In this installment, we look at some of the introductory material. I go on and on about a couple obscure things, but bear with me!

The Dedicatory

Unless you are into academic theology or monitoring the Twitter accounts of British theologians who like to show you pictures of placid ponds on cloudy spring days, you might not have any idea who John Milbank is. Born in 1952, he studied at Cambridge under Rowan Williams (later Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of the Anglican Communion) who gave him a reading list which converted the young man from a vaguely pantheistic Methodism to an Anglo Catholic. Later, with kindred spirits Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward, he laid the groundwork for a theological and social school of thought known as Radical Orthodoxy.

A feature of this theological school seems to be particularly dense prose, but let me attempt to summarize their project: The dreams of secular utopianism had by the late 80s all curdled into nihilism, whether it was the weakness and impotence of the USSR on the eve of collapse or the numb consumerism in the developed West. This collapse in meaning was inevitable because once Christendom had been rejected, the new nation-states (themselves parodies of the Church) were only able to rest on a Christian foundation for so long until the Nietzschean “death of God” removed the only coherent grounding they had. What had gone wrong? Following the theology of history of the Catholic theologians of the Communio sort—especially Henri de Lubac—they place the blame on late Medieval theological innovations which pitted nature against the supernatural. (The villains of this story here are Duns Scotus, William of Okham, and the neo-Thomists—sometimes known as manualists—who carried on what in Radical Orthodoxy’s view was a deeply compromised version of Thomas’s theology down to the early-20th century). The Supernatural was separated from the Natural, perhaps at first for its own safety, but separate from the Natural the Supernatural became distant from daily life. As the Western world came through the spasms of violence and new ideas the supernatural became an unwelcome interloper, and then finally was disbelieved entirely. They view secular humanism, quite literally, as a Christian heresy.

Along with this counter-narrative of modernity they are known for their high view of liturgy, a high view of the Eucharist, and their socialist politics. Why aren’t they more popular? Especially in America their advocacy of Christian socialism is a stumbling block for some. Their books are published by academic presses and will often set you back 40 dollars, even for a used copy with quite a bit of underlining. (Or at least more underlining than Eugene Peterson’s Knox.) One reason is that one of the secular modernity’s triumphs has been the dis-integration and overspecialization of knowledge and inquiry. Biologists study biology, historians study history, theologians study theology, and only rarely are these paths allowed to cross. We have forgotten that until the high Middle Ages, Christian writers eagerly looked to what we think of as the natural sciences for insight into the Creator. The thinkers of Radical Orthodoxy wish to usher in a Christian re-integration and take back theology’s role as “queen of the sciences”. In the service of this they have written volumes on history, economics, language, theories of motion, and all sorts of other arcane topics, but have not yet done what the layman would recognize as the kind of theology they are used to. For thinkers like John Milbank, all is religious, and all is fair game.

Perhaps in the future Milbank or another thinker of his school will compose a Christology or something structured along the lines of NT Wright’s academic work, but until then I think you can count on Radical Orthodoxy being an incredibly insightful marginal movement. I hope I am wrong, though. If you allow me to break the fourth wall for a moment, this is the most important thing going on in theology outside the Catholic Church since Karl Barth’s Dogmatics—and this work contains much more agreement with the theology of the Church and engagement with the contemporary world than Barth’s work ever did.

David Bentley Hart was exposed to this Radical Orthodoxy at some point in his education, perhaps during his time studying philosophy at Cambridge, and while he has never been considered part of this loose movement, I don’t think anyone can understand Hart’s work without a passing familiarity with Radical Orthodoxy. Without that contact, I’m not sure if Hart’s peculiar mixture of Rowan Williams, Sergius Bulgakov, classical metaphysics, socialism, and the Communio theologians would exist in the same proportions. His work in the first decade of the new millennium, much of it in dialogue with the New Atheists, points out that modern atheism is not a return to some kind of default human viewpoint cleansed of dogma, but is a particular expression that could only occur in a post Christian world. Christ has led the evil spirits of the nations into captivity in triumphal procession, desacralizing the world except for the One God, who once banished from our site leaves us in a world quite empty and lifeless.

John Milbank knew of Hart’s work from the beginning and was already describing him as the best systematic theologian in America on the back of Hart’s first book, 2003’s Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth.

This has all been in preparation for John Milbank’s long, audacious blurb for Hart’s translation of the New Testament, one which I think will reframe the volume as something other than, “that Universalist New Testament.”

David Hart’s translation of the New Testament is a theological and ecclesial event of the first magnitude. By providing, for the first time, a literal English translation of the Greek (and demonstrating that the most literal can be the most strikingly beautiful rendering) Hart has shown, after 500 years, that the core of Reformation theology is un-Biblical and that certain currents of Latin theology are dubious or inadequate. This new version, which should become the standard one for scholarly use, also makes it clearer that, while doctrinal liberalism is wishful thinking, credal Christianity only emerged from a plausible but subtle reading of sometimes teasingly ambivalent texts. Hart’s brilliant postscript amounts to a call for a more genuinely Biblical orthodoxy: universalist, synergic, participatory, cosmic, gnostic (in a non-heterodox sense) and communitarian.

John Milbank, University of Nottingham

The Epigraph

I take enjoyment in reading academic-ish theology from time to time, but if there is one thing I cannot understand it is the pleasure of these eggheads quoting things in foreign languages. This epigraph is in Koine Greek, but is not actually a biblical quote. Thanks to the Youtube review of this New Testament by R. Grant Jones, in my opinion the best bible edition reviewer on the internet, I now know that these are the words “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” This is from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, likely a collection of Jesus’ sayings from a gnostic group in Syria around the late 2nd Century. It is an odd mixture of parallels with the canonical Gospels, odd heterodox exchanges between Jesus and his disciples, and a few quotes that are neither canonical nor heterodox. A complete manuscript of the text in Coptic was found in 1945, but this quote is from a Greek papyri found in the 19th century at the old dump at Oxyrhynchus. It should be noted that this saying of Jesus is thought by some to be part of the agrapha of Jesus, a short number of sayings of the Lord not recorded in the New Testament. It is quoted in this context by the Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware in his slim book, The Power of the Name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality.

Is Hart a Gnostic? Certainly not, though like his counterparts in Radical Orthodoxy he sometimes speaks of a sort of true gnosis in Christianity—the revelation that changes us, so to speak. In Orthodox folk belief there is in some circles a belief that goes by the name of Aerial Toll Houses which certainly may have been imported from late antique gnostic spirituality. Hart, when asked about this at a speaking engagement gruffly dismissed the topic out of hand as “Orphic nonsense”.

A Note on Transliteration

Whereas Marc recently wrote about the New Catholic Bible containing a one-page introduction to their entire rendering of the sacred text, Hart gives us two pages on what to expect which he expresses Greek words in the Latin alphabet. (This applies to the introduction, the footnotes, and the “Concluding Scientific Postscript”, a long article explaining some of his unusual translation choices). In general, I don’t recall a single bible translator that went to such great lengths to explain their renderings. Knox had On Englishing the Bible, but once you cut out the wonderful digressions on the history of the Douay-Rheims you are left with about 55 pages. Between preparatory material, the postscript, and the post-mortem apologia in his latest book of essays, I estimate Hart has more than 130 pages of material explaining his translation.

I only bring up this note on transliteration because there is a particular teachable moment here on how Hart can approach an established theory from an unfamiliar angle and aggressively declare it wrong with persuasive and corrosive argumentation. The truism in question is the pronunciation of Koine Greek used in Western academia. Hart thinks it is wrong.

“While it is possible to debate the degree to which modern Greek pronunciation matches that of late antiquity, there can be no serious doubt that it comes much nearer to doing so than does the accent invented by sixteenth-century Western European humanists, which corresponds to no version of spoken Greek—Homeric, Attic, Koine, Mediaeval, Katharevousa, Demotic—ever heard on the lips of a native speaker.” He lists off several proofs that Koine had an accent “at least very close” to modern Greek: plays on words predicated on certain vowel sounds, misspellings based on mistaken phonics, and variant spellings due to homophones. A theologian with less swagger would put this in a paper in a peer reviewed journal. David Bentley Hart puts it in the front of a translation of the New Testament.

Not satisfied with making a rather persuasive case over the course of a long paragraph, Hart goes on. “It is something of a mystery that classicists are still taught to lisp Sophocles or Plato in the entirely artificial and really rather hideous intonations of what is often called Erasmian Greek.”

This is precisely what makes Hart so adored in some circles and causes others to dismiss him completely. Here he has a great insight made possible by his omnivorous background in the Classics. It seems to be an open secret that most translators don’t know Koine Greek, they’ve just learned how to recognize the vocabulary and grammar of the New Testament. Often the more they copy previous translations, the more they are praised. Hart, in contrast, was preparing to translate the epic poem Posthomerica by Quintus of Smyrna when his editor asked him to translate the New Testament instead. His familiarity is much wider and deeper when it comes to how language was used in late antiquity, and it leads him to some fresh conclusions. He argues these points not at the glacial pace of an appeal to the footnotes, but with verve and excitement, and then often gets in a good sharp word about his intellectual opponents for good measure. He called the accent with which nearly the entire Western Christian world pronounces Greek, “hideous intonations.” It may be mean, it is definitely unnecessary, but it is also lively writing that is often fun to read. Read that sentence out loud. It is not a simple sentence, nor is it in any way lyrical, but his sentences seem to flow in that well rounded manner. His translation is quite different from his prose, you will see.

Now that we have done the introduction to the introduction, next time we will tackle the introduction itself.

15 thoughts on “The David Bentley Hart Translation of the New Testament — Guest Post by Bob Short (Part 2)”

  1. Can anyone be sure that they know what the New Testament sounded like when read?

    If I may put something forward here that I learned from a reading of The Annotated New Testament, puzzling over the way Luke composed the first two chapters of his gospel (so different in tone, language, syntax, and manner than the rest of his book) and the clumsiness of the writers except for the author of Hebrews and Luke–and except perhaps Matthew.

    I am not alone in saying this (see Israel Bible Weekly: “The Original Language of New the Testament”– The Koine Greek of the New Testament may not be as “Koine” or “common” as many have taught over the centuries. It may be better called “Judeo-Greek.”

    Like Yiddish and Ladino, the Greek of the New Testament seems rough and difficult and immature–unless you do something with it that some current scholars have been doing, that is treating the New Testament as a collection of Jewish texts.

    When you do this, instead of trying to make them out to be Gentile Greek works, the language makes itself out to be Greek written out in the patterns of Jewish speech and thought. This is the way my basic tongue of Ladino works: it sounds a lot like Spanish, but the words are almost always following Hebrew word order and Hebrew syntax (not to mention that there are a lot of Hebrew words mixed in).

    When you realize that except for Luke, who was a Gentile, that the rest of the texts were composed by Jews, the “badly written Greek” disappears when you read it as Judeo-Greek. You even see that Luke copies this Judeo-Greek in the first two chapters of his gospel when he writes the Infancy Narrative. (This may also give scholars a reason to believe that Hebrews was written by a Gentile either originally or on behalf of Paul.)

    This explains why there are no Hebrew or Aramaic versions of the Gospels, especially of Matthew. While the “Sayings” gospel accounts seem to have included some Aramaic versions written in Hebrew characters, the finished accounts we know of just seem to appear on the scene in the Greek manner we are familiar with.

    Koine Greek does appear in the New Testament, from Luke chapter 3 to its end and through Acts. Hebrews is definitely in Koine Greek. But it appears that the rest of the New Testament is in Judeo Greek.

    Should this be the case, the idea that one could reconstruct the way the Koine Greek of the Bible was spoken would depend on which verses they were concerned with. Even if there was no such thing as “Judeo Greek,” did Jews pronounce Greek in the same way a Roman did? How did Romans, whose main language was Latin, pronounce Greek?

    Remember that the Greek language was a holdover from the previous empire that had overtaken the world, but now Rome held sway, and the language of the people was Latin when they spoke, not Greek (Aramaic in Judah). Writing in Greek was reserved only for the most important documents and to assist in their distribution because it was still the international language of compositions.

    1. Hmm … I’ve always read that in the Roman empire the common language was Latin in the western half but continued to be Greek in the eastern half.

    2. It seems like they know–or at least think they know–based on the same techniques and logic of how we know how Shakespeare’s work was originally pronounced, albeit with the added difficulty of 2000 years rather than 400 years of linguistic change. I think it is mainly the task of identifying where there is wordplay going on that depends on homophones or rhymes to discover possible pronunciations of the words in question, and then extrapolating the pronunciation of other words out from there.

      Hart’s main point is a small-ish one, I think. Behind all the bluster, he is saying that the pronunciation of Greek vowels has remained fairly stable and to use modern Greek vowel sounds would be preferable to the conjectural reconstruction done by the early modern humanists.

      Your point is very important Carl: what can a slavishly literal version tell us if the New Testament was in Greek, but everyone was thinking in Aramaic?

      It is interesting how the pendulum keeps swinging from the Hebrew influence on the New Testament to the Hellenestic influence on the New Testament. Hart is on the far end of the Hellenist New Testament side for sure.

    3. Carl – with respect to your Judeo -Greek musings, I highly recommend (if you can find them in a library because they are out of print and expensive) two books: The Birth of the Synoptics by Jean Carmignac and The Hebrew Christ by Claude Tresmontant.

      1. Thank you. If I get a chance to come across these books, I will.

        My apologies for the late reply, but I took time off for the Jewish holidays of Yom Yerushalayim and Shavuot (and the time in between).

        While I do not know the reason for the recommendation, I might guess they are to counter the views expressed, perhaps?

        Please take note: I do not always personally subscribe to or endorse the theories I write about. I am just reporting on them.

        Especially on the material above, recall that I am Jewish. As such I personally don’t subscribe to the belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. I am therefore disinterested, personally, as to what the language of the original source material. As far as you know, I may not believe in the historicity of such material (though I am not going to disclose such here, as I do believe that Jesus was one of the greatest Jewish sages in history).

        I was, however, raising an argument for argument’s sake based on the views of many Christian scholars who believe in a historical Jewish language source for the Gospel narratives. These views, however, are not my own. I do not possess Christian convictions.

  2. New Testament scholars have long recognized that Luke’s introductions are different from the rest of the New Testament because they are modeled after the introductions to the works of secular historians such as Thucydides.

  3. I forgot to add that I found Hart’s translation to accomplish more good than bad, even though there might be what many consider striking failures among those bright successes.

    There are constant improvements needed in modem Bible translations which Hart tried to call attention to, at least in spirit if not directly. Personally I am always impressed when a translator refuses to render holy Writ with familiar language.

    The lack of success in Hart’s work is that he doesn’t apply his talent to those texts that need the improvements. We have a lot of translation work on the market that provides Bible translation that seeks constant alternatives to common Bible language for the sake of shaking up others or for shock value but little less. I am not certain where Hart sincerely sits on his reasons for offering such different translation most of but not all of the time, especially where needed.

    For instance, as mentioned in the previous post, while many prefer to see the I AM renderings at John 18:5, 6, and they seem to explain why the Sanhedrin soldiers fall to the ground when attempting to arrest Jesus, one has to remember that Jesus was not speaking in Greek to the men who came to arrest him on Passover night. They spoke Aramaic/Hebrew. Since Jews of the Second Temple Era did not utter the Divine Name, is Hart implying that Jesus uttered the Name in some form here in the Jewish tongue that evening? The soldiers sent with Judas were Jews. They would not have dropped to the ground upon hearing Greek words, and Jesus would not have attempted to pronounce YHVH (then they really would have had something to arrest him for). So what was actually said? Modern scholars do much to support the faith of Christians here, but take almost little advantage of the opportunity to explain things on a sufficient level. I assume Hart didn’t give an explanation either?

    Another thing modern English Bibles still do is leave expressions that nobody questions in places that keeps people ignorant of what the Scriptures really mean. One expression that irritates me that just won’t get rendered even to this day is:

    “My life is in my hands.”–Psalm 119:109; “The Abbey Psalms and Canticles.

    It appears in almost every English Bible. What does it mean?

    Simple. “I am in danger.” But for some reason, maybe fear out of straying too far from rendering word-for-word, translators stick too close to it and just don’t bother to render this verse. Yet, why not give the translation?

    This isn’t the only verse like this, mind you. But when was the last time you complained about not understanding Psalm 119:109? Readers often don’t know enough to. The only time most readers complain is when translations don’t sound the way people are used to.

    This isn’t a way of measuring accuracy. It’s a way of assuring comfort. If you don’t know enough to identify a rendering that’s grown hoary with age, how can you say: Hey! FIx this! ?

    On the other hand, when a new guy comes in town and offers a clearer way of reading things, scholars often tell the reading public to pick up stones–and they do!

    Hart does rock the boat because it removes the level of comfort many want when reading Scripture, that familiarity that people use to tell themselves they are hearing or reading accuracy. That’s not the way one determines accuracy, but neither is rendering things differently for the sake of rendering things differently.

    An approach like Hart’s can be used successfully to provide improvements in current translations –and many versions are doing such work– but single translations like this rarely succeed because people are just as insulted at identifying them as the Bible as deep down inside they might be afraid to do so.

  4. Excellent series of posts Bob. I look forward to the next installment.

    I’m going to purchase a copy. I’m not expecting it to become my primary NT for daily reading or anything like that. But if I learn to approach certain passages it will be worth it for me.

    I perused Hart’s NT a bit at Barnes & Noble a few months ago. I was very intrigued. I’d love to see the footnote for “I AM” in John 18. I’m sure he footnoted it since he footnotes everything it seemed. I took it not as a Jesus uttering the divine name, but as referring to Ehyeh in Exodus in 3:14 – implying that he is God, but not uttering the divine name directly.

    But that’s speculation – I want to read Hart’s reasoning myself, or hear from someone (Bob?) who has read Hart’s NT.

    1. Hart translates John 8:24 as “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins, for if you do not have faith that I AM, you will die in your sins”.

      The note at the bottom reads “The somewhat abbreviated and enigmatic use here and below of the phrase (Greek words), which can usually be rendered simply as “it is I,” seems clearly meant to echo God’s words to Moses out of the burning bush, and so functions as a somewhat veiled but still nearly unmistakable divine name.”

      If I remember correctly that is the only place he mentions the I AM statements, but he has other interesting stuff about divinity in John that I’ll write about in a future installment.

  5. Hart’s NT is one of my favorite editions. Do I always like what Hart has done? No, but his unique translation has forced me to return to the text like it was new all over again, which is a gift. It’s a refreshing break from the dominance of the RSV and NKJV within Orthodox circles (side note: I hope the EOB will continue to grow in popularity). I am not criticizing either translation – I have great respect for them both – but Hart’s is like a breath of fresh air, for which I am grateful.

    Interestingly, in the GOA parish where I belong, the only people who have seemed to really notice Hart’s NT are those who are already extremely suspicious of him because he challenged their belief in aerial toll houses.

    1. That is very interesting. Thank you for providing the Orthodox perspective here. Keep commenting!

      I don’t know much about the EOB, though I have a copy of the Orthodox Study Bible and wish that we Catholics had something to fill that niche.

      1. The chief point of interest for the EOB is that it is a translation of the Patriarchal Text of the NT, which is the basis for the liturgical reading of Scripture in Greek speaking Orthodox churches. The textual footnotes are good at noting where it differs from the critical text as well. It also happens to have been rendered in fairly clear modern English. It is currently printed in a slim NT with a zipper (I don’t care for the zipper personally) that fits well in my briefcase.

  6. Thanks Bob for the explanation re “I AM”. That roughly what I expected.

    For reference here is the NABRE note:

    “8:24, 28 I AM: an expression that late Jewish tradition understood as Yahweh’s own self-designation (Is 43:10); see note on Jn 4:26. Jesus is here placed on a par with Yahweh.”

    Their interpretation here might be right or they might be wrong, but Hart isn’t completely crazy here if the NABRE translates it the same way for basically the same reasons. I find it interesting.

    How does the New Catholic Bible translate this verse?

    1. I have always admired the NAB’s rendering there, inasmuch as anyone with no Greek can admire a translation decision! The arrest in John’s gospel makes far more sense to me when it is I AM making the soldiers fall down, and not “It is I”.

    2. The NCB uses “I AM” in John 8:24 and 28:

      John 8:24: “That is why I told you that you would die in your sins. For if you do not believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.”

      John 8:28: “Therefore, Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM, that I do nothing on my own authority and I say nothing except what the Father has taught me.'”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.