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The New Testament: A Translation
by david bentley hart
yale, 616 pages, $35

David Bentley Hart’s new single-handed translation of the New Testament will strike the fair-minded reader by turns as startling, incisive, audacious, smug, shrewd, and quirky to the point of exasperation: everything, in short, the author intended it to be. The book sets out to be provocative and succeeds. A philosopher, theologian, scholar of patristics and mythology, and frequent contributor to First Things, Hart maintains that his dissatisfaction with the standard renderings of the Bible—each the product of committees and therefore of numberless harmful compromises—convinced him of the value of starting from scratch and making a one-man job of it.

The work consists of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, transmitted in what Hart calls his “almost pitilessly literal” translation. Framing the translation itself are a lengthy introduction and a “Concluding Scientific Postscript,” written with the lucidity and cheery truculence characteristic of Hart’s essays. In these sections he sets out the purposes of his project, explains his strategy of translation, declares independence from a priori doctrinal and theological constraints, and provides a discussion of his more controversial renderings of key words that, somewhat paradoxically, amounts to an original theology of the New Testament in miniature.

It is a truism that those who know the Bible only through translations are cut off from a good deal of what is communicated in the original texts. It is also widely recognized that translations made over-familiar by liturgical or personal repetition tend to steer the mind of the reader down habitual paths and for that reason insulate him from what is terrible or perplexing in the text. Hart acknowledges this, but he also makes a point more rarely considered: that scholars accustomed to reading biblical documents in the original languages—especially those who believe they have “gotten a feel” for the voice of the ancient author—likewise glide over much that is ambiguous and problematic, and that it isn’t until one is forced to translate, that is, to reformulate the familiar phrases using the equipment of another language, that the difficulties announce themselves with full impact. Says Hart:

To translate a text is to be conducted into its mysteries in a way that no mere act of reading—however conscientious or frequent—makes possible. At the very least, the translator is obliged to confront the words on the page not merely as meanings to be received, but as problems to be solved; and this demands an attention to detail for which most of us never quite have the time.

The problems Hart refers to are of two sorts: places where we know what the Greek says but find English (or whatever the receptor language may be) inadequate in conveying the meanings, and places where the meaning (or text) of the Greek is itself in doubt. In addition, many readers have doctrinal or theological commitments that in effect cut them off from readings that the original texts permit, and sometimes compel.

Hart is well aware that few scholars will applaud all his decisions, and admits his preference for choosing the “unfamiliar or more baffling interpretation” because it is unsettling—and because it is sometimes more accurate. Even those of us convinced that the Holy Spirit is the author of Sacred Scripture are rarely attentive to how many purely human anticipatory choices, based on purely human prudence, are involved in deciding for each particular verse which text, which grammatical and syntactical analysis, and which translational rendering best reflect the sacred author—and thus end up on the printed page of our English Bibles. Inasmuch as one goal of Hart’s eccentric formulations is to make us rethink the validity of the accepted ones, he provides a useful service even where we judge him wrong, in pushing us back to the original texts to assess the plausibility of the rival claims. If, after considering the evidence, we decide the conventional expression remains superior to Hart’s alternative, our preference is no longer a sentimental loyalty, but a choice more alive to the ambiguities of the original.

This New Testament is not intended for liturgical use. The awkward bits are not smoothed over. “Where an author has written bad Greek,” says Hart, “I have written bad English.” If he is to wake us from our dogmatic slumber, his prose must not purr. But it is in his choice of diction that Hart anticipates (and perhaps deserves) the greatest resistance. Gehenna, Ioudaios, and kosmos, for example, are programmatically rendered “Vale of Hinnom,” “Judaean,” and “cosmos” in place of the familiar “hell,” “Jew,” and “world.” In his “Concluding Scientific Postscript,” the author provides justification for his treatment of these and another dozen key terms. Hart translates Greek makarios not “blessed” but “blissful,” explaining that it was a word “whose original connotations meant something like ‘divine blessedness’ or ‘the bliss of the gods.’” The result is that we get “How blissful those who mourn . . . how blissful the peacemakers” as well as (at Caesarea Philippi) “Blissful are you, Simon bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you.”

After the initial shock, and after consulting the explanation in the appendix, most of us will concede that by foregrounding the nuance of divine beatitude, Hart has extended our appreciation of the term makarios in a valuable way. Yet Jesus was not speaking Greek but Aramaic, which raises a deeper question of methodology: In making a translation of a translation of a lost original, is it legitimate to make use of a term which pivots on a nuance that obtains in the transmitting but not in the transmitted language? That is, in turning into English first-century Greek that was itself recording spoken discourse (to which we have no independent access) in Aramaic, are we justified in trading on refinements of Greek for which there was no Aramaic counterpart?

It seems to me it can be argued both ways—which are equally circular. Scholar A asserts that by finding distinctions in the Greek that didn’t exist in Aramaic, the English translator risks making “ghost claims” impossible or irrelevant to the original speaker. Scholar B replies that, in default of the speaker’s actual words, we simply trust that the author (here, the evangelist), in applying refinements of Greek, accurately conveyed meanings presumably expressed by paraphrastic locutions in the Aramaic original. Given the rival contentions—“We have to know what a man could say before we know what he did say” and “We have to know what a man did say before we know what he could say”—I see no way of deciding the matter that doesn’t beg the question at issue.

The difficulty is more vexing in the consideration of what is perhaps Hart’s most earnest and ambitious novelty: the translation of the Greek adjective aiōnios—where it has been conventionally rendered “eternal”—by the formula “of the Age” (with variants). This innovation will be particularly controversial because it has consequences for our understanding of the biblical basis for the theological concepts of eternal life, eternal punishment, and the eternity of God. Hart makes a convincing case for a meaning of aiōnios in Jewish Hellenistic Greek of the first century that supports his rendering, but I remain unpersuaded by his argument as a whole, for the reason that aiōnios almost certainly continues the corresponding terms in biblical Hebrew (ōlām) and Aramaic (ʿālam), whose lexical history only partially overlaps that of aiōnios. Now Hart is fully aware of this, yet he contends (implausibly, in my opinion) that the Old Testament ʿōlām also means “age” in a sense congruent with Greek aiōn. Of course Hart might with perfect consistency concede that biblical Hebrew ʿōlām sometimes means “eternity,” and yet deny that this meaning is shining through the adjective aiōnios as used in the New Testament. Once again, it boils down to conflicting intuitions about biblical semantics and the uses to which the sacred author put his semi-Semitized Greek.

These pedantries should not obscure the measure of Hart’s achievement and the principal virtue of his translation: He conveys exceptionally well the urgency of the New Testament. The message itself is of supreme and burning importance, and the authors were in a hurry to get it out, and Hart lets us feel this “from the inside”—most successfully in his version of the gospels. His translational prose is emphatically nonprofessorial. He conscientiously preserves the rough-and-ready grammar of the original and its “wartime-footing,” functional vocabulary that combines homely household words with sublime theological concepts, with the result that the peculiar tang of New Testament Greek comes through with vividness and immediacy. Here is his rendering of Luke 23:50–52:

And look: A man named Joseph, who was a member of the Council, a man good and just—This man had not agreed with the Council and their actions—from Arimathea, a city of the Judaeans, who was awaiting the kingdom of God. Approaching Pilate, this man requested the body of Jesus.

Hart lets us hear a man who, though not precisely breathless, does not have a complete sentence in view before he begins it, but is nevertheless concerned to communicate all the essential information and whose second thoughts and explanations interrupt and crowd their way into his exposition. The prose itself—we don’t need a footnote—reminds us that St. Luke was not an essayist or a biographer but an evangelist, a man with a message of life-or-death importance to deliver.

Hart’s version of the Pauline and Catholic epistles likewise gives voice to the insistent earnestness of the authors, and evidence of the blood, sweat, and tears of the translator himself in grappling with the manifold thorny difficulties (textual, syntactical, theological) of these documents. He does a particularly thorough job of disentangling the diction of Romans from the theology of Reformation controversy, but displays throughout an alertness to covert theological claims hiding in the ambiguity of the Greek. One need not agree with Hart’s judgment as to whether the claims were or were not made by the sacred author to be grateful for his flagging the problems. Or again, the great anthems at the beginning of Colossians and Ephesians, so melodious in the Latin of the Liturgy of the Hours, are dismayingly clunky at first reading; however, having chewed through the difficulties while reading Hart synoptically with the originals, one returns to the familiar beauties inoculated against several misunderstandings.

For whom is the book intended? Hart avers that a new translation is likely to cause consternation “in countless breasts,” but this surmise is predicated on the assumption that the alarm will be caused by encountering the unfamiliar in place of the expected. Yet how many are there today for whom any translation of the Bible could be called familiar? Apart from a pious remnant, most readers would find the Authorized Version no less exotic than Hart’s. My hunch is that those who will best profit from this work are serious students of the Bible: theologians, seminarians, clergy with a sermon to prepare, and, most of all, New Testament exegetes (for whom the cant phrase “target audience” is, in this instance, only partly metaphorical). My own review copy has been on my desk for less than a month, and I have already consulted it a couple dozen times on questions of interpretation, sometimes concurring, always learning something new. I can picture a similarly shabby clergyman or academic crouched in his study a hundred years from now, flummoxed by the syntax of Galatians or 1 Peter, giving up and stretching an arm to his bookcase with a sigh: “I wonder what sense that wild man Hart managed to make of this shambles. . . .”

Paul V. Mankowski, S.J., writes from Chicago.