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Groping Towards Each Other in a Common Mist

BETWEEN THE 70 TRANSLATIONS made by 70 translators responsible for the Septuagint, there was supposedly not a whit of difference. In the second century before the Common Era, King Ptolemy II gathered 70 learned Jews, each unaware of the other, and asked them to translate independently the Torah from Hebrew into Greek. Apocryphally, in each of their resulting versions every aleph, bet, and gimel was transformed into the correct alpha, beta, and gamma, so that the Babylonian Talmud could later claim that “God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did.”

This would be a particular ideal of translation, which demonstrates the curious tension at the crux of any version of scripture. “Ideal” in assuming that direct, faithful, and accurate translation is possible, and a “tension” because while we understand that the Bible was written by different men, and translated into countless languages by thousands of others, we still desire to hear that cacophony as being from one voice, to imagine that God put the proper words into “the heart of each one.” Yet it’s also a given that the Bible, even if one believes it to be the inspired word of God, is a multivocal text, written across genre and register — a veritable library of epic, prophecy, poetry, and philosophy.

The edited collection of books called the “Bible” is perhaps the ultimate work to exhibit what Mikhail Bakhtin called “heteroglossia” — that is, the notion that scripture sings in a panoply of voices, more choir than soloist. The Christian New Testament repeats the same narrative, from minimalist Mark to scholarly John, obviously the work of multiple authors with various dispositions, even if you believe that it was inspired by the Holy Spirit. True as well for the multiplicity of translations into English from the early modern period onward, from the earthiness of William Tyndale’s influential attempt of 1530 to the iconoclastic radicalism of the Geneva Bible in 1557, or the regal stateliness of the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, the baroque scholasticisms of the Latinate Douay-Rheims of 1582, and of course the understated magnificence of 1611’s King James.

So many different registers, syntaxes, dictions, and rhythms, both inside the Bible and between divergent imaginings of it, conjuring philosopher George Steiner’s sentiment in After Babel that “[t]ranslators are men groping towards each other in a common mist.” This, then, is the paradox implicit in a work that many believe to be the singular word of the singular Lord, but which, more than any other canonical work of literature, was one created by scores of people. But of course, translations-by-committee are a different species from those singularly accomplished.

In the select category of complete attempts, this newest translation is the labor of one man: David Bentley Hart. Yet Hart dispatches with the desire to formulate the language so that it seems as if scripture has one origin, rather content to make aware to the reader the multivocal nature of different voices, styles, and indeed levels of aesthetic quality. Hart is an outsider in the sense that he is not fully invested in academia’s biblical studies circles; an Orthodox theologian, he possesses a keener awareness of the Augustinian and Reformation influences upon the Western Rite than those who take it as a matter-of-course. The New Testament was composed in a pagan, non-Christian world, and Hart’s version is meant for an increasingly post-Christian society, one that speeds toward abandoning the Christendom’s cultural literacy, which has fully shaped the West over the last two millennia. The translator’s task has now become a complete refashioning of such a profoundly influential and overdetermined text as it’s been mediated through two millennia. A text seemingly born in a paganism and shakily emerging on the other side of history unto another paganism.

Evoking T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land or Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, Hart argues that he can “do the police in different voices,” presenting the New Testament as a choir and not the work of a soloist. Hart explains that most translations even “out the oddities of the text,” which tends to “flatten the various voices of the writers into a single, clean, commodious style.” His task is rather to make those differences manifest, supplying to the English reader a sense of the full range of the Koine Greek in which the gospels and epistles were written. In the process, he attempts a “translation of scripture not shaped by later theological and doctrinal history,” giving us as close to an unmediated experience of what reading the gospels with first-century eyes might have felt like.

Hart has without question done a great service for readers of the New Testament. Yet, after reading the three parts of his New Testament, we are left asking: “For whom exactly is this translation intended” (beyond the dedication to radical Orthodox theologian John Milbank)? That Hart deeply understands his ancient Greek is also without question. This understanding establishes his ability to rework well-traveled scripture not to recast, but reclaim its strangeness and alterity. A project reminiscent of Allan Bloom’s 1968 translation of Plato’s The Republic, which tried, similarly, to strip off the accumulated debris of millennia, and to return the text to some sense of the original — divorced from the gloss, marginalia, and exegesis that had collected upon it and shaped our interpretations.

Hart likes to box frequently with Western theology, jabbing at its development, foibles, and shortcomings, though he never seems to offer similar treatment toward the Eastern Rite, from whose corner he enters the ring. His translation, footnotes, and postscript make this clear, especially throughout the Pauline epistles, calling out (rightfully so) such semantically loaded words as those traditionally translated as “predestination,” “works,” and “righteousness.” Can it be possible to strip back all the accumulated gloss concerning the New Testament, all that exegesis and interpretation, all those theologies and denominations, and approach anything like what it would be to read those Greek words in the same century in which scripture was written?

Whether you adhere to some variation of the “Scripture alone!” methodology that has been fashionable for half a millennium, or some older form of the faith, the Bible by necessity must remain central to Christian imagination. But though it may be that in the beginning was the Word, very few of us read Koine, and so we take it on faith that what we read is what we get. And yet, more than with any other text, after 20 centuries and countless individual readers, the Bible is over-determined. When it comes to it, Blake’s “great code” of literature (and so much else), we don’t read so much as reread — even if we’re somehow coming to the text for the first time. The eyes that scan those passages are not ours, and the mouth that quotes Christ belongs to another. For we read upon the shoulders of giants, those translators who crafted the folksy platitudes of innumerable contemporary versions, the stately plain-style magnificence of the King James, the plucky folksiness of Tyndale, the humanistic erudition of Erasmus, or the scholastic intricacy of St. Jerome. And even more than their language, we read through the theological lens of whatever preconceptions (intentional or not) those translators brought to their task, turning the soul as readily as they turned a phrase. Circumstances of the original text’s genesis are so foreign that it seems impossible to imagine what it would be like to read the gospels as if they were new, the epistles as if they were fresh.

This translation, then, is most useful (both theologically and culturally) for those who have learned about Christianity as something monolithic and atemporal in development, while not understanding the diversity and controversies within Christian thought. One refreshing aspect about Hart’s translation — and a strength of having a single translator — is that he is willing to be straightforward when he does not know what a particular word or passage means or how to translate it adequately. Most readers today might only dimly recall grade-school grammar paradigms or even the task of diagramming sentences. But Hart brings forth the importance of understanding the components and tension within a sentence that conveys and belies good and bad writing — even in what is considered sacrosanct scripture. The seeming unwieldiness of the translated Greek dislodges traditional convention. Mark’s breakneck pacing, with so many episodes starting with “and immediately,” is made all the more vibrant with the retention of the historical present. Luke’s gospel and Acts retain a formal and authoritative style of Greek. Paul’s grammar remains inscrutable at key moments and Hart graciously allows us to see him throw his hands up in loss and frustration. The devil, appropriately, is in the details.

While the translation itself is refreshing, Hart’s spotlight upon the various Greek “features” upon which English translations often do not remark is one of the true assets. Hart provides in his footnotes very useful linguistic and socio-historical context for the text, and in the process a rare and candid window upon the mind of a translator. Beyond the sticky passages and ambiguities, we see before us someone wrestling with how to address a text where it is painfully difficult to establish a clear rendering. Significant papyri variants are demarcated by brackets, with occasional footnotes for important interpolations, such as the later ending of Mark and John’s pericope of the adulterous woman. Throughout Hart’s footnotes one finds references to both disagreement and consensus among the Church Fathers, as well as exposition on the greater Greco-Roman and Second Temple Judaic environments within which the authors and readers lived. Striking to note some of those features that he has chosen to leave out in the main text of the translation for immediate reference; for instance, historiographic details such as composition date ranges or anything regarding authorship of the text are absent, leaving such discussion to be addressed in his postscript.

There are, of course, contemporary political and religious implications to claiming that one’s translation presents its sources as unexpurgated. The translator is honest about how disquieting the good news of the gospels can be, and how for those scouring scripture to bolster their own normative convictions will inevitably be discouraged, if not disturbed. Regarding the proper contextualizing of some of Christ’s more radical assertions, Hart writes that “I truly believe that the more unsettling rendering is also the more accurate.” To his credit, and especially as a thinker often characterized as “conservative,” Hart’s translation gets at the economic world of the early Church and Roman Empire. Among the most important aspects of his translation, which he discusses at length in the introduction, is the matter of wealth and poverty, specifically in regard to Christ’s emphasis on poverty and the early Church’s communitarian, if not communistic, approach toward wealth. One of the most evident examples of Hart’s stressing of status is his assessment of servitude and human trafficking. Attuned to the relationally economic and classist ramifications of the gospels and the New Testament narratives and teachings, Hart properly translates doulos as “slave,” instead of the more genteel and inaccurate “servant.” While Greco-Roman slavery was not based on the color of one’s skin, it remained an all-too-real dimension of inferior socio-economic status. However, there are moments of inconsistency, such as where at times he seems to ignore young females caught up in the economy of the slave trade when he translates paideska primarily as “maidservant,” instead of something more explicit, especially in regard to both Peter’s denial of Jesus and the story of Hagar in Galatians. That Hart translates the word as “slave girl” in Acts demonstrates that he’s made a conscious choice about the other instances.

Regardless, in opposition to supply-side Christians, prosperity gospel advocates, and all partisans of positive thinking, Hart is clear in interpreting Christ’s political theology as reflecting a type of anarchism. He is also clear that “the New Testament, alarmingly enough, condemns personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil.” English can flatten the beatitudes into anemic platitudes, but the Koine is straightforward: it really is as hard to get a rich man into heaven as a camel through the eye of a needle. He explains that in “regard to all these texts, the qualified, moderate, commonsense interpretation is always false,” for “Christ condemned not only an unhealthy preoccupation with riches, but rather the getting and keeping of riches as such.” For all of his traditionalist reputation, Hart is unsparing in the full implications of the New Testament’s politics, saying that any honest reckoning concludes that the early Christians were “an association of extremists, radical in its rejection of the values and priorities of society.” They could, furthermore, be described as “communists” for whom, “from the perspective of the Kingdom, all property is theft.”

Many interpreters of Christianity have been saying something similar for generations, but it’s still shocking to grapple with that radical legacy so viscerally. Left or right, liberal or conservative, believer or not, it’s easy to think that we know what the Bible is actually saying. Part of the brilliance of Hart’s translation lies precisely in his effort to make “the familiar strange, novel, and perhaps newly compelling,” to (re)introduce audiences to the “strangeness of the text.” With perhaps a pose of humility, Hart protests that his translation isn’t necessarily aesthetically adept. Yet it’s precisely in the “the novelty, the impenetrability, [and] the frequently unfinished quality of the prose” that the significance of the translation announces itself, in the New Testament’s ability to impress upon us “an entirely unexpected force,” which is the “new sense of the utter strangeness of the Christian vision of life in its first dawning.”

Hart’s decisions to retain the Greek words for logos and cosmos intensify the importance of these concepts to Greco-Roman thought, refusing to regulate them to our banal terms of “word” and “world.” Readers traditionally reassured — or rather agitated — by familiar tropes like “righteousness,” “repentance,” and “predestination” are sure to discover that their expectations are soon to be overturned, challenging what they want their theology — or atheology — to be. The caveat to that is the risk of the modern reader’s inability to understand what Hart is talking about in his footnotes, from nuances in ancient Greek noun declensions to influential intertestamental texts such as 1 Enoch. He often writes as if the reader is ably alongside, but the latter would be well served if Hart had taken more time to explain or expand upon some of the more idiosyncratic aspects of Greek and Roman languages and cultures. Yet he is also sensitive to many of the issues that rule our present age, and takes time to slow down for the sake of a reader wholly dislocated from that ancient time. For example, regarding sexual, gender, and marital relations, Hart does do more work than expected to explain basic and important differences between our world and that of the first century.

One of the greatest strengths is his last section, what Hart considers to be his “manifesto,” naming it “Concluding Scientific Postscript” — “scientific” here being better understood in relation to its Latin root, scientia, meaning “knowledge.” This is his unreferenced nod to Søren Kierkegaard’s voluminous and idiosyncratic work on the subjectivity of truth. That work itself is a commentary of his own Philosophical Fragments, which asserts that the contemporaneous believer of Christ’s divinity has, indeed, no advantage over a believer later in history. In Hart’s postscript, he provides a robust explanation for keywords found throughout the New Testament. It is here that the richness of the translation comes through, revealing the diligence involved. It is quite uncommon for a translation to possess such a resource. It also reveals why this postscript is “scientific,” as opposed to Kierkegaard’s “unscientific” one. Hart has sought to create not just strangeness and unfamiliarity, but a kind of unfathomable mystery about the text itself. Conveying this sense of mystery is one of his main objectives. If there is a consummate literary quality that marks Hart’s translation, it’s what Viktor Shklovsky termed “defamiliarization,” the process by which poetic texts announce themselves as literature through their sheer strangeness. When Hart chooses to leave the primary concept of John 1:1 untranslated — “In the origin there was the Logos, and the Logos was present with God, and the Logos was god,” he forces us to confront the ineffable quality of scripture. In taking the Bible back to its genesis, he makes it strange; and in doing so, he makes it poetry again; and in making the gospels poetry, he implies that there are truths easy to glance over.

What Hart seems to be attempting by an “almost pitilessly literal translation” is a conveyance closely akin to that received and read by the believers of the Patristic Era in the Greek-speaking world. The “scientific postscript” is the translator’s defense for concepts through which his own readers may apprehend a sensibility of mystery toward not only scripture, but the divine as well. Here Hart seeks to set up his own irresolvable paradox (a very Kierkegaardian move, indeed), juxtaposing a more exact knowledge of the text with an indescribable mystery of encountering it. He works hard to ascertain a specific translation of the text as best he can with the resources he has available. Having accomplished what he can for himself and the reader, he then leaves the rest to mystery. Kierkegaard, however, writes that objective truth is understandable only through one’s relationship with that truth. Hart overtly grounds the veracity of his translation upon objective knowledge. Kierkegaard grounds his understanding of truth through the relationship he has with what is true. Hart denies Kierkegaard’s lens of subjectivity, instead seeking to sustain an objective reading as possible through which mystery can be encountered.

Thus, Hart’s postscript is an invitation to go back and reread the translation. This is especially important, since a purpose of the New Testament is to be read repetitively and thus paradoxically to always be read again for the first time.


Burke Gerstenschlager is a writer and former academic book editor living in Brooklyn, New York. He frets about God at his blog, Bleak Theology.

Ed Simon is the editor-at-large at The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books. A frequent contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released later in 2018.

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