By Mary Elizabeth Sperry
Walk into any bookstore and you’ll see entire shelves of Bibles. Type “Bible” into the search engine on an online bookseller, and you’ll get more than a quarter of a million results! Does it matter which one you buy? How can you tell which one is right for you?
The first step in selecting a Bible translation is making sure that you have a Catholic edition. Catholic editions include seven books of the Old Testament (Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, the Wisdom of Ben Sira, and Baruch) and the additions to two other books (Esther and Daniel) that are not found in many Protestant editions of the Bible. The Church believes these books are part of the canon of Scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit. In a Catholic Bible, these books are printed as part of the Old Testament. In some other Bibles, these books (and sometimes additional, non-Scriptural books) are printed between the Old and New Testaments.
To be used for teaching or private reading, a Catholic Bible should have an imprimatur or canonical rescript. This official notice is usually printed on the back of the title page. Latin for “let it be printed,” the imprimatur indicates that Church authorities have reviewed the text and found that nothing in it is contrary to the doctrine and morals of the Church. It does not necessarily mean that all the experts and bishops involved in the review agree with every decision made by the translators. It simply means that the text of Scripture is translated accurately and that nothing included in the text or notes is contrary to the teaching of the Church. A canonical rescript expresses a similar judgment.
You will also want to decide what style of translation you find most useful. A formal equivalent translation will render the text more literally (word for word), keeping as close as possible to the language and structure of the original while remaining readable in the modern language. A dynamic equivalent translation is less literal, conveying the overall meaning of the original text in the modern language (thought for thought) without necessarily following the language or structure. A paraphrase retells the original text in the writer’s own words. This style is used most frequently in Bible story books intended for children.
A Catholic translation will also have notes and annotations to help you understand the text. These notes may provide alternate readings of passages that are unclear in the original, help in understanding plays on words that depend on knowing the original language, and brief explanations of how the Church has interpreted the passage.
Once you have picked a translation, look for features that will meet your personal needs, including price, size, and format. Bibles may include added materials to help you understand the text better, including maps of biblical regions, time lines, dictionaries, listings of the readings used at Mass, and devotional materials. A particular edition may be targeted to young people, moms, or married couples, providing articles and prayers to enrich your spiritual life.
A given translation will be identical no matter which edition you choose. If you pick your translation first, you’ll have a text you can rely on, no matter what other features you seek.
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Mary Elizabeth Sperry is the Associate Director for USCCB Permissions and NAB Utilization at USCCB Publishing. She serves as staff to the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine which is responsible for the development, publication, and distribution of the New American Bible and the promotion of biblical literacy.