In Praise of Bad Writing: David Bentley Hart’s New Testament

The New Testament, as translated by the influential Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, is bad.  But that’s what makes it such a good read for Christians who need their settled understandings tweaked.

Hart’s new translation doesn’t strive for literary heights. He has an ear for beautiful language, something that comes through in all of his writing.  But here he aims for reproducing the feel and flavor of the original Greek texts and, sad to say, for all their influence, most of the original authors were not great writers.  

Hart allows that Luke and Hebrews show some elevated style, but don’t get him started on John, the author of Revelation.  In Hart’s translation, the sea of fire in Revelation 19:20 becomes a marsh.  An accompanying note contains a bit of uncharacteristic Hart-ian understatement: “In very antique usage (Homer, for instance), the term [translated as marsh] could be used as a poetic trope for the sea; but John does not give the impression of being someone possessed of a classical education.” (527)

If the marsh of fire sounds unusual, that’s kind of the point.  Hart says, “I would hope my translation would succeed, in many places, in making the familiar strange, novel, and perhaps newly compelling.” (xvii)  Of course, sometimes it only succeeds in making the familiar obscure, as when Hart turns Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:9 for love overflowing “with knowledge and full insight” [NRSV] into love that abounds “in full knowledge and in all percipience.” Glad we cleared that up.

A “Concluding Scientific Postscript” helps explain some of the rationale for Hart’s approach.  Here you learn why ‘gehenna,’ often translated as ‘hell,’ has become the ‘Vale of Hinnom’ and why ‘eternity’ becomes, in places, “that Age.”  You also learn why the prologue to John is so difficult to render in English and what you can lose when you do.

Hart himself does not recommend his translation for liturgical use.  He knows it’s odd.  But he has aimed to communicate the strangeness and urgency of the early Christian community.  Hart knows the environment from which these texts emerge—the complex era of the Roman imperial age in which Jewish and Greek ideas were producing radical new religious movements.  And he feels, behind the imprecise and breathless texts of the early Church, the energy of converts eager to share a life-changing message at all costs.

David-Bentley-Hart

David Bentley Hart

Sure, he’s got his ongoing interests and projects that he brings to his work.  Every translator does and Hart is far more upfront about his than most.  That didn’t stop N.T. Wright from slagging Hart’s translation in a January Christian Century review. “[Hart’s] two main claims (to be “literal” and “undogmatic”) are not borne out,” the prolific former Bishop of Durham notes,  “and the promise of displaying the strangeness of early Christian life disappears behind different kinds of strangeness”—a strangeness that Wright attributes to Hart’s theological agenda of anti-Augustinianism and universalism.

Watching the resulting Wright-Hart dust-up has entertained many theologians who know that Hart has never met an intellectual dispute that he couldn’t milk for spectacle.  During the brief heyday of the New Atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, Hart wrote the most gleeful Christian apology I ever read—a book whose title betrayed its consistent tone: Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.

In 2012 Wright published his own New Testament translation, and following the Christian Century review, Hart has now taken to accompanying his defense of his translation with an attack on Wright’s as “the single worst translation ever done of the New Testament.”  In a recent interview with Jason Micheli on the Crackers and Grape Juice podcast he denounced Wright’s habit of “writing down to the common Christian, whom he apparently thinks is a four-year-old recovering from a concussion.”

With his intemperate exuberance and keen intellect, Hart resembles no one more than the Apostle Paul, who once told a church, (as Hart translates it in Galatians 5:12), “Would that they who are causing you agitation might just castrate themselves!” It’s the language of people who have been converted into a new Kingdom.

“This extremism is not merely an occasional hyperbolic presence in the texts or an infrequent intonation sounded only in their most urgent moments; it is their entire cultural and spiritual atmosphere.  The New Testament emerges from a cosmos ruled by malign celestial principalities (conquered by Christ but powerful to the end) and torn between spirit and flesh (the one, according to Paul, longing for God, the other opposing him utterly).  There are no comfortable medians in these latitudes, no areas of shade.  Everything is cast in the harsh light of a final judgment that is both absolute and terrifyingly imminent.  In regard to all these texts, the qualified, moderate, commonsense interpretation is always false.” (xxvii)

If you see that in Hart’s translation, he will feel he has done his job. However bad it seems.

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