In 2006 Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor intimated that it was time to begin the process of producing a new Lectionary. The well-known deficiencies of the Jerusalem Bible were recognised and needed to be replaced. To many it seemed inevitable that the New Jerusalem Bible (1985) would supply the texts for a new Lectionary.  However, the failure of that translation to win the approval of biblical scholars or the support of eminent liturgists forced its abandonment, and a third effort from the JB stable, the Revised New Jerusalem Bible made its appearance, in the sure and certain conviction that the bishops of England and Wales (and Scotland) would choose it for a new Lectionary.  To everyone’s surprise (but not mine) the prize was awarded to the English Standard Version (published 2001). With appropriate permission, the bishops of India negotiated the publication of the English Standard Version Catholic Edition (ESV/CE) in 2017 and it is this translation that will appear in our new Lectionary.  However, the episcopal choice has led to much controversy.



The controversy was initiated in The Tablet (October1918) when Dom Henry Wansbrough OSB published a scathing attack on the ESV, without mentioning that his latest edition of the JB was waiting in the wings. Within a matter of weeks his Revised New Jerusalem Bible (RNJB) made its appearance, with a scarcely disguised presumption that the new Lectionary would be sourced from its pages. 

   The issues that most concerned Wansbrough’s article and continued to incense theologians, biblical scholars, clergy and lay people of deep faith may be summarised under three headings


Functional versus literal translation

Inclusive language.



It is a matter of disgrace that the biblical scholars and theologians who condemned the choice of the ESV began by castigating the faith of the scholars who produced it.   Gerald O’Collins SJ (Tablet 13 February, 2021) warned that the ESV is “a translation produced by conservative evangelical scholars and published in the Unites States”.  An American dogmatic theologian, teaching in my old college at Maynooth, informed us that  “The original ESV was produced by conservative Evangelical scholars in the United States and is often described as Calvinist in its translation philosophy” (Tablet, 20 July 2019). ESV translators are condemned because they allow their faith to trump their dictionaries.

   The practice of authorities insisting on translations conforming to later doctrinal affirmations is not new. Weighty argument as to whether ἐκκλησία, ekklesia (that normally means “an assembly of citizens”, even “a legislative assembly”) should be translated as “community” or “church” was at the heart of  Protestant/Catholic Reformation disputes.

   Consider a sentence in the Book of Isaiah. My Hebrew dictionaries and The Jewish Publication Society’s Hebrew/English Tanakh Translation (that, is the whole of the Hebrew Bible) insist on,


Look, the young woman is with child

and about to give birth to a son …

Isaiah 7:15.

The Jerusalem Bible was typically coy:

… the maiden is with child,

and will soon give birth to a son …

It was pleasing to see that the New Jerusalem Bible was faithful to the Hebrew text:

the young woman is with child

and will give birth to a son ….

However, the third effort from the JB stable, The Revised New Jerusalem Bible offers,

Look, the virgin is with child,

and will give birth to a son.


How has the young woman turned into the maiden and then into the virgin? Why? And what happened to soon? And that Look! instead of Behold! is an abomination.

    Isaiah does not use the technical word for “virgin” (betûlá) but a word (‘almá) that signifies a young woman of marriageable age, whether a virgin or not. 

That sentence comes from the Jerome Biblical Commentary, and notice the editors of that prestigious Catholic work: Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph Fitzmyer S.J., and Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm.  When the translation the young woman was proposed to the Catholic Bishops of the United States it was instantly rejected and the episcopal conference insisted upon,


… the virgin shall be with child …

New American Bible

There is no such thing as an official translation of the Bible that is unaffected by Christian authorities and the sensitivities of the times.  See the Catechism of the Catholic Church §496 and §497.

        Functional versus literal translation


The Preface to the ESV in explanation of its translation philosophy states,

            The ESV is an “essentially literal” translation that seeks

            as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the

            original text and the personal style of each biblical writer.


   On the other hand, the RNJB favours what is called “functional translation”, that is, a translation that seeks to express the meaning of the ancient texts in modern terminology.  It seeks to say in our words and phrases what was said by ancients in their words and phrases.  That, in my opinion, is why the RNJB must never find its way on to Catholic lecterns.

   “Functional translation” denies that the Bible is a collection of ancient texts.  It nullifies the theologies inherent in books from long ago and far away. For example, the Jerusalem Bible relates that a leper asked Jesus to be cured.  Jesus, “feeling sorry for him”, said “Be cured” (read JB Mark 1:40-45).  But that never happened.  The man asked to be made clean and Jesus cleanses him.

   The “curing” translation avoids the duty of reading Leviticus 13 and 14, of exploring the theology of clean/unclean, and of plumbing the christological depths of the one who cleanses.  Why, in the Jewish understanding of such matters, does God refuse the prayers of a leper? Why were such people banned from the synagogue of prayer?  Who is this Jesus whose guts are moved by human misery?  Who is this Jesus who insists that God is not a God of exclusion, rather a God who embraces the hurt of the world? Who is it that invites us to join in the cleansing of the world?

   Functional translation is theologically lazy and catechetically irresponsible. It demands nothing of pastors and parishioners by way of grappling with God’s holy words.  It actually destroys the biblical injunction of all the prophets to visit the past to understand the pain of the present and thereby to be empowered to create a new future. Jesus does not cure people.  He heals them.

   But it is only fair to illustrate the RNJB by quotations from that text. I will take two examples of “meaning-for-meaning” translations and compare them with the ESV versions.


      Numbers 12:6-8

The Book of Numbers tells of Miriam, the sister of Moses and of Aaron, the brother of Moses, insisting that God speaks through them as much as through their brother.  God is incensed at their arrogance and summons the three of them to the Tent of Meeting (the desert replica of what would become the Temple).  This is what God has to say to the bumptious pair according to the RNJB:

Listen to my words!

If there is a prophet among you,

I make myself known to him in a vision,

I speak to him in a dream.

Not so with my servant Moses;

to him my whole household is entrusted;

to him I speak face to face,

plainly and not in riddles …,

Numbers 12:6-8

   On the contrary, God was did not speak to Moses “face to face”. What the Hebrew text plainly states is utterly surprising:


with him I speak mouth to mouth.

The Hebrew is,

pēh al pēh

The Septuagint Greek is,

                                        στóμα κατα στóμα[1] stoma kata stoma

The Latin of St Jerome’s Vulgate is,

                                                ore enim ad os loquor.


The point of the ancient Hebrew text is to underline the uniqueness of God’s speaking to Moses.  It is not by visions; not by dreams; not by riddles.  It is not face-to-face. It is mouth to mouth.  Every word comes from the mouth of God, through the mouths of the prophets, and ultimately Jesus opened his mouth.

    Think of what is lost by the pedestrian “face to face” (that may signify disquiet, disapproval, confrontation).  Only to Moses does God speak mouth to mouth.  From at least the 12th century of our era all Jews who attend the synagogue will hear the entire Torah, that is, the whole of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy because these are, in the old tradition, the Books of Moses, the very words spoken by God mouth to mouth to Moses.  That is why Moses is the greatest of all the prophets.

   Did not the editors of the RNJB ever read the Book of Deuteronomy?  Did they not learn the lesson of the manna?  Was not everyone fed,

that he [the Lord] might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes

 from the mouth of the Lord?

Deuteronomy 8:3


Did the translators who produced the RNJB not read the words of the song Moses sang (admittedly pinched from Miriam) in the ears of all the assembly of Israel (Deuteronomy 32:103)?

   Did not Jesus remind Satan that,

Man shall not live by bread alone,

but by every word that comes from

the mouth of God?

Matthew 4:4

We read in Matthew that,

 … all these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:


I will open my mouth in parables;

I will utter what has been hidden

since the foundation of the world.

Matthew 13:35

Hidden in God, of course.

   The point of all this is that when Jesus opened his mouth to teach, the very phrase recalls the God who spoke to Moses mouth to mouth.  There is a rich poetry in the metaphor because ‘mouth to mouth’ has all the intimacy of a kiss.  God speaking the words of healing, of saving, of helping, ‘mouth to mouth’, is the God who embraces with a kiss of concern and heals with a kiss of love the pain of humanity.  Jesus opens his mouth and speaks words that heal, words that gospel the world to safe harbour.

   The standard dictionary of ancient Hebrew contains around 8,000 words, a tiny vocabulary, especially set beside 12 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Yet the word “mouth”, in singular and plural, occurs 324 times in the Hebrew Bible. These richly metaphorical words occur 66 times in the Greek New Testament. We need to tread carefully when such fleshly words are used of God who is Spirit.  We need to grasp how tactile God’s nearness is to us in order to understand the Word made Flesh.

        Matthew 5:1-3


The Christian New Testament was written in the common language of the Roman Empire east of Rome: Greek. The Greeks, like everyone else almost as far east as modern Iraq were subjected to exploitative, coercive, imperialistic Roman rule.  But it was Greek language, culture and religions that dominated everyday Roman life.  For the first three centuries of the Christian enterprise Mass in Rome was in Greek.  Why do you think Paul wrote to Romans in Greek?

   How differently our modern translators have described the stage-setting of the Sermon on the Mount.


 Matt 5:1-3


 Matt 5:1-3

RNJB Matthew 5:1-3

Seeing the crowds,

he went up

on the mountain,

and when he sat down,

his disciples came to him.

And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying …

Seeing the crowds, he went up the hill.

There he sat down and was joined by his disciples.

Then he began to speak.

This is what he taught them.

Seeing the


 the went onto

     the mountain. And when he was seated,

his disciples came

to him. Then he began to speak. This is what he taught them.

 The JB and the NJB, but not the RNJB, in a note informs readers that the mountain was “one of the hills near Capernaum”.  This misses the point.  Matthew’s mountain is a theological mountain.  It is Mount Sinai, famed in song and story as the place where God spoke to Moses mouth to mouth, the mountain where the faith of God’s people was proclaimed.   The Septuagint says in Exodus 19:3 that Moses,

ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος·     He went up on the mountain.

Matthew says of Jesus,

ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος·     He went up on the mountain.

     If we begin with the ESV version, Jesus went up on the mountain, not “up the hill” (JB).  He sat down, the posture of a rabbi who sat on the ground with his disciples seated around him. Jesus was not “joined by his disciples”; they “came to him”, not at all the same thing.  The profound depth of  “he opened his mouth”, rather than the pale “he began to speak”, intimates that he addressed his disciples and the crowds with divine authority.  Like God, he opened his mouth and kissed the world into blessedness.

   There is a footnote (b) for RNJB readers:

Jesus gives his new law enthroned on a mountain as a second Moses.

There is no mention in the Hebrew Bible that Moses was an enthroned king.  Yes, there is a “royal” theology in Matthew.  But the emphasis in Matthew 5:1-3 is that Jesus, like any rabbi, sat down in the posture of a teacher.  Like Moses the teacher, so it is with Jesus.  He was not enthroned on a mountain.  He was teaching on the mountain. The perceptive reader will be transported imaginatively to Mt Sinai where the Lord God opened his mouth to baptise Moses into Israel’s greatest teacher.  On the theological mountain God-in-Jesus opened his mouth to bless the world with the onrush of the kingdom of heaven.

   Functional equivalence, hoping that ‘face to face’ will adequately convey all that ‘mouth to mouth’ intends, buries the rich theological veins that run through the Bible. As I have insisted, functional translation is theologically lazy and catechetically irresponsible.  It exempts the pastor and the people from the business of exploring the depth and richness of God’s holy words.  The methodology of prophetical catechesis was to expose the sins of the present by turning to the faith of ancient fathers and mothers, and from judgement between the two, to create a vision of the future, issuing a call to conversion (laced with mercy and forgiveness), and a vocation to light the nations with hope. To have Jesus cure leprosy is to present a wonder-worker; it may provoke astonishment but it does not reveal the divine presence that walks our earth.  To obliterate the fact that Jesus opened his mouth is to silence the God who teaches us through the mouth his beloved Son.  


      Inclusive language


 The word ἀδελφóς, adelphos, brother, occurs 19 times in St. Paul’s First Letter to Thessalonian Christians, almost certainly  the very earliest of all the writings that make up the New Testament. It was written in Athens about twenty year after the death of Jesus and sent north to a tiny community of people who had been brought to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ by Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy.  Of the 19 occurrences of ἀδελφóς, adelphos all are in the plural except one (3:2).

    As you listen to this letter read in our new Lectionary what you will hear:

1:4   For we know, brothers and sisters, beloved by God, that he has chosen you …

2:1  For you yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain …

2:9   For you remember, brothers and sisters, our labour …

2:14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus  …

2:17 But since we were torn away from you, brothers and sisters, for a short time, in person, not in heart …

3:2 … we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker …

4:1   Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask you and urge you …

Check out the remaining ten occurrences, all of which have “brothers and sisters”.


Less than twenty years after the death of Jesus there were pagan Greek women and men who were transformed by the gospel of God and were graced into loving one another, brothers and sisters of and in the Lord Jesus Christ.  If readers turn to the Letter of James they will find that the word “brothers” occurs 15 times.  Our new Lectionary will rightly turn each of these into “brothers and sisters”.  And so it is with all such occurrences.

   Those who criticize the ESV for its non-inclusive language ought to read its Preface where it explains the principles and practices that guided its translation. That Preface states this:

… the English word “brothers” (translating the Greek word adelphoi) is retained as an important familial form of address between fellow-Jews and fellow-Christians in the first century.  A recurring note is included to indicate that the term “brothers” (adelphoi) was often used in Greek to refer to both men and women, and to indicate the specific instances in the text where this is the case.  In addition, the English “sons” (translating the Greek word huioi) is retained in specific instances because of its meaning as a legal term in the adoption and inheritance laws of the first-century Rome.  As used by apostle Paul, this term refers to the status of all Christians, both men and women, who having been adopted into God’s family now enjoy all privileges, obligations, and inheritance rights of God’s children.


   It is imperative that all concerned with the utterly vital issue of inclusive language should be aware of our bishops’ intent in this regard.  Those given the task of preparing a new Lectionary followed episcopal guidance:

Where … the term “brothers” is used to illustrate human kinship, no less comprising of “sisters” than of “brothers”, we have followed the footnotes provided in the ESV/CE and applied the words “brothers and sisters” to the body of the text in order to demonstrate the inclusivity which the context implies.  This occurs in a not insignificant number of cases.  We have applied the same principle to “sons and daughters” where appropriate.

e who live three and two thousand years after the creation of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament will always have arguments about translations and meanings - it was ever thus. Long may it be so, so long as our hearts beat within us as together we break the words in the utter conviction that they lead us to the table were we come to recognise their true

   W meaning.

   Finally, my total support of the ESV, warts and all, is that I hear the difference between the RNJB and the ESV:


This is the man!


Ἰδοὺ ὁ ἄνθρωπος.

Ecce homo!

Behold the man!

These holy words are not a bald indicative displaying a broken, beaten human being.   They are an imperative, a command, an admonition, a caution, a consummation devoutly to be wished.  In it is our yesterday, our today, our tomorrow.


Dr Joseph O’Hanlon


[1] Of interest to those of us who are victims of cancer.

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