The Revised Common Lectionary links the practice of worship in many churches. The Consultation on Common Texts, which developed this Lectionary, brings together Protestant and Catholic scholars, who are joined in the aim of giving English-speaking congregations around the world access to an agreed upon set of biblical readings for the purposes of worship.
The basis of work is the 1969 Roman Lectionary (Ordo Lectionum Missae), one of the products of the Second Vatican Council in promoting efforts of translation. Vatican II (as it is widely called) reformed Roman Catholic worship in several ways. The pattern of worship in the ancient church had been to coordinate readings from the Bible—the Scriptures of Israel, the Psalms, the Epistles of Paul and similar writings, as well as the Gospels—as the seasons of the church year unfolded. Interest in that pattern as a principal of liturgical renewal that could unite denominations grew during the twentieth century, and The Revised Common Lectionary is a practical outgrowth of both the ecumenical movement and historical scholarship.
The first of the seasons of the church year is Advent, beginning in the autumn. The readings of that time stress the anticipation of God’s justice coming to the earth, providing a framework for the focus on the significance of Jesus in the next seasons. Jesus’ birth is celebrated during the Christmas season, and his manifestation as God’s Son during Epiphany. Lent is a season of preparation, in some ways akin to Advent, but longer and more penitential because it leads into Holy Week, which commemorates the Crucifixion. The Easter season then focuses on Jesus’ resurrection. Pentecost is the final and longest season of the year. It is named after the outpouring of God’s spirit on Jesus’ followers when they gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Judaism that was called Pentecost, referring to the fiftieth day after Passover.
The Revised Common Lectionary has set out this calendar in cycles of three years to avoid a repetition of readings every year. In addition, to accord better with ancient practice, a considerable portion of the Bible is read during the course of public worship within the three-year cycle. By means of this coherent variation the Lectionary has promoted greater biblical literacy in congregations as well as greater attention to individual readings. Because the Lectionary is widely available, it is used by churches that follow the liturgical calendar of the seasons, as well as by many that do not use it service by service, but like to be aware of what the traditional readings are for particular occasions.
The ecumenical impact of The Revised Common Lectionary has been considerable. One reason for its influence is that it is a list of readings that does not include the texts themselves. That is, it does not come with the requirement to use a particular translation. As a result, churches and congregations can follow their preferences for the words read, even as they coordinate with wider usage in the selection of texts.
This project entitled Readings from the Roots wishes to extend both the ecumenical and the scholarly purposes of The Revised Common Lectionary. An extension along both lines is here achieved by means of a translation of the texts designated by the Lectionary that takes into account a factor not considered in previous English versions of the Bible. To reflect on that factor we must identify central issues that arise whenever we translate from one language to another.
Accuracy in translation demands close attention to issues of language. Throughout the history of translation, particularly biblical translation, considerable attention has been devoted to how much a translator should try to reproduce the form of original Aramaic, Hebrew, or Greek wordings, and to what extent the vigor of the original can be rendered into equally vigorous English. These concerns have occupied our discussions. We are even more keenly aware, however, that making an English version of the Bible involves translating cultures as well as translating words. Because biblical texts represent a millennium of development, cultural as well as linguistic variations—including differences of theology and worldview—are important factors to consider as one moves from reading to reading.
The people called Israel in the world of the earliest Hebrew narratives were not yet organized under a king, did not offer sacrifice in a single Temple (since it had not been built), and had no recourse to what would later become a written Bible. Consequently, narratives from that earliest phase of the biblical tradition assume a very different context from later social worlds. By the time of Jesus and Paul, for example, the Davidic monarchy had long ago risen to power and been destroyed, Roman rule was a reality, and biblical books circulated in Greek, were copied in Hebrew, and made the rounds orally in Aramaic during synagogue worship in places such as Judea, Galilee, and present-day Turkey. Two points need to be kept in mind. First, all the books of the Bible, and sometimes several speakers within a single book, address their audiences with an assumption of a culture that is not ours. Second, all of these books—ranging from narratives of creation to prophecy and psalmic composition—do not represent a single biblical culture. Translators, therefore, need to account for differing cultures as well as distinct languages during the course of their work.
An example of the problem of translating cultures as well as languages involves rendering the apparently simple word in Greek, Ἰουδαῖος. When this term is translated as “Jew,” it can easily be understood as a religious practitioner of Judaism who does not believe in Christianity. Since the whole of the New Testament was written at a time when most people who believed in Jesus and his resurrection were also Ἰουδαῖοi, however, that would be a false understanding, and one that could—and has—caused a great deal of prejudice. When “Jews” are set up as the opposition to “Christians,” the inevitable result is needless resentment.
Within the Gospels, Ἰουδαῖος often means a “Judean,” as distinct from a “Galilean” or “Samaritan.” The Hebrew Bible utilizes corresponding terms, deploying them to make distinctions among Israelites (those from Judah as distinct from those from Ephraim, for example) as well as between Hebrew speakers and foreigners.
Anti-Semitism has proven a perennial problem in the West, and biblical translations that enable the term “Jew” to represent a monolithic front of opposition to Christianity have exacerbated the condition. In our translation, we have been sensitive to cases where faulty rendering has produced a meaning that was not intended in the original texts. At the same time, however, our principle of cultural translation also involves acknowledging when genuine tensions, even hostilities, between churches and synagogues are reflected in the writings of the New Testament.
Cultural translation does not endorse suppressing social tensions that texts in fact express, nor does it propose wishing away difficult statements. The crowd that opposes Jesus in the Gospel according to Matthew really does say, “His blood is on us, and our children” (Matthew 25:25). One of the greatest documents of Vatican II, Nostra Aetate, correctly observes that “the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” That statement is an act of cultural translation, conveyed pastorally; we are committed to rendering biblical texts in English so as to encourage pastoral interpretation of this kind.
Ἰουδαῖος is only one among many terms whose meanings are changed and charged by differing contexts. In ancient Hebrew ruach might refer to wind or breath, but also to a person’s temperament and to God’s spirit as it inspires a prophet. In the New Testament, the cognate Greek term “pneuma” is sometimes specified as “holy spirit.” Distinguishing these usages from one another depends on a sensitivity to context. By ignoring context, interpreters have also misapplied the terms “mashiach” (Hebrew) and “khristos” (Greek) for centuries. Both terms simply refer to a person who has been “anointed,” with the purpose of the anointing specified contextually. Priests, prophets, and kings could be anointed for their offices, without any sense that they corresponded to a single identity. Application of the description “anointed” to Jesus is crucial, but care is required to avoid making the term into a caricature. The words “yeshu‘ah” (Hebrew) and “soteria” (Greek) also demand considered judgment from translators, because they can mean salvation (from sin, mortality, or both) but also liberation, welfare, and/or rescue. The authors almost always make their meaning plain, but translators need to stay alert to the whole of the conveyed message in order to render that meaning.
Cultures changed as the biblical periods changed, much as they have in our time. For that reason, translators need to render not only the wording of texts in the most accurate way possible, but also the sense of those words in their original context. This aspect of the role of translation is especially crucial in the case of the Lectionary, where texts from differing periods are associated and their common themes shape the focus of worship on a given occasion.
As translators of the Lectionary we have followed several principles:
- To render the texts in a way that conveys their sense and style within their original settings;
- To indicate in an introduction to each set of passages how the readings suit the liturgical occasion within the calendar of the church;
- To bring to awareness, by means of the translation into English, all cases where the original text alludes to an earlier context (for example, the appearance of Aramaic words in the Greek New Testament);
- To avoid the use of terminology that encourages readers to mistake the context of the original texts with their own setting;
- To elucidate passages that in the past have been used to justify anti-Semitism (against practitioners of Judaism, Islam, or other near eastern religions), prejudice against “pagan” customs, and homophobic attitudes;
- To vary the English phrasing in a way that tracks variation in the original writings, within the range of acceptable written English.
In order to assess how books of quite different settings relate to one another, a working appreciation of the originating cultures of texts needs to be developed. Rather than burden the introduction to each set of passages with historical comments, it has seemed more practical to indicate some major cultural phases through which the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament developed. Within each phase, we also indicate biblical texts representative of that setting. Of course, not all books can be assigned to a single phase of development, but discussion has generally associated each work with the phase indicated.
Cultural phases and biblical books:
- Phase One: Incipient Israel
The settlement of a land called Canaan by a people called Israel during the Iron Age occasioned tensions among people already in the land as well as other new settlers. Israel had not yet developed centralized authority; instead, charismatic leaders such as Samson emerged locally to meet the challenges of the moment (Judges 13-16).
- Phase Two: Classic Monarchy
David’s anointing as king and his establishment of Jerusalem as the capital of his realm brought central institutions, including the Temple that David’s son, Solomon, built. A scribal class emerged to serve the new régime, but accounts such as the story of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11) represent the capacity of scribes to criticize the very people they served.
- Phase Three: Divided Kingdoms and the Rise of Prophecy
The realm that David and Solomon ruled did not long survive Solomon’s death. From the end of the tenth century BCE, the Kingdom of Israel separated from Davidic rule, emerging as a prosperous nation. The successors of David and Solomon ruled the Kingdom of Judah, which was both smaller and more isolated than Israel. The prosperity of Israel drew the condemnation of prophets, including Amos, during the eighth century BCE, who insisted that the social oppression and idolatry of wealthy Israelites would bring their destruction.
- Phase Four: Destruction, Exile, and the Emergence of the Bible
The Assyrian Empire, in fact, destroyed the Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE; consequently, the prophetic movement sought refuge in the Kingdom of Judah. Some prophets, most prominently Isaiah, attempted to reform the monarchy of Judah, but a repetition of what had happened to Israel came with the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon in 586 BCE. Exiled in Babylonia, prophets who followed the lead of Ezekiel nonetheless envisioned the restoration of those deported to their land and the establishment of a new Temple (Ezekiel 37 and 40).
- Phase Five: Pluralism and Conflict
Fulfillment of the promise of a return to the land by prophets including Jeremiah and Ezekiel was made possible by Cyrus, the Emperor of Persia, who conquered Babylonia and permitted captive peoples, among them the Judeans, to return home. The return, however, was not to autonomy; foreign dominion became the norm. Many new influences were brought to bear on the formation of the Hebrew Bible. The book of Job, for example, concentrates on a hero who is not even portrayed as an Israelite, and introduces Satan as challenging God. In addition, the book of Job challenges the earlier view that God always rewards virtue just as he punishes sin.
- Phase Six: Visions of Judgment
The final chapters of prophetic books—Isaiah 65:17-19 and Zechariah 14:3-21—are good examples of this phase, and set out the promise of a new heaven and earth centered in Jerusalem. The last book of the New Testament endorses this expectation (Revelation 21:1-2) because justice had become a radically disruptive hope. The rule of foreign empires that contradicted God’s will demanded upheaval on a cosmic scale in order to vindicate righteous people who suffered oppression. Jesus, the central figure of the New Testament, takes this position, pronouncing the advent of God’s kingdom and a dramatically changed historical reality. He represents a phase of biblical theology that includes the last books of the Hebrew Bible. The book of Zechariah (chapter 14), for instance, envisions an earthquake through which God’s will reshapes the earth, placing Jerusalem at its center and making the Temple the place of worship for all peoples. In the Gospel according to Mark (chapter 13), on the other hand, an earthquake is a means of destruction that affects the Temple, so that the reconciliation of the peoples of the earth is achieved by Jesus, who is raised from the dead and present to gather those whom he has chosen. Zechariah and Mark thus share a vision for a new world order, accomplished by God through a cosmic reordering of all prior reality.
Contexts within each of these phases evidently vary, and readers may seek to refer to works such as The Cambridge Companion to the Bible, Second Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) and Encyclopedia of Religious and Philosophical Texts in Late Antiquity (Leiden: Brill, 2007).
For the purposes of reading in worship, the cultural setting of each passage should be kept in mind. Brief introductions here suggest these contexts and draw attention to features of the text that may be puzzling without explanation.
Holy Week was the target of our initial effort, and since then we have added translations for more seasons. We aim to consult with those who use this rendering on a representative sample of readings that nonetheless form a coherent unit of worship.