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U.S. Catholic Church Rolls Out New Bible Translation


Theologians will tell you that the Bible is timeless but the language in it can become outdated. Take Leviticus, chapter 2, verse 1: When anyone wishes to bring a cereal offering to the Lord, his offering must consist of fine flour. That may have been clear in the 2nd century, but in the 21st it could be taken to mean: Bring a box of Bran Flakes.

With that potential for misunderstanding in mind, the Catholic Church in the U.S. is rolling out the first new translation of the Old Testament. It's the first new Catholic in four decades. Officially, it's called the New American Bible, Revised Edition.

Mary Sperry is associate director for Bible utilization at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She joins us in the studio. So good to have you with us, Mary Elizabeth.

Ms. MARY ELIZABETH SPERRY (Associate Director for Bible Utilization, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops): Good to be here. Thank you.

NEARY: So, tell me, that passage I just read, how would it read in the new translation?

Ms. SPERRY: The book of Leviticus, like the other first five books of the bible, gives a lot of very specific discussion of how to worship. One of the parts of that discussion is what kind of sacrifice you bring in which event. So, we would say a gift of fine flour, a gift of bran, a gift of whole grain, depending on the specific type of sacrifice. So, we're trying to make it very consistent. So, we're very much reflecting the distinctions in the original Hebrew.

NEARY: And why now? Why issue this new version of the bible now?

Ms. SPERRY: Since the 1890s through the mid-1950s there were enormous, enormous discoveries of manuscripts, of other archaeological things, which in the last 50 years has radically increased our understanding of the biblical languages and of the culture in which they were written. Because we have these additional understandings, we can get a much more precise understanding of what the text says.

NEARY: I'm assuming this was something of a group effort, not one translator.

Ms. SPERRY: More than 70 people were involved - translators, editors, theologians, language experts, bishops, reviewers, all working to get the best possible version of the original text, because that's always the goal - to reflect the original language as closely and as carefully as possible.

NEARY: What kinds of discussions occurred?

Ms. SPERRY: Biblical Hebrews wouldn't (unintelligible) out vowels. So, you have to combine the consonants to understand what the word might be. That actually comes out in Psalm 23, the famous Lord is my Shepherd psalm. One combination of consonants gives you: I will walk through the dark valley but fear no evil; the other says: The valley of the shadow of death. They're both possible depending on which vowels are there.

NEARY: Which came out in this bible?

Ms. SPERRY: Valley of the shadow of death.

NEARY: Well, I'm glad to hear that actually.

Ms. SPERRY: It's actually very poetic and very lovely and completely supported by the text.

NEARY: Mary Elizabeth Sperry is associate director for bible utilization at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The New American Bible, Revised Edition, comes out this week on Ash Wednesday.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.