The Holocaust, “holocausts”, and the NABRE

NABREcoverTightComplaints about modern Biblical translations succumbing to “political correctness” are hardly uncommon, most often revolving around the increasingly fraught usage of pronouns. However, sometimes such sentiments direct the work down the same self-defeating path of excavated meaning in surprising ways.

In the “Preface to the Revised New American Old Testament”, the editors of the NABRE make their apology for producing yet another Bible translation/revision along the usual lines, and provide as an instance of cultural changes in vocabulary the example that: “the term ‘holocaust’ is now normally reserved for the sacrilegious attempt to destroy the Jewish people by the Third Reich.”

A comparison of this 2010 text with the 1970 original NAB Old Testament shows that the while the 1970 version used the English word “holocaust” 295 times, the 2010 revision uses it once – in Psalm 40, in a passage quoted in chapter 10 of Hebrews, where both the 1970 NAB and 1986 RNAB New Testament translations rendered the  terms as “holocausts”.

There is clearly a kind of well-meaning neurosis behind the idea to suppress the term, out of deference to “PC” thinking’s characteristic fear of offending somebody’s hypersensitive feelings, or even illegitimately “appropriating” some concept that allegedly “belongs” to another’s “experience”. But this verbal evasion actually works to obscure the very meaning of the allegedly “reserved” usage of the term.

Precisely in order to place the Nazi slaughter of the Jews in such a context, the 20th century use of the term “holocaust” to refer to the Shoah was very clearly intended to invoke the Biblical meaning of the word: a complete sacrifice of the victim on the altar. Ironically, removing the word from the English Bible thus de-contextualizes the word in its application to the Shoah, stripping it of the very meaning intended; breaking the word’s linking of the modern atrocity to it’s Biblical roots. What happens, once nobody knows this word as a Biblical term referring to sacrifice, is that the term will inevitably come to be understood by rising generations as something akin to a brand name for an event not merely unique, but historically (and theologically) alienated from the history of the Jews, and of salvation history as a whole.

Ironically, the 1970 New American Bible was the only major modern English translation that used the word. It had been used in the Douay-Challoner tradition to translate the cognate term in the Latin Vulgate (holocaustum), which itself had a cognate in Greek that had been used in the LXX (holokautoma). But, as far as I can discern, none of the many Bibles based on the Masoretic text for the Old Testament used the word.

In other words, it was precisely the Catholic Biblical tradition that provided the word “holocaust” in English to begin with, and which provided the context for the word’s meaning in relation to the Shoah. That heritage has been abandoned by the CBA in the NABRE. In its place, they have substituted the expression “burnt offering,” a perfectly good one that mimics scores of Protestant translations over the centuries, but contributes nothing beyond that. How are the next generations supposed to remember the meaning if the word is reduced in its signification to a kind of disconnected label or “brand name”?