Annotations in Bible translations

Canon Law requires translations of the Bible to have annotations.

“Can. 825 §1. Books of the sacred scriptures cannot be published unless the Apostolic See or the conference of bishops has approved them. For the publication of their translations into the vernacular, it is also required that they be approved by the same authority and provided with necessary and sufficient annotations.”

However, the Church has only two types of authority: spiritual and temporal. The spiritual authority (the Magisterium) issues teachings on matters of faith, morals, and salvation. The temporal authority issues rules and rulings. The spiritual authority teaches on matters of doctrine; the temporal authority rules on matters of discipline. The teachings of the spiritual authority of the Church are either infallible (no possibility of error) or non-infallible (limited possibility of error). The rulings of the temporal authority of the Church are fallible. They are judgments of the prudential order, not teachings from Divine Revelation.

Rules and rulings cannot be infallible because they are not teachings as to what is or is not true. Although Canon Law contains some direct expressions of the teachings of the Magisterium, all that is per se of Canon Law is a rule or ruling, and is fallible, changeable, dispensable. The infallible teachings of the Magisterium cannot change or err or be dispensed. God is Truth. We worship the God who is Truth. But God is not rules or rulings. We do not worship the idol of rules and rulings, as the Pharisees did.

Since even the non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium allow some room for licit dissent, certainly the fallible rules and rulings of the temporal authority of the Church also allow for faithful dissent, that is to say, licit disobedience, without sin. It is possible to faithfully disobey a rule or ruling of the temporal authority.

My reasons for not including annotations in my translation of the Bible are several.

I have used many different translations and editions of the Bible. I find that most modern translations include annotations (footnotes, commentary) which detracts from, undermines, and even contradicts the teachings of Sacred Scripture. Often these annotations treat Scripture as if it were not inerrant, as if it were a merely human work, as if its contents were the result of cultural and personal biases, even as if the text were an object entirely subject to the science of Biblical criticism. Much harm has been done to the faithful by these annotations. Scripture is a pure and holy food, but some of these annotations are like a poison coating on good food.

What if the Canon that requires annotations could be changed to require annotations to have the imprimatur of a Bishop? Would this solve the problem of annotations harming souls? Probably not. Many books, published with the imprimatur of a Bishop, contain substantial doctrinal errors. And some authors have gone so far as to shop around to find a Bishop who will give them the imprimatur, other than the Bishop with authority in their diocese.

What can the faithful do, to avoid being harmed by this type of annotation? One approach is to choose Bible editions with as few annotations as possible. But my approach is to offer a translation of the Bible, published with no annotations at all. The reader is nourished by Sacred Scripture, and is not bothered by annotations that at best annoy, and at worst undermine the Word of God.

I also do not include annotations because the work of translating the Bible took just over 5 years, working nearly every day. It would be very time-consuming for me to annotation the whole text, in addition. Also, as an individual translator and editor of the Bible, my annotations would reflect my particular understanding. I prefer it if the reader of my translation consider the text with his or her own mind and heart, guided by prayer and the grace of God, and also consult a variety of sources if a particular passage is obscure.

In past times, annotations were much more devout and doctrinal. For example, the annotations of the original Douai Rheims Bible, and those of the Challoner revision, are quite good. And these annotations were particularly useful because the reader had limited access to books of theology and Scripture study. Only in relatively recent times have printed books become inexpensive and readily available. Then, with the arrival of the internet, most readers have access to a wealth of information on Scripture and on Catholic teaching. So annotations are less necessary today than ever before.

Finally, as a devout Catholic who has been readying and studying the Bible for many years, I much prefer to have a Bible with no annotations. They distract from my meditation on the meaning of the Word of God. The entire Bible is like a single holy Word uttered by God. The annotations are of far lesser value and merit. The entire Bible is entirely inspired and entirely inerrant. The annotations are uninspired, not inerrant, and in fact often very errant.

Therefore, I have prayerfully decided to publish my translation without annotations, despite the requirements of Canon Law. I consider my decision to be an example of faithful disobedience to the temporal authority, and also an example of obedience to God. For I believe that my decision is in accord with the grace and will of God for my humble work with His holy Word.

As for those modern-day Pharisees, who claim that we must not exercise private judgment, and that we must accept, blindly and unthinkingly, whatever teachings and rules are presented to us, I say with Christ:

“Hypocrites! How well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. For in vain do they worship me, teaching the doctrines and commandments of men.’ ” (Mt 15:7-9).

(More on this topic in a subsequent post, on the approval of Bible translations)

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