It is a little awkward to provide a star-rating for a Bible, but I am thinking here of the translation by David Bentley Hart. I read this translation quickly, on an almost daily basis in short readings over the last 3 months. I did not do any extra digging, except for a few moments where I ran to the Greek text to see if what Hart was doing with the text was fair. I don’t share Hart’s religious perspective, and I certainly don’t share his social class–both of these are essential to his translation–but this is largely how I would do a literal Greek translation if I had to.
Indeed, when I started reading the translation I got an eerie feeling that Hart was looking over my shoulder. His translations sound like my teaching notes, the ad hoc and planned translations I do for students when teaching Greek or upper levels of New Testament classes. In that way, this is an exciting and useful translation to read.
Now that Hart has done it, I know that it would have been folly for me to spend five years producing a translation like this. Not that I am not grateful, but my skills and desires really lie elsewhere. I would like to do a translation like what Robert Alter has done of the Old Testament, though that comes with a life of letters, and I am still a young thing.
But there is this other thing that holds me back from doing what Hart has done.
Truthfully, a translation like this can only ever be two things connected as one: 1) an exegetical aid to smart readers, leaders, teachers, and pastors, with 2) a prophetic edge. So translating doulos as “slave” rather than slave or servant depending on context, or transliterating logos or cosmos are moves that make us stop short in our reading. They challenge our assumptions, help us recontextualize the passage, and help us think more deeply about the integrative nature of the text. Too often we forget or are ignorant of the social moments in the New Testament, embedded in a particular worldview that is translated in our English versions but invisible to us as untrained readers.
Hart’s translation, with his helpful footnotes and supporting essays, is a brilliant text for providing that prophetic edge. But we cannot pretend that “slave” is more accurate than “servant” in translating doulos, or that cosmos is actually more accurate in English than “world.” These are choices we make. And this is where Hart’s value really shines forth. Every translation is an exegetical school, and so his version next to your favourite go-to translation (combined, I hope, with the King James for literary merit and the original text if you can) makes for a conversation that hopefully helps us rethink our walking assumptions in Bible reading.
In particular, although Hart and I have different beliefs and have really different social spaces, we are both concerned about one of America’s real Christian heresy, which is a subliminal commitment to Mammon–though I suppose we call it “security” or “blessing”–rather than the radical transformation of the Christ-life.
Jesus said very specifically that we are not to save money for the future. James goes further. I have never heard a sermon that took this passage seriously in an English, Canadian, Japanese, or American pulpit (and I can’t even recall reading a chapter about it in a Christian book, though I’m sure it’s there somewhere). The Prosperity Gospel is an American heresy, but that is partly important because it is the cartoonish, exaggerated version of what North American Christians have brought into their own souls. Even in the realm of politics, North American Christians have traded economics for integrity, and believe their leaders to be economic managers rather than formers of culture.
By contrast, in American church life there is a fascination with sex and sexuality–topics Christ hardly ever addressed, though he lived them as humans do. To use another cartoonish heresy as an example, North American evangelicalism has had an intensive, generation-long fascination with “purity” conversations about sex. This despite the fact that Christ’s biggest criticism of his fellow Jews was of their fascination with purity. More than that, there is not a single unambiguous passage in the New Testament that says “don’t have sex before you are married.” And yet millions of young people have had this message dominate youth conferences, Sunday School classes, youth groups, devotional literature, and other ways we do pulpits and pamphlets today.
This is what we Christians have traded for God’s grace and the cosmic transformation of the cross: an attention to young people’s bodies, especially to girls, in a way that is pedophilic at worst and perverse and imbalanced at best. Anyone who claims that evangelicals follow a literal reading of Scripture betrays great ignorance. It is no wonder that young people leave the church in staggering numbers. They are right to reject idolatry and they prefer civility to barbarism. And we North American church leaders will be held accountable for what they have lost.
Meanwhile, as the richest culture in all history remains terrified that it will lose a tiny bit of its financial stature, the world inside and outside the church and all through the world looks on, longing for rice in their bowls, spiritual bread in their hearts, and eucharistic transformation of their communities. Frankly, I think we deserve these ridiculous leaders, Trump and Trudeau. They are the messages writ large on the canvas of world history that which are the secrets of our own heresies.
But this is a book review, and that’s precisely the point. I don’t know how to translate as I do in the classroom without providing what is lacking in our culture. The problem with that is that I too am lacking. In the words that close Hart’s translation:
If anyone should add to them [this book’s prophecies], God will add to him the calamities that have been written about in this book. And if anyone takes away this prophecy’s book, God will take away his share from the tree of life and from the holy city that are written about in this book.
Frankly, I am simply not good enough to provide this prophetic self-critique embedded in words of Scripture. As a writer or a preacher I can discern these lines, but given my own heart and the selective and perverse literalism of many committed Anglo-American Christians, this would be a grave error.
But as readers, we must recognize what this translation does. It is a tool for us, as are all English translations, and we read it as part of the study that forms our lives and (hopefully, God willing) transforms our church into the likeness of Christ, who gives up all worldly power and submits to the cross in order to lay down his life. As so we do the same.
If you are interested in this book, you should look at reviews that are more careful and detailed. This is merely a teaser. For example, you can read N.T. Wright’s extensive criticism at The Christian Century and David Bentley Hart’s response on Fr. Aiden Kimel’s blog. While I have profound respect for Wright, a fellow that has shaped me radically, I think he may miss the overall sense of what this translation is meant to do. As a prophetic literalized translation it works really well, and should be read with nothing more in mind.
Of course, I would quibble in 200 places in the text translation. I think that is expected in a translation like this. I wish the text was a bit more readable, but I think that reminds us of the role of this translation as a prophetic text not a primary one. I actually wish I had a critical edition of this text with twice as many footnotes, like a study Bible. Perhaps that will come. But overall, this is a pleasing result from a book that is meant to make us feel uncomfortable—both in its original Greek form and in this American English edition.
Note: I have chosen not to note the importance of this translation for Anglo-American Orthodox believers, or Hart’s desire to bend translation back from Augustinian traditions (like Roman Catholicism and Protestantism). If people want my masters thesis, where I translate in a similar way (using “Judaist” instead of choosing Jew or Judean as translators including Hart do), send me an email: junkola [at] gmail [dot] com. It also has benzodiazepinic properties for those struggling with insomnia.