The New Lectionary is Dead – † RIP

The silence over the last year on the new lectionary’s progress has been unsettling. We had it from the Chairman of ICPELL himself that the new lectionary would make use of the ESV Bible, a revision of the RSV originally authorized for vernacular worship back in the mid-60s, and that things were advancing to the point that we might even this year see a first volume published. Then he, and everyone else, went quiet.

Br Tony Jukes SSS has discovered the reason for the silence. He has come across a statement from the Education Officer for Liturgy of the Archdiocese of Brisbane (Australia), Mrs Elizabeth Harrington, that explains all. It can be trusted as the Archbishop of Brisbane is (oops! was)  the Chairman of ICPELL. She gives a valuable and balanced summary of the dynamics of the process over the last decade, and comes to this climax:

After 10 years of unsuccessful efforts by ICPELL, it became apparent that the whole lectionary project was in serious jeopardy. It had proved impossible to find a lectionary that suits the Holy See, the copyright holders of the scripture translations, and bishops’ conferences. Another issue was that the Revised Grail psalms, which were planned to be part of the revised lectionary, have also lost support in some quarters.

At the end of 2013 the decision was made to dismantle ICPELL and leave each conference of bishops to make its own decision regarding a lectionary for Mass. Consequently, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference agreed to discontinue its involvement in the international lectionary project and to reprint the existing lectionary. It would contain a slightly modified version of the Jerusalem Bible currently in use and the Grail translation of the responsorial Psalms.

The general opinion is that some poor translations in the Jerusalem Bible are easily remedied and that other required changes to the text can be made fairly quickly.

So the cat is out of the bag. ICPELL is dead. Each bishops’ conference will make its own provision. For a start, we know now what the Australian bishops propose to do. The often unsuitable Jerusalem Bible will be retained, though with some attempt to remedy its “poor translations”. The New Grail Psalms are to be abandoned and the old Grail retained. Finally, they hope to have the new lectionary ready for the end of 2014 (the First Sunday of Advent I presume).


Most probably the bishops of England and Wales will not depart much from the Australian plan.

This will be something of a blow to some in the Reform of the Reform movement. For liberals and traditionalists, to use those sweeping labels for brevity’s sake, this development is probably welcome. The former tend to like the current lectionary as it is; the latter have their eyes firmly on the Vetus Ordo and its vastly different lectionary.

One factor in the demise of ICPELL might be the desire of Pope Francis to devolve as much as he can to local bishops’ conferences. ICPELL was not a curial body as such but it did represent centralization of sorts, and that is no longer encouraged.

It would have been nice to have heard it from someone more responsible in this matter than a diocesan education officer (though we must be grateful to her).

We could always Revive ’65.

**NB: the new lectionary was never envisaged for North America. Both the USA and Canada already have their own lectionaries in place. The new arrangement has at least the virtue of being consistent with what has happened in North America.**

UPDATE: New Lectionary & ESV: Some official clarification

Given the time we have devoted recently to the proposed new Lectionary based on the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible, including a brief comparison of an ESV sample text with other translations, and given the lively and interesting comments it has elicited, I made so bold as to email directly to the Most Reverend Mark Coleridge, the Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn and Chairman of the International Commission for the Preparation of an English Language Lectionary (ICPELL), seeking some authoritative clarification on some of the questions raised in our discussions.

With admirable speed for a busy diocesan bishop, he very kindly sent a concise but richly informative reply which answers the questions I asked him, and also one I failed to ask him! Apart from chopping the head and the tail of the email which were brief and directed to me, I shall quote him in full:

…  In answer to your questions, the facts are these.  The ESV was chosen over the RSV because the ESV, in its 7% modification of the RSV, seeks to incorporate the fruit of more recent biblical scholarship, i.e. since the publication of the RSV.  In other words, the RSV is out-of-date.  We were looking for a more up-to-date version of the RSV; and when the NRSV proved impossible, we chose the ESV.  Unlike the copyright holders of the NRSV, the copyright holders of the ESV have shown themselves quite open to the kind of changes we would need or want to make for Catholic lectionary purposes; and the copyright arrangements for the project are now in place.  What will appear in the lectionary will be a modified form of the ESV.  This may in time look to the production of a Catholic edition of the ESV, though that is not decided.  I know too little of the permission given to the English ordinariate, but I doubt that it will have an effect on the lectionary we are producing.  That would depend on the Holy See.  It is very hard to say when the ESV lectionary will be ready for publication.  We have all but finished work on the first volume (Sundays and Solemnities), and it may be that the first volume will appear before the others.  But it depends on how quickly the bishops of the five Conferences get back to us within the process of consultation.  Many of them are keen to have a new lectionary as soon as possible, so it may be that we will have the entire new lectionary by 2014…


So the rationale behind the choice of the ESV is made clear. The ESV is a revision of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) that takes into account the latest insights of biblical scholarship and textual criticism, and only 7% of the RSV is actually revised in the process. Moreover, using the NRSV (New RSV) was not a viable option due to the copyright holders not being open to the Church making the necessary modifications to the text for our use. The ESV’s copyright holders are amenable to our need to edit texts for the purposes of the Lectionary, and to bring certain passages into line with Catholic tradition.

Answering a question I wished I had asked (but didn’t!), given comments made by Theophrastus in another post here, it is conceivable that a full-blown, standalone Catholic edition of the ESV could be produced, though no decision has been made on that. As suggested yesterday, given the international, large-scale diffusion of the Catholic Lectionary, a Catholic ESV should be a viable proposition, at least economically. This would address the concerns raised over not having a Bible edition that matched the the texts of the Lectionary.

Archbishop Coleridge also kindly gave us some sort of ballpark figure for when the Lectionary might be implemented, given the variables of the time needed to revise the texts and for the necessary episcopal consultation process: 2014. This is sooner than I had expected, and is very heartening. Given that these processes often take longer than first envisaged, perhaps 2015 might be a safer bet, but still that is much sooner than I had expected. 2014 would be just wonderful, even if it were only the first volume.

The Archbishop’s reply has addressed the major questions and concerns so far raised here, and filled in a few gaps as well. The speed and informativeness of his reply has left me feeling even more encouraged about the proposed new Lectionary. One gets the feeling that ICPELL is getting on with the task without fuss, and with a strong sense of service to the Church. The fact that ICPEL has a relatively low profile rather supports the intuition that its members are more interested in the work than in publicity. May God prosper their work, that it might bear much fruit to God’s glory.

UPDATE here – 6 August 2013

Comparing the texts: the ESV and friends

While waiting to see if an enquiry regarding the ESV and the proposed new Lectionary bears fruit, we might take a look at the ESV text as it stands in comparison with some other established texts. As it stands, that is, because it seems sensible to expect that the texts used for the Lectionary will be revised and edited by one or more Catholic scholars so, if only (though, surely, not only) to ensure the approval of Rome.

By way of an aside, it was interesting to find that a Baptist (holding that the King James Version is the one ordained by God) arguing – here and here – that the ESV (and other translations like the NIV) are actually Catholic translations already. His line of argument, detailed as it is, is not convincing, it has to be said, but it does rather suggest that the ESV, even prior to any Catholic editing, is not an intrinsically un- or anti-Catholic translation. We do well also to remember that the wonderful RSV itself originated as a Protestant work, which was later edited by Catholic scholars to produce a Catholic Edition. A precedent for the ESV is thus clearly established.

If you would like to read a detailed comparison of ESV and RSV translations on certain topical texts then the work has already been done over at Bible Researcher. As a taste, some examples provided include Isaiah 7:14, part of which in the original Protestant RSV was rendered “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son”; in the ESV it is translated “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son”. Even before a Catholic team has revised the text we have a translation that is fully consistent with Catholic tradition, and with the original reference to a “maiden”. In the study version of the ESV there is a lengthy and informative note attached to this verse explaining the preference for “virgin”.

Another example provided is Genesis 22:17, which ends in the RSV (including the Catholic edition), “And your decendants shall possess the gate of their enemies”; whereas in the ESV it is “And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies”. The ESV notes give the reason: the logic of Genesis, especially as illuminated by the New Testament, is that God is preparing from among Abraham’s descendants a line from which a new King, a new Adam, a Messiah, will emerge. This is confirmed by St Paul in Galatians 3:16, who equates “offspring” with the “Christ”. This restores the proper Christological perspective to the text and is quite consistent with Catholic interpretation. Indeed, it is a real improvement on the RSV.

The Bible Researcher site also adverts to instances where it thinks the RSV is superior. It is not offering apologetics for the ESV.

For our purposes, we might consider the second reading at Mass today, 1 Corinthians 1:22-25. In the Catholic RSV it reads:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

In the ESV, as untouched by Catholic revisions, it reads:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

As can be seen, the ESV (which takes as its starting point the RSV) has seen fit to leave the RSV unaltered.

By comparison, the New American Bible (NAB) in use in the USA’s lectionary reads:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

It is an inoffensive translation and quite dignified, though it has made the effort to remove the reference to “men” and so meets the demands of inclusive language, without, it must be said, making a song and dance about it.

In the Jerusalem Bible (JB), used in most lectionaries used outside the USA, we find:

While the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, here are we preaching a crucified Christ; to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jews or Greeks, a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

More liberties have taken here than in the other translations so far. “Here we are preaching” has the gratuitous addition of a temporal/ spatial adverb, adding nothing to our understanding. The JB also feels the need to elaborate on “obstacle” as something the Jews “cannot get over”. That may be true, but it is another gratuitous addition that might almost appear to be labouring the point. The “pagans” as a translation of “nations” is fair enough, though saying that for them the Cross is “madness” again oversteps the Greek original text, which calls it “folly”, or foolishness, or even we might say, silliness. It is not wildly inappropriate, but I wonder if yet again the JB is labouring a point too long. And lastly, the JB too avoids reference to “men”, which is clearly present in the Greek (anthropon).

Moving now to a traditional Catholic translation, we find in the Douay-Rheims (DR) version:

For both the Jews require signs, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness: But unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

This accurately accords with the Greek text, and really only differs from the RSV/ESV in a slight archaism of style. “Stumblingblock” is a picturesque synonym for “obstacle” (skandalon in the Greek, whence our “scandal”). Despite its relative antiquity, the DR provides an easily understood and accurate translation of our text.

Lastly, the Knox (K) version, at one time approved by the English bishops, renders our text thus:

Here are the Jews asking for signs and wonders, here are the Greeks intent on their philosophy; but what we preach is Christ crucified; to the Jews, a discouragement, to the Gentiles, mere folly; but to us who have been called, Jew and Gentile alike, Christ the power of God, Christ the wisdom of God. So much wiser than men is God’s foolishness; so much stronger than men is God’s weakness.

K, like the DR, is a translation of the Vulgate, though with reference to the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. Monsignor Knox was working far more in the tradition of what is now called dynamic equivalence. He elaborates and adds in parts, uses synonyms, and generally seems to seek for a more rhetorical effect. Thus he replaces “wisdom” (sophia[n] in the Greek) with “philosophy” which is of course the “love of wisdom”: rhetorical, but no damage done to the sense. More difficult to accept is his use of “discouragement” for “obstacle”, or “stumblingblock”. K strikes me as too weak here, and conveys a mood that does not match the stridency of “obstacle”, “stumblingblock”, or even (literally) “scandal”. He transforms the “those” who are called to “us”, which is not faithful to the Greek (tois kletois – “the called ones”) and becomes just a little too smug in its self-reference. Lastly, the double use of “so much” is an elaboration and addition to the original text for rhetorical effect. Again, K seems to take a few too many liberties with the text, though it reads quite well.

From this little comparison of translations available or projected for Catholic use, it seems that the ESV emerges well, reflecting as it does the RSV. The example scripture was provided by the liturgy for today, and used for convenience. Perhaps a more controversial text could be found if desired.

[UPDATE] I should have mentioned that Timothy has provided a useful brief comparison of 12 interesting translations in the NRSV and ESV. You can read it here.

New Lectionary – Update

The Archbishop of Canberra (Australia), Mark Coleridge, is chairman of the committee that is preparing the New Lectionary for the Church in the anglophone world (apart from the States, which will stick to its own New American Bible [NAB], and Canada, which has already implemented a New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] lectionary, though this may turn out to be an interim arrangement). The version chosen from the outset to base the new lectionary on was the NRSV. This version is a vast improvement on the currently widely-used Jerusalem version that has become the de facto lectionary in most of the non-American anglophone Church. The Jerusalem version is bare and often banal in its translation, and makes some dubious editorial and translation choices. The RSV was always a more elegant and timeless translation (and we still use it here at Mass and at Office), and more faithful to the original texts.

Or rather, more faithful to the particular manuscript versions used in the translation process. If I remember rightly the RSV employed the received texts, which are not now accepted by all as the best versions from which to translate. Moreover, some argued that the translators at the time adopted a more liberal hermeneutic to inform their translation choices. The NRSV maintains the more elegant style but makes some concessions to modern socio-political concerns (such as the greater use of inclusive language). With both versions of the RSV there has always been tensions with the copyright holders, who have been loathe to let the Church make small modifications to the text to suit the demands not only of the Catholic Faith but employment in a lectionary (which necessarily does not read biblical books continuously from start to finish).

These troubles have not abated and now Archbishop Coleridge has announced that the new lectionary will be based on the English Standard Version (ESV), a modern revision of the RSV by evangelical scholars. For some time the absence of an ESV version of the Apocryphal books (omitted in Protestant bibles on the whole) precluded its being considered for the lectionary. But there is now an ESV translation of the Apocrypha, and so it is able to be used for the lectionary. It would appear that the copyright holders for the ESV are more amenable to Catholic needs and proposed small modifications. The ESV is widely available now in various formats, including versions with the Apocrypha. Often smaller hardback editions can be found remaindered at excellent prices at sites like Postscript. Of course, you can look at it online.


For a more thorough intro to the ESV go here.