STUDENTS often asked me which translation of the Bible should be used in their courses. This gave rise to discussions about the variety of translations available, their distinctive characteristics, and the purposes for which they had been designed.
Apart from those who clung to the Authorised Version for aesthetic reasons, the academic purposes of biblical criticism would recommend a skilful combination of historical scholarship in the culture and languages of the biblical world with the most lucid and intelligible modern English.
Naturally, this still leaves a variety of other issues unresolved: a text for reading aloud or quiet meditation; a translation that is precisely literal or a creative interpretation; a reflection of the oldest version, or a living religious tradition, with or without doctrinal commitment; consistently in poetry or prose; the work of an individual, or the collective insights of a committee?
The author is an American scholar of religion and philosophy, belonging to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and a fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. With his wide interests in cultures and language, demonstrating in introduction and postscript a desire for justifying detail, and showing an appetite for translating obscure texts, he was challenged by his publisher to tackle, in a literal and provocative English rendering, the meaning of the original Greek Testament.
He has risen to the challenge with a bold determination, which he defines both in and around his translation, covering many issues that I have already outlined.
A key issue that he tackles here is the diversity in the style of Greek between the books of the New Testament. The Letter to the Hebrews should not sound like part of Paul’s correspondence with his churches. Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles are written in “urbane . . . mostly graceful prose” in contrast to the other three Gospels. But it is an exaggeration to call (as he does) the Greek of Revelation “atrocious”, to justify a bad English translation and ignore the dominant influence of the apocalyptic tradition. Common to all books, however, is a sense of urgency in communicating what is seen and heard, in contrast to the polish of a tradition like Jewish scripture.
One text that demonstrates a serious difficulty is from the Christmas Gospel, at John 1.14: “And the Logos became flesh and pitched a tent among us. . .” This jarred for me (and for others I consulted) because of its stylistic inconsistency. I welcomed the literal/modern rendering of “tabernacled”, which makes one think. But to combine it with a doctrinal proper title (original Greek Logos rather than “Word”) and in a context that has spoken of “cosmos” (rather than “world”) seems unhappy.
Perhaps to avoid Christian Trinitarian debate, or Jewish metaphysics, a “creative” interpretation relating to Old Testament prophecy is needed instead?
Dr John Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.
The New Testament: A translation
David Bentley Hart
Yale University Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £27