Monday, May 12, 2014

The New English Bible, Water Buffalo Calfskin Edition

By Leighton, Guest Reviewer

When I found a hardcover edition of the New English Bible with the "Apocrypha" at a used bookstore some years ago, I picked it up because it was inexpensive (I paid less than ten dollars for it) and of high quality: it boasted a pristine dust jacket (like new, though it was a 1970 edition) and sewn signature pages (for me a necessity for a Bible, no getting around it; sorry, Benedictine Press, but for all the otherwise high quality of your Bibles, you really have to get it together in that department: I want a Bible that will last longer than I will, and glued pages don't cut it).

I spent a little time in the text and really liked most of the translation, in spite of some very unusual renderings--- some bordering on weird, and a couple even jarringly laughable (take Joshua 15:18, and Judges 1:14, for example). Most of the text flows with a certain cadence that I find exquisite. Take for example this rendering of Paul: "For if we have become incorporate with him in a death like his, we shall also be one with him in a resurrection like his. We know that the man we once were has been crucified with Christ, for the destruction of the sinful self, so that we may no longer be slaves of sin, since a dead man is no longer answerable for his sin" (Ro. 6:5-7). It gets even better, but you can read it for yourself. 

Even some of the more unusual renderings I find wonderfully fresh and lively. For instance, Matthew 5:3: "How blest are those who know their need of God," substitutes for the more literal and traditional, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." And Matthew 5:48: "There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father's goodness knows know bounds." (Love it, but better still is the first printing of the New Jerusalem Bible, which rendered this as "you must therefore set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none to his.") 

What I do with really "out there" renderings in the NEB, such as the above mentioned Joshua 5:18, that seem to obscure the meaning or even make one blush, is pencil in corrections or alternate translations from the RSV or NABRE to the side of the text (for example: in Psalm 22 I penciled in the NABRE's "pierced" for the NEB's "hacked" the persecuted's hands and feet).

I am usually more of a formal equivalence kind of guy, especially because I am not versed well in the original languages. I am a catechist by trade, not a Bible scholar. I rely on accuracy. The RSV gives me a certain confidence that I find reassuring, especially since I suffer from a certain scrupulosity that probably adds to the reason I buy a used Bible almost as often as I fill the tank of the car (as my wife points out quite frequently). On a side note, for all of you who do indeed have a spouse that likes to point out your frequent Bible purchases, take heart: once when my dear wife was teasing me in front of friends about the number of volumes in my collection, our lady friend said with a shrug, "Well, a lot of women I know would say they are grateful that their husband's addiction is the collecting of Bibles!" Zing! Kapow! 
Back to the NEB, though. 

I do Bible study with the NABRE, the RSV, the NJB (for the great notes), and the NRSV (a beautiful translation, only marred, in my layman's opinion, by the overarching use of inclusive language... but admittedly, I am a guy, so maybe I fail to understand the benefit of it... I just think it obscures too much in the text). For more devotional reading and lectio divina I usually enjoy the New Jerusalem Bible (for the text, which is much more measured than the NRSV as far as inclusive language goes), the Knox, and the British CTS version of the original Jerusalem Bible. 

But the reason, to be frank, why this beautiful hardcover copy of the NEB has been sitting on the shelf in spite of my appreciation of the text is because I am a Bible snob. I just can't seem to make a Bible that doesn't have a genuine leather cover my daily go-to Bible. I want a Bible that is well worn but beautiful (I know, it is what is between the covers that matters; alas, I am a work in progress). I take good care of my Bible. I tend to pencil notes to the side rather than mark up the actual text, because I want my eyes to be free to grab onto a certain passage or word without the distraction of highlighting during lectio divina. I don't want to miss something the Lord wants to say to me. I want a high quality, genuine leather Bible that, when it gets passed down to one of my children (I don't have to worry about not having enough personal Bibles for that, in spite of our large family size!), shows my children that Dad appreciated the Bible, that he used his Bible, that it is something to be cherished all one's life. I want them to be able to see which passages I treasured most by the little stars penciled to the side, or get a glimpse into my faith life by reading the small notes and prayers in the margins and back pages, like I can gratefully do with my late grandfather's Bible. 

So, in spite of its appeal as a translation I have consulted my NEB only occasionally, and never marked in it, because it is only a hardcover. As I said, I am a Bible snob. Thus, the NEB translation has been a neglected treasure. 

Until now! 

A few days ago I was at a popular used bookstore, one of my favorite haunts on a day off, and after finding little of interest, I "just happened" to check out the rare books selection on a whim. I do this from time to time but rarely find anything of interest that isn't extremely expensive, so tend to avoid that section. As I was about to leave, I thought, "What the heck, I will take a glance." There, at the bottom of the shelf, was a golden box with the words: "The New English Bible with the Apocrypha, Bound in Water Buffalo Calfskin, semi overlapping covers, 23 carat gold edges." I grabbed it, opened the box to find a beautifully preserved leather Bible inside, anxiously opened the soft cover to find the penciled in price, and was very excited to see it was quite inexpensive. I got it for less than the cost of a couple of pizzas for my family!

I have had it less than a week but I am very pleased with it. It was printed in 1971, and other than some yellowing of the first pages, it is in great condition. I expect this edition to become my companion Bible for morning prayer, bedtime reading, and chapel time. For catechesis I will continue to lean on the RSV, NRSV, and the NABRE, but this one is a personal treasure I hope to make good use of over the years. It has its faults (what translation doesn't?), but on the dust jacket of my hardcover edition I am reminded that no less a literary figure than Walker Percy said, "It is is a beautiful job--- first rate scholarship which does not sacrifice the language." Thomas Howard, quoted there as well, spoke highly of the NEB: "The great thing to be praised, from the layman's point of view, about this translation, is the clarity and simplicity of the prose. It is an epochal achievement." And Sheldon Vanauken wrote, "What I want in a translation of the Bible is, first of all clarity of meaning and, next, easy, graceful English. The New English Bible is the best I've found in both respects." Of course, it has also been said that the Venerable Fulton Sheen enjoyed the NEB quite a lot. If it's good enough for the likes of these greats, it's good enough for me. 

Finally, borrowing the Methodist theologian Albert Outler's review on the dust jacket, I can say, "And so, it is the one I [will] keep in easy reach."


David said...

I have had and used the NEB for years as one of my regular "go to" Bibles. When I was a newly reverted RC in college in the early 80s I heard a talk by Archbishop Sheen saying that he considered the NEB the best English translation to date (it was a talk recorded several years prior to my hearing it). So I went out and got one. The edition I used is about 5-1/2 x 7-1/2" but excellent quality print for reading. Red Leather cover. Readers Guide at end. Couple of ribbons. Size of Bible and ease of reading print made it my "take on retreat" Bible as well.

rolf said...

Very nice find Leighton! That is what I like about Timothy's blog, that you realize you are not the only one with this disease!

owenswain said...

The NEB was one of the last translations I used before converting. At one time I liked it enough to preach from regularly. Congregants don't like it much when a pastor keeps changing translations but the local Christian bookstore did ;-)

I haven't visited it since becoming Catholic and had not heard of Sheen's reference to it. I do enjoy the CTS very much and works well alongside the Universalis LoTH app as it follows the same translations; JB+Grail Ps.

owenswain said...

P.S. after 8 years of knocking about the Church and far too many bible editions and translations I find that while I have the head knowledge to be able to live with a bible whose publisher calls the deutercanonicals the apocrypha and who segregates those books to something other than the Catholic placement I have a heart that says, I'm weary of that and for my daily bible reading I just want things in the right place.

I'm sure I will prove myself a liar in what I am about to say even as I have done before within these blog pages but with the particular handy if chubby copy of the CTS New Catholic Bible I've landed "my bible". I use it with the aforementioned Universalis App and also with the NJB Standard [that's the full notes, big heavy, blueback, hardbound, slip case] edition.

P.P.S. I just knew I couldn't be the only one who pencils in preferred readings of texts ;-)

Javier said...


I share your respect for the Catholic order of the books in the OT Canon. Still, the dubious practice of exiling them to an addendum between the testaments is far from being distinctively protestant. I'm from Argentina, and the argentinian translation of the Bible does exactly that. What is more, it is the only translation of the Bible into spanish in the official Vatican site, and on the Vatican site the books are in that order too.

Argentinian Bible

And bear in mind this is the bible we use for our official missals here in Argentina. So Pope Francis has been using it for Mass for at least the last 25 years. And probably for praying and meditation too, as it is the default Catholic Bible down here.
And I think the other widely used version of the bible in latin america, "La Biblia Latinoamericana", places the deuterocanonicals in the same way. So Owen, don't feel un-catholic when reading from a Bible where the Deuterecanonicals are not where they ought to be.


Leighton said...

Fascinating about the Argentinian Bible on the Vatican website. Placement of the deuterocanonicals in a mid-section or in the back bugged me more in the past than it does now. The truth is, the longer I do this Catholic thing, the more concerned I am with what Bible brings me to prayer more effectively. As long as I have the deuterocanonicals in my edition of the Bible, and it's trusted by solid Catholics like Ven. Sheen, that's the most critical thing for me. I just love the flow of this Bible.

While the NABRE is considered an excellent edition in terms of scholarship (in its translation)- which is why I use it a lot in teaching and study- I find I seem to stumble through it more during personal prayer. That's just me. The (N)JB, (N)RSV, and now NEB, for me, have a certain cadence that appeals to my ear. The psalms are beautiful and alive.

I too love my fat little CTS JB, especially with the resources in the back and the abbreviated notes by Fr. H. W., but am finding I do like the NEB more in terms of flow, and it seems to me that the JB is even more prone to slip into loose paraphrase than the NEB, though they both do this from time to time. I'm still working through the NEB so we'll see...

Good stuff!

My wife will be relieved that I can share with others who understand and are happy to discuss these things without their eyes glazing over! She won't have to feign interest in this stuff!

owenswain said...


Thanks for your considered response. Information I knew nothing of so yes, thanks.

Do know that I am not at all distressed or in any way feel un-Catholic when approaching an edition of the bible that places those 7 OT books outside the traditional Catholic ordering of them. That's where my 'head' makes sense of it all and it's not problematic.

Rather, I enjoy the simplicity of being able to flip to just-the-spot in my bible from familiarity when reading/praying the sacred scriptures daily as with lectio divina or along with a Liturgy of the Hours app or at mass or a holy hour.

Thanks again for your reply.

I'm curious now to know how the Church in Argentina arrived at the decision to use the placement you note.

rolf said...

I like the REB (Revised English Bible) and wish it would have come with some binding options that the NEB enjoys (water buffalo calfskin, etc.) But for the REB, it was published just around the time that the NRSV was also published, which stole all its thunder. Cambridge offered the REB (text Bible) in French Morocco leather and the large pulpit Bible in goatskin (over $500). Oxford which co-published the REB offered a genuine leather edition of it Oxford Study Bible (which uses the REB translation). To the best of my recollection, that is it.

But the state of the NABRE is even worse, oh well!

owenswain said...

Yes, and it was the REB I realize and not the NEB, that I mistakenly refer to above, that last used prior to converting. I had the Oxford Hardcover in a bland grey-green and and that Moroccan leather one - currently on ebay at 300.00! I gave mine away as I have many no longer used bibles.

It was a hard translation to get to 'take' for the then minister-me when my peers and congregants were using the NIV and some the NRSV and "The Message" was the latest wave to rave about - not for me. For all Peterson's hard paraphrase work it never rang true.

Javier said...


the short answer to the question of why the argentinian church chose that placement for the deuterocanon books in "The book of the People of God" version is: I don't really know.
The long answer is: I don't think it was a deliberate decision by the church. It probably was a decision made by the translators, Fr. Levoratti and Fr. Trusso. And the church just happenned to like that decision. Why did Levoratti and Trusso did that?. Their translation work began in the sixties, after Vatican II. And it is very probable that in that ecumenical climate they thought they could produce a Bible that was accepted by all christians in Argentina. They might have thought that by removing the deuterocanonicals to an addendum, they could make their version palatable to evangelicals. If that was their goal, they utterly failed. Evangelicals in Argentina use mostly the Reina-Valera version, and of late, they have been using the NVI (spanish version of the NIV). They never use catholic bibles.

owenswain said...

That seems like a probable reason, Javier. Thanks again.

Jason Engel said...

The NEB is a wonderful translation. I was lucky enough to snatch up a mint condition copy bound in russet water buffalo calfskin off ebay for a song from a Goodwill store. The NEB has such a wonderful blend of stately old-fashioned English, poetic modern English, with a healthy dash of stodgy scholarly British. The result is a downright joy to read, and the format & text layout that Oxford and Cambridge employed (single column, verse numbers on the margin) has been hailed as one of the best by knowledgeable critics and fans alike. If you have an opportunity to pick up a NEB (or NEB NT, hardcovers always available on eBay for $10 or less) do jump at the opportunity.

NEB in water buffalo calfskin

I also have a pocket NEB NT in black goatskin, mint, again from a seller who did not know what they had for less than lunch at McD's.

It's descendant, the Revised English Bible, is only published today in a hardcover, paperback, or imitation leather by Cambridge, and a paperback study Bible by Oxford. However, at it's release, Oxford made REB study Bibles in black leather and burgundy leather (I have the burgundy, quite nice); Oxford also had a black french morocco reader which was functional equivalent to the Cambridge reader in the same leather. There was also a jointly published reader in the same leather. The rare gem, however, was a red calfskin edition by Oxford (of which I have one, which replaced a black french morocco edition I gave up in trade). Cambridge used the same red calfskin (bound by the same team, even) for their pocket REB NT before switching to a lesser quality burgundy calfskin (there was also an ultra-rare red goatskin edition, limited to a few dozen copies and given to employees of the publishing house). Some of the reader editions included the Apocrypha (sorry, Deuterocanonical).

I like the REB enough that I had a Cambridge text block rebound by Leonard's in Sokoto goatskin earlier this year with great results.

REB in Sokoto goatskin

Javier said...

Fantastic pictures Jason!, very nice bibles!.
Thanks for sharing them.

Timothy said...

Thanks to Leighton and all who have contributed to this post with comments. This is a perfect example of why I started this blog. Great stuff!

Javier said...


this is an off-topic, but, have you already received your King's New Testament from England?. It would be a great guest review.

Verum Laicus said...

Hey, guys, regarding the deuterocanonical placing in between Testaments in Catholic Bibles. Here in the Philippines, the official version we use is the "Magandang Balita Biblia" (which was translated into Filipino using the same principles of the Good News Bibles).

It was believed here that the deuterocanonical arrangement is due to ecumenical considerations.

Javier said...


I heard there was a version in tagalog by Fr. Bernard Hurault, the translator of the "Biblia Latinoamericana" (which in turn had the deutorocanon in an addendum). It's title seems to be: Bibliya ng Samb. Pilipino.
By the way, are there any spanish speakers left in the Philippines?. (I know there are philippinos with my spanish surname).

Verum Laicus said...

As far as I know, the same version was translated in many Philippine languages such as Visayan.

Spanish speakers here are already declining in number to due emergence of English as second language.

Some areas such as Zamboanga and Cavite, still have minority of Spanish speakers.

Javier said...

Very interesting Verum,