Saturday, March 17, 2012

Yes, but which Bible?

I’d like to do a post, even a series of relatively short essays, on my own ideas about lectio topics related to prayerful reading of Scripture.  I thought the first of these should be on which version of the Bible is suitable for lectio.  I excuse myself for taking on such a topic by stating clearly that I’m not a Scripure scholar, nor a recognized expert on prayer and such folks may rightly take issue with what I say here.  These essays are simply offered to show my own experience and, I hope, to offer encouragement to whoever may stop by here to try such prayer themselves.

The ideal answer is, the versions we have in the original languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek.  However, few of us anymore have the skills in those languages necessary to do that.  Come to our aid is the almost overwhelming number of translations, that are available to us in English.  Still, in my own experience, these vary widely in terms of quality and usefulness.  So, to assist myself, I’ve come up with two or three simple rules for choosing a Bible translation for use in daily reading and lectio.

The translation should tend to the literal.  I like to think that the version of the Bible I’m reading is reliably true to the original texts.  I really don’t want to read what amounts to the opinion of some translator whom I don’t know I can rely on.  I expect to read God’s word as He intended it.  I might add, placing myself in considerable jeopardy of being labeled a sexist, I don’t want the translation abused through the imposition of gender neutrality.  I believe that putting words into the text that were never there in the first place is dishonesty, plain and simple, and doesn’t belong in any transation.
The language of the translation should be beautiful.  I have a funny idea that God’s word is beautiful and should be rendered in any language beautifully.  I think, too, the beauty of the translation affects our ability to receive God’s word, and improves our chances of praying in response to it.  To give you an idea of what I mean, here are three different versions of the first three verses of the 23rd Psalm, one from the Grail translation, one from the Revised Standard Version, the third from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

This is the Grail translation:

1 The Lord is my shepherd;
there is nothing I shall want.
2 Fresh and green are the pastures
where he gives me repose.
Near restful waters he leads me,
3 to revive my drooping spirit.
He guides me along the right path;
he is true to his name.

Here is the Revised Standard Version:

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; 2 he makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters; 3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake[1]

Finally, here is the New Revised Standard Version

1      The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2          He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3          he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake. [2]

Somehow, “drooping spirit” doesn’t do it for me, it sounds like something an EMT might do once the ambulance arrives.  God restoring my soul is much more meaningful, it tells me how God refreshes me, deep, deep within my soul.

The language should be reverent.  By this, I mean there should be a timeless element to the transaltion; it should not be loosely translated in the modern vernacular.  Scripture isn,t  a product of our culture, it transcends culture and it’s reading should remind us, however slightly, of this.  I don’t think it hurts if it’s even slightly challenging and slows us down to make us think about what we read. 

The book itself should be beautiful.  This is a point more related to version, or edition, than translation, I like the book itself to be both beautiful and functional to contribute to our attitude of reverence and humility before God’s Word, while still making it accessible.  I don’t think a cheap, paperback bible, even a large, hardcover Bible in poor condition is an ideal version to use.  If that’s all there is, then it should be used, but if better is available, that would be my choice.

I also don’t think a study Bible is useful for lectio because we might tend to turn prayer into study; they are not the same thing and one shouldn’t overlap into the other.

Yes, but which Bible? You may be asking at this point if I’m going to offer specific recommendations.  OK, yes I am. 
There are two translations that, I believe, meet the two requirements of literalness, beauty and timelessness.  They are the Revised Standard Version,  the New Revised Standard Version.  The reasons can be found in the comparisons of translations offered above.  A third choice would be the New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE).  This recent revision is much improved over the previous version, but still lags behind the other choices.

As to edition, the closest to ideal that I’ve found is the recent (I think) volume of the RSV published by St. Benedict Press.  It has, it’s true, not a leather but a “premium ultrasoft” cover, whatever that is, which is nevertheless pleasing to the touch.  It comes in a very nice size, roughly 5x 8½, and is not too thick.  Also, the price is right, around $30.00 on Amazon.  My only complaint, and it’s a big one, is that they set the words of Jesus in red.  Why they did that, I cannot imagine.  There are two disadvantages to this, the first of which is that I find the red type much harder to read.  Often, in printing, red type seems to come out lighter than the surrounding text, which presents a challenge.  Second, that’s a Protestant innovation of relatively recent occurrence, why a Catholic publisher would do that is beyond me.  I don’t have anything against Protestants, but not every idea they’ve ever put forth regarding the Bible is a good one.

There’s what appears to be a very nice NRSV-CE available on Amazon, the Go Anywhere NRSV Catholic Edition for about $25.00 that looks very suitable for lectio. 

All that being said, the best advice I’ve heard is – the Bible you’ll read.  If none of this is helpful, forget it and find a Bible that fits your preferences and that facilitates your reading it on a regular basis.  I’m sure you will anyway.

[1] The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Ps 23:1–3). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
[2] The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ps 23:1–3). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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