More Bible battles: The 'old, old story' is ever new and, thus, ever in the news

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Pondering Washington’s new Museum of the Bible for the quasi-Jewish Commentary magazine, Williams College art historian Michael Lewis finds it ideologically inoffensive and is therefore perplexed at how fiercely some despise the place.

How come? He says the very claim “that the Bible is a foundational document of our civilization is, to many, an unwelcome one. And as biblical ignorance grows, the claim grows progressively more unwelcome. The Bible seems to be one of those books that the less people know about it, the less they like it.”

Journalists: The professor is onto something that might merit a think piece.

But in this Memo, The Religion Guy instead insists that the Book of the “old, old story” (per that Gospel hymn) is perpetually new, and therefore news. Book-buyers, Internet blabbers and media consumers (also church and synagogue attendees) can’t get enough of it. So here’s the latest twist on the Bible beat.

Religion writers should check the next issue of Christianity Today as it  surveys “lesser-known translations” of scripture, provoking this theme: In the Bible sweepstakes, why pick this one and not that one? Plus there’s a story peg in a current biblical battle between two titans who translated their own one-man New Testaments from the original Greek into English, as opposed to the usual committee editions. The competitors:  

(1) David Bentley Hart, outspoken Eastern Orthodox thinker currently at Notre Dame’s Institute for Advanced Study, with his sharply provocative “The New Testament: A Translation” (Yale).

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(2) Bishop N.T. Wright of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, favorite New Testament scholar for legions of U.S. Protestants and his fellow Anglicans worldwide. Wright's “The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation” (HarperOne, 2011) caused England’s Church Times to proclaim him “the J.K. Rowling of Christian Publishing.”

Hart's edition is for personal study, not formal worship use, because it shuns any smoothing out of the originals’ rough and ready Greek. Reviewers describe his new version, or the underlying texts, as vivid, startling, strange, wondrous, knotty, brilliant, deconstructive, polemical, defiant, eccentric, amazingly modern, audacious, smug, shrewd and quirky, not to mention the “sheer freaking oddness.”

At times, Hart says, his renderings are “almost pitilessly literal,” and wherever the original has “bad Greek” he has written “bad English.” Hart has a thing for odd old English words (climes, chaplet, alee, tilth). More significantly, he avoids well-worn biblical terms like Christ, eternity, blessed, Jews, hell, predestination and justification.  

Garry Wills’ assessment in The New York Review of Books (behind a pay wall) agrees with Hart -- and Friedrich (“God is dead”) Nietzsche -- that the New Testament’s Greek is third-rate. But Hart would add that it pulses with urgency and fascination. The review by James Parker for The Atlantic (there’s that magazine again!) is especially lively.

Hart, an acerbic writer, is known for gibes at atheists (“as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism”). But he now unleashes special fury upon Professor Wright. The feud began with Wright’s review of Hart’s “strange” product in The Christian Century. (Observers object that Wright should have acknowledged his own competing translation on the market, but The Guy thinks Century editors should have noted this in the author I.D.) Wright spots the “occasional glaring error,” but his rhetoric is mild.

Not so Hart, who immediately exploded via the blog of Anglican-turned-Catholic-turned-Orthodox Father Aidan Kimel. Hart used the occasion to assail Wright’s competing New Testament as “notoriously capricious” and error-strewn.

To some extent, the fight here is between so-called “formal equivalence” (Hart rendering the text’s original form literally, word for word) and “dynamic equivalence” (Wright seeking modern expression of what the text meant to the original audience). However, Christianity Today thinks the two translations are “just differently literal.”

More to the point, Hart accuses Wright of “imposing meanings on the text that best conform to his own convictions, plausible or not.” But to The Guy, it appears the same can be said of Hart. If Wright offers a classically Protestant New Testament, Hart’s is Orthodox in inspiration.

Which raises yet another point to consider: Why do the Eastern Orthodox have no standard English Bible of their own and are forced to use Protestant and Catholic translations?

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