David Bentley Hart’s The New Testament A Translation (2017) (i)

Most translations of the Bible are made by people with religious commitments who, on the assumption that the text they are translating supports their views, process it in ways that reflect them, so setting up the prospect of circular arguments that could go on for ever. Not so Hart, one of the leading Orthodox intellectuals of North America, who sets out to render the New Testament into English ‘etsi doctrina non daretur’ (as if the doctrine were not given.) Attempting as he does ‘to make the original text visible through as thin a layer of translation as I can contrive to superimpose upon it’, he seeks to present the New Testament in a way that would have struck its earliest readers. Hence, the Holy Spirit becomes simply a Holy Spirit (but why the capitals?) ‘Jews’, a word now bearing a heavy and uncomfortable freight of meaning, becomes ‘Judeans’, ‘Christ’ is ‘the Anointed.’ Even the standard translation of ‘cosmos’, ‘world’, is rejected, on the grounds that the word really means the whole of the created order rather than the particular planet on which we live, and the Greek word is allowed to stand untranslated. This can be a bit jarring, but is probably worthwhile; the biblical phrase usually translated ‘the end of the world’ has nothing to do with an apocalyptic end of planet Earth! Three of the Evangelists frequently use verbs in the present tense to refer to a past action, and Hart translates these literally, a practice that will probably not be widely imitated but invests the text with an immediacy: ‘He said these things, and thereafter says to them…’; ‘he went outside again to the Judaeans and tells them…’

The overall outcome is astonishing. Familiar passages emerge in new ways. ‘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.’ ‘The proper time has been fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has drawn near; change your hearts, and have faith in the good tidings.’ We see more clearly than ever that the Jesus of Mark is impatient, and the sheer awkwardness of Paul’s style, a characteristic that translations often smooth over, that renders his arguments sometimes hard to follow.

Hart also provides a fascinating Concluding Scientific Postscript. Given a penchant for robust debate that will be familiar to readers of his other works, it is not surprising to find trenchantly expressed views. Discussing the authorship of the various books, he aligns himself with what he regards as the most credible modern scholarship, so that Paul is left with seven letters but the authorship of every other book, including the Gospels, is left open. (The attributions of authorship in the Orthodox Study Bible are overly respectful of tradition.) Hart’s style is also expressed in his occasional footnotes. Discussing the mysterious Junia mentioned at Rom 16:16 whose status and gender have been much discussed in the wake of the women’s movement,  he concludes firmly: ‘Junia the Apostle was a woman.’

This is a remarkable tour de force. Among Christians, Orthodox may be the most prone to reading Scripture in the light of their tradition. Hart’s preparedness to tackle it on its own terms is most rewarding. And some of his findings have important consequences for Christian doctrine. (To be continued.)


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