What do we miss when Biblical translations are concerned more with doctrine than ‘plain’ meaning?
Vladimir Nabokov once famously said of the task of translation:
Reflected words can only shiver/ Like elongated lights that twist/ In the black mirror of a river/ Between the city and the mist... I find another man’s mistake,/ I analyze alliterations…. This is my task—a poet’s patience/ And scholastic passion blent:/ Dove-droppings on your monument.
With such a picture of this ancient craft, one can only question why such an endeavor would be taken up today, particularly with a text as ancient and formidable as the Bible. And yet David Bentley Hart has done just that with his The New Testament: A Translation. While the endeavor may seem “foolish” (Hart’s word, not mine), if not excessive, the intention could not be farther from it. For here, Hart sets forth to be “scrupulously faithful” and “pitilessly literal” in his translation of the original Greek, not stopping even to correct the Gospel writers’ grammar or fill in religious terms and connotations, as his predecessors had done.
While potentially exciting for the academic, to read these disclaimers in the volume’s introduction is a bit unnerving for the practicing Christian: Is God’s Son perhaps not all we thought him cracked up to be, the fluid wordsmith whose preachings won over the masses and have transfixed us for millennia, even in our digital age? Did Jesus and the apostles actually predict a different world and heavenly redemption from what we have always thought?
Did Jesus and the apostles actually predict a different world and heavenly redemption from what we have always thought?
Not at all. Hart’s translation is neither reductionist nor revisionist. In his hands, the words of Jesus and his followers produce not shivers of mere approximation, but rather shivers of awe at the clarity, poignancy and simplicity of this complex treatise. Hart, an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion, maintains a splendid rhythm and frankness throughout his translation that indeed, as he claims, “mak[es] the familiar strange, novel, and perhaps newly compelling.”
Presenting the words of the first Christians as “problems to be solved,” we are delivered a text pulsing with contemporary urgency—as prompts for action, rather than mere obligation or dogma. Indeed, the simple, direct notion of action stands out in radical clarity in this text, specifically as it pertains to “the great commandment” undergirding the entire Christian faith: love. And for today’s informed citizen of the world, where the very notion of spirituality is a layered, nebulous thing, no matter what faith one follows, there could be no more dire call to action than to love ourselves, one another and our collective home with greater intention, for our current happiness and beyond.
When approaching a text like the New Testament in a semi-scholarly capacity, it is easy to be lured into a literary-critical reading mode. Such a point ripe for analysis is Hart’s claim that he resists poetic renderings of the original; he even sticks to the literal name of Jesus—“the Anointed—instead of “Christ” or “Messiah”; likewise Satan or the Devil is “the Slanderer,” and world becomes “cosmos” (a rather eloquent choice, I believe). But reading the Gospels, Acts and Letters (not to mention Hart’s engaging notes and postscript, where some of the most important commentary can be gleaned) in sequence, presents obvious points of comparison in tone, diction and even the facts themselves that fall into a rather poetic category. As I read, I was often taken aback by how much more engaging these “literal” translations were than the ones from the Contemporary English Version of the Bible I remembered from my Catholic education. Likewise, the fragments one hears in weekly Mass fail to give the cumulative power and opportunity for comparisons that reading them en masse does.
Seeing how the chronology of Jesus’ life and works among the Gospels differs is one such effect; the most variant being the Gospel of John, where the ministry of Jesus is expanded from about one year of works to three, and details (like the number of loaves and fishes) don’t coincide with others’ accounts. Beyond this, the writers depict Jesus himself in different lights depending on the poetry of their verses. Most sentences in Mark’s Gospel notably begin with “And,” rendering this book at once meandering and intentionally clipped in tone. Likewise in Mark, when the Pharisees ask Jesus if it is allowed to perform miracles on the Sabbath, he “look[s] around at them with anger, mortified at the hardness of their hearts,” and in Matthew he calls the doubters “[f]ools and blind men!” Contrast this with Luke’s Gospel, the only one to begin with the claim of telling Jesus’ whole life story, which overall delivers the most eloquent and lyrical narratives of the four.
Similarly, in Acts and Letters, Paul’s voice has a self-effacing, entreating quality compared with John’s, which closes the volume (including in Revelation), and the epistolary quality of Paul’s letters (using the second person much more distinctively when referring to the recipients of the letters) differs significantly from John’s letters. Seemingly arbitrary shifts between past and present tense also abound, which Hart does not make uniform. Instead he explains how these irregularities create a certain immediacy to certain scenes (whether this was intentional, though, we are not sure). For instance, the description of the crucifixion in Mark: “And they lead him away so that they might crucify him.[...] And they crucify him, and portion out his garments, casting a lot upon them regarding who would take what. And it was the third hour and they crucified him.”
Jesus wants us to measure worth and value by the capacity of our hearts, not our pockets.
As amusing and enlightening as this task may be for the curious reader, making notes about transliterary differences is the subject of another essay—one on which reams of scholarly texts have already been written. Rather, a more fruitful takeaway from Hart’s project would be to notice the points of similarityamong all these disparate, fragmentary parts, which together agree on how simple the fundamental teachings of Jesus in fact are. For example, one can readily hear a refrain throughout of “change your heart,” which speaks to the prominent issue Hart brings up in his introduction: the Bible’s stance on money and material goods versus true, inner wealth with a divine value. In that phrase alone, we can see how the essence of an “exchange” or trade is transposed into a more emotional, spiritual lexicon that is more in line with Jesus’ message of how we should measure worth and value by the capacity of our hearts, not our pockets.
The translation addresses this head-on with its unmediated language, correcting past metaphorical interpretations of what Jesus means when he says to cast off all one’s possessions to follow him. According to Hart, rejecting worldly possessions and wealth is not a gray area at all, and those who thought so were making accommodations for their own discomfort, as many of us do now when faced with problems as overwhelming as overpopulation, waste production, climate change and even a lack of intimacy (the results of our infatuation with power and possessions). Jesus means that money and material possessions are inherently bad, not to be valued, and part of what can make humanity “impure,” “idolatrous” and “faithless and perverted.”
We see this in the story of Mary and Martha, where some of the apostles complain that Mary wasted precious oil by anointing Jesus’ head, oil that could have been sold and used to fund provisions for the poor. Jesus replies, “she has done a beautiful deed for me; For you always have the destitute with you, but you do not always have me.” It is worth noting that this passage is immediately followed by Judas’s receipt of 30 pieces of silver for Jesus’ head, a fitting juxtaposition of the ways “wealth” can be used and abused.
It may shock readers to see Jesus prioritizing his own being and sacrifice—which will of course yield our eternal life with, and eternal love from, God in heaven—over even the poor’s lot in life. But again, a return to the original text reassures us of the correctness of his hierarchy. As we read in Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, the lowliest of men and women now will be “blissful” (not the familiar “blessed”) in the kingdom of heaven—that is, happy, joyful, in the place “where your treasure is, there your heart will also be,” when the body and its needs are no longer a concern. In Luke, Jesus goes a step further, stating that those who have much now will be cursed and have much taken from them later. And as he (famously) tells us twice in Mark, “It is easier for a camel to enter in through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.”
Not the coins of Caesar; but of Jesus.
How Jesus fits himself into this equation is actually a bit more complicated, too. For Jesus himself claims that he did not come to be served as a price, to be offered material gifts, “but to serve and to give his soul as the price of liberation for many” (emphasis mine). The currency to be valued instead is his life as a vessel for a message of love: “store these words,” as he says in Luke. The “Logos” of God—another word that Hart chooses to translate unconventionally, not settling for “Word,” as most do—is all the currency we need. And it is a spiritual currency that exists outside of a specific language or context, not the coins of Caesar but of Jesus.
We see proof of this again and again in the literal words that remain consistent throughout the volume. As suggested by the refrain “change your hearts,” Jesus is constantly asking us to turn inward to see the truth of ourselves and our souls. He himself is said to be “moved inwardlywith compassion” upon seeing the first throngs of followers seeking his healing and cures from illness and distress approach him in Galilee. In Luke, the poetry of these notions shines most brightly when Jesus speaks of the treasure of the heart “illuminating within” the body’s lamp, positing the kingdom of Heaven as within us all, and even asking his listeners, “Why do you reason over these things in your hearts?” (emphasis mine).
Later, in Ephesians, we see again the reminder that for those who believe, the “eyes of your heart hav[e] been illumined.” Pitting the logical mind against the heart-mind, Jesus undeniably lets the latter win. In Acts, Paul again shows us how this is the case. Although he and his fellow disciples suffer much harm on their mission to spread the word, in following God there is a “turning of the heart toward life.” The eternal love of God, then, surpasses their being “slave[s] of the Anointed one.”
Once we move past the life of Jesus into the latter parts of the New Testament, such examples of how the earliest followers of Jesus amassed and spent their spiritual currency abound. As James puts it, all followers need to be “doers,” not just “hearers,” and the Apostles suffered a great deal at the hands of Jesus’ enemies in an attempt to do so, a fate predicted by their savior early on and that Paul instructs them to embrace like “fools.” (There is a curious alignment with Hart’s word to describe his literary project, I will note.) Peter corroborates this with the notion that even suffering is not honorable if it is in sin, but rather grace comes to those who do good.
Hart claims that he wishes to maintain the mystery of Jesus’ words, a concept embodied by the parables in which Jesus speaks. These relatable but often mystifying stories are Jesus’ way of forcing us to listen more closely than we had before, to disrupt the old nature of our hearts such that we may hear a greater truth in his words. For those who see their own penury, he claims: “For to him who has it shall be given and shall be more than is needed; but from him who does not have even what he has shall be taken away. Hence I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they neither hear nor understand.” These phrases alone are a grammatical mind-twister, and yet the contrast of “given...more than is needed” with “taken away” remains clear and understood.
The apostles, according to the Second Letter to the Corinthians, are charged with the task of continuing this alternative narrative. They do so by “speak[ing] inthe Anointed” (emphasis mine), not simply “about” or “of” him; their bodies assume the sacrificial nature of Jesus, welcoming suffering and contradiction for the sake of transmitting the Logos of love. Hart expounds on this by reminding us (in his commentary on authorship) that “God speaks through human beings”—including us.
We need to be brought back to this core of our society: intimacy and love, both of which are eroding as quickly as our natural resources.
We should therefore heed the blessing of this text’s arrival, one which provides the most direct imperatives about how to live our lives as modern humans with concerns even Jesus may not have foreseen. Nor does it seem a coincidence that the church is now led by a pope with a similar agenda: using simple, humble words about the equality of all and the preciousness of our planet to touch the hearts of people of all nations and creeds with renewed vigor.
We need to be brought back to this core of our society: intimacy and love, both of which are eroding as quickly as our natural resources. Contemporary studies on “eco-anxiety” are revealing the relationship between climate change and worsening mental health, all of which prevents deeper relationships with others. According to the New Testament, however, when we value our inner lives over our outer lives, then peace naturally follows. “Keep salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another,” Jesus says.
In a world where so many deeds are fueled by revenge, hate, prejudice and appeals for external validation, we can find a most simple solution to the chaos by acting out of the place where our true treasures lie: “God loves a happy giver,” and so we act from our hearts. To hear the answer to our most desperate interpersonal and global concerns, we merely need to turn down the noise around us and tune in to our inner heart-voice. We are the light in our own darkness.