I’m holding in my hands a brand-new Bible, one I have been waiting for for 20 years: the hot-off-the-press English Standard Version – Catholic Edition (ESV-CE). It was a Christmas gift from my son Clay, who works and studies at the Augustine Institute, which published it last month as The Augustine Bible.
Isn’t it beautiful? I love the cover, which evokes my favorite image in Psalms: the person who is rooted in God’s word, compared to a tree that is planted by streams of water and therefore flourishes even in drought [You can read Psalm 1 in the ESV here]. A Bible lies open at the bottom of the design, while two trees arch upward from it and the wings of the Holy Spirit hover above, giving light and illumination to the words. Both the Bible and the Institute are named after St. Augustine, who famously heard God speaking to him personally in Scripture after hearing the cry, “Take up and read.” It’s what motivates me to do what I do through this website, inviting people to “Come into the Word” and find life.
So which Bible should I use?
Which brings me to the question I seem to get more often than any other: Which Bible should I use? Ever since Vatican II, interest in Scripture has been growing as Catholics answer the call to make reading the Bible — not just listening at Mass — a part of their lives:
“The Church forcefully and specially exhorts all the Christian faithful … to learn ‘the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 3:8) by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. … Let them remember, however, that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that a dialogue takes place between God and man. For ‘we speak to him when we pray; we listen to him when we read the divine oracles’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2653).
The answer isn’t easy, if you want just one Bible. After all, there are several Catholic translations in English and now they are available in multiple versions suited for study, for prayer, and so on.
There are advantages to each, so read on. If you are able, I personally recommend that you invest in more than one, as follows:
Start with a well-made Bible for personal reading …
A well-bound, leather Bible can last a lifetime. Or at least a couple of decades if you read it all the time, and you can have it re-bound then if you need to. Invest in one for reading that you can take with you in the car, to mass, on the airplane. E-versions are okay in a pinch, but you’ll find that the more time you spend in an “actual” Bible, the easier you’ll find your way around it, the more you’ll be aware of the context when you read, and the more comfortable you’ll be just picking it up and spending time there on a daily basis. Underline meaningful passages, note prayers in the margins, write down things that impact your spiritual life. Buy a Bible you can live in, and some day it will be a treasured hand me-down.
… then get another (or more) for study or illustrating
The first Bible class I took in college, the professor told us to buy a new Bible to use for class. He recommended the RSV as being good for study and told us to get a paperback so we wouldn’t mind marking it up. I mark up my good Bible too, but mainly to draw attention to passages that move me or things that I’ve learned. Getting that other Bible allowed me to add historical notes and commentary, definitions, key narrative points, and so on without cluttering up the one I pray with.
If you’re interested in the creative expression of “Bible journaling” and illustration, I recommend using a sketchbook or buying a separate Bible specifically for this purpose. (Although that used to be hard to find in a Catholic Bible, several new ones are now available. Look for one made with extra wide margins and heavier paper to handle colored pens and even paint and glue.) While illustrating a Bible can be an aid to meditation, heavy marking can draw attention away from the Word itself on subsequent readings — which is why I recommend a separate Bible for it.
A note on translations
Here are a few notes regarding the more popular Catholic translations of Scripture:
Some are made with ease of reading in mind: such as the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE) and the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB). The NABRE has the advantage of being the version we hear at mass, so sounds familiar and is the most widely-read Catholic Bible. Published by the US Council of Catholic Bishops, it is available in many different bindings, sizes, and editions with notes tailored for study or for various audiences such as youth, women, and so on.
Other Bibles, which also are good for personal reading, are closer to the original text and thus better for study: The Revised Standard Version-Catholic Edition (RSV-CE or 2nd CE), which is used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, has been the best literal version available to Catholics for some time and is the basis of the excellent Ignatius Catholic Study Bible. The “2nd Edition” of the Ignatius Bible has been typeset for greater readability. Another RSV-CE, The Didache Bible, Ignatius Bible Edition, contains commentaries based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. As it grows in popularity, it is being made available in a variety of bindings and editions including the Great Adventure Catholic Bible (Ascension Press) and the Bible in a Year (Augustine Institute) — both geared to helping people read through the Biblical text on their own.
Also excellent for study is the newly-approved English Standard Version-Catholic Edition (ESV-CE) I mentioned above. Based on the RSV, the ESV is widely regarded as the finest English translation available today for the way it combines literary excellence with word-for-word accuracy and faithfulness to the original languages. First published in 2001 as a Protestant version, it was later released “with Apocrypha” (the Deuterocanonical books) and then amended and released as an approved Catholic version in 2018.
While not as widely read today as the translations named above, many Catholics still prefer the old-English grace of the Douay-Rheims Bible, a translation from the Latin Vulgate that dates from the 1600s and was updated a century later.
For more information about the various Bible translations, there’s a helpful article on the Catholic Answers website (at this writing, it has not been updated to include the ESV-CE): Bible Translations Guide.
You can read more about the ESV and the ESV-CE, its development and its relationship to other Catholic versions at these links:
Finally, if you love praying the Psalms as I do, you might look into The Revised Grail Psalms: A Liturgical Psalter, by the Benedictine Monks of Conception Abbey. The Psalms are poetry, meant to be vocalized and heard; this translation was made specifically with an ear to rhythm suitable for liturgical song and chant. There’s an attractive and inexpensive paperback available that leaves plenty of room to make notes as you meditate.
The Bibles I use
For personal reading, I have for many years used a good quality leather-bound Bible (RSV-CE, Oxford University Press) that has no notes or commentary, mainly because notes tend to lure me away from prayerful meditation and into study mode. It also keeps the size down, so as an added benefit it’s easy to read in bed or carry with me.
An excellent new Bible for writing in is the Catholic Note-Taking Bible from Ave Maria Press. This RSV-CE Bible combines excellent readability, generous ruled margins for journaling and notetaking, and cross-references to the Catechism. I was privileged to contribute the introduction to the New Testament to this Bible; along with the other introductions there are also essays on how to become a Bible reader and how to love the Word and pray with it.
I often travel with a small leather Bible of just the NT and Psalms (RSV-CE, Ignatius Press), that I received as a gift. It is lightweight and fits easily into my purse or carry-on.
I am delighted now to have a copy of the ESV-CE, which I have often read (in its original version) since it came out 20 years ago. It is currently available only in a paper-bound, boxed edition which is very nice, but which may or may not withstand hard use. When it is made available in leather, I will likely make the leap from my RSV-CE.
For study I have an array of translations, study Bibles and commentaries at my desk, which will be the subject of a future post.
Whatever your choice or choices might be, I echo those words heard by St. Augustine: Take and read!
© 2020, 2021 Sarah Christmyer
For more information and resources for reading, praying with, and studying the Bible, visit the Resources page of this website or search the site’s blog post category Bible Reading and Study. There is a free download among the resources to help you build a library for Bible study.
Updated January 2021.