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Op-Ed

The good book, re-edited

Retranslations in the latest New American Bible are another step in lessening ill will between Jews and Roman Catholics.

April 15, 2011|By Greg Burk

Despite the anti-Semitic ranting of Mel Gibson, the public gulf between Roman Catholics and Jews has narrowed during recent decades. It started with overtures from Pope John Paul II between 1979 and 2000, during which time he visited Auschwitz and Jerusalem. After following his predecessor to Auschwitz in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI slammed Holocaust deniers in 2009, then set off on an Israel trip. And this year, at Rome's Ardeatine Caves, the pope commemorated the 1944 Nazi reprisal massacre of more than 300 Italians, including several dozen unimplicated Jews.

Benedict's new book, "Jesus of Nazareth: Part II," which chronicles the events of the first Holy Week, as its subtitle notes, from "the entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection," does a further mitzvah by deflecting the Gospel of John's apparent hostility to the Savior's tribe of origin; in the pontiff's telling, "the Jews" whom John blames for enabling Jesus' crucifixion were just a few self-serving partisans, not the people as a whole.

For my part, I'm pleased that the church of my birth is courting the chosen people, without whom there would be fewer fine Catholic Hollywood movies such as "The Song of Bernadette" and "The Omen." It even makes me feel I should attend Mass on Easter.

It's been a while; a decade of Catholic schooling didn't stick to me. I squirmed under Catholic guilt. I stopped going to confession, as Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler once put it to me during an interview, "when I had something to confess." And I took it personally when, after I had learned the whole Mass in Latin as an altar boy, the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s started hyping local languages.

Not that Catholicism fatally scarred me; I was often tested, never molested. In fact, the Bible obsession the church implanted has left me grateful — not for religious reasons but because long study has helped me understand the ways this essential text has shaped our conflicted world.

Recently, the church's olive branch to Jews has been extended again via some retranslations within the revised edition of the Catholic standby, the New American Bible. Jews have long complained that Christian Bible redactors have selectively interpreted the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament as Christians call it) to bolster notions that it predicted the coming of Christ. So where the Hebrew of Genesis 3:15, for instance, says of Eve's plural offspring, "they shall strike at [the snake's] head," Christians have typically relied on the Greek and made it "he shall strike" (prefiguring Jesus) or the Latin and made it "she" (prefiguring Mary, hence the many artistic representations of Mary with a snake underfoot).

Similarly, where the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 says, "The young woman is with child.... Let her name him Immanuel," Christians have interpreted the Greek as a more particular prophecy: "A virgin shall conceive."

In a move that is unusual for English translations, the revised New American Bible opts for translating the Hebrew in both passages, explaining the choices with scholarly footnotes.

The new edition also marks a fresh approach to Satan — the catechetical fallen angel who appears as such nowhere in the Hebrew Bible. Although the Hebrew word "satan" does appear, it translates as "adversary." Up to now, Christians have generally chosen to translate "satan" as Satan. But not this translation of the New American Bible, whose Old Testament always renders it literally — as "the adversary," "the accuser," "the satan" or "a satan." Each one lowercase.

The Catholics I've talked to find their faith little menaced by such revisions. Nor do they care that the New American Bible has also eliminated "booty" and "cereal" so that exceptionally dim readers will not read them as "butt" and "Cap'n Crunch."

Loyola Marymount theology professor Father Thomas Rausch, S.J., when asked about such changes to his favorite Bible, said he was surprised that the editors and revisers (only half of whom are clerics) took this approach: "It seems as if the scholarly voices have won out here." He speculates that although the revised New American Bible has received episcopal approval in the U.S., some in Rome will not be happy.

The New American Bible, a liberal package even at its 1960s inception, has offered a hand not only to Jews but to rational-minded secularists like me. Not that the effort guarantees robust sales. Los Angeles' Cotter Church Supplies received 70 cases of the paperback revised edition in March, and they are collecting dust at 20% off. Sellers have to hope that shoppers will prefer the luxurious bindings and specialized formats of the book that have just begun to hit the shelves.

The translation changes are small, but they are significant. Any change makes for a challenge, and now I hear the new English translation of the Catholic missal (the prayer book used at Mass) is taking flak for being obscure. Still, it makes me smile to see the church adapting just as it always has. Slowly.

Greg Burk is a Los Angeles writer.

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