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Ancient Assyria, located in what is now northern Iraq, is mentioned repeatedly in the Bible as attacking the inhabitants of Israel and raiding Babylon and Syria. Read about Assyrian history and religion and the details of their wars in the region.

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The Word of God in Our Own Words

by Irene Nowell, O.S.B.

The Bible is a community book. The believing community experienced God—s action in their midst and told the stories. After generations of passing on the stories orally, someone rose out of the community and wrote them down. Others contributed to the written stories—copying them, adding material, changing details, refocusing the emphasis. Eventually, as people and cultures changed, it became necessary to translate the stories into other languages so they would still be available to the believing community that had heard God speaking through these stories for ages upon ages. So our story of translations begins.

Translators take on an awesome responsibility. The believing community hears God—s voice in these texts that have been preserved for generations. People have prayed with these texts, meditated on them and shaped their lives by them. The Church has "canonized" them, declaring them the inspired word of God. But how far does inspiration go? The original work was produced under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but is it not true that the Holy Spirit has also been at work when the text was proclaimed, copied and indeed translated? This discussion has been going on since St. Augustine and St. Jerome disagreed on whether the Greek translation of the Old Testament was inspired (Augustine for and Jerome against)! In any case, we believe that when Scripture is proclaimed in the midst of the believing assembly, the living word of God is heard.

The Earliest Translations

The story of translations is full of surprises. The first surprise is the idea that the word of God can be translated at all. In other religious faiths, such as Islam, the holy books are only official in their original language. Translations are just aids to understanding. So worship must be conducted in the original language of the text. In the Judeo-Christian tradition that would mean that worship must be conducted in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, depending on which books were being read. But in the third century B.C.E. the Jews decided that the Torah (and then the rest of Scripture) could be translated into Greek for Greek-speaking believers. Through the next few centuries a Greek translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures was made, called the Septuagint because of a story that 70 (or 72) translators produced identical translations of the Torah. The Septuagint was an amazing accomplishment. It was the first translation of a people—s holy books. The translation moved from one language and grammar system (Semitic) to another (Indo-European) and one alphabet (Hebrew) to another (Greek). Perhaps Augustine was right: Perhaps they were inspired!

In the first century of the common era, when Christians began to separate from Jews, they took with them the Jewish Scriptures. Because Christianity spread primarily in Greek, the Bible for Christians was the Septuagint (plus the books written in Greek that were gradually added, such as the letters of Paul and the Gospels). Here comes the second surprise! From the very beginning Christians considered a translation, the Septuagint, to be the official Scriptures. No wonder we are still working on translations!

During the first few centuries of the common era several Greek translations were circulating. We still have at least parts of four of them. But by the fourth century most Christians were speaking Latin and no longer understood Greek. Several Latin translations had also appeared. So Pope Damasus I (ca. 382) asked St. Jerome to produce an official Latin translation.

Jerome was convinced that translations should be made from the original language if at all possible. So he translated from the best Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts he could find. He did, however, make three translations of the Psalms: one produced quickly (because the praying Church needed the Psalms) and now lost; one from the Greek Septuagint; and one from the original Hebrew. To Jerome—s dismay, the translation that made its way into the official Latin version was the Psalter according to the Greek. Jerome—s work, again a massive accomplishment, came to be called the Vulgate, the common Bible.

Even after Jerome—s work, however, the other translations did not quickly disappear. Writing in the sixth century, St. Benedict in his Rule seems to be quoting both from the Vulgate and from the Old Latin translations. The situation is not unlike our own. We too have several translations, both old and new, available to us.

Early English Translations

Throughout the ensuing centuries different cultures and languages began to develop in Europe. Again Christians could not understand the Scriptures, which were still being proclaimed in Latin. So educated people attempted once more to make the word of God available to the believing community. Among the first was John Wycliff, who made an English translation in the 14th century. The first English New Testament to be printed (1526) was done by William Tyndale.

This effort was not viewed positively by Church authorities. Wycliff—s translation was condemned. Tyndale was burned at the stake. The Protestant Reformation eventually separated Christians. On the one hand, the Council of Trent declared that the Latin Vulgate remained the official translation for Roman Catholics. An English translation was produced in France, however, by exiles from Elizabethan England in 1609. This version had to be translated from the Latin, thus a translation of a translation, although a careful examination of this Douay version suggests that the translators kept an eye on the Hebrew and Greek as well! On the other hand, the Protestant tradition eventually produced the King James Bible (1611), a masterpiece that greatly influenced the development of the English language.

The 20th Century and Onward

Until the 20th century Christianity remained split between Protestants who continued the tradition of translation begun with the use of the Septuagint and Catholics who held to the fourth-century Vulgate. In the early decades of the 20th century several revisions of the King James Bible appeared, all with the intent of adapting the language to contemporary English. The revision best known to us is the Revised Standard Version. In 1943 Pope Pius XII wrote an encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, that became a breakthrough for Roman Catholic biblical scholars. In this encyclical the pope encouraged Catholics to make accurate translations from the original languages—Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Work began immediately and sections of the Bible began to appear as the Confraternity Edition. This translation eventually grew into the New American Bible, published in 1970. About the same time La Bible de Jerusalem appeared in France and was also translated into English.

In the last decades of the 20th century these versions were revised once more. One reason was to keep up with the rapidly changing English language. Secondly, the Dead Sea Scrolls had become available. These scrolls, dating from the mid-second century B.C.E. to the first century C.E., gave us texts of the Old Testament that were a thousand years closer to the original works. Up to this point translators had been working from 10th-century Hebrew manuscripts. But the scrolls also taught us something else: the third surprise. There was apparently not one official version of these biblical books even at the turn of the era! Several versions of many books were found, some vastly different. Then we had to remember that the Church had not canonized a specific version of a book but the book itself. The word of God is living, and every generation must work to hear it and pass it on to the next generation. We may never consider God—s word to be static or fixed in any version, whether in translation or even the original text! It must live in the hearts of believers.

Various Translations: How do they differ?

Translations done under Roman Catholic auspices presumably had an eye to the Douay-Rheims version. They are listed first in the comparison below. The Douay-Rheims itself had been slightly revised in the mid-18th century, but it remained a translation from the Latin. The 20th-century versions, however, are all made from the original languages. Various streams of revision of the King James Version also appeared in the 20th century. Two of them followed the KJV in the following comparison. All of the most recent revisions were made by Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars working together.

In this comparison of the first two verses of Psalm 47, the most significant problem faced by the translators is the word nora, translated in both the Douay and the KJV as "terrible." "Terrible" in modern English no longer connotes something that fills one with terror or awe, so the word no longer conveys the original meaning. The 1970 NAB uses "awesome," but that word has now almost lost its meaning in modern American English. So the 1991 NAB replaces it with "inspires awe." The Jerusalem Bible used "dreaded," but perhaps that was too strong. So the NJB replaces it with "glorious." The RSV keeps "terrible" and the NEB uses "fearful." But the revisions of both use "awesome." A close comparison will reveal other differences.

Douay-Rheims: O clap your hands, all ye nations: shout unto God with the voice of joy, / for the Lord is high, terrible: a great king over all the earth.

New American Bible (1970): All you peoples, clap your hands, / shout to God with cries of gladness, / for the Lord, the Most High, the awesome, / is the great king over all the earth.

Jerusalem Bible (1966): Clap your hands, all you peoples, / acclaim God with shouts of joy; / for Yahweh, the Most High, is to be dreaded, / the Great King of the whole world.

New American Bible (1991): All you peoples, clap your hands; / shout to God with joyful cries. / For the Lord, the Most High, inspires awe, / the great king over all the earth.

New Jerusalem Bible (1985): Clap your hands, all peoples, / acclaim God with shouts of joy. / For Yahweh, the Most High, is glorious, / the great king over all the earth.

King James Version: O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph. / For the Lord most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.

Revised Standard Version (1952): Clap your hands, all peoples! / Shout to God with loud songs of joy! / For the Lord, the Most High, is terrible, / a great king over all the earth.

New English Bible (1970): Clap your hands, all you nations; / acclaim our God with shouts of joy. / How fearful is the Lord Most High, / great sovereign over all the earth!

New Revised Standard Version (1989): Clap your hands, all you peoples; / shout to God with loud songs of joy. / For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, / a great king over all the earth.

Revised English Bible (1989): Clap your hands, all you nations, / acclaim God with shouts of joy. / How awesome is the Lord Most High, / great King over all the earth!

Choosing a Bible

So how do I know which translation to use? Three of the translations approved by the Roman Catholic bishops are: the New American Bible, the New Revised Standard Version and the New Jerusalem Bible. The New American Bible appears in the Lectionary for Mass in the United States, the New Revised Standard Version in Canada. These three translations use language we are used to hearing in church. The NRSV is the most formal; the Jerusalem shows its French heritage. Other versions can also be used for personal prayer as well. The Revised English Bible is more informal. The Contemporary English Version, designed for people for whom English is a second language, uses a very simplified vocabulary and style.

The Bible is a community book. There are many translations of the Bible, both old and new, in most of the languages of the world. In every case translators have taken on the awesome responsibility of clothing the living word of God with the language of their people. The believing community will continue to need these translations of the word by which we live. Pray for translators!

Virginia Smith is the creator, with Elizabeth McNamer, of the Scripture From Scratch product line. One of the general editors of the publication and a frequent contributor, she presents workshops on Scripture at the local, diocesan and national levels. Her latest book is God for Grownups.

Next: The Assyrians (by Elizabeth McNamer)


Praying With Scripture

"If today you hear God's voice, harden not your hearts" (Ps 95:7-8). Set aside a daily prayer time for reading God's word. Read a short passage slowly, preferably aloud. Ponder the meaning of these words for Israel or the early Christians. Read the passage again. What do these words mean to you? How is God speaking to you today through these words? What is God calling you to do? Read the passage once more and respond to God in prayer.



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