David Bentley Hart’s The New Testament: a Translation has come to a bookstore near you. I have already written about Hart’s article (published in Commonweal in September 2016) in which he spoke at length of the genesis and need for such a new translation. Here I would like to look at the New Testament translation itself. Full disclosure: what follows are general comments about the work, not an in-depth examination of it. I am offering my impressions after having read a number of passages with great interest; this is more a book review than a comprehensive dissection. A full dissection and analysis would require more than can be sensibly put in a blog.
The work is characterized as one done “in the spirit of ‘etsi doctrina non daretur,’ ‘as if doctrine is not given’”. A blurb on Amazon describes it as “a pitilessly literal translation, one that captures the texts’ impenetrability and unfinished quality”. One cannot quibble too much with the intention of translating the texts with such scholarly objectivity as would free the translation from confessional bias. The texts say what they say, and a translator must resist the temptation of tinkering with the translation to bring it into closer alignment with his church confession. (One thinks perhaps of the Authorized Version’s translation of episkopos as “overseer” rather than as “bishop” in Acts 20:28, lest that episcopally-blessed Anglican version give the impression that Paul identified a presbyteros (in v. 17) with an episkopos. Which he of course he did.) The trick in all translation is to make the final product comprehensible when read (if it requires many long footnotes to be understood, it should perhaps be sold as a commentary, not a translation) and to accurately reproduce the meaning of the original. Literality is not a virtue in itself, but also insofar as it serves one of these two goals. And if the text retains too much of its “impenetrability” it will not be understood by its readers. Most translators realize that they have a pastoral responsibility to the readers to tell them what the text means, and this inevitably involves at least a little bit of interpretation. No one is free from bias in this regard—including individual translators such as Hart. It will not do to say “everyone is biased in their translation except of course me”. All translators have at least a mote or two in their own eyes. All the more reason for the unwary to use as many translations as possible.
Hart’s contention that all modern translations have been deliberately falsified (he speaks of “preposterous liberties taken” and of “pious fraudulence”) because they were produced by committees more mindful of confessional politics than accuracy is perhaps a little harsh, and seems to presuppose a lot of first-hand knowledge about what went on behind closed doors in those committees. Saying for example (as he did in an interview) that the New International Version “is simply not the Bible” seems rather over the top. I fully agree that this version skews some of its renderings in a Protestant direction (such as insisting on rendering paradosis as “the teaching passed on” when used positively and as “tradition” when the word is used negatively), but this hardly disqualifies it so completely as Hart suggests. I suspect that its popularity among American evangelicals contributes to his tremendous negativity regarding it.
There are both advantages and disadvantages in works produced by committees and in works produced by individuals. It is true that committees may be tempted to produce a text acceptable to all concerned, which may unfairly skew the meaning of the text to avoid controversy or to promote a confessional teaching, and Hart is right to call our attention to this fact and provides a valuable service in so doing. But it is also true that those committees afford little opportunity to individual translators to promote their own agendas. Regarding the versions produced by individual translators—these have the advantage of not being watered down by their peers on a committee. But these translators also have no brake upon their own idiosyncrasies, brakes such could be provided by that committee. Thus both committee-produced versions and individually-produced versions have their own strengths and weaknesses. Demonizing all the versions produced by committees is unfair—and perhaps a bit self-serving if one is promoting one’s own private translation. But there is another factor of which translators need to take account, a pastoral factor Dr. Hart the scholar has perhaps not thought of or, if he has, has given insufficient weight. It is that of congregational use.
There are two distinct needs and therefore two types of translations. Sometimes one needs a translation for study and minute exegesis (such as the kind Dr. Hart needs when he re-translates the New Testament for his class), and this will require a very literal rendering to show what the Greek actually says. At other times one needs a more elegant and flowing translation for congregational liturgical use, and here one must sacrifice literality for a true vernacular. To take one example: in vernacular English one speaks of “bread” in the singular (as in, “Please buy bread when you are at the store”), but “loaves” or “loaves of bread” in the plural—one would not say, “Please buy me two breads when you are at the store”, but rather “Please buy me two loaves of bread”. You can say “two breads” or “two artoi” in Greek, but not in truly vernacular English. Because no language is a mathematical equivalent of another, literal one-to-one verbal correspondence must be sacrificed when one language is translated into the vernacular of another. Scholars using the New Testament simply for study can ignore this and produce literal translations (I did one myself in my own commentary series), but translators producing versions to be read in church cannot. They cannot (for example) translate akrobustia as “foreskin” rather than “uncircumcised” without provoking giggles from the adolescents in the congregation when it is read in church, and they cannot simply leave the term phosphoros untranslated so as to read “till Phosphoros arises in your hearts” without provoking blank stares from pretty much everyone. A scholar can attempt such literality if he uses many long footnotes to explain his choice of rendering, but a translator mindful of congregational use does not have that luxury. Hart attributes the non-literal renderings to which he objects to bad faith on the part of translators (as mentioned, he speaks of their “pious fraudulence”), but at least a part of their concern to render the text non-literally is due to their concern for congregational use. Pastoral responsibility accounts for at least some of the result; one need not attribute it all to bad faith and pious fraud.
To come now to Hart’s own version: sometimes his literal renderings are quite wonderful and helpful, since certain words over time have become so “churchified” by long religious use as to be almost emptied of their original meaning. Thus Hart’s rendering of diabolos as “slanderer” rather than “devil”, and his rendering of ekklesia as “assembly” rather than “church” are certainly to be welcomed, for such renderings open up what the Greek words actually meant to their original readers and avoid later unhelpful accretions of meaning. It is too easy to understand diabolos as meaning simply “bad, and possibly having horns” if one renders it as “devil”, since the word “devilish” now means “very bad” or even “Satanic”. And rendering ekklesia as “assembly” helps one to see that ekklesia is what happens when the Christians of a given area assemble. (Thus Zizioulas in his Eucharist, Bishop, Church: “This ‘Church’ [at Corinth] is first and foremost the actual assembly of the Corinthians gathered to perform the Eucharist.”) Hart helps the reader to see that ekklesia in its primary meaning refers not to an organization, a building, or a clergy, but to the phenomenon of Christians gathering for the Eucharist. This is all very good.
My criticism of Hart’s overall translation is two-fold: in places it distorts the meaning of the text to bring it into closer alignment with some of Hart’s pet doctrines such as universalism, and it sometimes lacks sufficient comprehensibility. (It is also so spectacularly clunky and inelegant in spots that it is unsuitable for liturgical use, but that is beside the point since I believe Hart never intended the work to be used liturgically.) But perhaps I should mention a few examples.
I suggest that a part of Hart’s translation was motivated by his desire to prove that the New Testament does not teach the eternal punishment of the lost, and that God has no wrath toward them. That is perhaps why I could not find the words “eternal” or “wrath” in the text. I apologize in advance if I somehow missed them (as I said, this is a book review, not a dissection), but they certainly did not turn up where one might expect them. Thus, for example, we read in John 3:36 how “God’s ire” rests upon those not having faith in the Son, not “God’s wrath”, as in most other translations. Similarly in Revelation 14:10: “he shall drink also from the wine of God’s vehemence, mixed undiluted into the cup of his ire”. There is no difference in meaning of course between “wrath” and “ire”, but one suspects the substitution was made in deference to the polemics which have denied that God has wrath. And of course one can become irate without actually pouring out any wrath.
A clearer example of allowing personal ideology to determine the translation is his allergy to using the word “eternal” for the Greek aionios. The root of the word does mean “age” (and sometimes “world”, such as in Hebrews 11:3), but common to both “age” and “world” is the idea of immeasurable immensity, so that the word is used to denote things which were measureless and unending—things such as the life given to believers. Yet Hart refuses to use the word “eternal”, preferring the word “Age”, spelt with the capital, presumably to denote the Age to Come. Thus we find in Matthew 25:46, “These [the unjust] will go to the chastisement of that Age, but the just to the life of that Age.” Thus the famous John 3:16: “For God so loved the cosmos as to give the Son, the only one, so that everyone having faith in him might not perish but have the life of the Age.” Thus John 3:36: “He who has faith in the Son has the life of that Age”. Thus 2 Thessalonians 1:9: the unrighteous “will pay the just reparation of ruin in that Age”. In fact the term aionios often means simply “eternal”, with the primary meaning of endless duration, not always simply a reference to the Age to Come. This is its primary meaning such Old Testament texts as Genesis 21:33 (the Lord is theos aionios) and in Philo’s work On Noah’s Work as a Planter (which speaks of “the aidios word of the aionion God”). There are times when the New Testament text calls for the rendering “age” (e.g. Romans 16:25), but surely not in every instance. In the first century the word aionion often meant “eternal”, and a literalism which ignores cultural context is sometimes indistinguishable from fundamentalism.
It seems that what is at stake is not simply concern for a literal reading, but a desire to limit the suffering of the damned to a single age and to avoid the teaching that their suffering is unending, even if the rendering is done at the cost of some clarity. We can see this when he comments on his translation in Revelation 14:10. The text says that the torment of the damned ascends for “αἰῶνας αἰώνων/ aionas aionon” which he renders “to ages of ages”. In a long footnote he contends that the omission of the definite articles (i.e. “to ages of ages”, not “to the ages of the ages”, such as is found everywhere else in the Book of Revelation) means that the suffering is not eternal, but only (as he says) “for a very long time”. This is rather more weight than can be placed on a couple of prepositions, and constitutes special pleading, especially when the suffering of the devil, the beast and the false prophet are described in Revelation 20:10 using the required definite articles. (I note too that in Psalm 45:6 LXX God’s throne is described as eis aionas aionos—without the definite articles.) The long footnote is the first tip off. Generally speaking, the longer the footnote required to justify a reading, the dodgier the reading. Thus we find a correspondingly long footnote justifying the use of the term “chastisement” for kolasis in Matthew 25:46, and how it cannot mean eternal punishment as commonly understood and as translated everywhere else. (For a discussion of use of the term kolasis, I invite the reader to read my book Unquenchable Fire.)
I note in passing also his translation of 1 Corinthians 6:9 ἀρσενοκοῖται/ arsenokoitai as “men who couple with catamites”. Another long footnote explains that the word was not found in ancient literature before Paul’s usage of it and that it should certainly not be rendered “homosexuals” since our modern understanding of homosexuality as an orientation could not be found in the ancient world. This seems to me like another instance of special pleading. The words arsen (meaning “male”) and koite (meaning “bed”) are both found in the Septuagint rendering of Leviticus 18:22, and Paul was obviously using this verse in creating the composite arsenokoitai, by which he referred to those indulging in the proscribed behaviour of males bedding other males, apart from considerations of innate orientation or the youth of the other male being bedded. Hart’s rendering of the word sounds like an attempt to remove the verse from current discussions of homosexuality. Discussions of differences between homosexuality in the ancient world and now are indeed valuable. But refusing to use the word “homosexual” is just as much an interpretive reading as using the word. A rigorously literal rendering would be something like “those who bed males”. Talking about “catamites” (i.e. young boys) involves just as much interpretation as does using the word “homosexuals”.
I have already mentioned Hart’s singular rendering of koinonikos in 1 Timothy 6:18 as “communalists”, with yet another long note justifying the translation. Here I will just refer to my previous discussion of it as another example of Hart’s translation being guided by his personal views.
In spots Hart’s translation also is somewhat incomprehensible, so that it has to be accompanied by the recurring long footnotes. Sometimes the incomprehensibility comes from simply leaving the Greek text untranslated. Thus we read in John 3:16 how “God so loved the cosmos”. In our modern post-Star Wars era, this gives the inevitable impression of our boldly going where no one has gone before, whereas to the ancients the immensity considered in the word kosmos was that of the world in which they lived. The rendering is therefore not so much incomprehensible as a touch misleading. We also find that Hart renders John 1:1 as, “In the origin there was the Logos, and the Logos was present with GOD, and the Logos was god”, once again, with another long footnote. “Logos” has been left untranslated, leaving the footnote to explain why the first “GOD” was capitalized and why the final “god” was not.
Other bits are left untranslated as well. Thus Ephesians 2:2: the faithful prior to their conversion “used to walk in accord with the age of this cosmos, in accord with the Archon of the Power of the air”. “Kosmos” is left untranslated, as is “archon”. The meaning of the phrase “in accord with the age of this cosmos”, though literal, is not immediately apparent and might give the reader the false impression that the problem was with the immense age of the universe, not with one’s behaviour in the world. Odd sounding too is Hart’s rendering of 2 Peter 1:19, which says that we should attend to the prophetic word as to a lamp shining in a dreary place “till day should dawn and Phosphoros arise in your hearts” (cited above). Again we are treated to another long footnote explaining why the word often rendered “morning star” was left untranslated. Given that phosphorus is also a chemical element, the translation borders on the comic.
Other renderings also might bring a smile. In Philippians 3:2 Paul now exhorts his readers to “watch out for the ‘In-cision’, which conjures up an image of an incompetent surgeon (though admittedly translating the contrast between katatome and peritome is tricky). Also as cited above, in Ephesians 2:11 Paul tells his Gentiles readers that they were “the ones called ‘Foreskin’ by the so-called ‘Circumcision’ in flesh”, which reminds one of children shouting taunts at recess. The word akrobustia does indeed literally mean “foreskin” (thus in Genesis 17:11, “you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your akrobustias”), but the point at issue for those rejoicing in being “the circumcision” was not the absence of foreskin, but the fact of their initiation into the privileged people of God. The meaning of the taunt calling them “the uncircumcised/ akrobustia is more obscured than revealed by insistence on a literal rendering. The term is elsewhere used by Paul to denote a class of people, not a piece of flesh. Sometimes the meaning of a word resides in the history of its usage, and in these cases ignoring this history in favour of a literal reading can miss the meaning. As said above, translators providing translations for congregational use know this, and must work accordingly. They do not the liberty of literality that Dr. Hart has if their work is intended for liturgical use and they should not be blamed for choosing clarity over literality.
More misleading is Hart’s refusal to translate the Greek geenna as “Gehenna”, an unusual departure given his preference for leaving Greek terms untranslated. Instead he renders it “the Vale of Hinnom” in Mark 9:43, and he renders “the Gehenna of fire” in Matthew 5:22 as the “Hinnom Vale of fire”. Once again one suspects an attempt to avoid the usual associations attending the term Gehenna in the New Testament. The problem however is that his rendering might give the impression to the unwary that the Vale of Hinnom was a geographical site in Palestine, when in fact the inter-testamental use of the term referred to a place of eternal punishment in the next world. Rendering it as the “Vale of Hinnom” seems designed to separate the term from this cultural background.
My main difficulty with the work revolves around Hart’s stated view that all the English translations preceding his own were so flawed and misleading as to be almost worthless. In one interview he advised people not conversant with Greek, “Don’t buy or read any modern translation; none of them is any good.” Surely it is not necessary to so thoroughly denigrate everything that has gone before in order to promote one’s own contribution. Hart insists on a literalism of rendering to avoid denominational bias in the translation, but it seems to me that he is not as immune to the temptation of bias as he supposes. His translation, however well-intentioned and however many felicities it contains, is too idiosyncratic and forced to supplant all that has gone before it. We may use Hart’s work if we wish for private study. But other translations may still enjoy their place in the sun as well. Hart’s insistence that no English translation before his own was “any good” strikes one as rather prideful. All of them have their flaws, and all of them their valuable uses—including Dr. Hart’s.