REVIEW: David Bentley Hart’s The New Testament: A Translation

David Bentley Hart's The New Testament: A Translation is my favorite book published in 2017—and this is a huge compliment because I read many excellent books in the last year. I've always enjoyed reading different translations of the bible, and I try to read a different translation each year; so I was excited to read this new translation of the New Testament. D. B. Hart (DBH) is a very popular American Orthodox Theologian and to be honest, I haven't read anything by him before, so I was anxious to learn why he was so popular. Personally, I am at home in the Reformed tradition, but I've always enjoyed learning from orthodox theologians such as Dumitru Stăniloae, Georges Florovsky, Kallistos Ware, Alexander Schmemann, and many others. I'm always learning from theologians in other Christian traditions and from distinctive bible translations, so that's why I was interested in D.B. Hart's The New Testament

Why read a new translation of the bible?

Why should you read another translation of the bible? D. B. Hart makes an excellent argument for individual translations of the Bible. Individuals have the ability to translate the bible into modern english, and provide exciting and illuminating renderings of bible verses that brings out the meaning of the bible, in a way that other bibles designed by committees may never do. D. B. Hart also believes that other translators smooth out and hide meaningful difficulties in the biblical text due to slavish loyalty to "dynamic equivalence theory" or other theories. This rings true to me, because when I read James Moffatt's translation of the bible several years ago, it caused me to understand the bible in remarkably new ways, because he didn't follow the traditional rules for translating, where other common bibles all sounded like bland variations of the King James Version (KJV). D. B. Hart argues this point well in the following quotation from his introduction: 

"... almost all modern translations of the text have been produced not by single scholars with their own particular visions of the text but by committees. The inevitable consequence of this is that many of the most important decisions are negotiated accommodations, achieved by general agreement, and favoring only those solutions that prove the least offensive to everyone involved. This becomes, in effect, a process of natural selection, in which novel approaches to the text are generally the first to perish, and only the tried and trusted survive. And this can result in the exclusion not only of extravagantly conjectural readings, but often of the most straightforwardly literal as well. (A sort of 'acid test' for me is Judas [or Jude] 1:19, a verse whose meaning is startlingly clear in the Greek but which no collaborative translation I know of translates in any but the vaguest and most periphrastic manner.)" [DBH, Introduction, xiv]

Jude 1:19 (DBH) "These are those who cause divisions, psychical men, not possessing spirits."

Features of D. B. Hart's New Testament

D. B. Hart's The New Testament includes an "Introduction" and "Concluding Scientific Postscript" that are essential reading before getting too far into his translation, because they explain several esoteric phrases used throughout the book. For instance, many of the verses have a strikingly communistic sense because D. B. Hart explains "the New Testament, alarmingly enough, condemns personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil." [p. xxvi] and so D. B. Hart says that the famous conclusion to parable of the rich young ruler in the gospels "should probably be translated not as 'Who then can be saved?' or 'Can anyone be saved?' but rather 'Then can any [of them, the rich] be saved?'" [p. xxviii] Hart's frank and honest translation of the New Testaments condemnations of wealth are so literally close to original sources, that they may strike terror into the hearts of capitalists everywhere.

At the same time, all translations are ultimately commentaries upon the biblical text, and none of them are objective--this isn't a bad things but it should be kept in mind that D. B. Hart has a perspective as an Orthodox theologian that he brings out in his translation (as I expect he would). The "Concluding Scientific Postscript" is essential for understanding these nuances that appear in distinctive and non-traditional translations that D. B. Hart chooses. In general, D. B. Hart favors literal translations, and often transliterates Greek words directly into english, rather than choosing an alternative english term. The most widely discussed example is D. B. Hart's translation of the Johannine prologue (John 1:1-18) where he does not translate the term "Logos" and leaves the transliteration of it directly in the text.  (Notice the use of 'GOD' vs 'Go'd vs 'God', and the use of 'cosmos' in the following verses).

John 1:1-2 (DBH) "In the origin there was the Logos, and the Logos was present with GOD, and the Logos was god; This one was present with GOD in the origin."

John 1:14 (DBH) "And the Logos became flesh and pitched a tent among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the Father's only one, full of grace and truth."

John 5:38 (DBH) "Nor do you have his Logos abiding in you, for this one whom he sent, inhim you do not have faith."

John 10:34-36 (DBH) "Jesus answered them, 'Is it not written in your Law 'I said, "You are gods"'? If he called gods those to whom God's Logos came, and the scripture cannot be dissolved, How is it that, because I have said I am the Son of God, you say, 'You blaspheme' to one whom the father sanctified and sent out into the cosmos?"

The Concluding Scientific Postscript contains a glossary of about twenty terms with distinctive translations, and explains why he translated them in the way that he did. I'll discuss three examples from the 19 entries.

#1. aionios: D.B. Hart translates the aionios as an age or a long period of time, instead of the traditional translation of eternality, so many scriptures contain the phrase  "life of the Age" instead of "eternal life".

John 3:16 (DBH) “For God so loved the cosmos as to give the Son, the only one, so that everyone having faith in him might not perish, but have life of the Age.” 

#2. gehenna: D.B. Hart explains that there are three terms (gehenna, hades, and tartarus) that are traditionally translated as "hell" but none of these words mean what most people imagine when they hear the english term hell. Hart chooses to translate gehenna as the "Valley of Hinnom" instead of "hell", which was a place outside of Jerusalem's walls where children were sacrificed to Moloch and Ba'al (as described in the Old Testament). In the example of Mark 9:44-48 DHB, the unquenchable fire refers to the fires that were burning in the Vale of Hinnom, and the worms that do not die refers to the worms consuming the rotten flesh of the bodies in the Valley of Hinnom. 

Mark 9:47-48 (DBH) "And if your eye causes you to falter, fling it away; it is good for you to enter one-eyed into the Kingdom of God rather than, having two eyes, to be cast into the Valley of Hinnom, 'Where their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched'"

#13. kosmos: One last example is D. B. Hart's choice to translate kosmos as "cosmos" rather than "world". D. B. Hart chose cosmos because it includes all of the created order, not just the world of humanity. Hart believes that that other words such as oikoumene refer to the world of humanity apart from creation, but cosmos means "the who of the created order, heavens no less than the earth." [p559].

Ephesians 1:4 (DBH) "As he chose us in him before the foundation of the cosmos, that we might be holy and immaculate before him in love"

The last feature worth mentioning is the excellent footnotes that are included throughout the book that add particular explanations to his translation or bring out background meanings that are both helpful and often humorous. In a footnote to Mark 10:25, D. B. Hart suggests the Gospel of Mark may have erred when it said it is easier for a “camel” (kamelos) to pass through an eye of a needle in Mk 10:25. DB Hart says the original word may have been “rope” (kamilos). You have to admit that “camel” is really random and “rope” makes more sense. Here are a few more footnote examples:

1 Corinthians 11:10 (DBH) “Therefore a woman ought to keep ward upon her head on account of the angels.” [DBH Footnote: “No one knows what this verse means…”]

Footnote on 1 Cor 14:34-35: “The best critical scholarship regards these verses as a later and rather maladroit interpolation, perhaps drawn from 1 Timothy 2:11-12; and the evidence preponderantly indicates they are almost certainly spurious.”

Selected verses from David Bentley Hart's New Testament

Here are more examples that I've selected from David Bentley Hart's New Testament: A Translation that I thought were noteworthy and give a taste of the book over all. I highly enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it as my favorite book of 2017.

2 Corinthians 9:13 (DBH) "Because of the proof given by this ministry, they are glorifying God for the obedience of your confession of the Anointed's good tidings, and for the generosity of this communal sharing with them and with all"

Galatians 5:12 (DBH) "Would that they who are causing you agitation might just castrate themselves!"

 
Acts 10:13 (DBH) “And a voice came to him: ‘Arise, Peter, sacrifice and eat.’”
 
Acts 8:1 (DBH) "And there was Saul, approving of his [Stephen's] destruction."
 
John 10:22 (DBH) "Then came Hannukah in Jerusalem; it was winter"
 
Philippians 2:5-12 (DBH) "Be of that mind in yourselves that was also in the Anointed One Jesus, Who, subsisting in God's form, did not deem being on equal terms with God a thing to be grasped, But instead emptied himself, taking a slave's form, coming to be a likeness of human beings; and, being found as a human being in shape, He reduced himself, becoming obedient all the way to death, and a death by a cross. For which reason God also exalted him on high and graced him with the name that is above every name, So that at the name of Jesus every knee--of beings heavenly and earthly and subterranean--should bend, And every tongue gladly confess that Jesus the Anointed is Lord, for the glory of God the Father. Thus, my beloved ones, just as you have always been obedient (not as if only in my presence, but a great deal more so in my absence), work out your salvation in reverence and trembling,"

 

Sources:

  1. David Bentley Hart. The New Testament: A Translation. Yale University Press: New Haven and London. 2017. [Abbreviated as DBH throughout]

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  1. It appears to be a worthwhile addition to my collection and, when I can manage, I will get it.
    However, I was disappointed in in his translation of Matthew 2:1-9. I have yet to see any translation that gets this right and hoped this one would be different—ἀνατολῇ can mean east, as in rising in the east. Of course, everybody today (and certainly back then) knows everything rises in the east. So clearly the Magian nor the author of Matthew would have made such a redundant statement.

    Since we all know that stars only rise at night, the alternative meaning of ἀνατολῇ—dayspring or dawn—can’t be right. Except that in the first century there were only 3 astronomical objects—the sun, the moon, and the stars. Planets were wandering stars, some of which were visible during the day, more importantly, comets were considered stars, stars of omen, and, to the naked eye, they actually mostly appear during the day, since they are not typically visible as comets to the naked eye until the comet crosses the earths orbit.

    In both cases the correct translations is “For we observed his star rising at dawn” and “went the star that they had seen rising at dawn”.

    Other than that, what I have so far seen is quite good.


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