What is the Bible?

Before we can really answer the question of which Bible to buy, we have to investigate a bigger question: “What is the Bible?”

The Bible is more of a library than it is one book. It contains seventy-three books of various literary genres. In the Bible, there is history, romance, poetry, inspiration, drama, and so much more.

In every single page, we believe that God is the primary author working through the secondary human author. Therefore, Sacred Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is God-breathed! It is without error. It is faithful.

Where Did the Bible Come From?

Originally, the books of what we now call the Old Testament were transmitted orally for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Then, one by one, they were finally put down in writing on scrolls or papyri. When ink was set to paper, the Church acclaims that God is the primary author of Scripture and He used secondary instruments, the human authors.

Around the time of Christ, the entire Old Testament was not completely solidified or compiled, and there was much disagreement about which books belonged in the God-breathed collection of Sacred Scriptures.

Next, the New Testament was written piece by piece, consisting of the four authentic Gospels, the letters of St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John, and the author of Hebrews, as well as the Book of Revelation.

These books were finally canonized or made official in the 4th Century by the Church. The books were not chosen at random. These books that were chosen and confirmed as being inspired by God because they had been read at the liturgy since the time of the Apostles. 

Original Languages Of The Bible

One of the oldest written texts we have of Sacred Scripture is called the Septuagint which is written in Greek, rather than the original Hebrew and Aramaic. The first five Books of the Old Testament, the Torah, were translated by Alexandrian Greek Jews 350 years before Christ. The remaining texts were translated around 200 years before Christ.

Most of the New Testament was written in Koine which is a dialect of Ancient Greek. So, Sacred Scripture was written in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Then, in the 5th Century, St. Jerome, at the behest of the Pope, translated the Sacred Scriptures into Latin, which we call the Vulgate. The Vulgate was acclaimed by the Council of Trent in the 16th Century to be inspired. In other words, St. Jerome’s translation carries with it the same God-breathed quality of the original texts.

Translation is no simple matter. For the Old Testament, the ecclesial writer Origen, for example, compiled all the copies he could find of the Hebrew Scriptures, of which there were six versions. Taken together these were called the Hexapla. Then, he translated four of them into Greek. Later, St. Jerome would use the Hexapla and the Septuagint and any other sources he could find to produce his Latin Vulgate translation.

Dynamic and Static Equivalency

Translation is interpretation. There is no getting around this fact, especially when Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic are concerned. Words and phrases exist in these languages which have no comparison in Latin, let alone in modern English.

During translation, there is a necessity to carefully balance dynamic and static equivalency of words. Simply put, static equivalency is a close translation word for word. This word in this language means this word in a different language. In dynamic equivalency, there is a desire to match what is meant by a phrase, without a 1:1 correspondence. We could call this a faithful paraphrase.

Do Catholic Bibles Have More Books?

If you have ever done some study in Sacred Scripture, you will soon notice that the Protestant Bibles, the Catholic Bible, and the Orthodox Bible have different numbers of books.

The Protestant ecclesial communities, following after Martin Luther and the other reformers opted for the canon of the Old Testament which is called the Masoretic text. The Masoretic text was the product of Jewish scholarship which began in the 6th Century and culminated in the 10th and 11th centuries. It was also the basis for the King James Version translation of the Bible.

The Masoretic Text which is roughly synonymous with the modern Jewish Tanakh consists of 24 books, which Protestant Bibles divide the same material into 39 books. Interestingly, Martin Luther placed four New Testament Books in the appendix saying they were less than canonical (Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation).

Both the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles contain all of this material, but also include material from the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament which predates the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Orthodox Bible has a lot of overlap with the Catholic Bible but generally contains about six more books. I say generally because the nature of the Orthodox Churches does not allow for an official canonical ruling.

All of that said, the Catholic Bible has a few less books than the Orthodox Bible and a few more books than the Protestant Bible.

How Should a Catholic Read the Bible?

This could be a whole other article in itself, but I will try to briefly summarize how a Catholic should read the Bible. There are so many different reading plans and they all have advantages and disadvantages. The most important thing is not the order of books to read, rather it is the “how” of reading.

The authority to teach was given by our Lord Jesus to His Apostles, the bishops. The bishops around the world, even today, in union with the Pope, have the authority to teach. This is called the Magisterium. Magisterium is Latin for teaching authority and it is the authentic lens through which the Church views Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition to faithfully teach on matters of the doctrine of the Faith and the moral teachings of the Church.

Therefore, interpretation is done by the Magisterium of the Church. We, the people, and even deacons, priests, and individual bishops are not called interpret Sacred Scripture. Instead we meditate on Scripture, dialogue with Scripture, and allow the Holy Spirit to guide us to apply Sacred Scripture to our lives.

So, our role is one of application rather than interpretation.

What Bible to Buy?

This brings us, finally, to which Bible to buy. The answer is: it depends. It depends what you would like to do with the Bible. Of course, all of these will have all 73 Books of the Bible. They will all have decent English translations, and they will all be officially approved for devotion and use by the competent ecclesial authority.

Lectionary – (NAB-RE)

If you would like an English translation that mirrors the precise wording of the Lectionary used in the Ordinary Form of the Latin Rite in English, then you should use the New American Bible Revised Edition (NAB-RE). The New American Bible Revised Edition is also popularly distributed as the St. Joseph Bible.

It is the opinion of this Catholic that the New American Bible is not a good translation, all things considered. The schema used to do the translation left many passages wanting in terms of the poetry of the original language. There are many Bible scholars I respect highly that suggest that the passages could have been translated in a better and more effective way from the original languages.

Devotional Reading (ESV-CE and Douay Rheims)

There is a fairly new English translation available today called the English Standard Version Catholic Edition (ESV-CE). This translation of the Bible has benefited greatly from the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the early 1900’s. This translation project began as a Protestant development but Catholic scholars have taken up the same methods of translations to finish out the remaining seven Old Testament books. This Bible translation has an excellent balance of dynamic and static equivalency, so there is a high fidelity to the original languages while having a modern readability. The best way to read the English Standard Version is the Augustine Bible produced by the Augustine Institute and Ignatius Press.

The Douay-Rheims translation was originally published in 1582 for the New Testament and the Old Testament in 1610. This English translation was made by the English members of the English College, Douai, in Reims, France. It was updated in the Challoner version in the 18th Century. Today, it is used extensively for devotional reading and by many traditionalist Catholic groups. It certainly has merit, beauty, and poetry, but it is not the best resource available for personal study, in my opinion.

Personal Bible Study (RSV – 2CE)

For Bible study in the English language, the most important thing, besides translation, is having good footnotes and commentaries. In this regard, there are two main recommendations in the English language.

First, the best Bible to buy for personal study is the Didache Bible from Ignatius Press. The Didache Bible has excellent footnotes and commentaries based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I could not recommend this highly enough. It also utilizes the Revised Standard Version Second Catholic Edition (RSV – 2CE) which was unparalleled in fidelity to the original sources until the ESV-CE was completed. It is an excellent translation. The Didache Bible completes the package with great footnotes, commentaries, maps, indices, and apologetics reference pages.

Second, the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament uses the RSV-2CE translation as well but contains copious footnotes and commentaries from Dr. Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch. The Old Testament commentaries are currently in development and should be available in the coming years.  

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