By Joseph Bailey
I am a Professor of New Testament in the diocesan seminary. Last year when the students went home for spring break I went to Vail, Colorado, for some spring skiing. On Good Friday afternoon we came down off the mountain to attend the liturgy at the Vail chapel. Still in ski togs we were ushered to the front pew where copies of the Paluch Missalette were put in our hands. We were invited to participate in the reading of the Passion according to St. John. As usual in such cases the celebrant read the words of Jesus, a lay reader took the role of narrator, and the congregation took the vari¬ous other voices. Thus we all joined “the Jews” in crying out “Away with him, crucify him.” My inner impulse was to stand up and say “No!” I honestly felt manipulated and was ashamed that the lay people who filled the chapel did not feel the same way. This was an emotional moment.
In later reflection I recalled my first experience of the Good Friday Passion as a college student back in the 40’s. Back then the entire text was sung in Latin by the three priests, with the celebrant taking the Jesus words in a bass-baritone, the narrator a shrill tenor and the third somewhere in between. When the latter sang “Crucifige eum” it was solemn, lugubrious and unemotional. I was moved more by the performance than by the words in the context.
It seems to me that we must restore some of that emotional distance. And obviously we cannot do that by returning to the Latin. The text used in the Missalette by Roman Catholics is that of the NAB lectionary. If changes are to be made they must be made in the lectionary. Sad to say we cannot depend on informed catechesis by the homilist (I am thinking of the Catholic priest who presides). In spite of the forthright statement on Jewish culpability in the death of
Christ as set forth in Nostra Aetate and the specific instructions in the follow- up “Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church”, June 24, 1985, the average homilist is not sufficiently equipped or motivated to provide such explanations. We need to make changes in the text itself. And here we are back at the dilemma of paraphrase. Can we even dare to consider the alternative of paraphrase?
Paraphrase is looked upon by many as a dirty word, associated only with such versions as The Living Bible. So we have invented the current catch-word “dynamic equivalency.” No matter what you call it, the effort made in the revisions of both the NRSV and the NAB is really para-phrase. We are by no means finished with paraphrase yet. We still have to face up to the application of inclusive language to the deity in both testaments. J.A. Sanders amusingly points out that the task force on the NRSV “weighed the problems involved and decided that the NRSV might simply not be used in most churches if inclusive language for God were attempted.” (p. 56 in Removing the Anti- Judaism from the New Testament, ed. by Howard Clark Kee and Irvin J. Borowsky)
This should make us realize that the problems with biblical language are often the creation of the Christian community itself. A much greater fluidity in translation is evident in the versions before the fourth century, before the fixation of the church with the concept of divine inspiration. Calling the Bible “the Word of God,” as we address it in our liturgies, has only added to the problem of its immutability. For that reason the Dutch exegete Lucas Grollenberg has called for a moratorium on the expression: “One of the expressions which, as I see it, must be avoided is this – the Bible is the word of God.” (p. 170, Bible Study for the Twenty- first Century) Connotations override denotations.
We simply cannot avoid the moral imperative of addressing this problem now. The problem of inclusive Ianguage pales beside it. As Lloyd Gaston put it twenty years ago, we are on the horns of a nasty dilemma: “A Christian Church with an anti-Semitic New Testament is abominable. A Christian Church without a New Testament is inconceivable. It may be that the Church will survive if we fail to deal adequately with that question but more serious is the question whether the Church ought to survive.” (p. 48, Anti-Semitism and the Foundations of Christianity, ed. Alan T. Davies) Norman Beck in Mature Christianity (p. 34) is even more forthright: “Are we willing to take the risks involved in a drastic repudiation of a portion of the New Testament, namely its anti- Jewish polemic?” Repudiation is a strong word. Paraphrase is mild by comparison.
Just at this moment when we are preparing to launch a new lectionary in the Catholic Church it may not be opportune to start talking about paraphrase. But recalling the number of years it has taken to adopt inclusive language, a beginning must be made soon. If Jules Isaac had not seized the moment and gone personally to Pope John )0UB we probably would not have the conciliar document known as Nostra Aetate.
The urgency of the problem is emphasized by the instruction just sent out by the U.S. Catholic Conference on the use of the new lectionary. In answer to the question, May a read¬er change the text in proclamation? The instruction says: “No. Just as the Church is obliged to faithfully pro¬claim the Bible as it is passed on, the reader is obliged to faithfully proclaim the text exactly as it appears in the Lectionary for Mass. The homily is the proper place to explain biblical texts which are unclear or appear to be inconsistent with contemporary sew activities. We can never change the Bible because it is the Word of God.”
Msgr. Joseph Bailey
Msgr. Bailey is a Catholic priest, ordained in 1943. He studied at the Catholic University of America, and later at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.