Mar 15, 2000

A Reflection on the Current Babel of Bible Translations

Does “freely given” really mean “without charge”?


Early on the morning of the eleventh Sunday of the year, I said Mass. As I read the last words of the Gospel that day, Matthew 10:8, I said to myself, “That doesn’t sound right.” Unfamiliar wording unexpectedly distracted me.

I was using the new 1998 American Lectionary. After years of saying Mass and reading Scripture, one has a sixth sense about unaccustomed phrases. The distracting words were: “without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.” Without cost? Surely I had never heard those words before.

Nothing is technically wrong with such words. But for amusement after Mass, I consulted several other sources about this unrecognized passage. The chapel in which I said Mass also had the 1970 American Missal. I looked up that translation: “the gift you have received, give as a gift.” That sounded only less odd than the 1998 version. One emphasizes “cost”, the other “gift”. Several years ago for Christmas, my brother and his wife gave me the OSV/Scepter Daily Roman Missal (1994), in which the same text read: “you have received without charge, give without charge.” This is what I now call the “MasterCard Version” as opposed to the current “Cost-Plus Version”.

It so happens that I have a book containing, in parallel columns, four other English translations of the Bible. They are, King James: “freely ye have received, freely give”; Modern Language: “freely you have received, freely give”; Living Bible: “Give as freely as you have received”; Revised Standard: “you received without paying, give without pay.” My desk copy of this same Revised Version (1962) gives: “you received without pay, give without pay”. I now call these two slightly different versions of the RSV the “Payless Version”.

The Jerusalem Bible (1966), itself a British version of a French translation, reads: “you received without charge, give without charge”. This must be the original location of the “MasterCard Version”. The New English Bible (also British, 1970) has another variant: “you receive without paying anything give without payment”. One begins to suspect that the English words are changed around at random (perhaps for copyright reasons?) just to be different — gift, cost, charge, pay, paying, payment.

The Jerome Biblical Commentary of 1968 (McKenzie) on this text translates it: “freely you have received, freely give”. These words evidently deal with whether the disciples should be paid for preaching. “It was clearly understood of the apostolic Church that the Gospel was not sold, nor were the apostles paid.” This remark, of course, necessitated reconciling Saint Paul’s statement that, by working, he was not a burden on the churches, with the idea that the apostles are worthy of their keep. Peake’s Commentary points out that taking care of wandering missionaries was a constant question. The 1990 New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Viviano) likewise states, “freely have you received” a surprisingly Pauline phrase (see Romans 3:24; 2 Corinthians 11:7), the point of which is that the divine truths of salvation are so important for everyone that they must be taught without regard to the listeners’ ability to pay.

Finally, I checked the Latin and Greek texts in my Mark. The concise four-word passages read respectively: “gratis accepistis, gratis date” (Vulgate) and “dorean elabete dorean dote“. Both look like, “freely you have received, freely give”. Though I normally do not think in Greek or Latin, this is still the lovely phrase that I remembered when I first read the unfamiliar text about “cost”. The German Catholic translation (1989) is similar: “umsonst habt ihr empfangen; umsonst sollt ihr geben” “freely have you received, freely shall you give”.

Now why bother with all these variations? One can hardly be against different efforts to translate the Bible into words we understand in this or that language. The comment in the Jerome Biblical Commentary seems correct: “They [the editors] did not wish to countenance the extravagant claims of advertising for the universal superiority of the one translation, since part of the serious study of the Bible is the recognition of the limitations inherent in all translations”.

Yet the use of Scripture in Liturgy, while not being unaware of, is not intended primarily for academic purposes. Saint Thomas warns that it is not always wise to change things because some different law or custom might be a bit better. Every time we change a word in the Liturgy, memories cease. We cannot remember whether it is “cost”, “pay”, “gift”, “charge”, “payment”, or what. As I look at the earlier 1970 and the later 1998 liturgical translations, both seemed more or less lousy to me. None in fact improved on the King James version: “freely ye have received, freely give.”


Father James V. Schall, SJ

The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.