November 18, 2014
Reading The Jerusalem Bible
When the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) stimulated a spiritual awakening that crossed all sorts of denominational lines and stirred a charismatic renewal, Bible study groups became a highly active part of Christian fellowship. By 1966, The Jerusalem Bible (JB) gave us a translation of the original languages in an accurate contemporary text, first in French then English with both approved by the Catholic Church and used by Christians from a variety of backgrounds.
That same year, the American Bible Society published the New Testament in the Today’s English Version (TEV) better known as the Good News Bible (GNB), which I used in the Bible study group that met each week in my home. So, I didn’t even hear of the JB until 1985 when the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) came out, and I readily embraced its dynamic tone, conversational style, and thought-provoking footnotes.
In the 1990’s, a Catholic edition of GNB came out with the full biblical texts including the deuterocanonical books aka Apocrypha. Indeed, from the second half of the 20th century to the present day, Christian scholars and publishers produced such a wealth of English translations and updated versions that the JB went out of print for a decade.
When I finally tracked down the availability of The Jerusalem Bible, I asked for a review copy, and Doubleday kindly gave me the “First Doubleday Reader’s Edition” printed in this century with notes and introductions shortened “to the minimum which are necessary for understanding the primary, literal meaning of the text; to explain terms, places, people and customs; to specify dates, and to identify the sources of quotations. In short, the brief Introductions and Notes are here only to help the ordinary reader to understand what he is reading….”
For example, the “Introduction to Tobit, Judith and Esther” says: “Although these three books have the literary form of historical stories, the events of which they tell are not attested from other sources and the books are found to treat the facts of history and geography with a good deal of freedom. Plainly they were written” as historical novels and devotionals might be today “to teach lessons of another kinds, and some of the early Greek Bibles include them with the wisdom writings.”
The Introduction goes on to say that “Tobit, the story of a dutiful son who is given miraculous help by an angel, was written among the Jews of the dispersion… though the setting of the story is some two hundred years earlier. The book was not accepted into the Hebrew Bible and was recognized by the Church only after a certain hesitancy in the patristic period. In the new translations of the Bible made at the Reformation, it was put in the Apocrypha.” The same is true for the book of Judith while the book of Esther has variations in Greek that do not appear in the original Hebrew versions. Therefore, “the Greek passages are ‘deuterocanonical,’ their history being the same as that of Tobit and Judith.”
Other introductions provide equally helpful information that ground us in the circumstances and history of each book. For example, the ”Introduction to The Psalms” informs readers that “The Psalter, or Book of Psalms, is a collection of hymns used in the liturgical worship of the Temple.” Arranged in five parts, “the 150 psalms represent the work of several centuries.” Although some psalms shock readers today, “in their own time there was nothing improper about violent curses against enemies…” Most of the Psalms, however, can be categorized as hymns of praise, thanksgiving, prayer, or lament.
One lament sometimes voiced about the JB has been its use of the sacred name “YHWH” rendered as “Yahweh” – the Name Which was once anglicized as “Jehovah.” Since the Hebrew alphabet does not contain all of those letters, newer versions of the Bible often translate the sacred name as "the LORD" in capital letters or small caps.
In its aim for accuracy and clarity, the JB clearly demonstrates its own goals, for example, by translating the opening lines of the 23rd Psalm in this way:
Yahweh is my shepherd.
I lack nothing.
As another example of clarity, the “Introduction to The Minor Prophets” offers brief explanatory notes “in what is most probably their true historical order.” This chronology places Amos first with Joel and Jonah last in the introduction but their typical positions retained in the actual text, ending the minor prophets with Malachi.
Finally, the “Introduction to The Book of Revelation” informs us that “The framework of a Revelation is always a vision of hidden supernatural events; the language in which the vision is described is richly symbolic and so allusive that the message can be interpreted in more ways than one.” Therefore, “the Book of Revelation is not to be accepted simply as an allegory which can be directly translated into other terms. It contains the author’s vision of heaven and of the vindication of the Christian martyrs in the world to come, but it must be understood first and foremost as a tract for the times, written to increase the hope and determination of the Church on earth in a period of disturbance and bitter persecution…,” such as we might be facing again.
Praise God, though, for this and other excellent translations of the Bible that let us know how this book and The Book end.
©2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, is a lifelong lover of Christ, the Bible, and the church in all its parts. She’s the traditionally published author of 27 books in all genres, including the Bible-based poetry book Outside Eden.
The Jerusalem Bible, reader edition