As I was making my way into full communion with the Catholic Church I was also discovering the English Standard Version (ESV) study Bible which, although it was put out by Reformed scholars, had great notes. It was also a nice translation. It was with reluctance that I put it on the shelf and began a search for a Catholic (i.e., complete) Bible.
I spent a lot of time considering Bibles and wrote an article on it HERE. I eventually settled on the RSV “Catholic Edition” (RSVCE) translation for my study Bible as well as one that was limited to the New Testament. I like them both a lot, but mostly for the notes.
Now, although the RSV is a kind of a universal academic standard, it is a 70 year-old translation that retains archaic formal English (e.g., “Thees and Thous”) and doesn’t read as smoothly as I would like in some places. It’s update, the NRSV used gender-neutral terminology that distorted the meaning of the original text (and has remained wildly unpopular in most circles).
The ESV is actually a revision of the RSV that not only updates about 60,000 words to modern English, the translation is also made from a better manuscript tradition. So while preserving the literal accuracy of the RSV, it also restores some of the best of the KJV renderings that the RSV lost.
If only there was a Catholic ESV!
There is a Catholic ESV!
Oxford University Press came out with an ESV that contained the deuterocanonicals (the so-called “apocryphal” books that most Bibles – even the KJV! – had until they started getting removed by publishers in the late 19th Century). However, this was an expensive academic tome, and it went out of print by the time I wanted one. So much for that! However, in 2018, the Bishops of India approved a Catholic edition of the ESV! That was great, but we couldn’t get it in the USA.
As it turns out, I didn’t have long to wait.
In late 2019, the Augustine Institute published the The Augustine Bible (ESV-CE). This is the first accessible Catholic Bible in the ESV translation. (In case you’re wondering, it has received both the nihil obstat and imprimatur from the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India). Below I will go into more detail about the translation as well as the physical Bible itself.
Is the ESV Translation Good for Catholics?
First, this is the wrong question to ask! A Bible translation is either faithful to the original writings or it is not – and that is all that matters. If an accurate translation makes things difficult for Catholics (or anyone else), then too bad! Theological bias is not a virtue in translation (example).
Having said that, there are a lot of advantages with the ESV translation for any Christian, and for Catholics some are especially welcome. It’s not perfect, however (none are!). So below I will call out some of the positives and negatives I have discovered. Feel free to add to either list in the comments!
For me, the positive features of the ESV translation far outweigh its deficiencies, but it is helpful to get a taste for both. Here are some of the goodies.
Proper Gender Translation
The ESV is a pretty straightforward literal translation. Because Greek has known pronouns of gender, these are translated as-is rather than paraphrased simply because “we all know what they really mean.” So for example, the term adelphoi literally means “brothers.” Now, it can refer to more than just male siblings – in fact it can refer to both male and female members of groups that aren’t family-related at all. However, that does not make it OK to “translate” adelphoi into “people.” The same goes for “father” (vs. “parent”), wife (vs. “spouse”). The text says what it says and people are expected to understand when the terms refer to a broader group.
Catholics take note: this same practice means that adelphoi will be translated as “brothers” in passages speaking of Jesus’ extended family (whether they are actually half-brothers, step-brothers, cousins, or countrymen is a matter of interpretation – not translation.)
Pronouns of Deity
Last but not least, the ESV does not follow the practice of capitalizing pronouns of deity (those referring to God). Although it may seem pious to write “He” instead of merely “he” when referring to God the Father or Jesus, doing so has no analog in the original languages or writings of Scripture.
Ironically the ESV uses some older readings that are more accurate than the RSV. In Isaiah 7:14 the RSV translated Hebrew almah as “young woman” rather than “virgin.” The NABRE followed suit and so, sadly, modern Catholic Bibles confused a lot of people. Christian theologians and apologists will be glad to see that in the ESV Isaiah 7:14 reads, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”
Two-for-One translation improvement here! First, the ESV makes the divine-messianic connection much more clear in this Psalm by adressing God and not his throne (cf. Heb. 1:8). Second, the ESV numbers the Psalms following the Hebrew Masoretic text like the RSV and most modern Bible translations instead of the Greek Septuagint like the Vulgate / Douay-Rheims. and the NABRE.
As I’ve written ELSEWHERE, Protestant Bibles often include the addition of the Catholic doxology to the Our Father (aka the “Lord’s Prayer”). The ESVCE does not do this.
The divorce “exception clause” in Matthew 19:9 is a difficult passage on any account, but the meaning of the underlying Greek term porneia is not – it means sexual immorality. The correct translation is important here because what counts as sexual immorality changes depending on one’s situation in life (e.g., married/single), and so narrowing it down too much or making it too general can both be very misleading. The NABRE’s “translation” is completely unwarranted (it is an interpretative paraphrase rather than a translation). The ESV nails it.
John 7:53-8:11 (& Mark 16:9-20)
The pericope found in John 7:53-8:11 (The Woman Caught in Adultery) and the so-called “Longer Ending of Mark” (Mark 16:9-20.) are both found in the text with a footnote that the passage is not found in some manuscripts. This is far less confusing to those expecting these verses to be there than to simply leave them out (e.g., Mt. 17:21 below).
2 Thessalonians 2:15
Unlike the NIV which disingenuously translates the word for “tradition” as “teaching” whenever it is presented in a positive light, the ESV (like most English Bibles) remains consistent. (Although this does mean readers have to think a little harder about the Bible’s view of tradition!)
A positive scholarly assessment of the ESV can be found HERE.
All is not perfect with the ESV. Like pretty much all Bibles, it has some weaknesses. Most of these are not a big deal, but they’re worth noting.
This is a very unfortunate translation which essentially reverses the meaning of the text. It makes it look like part of the curse of original sin is for wives to be in disagreement with their husbands and for the husband to [over]rule them. Yuck. OK lemme know when.
This verse’s absence from many modern Bibles catches a lot of people off guard. It’s a disputed text so some include it with a note that it isn’t found in some manuscripts but others simply leave it out! Unfortunately, the ESV took this path.
This one will only bother Catholics, but it’s not actually a bad translation. It might seem “Protestanty” to change “full of grace” – but the ESV is following a long line of Bibles that do not translate the verse this way (for example – the two most popular Catholic Bibles!). other than the Douay-Rheims, you pretty much won’t find any Bible that say it the way Catholics pray it.
2 Corinthians 2:10
Like Luke 1:28 above, some Catholics might get miffed about the ESV’s rendering of “person” into “presence” because it seems to take away from the “persona christi” role of the priest in confession. However (and oddly), although it might seem to aid Catholic apologists arguing for confession to a priest, no modern Catholic Bible translates it that way! In fact, it is the Protestant KJV that does. (Yet another reason why proof-texting is often such a poor apologetic practice).
1 Timothy 3:15
Now this one is a real issue on both the translational and theological fronts. Protestants love to trot out 2 Timothy 3:16 as proof text for their doctrine of sola scriptura – the idea that the Bible alone is the ultimate authority in matters of faith. A common Catholic rejoinder is 1 Timothy 3:15 (easy to remember- subtract 1 from 2 and 1 from 16!) which says the Church – not the Bible – is the pillar of truth. The ESV has, for no reason I can guess other than theological bias, translated this verse as “a pillar.”
To be fair, the definite article (English “the”) is not in the text here, and Greek does not have an indefinite article so it’s not technically wrong to add it in when helpful (cult apologists will recognize this as the same argument Jehovah’s Witnesses use for calling Jesus “a god” in John 1:1). However, the definite article is missing for most of the terms in this verse – so why only add it here?
Sometime Literal is Too . . . Literal
A completely “literal word-for-word” translation is an undesirable pipe dream. There always has to be a balance between literal and readable, and at times the ESV might have lightened up on the consistent literalism a bit.
- Psalm 94:9 – “He who planted [i.e., formed] the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see?”
- Prov. 30:26 – “ants are a people [???] not strong, yet they provide their food in the summer”
- Amos 4:6 – “I gave you cleanness of teeth [i.e., hunger] in all your cities”
- Mark 1:2 – “Behold, I send my messenger before your face [i.e., ahead of you]”
- Gal. 5:14 – “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word [i.e., message] ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”
A negative scholarly assessment of the ESV can be found HERE.
Review of The Augustine Bible
For those interested in the actual Augustine Bible itself, I include pictures and a few comments below. I want to show how the text is typeset, how the (minimal, translational) footnotes look, and what “extras” are included. I also took a standard yellow highlighter to it to see about bleed-through.
The Bible is medium sized (9″ x 6″ x 1 1/8″). It’s great for carrying around.
The Augustine Bible comes in a sturdy slip box that matches the Bible’s cover – which is a stiff cardboard fold-over.
The paper is pretty thin, but not terrible. I’d like thicker pages, but it is nice to have a 1,200+ page book that I can easily carry with one hand and fit on a normal sized bookshelf. There is a bit of text ghosting as a result, but I only really noticed it in wide textless areas (like the ESV symbol above). Highlighting with a marker did bleed through a bit (see the “All we need to do” line above) – but it did not get any worse than this even after several weeks.
The books of the Old Testament are placed in the traditional order with the deuterocanonicals kept in their proper genre.
Most pages in the Bible look like this – simple and uncluttered. There are minimal notes, all of the transnational as far as I can tell. There are commentaries, no cross-references, no index, almost no “study helps” of any kind. This has the advantage of keeping the biblical text in focus, the Bible’s size (and cost) manageable, and avoids the risk of biasing the reader to one position or another.
The text is not large. While it’s not too much of an eye strain for me initially, this would not be me “desert island” Bible. There are several mentions of the font size being too small on the publisher’s website.
Deuterocanonical material included in protocanonical books is difficult to versify due to different systems which have developed over the years. The ESV has opted to indicate it’s inclusion with italics and use a dual-numbering system to reflect placement. (Details are given in the ESV front matter itself.)
Poetic passages are stylized to indicate emphasis. (Note also that in this example another dual numbering system used as the deuterocanonical material flows into the protocanonical Aramaic-to-Hebrew transition).
A few maps of Israel and St. Paul’s missionary journeys (including his “4th” to Spain) are in the back along with a beautiful 3D map of Jerusalem.
Overall I am happy with The Augustine Bible. It’s a simple, minimalist Bible with decent build quality and a fair price. While it would not make for a good heirloom or study Bible, it makes a great reader. Catholics should rejoice that for the first time in 70 years we have a solid, scholarly, faithful, complete Bible translation (and one that is free from misleading notes – BONUS!).
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