The New Testament: A Translation by David Bentley Hart

 

It’s a reasonable question to raise as to why an atheist such as myself would devote a significant amount of time to reading a new translation of the New Testament. It’s not even as if it’s a collection of books with which I’m unfamiliar, having been brought up first as an Anglican, then subsequently as an Evangelical Christian, the latter of which I thought I had a rather strong faith in as a teenager.

The main answer is that religion in all forms continues to fascinate me. The mysteries of Christianity perhaps more than most due to their familiarity. Secondarily, though, these books are the ones on which Western civilisation was founded. I don’t mean anything like the contention that our morality is entirely Christian (it’s not, although there’s a lot more with Judeo-Christian roots than many choose to admit), but more that in a literary sense, these books permeate our culture. Up until a century or so ago, almost everyone in the UK was familiar with these texts, they referred to them in novels, essays and poems. These books structured their lives and even when they chose to reject them, it was from the position of a society that accepted them, often unthinkingly.

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A new translation of books that are so familiar both to me as an ex-Christian, and to our society as a formerly religious one is an interesting sell, therefore. What could a new translator bring? Hart has chosen to write a translation that captures the strange, clunky and often ambiguous Greek. Most translations choose to iron out strange repetitions, odd phrasing, a poorly written sentence, or even a line that is entirely open to question, making into the books that, whether we’ve read them or not, reverberate throughout western culture. Hart’s translation avoids that polishing and retouching. To take an example, most translations of the New Testament translate ‘angelos’ as ‘angels’, but in the Greek, although it came to mean angels, at the time of the Bible it also had the meaning of ‘messenger’. Through translating each example of ‘angelos’ as ‘angels’, translators have created theology, rather than just replicating the holy text. Hart mostly chooses ‘messenger’ other than when the meaning ‘angel’ is unambiguous.

This theology through translation happens more than some would choose to admit. A footnote in 1 Corinthians points out that a verse saying that women should remain silent in church is quite clearly not part of the surrounding argument Paul is making. The verse itself is found in different places in various early versions of the text, and appears to be written in a different style than those surrounding it. Added to this Paul is quite clear that women do speak in church and refers to a women as an ‘apostle’ (another verse which has been translated and interpreted in order to remove its most obvious suggestion – that Paul was fine with women leading worship).

These sorts of diversions can be extremely interesting for an outsider looking at the arguments within the church, many of which both sides can use scriptural authority to support their position. Especially when some of this seeming authority comes from a subsequent translator, not the text itself.

Outside the translation itself, reading the New Testament is an odd experience. The synoptic gospels are recognisable enough to anyone who’s been to church or had a few RE lessons at school. Although, when you read Matthew, Mark and Luke as separate books, you realise that the story you know is actually a conglomeration of multiple stories, not one, single accepted work. In the nativity, for example, the Kings (Magi, magician is probably a better term) and the shepherds appear in two different gospels, never together. Mark doesn’t even tell about Jesus’s childhood at all, and finishes the story with the empty tomb.

Things immediately get weird with the book of John. Far from the preacher of the synoptics, the Jesus of John is well aware of his future crucifixion, and is a mystic, gnomic character. The opening of ‘In the beginning was the logos’ (often translated as ‘word’, but logos means a lot more than just ‘word’, having meanings of ‘ground’, ‘plea’, ‘opinion’, ‘expectation’, ‘word’, ‘speech’, ‘account’, ‘reason’, ‘proportion’, ‘discourse’ – it’s for this reason that Hart chooses not to translate it at all) is a strange introduction to a book about the life of Jesus. It’s mystical and philosophical in a way that some sects adopted, but many brushed under the carpet, focusing much more closely on the synoptics.

Following this are the Acts of the Apostles (actually the second half of the book of Luke, who wrote a considerable proportion of the New Testament), letters, first those of Paul, some attributed to Paul, some unattributed, a few from John (not the previous John), then the Revelation of John (not that John, or the other John). But almost all of it is quite strange to a modern audience. Paul is somewhat more hung up on fornication than I’d remembered, but otherwise relatively sensible. More than anything he’s just overflowing with enthusiasm about this man who he’d never met, and whose followers he had, until recently, been persecuting. This glimpse into a small, insignificant sect is, from an outsider’s perspective, fascinating. They weren’t to know they were founding a religion that would take over 2/3s of the world and would still be in existence two millennia later. Indeed, most of them thought that Jesus’s return was imminent. Jesus said quite clearly it was going to happen within their lifetime. The books, to a degree, struggle with explaining this disparity.

All this said, I’m not sure I’d recommend reading it unless it’s something that particularly interests you. Even for the religious, the complete New Testament end to end is a bit of a slog, regularly repetitious, obscure, or just dull, albeit smattered with recognisable moments of beauty and clarity. Hart does extract something from this text that felt new to me though. Like an art restorer, he cleans off the years of additional grime and repainting that’s been added by translators through the years and reveals a series of books that are more obvious those of the tiny beginnings of a cult in a semi-literate society extremely different from our own. They are something alien, but nevertheless recognisably foundational for our culture, and that’s an intriguing combination.

You can buy the book on Amazon here.

Photo by Kiwihug on Unsplash

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