It has been a long series. You have probably been through a roller coaster of emotions. I have as well—veering between a grudging respect of David Bentley Hart, his ideas and insight, and revulsion at his attitude toward his peers and the cavalier way he treats the theological tradition he is heir to. I have reserved most of my editorializing and assessing, trying instead to point out his assumptions while testing them out. That holding back will end soon, but first a brief discussion of his “Concluding Scientific Postscript”.
What is it? Well, it seems to be supplementary material too long for footnotes, as well as stuff that would have made the introduction a very long and shaggy read. It begins with an article under the title, “A Note on the Prologue of John’s Gospel: An Exemplary Case of the Untranslatable.” It is a fascinating work just over four pages in length on the nuance of the Greek of John 1, the late antique notion of the Logos inside and outside of Christianity, and the prologue’s relationship to John 21, which Hart offers as its interpretive key.
The labeling of the prologue as “untranslatable” reminded me of a private theory of mine: the increasing pessimism I see in translation. Whether in the world of biblical and liturgical translation or literary translation (in Dostoevsky, for example), I see a retreat from confidence in translatability of ideas. Perhaps the mid-20th century heyday of dynamic equivalence was naive in its belief that nothing would be lost in translating thought for thought, rather than word for word, but the confidence I see from proponents of stridently literal ideas seems just as hubristic to me.
Following this is a section named “Translating Certain Words: An Irregular Glossary”. It is a collection of explanations that would have crowded out the text if they were footnotes to renderings which might seem, in Hart’s words, “somewhat eccentric, or even perhaps a little perverse.” Here he mentions the three Church Fathers whose writings most influenced this translation: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Theodore of Mopsuestia. He reasons that he chose these “trustworthy exegetical guides” for reason of their “complete linguistic proficiency, penetrating exegetical insight, and genuinely redoubtable theological powers.” I suspect that he also selected these three because they are among the Fathers who proposed the sort of apakatastasis which Hart supports: a non-permanent Hell, and the eventual salvation of all. Later, he comes up with a list of other writers of the early Church who he believes were universalists of one sort of another: Clement of Alexandria, Makrina, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodoret of Cyrus, Isaac of Nineveh, Gregory Nazianzus.
That some or all of these figures at one time proposed the possible salvation of all isn’t a shock to Catholic scholars. I hate to bring up Balthasar again, but in Dare We Hope… he puts forward the interpretation that Christian theologians turned away from this universalist presumption when they saw that Christians who believed in the apokatastasis weren’t acting very much like Christians. If we are to have any faith in the development of doctrine under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, this theological course correction is just as valid as modern attempts by the Church to distance itself from an extreme understanding of Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.
But I digress. The words that Hart discusses in this glossary are as follows:
“aionios”: often translated as “eternal”, but Hart prefers “of the Age” or other similar constructions, noting that it could mean as little as a single lifetime, or could have some kind of mystical significance as to the succession of ages. (about six pages).
“Gehenna” is of course the valley just outside the city of Jerusalem associated with child sacrifice to Moloch and Ba’al that had become a refuse dump. Rather than transliterating it, as is done in many translations, Hart renders it “The Vale of Hinnom”, which he thinks gives it a sort of “gauzy otherworldliness” that he thinks Jesus’ hearers would have associated with the concept. Hart thinks that it is not clear how this area became a shorthand for place of judgment, but makes use of this space anyway to express his ideas about Hell and judgment. (about four pages),
“Ioudaioi” is traditionally translated “Jews”, but Hart prefers rendering it “Judeans” in all cases, even when it would seem more appropriate to use “Jews”. “I thought it better,” he writes, “to preserve the unity of the word and the concept in the language of the ancient authors than to impose distinctions that would make the texts conform more readily to our cultural categories (and historical sins).” (one page)
“logos” is often translated as “the Word” in John’s prologue, where Hart simply transliterates it. The word was used for many ideas and concepts in the New Testament, however, and Hart does not transliterate it universally, or give it a one-word equivalence, as he did with “Ioudaioi”. He mentions, interestingly, that in one Chinese translation of the New Testament, the word is given the rendering “tao”, which, Hart thinks, “is about as near as any translation could come to capturing the scope and depth of the word’s religious, philosophical, and metaphoric associations” as used in John’s prologue. (just short of two pages),
“proorizein” is often translated following the Vulgate as some form of the verb “to predestine”. Hart points out that its meaning is more like planning, not deciding irrevocably beforehand. “It certainly possesses none of the grim, ghastly magnificence of the late Augustinian concept of ‘predestination’”, he writes. (one page)
“anthropos” is translated as “man” or “human being. “I have not striven in this translation for ‘inclusive language’ at least where it would involve altering the text. For one thing, I would dislike the pretense that the text does not use the sort of language that it does, and I think readers can be trusted to know that these are first-century writings. Moreover, mine is not a version written for liturgical or homiletic purposes, but an attempt to make the original text visible through as thin a layer of translation as I can contrive to superimpose upon it.” (one page)
“erga” can mean everything from “task” to “skill” to “feat”, but is often translated as “works” as in “works of the law”. Hart explains here the Eastern Christian idea of Synergeia, where God gives the grace and ability to do good, but that we are not predestined to do so, as well as reiterating that we cannot interpret Paul as teaching anything other than the fact that God will judge us according to our works. (two pages)
“hypokrites” is nearly transliterated in “hypocrites” in many translations, but Hart insists that it is more properly translated into something like “charlatans”, as he does. (one paragraph)
“ethne” is often translated “nations”, “peoples”, or “gentiles”, and Hart does not differ from other translations in this regard, but simply wants to reiterate to his readers that behind these concepts is a single Greek word and concept. I feel it has become acceptable to use the single word “nations” as a rendering of “ethne”, but maybe I’m naive in saying so. (one brief paragraph)
“lytron” and the related word “antilytron” both relate to Christ’s work as redeemer. Hart wishes to point out that this concept was primarily using contemporary civil law related to the manumission of slaves as illustrating Christ’s work of salvation. He notes that God paid our manumission fee to the devil, “our principal slaveholder, so to speak, or to death, the household of our bondage.” He notes, though, that eventually some Christians began to misunderstood as Jesus giving a fee to the Father for our freedom, one he lampoons as God paying God off, or God rescuing us from God. Rather, “the work of salvation is depicted as a single, unified act of rescue, whereby God the Father, through the Son, redeems (that is, ‘buys back’) his children from the slavery into which they have been sold, even at the most terrible of costs (the death of the divine Son).” (one page)
“dikaios” and its related words are often rendered as just, righteous, etc. Hart does not completely do away with the word, as Knox did, but still has qualms about how it is commonly understood, especially in the proto-protestant and protestant concepts like “imputed righteousness”. (one page)
“pistis” is traditionally translated “faith”, though Hart notes it can also be understood as “fidelity” or “faithfulness” and that it was never understood as intellectual assent, but rather “to have trust in something or someone”. (one paragraph)
“kosmos” is usually translated as “world”, but Hart chooses to transliterate it into “cosmos”, as our modern concept of the world is missing things the ancients would have thought important parts of the cosmos: different heavens, spiritual beings and forces, and so on. (one page)
“metanoia” is usually rendered “repentance” but is translated by Hart into phrases which retain the “change”, or “turn” or “transformation” aspects of the word, which most completely means an interior change toward God. (one page)
This goes on for several more pages, covering “psyche” (soul), “pneuma” (spirit), “sarx” (flesh), “porneia” (fornication), and makarios (blessed). The discussion of the difference between the concept of “soul” and “spirit” in the ancient world and the New Testament letters is quite interesting.
The postscript ends with ten pages on authorship concerns for the books that make up the New Testament. Since lists are easy to read and I’m a bit tired of restating Hart’s ideas in paragraph form, lets run through Hart’s opinions:
-The indisputably Pauline letters are (in chronological order) 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, 2 Corinthians, Romans.
-He notes that the case for doubting the authenticity of Pauline authorship on any of these is “rather feeble”.
-The other books of the New Testament are authored by persons uncertain, pseudonymous, or anonymous.
-Mark’s is the first Gospel, written in about AD 70. Matthew was written a decade or two later, but was not written by the disciple. Hart does not question the two source hypotheses and Marcan priority. (If you are a Matthean priority, Two-Gospel, or Griesbach partisan, make yourself known in the comments!)
-Luke-Acts might be the last Gospel written, perhaps even by the early second century. (Perhaps I read more “orthodox” or “conservative” New Testament scholars than I once did, but this is the first time in a long time I’ve heard someone assign a second century date to a Gospel.)
-John was from the very late first century and very well may have been written by a person in the community founded by John the Apostle. He notes the many differences between this Gospel and the synoptic tradition, which he chalks up to the fact that “it is obviously meant as a theological document rather than as a simple record of events.” This seems to me to be the sort of statement made habitually years ago, when the synoptic authors were thought unable to have sophisticated theologies of their own.
-Of the Pauline corpus thought not to be written by Paul himself, Hart notes that it is not so simple to dismiss Paul’s involvement in these. He mentions that 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, and Colossians do have significant minorities of scholars who are in favor of Pauline authorship.
-Hart is not persuaded by the case for 2 Thessalonians’ Pauline authorship, but has an interesting two-page digression on how the case against Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians is weaker than it seems. If one reads Paul through the lens of “magisterial Protestant tradition”, they will seem irreconcilably different than the “authentic” letters, but that need not be the case. “Paul was not a Lutheran, or Calvinist, or even Augustinian. And so, when the Paul of the authentic letters is freed from the Paul of theological myth, it turns out that Colossians not only says nothing different on these matters at all, but does not even necessarily sound any distinctly different intonations.”
-In the end while he did not come to believe that Ephesians and Colossians were definitely written by Paul, he came to believe that the theological evidence to the contrary was nonexistent and the stylistic evidence is weaker than one may think.
-The Pastoral epistles seem to have been written by a single person, but comes from a later Christian generation than Paul, likely the early second century.
-Hart endorses Origen’s comment that “only God knows who wrote” the Letter to the Hebrews.
-Hart sees no reason to doubt that the Letter of James is an early work from the Jewish-Christian community from Jerusalem.
-Hart does not know who Jude is, or “what exactly provoked him to write his short, exasperated letter.”
-The writer of the three Johannine letters is not the same as the writer of the Gospel or Revelation, but seem to come from the same “community of shared discourse” as the former work.
-While he does not think either Petrine letter comes from the Apostle, he is willing to hear out those who say that Peter is the indirect author of the first letter. The second, however, he puts as a very late document, which uses a large amount of Jude’s letter verbatim.
Hart finishes his postscript with a short apology to those he has scandalized by questioning the traditional authorship of some of the New Testament texts, but reiterates the scholarly evidence and speaks on biblical inspiration. “This translation,” he points out, “is the work of someone who believes in divine inspiration, if not in ‘verbal inspiration’ or in the literal factual accuracy of every discrete feature of these texts…”
After all this, what do I think about Hart’s translation?
I have read it cover-to-cover twice, including all footnotes and supplementary material. I am not usually excited to read a translation on the literal end of the translation spectrum, but I found this book interesting to read, if only to see where it differed from my preconceived notions of the biblical text. I think I have a better idea about certain aspects of the New Testament world for having read this translation, especially the spiritual world and the revolutionary import of some of Jesus and Paul’s teaching on wealth and acquisition. Just by virtue of speaking English, my understanding of Paul is partly through the eyes of the early modern Reformers and modern evangelicals, more through osmosis than any intentional reading. I think that Hart’s supplementary material has helped me understand Paul in a more Catholic sense.
On the negative side, this is not a translation that will help me grow in the virtues I most want to cultivate: obedience and humility. Hart builds his theology out of Patristic material, but in a way that appears more to me like a movement towards restoring an imagined early Christianity. Reading this New Testament makes me feel like I’m in the middle of an argument.
What many will find is that a text like this can take away the peace of mind one has in trusting the Church’s teaching. Hart would applaud this, noting that this is a false peace, but I disagree. I strongly believe in the Spirit’s guidance of the Church and do not wish to spend my time prayerfully reading scripture being guided along by someone who dismisses large chunks of the tradition of the Church as wrongheaded from the start. As an example, the Vulgate translation of “prooreizen” as “predestination” surely could have been more accurate, and certainly colored the theology of the Reformation, but we cannot blame the Reformation on one word from the Vulgate. The Reformation, no matter the arguments about soteriology, was truly about ecclesiology, politics, and economics. At any rate, Catholics who interpret “predestination” think in terms much like Hart says we ought to when we think of “prooreizen”.
I don’t think I will read this again, but I’m glad I read it. I would suggest those of you who find themselves intellectually battling with Calvinists might find some interesting material here. My favorite thing about the translation is the urgency I feel in books like Mark, with all the sloppy changes in verb tense. I also like that it is quite different and so it feels like encountering the New Testament anew. Still, while one may interpret things Hart writes in his introduction as saying that he wishes to create a translation free of theological bias, this is just as flavored by his own theology as the NIV. Treat it as the most argumentative interlinear of all time.