Catholic Translations of Sacred Scripture

There exists much confusion among my Catholic colleagues as to which translation of Sacred Scripture to choose. Often, I see many Catholics utilizing Protestant translations of Sacred Scripture. Theoretically speaking, such a case would not be a problem necessarily speaking, given that the individual is aware of doctrinal differences in any explanatory notes provided in these translations, and that the individual is further aware of how to uphold and explain Catholic doctrine. The problem arises, however, on the issue of the biblical canon: how many books actually belong in the Bible, and which do or do not belong?

There exist essentially three Canons of Sacred Scripture: the Protestant canon, the Roman Catholic canon, and the Eastern Orthodox canon. The Protestants number 66 books in their canon of Sacred Scripture, the Roman Catholic Church holds 73 books to be canonical and inspired, and the Eastern Orthodox differ amongst themselves as to which books belong or do not belong in Sacred Scripture, resulting in Orthodox editions of the Bible which number in books anywhere from 66 to 84. Normally, however, the Eastern Orthodox Churches do accept the canonicity and inspired status of what Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox term the Deuterocanonical Books (these are the books not found in the Protestant editions of the Old Testament, and termed by the Protestants as the Apocrypha).

The history of these “additional” books is rather complex; suffice it to provide the following fundamental historical details relating to them.

The Jewish canon of Scripture was never definitively determined until close to the end of the first century after the coming of Christ (i.e., between 90 A.D. and 100 A.D.). This meant that there were, until then, essentially two canons of Scripture utilized by the Jewish people: the Palestinian canon and the Alexandrian canon. The former contained the shorter edition of the Old Testament in its original Hebrew form; the second canon contained the longer edition, provided to us by the Septuagint. Following the Exile to Babylon in 587/6 B.C., many Jews were no longer familiarized with the Hebrew language to the same extent that they once were; many had now become primarily Greek-speaking Jews. To better facilitate the reading and study of Sacred Scripture for the Greek-speaking population of the Jewish people, a Greek translation had been prepared by seventy biblical scholars about two and a half centuries before Christ (hence “Septuagint,” which comes from the Greek term for “seventy”). Many of the additional books were originally written in Greek or survived only in Greek, the Hebrew or Aramaic original texts being lost until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the past century. This was one reason for their rejection by the traditional Jewish hierarchy in the first century in the Christian era.

The decision of the Jews to reject the additional books of the Old Testament was, of course, not a definitive factor in the Christian determination of the Canon of Scripture, as their decision was not binding on the Church. However, doubts arose as to the canonicity and inspiration of these books in some quarters of the Church and often by some significant individuals in the early Church. However, these books were generally accepted by many, and they were accepted by the Pope and bishops towards the end of the fourth century (by Pope Damasus I in the Council of Rome in 382, again in the Council of Hippo in 393, and once more in the Council of Carthage in 397, all containing essentially the same canon, all accepting the deuterocanonical books, and this canon being affirmed by the Council of Trent in 1546).

Nevertheless, in spite of the centuries old tradition of the Catholic approval of these books, the Protestants questioned and eventually rejected the canonical status of the deuterocanonical books, either placing them after the Old Testament and before the New Testament, or omitting them altogether. Not until recent times has interest in these books among many Protestant circles arisen.

Given these historical facts, we should note that Protestant editions of Sacred Scripture normally omit these books, so that they are missing seven books from the Old Testament and portions of two other Old Testament books (three passages from the book of Daniel and six passages from the book of Esther).

Those Protestant editions of the Bible that do include the deuterocanonical books often include additional books which are not considered to be canonical by the Roman Catholic Church but which are accepted by the Eastern Orthodox.

The purpose of this article then is to inform my Catholic colleagues of the urgent necessity to verify that the edition of Sacred Scripture they are utilizing is a translation that is approved by the Roman Catholic Church; if such is not the case, now is the time to go to a Catholic bookstore and obtain an officially approved Roman Catholic translation of Sacred Scripture.

Which translations of the Bible would I recommend, and how do you determine if your edition of the Bible is truly Catholic? That I will answer in further detail in a forthcoming article; suffice it to state the following for now:

The best translations of Sacred Scripture are the Douay-Rheims Bible, the Confraternity Version, the Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition), and (though some will disagree) the Jerusalem Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible.

How to tell if your edition of Sacred Scripture is approved by the Church? It should hold, in the title pages, an Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat.

Miguel Agustin Livas

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