Is this really the God you mean? 12-14-17
The top religion story of 2017? 12-16/17-17

'An almost pitilessly literal' New Testament translation: 12-15-17

In my house you will find (if I let you in) several shelves (two are pictured here) filled with different translations of the Bible. I collect them because I'm interested in comparing and contrasting how different translators (often teams of translators) unpack the original Hebrew and Greek and render it in English.

Bible-shelvesNone of my Bibles has any special monetary value because, say, it was signed by the Prophet Isaiah or the Apostle Paul or because it was printed by hand by 13th Century monks in Romania.

Still, I value the books and am always on the alert for interesting new translations.

I've just found one that I want to tell you about even though I haven't yet obtained a copy and, thus, haven't read it. I've only read about it, including in this intriguing piece in The Atlantic. It's called, simply, The New Testament: A Translation, by David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion who is a fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study.

Apparently what Hart has tried to do here is to produce a quite literal translation of the original Greek while making no effort to smooth out the variances in writing that happened because the New Testament was written by several different writers working over decades and decades.

Hart-NTHere's part of what The Atlantic reports about this translation: “'Again and again,' he (Hart) insists, 'I have elected to produce an almost pitilessly literal translation; many of my departures from received practices are simply my efforts to make the original text as visible as possible through the palimpsest of its translation. . .Where an author has written bad Greek. . .I have written bad English.' Herein lies the fascination of this thing: its deliberate, one might say defiant, rawness and lowbrow-ness, as produced by a decidedly overcooked highbrow."

And why would a translator decide to proceed in that way? Again, The Atlantic: "The New Testament, after all, is not a store of ancient wonders like the Hebrew Bible. It’s a grab bag of reportage, rumor, folk memory, and on-the-hoof mysticism produced by regular people, everyday babblers and clunkers, under the pressure of a supremely irregular event — namely, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So that, says Hart, is what it should sound like."

Each translation of scripture, in my experience, has its pluses and minuses. For instance, the King James Version's soaring poetry is unmatched by later translations, but its translation team had access to only a few of the earliest manuscripts. Many of the earliest manuscripts have been found only in the last 100 or so years. So newer translations have the benefit of scholarly review of manuscripts about which the KJV team knew nothing. 

Today I mostly use the Contemporary English Bible, though its translators sometimes make choices that simply annoy me, such as repeatedly referring to Jesus as "The Human One" when the standard phrase is "Son of Man." If used occasionally to make a gender-inclusive point about the incarnation it would be fine, but its repetition becomes a drum beat.

The more you know about how the Bible is translated and the difficult choices translators must make to be sure that the old Hebrew and Greek is understandable in English, the more you not only appreciate their art but also how much room for different opinions there are about what the original words really meant. And if that sounds like one more argument against biblical literalism, I won't deny it.

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In the aftermath of Doug Jones' victory over Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race, Jonathan Merritt of RNS notes that "The groups’ (white evangelical Christians) reputation has been tarnished in the eyes of many Americans who see them as partisan hypocrites, more concerned about political power than piety." Evangelicals, he wrote, "must stop pretending they are a moral voice of reason in the American public square and instead begin getting their houses in order." Spot on, Jonathan.


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