A consumers' guidebook
WHEN I agreed to offer a sort of "consumers' guide to the bible" I had not realised that I was rushing in where even angels fear to tread. The field has become even more spikey with the publication of the New Jerusalem Bible, which is selling so well that it is bound to make its way to the top of the Sunday Times bestseller list.
In the old days the polemics used to he about accuracy, but now style is what matters. If, as Proudhon said, style is the man, then we define ourselves with the particular version we prefer, just as we do when we choose our books, clothes, clubs or restaurants.
Thus a student of Heythrop College wrinkled her nose when I implied that she might be using the Jerusalem Bible. The Revised Standard Version is of course the only decent translation.
However, ironically enough, when I asked Fr Reginald Fuller, who has long been associated with the revision and publication of the RSV and the RSV Common Bible, which version he would recommend today, his unhesitating choice was the Jerusalem Bible.
But the extremist in stylistic fanaticism is Peter Levi. In his book The English Bible he almost sounds like an intellectual terrorist.
The most modern English versions, he says, are none of them convincing on the level of language; I find this morally and intellectually confusing, since I find it means I am incapable of taking seriously anything that they say. Since I cannot think that I am unique in this experience, I am forced to regard the new versions as illjudged, and their imposition as an act of folly.
I am clear, Peter Levi continues, that the principles of English style arc a moral matter, not just a question of taste. Reticence, clarity and sobriety, strength and simplicity, logical coherence and a decent habit of speech have their foundations in moral sensibility. The modern English Bibles are written in the language, or non-language, of a class, and of a class that has no authority in spoken English.
When I mentioned Peter Levi's complaint to Alan Neame, who is responsible for the translation of the Old Testament in the New Jerusalem Bible, he assured me that they had Peter Levi in mind throughout the preparation of the new version.
But I doubt whether the new offering is going to placate a man whose allegiance stops with the Douay Bible, with perhaps a grudging nod to the RSV.
The corollary, and the sting in
the tail, to Peter Levi's argument is that no generation is going to be perfectly happy with the idiom of a previous generation. Hence every generation needs its own translation of the Bible. Hence also the welcome appearance of the New Jerusalem Bible.
Although the Jerusalem Bible has sold the largest number among Catholics, the Good News Bible is also steadily becoming a favourite. Between May 1982 and now the Westminster Cathedral Bookshop alone has sold 1,000 copies of the Catholic edition. (The Pope's visit may have had something to do with it.) The Good News is an easily accessible translation. True, it may sometimes jar on ears used to other cadences. But the greatest drawback is that all the various beautiful bindings, including large print editions, are without the Apocrypha, and therefore not Catholic.
Sales of the Revised Standard Version have steadily declined. The fact that the paperback edition has not been available for several months is not without significance. Times are changing.
But a modern version that has not yet found favour with Catholics is the New International Version, Both in style and lay-out it is very readable, and there are many bindings to choose from.
Of the different American bibles available I shall mention only one because of its originality. The Way: the Living Bible (Catholic edition, illustrated, £10.50) departs radically from a literal translation and offers a paraphrase in a truly American style.
As for Mgr Knox's literary masterpiece, only the New Testament is available at prices most of us can afford, fans will be glad to know that a handbound leather edition of the complete Knox Bible can be
had for a mere £40.
On a slightly less expensive level, the same is true about the amay Bible. The complete leather edition (currently not available) is £30. There are numerous children's bibles, including one called the Catholic Children's Bible. The most popular seems to be A Child's' Bible (Pan Books) which only comes in paper in two volumes. Interestingly enough, below the title on the cover you read: Rewritten for all ages to understand and enjoy with full colour illustrations throughout.
The final word of praise must go to three delightful little volumes from St Paul Publications. The History of Salvation in the Old Testament consists of passages arranged and commented on so that the reader gets a general picture of God's action in the world, leading up to the birth of Christ. Photographs of biblical places in colour, sketch maps, diagrams and figurative illustrations being
the text to life.
The Gospel of Jesus, with illustrations as above, offers the text of the four gospels arranged in one continuous narrative. In addition, it has a calendar on top of every page relating to the events recorded.
The Early Church in the Acts of the Apostles and in their writings follows the same pattern as the other two volumes. Besides the complete text of the Acts, it also gives a comprehensive anthology of the Apostles' letters and the Apocalypse.
And the final word of criticism, alas, is for the New Jerusalem Bible. This is not a quarrel about style, which I think is excellent, but its format, its print, the yellow paper, the mean margins and the absence of double columns. All these things do sorely try the eye and would lend credibility to the wild story that Peter was trying to read the New Jerusalem Bible in Gethsemane. Thomas Kula