What can a literal translation of the Bible offer?
According to scholar David Bentley Hart, recapturing the voices of the Bible’s original authors makes scripture all the more real.
New Revised Standard Version, the King James Bible, the Douay-Rheims, The Message—do we really need yet another translation of the New Testament? David Bentley Hart, a scholar at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, says yes.
As a professor, Hart says he often found himself translating the Greek text of the New Testament for his students, trying to get them to understand the original meaning apart from centuries of biblical interpretation and theology. So when one of his editors at Yale University Press suggested he make his own translation, he jumped at the opportunity.
Hart’s translation of the New Testament isn’t intended for literary or liturgical use. Instead he tries to be as literal as possible, even when that means the language or ease of reading suffers. The sentences are choppy, and tenses switch back and forth with abandon.
Hart admits it takes a certain kind of arrogance to try to make an authoritative translation of the entire New Testament as an individual. But he firmly believes that while single translator “might have been bad, if he or she is transparent as to his or her methods and presuppositions, you can get at something closer to what the Greek is saying.”
Hart’s presupposition, he says, is that the world of early Christianity was very different from what we sometimes assume. “The more I saw how distant the world of the New Testament was from ours,” he says, “the more the biblical authors’ simple humanity seemed to emerge. I hope that comes out in the translation.”
What were you trying to accomplish with your translation of the New Testament?
I think it’s worth trying to recapture the voices of the original authors. They have a remarkable urgency to them, a power. In translating the text I was brought up short again and again by the sheer simplicity of the language, the brokenness, at times, of the syntax, or the hesitancy or ambiguities of the Greek.
In a sense, all this made it more real for me. It made what the authors were trying to convey more plausible, because there’s very little artifice in the New Testament. The voices that come through when you read scripture in the Greek are the voices of fairly ordinary persons who have been seized with a sense of urgency about communicating something that’s very, very real to them.
Sometimes that urgency overwhelms the clarity of the text. Paul, for instance, often writes sentences that run on toward a car crash at the end. They don’t actually arrive at a syntactically correct conclusion and leave you with a sense that you’re not quite sure what he is saying. Yet at the same time you get a very powerful sense that he’s been seized by a real experience of the presence of Christ, and that’s what he’s trying to convey. I think there’s some value in being returned to that sense of surprise that is captured in the original language of the text.
My ideal audience is somebody who’s deeply curious about what the text says but who doesn’t read the Greek, who probably doesn’t have time to master the different cultural and historical facts necessary to properly place those texts in their time and place, and yet who nevertheless wants to know what the voices of the authors were like, what the feel of the original Greek is like, and maybe some of the possible meanings of the Greek that aren’t visible in most standard translations.
If there is one place I think my translation does not belong, it’s in the lectionary. There is a legitimacy to a liturgical version of scripture that emphasizes the beauty of the text. And the truth is that when you read the New Testament in the original Greek for the most part it’s rather badly written. This is not the work of literary artists or even very widely educated men. While Luke was an educated, urbane, and gifted writer and the author of Hebrews wrote very well, for the most part if you try to use a very accurate rendering of the text in worship you would create more consternation than anything else.
Can you give an example of a passage that conveys a sense of surprise or urgency?
In Romans Chapter 5 Paul is trying to reason out how we stand before God in our fallen nature and how we’re redeemed in Christ. Verse 18 of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) reads, “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” In this and other standard translations, the translator has filled all sorts of syntactical gaps to make the sentence have a nice, smooth, plausible meaning.
But when you read the original Greek you encounter something very different. Paul liked to shorten ideas and sentences, and he does this unsystematically, almost as if he’s tripping over his own words. So the actual Greek in Romans 5:18 is almost like a shorthand. It’s a broken, staccato sentence with no verbs: “So, then, just as by one transgression unto condemnation for all human beings, so also by one act of righteousness unto rectification of life for all human beings.”
In this example the meaning of the verse is fairly clear, so the translator is not likely to make a huge mistake when filling in the gaps in the sentences. But there are many other verses where the sentences are very unclear indeed and translating them also requires interpretation.
Was there anything that surprised you as you worked on this translation?
There were a lot of things that surprised me. One was how credible the New Testament came to seem to me, precisely because these were not men from the most refined of the educated class, although Paul had a very fine education. Mark, for instance, is obviously the work of a person who would never have written anything at all if he didn’t have something he had to communicate because it seized him at a very deep level. His gospel is full of sudden transitions, revelations, and moments of surprise, one after another. It’s hard to capture in English just how breathless the Gospel of Mark is. And I didn’t expect just how utterly sincere, ingenuous, and real this voice would seem to me.
I also realized how very alien the world of the first century was from our perspective. We tend to read Paul, for instance, through the lens of Reformation-era terminology and theology. But when you try to restore a plainer, more accurate meaning of the Greek, Paul is concerned with things that to us seem fantastic: orders of angels in the high places governing the nations, spiritual powers controlling the forces of nature and the fates of peoples, spiritual agencies on high and under the earth resisting the rule of God. So much of Paul’s theology is about cosmic conquest, about Christ entering into the cosmos and overthrowing these powers, leading them in captivity before God, restoring and transfiguring creation so that in the new age about to come all reality will be governed by God rather than by defective spiritual agencies.
Little of it, conversely, actually concerns the things that Protestant and Catholic traditions assume is true about Paul’s theology. There is very little worked out about systems of justification by grace, for example, or salvation through faith alone. While there are all sorts of themes in Paul, these may be only incoherently discussed or discussed in a very different way than we expect and actually occupy only a fairly small area of his overall theological vision.
Give an example of something Paul wrote that perhaps has a different meaning from what we are used to hearing.
One example is Paul’s use of the word redemption or redeemer to talk about Jesus Christ. Today we usually use that word with some sense in the back of our mind that Christ, by dying on the cross, has somehow paid off our debt to God. But that’s not the way Paul uses that language, and he’s the one who principally uses the term in the New Testament.
It’s actually a word that has to do with buying slaves out of slavery. It referred to the price required for the manumission of slaves. That’s the language Paul uses about how Christ saves his people: He comes as a liberator of slaves. Unless you have that imagery firmly in your mind, you’re not going to grasp how Paul saw the relationship of Christ to humanity and how the church stands in regard to God.
In Philippians this language comes up again when he writes that Christ takes the form of a slave. Throughout Paul’s writing there’s a radical identification with slaves. Spiritually enslaved people, but also a response to the slavery of debt and absolute poverty that characterized so many in Galilee and Judea when Christ was making his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.
It’s easy for us to step out of the context of the world in which Christ lived, in which he was, in his earthly ministry, a prophet to the poor. But when we examine the language Christ uses in the gospels and Paul uses in the epistles, we’re brought up short again and again because part of the texture of Christ’s salvation is a social and political doctrine as well as a spiritual one. And you can’t separate one from the other.
This is reflected by the fact that after Christ’s death and resurrection there arose a community that practiced a radical distribution of goods, shared all things in common, saw that no one went hungry, and cared for widows and orphans, which was a radical politics of compassion that was more or less unprecedented.
Where else in the New Testament can we find such a concrete care for the poor?
Take the Lord’s Prayer. Today when we say the Lord’s Prayer we are asking for forgiveness from sins, preservation against temptation, and protection from evil in an abstract sense. But the Greek shows that it’s actually a prayer written for the poor and an extremely simple one.
In the time of Christ the great division between the rich and the poor was between creditors and debtors. There were elaborate systems of debt by which the poor were reduced to a source of revenue through high interest rates and debt structures they could never pay off. If a debtor reached the point of absolute insolvency and could not pay the interest, creditors would drag them to court and have all their possessions stripped away. Jesus often talks about this situation, the law courts and debtors’ jails.
I translate the Lord’s Prayer as: “Give to us today bread for the day ahead; And excuse us our debts, just as we have excused our debtors; And do not bring us to trial, but rescue us from him who is wicked” (Matt. 6:11–13).
The prayer is literally asking for enough food to make it through the next day. “Don’t bring us to trial” means literally “don’t make us face a court where we can be stripped of our possessions.” And “rescue us from evil” is not referring to evil in the abstract, but is rather a reference to “the evil one,” almost certainly a wicked creditor who would use the courts to strip people of the last of their possessions.
The Lord’s Prayer, therefore, is a prayer for the poor. That they be spared hunger, that they be spared the crushing weight of debt, the debt courts where many would be despoiled of their possessions by rapacious rich creditors, and that they be rescued from those creditors.
What should people take away from your translation?
Well, a number of things. The gospel is not a simple transaction by which God graciously grants us all forgiveness to which we have no claim and that has no social form. Our Christian obligation is not only to go to church on Sunday; the gospel also has much to do with social, economic, and political systems.
I’d also like people to come away with a sense of the cosmology and spiritual geography, so to speak, of the first century and how foreign it is to our current worldview. Like I said, the more I realized this, the more the individual authors became familiar to me and the more convincing their writing became.
Finally, an acquaintance with the original Greek text helps remind us that if we’re comfortable as Christians, then there’s a problem. There’s a good chance we’ve missed something.
This article also appears in the September 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 9, pages 34–37).
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