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'To make a good one better': translating the Bible

The Jerusalem Bible

Text from the second chapter of Luke's Gospel (the account of the Nativity)The Jerusalem BibleRoman Catholics in the English-speaking world had been ill served by Biblical translation since the publication of Gregory Martin’s Rheims-Douai Bible in the early 17th century (see section 2). Until the 1960s the version most likely to be familiar to English-speaking Catholics was Richard Challoner’s 174950 revision of the Rheims-Douai text.

Challoner (16911781) aimed to reduce the excessively Latinate quality of Martin’s rendering and create a more readable version. To do this he turned to the King James Bible and produced a version that was, in the words of Cardinal Newman, ‘even nearer to the Protestant than ... to the Douay.’

The Jerusalem Bible, which appeared in 1966, provided the English-speaking Catholic world with a new authoritative translation, drawn from the Hebrew and Greek originals, rather than from the Vulgate. It relied heavily on – and drew its name from – the scholarly and elegant 1956 French translation of the Bible made under the auspices of the Dominican Ecole Bibliqueet Archéologique at Jerusalem. The explanatory footnotes which accompany the text, for example, are largely translations of the equivalent notes in the French version.

In his preface to the Jerusalem Bible the editor, Father Alexander Jones, a Biblical scholar at Christ’s College, Liverpool, declared that one of the principal aims behind its production was to help prevent ‘the reduction of Christianity to the status of a relic – affectionately regarded, it is true, but considered irrelevant to our times.’

The language of the Jerusalem Bible is largely that of the present day, ‘thou’, ‘thee’, ‘thy’ and ‘thine’ being completely avoided and most proper names being given in the form most commonly used today, instead of that used in the Vulgate and other Catholic Bibles (‘Isaiah’ for ‘Isaias’ and ‘Hosea’ for ‘Osee’, for example), although ‘Yahweh’ is still often used in the Old Testament as the personal name of the God of Israel, rather than ‘Jehovah’ or ‘the Lord.’

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