Post-War Bible Translations:
The Jerusalem Bible and New Jerusalem Bible

Cecil Hargreaves writes: ‘One important aspect of the new richness found in the world of biblical translation in the twentieth century has been the freshness brought in by the new age of Roman Catholic biblical study and biblical translation, especially since the Papal Encyclical of 1943 gave permission for the unrestricted use of ancient manuscripts and other material in study and translation. Matching the distinctive freshness and excitement of twentieth-century translators in churches that have largely used the AV for the previous three centuries has been the freshness and excitement of those twentieth-century translators whose church had previously used on the Latin Vulgate or the Douai-Rheims English Bible.’[i]

The Jerusalem Bible grew out of the work initiated by the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, who from 1946 had been engaged in producing a new annotated French version of the Bible. This first appeared as a collection of commentaries on the individual books of the Bible, with introduction and notes, for the use of students. The Bible was completed in 1956. In the first place the English translation was to have been of the notes only, but it soon became apparent that the notes could not simply be attached to an existing English Roman Catholic version. A completely new translation was therefore deemed necessary. This work took ten years, under the general editorship of Alexander Jones, and was finally published by Darton, Longman and Todd, in 1966. Sir Anthony Kenny, Alexander Jones's nephew, was among the twenty-seven strong team of translators. He writes about his involvement, in his autobiography.[ii] He says that several of the original team for one reason or another defaulted, and Alexander Jones in the end personally translated a large number of the books: ‘his editorial activity was so extensive that he became in effect co-author of the translation.’[iii]

The intention of the Jerusalem Bible was to keep abreast of theological thinking taking into account modern scholarship and archaeological and textual discoveries. The annotations and historical background, variant readings and linguistic considerations make it a very considerable work of scholarship, arguably more extensive than any other modern translation.

The revision of the Jerusalem Bible was undertaken and I refer readers to Henry Wansbrough's account of his work as editor (p. 40). The New Jerusalem Bible was published in 1985.

In other articles () I have quoted Jonah's prayer (in versions from Tyndale, AV, NEB/REB, Knox, RSV/NRSV). The Jerusalem Bible reads as follows, and the NJB has made considerable changes:

3 Out of my distress I cried to Yahweh
and he answered me;
from the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you have heard my voice.
Out of my distress I cried to Yahweh
and he answered me,
from the belly of Sheol I cried out:
you heard my voice!
4 You cast me into the abyss, into the heart of the sea,
and the flood surrounded me.
All your waves, your billows,
washed over me.
For you threw me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the floods closed round me.
All your waves and billows
passed over me;
5 And I said: I am cast out
from your sight
How shall I ever look again
on your Holy Temple?
then I though, ‘I am banished
from your sight;
how shall I ever see
your holy Temple again?’
6 The waters surround me right to my throat,
the abyss was all around me.
The seaweed was wrapped round my head
The waters round me rose to my neck,
the deep was closing round me,
seaweed twining round my head.
7 at the roots of the mountains.
I went down into the countries underneath the earth,
to the peoples of the past.
But you lifted my life from the pit,
Yahweh, my God.
To the roots of the mountains,
I sank into the underworld,
and its bars closed round me for ever.
But you raised my life from the Pit
Yahweh, my God!
8 While my soul was fainting within me,
I remembered Yahweh,
and my prayer came before you
into your holy Temple.
When my soul was growing ever weaker,
Yahweh, I remembered you,
and my prayer reached you
in your holy Temple.
9 Those who serve worthless idols
forfeit the grace that was theirs.
Some abandon their faithful love
by worshipping false gods,
10 ‘But I, with a song of praise,
will sacrifice to you.
The vow I have made, I will fulfil.
Salvation comes from Yahweh.’
but I shall sacrifice to you
with songs of praise.
The vow I have made I shall fulfil!
Salvation comes from Yahweh!
11 Yahweh spoke to the fish, which then vomited Jonah on to the shore. Yahweh spoke to the fish, which then vomited Jonah on to the dry land.

Readers will notice that there are points of varying interpretation here, particularly in verses 6 and 7, and whilst the JB is perhaps more dignified, the NJB has an increased sense of urgency and immediacy.

Apropos of the use of the term Yahweh, Anthony Kenny tells us that Alexander Jones had fronted much opposition to its use, but had insisted that the Hebrew YHWH was a name and that it must therefore be transliterated into English as such and not be translated into, for instance, Jehovah. His defence in the forward says: ‘It is in the Psalms especially that the use of the divine name Yahweh (accented on the second syllable) may seem unacceptable — though indeed the still stranger form “Yah” is in constant use in the acclamation Hallelu-Yah (Praise Yah!). It is not without hesitation that this accurate form has been used and no doubt those who may care to use this translation of the Psalms can substitute the traditional “the Lord”. On the other hand, this would be to lose much of the flavour and meaning of the originals. For example, to say “The Lord is God” is surely a tautology, as to say “Yahweh is God” is not’.[iv]

JB uses Yahweh where previous Bibles had used ‘the Lord’. The two creation stories in consequence read very much as distinct narratives. The opening of Genesis in JB is as follows:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkenss over the deep, and God's spirit hovered over the water.God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. God saw that light was good, and God divided light from darkness. God called light ‘day’, and darkness he called ‘night’. Evening came and morning came: the first day.God said, ‘Let there be a vault in the waters to divide the waters in two’. And so it was. God made the vault, and it divided the waters above the vault from the waters under the vault. God called the vault ‘heaven’. Evening came and morning came: the second day.

(Verse 2 in NJB reads: Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, with a divine wind sweeping over the waters).

Chapter 2 verse 5ff. of Genesis in JB is subtitled ‘The second account of the creation. Paradise’:

At the time Yahweh God made earth and heaven there was as yet no wild bush on the earth nor had any wild plant yet sprung up, for Yahweh God had not sent rain on the earth, nor was there any man to till the soil. However, a flood was rising from the earth and watering all the surface of the soil. Yahweh God fashioned man of dust from the soil. Then he breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and thus man became a living being.

NJB has changed the subtitle to ‘Paradise, and the test of free will’ and whilst the first sentence remains the same, verse 6 now reads:

Instead, water flowed out of the ground and watered all the surface of the soil. Yahweh God shaped man from the soil of the ground and blew the breath of life into his nostrils, and man became a living being.

The fact that JB specifically draws a distinction between the two creation stories reflects the theological stance of the Roman Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council of 1943. The introduction and notes state that the Pentateuch is made up of J, E, D and P sources modified by oral tradition. In general the notes reflect strict attention to the latest theological, historical and archaeological developments. Doctrinal points of difference between Catholic and Protestant are reflected much more in the New Testament notes, for instance to the role of Peter in the Church, and to the Sacraments.

Both JB and NJB distinguish in the layout between poetry and prose; hence the opening 18 verses of the Gospel of John (subtitled Prologue) are written as poetry:

JB: In the beginning was the Word:
the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things came to be,
not one thing had its being but through him.
All that came to be had life in him
and that life was the light of men,
a light that shines in the dark,
a light that darkness could not overpower.

Although the layout is similar, NJB has lost the cadences of the above:

NJB: In the beginning was the Word:
the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things came into being,
not one thing came into being
except through him.
What has come into being in him was life,
life that was the light of men,
and light shines in darkness,
and darkness could not overpower it.

(Note that both versions prefer ‘overpower’ to Knox's ‘master’).

Whilst it is always possible to trawl through the different translations and select passages which are noteworthy for their beauty or clumsiness, for this series of articles it seems preferable to quote passages already cited in previous versions in order to make a comparison. Here is the complex opening to Hebrews in JB and NJB. For clarity and dignity, JB outshines all the others:

JB:At various time in the past and in various different ways, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time, the last days, he has spoken to us through his Son, the Son that he has appointed to inherit everything and through whom he made everything there is. He is the radiant light of God's glory and the perfect copy of his nature, sustaining the universe by his powerful command; and now that he has destroyed the defilement of sin, he has gone to take his place in heaven at the right hand of divine Majesty. So he is now as far above the angels as the title which he has inherited is higher than their own name.

NJB:At many moments in the past and by many means, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our time, the final days, he has spoken to us in the person of his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things and through whom he made the ages. He is the reflection of God's glory and bears the impress of God's own being, sustaining all things by his powerful command; and now that he has purged sins away, he has taken his seat at the right hand of the divine Majesty on high. So he is now as far above the angels as the title which he has inherited is higher than their own name.

There are infelicities of language in JB and NJB as in all translations (Mark 13.19 in JB is a clumsy mouthful: ‘For in those days there will be such distress as, until now, has not been equalled since the beginning when God created the world, nor ever will be again’, improved in NJB to ‘For in those days there will be great distress unparalleled since God created the world, and such as will never be again.’ Tyndale reads: ‘For there shall be in those days such tribulation, as was not from the beginning of creatures which God created, unto this time, neither shall be’).

The difficult passage in Romans 8.18ff is served particularly well in JB:

I think that what we suffer in this life can never be compared to the glory, as yet unrevealed, which is waiting for us. The whole creation is eagerly waiting for God to reveal his sons. It was not for any fault on the part of creation that it was made unable to attain its purpose, it was made so by God; but creation still retains the hope of being freed, like us, from its slavery to decadence, to enjoy the same freedom and glory as the children of God.

In an increasingly ecumenical age, the JB and NJB have made great progress in bridging the gap between Protestant and Catholic, and exemplify once again how the proliferation of Bible translations must be applauded rather than bemoaned. I end, as I started, with Cecil Hargreaves' words: ‘During the Elizabethan and Stuart periods, the importance of using a variety of translations of the Bible was stressed. Dr. Myles Coverdale, the translator and former Augustinian monk who became the first Protestant bishop of Exeter during the Reformation, subscribed to this view. He said, provocatively, that the use of various translations was of more value than all the commentaries: ‘there cometh more understanding of the Scriptures by sundry translations than by all the glosses of sophistical doctors’ And the introduction to the AV of 1611 explicitly quotes St Augustine of Hippo as having declared that ‘variety of translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures’. That echoes the discussions about freedom and variety of biblical translation in early Christian centuries. Augustine is known to have had an interest in, and concern for, biblical translation; although as a bishop he is on record as saying that some of Jerome's new translations (Vulgate version) upset his congregations. He is also on record as praising the LXX for its inspired rendering of many passages and for its ‘freedom of the Spirit’ in translation, and its avoidance of ‘mere human servitude to words’. In every age voices have been raised to point to the richness that comes from a variety of versions.’[v]

Hilary Day

  1. Cecil Hargreaves, A Translator's Freedom: Modern English Bibles and Their Language, (Sheffield University Press, 1993), p.74

  2. Anthony Kenny, A Path From Rome, (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1985)

  3. op. cit. p. 117

  4. quoted in A Path From Rome, p. 122

  5. A Translator's Freedom, p. 73

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