The New Jerusalem Bible:
A Historic Work of the Roman Catholic Tradition
[Written in 2011 for Protestants for the Common Good.]
NOTE: This is a very long review, mainly because of the historical background included. Anyone primarily interested in the New Jerusalem Bible itself should skip to that section of the review.
Outline of this Review
The Historic Background
The Roman Catholic Bible: Counter Reformation to
The Roman Catholic Bible:
I (1870) to Vatican Vatican II (1962)
Two Scholars Under the Modernist Ban: Loisy and Lagrange
The Editions of the
Bible (1966) Jerusalem
The New Jerusalem Bible (1985)
Contents of the New Jerusalem Bible
The Pentateuch: Traditions, History, and Moses
The Psalms – and Yahweh
The Servant in Isaiah
Composition of the Synoptic Gospels
John and the “Coming” of Jesus
Paul the Man and His Letters
A year or so ago I did an adult series at University Church in Hyde Park, Chicago, on “Three Historic Bibles in English,” and one of the Bibles described was the (New) Jerusalem Bible. Nearly half of this review will be spent explaining why this Bible was “historic.”
The Historic Background
The Roman Catholic Bible: Counter Reformation to
The first printed book in
Europe was the Bible – the Gutenberg Bible (about 1453). “Bible” at that time meant the Latin Bible, the
Vulgate, the common Bible of the West from 400 CE on. Until the sixteenth century, Christians of
the West did not have or use the Old Testament in Hebrew or the New Testament
in Greek (except for a few scholars in the Renaissance). Particularly the Hebrew scriptures had never
been declared to be the scripture of the Church. The Christian Old Testament was the Greek
version used in the Eastern churches and the Vulgate in the Western churches. It was only with the Protestant Reformation
that the Scriptures were declared to be the ancient writings in Greek and
Hebrew, and only Protestants then began making translations from those ancient
The canon and text of the Christian Scriptures were conclusively defined for the Roman Church by the Council of Trent, that series of meetings between 1545 and 1563 in which the Roman Church reinvented itself after the Protestant Reformation.
said the true and infallible scriptures of the Church are the Latin Vulgate –
and later in the century an authorized printed edition of the Vulgate was
published (the Sixto-Clementine edition of 1592-98). English translations from the Vulgate could
be used, but not translations directly from Hebrew or Greek. These restrictions continued until the
mid-twentieth century. Trent
The Church rejects Liberalism. The French Revolution and Napoleon’s re-making of much of European culture set up a great struggle between conservatives and liberals. As the nineteenth century developed, the papacy was tightly allied with the forces of conservatism. The papacy especially opposed toleration of other religious communities within Catholic countries. Liberal governments tended to dis-established the church, the national unifications of
created direct conflicts with the Church, and finally, the new Kingdom of Germany
( Savoy )
deprived the papacy of its extensive territories in central Italy
The papacy’s reaction reached a climax in the famous (infamous) Syllabus of Errors (1864). The Syllabus condemned eighty propositions advocated by political and religious liberalism, especially toleration by the state of any religion except Roman Catholicism, and the idea that “the Roman Pontiff can and ought to reconcile and harmonize himself with progress, with liberalism, and with modern civilization.” (Quoted in Thomas Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church, rev. ed., Doubleday, 2005, p. 315.)
In one of the ironies of history, the Ecumenical Council meeting at the
in 1870 ( Vatican
I) had just proclaimed the infallibility of the Pope when the Vatican deprived the papacy of its
last earthly territories, except the small confines of the Kingdom
itself. (The papacy refused to recognize
this fait accompi until a deal was made with the Italian government under Mussolini
in 1929.) By hindsight, of course, the
loss of territories in central Vatican
was the gateway to a new unprecedented global prestige and influence for the
The Roman Catholic Bible:
I (1870) to Vatican Vatican II (1962)
Under Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) the Roman Church turned to the social and economic realities of the modern world, especially the impoverishment of the laboring people of
Europe. “Social Catholicism” was born from the
encyclical Rerum novarum (“of new
The Modernist Debacle (Thomas Bokenkotter’s title). On theological and Biblical matters, however, Leo XIII and his curia remained medievalists, insisting on the sufficiency of the scholastic Thomas Aquinas. This was the time in which critical methods of research were revolutionizing the study of Church History and the Bible in Protestant countries, as well as among some Roman Catholic scholars (Renan in
Acton in France ,
Doellinger in England ). Under the impact of the new historical
methods, a Catholic “Modernist” tendency developed. (It was never coordinated enough to really be
a “movement.”) Germany
Historical-critical methods and their results were condemned in the papal encyclical Providentissimus Deus (“most provident God,”1893).
A perverse device has been introduced, to the bane of religion, under the pretentious title of “the higher criticism.” According to it, the source, soundness, and authority of any book in the Bible is established only from internal evidence [as opposed to Church tradition]... [This approach allows] the foes of religion to challenge and ravel out the authority of the sacred books, and the higher criticism now so praised would reduce itself to a matter of each critic’s preference or bias in interpreting the books. (Translation in Gary Wills, Why I Am a Catholic, Mariner Books [Houghton Mifflin], 2003, p. 202.)
In 1902, the Pope created the Pontifical Biblical Commission, “which for decades would police Catholic thought on the Bible, threatening and punishing any exegetes who departed from its directives” (Wills, ibid.; Wills titles his chapter about this period, “Reign of Terror”). Restrictions on the new approaches increased until a complete condemnation of ideas and publications was issued under Pius X in the encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis (“Feeding the Lord’s flock,”1907). This was accompanied by a decree from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Inquisition) entitled Lamentabili sane exitu (“A lamentable departure indeed”), which was another list, like the old Syllabus, condemning sixty-five propositions about revelation, the Bible, and related matters – a list guaranteed to eliminate Modernist teachings from the Church.
The description of this period by the Catholic historian Thomas Bokenkotter is grim.
To extirpate Modernism, the Pope [Pius X, 1903-1914] called for measures that smacked of the worst features of the medieval Inquisition. Vigilance committees were to be set up in every diocese to detect any sign of Modernist doctrines. In addition, each diocese was to have a body of censors who were to watch over all literature in any way connected with the Church. These agencies were to observe strict secrecy in all their proceedings [shielding accusers from accountability]. Seminarians were to be indoctrinated in the Scholastic system—in its Thomist form—as the basis of all sacred studies. And finally, all priests and teachers were required to take an oath against Modernism. (Concise History of the Catholic Church, pp. 352-53.)
Modernism was indeed successfully stamped out, but at a tremendous price; the Catholic intelligence was inoculated against error, but the dosage was almost fatal.... Many of the Church’s most brilliant thinkers were silenced or driven out of theology and into a kind of spiritual schizophrenia. Catholic seminaries remained medieval ghettos until the middle of the twentieth century, and future priests were taught a biblical fundamentalism ... (Ibid., p. 354.)
Divino Afflante Spiritu, 1943. After one world war, the territorial settlement with the Italian state, and the escalation of dictatorships in
a tiny island of neutrality in an Axis state while an even vaster world war
raged. Just as the Italian government
was dismissing Mussolini and making peace with the Allies (September 1943), the
Pope sent out this circular letter that would revolutionize Catholic Biblical
Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), who issued this encyclical, has been called “the patron of Catholic Biblical studies.” His pontificate “inaugurated the greatest renewal of interest in the Bible that the Roman Catholic Church has ever seen.” (Raymond Brown in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland Murphy; Prentice-Hall, 1990, “Church Pronouncements,” p. 1167.) The encyclical announced to Catholic scholars that,
the time for fear was over and that Catholic scholars should use modern tools in their exegesis. The stress on the use of the principle of literary forms [form criticism] to solve historical problems and the encouragement to make new translations of the Bible from the original languages (rather than from the Vulgate) were an invitation to Catholic scholars to begin writing freely again and to catch up with Protestant scholarship which had greatly outdistanced them during the preceding years of “trials and struggles.” (Ibid., pp. 1167-68.)
Divino Afflante Spiritu set in motion the work that produced, just over a decade later, the original Jerusalem Bible. It is to be noted that the original French version of the Jerusalem Bible was published six years before the convening of the Ecumenical Council called Vatican II. Vatican II did not make the Jerusalem Bible; it was more nearly the reverse!
Some intricate developments led from Divino Afflante to Vatican II, but the bottom line is that Vatican II sustained and reinforced the instructions of the encyclical. In a summary review, after Vatican II, Raymond Brown wrote:
We may assure our non-Catholic brethren that the modern Catholic biblical movement inaugurated by Pius XII and confirmed by Vatican II and the PBC [Pontifical Biblical Commission] under Paul VI is now too much a part of the Church to be rejected, no matter what temporary setbacks or obstacles may lie in the future.
(Raymond E. Brown, “Church Pronouncements,” Jerome Biblical Commentary, [1st ed.]; Prentice-Hall, 1968, Vol. II, p. 626.)
Two Scholars Under the Modernist Ban: Loisy and Lagrange
Two prominent Catholic scholars of the early twentieth century illustrate developments that led to secular historical treatment of the scriptures on one hand, and on the other to obedience to the wisdom of the Church that eventually produced the Jerusalem Bible.
Alfred Loisy (photo from umass.edu)
Alfred Loisy is an example of a scholar who tried to stay in the Church during the Modernist purge, but who refused the ultimate compromises that that would have cost him. Born in 1857, he was ordained a priest in 1879 and showed promise as a teacher and scholar. He was influenced by the historical work of Ernst Renan and Abbé Duchesne before turning to the advanced German scholarship of the time. Teaching Hebrew scriptures, he recognized that the opening chapters of Genesis, about creation and the flood, were similar to recently-discovered Babylonian religious texts of the same type and could not be read as literal history. When a superior of some of his students withdrew them from his classes because of such teaching, Loisy wrote,
It will some day be cause for astonishment, even in the Church of Rome...that a Catholic University professor should have been judged highly reprehensible for having said, in the year of grace 1892, that the narratives of the first chapter[s] of Genesis are not to be taken as literal history.” (Alfred Loisy, The Gospel and the Church, ed. Bernard B. Scott; “Lives of Jesus Series,” Fortress Press, 1976, quote from Scott’s essay, “Loisy and Modernism,” p. xix.)
Loisy went on to develop a view of the origins of Christianity that accepted out front and conspicuously that the Faith had developed. There was a development from Jesus’ apocalyptic message of the coming
to the gradual establishment
of a Church with rituals, sacraments, and church orders. Loisy’s most famous quote is, “Jesus announces
the kingdom, and it is the church that appears” (Ibid., p. xxxvii). And for
Loisy, “this statement is not only one of fact, but of necessity; the church
had to come if the preaching of Jesus were to survive” (Ibid., p. xxxviii). Loisy
thought this understanding was a great apologetic advance for the Church in
modern times. Kingdom
Loisy sought to be a champion of the Church in opposition to Protestant liberal theology, publishing in 1902 a book-length reply to Adolf Harnack’s Essence of Christianity (English title, What Is Christianity?), a widely popular statement of Protestant liberalism. He wrote, however, from his historicist viewpoint, and the book was condemned by Church authorities in 1907.
In 1908 Loisy was excommunicated from the Church, and went on to a distinguished career at the Collège de France from 1909 to 1931 as a historian of religions. In those years he produced major commentaries on the Gospels, which were widely used by liberal Protestants, and wrote histories of the origin and development of Christianity. He died in 1940.
Fr. Marie-Joseph Lagrange was another scholar who was faced with the choice of bowing to Mother Church’s restrictions protecting orthodoxy or going on his own. Before the crack-down of the 1900s, he had founded an important institution of Catholic research, the École biblique in Jerusalem (1890). That continuing institution has a biography of Pere Lagrange on line:
Albert Lagrange was born on
the 7th of March, 1855, in Bourg-en-Bresse (Ain).
He got his doctorate in law before entering the .
There, he was given the name of Marie-Joseph. We are in 1879, and brother
Marie-Joseph will be ordained priest in 1883. Dominican
He arrived at the École biblique [actually at the monastery of St. Stephen] in 1889, and from then on Father Lagrange was not idle: foundation of the École in 1890, of the Revue Biblique in 1892, of the Études bibliques series in 1898, development of archaeological research. All these “creations” become reference points which put the École in contact with scholars all over the world.
Father Lagrange began to run into difficulties from the time of his lectures about the “historical method,” delivered in 1902 in
this is the beginning of what the historians will call the “Modernist Crisis.”
During this time of suspicion, which will last up to the 30s, including one
year of exile in 1912, and which will lead him to give up his Genesis Commentary,
Father Lagrange always stayed absolutely faithful to the Church. Toulouse
Father Lagrange died on
the 10th of March, 1938, in Saint-Maximin (Var). After the
publication of the encyclical letter Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) and
World War II, the work and the personality of Father Lagrange came to be
considered as exemplary. His remains were transferred to the choir of Saint
Stephen’s Basilica [in ].
The beatification process was begun in 1988, and everyone hopes that a
recognized miracle will lead him soon to the altars. Jerusalem
It was Pere Lagrange and the École biblique that ultimately created the Jerusalem Bible. Here is the story of the École, and the origin of the Jerusalem Bible, as told on its own website (www.ebaf.edu/en):
The École Biblique is the oldest research institute in the
Holy Land. It was founded in 1890 by Father
Marie-Joseph Lagrange, OP (1855-1938) within the framework of the Dominican
Monastery of St Stephen, ,
which had come into being in 1882. In order to highlight its specific
methodology Lagrange called the new institution L’Ecole Pratique
d’Etudes Bibliques, ‘The Practical School of Biblical Studies’. The
Bible was to be read in the land in which it was written. It was to be studied
in the physical and cultural context that gave it birth.... Jerusalem
Lagrange had the extraordinary talent of spotting genius in very young scholars. Within ten years he had selected and formed a group of collaborators that was envied by every university faculty.... [The years and specialties of five such scholars are given.]
During the fifty years of their intense interdisciplinary collaboration (1890-1940) the members of this small team published 42 major books, 682 scientific articles, and over 6200 book reviews. The articles and reviews were published in the periodical Revue Biblique, which was founded in 1892, and the books in the monograph series Etudes Bibliques, launched in 1900.
Beginning in the 1930s new faces appeared at the École Biblique. The second generation carried on the high tradition of serious scholarship started by their colleagues. Bernard Couroyer (1990 [read 1900]-1992) published widely in Egyptology while teaching Coptic and Arabic. Roland de Vaux (1903-1971) combined great competence as an exegete of the Old Testament with the skills of a field archaeologist. Raymond Tournay (1912-1999) produced the best modern translation of the Psalms. Pierre Benoit (1906-1987) and Marie-Emile Boismard (1916-2004) made highly original contributions to the study of the New Testament.
These scholars of the second generation were responsible for the famous Bible de Jérusalem (1956), which brought Lagrange’s program to fruition. It was revolutionary in concept and design. Specialists in each book of the Bible translated it from the original language. Detailed introductions and notes reflected the best in contemporary biblical scholarship. Poetry was printed as poetry, and prose as prose. It set the standard for all modern bibles. The latest English translation, the New Jerusalem Bible, was published in 1985.
The Editions of the
At all stages of the creation of the Jerusalem Bible the work was designed, executed, and/or supervised by the Dominican fathers of the Ecole Biblique in
. The work had the following evolution: Jerusalem
1) Between 1948 and 1955, forty-three fascicles (booklets) were produced, each giving a translation, introduction, and annotations of a Biblical book or books. These were translated from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts, not the Vulgate.
2) In 1956 these fascicles were extensively revised to produce a one-volume work entitled La sainte Bible, traduite en francais sous la direction de l’Ecole biblique de Jérusalem, published by Les Editions du Cerf, Paris, with the imprimatur of the Archbishop of Paris. The general editor at this stage was Father Roland de Vaux. This edition was quickly nick-named La Bible de Jérusalem.
3) The one-volume edition was modestly revised in 1961. It was this edition that was translated into English.
Bible was published in 1966.
Alexander Jones, general editor, and a team of “collaborators” in the Jerusalem
produced the translation. It was a
translation of the French introductions and notes, but with substantial
consulting of the ancient languages in the translations of the Biblical
5) A “Reader’s Edition” of the Jerusalem Bible was prepared in 1968, significantly abbreviating the introductions and almost eliminating the notes. It appeared in a particularly handsome edition in 1970 with illustrations by artist Salvador Dali.
6) A new edition of the Bible de Jérusalem was published in 1973, with Father Pierre Benoit as general editor.
7) The New Jerusalem Bible, 1985, was a translation of the French introductions and notes of the 1973 edition, with some updating by the English editor. The Biblical text of this English edition, however, was entirely new and was translated directly from the ancient languages. The general editor was Dom Henry Wansbrough – like Jones, a former pupil of the Ecole Biblique in
. Wansbrough also worked with a team of
collaborators in the Jerusalem . UK
8) A third edition of the French work was published in 1998, but no new English translation has been made.
9) A major revision is in the works under the title La Bible en ses traditions (BEST), “The Bible in Its Traditions.” In addition to the present BdJ format, it will have expanded notes giving brief histories of interpretation of the respective Biblical passages through the ages.
There are now on the new or used market many popular editions of both The Jerusalem Bible and The New Jerusalem Bible. Most of these, however, have very abbreviated notes or no notes at all. For example, The New Jerusalem Bible, “Standard Edition,” was published in 1999 (Doubleday), containing “The Complete Text of the Ancient Canon of the Scriptures,” giving only the NJB translation, no introductions or notes. In this kind of terminology, the full scholarly edition of the NJB is called the “Regular Edition” – the 1985 version discussed in this review.
A Protestant Estimate of the Original Bible de Jerusalem
In 1958 a Protestant Francophone Biblical scholar, Georges A. Barrois, published an article in Theology Today entitled “Reflections On Two French Bibles.” One of the Bibles was the Bible de Jerusalem of 1956. Barrois fully recognized the “historic” character of this new Roman Catholic publication.
I do not think we have anything quite like this on the American market.... [The Oxford Annotated Bible of 1962 had not yet appeared.] The text is accompanied by substantial, compact notes, which include not only the usual cross references to key words, but also, at a deeper level, to things, events, or patterns of cultural and religious significance. In many cases these notes yield as much relevant information as would a more bulky commentary, and they leave the reader all the more free from the kind of subjective indoctrination suggested by commentators eager to make, or stretch, a point. The aim of the editors was to present non-specialists with a self-sufficient, self-explaining Bible. [Nice definition of a “study Bible.”] They have succeeded.
...The introductions and notes of the Bible de Jerusalem are remarkably free from narrow dogmatism. It would be difficult to trace the various brands of theology professed by the religious families to which the editors belong, whether Dominicans, Jesuits, Benedictines, Sulpician Priests, or others....
Scripture is scrutinized by the editors of the Bible de Jerusalem for the objective value of its testimony, instead of being used as an arsenal of proof texts for the defense of dogma.... Scripture studies in the Roman Church are coming into their own or, to put it bluntly, Roman Catholic exegesis is tending to become more Catholic than Roman [!]. (Theology Today, XV, (1958), 212-13.)
The Big-Picture Rationale. General Editor Alexander Jones set the entire Jerusalem Bible enterprise in context by defining the world historical situation of Christianity:
The form and nature of this edition of the Holy Bible have been determined by two of the principal dangers facing the Christian religion today. The first is the reduction of Christianity to the status of a relic—affectionately regarded, it is true, but considered irrelevant to our times. The second is its rejection as a mythology, born and cherished in emotion with nothing at all to say to the mind.... Now for Christian thinking in the twentieth century two slogans have been wisely adopted: aggiornamento, or keeping abreast of the times, and approfondimento, or deepening of theological thought. This double programme must be for the Bible too. Its first part can be carried out by translating into the language we use today, its second part by providing notes which are neither sectarian nor superficial. (“Editor’s Foreword,” p. v.)
The Jerusalem Bible thus presents a very new and original translation, directly from the ancient languages (though sometimes via the French to the English) but intended for contemporary English speech. Such a translation should eliminate archaisms and “old fashioned” speech, however beloved by past usage. But the translator may not “substitute his own modern images for the old ones: the theologian and the preacher may be encouraged to do this, but not the translator.” Similarly, the translator cannot “impose his own style on the originals: this would be to suppress the individuality of the several writers who responded, each in his own way, to the movement of the Spirit” (Ibid., p. vi).
This translation introduced the use of “Yahweh” as the personal name of the God of Israel, instead of substituting “the Lord,” as most English translations since the Reformation had done. This innovation will be commented on more fully below.
The appreciation and evaluation of the JB translation is a task in its own right. It is passed by here in order to give more attention to the New Jerusalem Bible version. The two are quite different, and both translations continue to be widely available, but we will focus our attention on the NJB.
The Introductions and Notes of both the Jerusalem Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible are mainly taken from their respective French editions, and much of these remain the same across editions, both French and English. As Jones’s overview statement indicated, these notes are to provide the theological depth of the Church’s presentation of its faith in the modern world. They should explain both what happened in
and the early Church, and how those ancient experiences are illuminating for
contemporary people of faith. Israel
Clearly, as Jones’s comments indicate, the Jerusalem Bible in all its forms was to present the Biblical basis of Christianity in its best historical light – for the teaching, apologetic, and pastoral needs of the [updated] twentieth-century Church.
The New Jerusalem Bible (1985)
The New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) was planned simply as an updating of the Jerusalem Bible (JB). As work went along, it became more. General Editor Henry Wansbrough later gave the following example of his work:
[A] good deal of the Old Testament had received a preliminary re-translation by Alan Neame, who had worked on the 1966 edition.... 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... (Wansbrough’s account is on line at http://www.tyndale.org/tsj06/wansbrough.html .)
Wansbrough states that he was guided by five “main principles” in revising the JB:
1. To improve the accuracy of translation, introductions and notes.
2. To remove elements which were narrowly Roman Catholic [such as references to the liturgy].
3. Where possible to use the same English word throughout for the same Hebrew concepts [to facilitate word studies].
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 [to facilitate redaction critical studies].
5. Where possible to go some way towards using inclusive language. (“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.”)
It is clear, then, that in The New Jerusalem Bible we have a thoroughly revised, even re-translated, version of The Jerusalem Bible. Both these editions, however, give English dress to basically French scholarship on behalf of the renewed Roman Catholic Church.
Contents of the New Jerusalem Bible
While the Jerusalem Bibles translate from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts, the contents of the Bible are still determined by the Vulgate, the canon of scripture established by the Council of Trent. The Table of Contents of the NJB (pp. viii-ix) lists 70 Biblical books, 43 in the Old Testament and the familiar 27 in the New. There is no separate cluster of books called “Apocrypha.” Rather, Tobit, Judith, and two Books of Maccabees come in their approximate historical position after Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther; Wisdom and Ben Sira follow the Song of Songs in the wisdom books; and Baruch, the prophetic book, follows Lamentations.
This Contents lists only one book each for Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles – which is how these books appear in the Hebrew canon. In the body of the book, however, the usual 1 & 2 Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are separated (as they were in the old Greek translations of the Jewish scriptures). Thus, there are actually 46 books in the NJB Old Testament. (There is a Preface that explains the relations of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles, p. xi.)
There are “Supplements” at the end of the book, including a 20-page “Chronological table,” which lists in detail events, rulers, and literature in Biblical times with parallel columns showing what was happening in the rest of the world at the same time. This table is as close as the NJB will get to a survey history of peoples, literature, and religion. Historical topics are treated in notes as they come up in the Biblical books.
The “Supplements” also contain a 20-page “Alphabetical Table of the Major Footnotes,” which is as close as we will get to a theological survey of the Bible. This index often has good sub-topic breakdowns – for example, “baptism” with subs of “John’s,” “of Jesus,” “Christian,” “of Spirit and fire,” etc. There are some peculiarities, however: There is no entry for “God,” only for “gods” with no sub-topics. The entry for “Jesus Christ” lists half a page of sub-topics. As a study tool, this index can provide useful starts for topical studies.
The overall approach of this study Bible is: Get down to cases! There is no general article on the Old Testament; rather we start right out with “The Pentateuch.” This 12-page introduction has sub-headings on the composition, history, and religious significance of this basic part of the Bible, and well represents the overall approach of the Jerusalem Bibles to the Scriptures.
The Pentateuch: Traditions, History, and Moses
Having accepted the force of historical-critical approaches to the scriptures, the Jerusalem Bibles needed to find a way to interpret the Pentateuch historically but also maintain the basic authority of the revelation to Moses.
First is the issue of the composition of the Pentateuch. The classic “Documentary Theory” developed in the nineteenth century by Protestant scholars is reviewed. But as Protestant scholars in the twentieth century have also recognized, that theory was unrealistically artificial about scissors-and-paste concepts of ancient literature. What really existed were traditions, not documents. Traditions lived attached to sanctuaries, on-going religious communities, and memories of ancestors. They were modified, combined, and reformulated as time passed, becoming quite diverse and varied in language and style. Only at relatively late stages were they written down – not as new compositions, but as preservations of authoritative recitations.
Despite the characteristics distinguishing them, the Yahwistic and Elohistic traditions substantially tell the same story: the two traditions thus have a common origin. The tribal groups of south and north shared a common tradition marshalling the people’s memories of their history: [the events are listed from Patriarchs to conquest]... This common tradition had taken shape in oral, and possibly even in written form, during the period of the Judges, that is to say, when
was already beginning to exist as a nation.
(NJB, p. 9.) Israel
The Pentateuch can thus be recognized as a composition made up of Yahwistic, Elohistic, Priestly, and Deuteronomic traditions – now interwoven in complex ways to form the Law of Moses that Ezra brought to the post-exilic community in
And what of the history behind the traditions? There are three separate issues: the primeval history, the patriarchs, and Moses.
The Primeval History. One of the permissions of Divino Afflante Spiritu (the papal encyclical of 1943) was to take into account the literary genres of scripture as a preliminary to historical evaluation. This means we do not have to confuse genuine folk lore for factual historical reports.
The first eleven chapters of Genesis...give a description in popular style of the origin of the human race; in a simple, pictorial way suited to the mentality of unsophisticated people, they declare the fundamental truths on which the plan of salvation rests. These truths are: the creation by God at the beginning of time, God’s special intervention in the making of man and woman, the unity of the human race, the sin of our first parents, the fall... All these are truths which have their bearing on theological doctrine and which are guaranteed by the authority of Scripture; but they are also facts, although we cannot know their nature, as they are presented to us in a mythological form consistent with the mentality of their time and place of origin. (NJB, p. 11.)
That is, when it comes to the narratives in the Primeval History, theological truth, as given for example by the apostle Paul (original sin), determines what are the truths of Scripture. The narratives are like parables or allegories: they portray a teaching that is the real point. A story of creation authorizes the confession of God as creator. Doctrine is definitely guiding interpretation here.
Patriarchs. The genre of the patriarchal stories is “family history.” Such history “lingers over personal anecdotes and piquant details, making no attempt to situate its narratives in a wider historical context.” The stories are also sacred history: they are composed “to demonstrate a religious thesis: there is one God, he has trained one people and given this people one country; this God is Yahweh, this people is
One aspect of the patriarchal stories is now outdated. “The old suspicious attitude towards these narratives [doubting their historicity] has had to be abandoned under pressure of recent discoveries made by historians and archaeologists of the
Moses. If we have a multitude of later traditions about Moses, what can be said about the man? The basic answer is along the lines, If there was no explosion, how do you explain this huge crater?
If we deny the historicity of these facts and of the person of Moses, the subsequent history of
its loyalty to Yahwism and its attachment to the Law, defy explanation.... [It
is true that the] historical reality behind the biblical figure of Moses
remains shadowy. [Nevertheless,] Israel,
having become a people, thus enters world history and ... what the Bible says
about it is in broad agreement with what texts and archaeology tell us about
invasions of Egypt by groups of Semites, about Egyptian administration in the
Delta, and about political conditions in Transjordan. (NJB, p. 12.)
Religious (Christian) significance. The Jerusalem Bibles firmly insist on both the historical character of the Bible and on its permanent relevance for the religious life.
The religion of the Old Testament, like that of the New, is a historical religion: it is based on a divine revelation made to definite individuals at definite times and in definite circumstances, on the intervention of God at specific moments in the development of humanity. The Pentateuch, tracing the history of God’s relationship with the world, is the foundation stone of the Jewish religion...
The Christian [on the other hand] is no longer under tutelage [by the Law, as Paul put it, Gal -29], but is freed from the observances of the Law, though not from its religious and moral teaching.... [As for the ceremonial law,] it is true that the one sacrifice of Christ has abrogated the Temple ceremonial, but Leviticus also insists on purity and holiness in those who serve God—and this is a lesson for all times. (NJB, pp. 14-16.)
The Psalms – and Yahweh.
I have long regarded the NJB translation of the Psalms as the version that most often catches the punch, rhythm, and conciseness of the Hebrew in English. In reviewing Psalm translations for the lectionary readings I always admire the smoothness and music of the NRSV, but when I read the Hebrew beside it, the NJB is again and again a more compelling equivalent. (Subjective, indeed! But I’ve been at it a while.) One off-hand example: Psalm 100:1, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands...” (RSV); “Acclaim Yahweh, all the earth...” (NJB). The length and the stresses match those of the Hebrew.
According to his own report, this English is the final work of Henry Wansbrough himself – though certainly building on two generations of French scholarship and his JB predecessors.
The name Yahweh. This example raises the issue of using “Yahweh” instead of “the Lord” in English translations. The NJB follows the innovation of the Bible de Jérusalem and the Jerusalem Bible in this usage. Conservative commentators often remark that the pronunciation of Yahweh is not “certain.” That’s an excuse; the pronunciation is as sure as such things can reasonably be. It is based on ancient transcriptions into Greek and Latin letters of how the name was pronounced. (Incidentally, contrary to the often-heard sound of YAH-way, the correct pronunciation is Yah-wéh, first vowel short and flat as in “pat,” strong stress on the second syllable.)
Using “Yahweh” undoubtedly puts a certain distance between the hearer/reader and the Lord God of our faith. None of us learned to pray or sing to Yahweh. When we really mean God, we don’t say Yahweh. Only ancient Israelites did that. (Possible exceptions may be those young enough to have grown up with the Jerusalem Bible.)
Realistically, “Yahweh” is for scholars and people who want to hear the Hebrew scriptures more or less as Israelites heard and uttered them. For such, Yahweh is definitely the right translation. The Israelites – meaning anyone down past Ezra’s time – not only uttered the divine name Yahweh, they repeated it in public again and again. They couldn’t say it enough in their prayers and prophecies. The Name was God’s fame, reputation, and banner to the nations, and it was the name pronounced, shouted, hallelu-ed – most especially by the Yahweh-Only religious movement that gave us the great body of the Hebrew scriptures. Yahweh is definitely the pronunciation for those who want the Israelite scriptures themselves.
After about 300 BCE (beginning of the Greek period), monotheism had permeated religious awareness enough that the very idea of a personal name for THE God had altered pious sensitivity and we got the Jewish ban on the pronunciation of the Name. The Greek translations of the Jewish scriptures (beginning around 250 BCE) followed the scribal practice of pronouncing “my/the Lord” wherever Yahweh appears in the Biblical texts. The Hebrew text was not changed; only what one read when seeing the four letters YHWH. And so we monotheists have continued to do ever since.
About the psalms themselves, the NJB Introduction has the usual discussions of the literary forms: hymns, “entreaties” (laments), thanksgivings, and “exceptional” psalms that don’t fit general categories. The NJB discussion of “Royal psalms” is developed beyond that of the JB. A Christian reading of the Bible has to get two things about the Messiah out of the Hebrew scriptures: the Anointed One in Glory, and the Anointed One who suffers. What are usually called the Royal psalms present the Anointed One in Glory.
They concern a king of their own period, and Ps 2, 72, 110 could have been enthronement psalms. The king is said to be son of God, his reign to be endless and stretching to the ends of the earth; he is to make peace and justice triumph and to be the saviour of his people. The expressions may seem extravagant, but they do not go beyond what other neighbouring people said of their sovereign and what
hoped of theirs.... Israel
[A] number of these ancient royal chants, still in use after the fall of the monarchy... fostered the expectation [of a Messiah] on the eve of our era, and Christians saw the realisation of this hope in Christ (a title which signifies Anointed in Greek, as Messiah does in Hebrew). (NJB, 1985 ed., p. 812.)
On authors and dates, NJB allows that some psalms at least came from David himself, but most were later. Many “go back to the monarchical period, in particular all the royal psalms... The Psalms of the Kingship of God, on the other hand, with their many echoes of earlier psalms and of the second part of Isaiah, must have been written during the Exile...” (p. 814).
The Servant in Isaiah
The NJB has one long Introduction to the Prophets (pages 1157-1189) that covers both prophecy in general and all of the individual prophetic books – not a very convenient arrangement for studying separate prophets. The Introduction includes sections on the nature of prophecy, the history of the prophetic movement, the teaching of the prophets, and the prophetic books – before discussing each book separately.
In the JB, “the Teaching of the prophets” was grouped under Monotheism, Morality, and Messianism. The NJB gives up the alliteration and titles the third section “Future salvation,” and rewrites it substantially. It is in this Messianic future that we find the suffering Servant.
[D]espite disappointments and the bad behaviour of most of David’s successors, we find the hopes of the prophets Isaiah, Micah and Jeremiah still centred on an individual king, in the near or in the distant future. The Messiah (for at this point in history, the capital letter is appropriate) would be of Davidic descent ... [and several traditional Messianic passages are listed]. (NJB, p. 1165.)
A summary passage about the Servant in Isaiah in JB was substantially rewritten in NJB:
Embedded in the book [of Isaiah] are four lyrical passages...[that] depict a perfect servant of Yahweh—re-gatherer of his people and light of the nations—one who preaches the true faith, who expiates the people’s sins by his own death and is glorified by God....The identify of the servant is much disputed, being regarded by many as a personification of the community of Israel... The characteristics of the servant are, however, very strongly drawn; hence other exegetes, today the majority, consider the servant to be a historical person, either of the past or of the Second Isaiah’s own times. From this point of view, the most attractive suggestion is to identify the servant with Second Isaiah himself and to suppose that the fourth song [in which the servant dies] was added after his death. A third theory synthesizes both these interpretations by holding that the servant was indeed an individual [such as a king] who in some way embodies the destiny of his people. (NJB, pp. 1169-70.)
Composition of the Synoptic Gospels
In the Jerusalem Bible, the Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels follows, without naming him, the French scholar L. Vaganay (Le Problem Synoptique, 1954). Vaganay defends the priority of Matthew by making the original Matthew an Aramaic document, subsequently translated into Greek, used in an early stage by an early-stage Mark, which was later in turn used by the writer of the final form of the Greek Matthew – thus achieving an original dependence of Mark on Matthew, then an ultimate dependence of Matthew upon Mark. All of those hypotheses were needed to find a way of integrating detailed scholarship with the Church’s tradition. Much too complex and hypothetical to be historically credible.
NJB shifted to another French scholar, also not named in the text, M-E Boismard (Synopse des quatre evangiles, 1972-77), whose theory was even more complex, assuming three stages of documents leading to the final Gospels. The NJB makes a valiant effort to explain these complexities for a general reader, and the narrative of how things went from early oral transmission to first documents is clear and interesting (NJB, p. 1601 bottom to 1602 middle). Then the various documents, in various languages, with various interdependencies set in, and most readers would abandon the effort and just get on with the actual Gospels!
The point of these theories was to find a place for every small detail in the Gospel texts as a part of a master scheme in line with Church tradition. It is very much a case of trying to salvage Ptolemy’s theory of the universe. The equivalent of Copernicus’s heliocentric theory here would be to abandon the priority of Matthew. (On these and other Gospel composition theories by Catholics, see Frans Neirynck, “Synoptic Problem,” New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice-Hall, 1990, pp. 587-595.)
Perhaps it is significant that when the Introduction begins to discuss the individual Gospels – it begins with Mark rather than Matthew!
John and the “coming” of Christ
The Gospel According to John should be congenial to Catholic tradition because it presents one major way of keeping the divine presence in the world for the Church after Jesus’ departure. The NJB description of this theological shift is well done.
In the Synoptic Gospels the revelation of Christ’s glory is associated primarily with the eschatological ‘coming’, his return at the end of time, Mt 16:27seq. The basic elements of traditional eschatology: the expectation of the ‘Last Day’... of the ‘coming’ of Jesus ... of the resurrection of the dead ... and of the last judgement ... are all found in the fourth Gospel, but in it this eschatology receives a new and double emphasis: not only is the End here and now—it is also an inner principle and not an external event. In this way, the ‘coming’ of the Son of man is interpreted primarily as the ‘coming’ of Jesus to this world through the Incarnation, his ‘lifting up’ on the cross, and his return to his own disciples through the Holy Spirit. In the same way the ‘judgement’ is presented as something already taking place in human hearts, and eternal life (John’s counterpart of the synoptic ‘kingdom’) is made to be something actually present, already in the possession of those who have faith. (NJB, p. 1739.)
This transition from the apocalyptic message of Jesus to the religious life of the early Christian communities is the greatest issue in modern scholarship about “the historical Jesus.” Perhaps wisely, the NJB has no place that it directly addresses these issues. There is no discussion of the historical Jesus as such in the entire volume. The introductions to the Gospels confine themselves to unfolding the structure and message of each work. There is no summary of the overall teachings of the Gospels.
Only in the discussion of the Gospel of Mark do we get a succinct statement of the history of Jesus:
All the same, this outline [of Mark’s Gospel], broad as it is, does trace for us an important development which is both factually and theologically significant. The general public received Jesus warmly at first but their enthusiasm waned as they found that his gentle and other-worldly conception of the Messiah did not fulfill their hopes. As a result, Jesus left
Galilee to devote himself to the instruction
of a small group of faithful followers, and the profession of faith at Caesarea
Philippi showed that he had secured their faith. This was a decisive turning-point: after it
became the focus of attention, and it was there that further opposition
continued mounting, only to end in the drama of the Passion and in the final
triumph of the resurrection. (NJB, pp.
This basic outline is taken up and expanded in major ways by Matthew and Luke. For them, as well as for us, this sketch is the framework for the Jesus of history.
Paul the Man and His Letters
If the Gospel of John is particularly congenial to Catholic tradition, Paul is certainly a special interest of Protestant tradition. The NJB has one long Introduction to the Letters of Paul, all of them, including Hebrews. However, as with the Gospels, there is no section summarizing Paul’s thought or theology. The topics are the Chronology, Paul’s Character, his Preaching, and his Journeys and Letters (which contains introductions to each separate letter). At the critical points bearing on Justification by Faith, the notes enter into no dialogue with Protestants, but simply give solid expositions of what Paul actually says. (See, for example, the long note h on faith, at Romans 1:16. Also the references for “Justification” in the Table of Major Footnotes, p. 2089.)
Perhaps surprising may be some of the statements about “Paul as Preacher.”
Paul does not seem to have had a very vivid imagination, to judge from his sparing and pedestrian use of imagery: the sportsground, 1 Co 3:6-8; Ph 3:12-14; and the sea. Two images, farming, 1 Co 3:6-8, and building, Rm 15:20; 1 Co 3:10-17, are so basic that he often mixes them, 1 Co 3:9; Col 2:7, compare Col 2:19. His genius was much more intellectual than imaginative, his enthusiasm was never divorced from the rigid logic with which he explains his teaching and adapts it to the needs of his audience. It is to this intellectual need to adapt his teaching to the occasion that we owe the remarkable theological analysis to which he repeatedly submits the kerygma. (NJB, p. 1852.)
Some Evaluative Remarks
My evaluation of the NJB is mainly positive. I think the original Jerusalem Bible was a great achievement for its “historic” moment, and the NJB is an excellent recreation of it in English. It’s now getting out of date, as far as scholars are concerned, but most of its virtues are enduring:
The NJB is ecumenical. The assessment of the original French Bible of Jerusalem by the Protestant George Barrois (see above) is certainly applicable also to the English versions. There is little that is parochially Roman Catholic in this very scholarly study Bible. This work stands as a rigorous but reverent presentation of the Christian Bible. Most of all, it engages in no polemics against or disparagement of other traditions, and is quite gentle in its manner of departing from old (pre-critical) ideas about scripture. The Jerusalem Bibles represent a new beginning; old divisions within Christendom are basically disregarded, and the common Biblical foundation of the faith is what is presented.
The NJB is historical-critical. The papal encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu opened modern methods of Biblical study and interpretation to Roman Catholic scholars, and the Jerusalem Bibles embody their mastery of those methods. Contrary to the old “Modernist” tendencies, historical methods do not have to be, overtly or covertly, anti-Church or destructive of faith. In God’s wisdom, even rigorous historical truth is not only reconcilable with faith, but opens new insights and understandings that the old fixed traditions could not recognize. This is certainly the affirmation and commitment that this Biblical work presents on behalf of the Church.
This commitment means that the Pentateuch and the Gospels are recognized as having been shaped over periods of time, with successive human custodians of the traditions. That does not somehow contaminate or invalidate these writings. “This process of editing itself took place under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who directed the community and its spokesmen both in the preservation and in the selection and arrangement of the material” (NJB, p. 1604). Great hassles about “authorship” of Deuteronomy, Daniel, or Ephesians are unnecessary. This openness to the historically-conditioned character of the traditions frees Biblical interpretation of many of the boxes a literalistic Evangelical reading often creates.
In general, the approach of the Jerusalem Bibles is: the history was real, and the human experience was real. By “history” is now meant the basic core of facts recovered from the traditional texts, but also real was the religious experience that produced the texts as we read them.
The NJB is scholarly. As Protestant Biblical studies show, commitment to historical-critical work means the scene is constantly changing. Each scholarly generation (approximately 20 years) brings out new discoveries, new theories to explain both the old data and the new, new methods that produce quite different readings of old texts. Scholars have to (or get to) keep up with these developments – and this is one reason study Bibles are revised every generation.
The NJB reviewed here, published in 1985, presented Biblical scholarship essentially as it was in the French edition of 1973. That means the NJB is not now up-to-date, by scholarly standards. For example, the discussion of the relationships of the Synoptic Gospels would probably be different now (see above). For the general reader, however, this is a minor issue. The basic historical approach together with a respectful attitude toward the faith expressed in the texts does not change quickly.
The NJB waits upon Theology. The NJB fully develops the commitment of the Church to historically-informed readings of the scriptures, but it does not impose more than necessary on the
The NJB is quiet about anti-Judaism. In the places that current New Testament interpreters usually talk about the anti-Jewish attitudes in the text, there is little notice of the issue in the NJB notes. At Matthew 27:25 (“his blood be on us and on our children”), for example, we have only this: “Traditional OT phrase, 2 Sam ; -9, cf. Acts 18:6, by which they accept responsibility for the death they demand.” There is no discussion in the Introduction to John of the complex use of the expression “the Jews” in that Gospel. Nor are there comments about Christian views of “supersessionism” in connection with Matthew, Acts, or Romans 9-11.
This became a hot-button issue in the late twentieth century, as it probably was not for French scholars in 1973. It would probably receive rather different treatment in a new version of the Jerusalem Bible.
The NJB presents a New Translation. The original Jerusalem Bible of 1966 gave a new and rather free translation into English. It translated the “meaning” somewhat more than simply the words of scripture. It has proved enduring – still in print, still selling in used book markets. It has remained the usual version quoted by Karen Armstrong in her many Biblical writings. The translation in the NJB pulled back some on the free-ness of the translation, aiming more at a word for word treatment of important theological terms than did the JB (see Wansbrough’s statement quoted above).
The jury is probably still out on the use of “Yahweh,” at least in liturgical readings and songs. (See a Catholic News Service press release of
Historians of religion certainly appreciate having a widely-known English version that tells about
“so that these too may know that I am Yahweh,” Ezekiel , NJB.
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