Wednesday, January 17, 2018

David Bentley Hart's New Testament translation: Wright or wrong?

I am working my way through David Bentley Hart's translation of the New Testament, partly with an eye on reviewing it here on ADU.

But I do not think I am going to do better than Tom Wright's review here.

Tom has certainly spotted strange English renderings which I have not but he also highlights two concerns I already have, even though I am only up to Matthew 11, along with having read the introduction and the epilogue.

(1) The use of "a Holy Spirit" in (e.g.) Matthew 1:18 is very, very odd. If one wants to be strictly literal then the Greek should be rendered "a holy spirit". That is, without looking ahead to the Trinitarian consciousness of the Nicene church, we read that Matthew says that Mary became pregnant through the action of a spirit, qualified as a holy spirit. The use of CAPS in Hart's actual rendering supposes that Trinitarian consciousness but in that consciousness there is not "a" Holy Spirit, only "the Holy Spirit" (as all other English translations I am aware of).

(2) Tom also spots that Hart says he is avoiding dogma when he, in fact, does not. On the not unimportant subject of salvation Hart presses positively along an Eastern Orthodox line and negatively implies in the NT text itself (and associated footnotes) as well as explicitly in his introduction and epilogue that the Western tradition is simply wrong. Bias is hard to escape and no English translation I am aware of is completely free of it. Hart's translation would be the better for fronting up to the fact that his sits neatly within his own Eastern Orthodox theological frame of mind.

Also worth a look are these thoughts - not a full review - by Michael Bird.

POSTSCRIPT After writing the above I came across Doug Chaplin's post about Wright's review and Hart's response to it. Doug makes a great point about the wisdom and efficacy of NOT having one individual translate the Bible!

Hart's response is here.

To the extent that Hart himself responds to Tom Wright's own translation of the New Testament I have no comment to make: I am not familiar with Wright's translation. I also have no comment to make re the intricacies of Hart's critique of Wright's deficiencies on ancient Judaism. I note some rejoinders by Hart to points I make above but I remain less than convinced by them. I also side with Wright on criticising Hart's use of "alee," "tilth" and "chaplet"!

PS PS Careful consideration of the tension between Wright and Hart's approaches here.
Note also links in comments below.


Anonymous said...

Peter, I am glad that you are undertaking a review. The best we have is from Wesley Hill--

But no review has yet grasped the four nettles that matter.

(1) Consensus faked. Why should we dismiss *a priori* the possibility that no mere standard of translation will ever settle the systemic differences between theology's East and West? After all, it is not obvious that neutestamentlers have any tool in the box fit for that purpose. And if that possibility of well-founded difference is an actuality, then the panels of translators that Doug Chapin favours are not impartial judges giving ribbons to best-in-show pigs but party selection committees chosen to screen applicants for partisan loyalty. In that case, an individual translation that is open about its alignment and method will be more honest and clear to the reader than an institutional one. Should a new sort of translation treat the most freighted exegetical variants as most translations already treat the textual variants that are usually much less consequential to readers?

(2) Judaism found. Though little noticed by the rest of us, there was already an annotated translation of the NT from scholars of Judaica. That edition has already engaged the historical questions that somewhat separate Hart from Wright. And if both must appeal to Second Temple Judaism to establish their positions on justification (Wright) or universalism (Hart) then might Judaica scholars have something authoritative to say to Christian readers of scripture? As I have noted before, the spectre haunting studies of Christian origins is that it is far more plausible than in von Harnack's darkest nightmares that the NT assumed rather than anticipated the dogma that by the C4 had come to be the distinctive belief of a self-aware Body, the Church. In that view, not only was (a) Jesus a Jew, but (b) the religion that followed him also to some degree preceded him in Second Temple Judaism, (c) the division of Jews into followers of rabbis and bishops was a gradual process begun by the fall of Jerusalem in 70, (d) the distance from eg Daniel 7 to the Nicene Creed is more linguistic than conceptual, and (e) the dark Tertullian-Augustine view of human nature began among North African Jews, while Byzantine mysticism maintained vital roots in the Judaic apocalyptic of the East. Interested readers can see (a) and (b) worked out in Daniel Boyarin's Jewish Gospels and Peter Schäfer's Jewish Jesus, but evangelical scholars of the Early High Christology Club (Bryden often mentions Larry Hurtado; I, Richard Bauckham) are effectively showing the same thing as they cheerily demolish von Harnack's anti-Semitic legacy. The theological fallout of this is plain in Peter Ochs's Another Reformation: Postliberal Christianity and the Jews (which has an interesting chapter on the theological exegesis of Robert Jenson)-- once one can no longer pit Jesus against the Jews, debates that would once have looked only to the NT text will slowly migrate back to the OT canon(s) that loom above it. In an age as identitarian as this one, this Judaic turn will have consequences beyond the academy, and perhaps ironically, these new translations of the NT bring us a step closer to them.

Anonymous said...


(3) Tradition forked. Despite their differences, Wright and Hart have a common motivation for translating the NT afresh-- to tell general readers what they think the New Testament means, each needed to tell them what it says. Why? Supposing that the biblical authors had coherent views, ambiguities and aporias in their Greek texts have nevertheless permitted alternate understandings of those views from the first centuries. For salient example, both Wright and Hart concede that Romans 5:12 is a major fork in the interpretive road. Having taken any one of the several interpretive options at cruxes like that one, a translator who presents his author as self-consistent in what he says will necessarily and not arbitrarily diverge from translators who made different choices. In fact, as we see in the Wright-Hart spat, such consistency may even entail different conventions for presenting the results in English.

Hence Wright and Hart dislike each other's translations. For the most part, they differ where godly, competent, and reasonable scholars today differ. How should one construe Romans 5:12 or translate *aionion*? How far is talmudic tradition a reliable guide to the world of Second Temple Judaism? How much distance is there between the biblical text and Origenistic interpretation or Nicene orthodoxy? Hart gave up reading Wright when he saw that the bishop was still a Protestant; Wright seems not to have read Hart's "Concluding Scientific Postscript" at all. But many readers have profitably followed the work of both men for years, and those commenting online seem willing to integrate what their beloved translators cannot.

(4) Disruption fomented. Now two credible Christian scholars have worked out their exegetical decisions in translations for the general public. Their publishers' supposition that there actually is a public that is more interested in how scholarly stars construe the text than in how quasi-official committees have been doing it for centuries is more intriguing or terrifying than the new translations. Nearly as interesting is that neither translator hesitates to disrupt his reader's habits, assumptions, and imagination. To do so, was the whole point! Both authors propose huge changes in the way Western publics understand Jesus and his religion, and these spirited (small *s*?) translations take their proposals to the streets. Who, and how large, is the public ready for such disruption? And if any want to push back against it all (Doug Chapin?), how do they persuasively answer any plausible translation of the word of God?


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bowman
Much appreciated thoughts - I shall try to hold the infelicities of each with less animus :)
One of your thoughts particularly intrigues me and leads to this question:
- has there ever been a joint committee of Western and Eastern translators which has produced a (so to speak) Common Bible? As far as I know, the answer is No.
(I am mindful of the "Orthodox" (English) Bible on my shelves which is a translation of the LXX for the OT and a permission-given use of the NKJV for the NT.)

Anonymous said...

"Has there ever been a joint committee of Western and Eastern translators which has produced a (so to speak) Common Bible?"

No. What you have is what there is.

East and West differ in (a) canon, (b) text, (c) construals, (d) official interpretation, and (e) authoritative exegesis. So in addition to the usual things, a Common Bible would have to include--

(a) Texts only canonised by some or all Orthodox churches; as an apocryphon, the Protoevangelium of St James; an explanation of at least the four main orders in which books appear in Bibles (eg Tanakh order of the OT; I, II, III, IV Kingdoms; the letters attributed to St Paul);

(b) At least LXX variora for the OT and major Byzantine text-form variora for the NT (Byz is the most diverse of the textual families);

(c) Alternate construals for disputed passages (eg Romans 5:12) and words (eg *paradosis*); cross-references that connect passages seen as exegetically related by authorities East and West (eg for Romans 5:12, 1 Cor 15:22);

(d) Notes that point the reader from the text to the Seven Ecumenical Councils (which have their own serious textual disputes); more notes pointing to liturgical usage (especially important for the Orthodox); further notes to Protestant confessions, high points of the Roman magisterium, and certain texts (eg Pedalion, Philokalia, Confession of Dositheus, Longer Catechism of Philaret of Moscow) accepted among Orthodox by tradition; Western (including Protestant) and Eastern interpretation of texts only recognised by some or all Orthodox churches.

(e) Notes to homilies and commentaries of the most influential exegetes East and West (eg Origen... St Maximus... St Augustine... St Thomas... Luther, Calvin...Bultmann).

Perhaps a crowdsourced wiki could do all this.


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bowman
That is a lot of (worthwhile) work ...!

Fr. John Whiteford said...

I would not blame Hart's translations on Orthodox Theology. His translation is horrible for a number of reasons: and Hart's theology is hardly Orthodox:

Anonymous said...

Yes, Father John,

We know that DBH is a maverick with whom some Orthodox agree and others do not. Orthodox continue to differ over just how different theology West and East actually are, or how far a stringent devotion to Orthodoxy would require radical change in Christians today. These disagreements are often most fierce among adult converts to Orthodoxy in the United States. But "let not your hearts be troubled, for I have overcome the world."