Editing the New Jerusalem Bible

Some time during early summer of 1978 Bill Saumarez-Smith, who was at that time publishing editor of DLT charged with the project, sent me the version of the Letter to the Hebrews revised by Tim Darton, asking me to look over it as consultor. The project was to revise the JB, taking account of the improvement to the Bible de JÚrusalem incorporated into the 1972 edition of the French. I asked for a copy of this edition, and to my surprise received the reply that DLT had no copy of it. After some time they procured a copy and sent it to me. I was unable to discern the principles of the revision, which did not seem to me to take much (if any) account of the new French edition. Nor did the changes made to the JB text all seem to me to be improvements. Some were quite the reverse. I wrote back in this sense and heard no more.

During July 1978 I happened to be staying at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem and mentioned the matter to Pierre Benoit who, as Director of the Ecole, was in charge of the whole Bible de JÚrusalem project. He told me that he had asked DLT to put either myself or one other named English past pupil of the Ecole in charge of the project. He gave me a letter to John Todd, whom I was due to meet on my return to England over another project, reiterating these instructions. The arrangements which John suggested did not seem to me adequate for me to fulfil what Benoit expected, and I wrote back to him to this effect. Benoit then sent to DLT the letter which we subsequently nicknamed ‘the bombshell’, to the effect that unless I was put freely in charge of the project, he would not allow the name of the Jerusalem Bible to be used.

This letter had its desired effect, and I was given a free hand. By this time a good deal of the Old Testament had received a preliminary re-translation by Alan Neame, who had worked on the 1966 edition. I constantly admired his skill as a translator, but was never able to discover just how much Greek and Hebrew he commanded. I worked through the whole translation, making a minimum of a thousand or two changes to every book. Some books (e.g. the Psalms) I translated afresh from the Hebrew and Greek. Other books needed considerable revision, as they had been translated for the 1966 edition almost entirely from the French. Robert Speight once told me (a score of years after the event, so perhaps not entirely accurately) that he had translated the whole of Isaiah in a fortnight, and he certainly knew no Hebrew. As you know, the principle of the BJ was to give preference to the Hebrew version where possible, and to follow the Greek only when the Hebrew was entirely unsatisfactory.

For the New Testament I was more independently responsible, though some portions had already been freshly translated (e.g. Romans, whose translator wished to remain anonymous). For most books I made the changes from the JB myself, sometimes (e.g. the Letters of John) translating entirely afresh, and for others merely making widespread changes. By the time we reached the New Testament, Bill Saumarez-Smith had retired, and the publisher's editor was Cecil Hargreaves, who was responsible for a number of very clever ideas. The only other member of the team was the publisher's sub-editor, Bob Jolowicz.

The guidelines for me were, when in doubt, to accept the interpretation given in the French edition. The introductions and notes needed considerable adjustment to account for the advances in scholarship since the French edition. For any change over the French I was obliged (till 1982, when the restriction was removed) to seek the approval of Benoit. Each month I would send him a list of proposed changes. About these he was usually helpful and generous. Only one list was unsuccessful, when I consulted him about whether to use a metric or the imperial system of weights, measures, etc. In that letter I was incautious enough to remind Benoit light-heartedly that it is a well-known phenomenon in archaeology that the victors adopt the culture of the vanquished, and it might therefore be reasonable for the English edition to adopt the Napoleonic system. One does not joke about Waterloo to a Frenchman, and the answers to that list were uniformly negative. There were occasionally other difficulties: for one detail I was obliged to ask Raymond Brown in the United States and Francis Maloney in Australia for supporting letters, confirming that the French version would be simply unacceptable in the English-speaking world. From 1982, when my dear friend Benoit was no longer so young, the Council of the Ecole Biblique instructed him to give me a free hand.

I suppose there were five main principles to my work:

  1. To improve the accuracy of translation, introductions and notes. I was acutely aware that the rationale of the NJB was somewhat different from that of the JB. Alexander Jones had conceived the translation primarily as an underlay to the introduction and notes, that is, as a study Bible. But whereas in 1966 there was no modern translation of the whole Bible into English by 1985 several were available. The study aspect had therefore become all the more important.
  2. To remove elements which were narrowly Roman Catholic, such as references in the notes to passages used in the Roman Catholic liturgy.
  3. Where possible to use the same English word throughout for the same Hebrew concepts. With some concepts I abandoned the attempt to find a modern English equivalent which would serve to translate all instances of a word, e.g. ‘flesh’.
  4. In the synoptic gospels and other parallel sets of texts (e.g. the Books of Kings and of Chronicles) to show the differences between the text, in order to make possible a study of the redactional changes made by the authors.
  5. Where possible to go some way towards using inclusive language. I did not estimate that this was necessary at all costs, as the NRSV subsequently did. However, Bruce Metzger was kind enough to write to me to say that NJB solutions had been most helpful to the Committee for the NRSV in the closing stages of their work.

The reason why the edition took so long was that during the whole period I was occupied also by a full teaching commitment in school and monastery at Ampleforth. I subsequently reckoned that over the seven years I managed an average of about four hours a day at the NJB, more during school holidays and less during school term.

Dom Henry Wansbrough

Dom Henry Wansbrough is Master of St. Benets Hall, Oxford and is a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, a body of 20 scholars appointed to advise the Pope on biblical matters.

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