A Review of David Bentley Hart's
The New Testament: A Translation
Brett Beasley

When Jonathan Ives and Steve Jobs set out to design the iMac, most computers were bulky beige boxes. But they believed a computer didn’t have to feel like an ungainly piece of hardware. They set out to make a machine that was personal—friendly, even. So they removed the hard edges. They replaced the bland colors with gemlike transparent plastic. They made their iMac enticing, like the piece of fruit emblazoned on its top. And in a crucial stroke of design genius Ives and Jobs added a large handle on the back that, Ives said, “invites people to pick it up and touch it.”

bookcoverBibles, it seems, have gone the way of the iMac. User-friendliness is on the rise; “thought for thought” translations like the Contemporary English Version (CEV) and The Message aim for middle school or even elementary school-level readability. At the same time, publishers have segmented the market and pursued every possible demographic. The result? It is now possible to purchase the Duck Commander Faith and Family Bible; The American Patriot’s Bible; The Waterproof Bible (which also floats); the Beautiful Word Coloring Bible; the FLEXIBible, which features squishy rearrangeable binding; and a vast array of sports-themed Bibles, allowing fans of all ages to combine passion and piety. The message is simple: whoever you are, there is a Bible just for you.

This trend toward accessibility and ease of use at any cost is what makes David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament so intriguing, and so necessary. Hart’s translation turns out to be remarkably free of “handles.” In fact, it’s downright forbidding. Hart describes it as “pitiliessly literal.” It is a translation attempted etsi doctrina non daretur (“as if doctrine is not given”). Hart warns, “This is not a literary translation of the New Testament, much less a rendering for liturgical use.” Moreover, it is a translation that refuses to clean up or “finish” the text it renders. Hart writes:

I have chosen not to fill in syntactical lacunae, rectify grammatical lapses, or draw a veil of delicacy over jarring words or images. Where the Greek of the original is maladroit, broken, or impenetrable (as it is with some consistency in Paul’s letters), so is the English of my translation; where an author has written bad Greek (such as one finds throughout the book of Revelation), I have written bad English.

In this translation, even the word “God” is unstable. It appears alternately as “God,” “god,” “GOD,” or “God” [in small caps] to reflect different terms in the original. Outside the copious, meandering footnotes and appendices, one will be surprised not to encounter the words “Hell,” or “Salvation” or even “Christ”—Hart opts to use “The Anointed” in this latter case. In short, it’s nobody’s Bible. It is not designed with a user in mind. It serves no creed, no ideological tribe, no demographic.

Although Hart aims to forcefully strip away layers of interpretation and render the literal text in a fresh way, not all of his choices are dramatic. But at times even his subtle choices are highly suggestive. For example, his rendering of the beatitudes (Matthew 5) uses “blissful” where we expect “blessed”:

How blissful the destitute, abject in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of the heavens; How blissful those who mourn, for they shall be aided; How blissful the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.

The effect of this slight semantic modification is profound. Compared to familiar, time-worn translations, Hart’s text feels ruder—yet richer as well. It achieves an effect that is all at once more mystical and more matter-of-fact than the texts we are used to.

Appearing as it does during the quincentenary of the Protestant Reformation, this new translation affords a crucial opportunity to consider the status of scripture in Christian practice and theology. Hart, it should be noted, is no Protestant. Eastern Orthodox by practice and universalist in his soteriology, his translation of Romans is not hospitable to—perhaps even hostile to—a Protestant understanding of “justification by faith.” His translation has already prompted John Milbank to declare that “Hart has shown, after five hundred years, that the core of Reformation theology is unbiblical.” Yet the parallels between Hart’s project and the Protestant project remain. Protestantism as a movement was, of course, made possible by vernacular translations of the Bible, and the primacy of scripture came to be one of the defining features of Protestant thought. Insofar as Hart is asking us to return to scripture, to see it afresh, and to let it shape us in new ways, he is doing what the Reformers did, even if he is not saying what the Reformers said.

More urgent than the questions Hart raises about Protestant theology are the questions he raises about Christian culture in general and its relationship to the Bible. He asks, simply, does the New Testament affirm the people we are—meaning us modern, Western Christians? Hart’s answer is a plangent “No.” He writes:

The first Christians certainly bore little resemblance to the faithful of our day, or to any generation of Christians that has felt quite at home in the world, securely sheltered within the available social stations of its time, complacently comfortable with material possessions and national loyalties and civic conventions. In truth, I suspect that few of us, in even our wildest imaginings, could ever desire to be the kind of person that the New Testament describes as fitting the pattern of the life in Christ. And I do not mean merely that most of us would find the moral requirements laid out in Christian scripture a little onerous—though of course we do. […] Rather I mean that most of us would find Christians truly cast in the New Testament mold fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent.

This newfound realization about just how radical and otherworldly the early Christians were leaves Hart at odds also with another feature of the Protestant imagination, the affirmation of ordinary life, the view that normal work and family rather than renunciation and asceticism are proper holy pursuits. This is not without some regret on Hart’s part. He concedes that there is a “cultural genius” to this view, and he appreciates “the countless ways in which it allows for an appreciation of the moral heroism of the everyday.” Nevertheless, this view was “largely invisible to those who wrote the Christian scriptures.” Hart’s primary example on this point is the relationship between Christians and material wealth. Whereas Christians have become comfortable with the culture of capitalism, early Christians were communists who saw riches as intrinsically immoral. According to Hart, it is only our theological tradition, aided by highly diplomatic translations, that allows us to ignore this truth that appears so plainly in the biblical text.

Is Hart correct? At the risk of quibbling over a fine historical point, it is worth mentioning that many of the early modern architects of the affirmation of ordinary life were also those most opposed to material wealth for its own sake—one need only look at the “Diggers” or True Levelers in the seventeenth century, who were both thoroughly Protestant and adamantly opposed to private wealth to the point of becoming agrarian communists. Or we could consider another seventeenth-century figure, the Anglican clergyman and poet Thomas Traherne whose meditations teach us to “enjoy the world aright.” Traherne wrote that “God did infinitely for us when He made us to want like Gods, that like Gods we might be satisfied.” For this very reason Traherne had nothing but contempt for “the corruption of Men and their mistake in the choice of riches: for having refused those which God made, and taken to themselves treasures of their own, they invented scarce and rare, insufficient, hard to be gotten, little, moveable and useless treasures.” The affirmation of ordinary life, in other words, entailed a condemnation of the pursuit of worldly goods.

Nevertheless, the fact that the Protestant affirmation of ordinary life can coexist with a radical otherworldliness and a critique of material wealth does not change the fact that it has clearly played a role, as Max Weber pointed out long ago, in promoting the opposite values: a bland, contented bourgeois moralism and a drive toward material acquisitiveness. The fact that Protestants need not repent of everything does not mean there’s nothing to repent at all.

As the saying goes, ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda: the reformed church must always be reforming; we honor the Reformation by reforming even it, if necessary. I suspect it’s not a process that requires us to rashly throw out the past or our traditions so much as it requires us to look back through our history, as through a row of knitting gone awry, to identify the moment and place where we went wrong and to begin again, careful not to repeat past errors. But to do that we need a Bible not made in our image. So we have Hart to thank—both for giving us a Bible we did not want and for showing us how much we need it.

Brett Beasley is a writer and researcher at the University of Notre Dame.

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