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  • Louis Arata

Book Review: The Douay-Rheims edition of the Bible

If this were like any other book review, I would say that The Bible is a good book. The good book, as it were.


But to review The Bible like any other book is impossible. Its historical and religious significance – not to mention the breadth of its scope – prevents any sort of objective take on the work. Do I review the Old Testament or the New Testament? Do I compare “The Book of Job” to “The Gospel According to John”? How do I address the issue that some Christians consider the Bible to be the divine Word of God? What about all the individual authors of the books? Even if each of them was guided by God, the entire work is still a compendium of documents written across a great many generations. Christian editors selected which texts to include and which to leave out. And in the case of the Douay-Rheims edition, it includes books that are apocryphal to the King James version.


What I want to focus on is my response to the version which I read: the Douay-Rheims edition. It was chance that led me to select it. I simply downloaded from my library the first e-book version which was listed in the catalog.


The Douay-Rheims edition is an English language translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible (which itself is a Latin translation of texts written in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek). It was published in three volumes: the New Testament (1582) and the Old Testament (1609 and 1610). Notably, there were further revisions to the translation when Bishop Richard Challoner brought some of the language more in line with the King James version.


Specifically, the Douay-Rheims version is the Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation. Some of the books have different names than those in the King James version. For example, first and second Chronicles is called Paralipomenon, and 2 Esdras is known as the Book of Nehemias. Also, there are a few books, such as 1 and 2 Maccabees, which are not included in other translations of the Bible.


The Douay-Rheims version retains the archaic Latinate style and as a result is a bit heavy to muddle through at times. It makes me curious to read other translations and editions to see variable readings and more contemporary vocabulary.


I was raised Catholic, though I don’t recall which version of the Bible we used. Readings were only identified by chapter and verse, and I don’t recall that any readings ever came from the apocryphal books like Maccabees. What I do recall is that during Holy Week services, the congregation would read aloud the parts of the Passion in which the crowd shouted to crucify Jesus. I suppose this was to remind us that in our sinful nature we were still responsible for Jesus’s death.


In college, I took a class, “the Bible as Literature.” We read the books from a literary perspective. We examined the use of metaphors in “Job” and the poetry of “the Song of Solomon.” We also compared how the four gospels presented different takes on Jesus’s parables. While it felt rebellious (even somewhat sacrilegious) to treat the Bible like any other piece of literature, I was impressed that the professor (who I believe was a Christian Scientist) remained respectful of the text without promoting Christianity or even a belief in God.


This time when I read it, I found I didn’t have to read it as a divinely inspired work, nor from a Catholic didactic perspective. Instead, I read it as a history of a people’s relationship with their god. How the relationship was formed, how it changed over the generations. How people fell away then came back to the faith. How God could be righteous and forgiving. If I were to sum up the Old Testament, it might be with this passage from 2 Maccabees: “And therefore he never withdraweth his mercy from us: but though he chastise his people with adversity he forsaketh them not.”


Paradoxically, by reading it as a history, I was able to engage with stories in a more empathic manner. The stories teach that life is unpredictable but that there are principles to guide us along the way. Most important, it promotes that acts of goodness and mercy are the most important things in life. And these values are not rooted solely in Christianity but also in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, and any other manner of living which focuses on being kind to one another.


The most curious aspect of the Douay-Rheims version is that the editors interject commentary throughout the texts. They readily interpret passages from a distinctly Catholic perspective. For example, they emphasize that salvation must be earned by obedience to God. This is in opposition to Martin Luther’s view that God’s grace is a gift for all, regardless of our good deeds. At one point, the editors state: “For since none but the true religion can be from God, all other religions must be the father of lies, and therefore highly displeasing to the God of truth.” In other words, the editors are stating that Catholic church is the only true faith.


Sometimes, the editorial comments warn us not to read too freely into the texts. As such, in 1 Samuel, there is a note that while David was called upon by God to do good works, not all of David’s actions were sanctioned by God:


“Though it is to be observed here, that we are not under an obligation of justifying everything that [David] did: for the scripture, in relating what was done, does not say that it was well done. And even such as are true servants of God, are not to be imitated in all they do.”

Since college, I have read the Bible three times now, and each time I have wrestled and wrangled with it. It has been difficult for me to engage with a book which sometimes has been used to promote prejudice and oppression. Yet surprisingly, I can say that this time I enjoyed reading it as a history. I will leave the discussion of its being divinely written to others to ponder.



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