Tuesday, January 4, 2011

"New Year, New Testament, New American Bible" Series

Indeed it is 2011, which from all indications will be the year that the NAB gets a makeover. As we learned last year, the NAB Old Testament and Psalms have been in the process of revision, and will join the previously revised NAB New Testament to form the New American Bible Revised Edition or NABRE. If you are looking for a refresher of what is going on with the NABRE, Mary Sperry, from the USCCB's NAB team, was kind enough to answer some reader questions, which you can view hear. As I mentioned late last year, I will be spending some additional time with the NAB NT and blogging about it in a series of posts.

One of the things I want to do is focus on the NAB text itself, with little attention on the commentary or notes which sometimes get discussed more than the translation itself. Also, I will try to point out places of similarity and difference with other translations like the RSV and NRSV. This will not be an exhaustive study, but rather a collection of some of my thoughts and experiences with the NAB NT text. So let's begin with the infancy narrative in Matthew:

Matthew 1:1
"The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham" (NAB)

"An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham." (NRSV)

** I tend to like the NAB version, which uses “book” and “Christ”, rather than “an account” and “Messiah”. The RSV is similar to the NAB in this case. Certainly the Greek behind going with “Christ” makes more sense, and seems more natural in my reading.**

Matthew 1:18
“Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit.” (NAB)

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” (NRSV)

**I prefer the use of the more traditional “betrothed” to simply “engaged”. I think in todays culture, where engagements are easily broken off, one looses the full meaning of what betrothal was back in 1st century Judea if it is simply translated as “engaged”. The NAB note on this is actually quite helpful: “Betrothal was the first part of the marriage, constituting a man and woman as husband and wife. Subsequent infidelity was considered adultery. The betrothal was followed some months later by the husband's taking his wife into his home, at which time normal married life began.” (Yes, I am aware that I referenced the NAB notes.)**

Matthew 1:20,23 & 2:1,13
**I like the NAB’s (and the RSV’s) use of “behold” to “see” or “look” which is found in many modern translations, like the NRSV. For me, it just sounds better and more immediate.**

Matthew 1:25
“He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus” (NAB)

“But knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.” (RSV)

**Like the NRSV, the NAB went with “no relations” instead of the more literal “knew her not”. The reasons are certainly due to a desire by the translators to be clearer to the reader. The other notable instance, albeit in Hebrew, comes in Genesis 4:1. I tend to like the more traditional rendering here, simply because “knowledge” of a person seems to portray a little more depth to the relationship. While the renderings in the NAB or NRSV aren’t wrong or even bad, they tend, IMHO, to not portray the fullness of the marital relationship. (There is a nice article on “knowledge” in the Catholic Bible Dictionary edited by Scott Hahn.)**

Matthew 2:1
“When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem.” (NAB)

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.” (NRSV/RSV)

**As The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (p.635) points out, magi were a caste of wise men specializing in astronomy, astrology, the interpretation of dreams, and sometimes magic. I tend to like the NAB’s decision to translate the term “magi” literally because it forces the reader to spend a little more time figuring out what a “magi” is and does. Why they may certainly be wise, it seems too generic of a way to describe this group. We shouldn’t do the same with other groups in the New Testament, like the Herodians or Judeans or Scribes. The NASB and NIV currently use “magi” as well. **


Shazamaholic said...

I have to agree with all your points. The revised NAB NT is superior to the NRSV in all the excerpts you cited, except for MT 1:25, where the RSV has the better choice of words.

You bring up the use of the word Magi, and that convinces me the revised NT is just as much a revision (or perhaps a restoration) of the Confraternity NT (which used Magi and "Amen I say to you") as it is a revision of the 1970 NAB text. Also, the altered Liturgical NT (which I feel obligated to add that I truly hope the NABRE will use it instead of the standard 1986 NT) seems to be an even stronger restoration of the Confraternity NT.

Also, on a previous post, someone mentioned "holy Spirit" doesn't look as correct as "Holy Spirit". I have to agree, and hopefully that will be changed in the NABRE.

Shazamaholic said...

ADDITION: I checked my copy of the Confratenity NT.

MT 1:1 - identical to NAB, except uses "origin" instead of "genealogy".

MT 1:18 - "Now the origin of Christ was in this wise. When Mary his mother had been betrothed to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.”

MT 1:25 - "And he did not know her till she brought forth her firstborn son. And he called his name Jesus."

MT 2:1 - identical to NAB except starts sentence with "Now", and has "behold, Magi came from the East to Jerusalem".

It would be interesting to see how the Liturgical NT compares.

Timothy said...


Good info to know about the connections with Confraternity edition.

Theophrastus said...

An interesting post. But I disagree with you on several points.

"Christ", of course, means "Messiah" ("annointed"). The problem is that a very large number of American Christians seem to regard "Christ" as the name of Jesus (rather than a title). They simply think that "Christ" was Jesus' last name. Using "Christ" rather than "Messiah" is an example of declining to translate the Greek.

"Betrothal"/"engagement" refers to the first of the unique two phases of Jewish marriage: kiddushin and nissuin. This is, indeed, an important distinction, although in the 12th century CE, they became combined in a single Jewish ceremony, as they are today. However, the distinction does not compare well with the modern ideas of engagement (or "betrothal"). A full exposition requires, as with many areas of New Testament interpretation, an understanding of Second Temple Jewish practice. I do not understand why you find "betrothed" a more evocative term for kiddushim than "engaged". They are usually regarded as synonymous terms (just look at your favorite dictionary). I would argue here that what is helpful is the NAB note, not the actual word used in the translation. A more fair comparison would be to compare the NAB (which includes study notes) to an annotated edition of the NRSV.

"Behold" carries a lot of baggage (pun intended) in English that is not in the original Greek. We still have the form "beholden" in English, showing the original links with the meaning "to hold", but there is no such meaning in the Greek. To use "behold" brings in that extra baggage, which is eisegesis.

"Magi" is confusing to the reader, since a quick glance at the dictionary will reveal that its original usage refers to a Zoroastrian. Thus, someone who actually uses a dictionary will read the verse as "Three Zoroastrians from the East came to Jerusalem", which is not the best reading. (The use of "magi" in English Bibles was borrowed from this original use, and remains a secondary meaning.) Those who don't consult the dictionary are likely to conflate "magi" with "magic"/"magician" (the latter word was indeed derived from a pejorative use of the term "magi") and read the verse as "Three magicians from the East came to Jerusalem" which is problematic on many levels.

Theophrastus said...

I tend to like the more traditional rendering here, simply because “knowledge” of a person seems to portray a little more depth to the relationship.

Unfortunately, you are reading something into the use of the word that does not exist in English. In English, carnal knowledge carries absolutely no meaning of having an extended relationship. Indeed, as a quick glance at the many citations given in the Oxford English Dictionary reveals, it is used as often to indicate "rape" as it is used to indicate "serious relationship."

This is certainly true of "know" in the sense of carnal knowledge in the Bible. Thus, from the traditional rendering (here I use the KJV) of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:5, when the people of Sodom come to Lot wanting to rape the strangers, we have:

And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them.

Using your reasoning, the people of Sodom want to develop a relationship with some depth with the strangers, which is clearly a misreading of the text.

We therefore see that carnal knowledge, even as used in the English Bible, contains absolutely no associations of "a relationship with depth".

Shazamaholic said...

I dug out my 1970 NAB to compare.

MT 1:1 - "A family record of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham."

MT 1:18 - same as the 86 revision, except has "engaged" instead of "betrothed", and has "through the power of the Holy Spirit".

MT 1:25 - "He had no relations with her at any time before she bore a son, whom he named Jesus"

MT 2:1 - "After Jesus' birth in Bethlehem of Judea during the reign of King Herod, astrologers from the east arrived one day in Jerusalem"

As you can see, of the 1970 text, the 1986 revision, and the Confraternity NT, the 1970 text is the odd one out. From these examples, it looks like the 86 revision is much more a revision of the Confraternity NT than the 1970 NAB.

Timothy said...


Thanks for your contribution. I figures you would post a comment. Couple of points:

In regards to 'Betrothal' vs 'engaged' I see your point, but I think engaged in today's culture is too open for being ended at some point before the marriage rite takes place. At least in my mind, which may be flawed I admit, betrothal harkens back to a time when such an agreement would have seen permanent at the outset. I think of arranged marriages in ages past in the west and still in some cultures today.

The "Christ" issue is simply a matter of what the text says. If people think the Christ is the last name of Jesus, than that is an indictment of poor catechesis over the past 40 years and not a translation issue.

As for Magi, one could consult a standard dictionary, or maybe refer to a Bible dictionary or a commentary note. But they are called Magi right? Could we not compare this to the issue of how we refer to the scribes/lawyers found in the Gospels?

Behold is tricky I grant you, but I think it is preferable to some rather akward renderings, IMHO, which go with 'look' or 'see'.

As for 'to know', I think you bring up a good point. Perhaps I think the traditional rendering is less blunt and more subtle than what it is used in many current translations.

Theophrastus said...

I'm a bit confused by your argument based on the English Bible use of the term "Scribe" because it is indeed a generic translation -- it is akin to using "Wise Men." The original Greek of course is grammateis and nomodidaschaloi. A more accurate translation would "Teachers of the Law", however, such translation might be confusing (since in the New Testament account Jesus is portrayed as the true teacher) and also lacks the connection with Ezra in the Old Testament.

Timothy said...

Well, let me use another example. In the NRSV's translation of Caesar in Mark 12:16, they prefer 'emperor' to simple 'Caesar' which is a more direct translation. Which is better? The same could be said with magi or wise men. Does wise men really clear up any confusion?

Timothy said...


It will be interesting to compare the NABRE book if Genesis with the original Confraternity edition. (As well as the original NAB Psalms with the new ones.)

Theophrastus said...

Well, by the time of Jesus, Caesar was used as a title -- like Christ. The NRSV prefers "Messiah" to "Christ" and "emperor" to "Caesar". So the NRSV is being consistent, no?

The problem is that "Caesar" by itself suggests Julius Caesar to many modern readers (just google "Caesar" to see what I mean). Of course, "Caesar" was actually Julius' praenomen, so it is not completely analogous to people thinking that "Christ" is Jesus' last name.

Of course, the relevant emperor here is Tiberius and not Julius. I wonder how many readers make that mistake and assume this is a reference to Julius.

Still the wording of the next verse, NRSV 16:17, is sufficiently awkward that I would prefer the traditional rendering "Caesar" here.

Timothy said...


Hey, well that is why I have this blog, so that we can discuss these issues. I know that I always learn and take something away from your posts, so thanks for your contributions.

Theophrastus said...

Timothy -- thanks for taking my remarks in the spirit they were offered -- as friendly discussion.

By the way, I didn't mean to imply in the above comment that Julius Caesar was emperor. Of course, Julius Caesar was "dictator" and Augustus was the first Roman Emperor.

Timothy said...

I know what you meant. Although I have seen some charts in books that include Julius Caesar as the first emperor, which is rediculous. Dictator for life yes, emperor no.

rolf said...

Timothy, I agree, so far so good for the NAB. I also will be comparing it with the 1970 NAB.

Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, I think the NRSV and some other versions went with "Messiah" as a way of "revealing" the Jewishness or Hebrew origins of Matthew's gospel. Is that correct?

Timothy said...


I think you are right. I thought I had a quote about this from the late Bruce Metzger, committee head for the NRSV, on this topic. I'll look around for it and try to find it.