David Bentley Hart’s The New Testament: A Review

That David Bentley Hart was asked to produce a translation of the New Testament may at first seem counter-intuitive.  His field is philosophy and philosophical theology, not New Testament or Greek language (though he reads Greek).  Further, with the wide range of New Testament translations available to a general audience in English, not to mention the variety of Greek critical editions available to scholars, the need for another English translation of any kind is not obvious.

A philosopher tries his hand at translation

Hart’s translation work here is a project akin to having a New Testament scholar translate the works of Philo Alexandrinus.  Though they are philosophical works, a New Testament scholar would bring a perspective to them informed by knowledge of Hellenistic Judaism, the Greek scriptures, and the Greek language that scholars of philosophy might not possess.  Such a project might therefore produce unique insights into the texts that had gone unnoticed by specialists in the field.  On the other hand, there would probably be matters of philosophical importance which the New Testament scholar might miss or misinterpret working outside of his own field.  Both of these aspects, positive and negative, are true of Hart’s New Testament translation.  He both makes significant and worthwhile insights into the text, and occasionally misses resonances with, in particular, Old Testament traditions and Second Temple Judaism.

For his Greek text, Hart has chosen to work primarily from the 1904/12 Greek text issued by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.  He says that he has chosen this text as being representative of the Byzantine text type in general.  This is not actually correct.  The 1904/12 text is an eclectic text produced from 250 contemporary lectionary texts of the Patriarchate, and is heavily influenced by printed editions of the Greek lectionary received from Venice.  There is no overlap in manuscripts between this text, and the secondary texts which Hart utilizes in addition from the Byzantine tradition.

That said, without saying that he is doing so, Hart corrects the 1904/12 text on many occasions.  He, for example, omits the Comma Johanneum, found in the 1904/12 text through Venetian influence.  He does include the Pericope Adulterae, bracketed, but handles the issue of this piece of text well in a lengthy footnote.  He includes the more expansive form of Luke/Acts, including Luke 22:44 and 23:34, for example, without comment.  Hart is generally consistent in supporting ancient readings without fixating on the earliest manuscripts in a conjectural attempt to produce ‘the original text’.

Rigorous literalism?

In his introduction, Hart sets forth his translation strategy as being one of rigorous literalism.  One of his primary stated goals is to give, as much as possible, those without Greek access to the Greek text.  He translates idiomatic phrases literally, for the most part, rather than replacing them with a similar English idiom.  On the other hand, Hart’s forceful presentation in this regard is potentially misleading and frankly, he has read enough Heidegger to know better.  Any translation of any document requires interpretation, as words in one language do not simply ‘equal’ words in another language.  There are conceptual realities in Hellenistic Greek for which there is no adequate English words and vice versa.  As much as Hart wishes to present what he does here as science, there is a great degree of art as well.

That said, an attentive reader of Hart’s introductory material and his appendices will see his various presuppositions laid out rather plainly.  Hart is, for example, a universalist and makes no effort to disguise this, though his blanket statements that nothing in the New Testament opposes his view on this and a handful of other issues is again a bit disingenuous given his knowledge of philosophy of language.  Suffice it to the reader to know ahead of time that there is nothing in the New Testament which Hart is going to read as opposing this and other views as openly stated in the introduction and apparatus.  Hart lays out his presuppositions, though he seems reticent to acknowledge that they are, in fact, presuppositions.

The strongest element of Hart’s translation is his refusal to use stereotyped phrases and ‘church vocabulary’ in translating the Greek.  So, rather than the transliteration Devil we have the Slanderer.  Rather than eternity or eternal we have of the Age or the Age to come.  While many have seen the latter as an attempt to again bootstrap universalism, it is, in fact, more accurate to the actual text.  More importantly than bare accuracy, it points to a corrective to popular sub-Christian eschatology that has overtaken much of American Christianity.  Christ and the apostles speak, as the Creed has it, of ‘the life of the world to come’, of another coming age of the cosmos, not of some disembodied positive or negative eternal state.

Hart’s use of cosmos rather world is likewise helpful, in drawing attention to the true scope of redemption, beyond merely the world of human interactions.  Blissful for blessed is a master stroke both in bringing across original meaning, and in avoiding a word which has become uncertain in meaning due to its continued use.  The portion of Hart’s concluding postscript in which he lays out many of these translation choices is likewise extremely helpful, and shows the strength of the project in bringing his facility with non-Biblical Greek sources to bear on the text of scripture.

Some oversights

Less helpful are the places in which Hart ventures outside of his academic wheelhouse.  This includes the material, not completely confined to the postscript, on authorship and composition of the various New Testament texts.  Hart covers this information very much in brief, expressing his own personal views, for example, on Pauline authorship of the epistles, with no real regard for scholarly consensus on the one hand, or addressing the arguments for or against his own opinion.  Certainly, he does not really have the space here to fully address these issues in a scholarly way, and that being the case, it might better have been omitted.  His notations within the text regarding to whom the texts are attributed would likely have been sufficient.

There are also places, some of them significant, where while Hart is well aware of the larger Greek background of particular words and phrases, he appears to lack grounding in related concepts of Second Temple Judaism.  One major example of this is his translation of the prologue of the Gospel According to St. John, and his discussion of that translation in the postscript.  In speaking of the relationship between God and Word in this text, Hart shows himself well aware of the broader usage of the Greek terms in question, but fails to connect these to the ‘Two Powers in Heaven’ concept in the Judaism of the first century which recognized a second hypostasis of Israel’s God, and even connected this figure to the figure of ‘the Word of God’ in the Hebrew scriptures.  There is a related omission in his note on Jude 5, which leads him down a rabbit trail regarding Joshua.

Though the following may seem extremely technical, Hart makes an issue in the text, and has made an issue in related interviews, of the translation of the definite article in Greek, particularly in relation to the word spirit being applied to the Holy Spirit.  Hart goes so far as to accuse other English translators of here being misleading, sometimes even seeming to imply some nefarious motive.  Jude 19 has become a focal point for this discussion, as Hart states in a blanket way that the absence here of the definite article means that it cannot be referring to ‘the Spirit’.

The problem here is that at this stage of the development of the Greek language, what we call the ‘definite article’ in Greek was not actually functioning primarily as a definite article.  Originally Greek, like Latin, featured no definite article.  What is now considered the Greek definite article began appearing, though rarely in Attic Greek of the Homeric period, and when it did appear, it appeared solely as a demonstrative pronoun, meaning generally ‘this’.  In koine Greek, the Greek of the New Testament, this is still the primary function of the article.  Generally in New Testament grammars this is referred to as ‘previous reference’.  For this reason, the definite article is often used before proper names in the New Testament in continuous discourse, i.e., ‘this Jesus (the one we’ve been following) then said….’

The various uses of the article render a noun definite as a secondary factor.  If I refer to ‘this book’, it is a reference to a particular book.  Greek in this period also had an indefinite pronoun tis, which is usual translate as ‘some’ or ‘a certain’, as in ‘a certain man’ or ‘some person’.  If a noun is anarthrous, meaning that it has no article or pronoun in front of it, it may be definite or indefinite depending on context.  Given that Jude is a short epistle drenched in the literary traditions of Second Temple Judaism, it seems far more likely that he refers to the Spirit of God operating in the life of a person than to a philosophical notion of psychical and spiritual persons.  This, at least, is the understanding of the Greek scholars who produced the translations which Hart criticizes, and so at bare minimum, it is not an issue so obvious as Hart would like to have it.

Translation is always interpretation

Though in many places, Hart succeeds in his stated goal of giving a more direct and literal access to the underlying Greek text of the New Testament, as with all translators, he is also acting as interpreter, and so his presuppositions come into play.  As one example, Acts 13:48 is translated by Hart as, ‘…as many as were disposed to the life of the Age had faith’.  The verb here translated as ‘were disposed’ actually refers to those who were ‘designated’, ‘ordered’, or ‘ordained’ to the life of the Age.  This reviewer, like Hart, rejects the Calvinist interpretation of this verse.  However, Hart’s translation is at least misleading, in referring to an inner disposition rather than the action of another party.  The text, of course, gives no indication of who or how or why these persons came to be designated for eternal life.  Hart at least partially makes this choice for his readers.  Whether he is right or wrong in this choice, his stated goal is to not make such choices, but to merely represent the text and allow the reader to wrestle with its complexities.

David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament, taken on the whole, succeeds more than it fails in being a useful resource for the person wishing to engage in New Testament study without access to the original language.  Though, as all texts, it has its biases and makes decisions in translation, these decisions and biases are for the most part transparent to the careful reader.  This text could be well paired with, for example, an NASB Reference Bible, the two serving to correct each other in places, and supplement what is lacking in regard to apparatus, particularly with reference to Old Testament quotations and allusions.  Hart’s translation helpfully chips away at calcified usages, gives pause to assumed understandings, and gives the general benefit of slowing the reader down and provoking thought concerning Biblical texts that through familiarity have lost the impact that they might once have held.

Thank you to Yale University Press for providing a review copy of this title.

15 comments:

  1. Well said Father. Translation is always interpretation and the starting point is always one’s tradition. Even if one tries extremely hard not to let presupposition play in translation it is impossible to avoid. It is better to listen to the Cloud of Witnesses to gather the meaning of the text.

  2. Fr Stephen, I was wondering if you can give any more information about the two hypostasis of God in second temple Judaism. I hadn’t heard that before and would love to read some more about it, thanks.

    1. The book to read about it is Two Powers in Heaven by Alan Segal. Segal is a Jewish scholar who not only talks about this very common view in Second Temple Judaism, but goes into how it was declared a heresy by the Jewish communities of the second century in response to Christianity.

      Also, as a shameless plug, I’m going to be digging into it a bit in some forthcoming posts on my own blog about Christ in the Old Testament.

      1. Thank you Father! It seems like a great tool to have not only in regards to history but in the development of a thought that was already beginning to manifest itself. So many of us are completely ignorant in regard to what the Jewish communities believed at the time of Christ.

  3. Just wanted to comment on this: “Rather than eternity or eternal we have of the Age or the Age to come. While many have seen the latter as an attempt to again bootstrap universalism, it is, in fact, more accurate to the actual text.”
    I know this is what Hart claims, but this actually relies on a lot of really misguided philology/lexicography. Really, in this case, it’s built almost entirely on an etymological fallacy — and a misguided one, at that — which any first-year (or, really, first-month) student of ancient languages or historical linguistics should know the dangers of.
    Unfortunately, it’s gotten a veneer of academic legitimization in recent times, almost solely through the work of patristics scholar Ilaria Ramelli. But her monograph defending this interpretation of αἰώνιος, co-written with David Konstan, is fraught with so many problems, mistranslations, mischaracterizations, and just general logical leaps, that it shouldn’t have even passed any kind of peer review. I’ve catalogued dozens if not hundreds of its problems and mistranslations elsewhere.
    The short of it is that most translations of αἰώνιος like “of the Age” or “of the Age to come” and the like are impossible or stretch credulity to its breaking point; and transparently so, in instances like Mark 10.30. Amazingly, Hart translates the simple ζωὴ αἰώνιος here as “the life of *that* Age” — which is even more disturbing in light of Hart’s professed literalism. (There is no ἐκεῖνος here or anything. The fuller clause is suggests that Christ-followers, having cut ties with their former life, will now receive ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τῷ ἐρχομένῳ ζωὴν αἰώνιον, translated by Hart as “in the Age to come, the life of that Age.”)

    1. This is a little difficult to respond to in that there is more assertion here than argument. But at any rate, we’re talking about the New Testament, not Patristics here. This is one place where Hart, unlike some other places in which I criticized his approach in the review, follows rather closely with Second Temple Jewish understandings rather than philosophical ones. The word αἰώνιος comes over, as I mentioned in the sentences following the one you quoted, into the Creed and into Latin as ‘world’. This is because its usage in the New Testament is based around Jewish eschatology of a sequence of ages. It is the modern scholarly consensus that Christ, in his preaching, is working with a two stage eschatology of ‘this age’ and ‘the age to come’. This is also how the Fathers interpreted the eschatology of the Gospels in combatting chiliasm. Christ is not speaking of ‘eternity’ as a philosophical abstract concept or state of being. He is speaking of an age which is coming, and contrasting life in that age with death or condemnation in that age. Again, this is not connected directly to Hart’s universalism, because even universalists agree that that age, and life within it at least, have no end.

      Words derive meaning from usage. In the New Testament, often that usage involves not just, or even primarily, their usage in extra-Biblical sources, but their usage in the Septuagint, where Greek words are used to translate Hebrew and Aramaic concepts. Being unaware of this will lead one down a lot of dead ends.

      The specific example you offer is rendered slightly awkward by repeated use of the same word, which is bad form in English, but not in Greek. Still, as I mention in the piece, whether or not a noun is definite cannot be determined by the absence of a definite article. Since, in that sentence, the first usage of αἰώνιος is definite, the second usage is also definite, and is referring to the same ‘Age’, not a different one. The way we express previous reference in English is the demonstrative pronoun, so Hart is right there to insert the word ‘that’. The translation you here seem to propose, “in the coming eternity an eternal life” seems far more cryptic, and divorced from the actual concepts involved than Hart’s rendering. In fact, ‘coming eternity’ in Greek would be an oxymoron.

      I would also add, it only took me a few moments to see how previous English translations have rendered Mark 10:30, and without exception, from the KJV onward, they all translate “ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τῷ ἐρχομένῳ” as “the age to come” or “the world to come”. They then render “ζωὴν αἰώνιον” as “eternal life”. So they, in good English style, translate the repeated word in two different ways and convey roughly the same concept. Hart’s translation reveals that the same word is here repeated. And again, his stated goal is to bring the reader closer to the Greek text. Translating the same Greek word used twice in one sentence with the same English word is one way to do that.

      1. First off, you’ve made several presumptions here — about my level of knowledge/education, and also (strangely) have ascribed to me a translation that I didn’t make.

        You wrote “The word αἰώνιος comes over, as I mentioned in the sentences following the one you quoted, into the Creed and into Latin as ‘world’.”

        Let’s make one thing abundantly clear here: αἰώνιος itself can never mean “world” or “age,” because it’s an adjective and not a noun. (The Creed’s τοῦ μέλλοντος αἰῶνος is more or less synonymous to the gospel’s ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τῷ ἐρχομένῳ, both using αἰών here, and not the adjective; though of course the gospel also describes the life therein using the adjective αἰώνιος.)

        And I really can’t emphasize the importance of that. An enormous amount of confusion among modern unversalists — who, in contrast to Hart an Ramelli and others, for the most part can’t read any Greek — could be cleared up if they could differentiate between nouns and adjectives, or really had any kind of actual academic knowledge here.

        And I agree that we’re talking about the New Testament, not patristics. Which makes it all the curious, then, when Ramelli and Hart and others interpret things here through a suspiciously patristic lens. After all, this is precisely where linguistic revisionism on αἰώνιος had its origin. (By contrast, if the first place one looked was at, say, the Bauer-Danker NT Greek lexicon, one would never really think to reinterpret it the way they do.)

        And no one should deny or *is* denying that the two-age eschatology was formative for early Christianity and the New Testament. But in the big scheme of things, this actually turns out to be largely irrelevant for the interpretation of the adjective αἰώνιος itself. Again, when we see references to the “age to come” in the NT, we obviously have this Jewish scheme.

        But the overwhelming evidence suggests that the early Jewish and Christian use of αἰώνιος itself doesn’t ever signify the eschatological age by itself, a la “eschatological” or “pertaining to the age to come” or anything like that. Again, as in Mark 10.30 and other texts, everlasting life is something we can *attain* in the future eschatological age, and everyone would have been aware of the association; but we always have to understand and translate ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τῷ ἐρχομένῳ ζωὴν αἰώνιον here as attaining “everlasting life in the age to come,” not “life of the age to come in the age to come” or whatever. (And also not “in the coming eternity an eternal life,” as you suggested I would translate. Finally, it may be worth noting that “eternal,” in both Greek and English, is most often used to simply mean “everlasting,” and not to signify something that’s both beginningless and endless.)

        1. I made no comment whatsoever about your education level or any of the other things you ascribe to me at the beginning. You offered no alternate translation, and so I was guessing at what that translation might be according to your various assertions. I would note that now that you have offered such a translation, you have translated ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι as ‘in the Age’, which is precisely what you seem to be criticizing Hart for doing.

          I get the impression here that you are dogmatic on this point because you oppose universalism. I think you’ll find that if you Google my name, one of the first results that comes up will be a rather lengthy critique of universalism I wrote for this very blog. I disagree with Hart as much on that point as you do. But my review is not a review of Hart, or of Hart’s various ideas and personal opinions. My review is a review of what he printed on the page in his New Testament translation.

          In your offered translation, you translate the first half of the clause as, “in the age to come”. It is perfectly in keeping with Hart’s stated intent in his project to translate the two forms of the same Greek word with the same English word when they occur in the same clause. Frankly, I don’t see any real conceptual difference between the traditional translation and his. Since this verse says absolutely nothing about eternal punishment, I don’t see how universalism is here even relevant.

          1. I would have hoped that by this point, it would have been clear that we’re *not* dealing with “two forms of the same Greek word” in passages like Mark 10.30. I’m not sure how your Greek is, but you do realize that αἰών and αἰώνιος are different words, right? — the former a noun, and the latter an adjective. (My original response was to your “Rather than eternity or eternal we have of the Age or the Age to come.” These were Hart’s translations of adjectival αἰώνιος in Mark 10.30, not the adverbial clause ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τῷ ἐρχομένῳ, which instead uses the noun.)

            And the crux of the matter here is that these can actually have extremely different connotations, despite their obvious etymological connection. αἰών does not simply mean “age” and thus αἰώνιος “relating to an age” or anything like that, as many modern universalists would like to contend (and as I believe Hart himself may think).

            αἰών of course has a fairly broad range of denotations throughout Greek literature (including denoting spinal marrow on several occasions); and yet αἰώνιος is denominated from a very specific denotation here. It’s denominated from αἰών particularly in the sense of permanence.

            And again, as I suggested in my comment, in no relevant texts is adjectival αἰώνιος attested with the meaning “eschatological” or anything like that. In fact I have an outstanding monetary reward for anyone who can demonstrate that it more plausibly has this meaning (rather than “permanent” or “everlasting”) before much later patristic revisionistic interpretation — that is, anywhere in Jewish or Christian literature before the third century CE or so.

          2. To clarify: Hart understands αἰώνιος to denote “of the Age to come,” and I assume would have *translated* it as such in Mark 10.30 (“in the Age to come, the life of the Age to come”) if this weren’t aesthetically disastrous. Thus he translates the clause in Mark 10.30 as “in the Age to come, the life of *that* Age,” with “of that Age” signifying that this merely reiterates “the Age to come,” without the redundancy of actually writing out “in the Age to come, the life of the Age to come.”

            Again though, my contention — the one that’s in keeping with all the evidence that we have — is that αἰώνιος nowhere denotes anything even remotely like “of the [eschatological] Age to come,” but is a simple adjective that almost always denotes “permanent, everlasting.”

          3. Leaving aside your presuppositions about my education level and understanding, nouns and adjectives were not independent lexemes in koine Greek. Nouns were, at that point of language development, used as adjectives and adjectives as nouns with great frequency. Your dispute with Ramelli really has nothing to do with the correct reading of Mark 10:30. I understand that you are asserting repeatedly that these are two etymologically related words which have gained independent meaning by this point. I am asserting that this is not correct, in part, as I originally said, because what lies behind these Greek words is really the Hebrew ‘olam’, not extra-Biblical Greek usage, and in part because at this point nominal and adjectival forms in Greek were not functioning independently.

            Hart’s translation of Mark 10:30 does not imply in any way that there is some end point to the life of the age to come. Why would it? Hart doesn’t believe that there is an end to the life of the age to come. So again, you’re militarizing this verse in your battle against universalism unnecessarily.

            I really don’t feel that this discussion is productive at this point. I believe we’ve both stated our positions reasonably clearly. I believe its also clear that both of us are opposed to universalism, so we can leave it at that.

          4. For what it’s worth, I have no theological opposition to universalism. (I’m actually neither Christian nor Jewish, but am just interested in Biblical linguistics for its own sake.)

            And obviously I’d never deny that there are instances where adjectives are used substantively; but I think that if you really looked at all the evidence pertaining to this particular debate, you’d see that this is largely irrelevant here.

            And I agree that the crux isn’t Mark 10.30 itself. But it is primarily over adjectival αἰώνιος; and its reinterpretation as “of/in the Age [to come]” — at least on Ramelli’s side of things — is precisely so that its application to *punishment* can be said to describe merely “where” or when punishment takes place, as opposed to how long it *lasts*. It’s the difference between finite punishment in the age to come and permanent punishment (whether this is taken to suggest annihilation or eternal torment).

            The fact that you oppose universalism is fine too, obviously — though, again, I’m a non-believer, so the fact in and of itself doesn’t mean a whole lot to me either way. But if the crux is over αἰώνιος, for what it’s worth I still have an offer of $200 to the charity of anyone’s choice if they can demonstrate that any pre-3rd century CE Jewish or Christian use of the term is more plausibly to be interpreted as “of the age [to come]” or “eschatological” than “permanent/everlasting.” A simple citation will do.

  4. Thanks for the review. I appreciated that you actually read and referenced his explanatory notes. Many of the reviewers I have seen (who were dismissive of his translation choices) objected to things he clearly explained in the technical notes. It’s fine to disagree, but the reviewer should a least be aware that the common objections *have* been addressed, and it’s not much use to simply restate them in the review!

    Hart: “I have chosen the word ‘blue’ in this case, and here’s why”
    Reviewer: “He used the word ‘blue’ for no accountable reason! What’s up with that?!?!1!”

    You may want to double-check and clarify your reference to the “primary text” used by Hart. In his introduction he states that he “worked from the so-called Critical Text” and “consulted editions going as far back as the edition of Hort and Wescott from 1881 and as far forward as the current editions of the Nestle-Aland”. It is later in the introduction that he says “for the bracketed materials from the Majority Text, I consulted [two editions]… but ultimately I relied on the official Patriarchal Text…” I think your comments here about the text used are not wholly incorrect, but perhaps just incomplete?

    1. Hart: “I have chosen the word ‘blue’ in this case, and here’s why”
      Reviewer: “He used the word ‘blue’ for no accountable reason! What’s up with that?!?!1!”

      Haha! Yes, that’s exactly why I was glad to see this review done the way it was and why I stated what I did with my comment. Every critical review I have seen up to this point outs itself as coming from a place of tremendous bias that colors whatever it states.

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