A Thoroughly Watered Down Text Signifying Almost Nothing. A Brief Rant on the (RNAB) Translation of the Epistle from Last Sunday

Pardon another post from the Pet Peeve file, or is it the “Lost Opportunities File,” or is it simply the “FAIL!” File?

Avoid immorality? I must say that I had decided to preach out of the first reading on the Call of Samuel this past Sunday, so I had not carefully reviewed the Epistle (1 Corinthians 6).  Thus when the lector spoke the words “Avoid immorality,” I must say, I winced, and reached for a misalette. It couldn’t be, could it? Yes it was: 1 Corinthians 6:18; but with all the meaning and oomph surgically removed by a translator who seemed to want to hide the true and very specific meaning of the text.

Vague! “Avoid immorality?” It may as well have said “Do good and avoid evil.” Nothing could be more vague.

For the record the Greek text is Φεύγετε τὴν πορνείαν (Pheugete ten porneian) which is accurately and easily translated: Flee fornication (sexual immorality). It is a powerful admonition in the Greek, and just about every other English version of the Bible, except the Revised New American Bible (RNAB). I checked twenty other translations, and they all say “Flee fornication” or “Flee sexual immorality.”

Why on earth do we continue to use in the Catholic Lectionary a translation of this passage that is so vague and inferior? Even if the RNAB continues to be the basis of the Catholic Lectionary, could not future additions correct a passage like this; a passage, with its clarion call to chastity that is so necessary to hear in this sex saturated culture?

There are two fundamental problems with this translation.

In the first place, πορνείᾳ (porneia) (which is a specific reference to sexual immorality) is translated vaguely as “immorality.” I have written more extensively on this problem throughout the Epistles of the RNAB here: RNAB gets Porneia Wrong. But let it suffice here to say that “immorality” is far too vague.

Immorality can mean practically any sin. If I were to say, “That group is immoral,” I could mean almost anything from it being greedy, or racist, or violent, or just promoting some sinful activity. Frankly sex is not the first thing that comes to mind when the word immorality is encountered.

But πορνείᾳ (porneia) is a specific word referring to sexual immorality. Usually it refers to pre-marital sex (fornication), but sometimes it may be used to refer to other sexual sins, depending on the context, like incest or adultery.

So problem one is that “immorality” is so vague as to be inaccurate.

In the second place “avoid” (as in “avoid immorality) is profoundly weak as a translation of Φεύγετε (pheugete) which means, quite simply, “Flee!” It is a present, active, imperative verb in the second person plural. As an imperative it is thus a command, and merits the exclamation point: You (all) flee!

Strong’s Greek dictionary of biblical terms defines the verb as “to flee, escape or shun.

One might argue that “avoid” captures the word “shun” which is the third meaning. No it does not. “Shun” is a strong word, “avoid” in English is exceedingly more vague. “Avoid” says, “other things being equal, you ought to steer clear of this, if it is not too much trouble.”  “Avoid” is friendly advice. “Shun” indicates a strong detestation.

Flee, which is the first first meaning is an unambiguous command of warning, one which calls for immediate action due to something that is more than a small threat.

This Greek verb φεύγω (pheugó) is used 29 times in the new Testament (see here) and in no case is “avoid” the best or proper translation. In fact to use “avoid” would yield often times unintelligible, sometimes comical results. Consider some of the following verses and mentally try to substitute the word “avoid”

  1. The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream saying Arise and take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt (Matt 2:13)
  2. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism he said unto them O generation of vipers who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come (Matt 3:7)
  3. And they that kept [the pigs] and fled into the city and told every thing and what was befallen to the possessed of the devils (Matt 8:33)
  4. When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet stand in the holy place whoever reads let him understand  Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains (Matt 24:16)
  5. the disciples left [Jesus] and fled. (Matt 26:56)
  6. the woman fled into the wilderness (Rev 12:6)

In other words “fled” or “flee” is the first, and best translation of the Greek verb φεύγω (pheugó), followed by “escape.” “Avoid,” just doesn’t capture what is being said.

Pastorally, this is a lost moment for Catholics with the translation “Avoid immorality.” Not only is the meaning obscure, but the imperative voice of the Greek is almost wholly lost by the vague and suggestive “avoid.” Who will follow an uncertain trumpet? (cf 1 Cor 14:8). The clarion call of this text is to get way as far, and as fast as possible, from fornication. This trumpet-call is reduced to barely a kazoo by the translation, “avoid immorality.” And even if a listener does finally get that “immorality” here means “sexual immorality” he or she will hardly be moved by the word avoid.

The bottom line is that 1 Corinthians 6:18 (Φεύγετε τὴν πορνείαν. πᾶν ἁμάρτημα ὁ ἐὰν ποιήσῃ ἄνθρωπος ἐκτὸς τοῦ σώματος ἐστιν· ὁ δὲ πορνεύων εἰς τὸ ἴδιον σῶμα ἁμαρτάνει) is better and correctly translated as:

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body.  OR:

Flee fornication. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but the fornicator, sins against his own body.

In other words, Run! Flee! Head for the hills! Get as far and as fast away from fornication as you can.

Do you get it? Probably not if you heard the RNAB yesterday to wit: Avoid immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body. Not exactly a clarion call.

This is surely something to bring to the attention of the Bishops as a new Lectionary is prepared. Rest assured I will surely bring it to the attention of a few bishops I know. I pray you might do the same.

Painting at top: St. Paul Writing at his Desk by Rembrandt

64 Replies to “A Thoroughly Watered Down Text Signifying Almost Nothing. A Brief Rant on the (RNAB) Translation of the Epistle from Last Sunday”

  1. I am consistently almost scandalised by the translations; mostly only when references and types to and for Mary are left out.

  2. I guess I knew what it was supposed to say, or mean, so I guess I “heard” the real meaning in my head, even as I was hearing these vague words.

    As to the vague translation, a lost moment is right. Oh well, wouldn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable.

  3. Msgr. Pope,

    Is the translation you are referring to RNAB different from NABRE that has recently come out? I am thinking yes … and this the RNAB is what is used in the Lectionary.


    1. The NABRE changed only the Old Testamnet. It is my understanding that the NABRE is going to be the basis of the new lectionary but since the NT remains unchanged we will still have the problem. If that is the case perhaps the best we can hope for is some penciled in changes. They did that previously for example when they changed the words of the angel to Mary. RNAB says hail highly favored one. But the lectionary says Hail full of grace. Perhaps we can hope for a few more penciled in changes!

  4. Msgr Pope – I am shocked because I had in my mind this morning that I must find out the original meaning of sexual immorility and write a bit about that, and here you have done so – from the master theologian himself. Wonderful! Thank you! Also, I was suprised last Sunday when our priest did not preach on this very important, often “skirtted” subject. Very interesting how it was missed. Peace and gratitude to you.

    1. Well thank you. But I can can assure you, and some of my more erudite readers will also assure you, I am NO master theologian. Just a parish priest who did OK in the seminary 🙂

  5. this kind of thin I read the Douay Rheimes only or the Haydock edtition, with commentary, of same. The Nevarre translation also based on the Vulgate, with commentary is also excellent.

    Since I make every atempt to attend a TLM, and do the readings often daily from TLM Missal I know the correct translation.

    This is the problem that Church has faced since all the, now known to be bad translations, for the Mass.

    So much of our Theology comes out of the Mass, making the translations all important and I am glad you see the problem with these translations.

    The new Missal helps some with the better, not great translation, but there is so much more to be done. Just a step in the right direction.

  6. I could be wrong here, but I believe each parish can ‘opt out’ of the NAB/RNAB/etc and use the RSV-CE.

    My opinion on the RNAB? It stands for Really Not A Bible.

    1. No, when the new lectionary came out it replaced all three of the previously approved options.

    2. Sadly, in this case, the RSV-CE is little better: “Shun immorality”. You have to go to the footnotes to discover that “immorality” refers to specifically sexual matters.

  7. Msgr., perhaps a quick return to the DR or Challoner would fix this.

    One which can get my goat is: I hear everywhere “If you hear His voice today, harden not your hearts”. Yet I’d challenge most who say it, to say what comes next, because, well God’s wrath is sooo last century. The Invitiatory Psalm 94 is a warning to us all.

    [8] Today if you shall hear his voice, harden not your hearts: [9] As in the provocation, according to the day of temptation in the wilderness: where your fathers tempted me, they proved me, and saw my works. [10] Forty years long was I offended with that generation, and I said: These always err in heart.

    [11] And these men have not known my ways: so I swore in my wrath that they shall not enter into my rest.

  8. Thank you for making this point to the Bishops you know. Keep it up. I am putting you on my prayer list right now because you are doing what my heart and soul cry out to be done. Thank you so much. Can the urgency be sensed in a sea of apathy? I don’t know, but we must remain zealous and persevere as today’s St. Anthony the Abbot.

  9. I am wondering sometimes “Who is in charge, here?” This is one more very serious problem that we in the pews can see,but apparently those in positions to make decisions are at peace with. I think this translation is alarming! We had a very lukewarm forgettable homily on praying for vocations based on the gospel reading. Now praying for vocations is very important. However I don’t think I have ever heard a sermon on fornication and why it is so important to flee sexual immorality. We are bombarded 24/7 with a totally different message…a chaste and pure young adult is now considered peculiar if not downright offensive. We need more encouragement, direction, support and an alternative message presented. Last Sunday would have been a perfect opportunity.

  10. Msgr. Pope,
    My wife and I discussed this very issue yesterday after Mass.

    We attend Mass in Spanish and the Spanish version of this text is right on the money. When I read the lectionary text elsewhere, in English. I was incensed by its how insipid it is.

    When will our bishops help us understand the real power of Scriptural admonitions?

  11. I generally use RSV-CE in my writing. About the only positive I can think of right now for NAB is its translation of δοῦλος as “slave” rather than “servant”, which in some contexts opens up a different level of meaning in the NT about how the apostles, St. Paul in particular, viewed their relationship to Christ (“you were bought with a price” [1 Cor 6:20, 7:23] hooks right up to that). But it’s still befuddling why they would water down πορνεία like that.

    Thanks for this gripe, Monsignor! God save us from people who water down the evangelium to avoid making people uncomfortable!

  12. On the other hand, at my Mass, the lector misread “immorality” as “immortality.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, and limited myself to a heavenward eye-roll. “The body is not made for immortality…” and so on. Or maybe she had a translation I’m not aware of.

    1. I must have been at the same Mass! And then later during his homily, the deacon continued in this vein and said that we must fight immortality! Oy vey!

      1. Same here! Reading along as he misspoke, I wondered why many folks make a fuss when people take out the missalette during the readings. This is a perfect example, I think, of why it is good to do so (since I don’t have the NT memorized!)

  13. I was the lector in my parish for the 2nd reading. In preparing I read it several times, both silently and aloud. I could not understand the connection between “avoid immorality” and “every other sin is outside the body.” It made no sense. Then I read a reputable commentary, and only then did I understand the author’s meaning. These translators do us a disservice.

  14. It probably also doesn’t help that verses 15b-16 were omitted from the lectionary rendering of this passage:

    “Shall I then take Christ’s members and make them the members of a prostitute? Of course not! [Or] do you not know that anyone who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For “the two,” it says, “will become one flesh.” “

    1. Yes, if the Mass reading is read in context with the actual Bible, and those passages are read in context with the surrounding text, it is clear and without ambiguity, even in the NAB translation.

      In context, Paul is really talking about separate, but related things — (1) in the passages before the omitted part, he speaks of various sins, including both sexual and non-sexual sins and (2) the passage after the omitted part, including the “Avoid immorality” verse, clearly refers to sexual sins, given the context of prostitution, etc.

  15. When I listened to the lector read this epistle, I too wondered why our priest did not speak out on this. We live in such a sex-saturated society, and many, many have fallen prey, married and single alike. Cardinal Dolan in NYC did speak out on this and handled it very well.

  16. Isn’t this the same translation that changed Mt. 16:26, Mk. 8:36 from “What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his SOUL?” to “What shall it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his life?”

  17. This has been the NAB translation since 1986 when the Revised Edition of the NT was published. It has thus come up at least 8 times in the Sunday Lectionary since then; and it is just now being noticed?

  18. Msgr. Pope,

    Thank you for filling us in on the real message of St. Paul’s admonition to the Church in Corinth. The RNAB version only serves to neuter the actual meaning of Scripture. Let us pray for a better translation of Scripture now that we have an improved translation of the Roman Missal.

  19. Your rant is right on. I use neithe the NAB or the RNAB in my opinion to misleading
    and not worthy to be on my bookshelf.

  20. I also “heard” the correct meaning in my head, probably because having grown up Protestant, using the KJV, NKJV, and NAS, I am familiar with the stronger language. (I am aware that these translations have other serious anti-Catholic flaws.) Of course, our lector actually said, “Avoid immortality,” and I had to work to keep from snickering.

  21. I am grateful to read your great exposition, Msgr Pope: “Rant on!” Every day I read the pericopes and compare them with the un-bowdlerized full texts, and every day I am dismayed at the creative cuts that manage to leave out anything even slightly challenging. As for the word choice, it often functions like whipped topping, placing a layer of fluff between the reader and the often hot, gritty meaning of the text.

    Again I say, “Rant on!”

  22. In this day and age i think that even the term ‘fornicate’ should not be used. I think they gotta say ‘having sexual contact outside of a marriage’. or something along those lines….

  23. I thought the whole English speaking world would have been using the same translation. In Australia we have been using the Jerusalem bible. Our reading said “The body is not meant for fornication.” and “keep away from fornication.” Also why hasn’t there been a common lectionary and will there be one in the future?

  24. Furthermore, there’s a problem in that half the lectors I’ve ever heard tend to confuse “immorality” and “immortality”! So I frequently find myself admonished to “avoid immorality” or told of the day when we shall “put on immorality” in heaven.

  25. Gaah. Or course, I meant to give the error “avoid immortality,” typed it correctly and nicely bollixed up my point. Or perhaps proved that when one is flying along, the difference can be missed.

  26. In Canada this past Sunday we got the full “Shun Fornication!”. Mind you, it’s REALLY cold right now, so the temptation is a little less than in warmer climes and times.

  27. Don’t some translations of Christ’s words to the woman caught in adultery water down: “Go! And sin no more!” to “Go! And avoid this sin .” I don’t know Greek or have a good commentary to check which translation is more accurate.

    1. I just check the Greek text at John 8 to which you refer and the word in question is μηκέτι which means “no longer, or no more” Hence Jesus says more literally to the WOman “Go and sin no more.” Here to the RNAB text is deficient “Avoid this sin” is far weaker than “sin no more” !!

  28. Terrific post! Just what I need to show seminarians the importance of good translations — and the aptness of such texts for preaching on precisely what the world needs to hear. It appears Archbishop Dolan did.

    1. Janet,

      Excellent! Many of us are aware of the translation debacle (the PSALMS translations completely miss the meaning and have us furious at times) but to see you passing this on to our children’s future priests
      is a sure blessing! Most of us don’t have an opportunity such as yours to” pass on Faithfully what was given ”
      to such an extent. So our support and prayers are with you, please pass it on for all of us! And we in our turn will affect those whom we can around us.

  29. Here’s the lineup, Father Pope. The old Douay looks better every day. Even the “conservative” RSV misses the mark. The RSV is, essentially, a Protestant work, but generally the Protestant versions get it better than the Catholic ones:

    RSV 18: Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body.

    NRSV 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself.

    Douay 18 Fly fornication. Every sin that a man doth, is without the body; but he that committeth fornication, sinneth against his own body.

    NAB 18 Avoid immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body.

    KJV 18 Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.

    WEB 18 Flee sexual immorality! “Every sin that a man does is outside the body,” but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body.

    ESV 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.

    NASB 18 Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body.

    NIV 18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body.

    YOUNG 18 flee the whoredom; every sin–whatever a man may commit– is without the body, and he who is committing whoredom, against his own body doth sin.

    Greek 18: feugete (5720) thn {FLEE} porneian {FORNICATION.} pan {EVERY} amarthma {SIN} o ean {WHICH} poihsh (5661) {MAY PRACTISE} anqrwpoV {A MAN,} ektoV {WITHOUT} tou {THE} swmatoV {BODY} estin (5748) {IS,} o de {BUT HE THAT} porneuwn (5723) {COMMITS FORNICATION,} eiV {AGAINST} to idion {HIS OWN} swma {BODY} amartanei (5719) {SINS.}

    Vulgate 18 fugite fornicationem omne peccatum quodcumque fecerit homo extra corpus est qui autem fornicatur in corpus suum peccat

    ASV 18 Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.

    Darby 18Flee fornication. Every sin which a man may practise is without the body, but he that commits fornication sins against his own body.

  30. I thought that all English speaking countries used the same translation for the readings at Mass. I guess they don’t, as at Sunday Mass in Vancouver, BC, the admonition to “avoid fornication” or similar wording (the word fornication was certainly there) was right there being read from the lectern for the second reading.

  31. You know I didn’t notice the ” slight of hand ” you just discussed. But when the reading was being done, I was reflecting on the meaning of ” immorality ” and knew what it meant and that St Paul ( and Christ and the Church) made this an imperative . Perhaps the translators felt that ” immorality ” covered all the sexual sins and not just fornication. Or perhaps they felt that ” fornication ” was a term too graphic for mixed audiences and I can understand that point. It is interesting that you mentioned the Greek text because I was unaware that an original Greek text had survived or that St Anthony had access to it or a certified copy? Just a point to consider. I do think the Church has to keep in mind the audience. But I certainly see your concerns. When St. Paul was writing he was not writing to children or the unlettered, he was first writing to the Bishop and Priests at Corinth. It would have been their duty then to pass on and preach the message. But even they must have been concerned just how to preach the message without scandalizing the young. And if in their preaching they used a ” translation ” like ” immorality,” I’m sure the Corinthians were intelligent enough to get the drift.

    1. they didn’t have to get the drift Paul used a clear word: porneia = sexual immorality. The point of the article is that the english translation we are using is poor, not that the Greek is unclear or subtle, it is not.

  32. I have an original NAB, which is pretty good. My favorite is the New English Bible (60s NT and 70s NT) with footnotes. The best bet these days however seems to be the RSVCE. As a good Anglican i can usually get away from the KJV at mass and use the NEB. The new NAB seems to have an agenda other than Jesus Christ.

  33. The Douay-Rheims translates this verse “Fly fornication.”, which sounds like they mean libertine flies. “Flee
    fornication” sounds better grammatically. The lector at my church mangled this verse even more by repeatedly
    reading “Avoid immorality” as “Avoid Immortality.” An interesting Freudian slip for a Christian. Speaking in public makes me nervous so I sympathized with him.

  34. Some day someone should put together a biblical commentary by going through all of the (thousands of) homilies, talks, papers, and books in which Joseph Ratzinger / Pope Benedict provides a reflection or explanation of a given scriptural passage, connecting up by footnotes each passage to his explanation. Same with Karol Wojtyla / Pope John Paul II.

  35. Yes, I should also join the anecdotal throng by mentioning that our young lectress deadpanned twice during that reading for us of the flock to ‘flee immortality’.

  36. Our churches now have many couples living together who are not married. Where the reading of 1 Corinthians 6:18 is vague the sermon needs to make it clear. But never have I heard a priest speak of the sin of fornication!

  37. Yes, being one of those dogmatic-types, I personally find it very difficult that the Church would approve for liturgy any translation that at best blurs the teaching of the Church, and at worst, contradicts it.

    Specifically, the issue of the Johannine comma being excluded from most every “reputable” modern translation in English, after the PBC (when it still had authority) declared that we could not even doubt that it was inauthentically a part of the Scriptures.

  38. Thank you, Monsignor! This has been on my pet peeve list for years. This, and Mary saying, “I have no husband”. ARGH!

    Pax et Bonum,

  39. No one mentioned the Nova Vulgata. The Latin there reads it like you do, which is pretty much the same as the Duoay Rheims translation.

  40. Had some more thoughts. You noticed the difference for two reasons. First, you obviously read your Bible, privately, as part of your daily prayer life, so you were aware of how your Bible translated these passages. Secondly, prior to 1967 ( or about that time ) you may not have been aware of the difference ( if there was one ) because the readings were in Latin! Of course I’m not saying that Priests didn’t know their Latin, they all studied it for 4-12 years in those days, but I’m sure that early in the morning it was hard to concentrate on the Latin of the readings while still rubbing the sleep out of your eyes. But certainly, the vast majority of the faithful would have been igonorant of the difference in those days. And I doubt if many were aware of the difference last Sunday.

    You’ve got me reading the General Instructions for the Missal ( still at it ) and one of the interesting things I found was that this Missal is only for the English speaking world. One wonders what the others are like, if there are the same differences? And how about the non-Roman rites? Are they getting a new Missal also? If not, why not? Surely to ” …speak with one voice…” applies to them as well.

    Finally, I wonder what Latin translation the Holy Father used in his Mass last Sunday? Or, what translations does he use on any given day, even in the vernacular of the group he is celebrating wirth? Surely, the whole Church should be praying from the same Missal used by the Holy Father- at least in the Roman rite?

  41. This should be encouraging. It is from the ” Fifth Instruction ” For the Right Implementation of the Constitution of the Sacred Litutgy of the Second Vatican Council published by the Congregation for the Divine Worship, and is on “…Use of the Vernacular…”

    24. Furthermore, it is not permissible that the translations be produced from other translations already made into other languages; rather, the new translations must be made directly from the original texts, namely the Latin, as regards the texts of ecclesiastical composition, or the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, as the case may be, as regards the texts of Sacred Scripture. [24] Furthermore, in the preparation of these translations for liturgical use, the Nova Vulgata Editio, promulgated by the Apostolic See, is normally to be consulted as an auxiliary tool, in a manner described elsewhere in this Instruction, in order to maintain the tradition of interpretation that is proper to the Latin Liturgy.

    So it would appear that the daily Readings will be or should be fairly close to the Latin Text of the Missale Romananum, editia typica libra. In other words, the translations should follow closely, but not slavishly ( see above) the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek with the Nova Vulgata Editio used as an auxiliary tool. So, come Fall, the Readings should be more in line with the more traditional Latin translations ( i.e. those coming from the Clemtine and the Nova Vulgata. That is my reading of the situation.

  42. And it’s not as if the translators were shy about the word “sexual”. I’m always embarrassed at Mass when the lector is forced to read the passage in Genesis announcing Isaac’s birth: “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years, and Sarah had stopped having her menstrual periods. So Sarah laughed to herself and said, ‘Now that I am worn out and my husband is old, am I still to have sexual pleasure?'” Every other translation says simply that she was past the age of childbearing and wanted to know, “Will I still have this pleasure?”– the pleasure of having a child. It’s like the RNAB goes out of its way to be different.

  43. I am consistently scandalized and disappointed with the current lectionary translation – srap the NAB and go with the RSV. It’s more beautiful and accurate.

  44. Thankyou Thankyou Thankyou.

    Jesus does not call us to pussyfoot our way out of sin.

    He calls us to a radical response.

  45. For the lay missals they should print them with various translations. You should be able to choose the one you want. Not like you’re up there reading it. If they want the priest to read from the clown mass NAB, fine, but let the people have a decent translation to read in their missal.

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