In this third installment on the David Bentley Hart version of the New Testament, we will be discussing the introduction to his translation.
David Bentley Hart provides us with 22 pages of introduction to his New Testament—pages which offer us tremendous insight into this unusual translation as well as to the New Testament itself. Most translation introductions have all the personality of a form letter, usually something along the lines of, “we are building on the work of the previous 400 years of English Bible Translations in this translation which is necessitated by new archeological discoveries and changes in the English language.” Not so with this one! In this post I summarize and quote some of Hart’s points, arguments, and digressions, and provide a few examples of how his aim has manifested itself in his translation.
Purpose of the Translation
Hart begins with an observation, much like that of Ronald Knox, that there is no such thing as universal acclaim for a Bible translation. Whether one goes in a literal or a dynamic direction one will be causing “consternation (and perhaps indignation) in many breasts.” He comes to the conclusion that, “it is a game in which no player prospers.” Why then attempt a new translation? “I have often enough found myself retranslating passages of the New Testament for students in a lecture hall,” he writes, “in a rather ad hoc fashion, because whatever printed translation they were using obscured aspects of the original text I thought extremely important.” Putting it more forcefully, in what might be the thesis of this Introduction, he writes “I have come to believe that all the standard English translations render a great many of the concepts and presuppositions upon which the books of the New Testament are built largely impenetrable, and that most of them hide (sometimes forcibly) things of absolutely vital significance for understanding how the texts’ authors thought.”
Hart criticizes how the groupthink of committee translations causes the repetition of hallowed renderings from earlier translations to win out over more daring ones. You might think that Hart might be defending the practice of Dynamic Equivalency, but you would be wrong. It seems he is speaking about how even formal equivalence translations nowadays are choosing words and phrases that are not modern literal equivalents, but are just choosing what the Tyndale-King James stream decided were the literal equivalents. I find myself nodding in agreement here. How did the NAB go from being a widely derided translation to one that had earned grudging respect? A cynic might say it did so by stealing from the KJV until it was basically a smoothed out RSV. Hart does not get into the nitty-gritty of any translations specifically, but does cite the NIV and ESV as “notorious examples” of two translations especially tainted by preconceived doctrinal concerns. While using the adjective “notorious” might be going a bit far, the NIV’s treatment of Paul’s letters has been criticized by even the evangelical Anglican NT Wright for translating as if Paul was an evangelical Protestant, and there have been debates for years about possible pernicious Calvinist influence on the translation choices of the ESV. Hart notes that translation and theology have long influenced each other in both directions. He calls particular attention to the Vulgates “inept” rendering of Roman’s 5:12 as influencing the Western understanding of Original Sin.
DBH “Therefore, just as sin entered the cosmos through one man, and death through sin, so also death pervaded all humanity, whereupon all sinned”
Douay-Challoner “Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned.”
RSV “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.”
NAB “Therefore, just as through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned.”
The important difference here is in “whereupon” (DBH) vs “in whom” (reflecting Vulgate) vs “because” (RSV) vs “inasmuch” (NAB). One should note that Eastern Orthodoxy does not have the consensus that the West does about Original Sin and the relationship of the Fall to human fallen-ness.
David Bentley Hart reports that the only way he could have translated was to be as “scrupulously faithful” as he could and “not merely reiterate readings of the text” so he could show these aspects of the text that had been inadvertently concealed by the last 400 years of translation tradition. “Where difficult words or syntactical uncertainties or grammatical obscurities appear in the Greek, the solutions favored by earlier translators are generally carried over by their successors, even where there may be more plausible or interesting alternatives.” Hart’s choice of the word “interesting” will be one to remember as we continue to study this translation. Those who cannot read Greek, he says, have been deprived of the true flavor of the New Testament—its clarity as well as its obscurity.
Hart prefers to think of his work as “reconstructive” rather than “revisionist”. Theological orthodoxy, he thinks, is too strong for us to be worried about properly translating the sacred text. If renderings like his could possibly damage theological orthodoxy, did it even deserve its title as such? “My principal aim,” he writes, “is to help awaken readers to mysteries and uncertainties and surprises in the New Testament documents that often lie wholly hidden from view beneath layers of received hermeneutical and theological tradition. And I would hope my translation would succeed, in many places, in making the familiar strange, novel, and perhaps newly compelling.”
Reading this, you might expect a translator to call into question all number of dogmas and traditions, but off the top of my head the only two things Hart calls into question are the Western formulation of Original Sin (more on this later) and the Reformation view of Paul in Romans and Galatians. The elephant in the room is how his translation handles Hell and its eternity (or lack thereof). We will get to that in length another time.
Matters of Style
In this section of the introduction he gets right down to business: “I should note that this is not a literary translation of the New Testament,” he writes, “much less a rendering for liturgical use.” This brings up a question I am quite curious about: does Hart see a place for literary translation and what sort of translation should be used for liturgical proclamation? I doubt I will ever have an answer to that question—rare is the theologian in Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy who is less explicitly liturgical in their concerns than David Bentley Hart.
In whether his translation is “formal” or “dynamic”, he says it would fit in the former philosophy rather than the latter, but quickly notes a translator should not fall into any philosophy. “I cannot emphasize this too starkly: I have not chosen to fill in syntactical lucunae, rectify grammatical lapses, or draw a veil of delicacy over jarring words or images.” Illustrating this he specifically cites the Greek word “akrobystia”, normally translated tamely as “uncircumcision”
DBH “For neither circumcision nor having a foreskin means anything, but rather a new creation.”
Douay Challoner “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.”
RSV “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”
NAB “For neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation.”
This section of the introduction is quite fascinating and without controlling myself I would simply transcribe it here at length. He notes that when the Greek is broken and hard to understand, he has translated it into English which does not conceal this. (He mentions parts of Paul’s letters as particular examples.) In places where the Greek is bad, as in Revelation, in his and many other scholars’ estimation, he has translated it into “bad English”. He writes about a common way of writing in Koine Greek was to leave out predictable verbs, possibly in order to save writing materials in an age where they were more precious. For this reason, a translator is forced to add words, to a greater or lesser degree, to turn the Greek into sensible English. He notes that the choice of which verb to add does far more than amplify the meaning of a phrase, and can often “determine” the verse’s meaning. He says that he has added the verbs in places that seemed obvious and uncontroversial to him, but left things as they were far more often than most English translators. Likewise, he has not corrected or clarified places where Paul’s urgency strikes us as opaque. This word, “urgency” is an important one, as it seems Hart finds the New Testament’s authentic witness to be in its literary weakness and urgency. I am reminded here of Paul’s writing on the folly of the Cross to the Corinthians. Rather than adding a number of conjunctions to clarify Paul, as many translations have done, Hart has allowed himself only to use punctuation: dashes, commas, and even parentheses, to organize Paul’s often tangled sentences. (I’d like to give a shout-out here to anyone of you readers who has had to read any of Paul’s exceptionally long sentences in their duties as a lector.)
For the reader of Hart’s New Testament, the hardest part isn’t the lack of certain familiar vocabulary, but the constant switching of tenses. Hart is quite skeptical of the academic consensus about how to treat verb tenses in New Testament Greek—especially the historical present. I’ve heard in certain Protestant circles an idea that the historical present signifies a past event that equally applies to us now, as a sort of eternal event (I am explaining this badly, I suspect). Hogwash, in the mind of David Bentley Hart. For those who don’t know the historical present, pay attention to the next time you hear a storyteller spinning a tale—how they slide effortlessly from past to present tense, especially at important and visceral parts of the story. In English we have retained this in speech, but not in writing. Koine Greek was first and foremost a spoken language, not a literary one, and is chock full of the historical present tense. Hart notes that in the Gospels its use is “haphazard”, but “my interest is accuracy.”
DBH “And they crucify him, and portion out his garments, casting a lot upon them regarding who would take what.”
Douay-Challoner “And crucifying him, they divided his garments, casting lots upon them, what every man should take.”
RSV “And they crucified him, and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take.”
NAB “Then they crucified him and divided his garments by casting lots for them to see what each should take.”
That example does not give the full effect—the constant switching back and forth of past and present tense verbs. Hart says that he grew fond of the effect, and I have to say that I agree with him.
In many cases he has chosen to retain the literal meaning of a Greek word rather than its familiar translation. Thus, you will find “Anointed” rather than “Christ” or “Messiah” and “Slanderer” and not “Satan”. Note that these two words are used as proper nouns. He also uses “assembly” rather than “church” or “Church”, but takes pains to say this is not out of a low ecclesiology but rather to point out, “that this was once an ordinary word with an ordinary meaning.” He notes two places where he stuck with the traditional word. Though he toyed with using “emissary” or something similar rather than “apostle”, he felt that “apostle” has already become a technical term in the time of the New Testament’s composition, and that it still retained some of its old meaning in English as “one sent”, which is what the Greek reader of the New Testament would have understood it as anyway. He also mentions how the Greek word we hear translated as “angel” is simply a word meaning “messenger” or “herald”, but it is almost never used in the New Testament to mean a human messenger. At this time it is already a word referring to a spiritual being and not a human one. In a hint to one of the more interesting things we will talk about in an episode or two, it can also mean “one of the devil’s deputies.” In a hilarious digression he writes, “talk of ‘legions of messengers’ would, at least for me, immediately summon up images of massed ranks of mailmen or bicycle letter carriers or hotel bellhops, and to say that the face of Stephen before the Sanhedrin looked like ‘the face of a messenger’ would lack a certain poetic force.”
He says he did his absolute best to translate a Greek word with the same English equivalent each time, “even when the result is less than perfectly attractive or utterly clear or when another course might be recommended by prevailing theories of translation,” he writes. He does this to preserve the plays on words present in the New Testament and then points to John 3:8 as an illustrative example.
DBH “The spirit respires where it will, and you hear its sound but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; such is everyone born of the Spirit.”
Douay-Challoner “The Spirit breatheth where he will; and thou hearest his voice, but thou knowest not whence he cometh, and whither he goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
RSV “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”
NAB “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
It should be noted that Hart is a believer in Nabakov’s opinion that a good reader always has a dictionary on hand, and so he does not mind the occasional strange word. I do not know that this was a particularly persuasive example for Hart, as both the RSV and NAB heavily annotate this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus to make sure we know that there is wordplay going on. Frankly, I’m almost bored of hearing about “spirit”/”breath”/”wind” and “again”/”from above” at this point.
One of the most interesting points of the introduction is Hart’s assessment of the Greek styles of the inspired authors. “The power and beauty of the New Testament are, for the most part, largely unrelated to its literary quality, which is often quite meager (at least as these things are conventionally judged).” Here’s his report card:
Author of the Letter to the Hebrews: “…a fairly distinguished and erudite style…obviously an accomplished native speaker of the tongue…”
Luke: “…wrote in an urbane, unspectacular, but mostly graceless prose…”
Author of First Peter: “…clearly an educated person whose primary language was a fairly refined form of Greek.”
Author of Second Peter: “…wrote in a somewhat bombastic style, of the kind classically called Asiatic Greek…”
Paul: “…Paul’s letters possess an elemental power born out of the passion of his faith…his prose occasionally flowers into a plain but startling lyricism; but his Greek is generally rough, sometimes inept, and occasionally incoherent…”
Mark: “…contains obvious solecisms and is awkwardly written throughout…”
Matthew: “…the prose of the Gospel of Matthew is rarely better than ponderous…”
John: “…perhaps the most structurally and symbolically sophisticated religious text to have come down to us from late antiquity…written in a Greek that is grammatically correct but syntactically almost childish (or perhaps I should say, ‘remarkably limpid’), and unless its author was some late first-century precursor of Gertrude Stein, its stylistic limitations suggest an author whose command of the language did not exceed functional competence.”
I don’t know if anyone else laughed at his Gertrude Stein remark, but it made me laugh out loud the first time I read it. Perhaps you felt more like bristling at those statements. Hart doesn’t think you ought to. The knowledge of the New Testament as being a humble and haphazard collection of writing has been known from the beginning. Cultured pagans mocked the Greek of the New Testament in the years before the Edict of Milan and even after. I think some of this can be sensed in Augustine’s Confessions when he writes of his initial ambivalence about the Bible. “This is all evidence,” Hart writes, “of a deeper truth about these texts: they are not beguiling exercises in suasive rhetoric or feats of literary virtuosity; rather, they are chiefly the devout and urgent attempts of often rather ordinary persons to communicate something “seen” and “heard” that transcends any language, but that nevertheless demands to be spoken, now, here, in whatever words one can marshal.” He brings up Romans chapter 12 as an example: a syntactical jumble, but “ravishing” in its moral beauty.
He notes that any literary translation would fail in comparison to the “sublimely uncluttered English” of the King James Version, but that any literary merit his version has is a result of his adherence to the literal allows us to sense the difference between the voices of the different authors. Compared to every other translation I’ve ever read (which for me would be NAB, Knox, RSV, NEB, REB, ESV, Douay-Challoner, JB, NJB, NRSV, KJV, and the Confraternity), the Hart New Testament definitely has the greatest difference between authorial voices.
In the next episode, David Bentley Hart declares open war on Mammon and shakes his head ruefully about the Reformation.