Thursday, April 2, 2015

New Jerusalem Bible Review

The New Jerusalem Bible, Hardcover

In its third millennium, Christianity finds itself needing to respond to a pervasive dismissal of religion in Western culture in addition to assimilating the results of historical and textual criticism into its presentation of self to a skeptical world. One of the obvious places to start is in the presentation of its canonical scriptures. The New Jerusalem Bible is a refined attempt at an English translation that can present the holy canon in an intelligent manner to a culture that has grown distant from Christianity. Ultimately, this edition succeeds in achieving its goal, even if there are a few minor criticisms to be noted.

The New Jerusalem Bible is the result of the renowned scholarship of the École Biblique in Jerusalem. This Dominican institution has been at the forefront of some of the most important scholarship in Biblical Studies. The New Jerusalem Bible therefore bears all of the hallmarks of the school; it is sound scholarship that avoids most liberal and conservative excesses. The tendency to avoid extremes is observable in both the translation itself (whether English or French) and the notes.

The translation uses moderately gender inclusive language where the original text justifies it, the literal Hebrew or Greek translation being provided in the study notes. The study notes and translation do not convey a strictly Roman Catholic bias. This is most noticeable with passages that have historically been used as the basis for points of Roman Catholic that do not have acceptance among the Orthodox or Protestant churches. As such, the NJB follows the LXX as opposed to the Vulgate in Genesis 3:15.  Romans 5:12 follows Orthodox and Protestant readings/translations of the Greek, the study notes providing a background in to the various ways the Greek text can be translated. Even at Matthew 16:18, the Roman Catholic interpretation is presented as an option, not the definitive interpretation. This is all in keeping with a biblical school that followed the principle of going where the evidence (archaeological, linguistic, textual etc.) led them, and rightly so. Any credible translation simply must account for the historical critical method and produce a text that appears, even to the religiously unaffiliated, as educated.

As any translation informed by historical scholarship should, the New Jerusalem Bible takes into account the variety of textual traditions when establishing its text. Readings from the LXX and Qumran are favored when the data warrants it. There are also a number of notations of other variant readings (Vetus Latina, Syriac, etc) throughout the study notes. The usage of other textual traditions, or even the notation of other traditions, is one of the appealing aspects the NJB. The aim of text critical studies is to establish the earliest text of the canon. As such, vernacular translations require a degree of fluency with the reconstruction of the biblical text. This is a considerable strength of the NJB. One could write a fascinating expose on the variant readings incorporated into the text of the NJB, the Dominicans at École Biblique were/are that knowledgeable of the manuscript tradition.

The New Jerusalem Bible's greatest strength is its treatment of the Old Testament, in particular its decision to transliterate the many divine names in the Hebrew text. Genesis and Job are appropriately filled with archaic names of God, vestiges of what may have been a more ancient Semitic pantheon. This adds a new depth to many familiar books as one becomes familiar with the change of names running through the text. In ancient Judaism, name conveyed being. As such, the various names of God found in the Hebrew text but so often glossed over in conventional translation are an occasion to step back from the narrative and discover what the name conveys about the Deity behind the Jewish and Christian traditions. Once again, the NJB's study notes lend assistance by providing insight into scholarly thinking concerning the meaning of these oftentimes forgotten names of God. The most notable is the use of Yahweh and El Shaddai (presumably an ancient divine name) in the text. Yahweh is used as frequently as it occurs in the Hebrew text. Familiar texts take on a new and perhaps more intimate quality with the use of the name of God, as opposed to the more impersonal "LORD" that has been customary in English Bibles.

The overall translation methodology is one which I came to appreciate more as I learned the original languages over the years. The NJB straddles the line between one-to-one formal equivalence and more interpretive dynamic equivalence. The goal is to produce a study bible that is intelligent and literary, in short, something that will credibly address the cultural challenges before Christianity in the post-modern world. As translators, we naturally quibble with some of the decisions, yet the justification for the NJB's methodology exists and will persist. This is, above all, an intelligent edition of the Bible for an age where access to education and information is rampant. Once again, the judicious text notes in the NJB supplement the translation where necessary, providing either a more literal translation where needed, or more detailed information behind a puzzling text. There are literally too many examples of this to write an accurate summary. For now, I will direct your attention to the NJB's treatment of Genesis 16:7-17:3 and the appearance of the divine names El Roi and El Shaddai. In both instances one can refer to the study notes for the linguistic background behind the text.


Years ago I walked into a Barnes & Noble looking for a Bible. I scanned row upon row of synthetic leather covers and then noticed the New Jerusalem Bible. It was a think blue hardcover with the image of the Transfiguration on the dust jacket. Reading back and forth between the text and the notes triggered the switch to learn the original languages and enter Biblical Studies. Languages have been learned (a few need a little rehabbing), many editions of the Bible have been read, but without fail I always recommend the NJB to the interested reader, regardless of previous exposure to the Bible. Christianity has entered its third millennium needing a comprehensive text that can provide an intelligent, literate and educated edition of the Bible. I strongly recommend the New Jerusalem Bible as an edition exemplifying such an edition - educated, intelligent, and literate. 

Most sincere thanks to Doubleday for providing this review copy.


  1. I was given a New Jerusalem Bible in 1999 upon leaving Primary School. I still have it to-day, a dog-eared copy (now!) that I used to read until I discovered the Douay Rheims and subsequently the Authorized Version. I don't ever refer to it now, but I keep it out of sentimental value.

  2. I only have a pocket edition of the NJB with me, but I agree that readability is certainly, on the whole, a strength of this edition. The notes provided in this edition are good, too, though I imagine considerably more limited than those in the full-size NJB.

    "The New Jerusalem Bible is the result of the renowned scholarship of the École Biblique in Jerusalem. This Dominican institution has been at the forefront of some of the most important scholarship in Biblical Studies. The New Jerusalem Bible therefore bears all of the hallmarks of the school; it is sound scholarship that avoids most liberal and conservative excesses."

    I'm not sure I agree wholly with this, however. The treatment of Sirach, explained in the 'note' at the end of the Foreword to that book, is bizarre and jarring, and for anyone familiar with its liturgical uses rather confusing (the omission of Sirach 24:24, for instance: "ego mater pulchrae dilectionis", will doubtless confuse users of the Little Office).

    The treatment of Proverbs is not much better. The introduction makes giddy claims of the work's derivativeness which owe far more to (admittedly long-standing) scholarly fashion than to actual scholarship, and suggests a lack of familiarity with the work(s) from which Proverbs supposedly derives - and a questionable understanding of ancient scribal practice.

    "The aim of text critical studies is to establish the earliest text of the canon."

    I'm not sure this is entirely true, either - though certainly it sums up the general assumption. But there is something to be said for more recent notions about the inaccessibility of "authorial intention" and the archetype.