How funerals teach us how to live: 12-20-17
Christmas as irritating, annoying, disruptive: 12-22-17

Did the Greek New Testament sound like this? 12-21-17

I was so intrigued by a recent story about a new one-man translation of the New Testament that I wrote about it a few days ago here before ever putting my hands on the book. I linked readers there to that story, which was published by The Atlantic.

New-Testament-HartNow, however, I have a copy of the translation and have spent a fair amount of time reading not just various sections of the biblical text but also the long introduction and the long "Concluding Scientific Postscript" that you will find in The New Testament: A Translation, by David Bentley Hart (pictured below right), an Eastern Orthodox religion scholar.

It is a remarkable and challenging work of integrity and importance. It allows readers of English to get a much better sense of the original Greek (well, original Greeks, plural, given that the New Testament is the product of several authors and that each of them wrote Greek with varying degrees of competence and in various styles). "Most of the authors of the New Testament," Hart says, "do not write particularly well."

As Hart himself explains in his notes, "I have tried not to advance any theological or ideological agenda, but rather to capture in English as much of the suggestiveness and uncertainty and mystery of the original Greek as possible. . ." Hart explains that his "principal aim 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."

Translating the New Testament -- all originally written in Greek except for a few phrases in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke -- takes an enormous amount of dedication to try to determine how the writers meant -- and the original readers or hearers would have understood -- a particular word or phrase.

It is exacting work that doesn't always have a happy or uncontestable outcome. Part of the problem with traditional translations is that they are done by committee. That approach has the advantage of adding wisdom and knowledge around the table, for sure, but it also requires consensus on translation choices, and too often the committee chooses the easiest, or least offensive, translation. Which may make for easier reading but which doesn't always convey the original meaning.

As Hart writes, "The inevitable consequence of this (translation by committee) is that many of the most important decisions are negotiated accommodations, achieved by general agreement, and favoring only those solutions that prove the least offensive to everyone involved."

In his introduction, however, Hart makes the same category error that countless writers do by referring to the earliest followers of Jesus as "Christians." Some decades after Jesus' death and resurrection that term came to be applied pejoratively to his followers, but there was no formal religion called Christianity until quite a bit later -- in some places not until well after the year 100, and, thus, technically no "Christians." The followers of Jesus at the time were either still Jews, but part of that segment of Judaism that believed the long-promised Messiah had come as Jesus Christ, or they were gentiles who had been invited to live a Jewish way of life but who were urged not become Torah observant, which for men meant being circumcised and following a particular diet. The idea was that when the messianic age arrived, as the Apostle Paul believed it had with Jesus, non-Jews would turn and worship the God of Israel. And stay non-Jews as evidence that God was not just the God of the Jews but of everyone.

But whatever these early Jesus followers were called, Hart writes that most of us would have found them "fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, political irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent." Indeed, he calls the first Jesus Movement members "an association of extremists, radical in its rejection of the values and priorities of society not only at its most degenerate, but often at its most reasonable and decent also. They were rabble." 

And yet their numbers grew and grew quickly.

David_bentley_hartWhen it comes to the biblical text itself, Hart says that "there may perhaps be no passage in the New Testament more resistant to simple translation into another tongue than the first eighteen versions -- the prologue -- of the Gospel of John." These are the verses that, in traditional translations, usually begin, "In the beginning was the Word," the term "Word" there being a weak translation of the Greek word logos.

The problem, it turns out, is that there is no good English equivalent of logos. Hart wrestled with several possible translation possibilities but, in the end, decided simply to use logos and retain a sense of the mystery surrounding that word, a mystery that doesn't yield an easy answer to whether Christ, as later theological discussions concluded, was equal to God in substance or whether Christ, instead, should be understood as some kind of divine representation of God but not fully God. (At least not yet identified as fully God.) As Hart notes, he chose to stick with logos because "In certain usages, the word is so capacious in its meanings and associations that it must be accounted unique; any attempt to limit it to a single English term would be to risk reducing it to a conceptual phantom of itself."

Hart also will challenge the thinking of some Christians who are profoundly committed to the existence of a hell in which there will be "eternal punishment" for some people.

". . .in the original Greek," he writes, "there really are only three verses that seem to threaten 'eternal punishment' for the wicked (though in fact, none of them actually does) [that parenthetical phrase is Hart's], and many who are doctrinally or emotionally committed to the idea of eternal torment for the unelect would feel gravely bereaved if the delicious clarity of the seemingly most explicit of those verses were allowed to be obscured behind a haze of lexical indeterminacy. To these I can say only that, if they really wish to believe in the everlasting torment of the reprobate, they are perfectly free to do so, whether there is any absolutely unquestionable scriptural warrant for doing so or not. . ."

Beyond that, Hart notes, "there is no single Greek term corresponding to the Anglo-Saxon "'hell,' despite the prodigality with which that word is employed in traditional English translations, and no term at all that quite corresponds to the picture of hell -- a kingdom of ingenious tortures ruled by Satan -- that took ever more opulent and terrifying mythical shape in later Christian centuries."

Careful readers of Hart's "Concluding Scientific Postscript" will be frustrated, as was I, by a clear and unfortunate typographical error in referring to a term he says is found in "Romans 6:27." Romans 6 has only 23 verses, not 27, so it's not clear what chapter and verse he meant. I came up with a guess or two, but in the end I wasn't clear about his reference.

People who care about getting as close to the original Greek version of the New Testament as good scholarship can get will be both thrilled and challenged by Hart's work. I expect to keep it in my personal collection of different translations for a long time to come and, given world enough and time, to wear its pages into dog ears.

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The last time I was in Bethlehem (the one in the Holy Land, not Pennsylvania) I bought a small wooden cross from a family-owned business. This RNS story tells the story of one such olive-wood shop there and the struggles its owners have had. For a famous pilgrimage destination, Bethlehem certainly has seen its share of catastrophe. Sigh.


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