The New Testament, translated by David Bentley Hart–a Review

There any number of translations of the Bible, in full or in part, and more each year, it seems.  There are classic Bibles like the King James and Douay-Rheims versions, modern Bibles such as the Revised English Bible and the New Revised Standard Bible, Protestant Bibles, such as the New International and English Standard versions, Catholic Bibles, such as the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible; there are more traditional formal equivalence Bibles (the New King James), dynamic equivalence Bibles (the Good News Bible), outright paraphrases (the Living Bible); and on it goes.  To this number has recently been added a translation of the New Testament by Greek Orthodox scholar and theologian David Bentley Hart.

Hart has made a name for himself as a scholar, theologian, and cultural commentator, having published eleven books and numerous articles in both professional journals and in venues such as The Wall Street Journal, The New Atlantis, and First Things.  Hart had planned to translate the New Testament for some time, but a spell of ill health slowed him down.  Finally, he completed the translation, which was released in October of 2017.

According to Hart, some of his motivations for making yet another translation were as follows:

I have come to believe that all the standard English translations render a great many of the concepts and presuppositions upon which the books of the New Testament are built largely impenetrable, and that most of them effectively hide (sometimes forcibly) things of absolutely vital significance for understanding how the texts’ authors thought.

–from the Introduction

Not only have many original concepts been obscured by other translations, in Hart’s view, but according to him, the prose of the original has often been smoothed over too much in previous translations.  He therefore has made what he describes as “almost pitilessly literal translation”.  Further,

Where the Greek of the original is maladroit, broken, or impenetrable (as it is with some consistency in Paul’s letters), so is the English of my translation; where an author has written bad Greek (such as one finds throughout the book of Revelation), I have written bad English.–from the Introduction

Hart further goes on to discuss how in the process of translation, it came home to him just how radical the New Testament is.  Wealth is condemned not in excess but as such; the early Christian community is described in terms that make no effort at all to fit smoothly into the society of the day; there is a far stronger air of dualism than is usually thought to be the case; and the world is seen as being in thrall to evil spiritual powers that currently pull the strings of the cosmos.  One specific area in which the radical nature of the New Testament comes out, according to Hart, is the strong strain of universalism that comes through.

Having read the book, I’d have to say that Hart admirably achieves his goals.  The rugged, off-the-cuff style of much of the New Testament comes through, particularly with the constant shifts of tense in the Gospels.  Unlike with many translations, with Hart’s New Testament, the differences of style of each author come through clearly.  And, as he promised, the English, in emulating the Greek as literally as possible, is sometimes choppy and unusual in sound.  Consider Romans 4:6-11

Just as David says concerning the bliss of the man for whom God takes account of uprightness apart from observances:  “How blissful they whose Lawless ways are excused and whose sins are covered over; How blissful the man whose sin the Lord in no way takes into account.”  Does this bliss pertain to those of the circumcision, then, or to those of the foreskin also–since we say that faithfulness was accounted to uprightness for Abraham?  How then was it taken account of?  When he was in circumcision or with a foreskin:  Not in circumcision, but with a foreskin; And he received a sign of circumcision, a seal of the uprightness of his faithfulness during the time when he had a foreskin, so that he might be the father of all those who have faith while in possession of a foreskin, so that [this] uprightness might be accounted to them….

Consider also, to get an idea of the flavor of the text and its differences from traditional translations, the familiar Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13:

Our Father, who are in the heavens, let your name be held holy; Let your Kingdom come; let your will come to pass, as in heaven so also upon earth; Give 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.

Two things that especially stand out are the way in which the dualism of the New Testament is much more strongly brought out, and the tendency towards a more universalist reading of the text.  As to the former, Hart notes that in speaking of the “spiritual” Christians, or those who lack the spirit, such as in 1 Corinthians 2:15, 1 Corinthians 2:14, or Jude 1:19, the New Testament authors clearly have in mind different categories of Christians, and a relatively strongly dualistic view of the flesh (sarx) vs. the spirit (pneuma, or as Hart gives it, pnevma).  Consider this statement in the “Concluding Scientific Postscript”:

It has become something of a fashion over the past century for theologians to insist almost exclusively on the “worldliness” of Christianity, or on how exuberantly it affirms the material order–the material body especially–as the good creation of God, or on how radically the early Christian view of corporeality supposedly differed from that of the more “Hellenistic” or “gnostic” or “idealist” schools of thought.  And so, just as the word pnevma [“spirit”] is often capitalized and thus “divinized,” so as to hide instances where it is actually being used to indicate a “good” principle of “spirit” set over against the “bad” principle of “flesh”, so sarx [“flesh”] is often rendered by some sort of theologically sanitized circumlocution like “sinful human nature” or “the mortal body.”  Both this practice and the theological platitudes inspiring it should be eschewed at every juncture.  It is true that there is nothing like an absolute dualism in the New Testament…but even so, there is at least a very strong provisional dualism clearly present…and when the text speaks of “flesh” in opprobrious terms it is not employing a vague metaphor, for which some less upsetting abstraction may safely be substituted.

This is exactly what I noted in my series on dualism, particularly here.  As Hart also notes,

Again, the fear of any hint of “proto-gnosticism” in Paul’s letters leads some scholars to reject the conclusion that Paul ever speaks of such a special class of Christians [as the “spiritual” or “pneumatikoi”]; but the text makes it fairly unavoidable, and it would probably be best for those who suffer such anxieties to remember that Paul’s understanding of the distinction need not be thought of as “proto-gnostic” so much as later “gnostic” appropriations  of such language might be thought of as “post-Pauline.”  (Paul even, after all, seems to hint that there are especially advanced Christians who, unlike neophytes in the faith, possess “gnosis.”)

This, plus Hart’s choice to leave the Greek  ἄρχων (archōn) untranslated in places such as Matthew 9:34, John 12:31, 1 Corinthians 2:6, and many other places, gives a distinctly Gnostic sound to this New Testament translation.  I’m certainly not saying that Hart is a Gnostic or has Gnostic sympathies, please note.  Rather, I think he realizes that orthodox Christianity as it originally was, and that which we label “Gnosticism”, were closer than we often care to admit.

Finally, I want to look briefly at the universalist tendencies of Hart’s translation.  As long-time readers know, universalism is a long-standing interest of mine.  Hart is also a universalist.  One of his best articles on the topic, “God, Creation, and Evil:  The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilho”, can be found at the link given.  In any case, in this translation of the New Testament, he makes two interrelated points.  One, he argues that the Greek γέεννα (Gehenna), typically translated as “Hell”, cannot be shown to denote the place of ultimate and everlasting punishment that we traditionally take it to mean.  It can equally well be  understood, as Hart explains, as a purification for those whose deeds do not earn them a place in the world to come, or perhaps as destruction of evil in general.

Second, Hart argues–cogently and accurately, in my view–that the adjective αἰώνιος (aiōnios)–literally “of the age”, from αἰών, “aion”, “aeon”, “eon”, or “age”–does not mean “eternally”, as it is typically translated.  Rather, it implies “for the duration of” or “until the end of” the Age.  Thus, punishments described as “eternal”, are not to be understood thus; but merely as “enduring unto the age”.  In short, in line with his view of Gehenna as a process of painful but ultimately purifying purgation, the length of this purgation, while perhaps long, is seen as limited; after which the reprobate may enter the world to come.  I would refer interested readers to Hart’s in-depth discussion of these two issues in the Postscript.

So, to sum up, I think David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament is a worthy entry in the vast field of Biblical translations.  I wouldn’t necessarily use it for casual or devotional reading; and there are those who will disagree with some of Hart’s perspectives in this translation.  Still, for those who wish to study Scripture intensely and wrestle with its meaning, and who are open to new and different perspectives, I would heartily recommend this translation.

Note:  I’m posting this in my series on the Bible, “The Pretty Good Book”, for obvious reasons; but because of the themes addressed, I’m also cross-posting it in my series on universalism and Gnosticism, too.

Part of the series “The Pretty Good Book

Also part of the series “Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy

Also part of the series “Universalism (What the Hell?!)

Posted on 21/02/2018, in Bible, book reviews, books, Christianity, Gnosticism, religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. In your article on The New Testament by David Bentley you wrote:
    “Second, Hart argues–cogently and accurately, in my view–that the adverb αἰώνιος (aiōnios)–”

    “adverb” should be “adjective,” as “that the adjective αἰώνιος”

    • Fair enough–the grammar fairy was not with me when I wrote this. I have corrected the post accordingly. Thank you for pointing this out.

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