Choosing a Catholic Study Bible

Introduction

One thing about being Catholic – choosing a Study Bible is a lot easier than it is for Protestants!

For one thing, there are fewer translations with the full canon, so one does not need to spend nearly as much time sifting through the numerous and various options out there. Second, the number of Bibles that include study tools is far more limited than in the Protestant world. Lest either factor be seen as a criticism, keep in mind that Protestant study Bibles are diverse and numerous precisely because Protestant beliefs are diverse and numerous – and this is not a good thing! Because the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, Bibles should not simply reflect the thoughts of a single person or even that of particular sects. Further, Protestant Bible publishers are considerably market-driven, so practically every conceivable audience has a Study Bible targeting them.

That said, there remains a spectrum of quality among Catholic Study Bibles. This is due primarily to the scriptural translations and tools, which sometimes reflect the bias of the editors. While these differences result in nothing like the range of options found in Protestantism, they can be important nonetheless.

Here I will give my thoughts on the most readily-available Catholic study Bibles on the market today. I will comment on both the translations as well as the study tools they incorporate, with an emphasis on the quality of the commentaries/notes. (NOTE: I am not a biblical scholar, so my observations on the translations will be more theological than linguistic. See HERE for why I don’t consider this illegitimate.).

Scripture Translations

The New American Bible – Revised Edition (NABRE)

The New American Bible, with some modifications, was the approved translation of the scriptures read at Mass, and it is the first Catholic translation made directly from the original biblical languages (i.e., not from the Latin Vulgate). Later, the Old Testament was revised and it was officially replaced by the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE). The NABRE is a formal equivalent translation, which means it should not be considered a literal, word-for-word rendering of the original text – but it is certainly not a paraphrase either. The translation is most notably criticized for its use of vertical and horizontal gender-inclusive language. In other words, it avoids use of gender-indicative terminology whenever possible, including references to God. (This feature kept it from being adopted in the US lectionary.) Overall, though, the translation is fairly non-problematic.

Serious criticisms of the NABRE have been leveled by conservative Catholics concerning the translation’s notes, though. This is important, because every edition of the NABRE is required have the same footnotes. So whether it is a simple pew Bible, or a full-sized study Bible, readers get the same notes. These notes unfortunately reflect a firm adherence to modern critical theories concerning the Bible’s origins resulting in assigning late dates to biblical writings, claiming that books are pseudonymous, the JEPD theory of authorship of the Pentateuch, assumption of the existence of a “Q” gospel along with Markan priority, and accusing the gospel writers of modifying historical truths to suit their agendas. These opinions are usually stated in a one-sided fashion as if they were universally accepted facts without sufficient argument or citation. The thinking of the Church’s official Magesterium and Traditions are noticeably lacking in the notes. While reflecting modern trends, this one-sided presentation could be seriously damaging to one’s faith should they not avail themselves of better, conservative resources to balance out the editors’ opinions.

The Revised Standard Version (RSV2CE)

The Revised Standard Version is a 1950’s era revision of the King James Version, with the RSV2CE (“RSV Catholic Second Edition”) has all the books recognized by the Church in their canonical order, and is considered a literal, word-for-word translation. It uses “King James English” (“thees” and “thous”) when addressing God, but otherwise personal pronouns are translated into modern English. Unlike its modern revision (the New Revised Standard Version – NRSV), the RSV’s language is not “gender-inclusive” (e.g., it uses “man” to mean both “male” and “female”) and treats pronouns and other gender-indicative words as did the original text (for example, it does not add “and sisters” to the original word for “brothers”). The RSV is the standard academic choice among scholars, and is considered by Catholic leaders such as Peter Kreeft and Scott Hahn to be the most beautiful English translation of the Bible available today. The RSV has no notes that go along with the translation, so different study Bibles exist based on the translation.

The New Jerusalem Bible (NJB)

The New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) is the 1985 update to the 1966 Jerusalem Bible – a Catholic translation which itself is based on the French La Bible de Jérusalem translated by the faculty of the Dominican Biblical School in Jerusalem. It was a rather literal translation in some respects, but the Old Testament text is a mixture of the Masoretic Hebrew and other ancient versions, and reflected rather loose principles of translation. The new translation was not based on the French, but from the original biblical languages.It is fairly literal but with some intriguing poetical influences (e.g., J.R.R. Tolkien translated the book of Jonah!). Interestingly, it is the only [legitimate Bible ]translation to transliterate the divine name (the Hebrew tetragrammaton) as “Yahweh”. The NJB comes with its own set of notes, and these reflect a mix of traditional and critical approaches (see below).

Study Tools

The Catholic Study Bible  [NABRE]

Because The [Oxford] Catholic Study Bible is a NABRE, its notes are the same as any other NABRE Bible (see above). It adds a whopping 525 page introduction consisting of general Bible information and a mini-commentary “Reading Guide” for each individual book. These are written by many prominent biblical scholars, but unfortunately feature the same kind of modern-higher-critical opinions that the NABRE notes do. Although the Guide is (somewhat annoyingly) set apart from the books it refers to, it is helpfully cross-referenced to the biblical text (and vice-versa). Additional materials include several in-text essays, a glossary, biblical weights and measures, lectionary, index, concordance, and maps. These tools are substantial additions to regular Bibles and of higher quality than most study tools.

The Didache Study Bible [RSV]

The Didache Study Bible is a complete study Bible that is based on the RSV (but they also have one based on the NABRE). The Didache study notes were inspired by the Midwest Theological Forum’s Didache series of religious education textbooks, and are based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The notes and essays (which do not all reflect the Catechism, nor traditional Catholic teaching) are non-academic, but certainly not anti-intellectual or overly “spiritual.” There are, in fact, over 100 apologetic essays dealing with common questions about the Catholic faith. It also includes a biblical reading guide, theme summary, chronology, maps, glossary, and topical index.

The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible [RSV]

The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible is based on the RSV translation. The notes are written by renowned Bible scholar Scott Hahn and his student Curtis Mitch. The notes present a fair and unique balance of the traditional-orthodox and modern-critical viewpoints. In addition to the notes, topical essays and word studies include interpretations from the Fathers of the Church, the Catholic Magesterium, and faithful Catholic scholars. Each book is outlined and introduced with an essay covering authorship, date of writing, original audience, and general themes. It also includes a doctrinal index, concordance, cross-reference system, and various maps and charts.The downside to this fantastic resource is that it is, at present, incomplete. The entire New Testament can be purchased as a (beautiful!) single, bound volume – but the Old Testament books remain as paperbacks that must each be purchased separately.

The New Jerusalem Bible [NJB]

The Jerusalem Bible has many common features of study Bibles although it is not marketed as such. It has a great cross reference system and extensive notes. The Old Testament notes reflect modern critical scholarship (JEPD, late dates, pseudonymous writings, etc.). However, the New Testament notes are far more conservative (e.g., Markan priority and  “Q” are rejected), but not completely orthodox (e.g., 2 Peter is said to be pseudonymous).

The Navarre Bible [RSV+VUL]

The Navarre Bible was originally a project that combined the RSV and the Latin Vulgate together, and included commentaries utilizing official Church documents, the Early Fathers and Doctors of the Church, as well as modern Catholic writers. Originally inspired by the founder of Opus Dei, St. Josemaria Escriva, the faculty at the University of Navarre in Spain made this project into one of the most highly recommended of Catholic commentaries. Unfortunately, only the New Testament can be purchased as a single, bound volume – the Old Testament books remain a 7-volume set.

Conclusion

In my humble (yet accurate) opinion, there is no better study Bible than the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible. It uses the best translation and has the best scholarship, orthodoxy and balance reflected in its notes. The only downside is the lack of a single volume Bible – but the New Testament is a must-have, and the Old Testament books can be bought as needed.

The Didache Bible is a close second, especially for non-academic users. Its translation is top notch, and its notes (if not its book introductions – which follow modern critical theories) are faithful to the Church in that they are keyed to the Catechism (which makes it an impressive study tool unlike any other).

The Navarre Bible is a more faithful and extensive resource that counts more as a commentary set than a study Bible. While only the New Testament exists in a single volume, the entire set is worth having for the serious student of Scripture.

The Catholic Study Bible has a decent translation, but also problematic non-traditional notes throughout. These notes simply reflect much of current (i.e., modern critical) scholarship, however – and thus it can serve as a good resource, so long as it is understood for what it is. It definitely has the largest collection of study tools in a single volume (hence it is also the largest Bible physically!).

The New Jerusalem Bible is an interesting – if not completely trustworthy – translation, with notes which sometimes reflect equally untrustworthy, modern critical views. Readers fully aware of what they are getting can still benefit from it though – especially when it is consulted along with more trustworthy resources.

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7 thoughts on “Choosing a Catholic Study Bible

  1. Well done. Father Fessio, from Igantius Press, has said in the past that they are aiming to have either a complete one volume Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, or maybe a complete Old Testament volume to go with the New Testament already in use.

    Another important addition to the Catholic bible study world has been the on going series Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture. It uses the NABRE translation as its basis and has great biblical scholars working on the series. Dr. Hahn is currently writing the commentary on Romans. Other notable scholars include Peter Williamson, Edward Sri, Curtis Mitch, and Dr. Mary Healy, who I believe heads up this work and has written the commentary on the Gospel of Mark and Hebrews.

    I *think* this work is done primarily to assist priests but is extremely accessible to lay Catholics.

    So far, all of the commentaries, and the ones scheduled for release, have been New Testament books. I have not seen any plans to release a single volume work, nor any plans as of yet to include Old Testament books.

    The Catholic world of bible studies has come a long way but still has some work to do.

  2. I’ve used both NAB and the Study Edition of The New Jerusalem Bible. The latter is a massive blue tome (at least the slip-cased hardcover one I have is). Both have their merits (although I could not necessarily say the same for their prior incarnations).

    Just out of curiosity, when was the latest revision of NABRE undertaken? I try to keep updated copies of various Bibles in my collection with their older revisions, and if there is one more up to date than any I have here out there, I’d like to get one when I can. Unfortunately, the nearest bookstore I can get to in order to check a copy personally is 100 miles round trip from where I am at the moment. In any case, could you post that information relative to the NABRE to me? Thanks.

  3. Many thanks. Looks like it’s time to update. The latest edition I have is 2004.

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