After centuries of wandering in the wilderness Roman Catholic Bible scholarship has entered the promised land; and it is remarkable with what speed the final conquest has taken place. The Vulgate, still used by Ronald Knox in 1949, has been abandoned as the sole basis for vernacular translations; the American Revised Standard Version has recently been officially published for the use of Catholics; and now the editors of the Jerusalem Bible have made a fresh translation from the Hebrew and Greek, without showing any special deference to St. Jerome’s Latin. This, however, is not just a plain text, but contains introductions to the various books and notes which have been taken from the French (Dominican) Bible de Jérusalem of 1956—“though revised and brought up to date in some places—account being taken of the decisions and general implications of the Second Vatican Council.” These editorial comments tell an interesting story:

At least from the beginning of the Christian era Moses has been credited with the composition of [the Pentateuch]; nor did Jesus or his apostles question this…. Now modern Pentateuchal study has revealed a variety of style, lack of sequence, and repetitions in narrative which make it impossible to ascribe the whole work to a single author. At the end of the nineteenth century, after years of laborious effort, one hypothesis succeeded in rallying the critics, thanks especially to the works of Graf and Wellhausen. According to this theory the Pentateuch is an amalgam of four documents issuing from different places and times but all much later than Moses…. In a Response dated June 27th 1906 the Pontifical Biblical Commission put Catholic exegetes on their guard against this Documentary Theory and required them to maintain the “substantial” Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch taken as a whole…. In a letter to Cardinal Suhard (January 16th 1948) the Commission more explicitly conceded the existence of sources….

BUT IN THIS TRANSLATION it is absolutely conceded that Genesis has at least three sources or “traditions” and that Deuteronomy has a fourth. So with the second Isaiah, the author of chapters 40-55, which “modern criticism does not admit to be the work of the eighth-century prophet. The Biblical Commission, on 28th June 1908, warned Catholic exegetes against this view”—but the warning has been forgotten. Nor do the editors evade other great questions that were first seriously raised by Spinoza, taken up by the Deists in the eighteenth century, explored systematically by German scholars, and were the cause of such spiritual turmoil among Anglicans a century ago: the late date of the Book of Daniel (later than the events it prophesies), the two sources of Samuel, the allegorical meaning of the Song of Songs. With a few exceptions in New Testament scholarship (the Synoptic theory and the authorship of the Pauline Epistles) the editors have made the crucial concessions.

At one important point they seem to falter: the famous “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,” Isaiah 7:14 in the King James Version (KJV). It has long been known that the Hebrew almah means a “young woman,” not “virgo intacta“; though the Jews who translated the Greek Bible put “parthenos,” which does mean “virgin.” This translation had obviously rather serious consequences in the history of Christianity, and must still be a worry to some. When the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of 1952 came out with “young woman,” I am told that it was solemnly burned by certain fundamentalists of the Deep South. The Jerusalem Bible (JB) is evasive, both in translation, “the maiden is with child,” and in the footnote which says that the Greek version “is an important witness to an early Jewish interpretation, an interpretation adopted by the evangelist.” Well, “maiden” is an archaic word with several meanings, but it usually implies “unmarried,” whereas the plain sense of the text is that a young married princess is pregnant and that her son will be an important ruler in the next generation. The evangelist was presumably in error, and the new solution has the air of an ingenious quibble.

It can be argued that none of this matters to the reader who wants to take the Bible as ancient literature, not as dogma, and who (like this reviewer) has small Greek and less Hebrew. “Be not curious in unnecessary matters; for more things are shewed unto thee than men understand” (Ecclesiasticus 3:23). But unfortunately this won’t do: the beginnings of literary enjoyment lie in a simple understanding of the words, and the spring of literary criticism is curiosity. The Bible, though widely read, is notoriously easy to misread, largely because it is an anthology of disparate kinds of writing, from epic to aphorism, extending over long periods of the oriental history with which it is entwined. First, it needs to be divided on the page into prose and verse, and the true subdivisions, as against the traditional chapters, have to be clearly marked—both these things are admirably done in the Jerusalem Bible. But the separation of the sources (or “Higher Criticism”) is also essential before the reader can even get far with following the story. For example, I and II Samuel is a confusing tale at first sight, because it is a mixture of two traditions with opposite opinions of the monarchy. If these are unscrambled according to the prescription of R. H. Pfeiffer (Introduction to the Old Testament, 1948) there emerges the human, all-too-human story of David, which begins as epic and ends as palace saga, presumably written by Ahimaaz or another eyewitness of Absalom’s revolt. This reconstructed masterpiece has been called the “Hebrew Iliad” (as edited by William G. Pollard, 1957) and is no less and no more secular than Hower. In the Jerusalem Bible the two sources are mentioned but the instructions for separating them are unfortunately none too clear. Elsewhere the editors have done their duty to literary criticism courageously enough: They are right to mention that St. John of the Cross read the Song of Songs allegorically with happy results, but also right to say that “other scholars prefer the more obvious meaning” (i.e., that it’s a love poem). This is on the whole a liberal edition, and the liberal deviseth liberal things, and by liberal things shall he stand.


BUT THAT, we are told, is not what Isaiah 32:8 means: JB following RSV gives it as “the noble man plans only noble things, and bears himself nobly.” The same trouble occurs with the reviewer’s prayer, “My desire is…that mine adversary had written a book” (Job 31:35 KJV), which turns out to be legal rather than literary, “When my adversary has drafted his writ against me, I shall wear it upon my shoulder”—how dull! One after another, the famous quotations have been eroded away, not because of the need to modernize archaic English, but because the translators feel obliged by scholarly conscience to alter the many places where KJV and other translations are simply wrong. Gone is Joseph’s coat of many colors, gone is that romantic chasm “the valley of the shadow of death” (read with JB “a gloomy valley”). There is nothing here for lament, except one’s own memories of childhood. If there is a recently discovered meaning of a Hebrew expression that differs from the traditional one, then we must have it. And where the Hebrew Masoretic text is hopelessly obscure, as it is in a few places, then the translators have to get behind it by using the Greek, Syriac, and Latin versions. This never-ending search for the perfect text and translation goes back to the Complutensian Polyglot Bible of 1517, where the Vulgate text was printed between the Hebrew and the Greek; as Cardinal Ximénes, the editor, pleasantly remarked, “like Jesus between the two thieves.” The great advances in textual criticism, linguistics, and archaeology over the last century make it possible to see many new meanings and obligatory to set them down. I think that the translators of JB are usually honest about this, as far as I can tell from my reading of the other experts, but I am not always sure. Take the story of Uriah the Hittite (II Samuel 11): David saw Uriah’s wife bathing, “And David sent messengers, and took her: and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; for she was purified from her uncleanness.” (KJV). According to RSV and Pfeiffer, the last sentence means “while she was still being purified,” and not as JB has it, “now she had just purified herself from her courses.” If Bathsheba were not still under ritual taboo after menstruation, there would be no point in mentioning the subject: the candid author presumably intended it as yet another black mark against David, who in any case comes out of the episode discreditably. JB seems reluctant to be disrespectful to the man after God’s own heart.

Interpretation, however, does not end with higher criticism and philology. There are many places in the Bible where the meaning of each word seems clear enough, but the sense of the whole is obscure. Why does Abraham twice try to pass off his wife as his sister? Why did Rachel steal Laban’s household gods? And how could Jacob have stolen Isaac’s blessing from his brother? The answers to these old puzzles are known and given in Speiser’s remarkable edition of Genesis (The Anchor Bible, 1964). Recently discovered Mesopotamian (Hurrian) tablets provide the clues, and show that the Hebrew writer misunderstood the legal traditions he took over from his ancestors. Again, the mythology at the beginning of Genesis makes more sense and gains in literary status when it is put beside the Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hittite versions. The editors of JB are rather thin on archaeology and ancient history; they take up more space in expounding the allegorical fancies of the Christian Fathers than in giving the social and political setting of the Patriarchs. They have perhaps under-estimated the archaeological sophistication of the kind of readers who use the JB: after all, books on archaelogy are best-sellers, and thousands of people visit ancient monuments. This weakness in historical and pre-historical detail has the opposite effect to that intended by the editors: it makes the Bible more of a fairy tale and less of a document firmly rooted in the reality of Near Eastern civilization.


THE HARDEST QUESTION to discuss rationally is that of style. Nothing is easier than to point out the beauty of KJV’s language and to compare it with the flatness of modern versions like RSV or the New English Bible, as Dwight Macdonald has done so wittily. But we should try to avoid literary clichés and to clear the mind of cant. To begin with, KJV’s is not always the most beautiful version. Take the following sentences, which are obviously unsurpassable for charm and power:

—Up Lord, and let not men have the upper hand.

—The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground; yea, I have a goodly heritage.

—I myself have seen the ungodly in great power: and flourishing like the green bay-tree.

—Even like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ears; Which refuseth to hear the voice of the charmer, charm he never so wisely.

—Like a giant refreshed with wine.

—Whose feet they hurt in the stocks: the iron entered into his soul.

—And they were even at death’s door.

Now, not one of these sentences is from KJV, they are taken from Coverdale’s translations of the Psalms, as they appear in the Great Bible of 1539-40, and as they are still sung in Anglican and Episcopalian churches today. In every case the KJV revisers made radical changes, and from a poetic viewpoint, for the worse. The Coverdale versions of the Psalms account for a quarter of the Biblical entries in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, a useful pointer to the influence of Biblical language on our literature. Yet Coverdale, we are told, had a poor knowledge of Hebrew, and was unduly dependent on the Vulgate and Luther’s German. The KJV revisers, though they were not bleak pedants, found many of his renderings unacceptable, and though they often kept his rhythms and vocabulary they tried to get closer to the Hebrew. They did the same with those parts of the Bible translated even earlier by Tyndale. That is perhaps the secret of the KJV: It is not Jacobean or Elizabethan prose, but a peculiar version of early sixteenth-century, i.e., late-medieval prose; and it is often beautifully distorted from the normal patterns of English by the effort to produce a rather literal crib of the Hebrew. KJV’s style is then a peculiar historical accident, unrepeatable and unapproachable in modern English. Its language is close to the Hebrew and Greek because the ancient agricultural world of flock and fountain still survived around it. Now that it has gone in the West the experience of this world behind the words of modern English has gone too. “The Lord is my shepherd,” “I am the good shepherd”—how many of the readers of this review have ever seen a shepherd? There is little to be done about this problem of language, since the modern translator can only achieve a good style by sacrificing accuracy or dropping into pastiche. The combination of accuracy and modern idiom inevitably produces flatness; the only compensation it can give is the shock of surprise, as with JB’s rendering of the “deaf adder” verse quoted above: “they are deaf as the adder that blocks its ears/so as not to hear the magician’s music/and the clever snake-charmer’s spells.” (Psalm 58:5) The best a translator can do is to keep his tone steady and avoid vulgarisms and bathos, and in these respects the JB translators have usually done well. But I find their matter-of-fact accent unsuitable to the primitive nobility of Genesis (“Just listen to me,” “Please get up and take your place” don’t seem right for Jacob and Esau; “Very well, then,” Yahweh replied—but I’m sure Yahweh never said anything so commonplace.)

AS TO THE NEW TESTAMENT, it seems to me from comparing versions of Matthew that the JB is heavily dependent on the New English Bible of 1961: the Lord’s Prayer is much the same (“and do not put us to the test, but save us from the evil one”), and the stern words of 25:41, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into the everlasting fire,” are softened in the same way (“Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire”), which would indicate a reluctance to believe that Christ really cursed people and sent them to hell. Where the JB succeeds is in rendering the bare styleless style of Mark, which tells the story with such heroic melancholy; where it fails is in finding an equivalent for the gaiety and worldly wit of the Acts. “Enlisted the help of a gang from the market place” is a poor exchange for “took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort,” Gallio “refused to take any notice at all” (“cared for none of these things”); “all that learning of yours is driving you mad” (“much learning doth make thee mad”). For KJV’s “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” JB has “A little more, and your arguments would make a Christian of me”—your arguments, perhaps, but not your verbal skill. The notes on the New Testament are naturally more conservative than those on the Hebrew Bible; especially where they concern the authorship of the Pauline epistles and the absolute priority of Mark for the life of Jesus. One can hardly reproach the editors for not mentioning the Dead Sea Scrolls, and their literary consequences, the chief of which is likely to be the complete uncertainty of the ordinary reader as to what the Gospels are all about. But there is enough here to show the deep commitment of Catholic scholars to historical truth and to the increase of knowledge, even if they feel that this commitment may sweep Christianity into a future as strange as the Apocalypse. Magna est veritas et praevalet.

This Issue

February 9, 1967