Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Responding to Ray

Being online (especially on Twitter), I get to "meet" a lot of people. Some of them, like a fellow I'm going to call "Ray," are beginning to reconnect with the Church,  thanks to the witness of Pope Francis, and have questions about aspects of the faith. Ray gave me permission to answer his questions on NunBlog, for the benefit of others.

He starts in a good place: with the Bible.
I would like to start reading the Bible - what are your recommendations on a version - there are sooo many different ones?  I downloaded an app to my tablet (free app, of course) and it has so many different versions - I am not sure which I should use.  Once I settle on that - where is the best place to begin?  I am not sure if reading from Genesis on is the right way to go.
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My go-to translation is the NAB (New American Bible)--the version that is used at Mass in the United States. This translation was revised over the past twenty years (so it is technically the "NABRE"--New American Bible, Revised Edition). It is a straightforward translation that pretty closely hews to the original languages the Bible was written in (Hebrew and Greek). That is it used at Mass gives it the edge for me: I like having my reading and "hearing" work together to foster memorization. (Other people prefer using a different translation, like the Jerusalem Bible, so that the difference makes them pay attention.)

Your app probably does not have either of these--and maybe not a Catholic bible at all. The closest translation to the NAB in the Protestant bibles is the Revised Standard Version (RSV). There is a Catholic version of this, but I'm not sure if your app will have this. The RSV was also updated recently ("NRSV"), with some unfortunate attempts at political correctness. In that sense, it is very close to the New International Version, another Protestant translation.

Are you getting the idea that Catholic translations are still kind of rare and maybe not even free? You are right. So far the predominant Catholic translations of the Bible, the NAB and the JB (Jerusalem Bible or New Jerusalem Bible) are not included in most of the free Bible apps. However, you can get an inexpensive NAB ($1.99) on the iTunes store. I haven't used it, so I can't testify to how user-friendly it is.

Why would you shell out $1.99 for a Catholic Bible when the Protestant ones are free? Until the copyright holders soften up on this, there are two primary reasons to pay up. The first is that the translations are very accurate in places that matter the most to Catholics, with footnotes that many other Bibles do without (explanations are mandatory in Catholic bibles and have been for 450 years!). The second is that you are getting a seven-book bonus: Sirach, Tobit, Wisdom, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Baruch, and additional sections for Daniel and Esther. We call these "deuterocanonicals" because their scriptural "status" was recognized a bit later than most of the other books. But by "later" I mean only a century or two before Christ (instead of five centuries before). Protestant bibles will perhaps include these and other ancient Jewish writings as "apocrypha," but they will be mixed in with texts the Church really considers "apocrypha"--not the Bible at all. Getting a Catholic edition of the Bible from the get-go will help you avoid this confusion. However, if you cannot afford to pay for apps, the New Testament of the NRSV or the NIV are close enough to the NABRE for starters. I would stay away from paraphrased versions like the Good News Bible (also called the "Today's English Version"), unless you want something that sounds very, very casual. That is a sign of an extra layer of interpretation, which I find both dubious and intrusive.

That leads to your other question: where to begin.

Oddly, the Bible is not a book to be read from the beginning. This is a book where you start almost at the end. Jesus fulfilled "everything written about him in the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms*" (in other words, the Old Testament). So you want to start in the New Testament, with the four Gospels: four different ways the story of Jesus was told in the decades right after the first Easter.

Beginning at the end is not really that odd. It's only at the end of the detective story that all the clues come together. "Ahhh!" you say: "So that's what it meant!" Knowing what the earliest Christians said about Jesus, seeing the way they re-read the entire collection of Scriptures they had always known as Jews, gives us an edge that they already had. It is a little like learning the language before you go into another country. In reading the Bible, many a "traveler" has given up in despair somewhere in the book of Numbers. The New Testament is the best reading guide for the Old. In fact, in the early Church there was a saying that you can find today in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old is unveiled (reveals its full meaning) in the New (see CCC 129--CCC meaning "Catechism of the Catholic Church").

There are also some good (free!) online resources that I can recommend to you to guide you in getting to know the Bible.

Carson Weber, a layman in California, has created a 30-session audio course on the Bible for Catholics. He does start with Genesis, but not in the very first lesson! His program is meant to accompany a text book, but you don't really need the book to benefit from the audio sessions. You can also download the classes in podcast form.

Dr. Scott Hahn's St Paul Center for Biblical Theology offers a long list of free online courses on the Bible. You just have to register (free!) to access the classes. These are text, not audio. However, the instruction is extremely thorough. (Dr. Hahn is a former Protestant minister who came into the Catholic Church about twenty years ago. He is a highly respected Scripture scholar; his website has material for beginners and teachers alike.)

The Catholic Education Resource Center also has some articles answering the most common questions about the Bible from a Catholic perspective.

*The Law, the Prophets and the Psalms

This expression comes from Jesus himself, after he rose from the dead! He met two grieving disciples leaving Jerusalem the day after the Sabbath. They knew all about Jesus dying on the Cross. They had even heard that people had seen him alive on Sunday morning! But they gave up hope and left the city. Jesus himself met them on the road and helped them realize that what they had experienced was what the Bible was foretelling all along: "everything written about him (the Messiah) in the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms." See Luke 24 for the whole story.

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