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The Navarre Bible: The Pentateuch
in the Revised Standard Version and New Vulgate

Hallel 25 (2000)
'By any reckoning, this is a handsome volume. Little effort has been spared in its production, from the delightful dust-jacket illustration of Moses Before the Burning Bush by the Flemish master Dirk Bouts to the strong binding, The lay out is clear – English text according to the RSV (which will probably stand the test of time better than its NRSV successor), commentary, and finally, at the foot of the page, the Neo-Vulgata Latin version. The Neo-Vulgata lacks the textual interest and the vigour of the Vulgate, but it is the Holy See’s present ‘official version’. Michael Adams’s translation is clear and idiomatic. More severe editing might have removed an occasional discussion of aspects of the Spanish translation of the biblical text. Several Spanish forms of the names (e.g. Pablo VI, Philon, Meliton of Sardis) in the table of sources have escaped the proof-reader’s notice.

The editors have in mind an audience which will use their work as a resource for lectio divina or for liturgy preparation, so their notes are ‘very rarely technical and are designed to elucidate the spiritual and theological meaning of the Bible’ (Preface, p 7). The approach is at times reminiscent of the medieval ‘four senses’ of scripture. There has been a welcome recognition in much recent scholarship of the importance of issues such as the text’s reception (how it was read and understood by earlier generations of readers) or of intertexuality (how it is quoted and transformed by later texts) which testify to the ways in which classic texts like the Pentateuch were followed and dwelt in by Jewish and Christian readers for a millennium and a half.

Writers of ‘pastoral commentaries’ on a document as complex as the Pentateuch inevitably find themselves in something of a bind. How much information do readers need to have if they are to understand the text? For Jewish readers, every detail of grammar or even of spelling is potentially a guide for conduct. This is not the case for Christians. Much of what they read will be obscure: some of it may even be polygamy or divine commands to exterminate one’s enemies). The temptation to smooth out the difficulties by an appeal to an ‘applied oral sense’ can be very great. It is a pitfall this commentary does not altogether avoid. Whatever later moral theology may have made of the sin of Onan (Gen 38), for instance, it is the commentator’s responsibility to point out that, as far as the text is concerned Onan was condemned for his rejection of family solidarity and his duty to a dead brother rather than for an act of contraception. The same might be said about applying texts from Leviticus directly to Christian liturgy.

The exegetical stance implicit is cautious, even slightly dated. It uses a simplified form of the four source theory of Pentateuchal origins. The introduction glides a little too smoothly over the bitter battle fought around this issue in the early years of this century. Contemporary Pentateuchal study in any case has begun to realise that a source approach does not solve all the problems. AS Hans Frei suggested about two decades ago, the dilemma facing believing biblical scholarship today springs from the ‘eclipse of biblical narrative’. By that he meant that as it had become increasingly preoccupied with the text’s historical origins, it had lost sight of the fact that the biblical text was primarily a story which shapes the life of its readers. Much recent Pentateuchal scholarship has tried to follow this clue with interesting results. In Scripture as God’s living Word, communicating through the subtle interplay of language, imagery, symbol, irony, and sometimes indeed, through the very silences and gaps of the text.

My reservations about this commentary surface most in regard to the question of  how biblical texts ‘mean’. Meaning emerges when readers (including commentators) read texts with attention. Theological or spiritual meaning does not reside mysteriously in a text like some kind of kernel to be reached by stripping away seemingly irrelevant layers, for God is often in the details. Much less is it a question of erecting a superstructure of quotations from other sources around the text. There is so much of that here that I am reminded of the rabbi’s use of their master’s sayings to erect a hedge about the Torah’! It would have been better had most of the space been devoted to fuller commentary on the text. Interpretation is a prayerful art: it should also be ‘playful art’, delighting in the new possibilities which every re-reading reveals. The great t tradition guides us best, not by giving ‘the’ meaning of an individual verse but when it teaches us how to become imaginative readers who become engaged and then surrender to the text’s claims on us. St. Bernard was a playful reader of the Canticle of Canticles in this sense, and I suspect that is why he was also a contemplative reader. I have read enough scientific exegesis to agree that on its own, it is inadequate to communicate the full meaning of scripture: I have heard too many bad homilies to accept without a great deal of qualification the claim that priests ‘as co-workers of the bishops possess a particular charism for interpreting scripture’ (p 12). None of this is to call into question the piety, loyalty to the Magisterium, or learning of the authors. They do seem to me however to lack a certain capacity for playful attentiveness to the text in the sense I have described. The fault may be mine, but I found the citation from the works of Bl. Jose Maria Escrivá at every turn increasingly tiresome. Few were memorable for their colour or their insight, and the link to the text was often tenuous at best. It is disconcerting that no voices from recent biblical scholarship were deemed worthy of note Brendan McConvery, Hallel.

 Catholic Herald & Standard 22 October 1999
‘This handsomely presented volume initiates the Old Testament series in a critical edition of the entire Bible emanating from the University of Navarre.  The New Testament edition comprises 12 volumes and the whole project marks a significant addition to the Catholic Church’s contribution to modern biblical studies.  Each volume is characterised by the full biblical text in the Revised Standard Version and the New Vulgate, together with extensive running commentaries.  Each page is therefore divided into three variable horizontal columns devoted to these parallel concerns.

Several points arise from these basic facts.  The University of Navarre is the academic flagship of Opus Dei, the organisation which disturbs so many people because of its secretive ways, perceived orthodox ferocity and desire to control the lives of its adherents totally. This version of the Bible is a translation and adaptation of the Spanish original, which appeared in 1997.  The use of the RSV (not the New RSV, or any other modern English version) also makes a statement: this is the version favoured by many scholars for the strict precision of its translation of the original, and the sobriety of its language.  It eschews the self-consciously “scholarly” and peculiar phraseology of the Jerusalem Bible, and the demotic inaccuracies and political correctness of other modern versions.

The parallel Latin text (rather than the original Hebrew) proclaims an alignment and identification with the tradition, mind and intentions of the Western church.  Even though we no longer generally use the Latin liturgy, the official medium of the Church is the Latin language.  The consistently interesting commentary draws on a rich variety of sources: the Fathers and Doctors of the Church and prominent spiritual writers, “particularly Blessed J. Escrivá, who initiated the Navarre Bible project”.  So the stand point of this edition is self-proclaimed, and  reactions to it will be affected for many by their ideological perspective.

Can this be recommended as a dependable critical edition? The text is prefaced by 26 pages of introduction and each of the five books has its own introduction.  But most interesting of all is the running commentary, which underpins the text as a source of reference and reflection.

The style and tone of this commentary seems admirable to me for several reasons.  First is its sheer volume and consistency.  Second is the diversity of the sources making up the critical meditation, ranging from the patristic writings of the early Church, to the documents of Vatican II, the writings of the present Pope and the new catechism, all of which provide a genuinely Catholic response to the Church’s interpretation of the Bible.  Some might feel a little anxious at the consistent inclusion of Blessed José Escrivá, but his ideas come across as fresh and most pertinent.

The power of this enlightening approach is perhaps best illustrated by the Book of Leviticus.  Although regarded by many as an outdated, desiccated and pointless set of antique regulations, the commentators are able to discern and convey a truly spiritual insight: “By carefully reading this sacred book in its entirety one discovers that Leviticus is not just a formal set of rules; it provides moral rules which contain teachings about God and man, and about man’s relationship with God.  But in all these rules ... there is a religious message which is perennial and enduring.”

This volume seems to me to offer something very valuable to the modern reader and scholar alike, and I recommend it with great enthusiasm’ Robert Letellier, Catholic Herald & Standard.

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