotes and Introductions)”

  1. One of the foremost reasons for the failure of the footnotes of the NABRE among so many Catholics is the Dunning-Kruger effect on the part of the footnote’s composers.

    Most of us who have heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect often hear of this form of cognitive bias applied to incompetent people who overestimate their abilities. For instance, when American drivers were asked if they considered themselves better than average, the majority of those polled answered that they were. One needs only to drive for a few moments on an American road to see that this is not true. It is definitely, definitely not true.

    The Dunning-Kruger effect demonstrates that people live in an information bubble, causing people to draw conclusions based on the limited amount of information available to the bubble in which they live. It isn’t that people with low abilities are trying to fool others when asked about how well they drive. It is that they don’t have the data to truly estimate their incapacity to drive well.

    The Dunning-Kruger effect also works in the opposite way for those who are very or even too competent. They too can live in this type of bubble. These people sometimes come to the conclusion that everyone else understands, thinks, and has the same educational background as they do.

    This is the problem with the NABRE footnotes the way they are written. Having worked with priests, religious, and directly for a Catholic bishop and hearing from other bishops of the USCCB (as I have mentioned before), I can attest that there is nothing wrong with any of the footnotes in the NABRE in doctrine, theology, etc….But I had to ask and do a lot of research and do a lot of digging until I could understand some of them.

    The footnotes in the New Catholic Bible are commentary, the same as you find in the Ignatius Study Bible and in most other study Bibles. But as I’ve written before, the footnotes in the NABRE are NOT commentary. They make up a critical apparatus for the translation–with some commentary within.

    In other words, they mostly explain, HOW the sacred text came to be, and how this understanding should or already shapes our Catholic teaching on the Written Word.

    But nowhere is this process explained for the reader. Most Catholics still think the footnotes are a commentary on the text, even some very vocal and popular authors of Catholic publications. Because of this great confusion has occurred, including some going on public record to warn Catholics to avoid the NABRE. How has the happened? Blame the Dunning-Kruger effect playing on those who wrote the NABRE footnotes.

    One example of how the Dunning-Kruger effect plays on behalf on the scholars who composed the NABRE footnotes is one of the most controversial of them all, namely the footnote of Matthew 5:3-12 which states that instead of Jesus, the author of Matthew is the original composer of the third, fifth through eighth, and tenth Beatitude. At first blush it does read as anti-Catholic, doesn’t it?

    But the footnote is not commentary. It isn’t teaching doctrine. It’s teaching how the best evidence on hand shows Matthew was composed.

    Note, I said “evidence.” I didn’t say opinion or religious belief or doctrine or theory, etc. No. This is a critical footnote explaining methodology, something dealing with empirical data–you know, stuff we can see and feel and things like that.

    There is a school of methodology called “Manuscript Transmission,” and the current data is that Matthew was the originator of some of the “Beatitudes” or the teachings from Jesus that came to be written as “Blessed are they…” etc. Not everything written in the form of a Beatitude may have been said by Jesus in the form of a Beatitude, even though Jesus is always seen as the source of the material in one way or another.

    Church Tradition is that everything Matthew wrote was under the inspiration of God. But it is very clear when you compare that gospel with the others, that Matthew wrote some of Jesus’ teachings out of chronological order for greater catechesis effect. He even took some of Jesus’ teachings and re-developed them into different forms. He apparently did that here, creating Beatitudes out of them, perhaps for liturgical reasons.

    Matthew even puts Jesus on a Mountain like Moses for this Sermon, even though Luke says Jesus was on a flat plane so that Jesus was accessible to everyone. Matthew wanted to make Jesus like Moses (on a mountain, saying TEN Beatitudes like TEN Commandments) because Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience and was trying to introduce Jesus as the one Greater-than-Moses, the Promised Jewish Messiah. Matthew obviously took some of Jesus’ sayings and re-set them as Beatitudes to ensure he had TEN sayings on the Mount for this Jewish audience setting in his gospel.

    All of this is in that one footnote in Matthew chapter 5 in the NABRE. The scholars suppose that you, as a Catholic, know all this. But I bet you don’t think of any of this when you read that footnote, do you? You just think that the footnote in the NABRE is wrong. Now you see, that it isn’t. It just isn’t saying enough because of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    The New Catholic Bible footnotes might sound like pandering to the Biblical text when compared to the way the NABRE deals with Scripture, but it might be because the comparison of footnotes is like apples and oranges–both fruit, but very different when you come down to it. Commentary is rarely going to be critical and a critical apparatus is rarely going to do more than challenge.

    1. Excellent explanation, Carl. From the perspective of many bible readers, I think much of the controversy can be summarized this way: it’s jarring when the notes in a Catholic Bible explicitly assert that the original author’s intention was different from the assumptions and worldview of modern Catholics. I think many of us instinctively interpret the Bible in the context of our own beliefs and understanding of Church teaching. When the footnotes deny that the biblical author had modern Catholic theology in mind, it comes across as denying the truth of modern Catholic theology. But these are very different things.

      The NABRE notes are an amazing resource for helping readers to understand the original context of the biblical writings, but they don’t do much to help readers bridge the gap between that original context and the modern day, with 2,000 years of theological reflection in the interim.

    2. Carl, I wonder if you could also apply the Dunning-Kruger effect to the Jerome Biblical Commentary and the New Jerome Biblical Commentary. It seems to me that these commentaries are more critical apparatuses than what we’ve come to know as regular bible commentaries.

      1. No, you can’t apply the DK effect to commentaries, Bibles, translations or footnotes. It’s a phenomenon that affects and involves people, not books.

        To illustrate: most people, when asked, believe that they are more adept than others in some facet of skill in life. But when tested, data often shows that the very same people are below average at these same skills.

        Before the test, when these people went around believing they were above average than others, this was often due to not having the empirical evidence to show these individuals that their perceptions were incorrect. These are not narcissistic folk. They are just misinformed. This is the Dunning-Krueger effect.

        It works in the reverse as well. A genius might not understand that others do not have the ability to think “outside of the box,” so to speak, in the unique and advanced manner that they do. Not having the experience of a non-genius, the individual therefore writes an article with vocabulary and structure far above an average reader’s ability. Practically no one understands it. This is also an example.

        The NABRE is an example because it has footnotes designed for the public but written by scholars out of touch with the fact that the average Catholic has little formal Biblical education. These Biblical scholars write on a level as if speaking to other scholars, not to the average Catholic. It is intended for the layman, but the footnotes never come down from the clouds.

        The commentaries you mentioned are marketed among others for people to choose from, some easier to understand than others. The Catholic Church has not asked that these commentaries be made as it has asked that bishop conferences provide a Catholic Bible with sound critical Bible notations within. You are free to choose from a myriad of commentaries, some being written for more advanced students than others.

        If you have in your possession a commentary hard to understand, that is not the DK effect. That just means you need to purchase a commentary that suits you better, one that is at your level of study. Composers of Catholic publications are not responsible to ensure that they write at a level all can understand.

  2. Marc,
    This is a great effort! Reading an analysis , like yours,is a great aid to read any good Bible with greater energy and more thought. Further, to me, it highlights the need, when reading for study purposes, to use more than one study Bible or commentary. Specifically I read the note on NCB Footnote on Luke 22:24-27. While this scene in Luke takes place at the table where the Eucharist was instituted; is the Eucharist being connected with the position of the served and the server? The NABRE starts verse 24 with the word “then” which is usually a good indication that we are transitioning from one subject to the next. Many other translations use a softer transition ” a dispute arose.” Thus, to me, the NCB note; while good instruction, reflects something that Luke is not saying.

    Now to counteract, what I just said, the note in the New Jerusalem Bible says “By transposing this argument from its place in Mt. 20:25; Mk 10:42 into the context of the institution of the Eucharist Lk relates it to the dissensions in the early Church. See Ac 6:1′ 1 Co 11:17-19; Jm 2:2-4.”

    Yes it is very valuable to have on hand more than one study Bible and Commentary on hand!

    Again, Thanks for your great analysis!

  3. In Psalm 97:4, in the New Catholic Bible, there is typo, lightnWing, instead of lightning, I emailed CBPC and let them know, but they’ve never responded back to me. Then again they nave never responded any other time when I have let them know about typos in the past. Maybe they’ll fix it in future editions, but then again, I think the typo in the one book of theirs that I let them know about 15 years ago is still there, so…..?

    1. There is a typo in Proverbs 1 of my 1949 CPB “New Catholic Edition” Bible, but my expectations for a corrected edition at this point are low.

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