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A Start in Personal Scripture Study

“The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of our Lord… For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them, and the power and goodness in the Word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons and daughters, the food of the soul, a pure and perennial fountain of spiritual life” (Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum 21).

When people ask me, “What is the best bible translation?”, I always say, “The one you will read!” This doesn’t mean that all translations are equal. It does mean that no translation is good if you won’t read it. The twentieth century began the greatest age of bible translation in history and we continue to be blessed with a plethora of translations. Take advantage of the riches available. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Remember: Any translation you read is better than none at all.

Won’t I be led astray if I read the wrong translation? Only if you ignore the Catechism and the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. Trial and error may be necessary to find a translation you thoroughly enjoy. Are you reading for devotional purposes or serious study? Do you want it to sound like a well written editorial or loose, friendly conversation or a formal pronouncement of law or a 17th century Shakespearean play? It may take time for you to figure out what you want your translation to achieve. But don’t worry. Just start reading. Go to https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/ and compare your favorite biblical passages in lots of different translations.  

What do you want out of Scripture reading? Many Protestant Christians rely on their private interpretation of Scripture to formulate their own doctrine. They might agonize over the best translation because they might conclude that salvation rests on the precise and exact word choice to translate a single Greek or Hebrew word.  But translation doesn’t offer mathematical certainties and is as much art as science. The Catholic doesn’t need to fear because he protects himself from private Scripture twisting and eccentric personal views by simply reading Scripture in the heart of the Church. 

As a Catholic, I don’t read Scripture principally to arrive at my own personal doctrinal conclusions. We read Scripture to familiarize ourselves with the person of Jesus. “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ” is St. Jerome’s maxim. We read Scripture to enter more fully into God’s telling us His Story, history. We read Scripture to hear the Lord and apostles exhorting us to love and good works. We read Scripture to hear the voice of God guiding us in our priorities, relationships and decision-making. We read Scripture to learn the basic operations of the Christian life: repentance, faith, forgiveness, reconciliation, prayer, love, worship, etc.

But we always read Scripture in the heart of the teaching Church so we can better understand the teaching of that Church! So, stop worrying. Find a translation that you will actually read. One that has you whispering, “Huh, I get it” or “I never thought of it that way before” or “Gee whiz. Does it really say that?” Scripture reading and study can become great enjoyments.

Catholic or Protestant translations? I use, and the U.S. Bishops approve, both Catholic and Protestant versions for both reading and studying. Of course, the Catholic canon, the “table of contents”, i.e., beginning with Genesis and ending with Revelation, includes 73 books compared to the Protestant 66. Gary Michuta explains why in Why Catholic Bibles are Bigger. 

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops offers guidance by approving some translations that are more conversational and others that are more literal and more suitable for serious study. Both Today’s English Version (formerly, the Good News Bible) and the Contemporary English Version are valued for ease of reading and dynamic impact more than literal accuracy and consistency.  

For more serious study I recommend the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition. The New Revised Standard Catholic Edition is also approved by the USCCB. All four of the above translation are works of Protestant scholarship.

Catholic scholarship has given us translations like the older Douay-Rheims and the New Jerusalem Bible, happily revised in 1983 after its original stormy launch in 1966. Trivia: J.R.R. Tolkien admitted in a letter that he completed Jonah but had to resign from the translation committee because of other obligations. Some also claim he touched up Job. For the liturgy we use the New American Bible Revised Edition which can also be used for study and devotional reading. For musical settings, the Revised Grail Psalms has received the approval of the Holy See.

What about study bibles? Ignatius Catholic Study BibleNew Testament is, without question, the most reliable and insightful of Catholic Study Bibles. Unfortunately, only individual Old Testament books are being released but we await the completion and publication of the entire bible.

I also recommend the Didache Bible which corresponds the Catechism of the Catholic Church to each biblical passage. It contains many apologetic insights and is available in both the RSVCE and the NABRE translations. The Anselm Academic Study Bible has only been released in the last year or so. I’ve personally enjoyed it but find it more speculative and less down to earth. The Oxford Catholic Study Bible: Personal Edition but I mention it just to be thorough. Only the Ignatius and Didache have won my entire confidence.

Here are a few tools for entering more fully into the divine revelation we’ve been given in the form of Sacred Scripture (click the links to purchase).

Biblical Basics for Catholics: A New View of Salvation History by John Bergsma. Dr. Bergsma gives a short, down to earth  overview of the central storyline of Scripture.

Understanding the Scriptures: A Complete Course on Bible Study (The Didache Series) by Scott Hahn, et al. This fleshes out what Bergsma began and is a thorough introduction to and survey of Scripture.  

The Word of the Lord: 7 Essential Principles for Catholic Scripture Study by Steven Smith. For those who actually want to begin studying Scripture, this is the most thorough single volume. For a shorter start try Ed Sri’s The Bible Compass: A Catholic’s Guide to Navigating the Scriptures.

Is there a single volume Catholic commentary on Scripture? Yes, there are a few. I prefer The International Bible Commentary by William Farmer, et al.  A work of this magnitude relies on many contributors and disagreements may arise. But I prefer it to the better known New Jerome Biblical Commentary because it has all the critical, academic firepower but retains a pastoral concern and uses less technical jargon. It’s biggest problem is price and size. Both are fat and heavy. 

What about a commentary series? With caution, I recommend the Daily Study Bible by William Barclay. It has been revised and is now called The New Daily Study Bible. I am unfamiliar with the newer version and suggest staying with an older edition. Also I have restricted my recommendation to the New Testament. I haven’t used the Old Testament enough to comment on the comments. Barclay was a Scottish Presbyterian and, occasionally his theology intrudes. At other times, he seems wobbly on creedal issues like the Virginal Conception of Christ. Nevertheless, for the discerning reader, it is a treasure trove of colorful illustration, practical and devotional application and is spiced with insights from the languages, customs and institutions of the ancient world.

Far more reliable is the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture edited by Peter Williamson, Mary Healy and Kevin Perrotta. I own and have used hundreds of commentaries over the years but I have never seen any commentary series that was more academically sound, pastorally insightful and accessibly written. These three traits are hard to come by. Most of the New Testament is done and I pray that the Old Testament will be forthcoming.

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