Tuesday Review: The New Testament by David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart set out to translate the New Testament free of doctrinal or suppositional bents. Does his translation warrant a read through, or is it another translation to throw on the pile?

Recently, many scholars have begun to write their own translations of the New Testament. We are familiar with many scholars who translate the text for their own works or commentaries (eg., Peter Leithart in his incredible two-volume commentary on Revelation), but these authors have chosen to write out entire Testaments. NT Wright, for example, translated the New Testament as the Kingdom New Testament, while John Goldingay has translated an edition called “The First Testament“. Do we need any more translations by individual scholars, let alone new mainline translations?

Well aware of my question posed above, David Bentley Hart has produced his own version of the New Testament. I read through it (late), but I felt like these projects warrant some discussion, especially as they are becoming more and more popular. First, I will talk through his decision to re-translate the New Testament. Secondly, I will look a bit at the strongest aspect of his translation and note what problem that does unwittingly bring up. Finally, I will look at Hart’s changed mind from doing the translation.

To return to my original question, Hart explains why he created a new translation. He knows a new translation will always run afoul of someone, whether a denomination, a theological ideology, or some other scholars (xiii). Despite the pushback that he expected, he pressed on as he felt like he was constantly re-translating the texts in the classroom anyway. This was due to what he felt was necessity rather than vanity: “To be honest, 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.” (xiv) These (forcible) emendations to the text occur for many reasons, but Hart feels like most of them are borne from the fact that translations are not done by individuals, but by committees. For translations to pass committees, too many compromises are made to suit everyone’s tastes, rendering the text overtly useless*. By translating the text on his own, Hart felt like he could avoid those compromises and produce the most faithful translation, unencumbered by group work.

Hart’s ultimate aim? Well, besides writing “etsi doctrina non daretur,” “as if doctrine is not given”, 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.” (xvi-xvii) Hart feels like Christians are too familiar with the Bible, their traditions, and their beliefs, to really approach the New Testament with the proper respect to its original message and contexts. With a new translation, Hart hopes to force us a bit away from the New Testament, shake our sleepy familiarity with the text, and bring us into new depths of sight.

Maybe my favorite aspect of this translation of the New Testament is that it is written in a “pitilessly literal” (xviii) style. Hart does his best to match shifting verb tenses, missing words in the Greek, and replicating what he calls “bad Greek” (he cites the Greek in Revelation as being “bad Greek”). Hart also does not transliterate familiar words, such as “Christos” into “Christ”, instead pulling Christ back into its own translation, “Anointed One”. A few interesting verses come from this style:

Romans 3:30: “Since the God who both vindicates ‘Circumcision’ from faith and ‘Foreskin’ by faith is one.”
Ephesians 2:1-2, 10: “And you, being dead in your trespasses and sins, In which you used to walk, in accord with the age of this cosmos, in accord with the Archon of the Power of the air, of the spirit now operating in the sons of disobedience[…] For we are his artifact, created in the Anointed One Jesus for good works, which God prepared in advance so that we might walk in them.”

If Hart’s aim is to both make the New Testament feel fresh and foreign again, it is sure working, isn’t it? By translating what we know as “prince” into “Archon”, we are alerted to layers beneath the English text that we wouldn’t be aware of before. The question is raised, though: do we know what to do when we uncover these fresh layers? Even common words gain new layers with Hart’s translation. For example, I was given a fresh sense of John’s focus in his Gospel when he used the word “kosmos”, which we translate as “world” (cf. John 3:16).  What does Paul mean by using the term Archon? We’re not totally sure if its a political term, a theological term, or a woodenly-transliterated term. With all of that uncertainty, it is hard to know if “prince” is an inadequate translation, missing some essential layer of the term “archon”. And what does John mean when he uses “kosmos”? Does Jesus’ aim go further than Jew/Gentile into some sort of universal, galactic view? We are left with interesting questions, but questions Hart did not set out to answer. Hopefully, either Hart or another scholar can come and fill in those gaps for us, guiding us through the new insights into fresh ways of understanding the text in its awkward unfamiliarity.

This, I feel, may be some of the shortcomings inherent in these types of projects. While opening us up to a rawer view of the text, we may be left without a clear guide as to how to move forward with this new information. Unfamiliar terms and shifting verb tenses are fascinating to see, but this new information can’t be the telos of these projects – new understanding is. Unfortunately, new understanding cannot be granted without accompanying volumes. (Wright may avoid this criticism due to the solid wealth of his work, but he also does not use such foreign terms as Hart does.)

Not every change is difficult; it is not as gloom and doom as I suggest. In fact, some changes come with immediate results, requiring little effort for greater revelations. A fascinating correspondence between Hart’s pitiless literalism and his own ideological viewpoints comes when translating “Hades” or “Gehenna”. Hart says that there are no words which correspond to the traditional understanding of “Hell” (pp 543-544), including terms such as Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus. Instead of translating these as “hell”, Hart has left these as-is to refer to physical locations or as remnants of Jewish theology.

I highlight this example for two reasons, neither of which are to argue on Hart’s position about Hell. I choose to highlight this correspondence simply because it is a great case study in why these projects do benefit us, despite the shortcoming I discussed above. First, seeing the text differently may change our beliefs, for good or for ill. Hart believes that the text speaks more generally of universal salvation than of eternal damnation (cf. xxiv, 543-48), indicated by the text’s use of physical locations and Jewish theologies. Without a word he feels comfortable translating as “hell”, Hart is left to wonder what is left to speak of eternal damnation.

Second, seeing the text differently gives us a more fuller understanding of the context. Or, more simply, it helps us to see how Jesus taught. His teachings were full of physical referents, a great way of communicating spiritual realities. In noting the physical referent, the Jewish imagination was more easily provoked to grasping the idea that Jesus was trying to get across. As an added bonus, we as Christians see the continuity between Jesus’ preaching and Jeremiah’s (Jer 7:31; 19:2-6). In this instance, “hell” may not be an entirely unfounded principle or translation, but it does obscure Jesus’ reference to Jeremiah. In that, we can be thankful for Hart’s desire to translate the text to uncover what translations often do cover.

So, why read Hart’s translation of the text? Apart from being cognizantly biased and overtly literal, Hart realized in translating the New Testament that he’s missed a lot of the New Testament’s heart. “What perhaps did impress itself upon me with an entirely unexpected force was a new sense of the utter strangeness of the Christian vision of life in its first dawning- by which, I mean, precisely, its strangeness in respect to the Christianity of later centuries.” (xxiv) He came to believe that the divide between flesh and spirit was far wider than he initially thought, that universal salvation was in the purview of many writers, and that the original Christians were far more anti-wealth in general than we think. Hart’s shifting perspectives on the text should be a precursor to the way that our perspectives are changed as we spend more time in the text.

While readers of Hart’s translation may not come to the same conclusions (either because the text does not argue them as forcibly as he thinks or because of our own doctrinal blindness, which he seeks to rid us of), a lot of readers can and will find value in a lot of the work presented here. Our sleepy familiarity with the New Testament means we hardly learn from the text as we comfortably scan the pages for our favorite texts and passages. A text like this brings us something that we know and shows us that, well, you may not actually know it quite as well as you had initially thought.

The hard part, honestly, about recommending or reviewing a new translation of any part of the Bible is the expectation that people are reading their Bibles anyway. Data gathered from LifeWay research suggests that many American Christians are not reading their Bible daily. If Bible reading is happening as infrequently as it is presented here, even our treasured and favorite translations are still going to feel somewhat foreign to us anyway. Because of this, I wouldn’t recommend it to everybody. Hart does not recommend this to everybody either as he explicitly states that this volume was not created for liturgical use. If you were to read this volume, I would not recommend replacing your regular Bible with this one. The text would be so foreign as to preclude understanding for devotional usage, anyway. But if you wanted to supplement your regular Bible reading with this text, I would recommend it.

*Interestingly enough, Hart has  Ricoeur-inspired thought when he says: “This is not to say that I can pretend to be free of intellectual prejudices; I can only say that I have made every effort to allow them to interpose themselves between and the text, even when the result has at some level displeased me.” (xvi)

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