Monday, October 16, 2017

A Brief Word about Eternal Punishment

          A very thoughtful person recently commented on my blog about how he would like to see me engage in greater depth the question of how one should translate the phrase κολασιν αιωνιον/ kolasin aionion in Matthew 25:46, which Dr. Hart renders as “the chastisement of that Age” and which pretty much everyone else renders as “eternal punishment” (thus, for example, the NASB, NIV, RSV, NRSV, NEB, NAB, TEV, ASV, the Jerusalem Bible, Mounce’s version, and Phillips version. (I apologize for the alphabet soup, but you get the idea.) The KJV and the Douay-Rheims render it “everlasting punishment”. My commenter also asked to see how the term was understood in non-biblical texts—a very sensible question. I deal with the questions in my book Unquenchable Fire, so I trust that dealing with it here too will not detract from future book sales. After all, the book’s 239 pages deals with many other things besides—and yes, this is shameless bit of self-promotion. Anyway, I happily now oblige the commenter and will examine the issue of how to translate and understand the words κολασιν αιωνιον/ kolasin aionion in Matthew 25:46. This involves: 1. how to translate kolasis; 2. how to translate aionion; 3. how the phrase and concept of punishment in the next world was understood by hearers at the time of Christ. This last is particularly important, because it reveals how Christ would have been understood by His hearers. Here the concepts are more important than the words themselves, since of course Christ spoke Aramaic, not Greek.

The meaning of the word kolasis.

          The noun kolasis is cognate with the verb kolazo, which in Homeric Greek (my text books tell me) was derived from kolos, mutilated, and meant “to cut short, to lop, to trim”. When used figuratively it meant “to impede, to restrain, to punish, to chastise”. As applied to plants it meant “to prune”; when applied to persons it meant “to punish” or “to maim”, and thus was often used when referring to the punishment meted out to slaves. In the pagan world, certain monuments were inscribed using the word kolasis to threaten divine retribution for those who broke sacred cultic laws.
In Septuagint Greek it was used for divine retribution as well, such as in Ezekiel 14:3 where it described the punishment due to idolaters for their sins, and in the Wisdom of Solomon 11:13, where it is used to describe the plagues upon the Egyptians. In Wisdom 19:4 it described also the final punishment of the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea. In 2 Maccabees 4:38 the word described the punishment of a certain Andronicus who was killed for his crime. 
          These examples all referred to punishments that were final, and so show that the word does not simply mean “correction” as opposed to timoria, (which means “vengeance”) as is often asserted. Here kolasis is indistinguishable from timoria, since those suffering punishment were killed for their sins and crimes, and could not benefit from any correction. The sharp distinction therefore made between kolasis and timoria, between correction and vengeance, does not hold in these instances and should be abandoned as the lens for interpreting the meaning of kolasis. That is perhaps why one scholar wrote, “Aristotle differentiates the word [kolasis] from timoria, but in late Greek the distinction is not always observed”—as we see in the Septuagint. In the instances cited above (which are more relevant to the New Testament usage of the word than anything from Aristotle) the word means punishment and retribution.

The meaning of the word aionion.

           In discussing the word aionion or its root aion in the Scriptures it is helpful to leave the analytical and philosophical world of Hellenism for a bit and return to the thought world of the Hebrews. In that world the primary fact about man is that he does not live for an aion, but that he is like the grass of the field, a flower which blooms and fades almost overnight (Isaiah 40:6-7, Psalm 90:6). In this world, ten generations were indistinguishable from forever: thus Deuteronomy 23:4—“No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of Yahweh; even to the tenth generation none belonging to them shall enter the assembly of Yahweh forever [Hebrew ad olam]. In this world ten generations were “forever”, ad olam. page1image34688
           The word olam therefore meant “something beyond human reckoning and counting”. The word had some elasticity; some things beyond counting were finite, and some were infinite. It hardly mattered, since both were beyond counting or calculation anyway. Thus in Amos 9:11, the House of David is described as ki mei olam—(rendered in the NASB as “in the days of old”), a very long time, time out of mind, but not infinite. God, on the other hand, is described in Psalm 90:2 as existing meolam ad olam, (in the NASB “from everlasting to everlasting”)—infinite indeed. In Genesis 21:33 Yahweh is described as El olam, “the eternal God”. “Sometimes the olam is doubled up: “olam of olams” as in Isaiah 45:17, where God saves Israel with a salvation olam olamim, “an everlasting salvation”. Sometimes the word is paired with ed, so that God’s throne is described in Psalm 45:6 as olam wa-ed.
The point is that the elasticity of the word olam as referring to something virtually uncountable is reflected in how the word is translated into the Septuagintal Greek. Thus in Amos 9:11 the House of David is from emerai tou aionos, from days of aionos. In Psalm 90:2, God exists apo tou aionos eos tou aionos. In Genesis 21:33 the Lord is theos aionios. In Isaiah 45:17 God saves Israel with a soterian aionion; in Psalm 45:6 His throne endures eis aiona aionos. In Tobit 13:1 God lives eis tous aionas. In Psalm 84:5 those who dwell in God’s House will praise Him eis tous aionas ton aionon, “forever”.
           Thus the nuance of the word aion refers not to something of long but limited duration (like a century is long but limited) but to something past human counting, and it is therefore used to describe the eternity of God and His throne. (That is why the word is also used to designate “the world” in Hebrews 11:3, for the world too is immense beyond comprehension.) In the same way the word aionios refers not to a well-defined and limited age, but to something limitless. The theos aionios of Genesis 21:33 is not “the age-long God” or “the God of that Age”, but “the eternal God”.
We also see such usage reflected in Philo: in his work on Noah’s Work as a Planter [in chapter 8], Philo writes of “the unending [aidios] word of the eternal [aionion] God”. Those like Ramelli who insist on making a sharp distinction between aidios (as meaning “unending”) and aionion (as meaning merely “age-long”) have a problem, for here we would then have the situation where God’s word was unending whereas God Himself was merely age-long. Obviously Philo uses the two words as virtual synonyms. The word aionion therefore does not have as its root meaning simply “age long” or “pertaining to an age”—i.e. something long but in principle of limited duration. Rather its usual meaning refers to something essentially unending, eternal, beyond all calculation and comprehension. That is why Philo could speak of the unending word of the aionion God.
          Given the usage of the word in the Septuagint, we can see how the default mode of translators is to render the word “eternal” or “everlasting” in Matthew 25:46, for there is nothing in the text itself to limit its meaning in terms of duration (as there is, for example, Romans 16:25-26 or in Amos 9:11 LXX). This is especially apparent when the same word aionion is used in Matthew 25:46 to describe both the life given to the righteous and the punishment given to the wicked, for if the life given to the righteous is eternal and unending (being the life of the age to come), then the punishment of the wicked must be as eternal and unending as well.
          To this effect I may quote several N.T. commentators. One commentator (Robert Mounce) writes, “Although aionios (eternal) is primarily a qualitative word, its temporal aspect should not be overlooked. Verse 46 offers little support for those who would like to think of eternal life as endless and eternal punishment as restricted in some way. That the adjective modifies both nouns in the same context indicates that we understand it in the same way.” Another (Gundry) writes, “Though aionion may hyperbolically describe things which by nature last a long time but not forever, the lack of need to make such qualification in the present passage leaves us with the meaning ‘everlasting’. It would be a mistake to exclude the chronological senses of the term from its larger qualitative meaning for the latter includes the former.” Yet another, William Hendricks, writes, “Since the same adjective is used in both clauses, the word to be used in the translation should make clear in which respect the two, namely punishment for the wicked and life for the righteous, are the same. They are the same in this one respect, namely that they last on and on and on, without ever coming to an end.”

           How the concept of punishment in the world to come was understood at the time of Christ.

          These commentators’ understanding of kolasin aionion as involving endless punishment is confirmed by the writings of the inter-testamental period. We cite three examples from this period as illustrative of the thought of the whole.
           In the book of 2 Esdras (a composite work, with its core dating from about the close of the first century, making it roughly contemporaneous with Christ and the apostles) we read the following:

“The earth shall give up those who are asleep in it, and the dust those who dwell silently in it, and the chambers [of Hades] shall give up the souls which have been committed to them. And the Most High shall be revealed upon the seat of judgment and compassion shall pass away and patience shall be withdrawn...And recompense shall follow and the reward shall be manifested; ...Then the pit of torment shall appear and opposite it shall be the place of rest, and the furnace of Gehenna shall be disclosed and opposite it the paradise of delight. Then the Most High will say to the nations that have been raised from the dead, ‘Look now and understand whom you have denied...Look on this side and on that: here are delight and rest and there are fire and torments!’ (7:32f)... “I [God] will rejoice over the few who shall be saved, because it is they who have made My glory to prevail now, and through them My name has now been honoured. And I will not grieve over the multitude of those who perish, for it is they who are now like a mist, and are similar to a flame and smoke—they are set on fire and burn hotly and are extinguished’” (7:60- 61).
It is clear from these passages that “the pit of torment” and “the furnace of Gehenna” are eternal, for no ultimate restoration of the wicked is in view. On the contrary, their fate is to be “set on fire and burn hotly and extinguished”.

We cite next from The Book of Jubilees written in about the second century B.C.

In it, the author represents Isaac as exhorting his sons Jacob and Esau to love each other, and requires them to take an oath
 that they will do so. And then he adds:

“If either of you devises evil against his brother, know that from henceforth everyone that devises evil against his brother shall fall into his hand and shall be rooted out of the land of the living and his seed shall be destroyed from under heaven. But on the day of turbulence and execration and indignation and anger, with flaming devouring fire as He burnt Sodom, so likewise will He burn his land and his city and all that is his, and he shall be blotted out of the book of the discipline of the children of men and not be recorded in the book of life, but in that which is appointed to destruction, and he shall depart into eternal execration, so that their condemnation may be always renewed in hate and in execration and in wrath and in torment and in indignation and in plagues and in disease forever” (36:9-11).

          Once again we see the presupposition that the day of final judgment, described as a day of turbulence and execration and indignation and anger for the wicked, is the time when they shall “depart into eternal execration, so that their condemnation may be always renewed in hate and in execration and in wrath and in torment and in indignation and in plagues and in disease forever”. A more complete expression of unending punishment could scarcely be imagined.

Finally we quote from The Book of Enoch, which dates from the first and second centuries B.C. In
 one place we read:

“I looked and turned to another part of the earth and saw there a deep valley with burning fire. And they brought the kings and the mighty and began to cast them into this deep valley. And there my eyes saw how they made these their instruments, iron chains of immeasurable weight. And I asked the angel of peace who went with me, saying, ‘For whom are these chains being prepared?’ And he said to me, ‘These are being prepared for the hosts of Azazel, so that they may take them and cast them into the abyss of complete condemnation...And Michael and Gabriel and Raphael and Phanuel shall take hold of them on that great day and cast them into the burning furnace, that the Lord of Spirits may take vengeance on them for their unrighteousness” (54:1- 6)... I looked until a throne was erected in the pleasant land and the Lord of the sheep sat himself on it and the other took the sealed books and opened those books before the Lord of the sheep...And those seventy shepherds were judged and found guilty and they were cast into that fiery abyss” (90:20, 25).

In these passages we not only read of the “complete condemnation” of the wicked with no hint of future restoration, but also a throne set up whereon the Messianic Lord of the sheep sat to administer final judgment—the image perhaps in our Lord’s mind when He told the parable of the sheep and the goats, and something that clearly would have been in the mind of His audience when they first heard that parable.
          These three passages (more could be cited) reveal how those who first heard Christ speak of the punishment of the wicked in the age to come would have understood Him. The concept of a punishment of limited duration functioning only to correct the wicked prior to their ultimate restoration is alien to the mindset of this inter-testamental Judaism.  For this reason alone the words kolasin aionion must be rendered “eternal punishment”. Dr. Hart’s rendering of “ the chastisement of that Age” is forced and idiosyncratic. It stands opposed to the usual meanings of the words themselves, their cultural context, and the translations of almost all the versions. His insistence upon finding universalism in the New Testament is done in spite of this text’s clear meaning. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Hart's "The New Testament: a Translation"

David Bentley Hart’s The New Testament: a Translation has come to a bookstore near you.  I have already written about Hart’s article (published in Commonweal in September 2016) in which he spoke at length of the genesis and need for such a new translation.  Here I would like to look at the New Testament translation itself.  Full disclosure:  what follows are general comments about the work, not an in-depth examination of it.  I am offering my impressions after having read a number of passages with great interest; this is more a book review than a comprehensive dissection. A full dissection and analysis would require more than can be sensibly put in a blog.
            The work is characterized as one done “in the spirit of ‘etsi doctrina non daretur,’ ‘as if doctrine is not given’”.  A blurb on Amazon describes it as “a pitilessly literal translation, one that captures the texts’ impenetrability and unfinished quality”.  One cannot quibble too much with the intention of translating the texts with such scholarly objectivity as would free the translation from confessional bias.  The texts say what they say, and a translator must resist the temptation of tinkering with the translation to bring it into closer alignment with his church confession.  (One thinks perhaps of the Authorized Version’s translation of episkopos as “overseer” rather than as “bishop” in Acts 20:28, lest that episcopally-blessed Anglican version give the impression that Paul identified a presbyteros (in v. 17) with an episkopos.  Which he of course he did.)  The trick in all translation is to make the final product comprehensible when read (if it requires many long footnotes to be understood, it should perhaps be sold as a commentary, not a translation) and to accurately reproduce the meaning of the original.  Literality is not a virtue in itself, but also insofar as it serves one of these two goals.   And if the text retains too much of its “impenetrability” it will not be understood by its readers.  Most translators realize that they have a pastoral responsibility to the readers to tell them what the text means, and this inevitably involves at least a little bit of interpretation.  No one is free from bias in this regard—including individual translators such as Hart.  It will not do to say “everyone is biased in their translation except of course me”.  All translators have at least a mote or two in their own eyes.  All the more reason for the unwary to use as many translations as possible.
Hart’s contention that all modern translations have been deliberately falsified (he speaks of “preposterous liberties taken” and of “pious fraudulence”) because they were produced by committees more mindful of confessional politics than accuracy is perhaps a little harsh, and seems to presuppose a lot of first-hand knowledge about what went on behind closed doors in those committees.  Saying for example (as he did in an interview) that the New International Version “is simply not the Bible” seems rather over the top.  I fully agree that this version skews some of its renderings in a Protestant direction (such as insisting on rendering paradosis as “the teaching passed on” when used positively and as “tradition” when the word is used negatively), but this hardly disqualifies it so completely as Hart suggests.   I suspect that its popularity among American evangelicals contributes to his tremendous negativity regarding it.
There are both advantages and disadvantages in works produced by committees and in works produced by individuals.  It is true that committees may be tempted to produce a text acceptable to all concerned, which may unfairly skew the meaning of the text to avoid controversy or to promote a confessional teaching, and Hart is right to call our attention to this fact and provides a valuable service in so doing.  But it is also true that those committees afford little opportunity to individual translators to promote their own agendas.  Regarding the versions produced by individual translators—these have the advantage of not being watered down by their peers on a committee.  But these translators also have no brake upon their own idiosyncrasies, brakes such could be provided by that committee.  Thus both committee-produced versions and individually-produced versions have their own strengths and weaknesses.  Demonizing all the versions produced by committees is unfair—and perhaps a bit self-serving if one is promoting one’s own private translation.  But there is another factor of which translators need to take account, a pastoral factor Dr. Hart the scholar has perhaps not thought of or, if he has, has given insufficient weight.  It is that of congregational use.
There are two distinct needs and therefore two types of translations.  Sometimes one needs a translation for study and minute exegesis (such as the kind Dr. Hart needs when he re-translates the New Testament for his class), and this will require a very literal rendering to show what the Greek actually says.  At other times one needs a more elegant and flowing translation for congregational liturgical use, and here one must sacrifice literality for a true vernacular.  To take one example: in vernacular English one speaks of “bread” in the singular (as in, “Please buy bread when you are at the store”), but “loaves” or “loaves of bread” in the plural—one would not say, “Please buy me two breads when you are at the store”, but rather “Please buy me two loaves of bread”.  You can say “two breads” or “two artoi” in Greek, but not in truly vernacular English.  Because no language is a mathematical equivalent of another, literal one-to-one verbal correspondence must be sacrificed when one language is translated into the vernacular of another.  Scholars using the New Testament simply for study can ignore this and produce literal translations (I did one myself in my own commentary series), but translators producing versions to be read in church cannot.  They cannot (for example) translate akrobustia as “foreskin” rather than “uncircumcised” without provoking giggles from the adolescents in the congregation when it is read in church, and they cannot simply leave the term phosphoros untranslated so as to read “till Phosphoros arises in your hearts” without provoking blank stares from pretty much everyone.  A scholar can attempt such literality if he uses many long footnotes to explain his choice of rendering, but a translator mindful of congregational use does not have that luxury.  Hart attributes the non-literal renderings to which he objects to bad faith on the part of translators (he speaks of their “pious fraudulence”), but at least a part of their concern to render the text non-literally is due to their concern for congregational use.  Pastoral responsibility accounts for at least some of the result; one need not attribute it all to bad faith and pious fraud.
To come now to Hart’s own version:  sometimes his literal renderings are quite wonderful and helpful, since certain words over time have become so “churchified” by long religious use as to be almost emptied of their original meaning.  Thus Hart’s rendering of diabolos as “slanderer” rather than “devil”, and his rendering of ekklesia as “assembly” rather than “church” are certainly to be welcomed, for such renderings open up what the Greek words actually meant to their original readers and avoid later unhelpful accretions of meaning.  It is too easy to understand diabolos as meaning simply “bad, and possibly having horns” if one renders it as “devil”, since the word “devilish” now means “very bad” or even “Satanic”.  And rendering ekklesia as “assembly” helps one to see that ekklesia is what happens when the Christians of a given area assemble.  (Thus Zizioulas in his Eucharist, Bishop, Church:  “This ‘Church’ [at Corinth] is first and foremost the actual assembly of the Corinthians gathered to perform the Eucharist.”)  Hart helps the reader to see that ekklesia in its primary meaning refers not to an organization, a building, or a clergy, but to the phenomenon of Christians gathering for the Eucharist.  This is all very good.
            My criticism of Hart’s overall translation is two-fold:  in places it distorts the meaning of the text to bring it into closer alignment with some of Hart’s pet doctrines such as universalism, and it sometimes lacks sufficient comprehensibility.  (It is also so spectacularly clunky and inelegant in spots that it is unsuitable for liturgical use, but that is beside the point since I believe Hart never intended the work to be used liturgically.)  But perhaps I should mention a few examples.
            I suggest that a part of Hart’s translation was motivated by his desire to prove that the New Testament does not teach the eternal punishment of the lost, and that God has no wrath toward them.  That is perhaps why I could not find the words “eternal” or “wrath” in the text.  I apologize in advance if I somehow missed them (as I said, this is a book review, not a dissection), but they certainly did not turn up where one might expect them.  Thus, for example, we read in John 3:36 how “God’s ire” rests upon those not having faith in the Son, not “God’s wrath”, as in most other translations.   Similarly in Revelation 14:10:  “he shall drink also from the wine of God’s vehemence, mixed undiluted into the cup of his ire”.  There is no difference in meaning of course between “wrath” and “ire”, but one suspects the substitution was made in deference to the polemics which have denied that God has wrath.  And of course one can become irate without actually pouring out any wrath.
            A clearer example of allowing personal ideology to determine the translation is his allergy to using the word “eternal” for the Greek aionios.  The root of the word does mean “age” (and sometimes “world”, such as in Hebrews 11:3), but common to both “age” and “world” is the idea of immeasurable immensity, so that the word is used to denote things which were measureless and unending—things such as the life given to believers.  Yet Hart refuses to use the word “eternal”, preferring the word “Age”, spelt with the capital, presumably to denote the Age to Come.  Thus we find in Matthew 25:46, “These [the unjust] will go to the chastisement of that Age, but the just to the life of that Age.”  Thus the famous John 3:16:  “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 the life of the Age.”  Thus John 3:36:  “He who has faith in the Son has the life of that Age”.  Thus 2 Thessalonians 1:9:  the unrighteous “will pay the just reparation of ruin in that Age”.  In fact the term aionios often means simply “eternal”, with the primary meaning of endless duration, not always simply a reference to the Age to Come.  This is its primary meaning such Old Testament texts as Genesis 21:33 (the Lord is theos aionios) and in Philo’s work On Noah’s Work as a Planter (which speaks of “the aidios word of the aionion God”).  There are times when the New Testament text calls for the rendering “age” (e.g. Romans 16:25), but surely not in every instance.  In the first century the word aionion often meant “eternal”, and a literalism which ignores cultural context is sometimes indistinguishable from fundamentalism.
It seems that what is at stake is not simply concern for a literal reading, but a desire to limit the suffering of the damned to a single age and to avoid the teaching that their suffering is unending, even if the rendering is done at the cost of some clarity.  We can see this when he comments on his translation in Revelation 14:10.  The text says that the torment of the damned ascends for “αἰῶνας αἰώνων/ aionas aionon” which he renders “to ages of ages”.  In a long footnote he contends that the omission of the definite articles (i.e. “to ages of ages”, not “to the ages of the ages”, such as is found everywhere else in the Book of Revelation) means that the suffering is not eternal, but only (as he says) “for a very long time”.  This is rather more weight than can be placed on a couple of prepositions, and constitutes special pleading, especially when the suffering of the devil, the beast and the false prophet are described in Revelation 20:10 using the required definite articles.  (I note too that in Psalm 45:6 LXX God’s throne is described as eis aionas aionos—without the definite articles.)  The long footnote is the first tip off.  Generally speaking, the longer the footnote required to justify a reading, the dodgier the reading.  Thus we find a correspondingly long footnote justifying the use of the term “chastisement” for kolasis in Matthew 25:46, and how it cannot mean eternal punishment as commonly understood and as translated everywhere else.  (For a discussion of use of the term kolasis, I invite the reader to read my book Unquenchable Fire.)
I note in passing also his translation of 1 Corinthians 6:9 ἀρσενοκοῖται/ arsenokoitai as “men who couple with catamites”.  Another long footnote explains that the word was not found in ancient literature before Paul’s usage of it and that it should certainly not be rendered “homosexuals” since our modern understanding of homosexuality as an orientation could not be found in the ancient world.  This seems to me like another instance of special pleading.  The words arsen (meaning “male”) and koite (meaning “bed”) are both found in the Septuagint rendering of Leviticus 18:22, and Paul was obviously using this verse in creating the composite arsenokoitai, by which he referred to those indulging in the proscribed behaviour of males bedding other males, apart from considerations of innate orientation or the youth of the other male being bedded.  Hart’s rendering of the word sounds like an attempt to remove the verse from current discussions of homosexuality.   Discussions of differences between homosexuality in the ancient world and now are indeed valuable.  But refusing to use the word “homosexual” is just as much an interpretive reading as using the word.  A rigorously literal rendering would be something like “those who bed males”.  Talking about “catamites” (i.e. young boys) involves just as much interpretation as does using the word “homosexuals”.
I have already mentioned Hart’s singular rendering of koinonikos in 1 Timothy 6:18 as “communalists”, with yet another long note justifying the translation.  Here I will just refer to my previous discussion of it as another example of Hart’s translation being guided by his personal views.
In spots Hart’s translation also is somewhat incomprehensible, so that it has to be accompanied by the recurring long footnotes.  Sometimes the incomprehensibility comes from simply leaving the Greek text untranslated.  Thus we read in John 3:16 how “God so loved the cosmos”.  In our modern post-Star Wars era, this gives the inevitable impression of our boldly going where no one has gone before, whereas to the ancients the immensity considered in the word kosmos was that of the world in which they lived.  The rendering is therefore not so much incomprehensible as a touch misleading.  We also find that Hart renders John 1:1 as, “In the origin there was the Logos, and the Logos was present with GOD, and the Logos was god”, once again, with another long footnote.  “Logos” has been left untranslated, leaving the footnote to explain why the first “GOD” was capitalized and why the final “god” was not. 
Other bits are left untranslated as well.  Thus Ephesians 2:2:  the faithful prior to their conversion “used to walk in accord with the age of this cosmos, in accord with the Archon of the Power of the air”.  Kosmos” is left untranslated, as is “archon”.  The meaning of the phrase “in accord with the age of this cosmos”, though literal, is not immediately apparent and might give the reader the false impression that the problem was with the immense age of the universe, not with one’s behaviour in the world.  Odd sounding too is Hart’s rendering of 2 Peter 1:19, which says that we should attend to the prophetic word as to a lamp shining in a dreary place “till day should dawn and Phosphoros arise in your hearts” (cited above).  Again we are treated to another long footnote explaining why the word often rendered “morning star” was left untranslated.  Given that phosphorus is also a chemical element, the translation borders on the comic.
Other renderings also might bring a smile.  In Philippians 3:2 Paul now exhorts his readers to “watch out for the ‘In-cision’, which conjures up an image of an incompetent surgeon (though admittedly translating the contrast between katatome and peritome is tricky). Also as cited above, in Ephesians 2:11 Paul tells his Gentiles readers that they were “the ones called ‘Foreskin’ by the so-called ‘Circumcision’ in flesh”, which reminds one of children shouting taunts at recess.  The word akrobustia does indeed literally mean “foreskin” (thus in Genesis 17:11, “you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your akrobustias”), but the point at issue for those rejoicing in being “the circumcision” was not the absence of foreskin, but the fact of their initiation into the privileged people of God.  The meaning of the taunt calling them “the uncircumcised/ akrobustia is more obscured than revealed by insistence on a literal rendering.  The term is elsewhere used by Paul to denote a class of people, not a piece of flesh.  Sometimes the meaning of a word resides in the history of its usage, and in these cases ignoring this history in favour of a literal reading can miss the meaning.  As said above, translators providing translations for congregational use know this, and must work accordingly.  They do not the liberty of literality that Dr. Hart has if their work is intended for liturgical use and they should not be blamed for choosing clarity over literality.
More misleading is Hart’s refusal to translate the Greek geenna as “Gehenna”, an unusual departure given his preference for leaving Greek terms untranslated.  Instead he renders it “the Vale of Hinnom” in Mark 9:43, and he renders “the Gehenna of fire” in Matthew 5:22 as the “Hinnom Vale of fire”.  Once again one suspects an attempt to avoid the usual associations attending the term Gehenna in the New Testament.  The problem however is that his rendering might give the impression to the unwary that the Vale of Hinnom was a geographical site in Palestine, when in fact the inter-testamental use of the term referred to a place of eternal punishment in the next world.  Rendering it as the “Vale of Hinnom” seems designed to separate the term from this cultural background.
My main difficulty with the work revolves around Hart’s stated view that all the English translations preceding his own were so flawed and misleading as to be almost worthless.  In one interview he advised people not conversant with Greek, “Don’t buy or read any modern translation; none of them is any good.” Surely it is not necessary to so thoroughly denigrate everything that has gone before in order to promote one’s own contribution.  Hart insists on a literalism of rendering to avoid denominational bias in the translation, but it seems to me that he is not as immune to the temptation of bias as he supposes.  His translation, however well-intentioned and however many felicities it contains, is too idiosyncratic and forced to supplant all that has gone before it.  We may use Hart’s work if we wish for private study.  But other translations may still enjoy their place in the sun as well.  Hart’s insistence that no English translation before his own was “any good” strikes one as rather prideful.  All of them have their flaws, and all of them their valuable uses—including Dr. Hart’s.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Deep Melancholy of David Bentley Hart

Dr. Hart has recently completed his translation of the New Testament, and it is now for sale at a book store near you.  One naturally asks, “Why do we need another translation of the New Testament since so many translations already abound?”  One could understand someone wanting to have another crack at translating the Old Testament, since the verbal concision of the Hebrew tongue and the corruption of the text at a number of places offer opportunity for a number of different readings—to say nothing of the question of how to factor in the Septuagint readings in a modern English translation.  But the New Testament?  Surely the field has been worked over pretty thoroughly and no real puzzles remain?  And the versions offered by individuals have not always met with universal acclaim as worthy alternatives—versions such as those by William Barclay, J.B. Phillips, Ken Taylor, and Eugene Peterson.                                                                                           
Dr. Hart lets us know why he thinks we need yet another version of the New Testament—present translations are not sufficiently literal and serve to hide from their readers the radicality of what the texts actually say.  Reading them in the old versions such as the RSV, the King James Version, and the New American Standard Bible, leave us too cozily at ease in Zion, and we might imagine that we are like the Christians of the first century when in fact we are utterly different.  If we were to read the New Testament with the fresh and newly-opened eyes free from the bias foisted on us by centuries of tradition, we would see for ourselves how unlike the first Christians were from ourselves, and how utterly we fail to understand the New Testament’s radical message.  Indeed, we comfortable Christians would regard our first century compatriots as “fairly obnoxious:  civilly reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent”.  Hence Hart’s title for his explanatory essay of 2016, “Christ’s Rabble”.
Hart begins his broadside on the reliability of the Church’s Tradition (for that is what it is) with a bit of personal history, including the fact that he suffered an extended spell of ill health.  This, he said, forced him “to take an even more reflective and deliberate approach to the task”.  It forced him to think more deeply about the world of the early church, which in turn surprised him by leaving him with “a deeply melancholy, almost Kierkegaardian sense that most of us who go by the name of ‘Christian’ ought to give up the pretense of wanting to be Christian”.  By this he meant that if we truly understood what the New Testament meant by being Christian, we would reject it, for it would be too radical for us to accept.  We would find it, (in his words again) “fairly obnoxious”.  We misunderstand the New Testament that badly, but with the aid of his new New Testament, we can now at last see what the New Testament really says and what Christianity is really about.
Hart goes on to share that perhaps his melancholy at this discovery “was deepened by an accident of timing”—viz. his debate with Samuel Gregg over the intrinsic evils of capitalism.  Hart had denounced wealth as “an intrinsic evil”, where Gregg argued with him that it was not wealth itself that the New Testament condemned, but a spiritually unhealthy preoccupation with it.  I am not sure that the timing was as accidental as all that.  I wonder rather if Hart’s diatribe against later Christian culture and its understanding of the New Testament was not simply a part of his ongoing personal quarrel with Gregg.  Either way though, Hart’s arguments should be considered on their own merits.
Much of Hart’s broadside against the Church’s traditional reading of the New Testament focuses upon the teaching about wealth.  And here Hart is not all wrong:  there certainly exist happy and complacent capitalists who call themselves Christians who actually do pay insufficient heed to the New Testament’s warnings against the danger of wealth.  If we have great wealth and are not always at least a little uneasy about whether or not we are generous enough with it, we are in some danger.  But Hart overplays his hand, and in so doing misreads the New Testament.  I suggest that his view that wealth is intrinsically evil forms the lens through which he reads the text, resulting in a forced and distorted reading.
It is true that Christ had some immeasurably hard things to say about the rich and the dangers of wealth (Luke 6:24-25, 12:33-34, Matthew 6:19-24, 19:16-26).  But Hart seems to miss that Christ spoke similarly hard and radical things in all His ethical teaching—He warned that hellfire awaited those nurturing rage in their hearts (Matthew 5:21-22), that one should cut off one’s hand and gouge out one’s eye if these become occasions of sin, otherwise one would burn in unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43-48), that faith as small as a mustard seed was enough to uproot a mountain and hurl it into the sea (Matthew 21:21-22).  When one addressed Him flatteringly by calling Him, “Good Teacher”, He rounded on him and asked him how he could do that, since no one was good but God alone (Mark 10:17-18).  He counseled that if while in the middle of sacrificing in the Temple one remembered that someone had a grudge against him, that person should immediately stop what he was doing, leave the sacrificial animal there with the astonished priest, and run off to make peace. Only then could he return to finish what he was doing (Matthew 5:23-24).  As Chesterton once observed, Christ always spoke in a kind of divine hyperbole.  His aim thereby was not to instruct so much as to de-construct—to shake up His hearers and destroy their complacent presuppositions.  We have been put together wrongly and need to be taken apart so as to be re-assembled properly.  Christ’s hyperbolic style as intended to further this necessary and saving deconstruction and reassembly.  We misread Him if we understand Him as teaching ethics or giving lessons in behavior.  His intent was more radical than that.  In telling us to gouge out the offending eyeball, for example, He was targeting not simply a single organ, but an entire vision of life.
But how to go from this painful deconstruction to actual instruction for living?  That is the difference between Christ and His apostles.  He had the sword which struck down our fatal presuppositions; they had the actual precepts for life.  Or in Chesterton’s happy image, the Gospel was the riddle; the Church was the answer, and that answer may be found in length in the epistles.  And here we must take issue with Hart’s exegesis. Three examples must suffice.
The first church in Jerusalem did indeed have all things in common (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-37).  But this paradigm was not regarded as necessary for all, and was in fact not followed by other churches.  This is no trace of such “communism” (Hart delights in the word for its shock value) in the other churches found in Luke’s narrative.  And Paul presupposes that the Christians of Corinth each had their own money, for he exhorts them to put aside a little of it each Sunday as each may have prospered during the week (1 Corinthians 16:2).  Such instructions would make no sense if all wealth had already been turned over to a common fund.  Luke offers the Jerusalem experiment in shared wealth as an extraordinary instance of their mutual love, not as a requirement demanded of all.  Christ never commanded such communal ownership or renunciation of private wealth, with the result that the Church throughout the Mediterranean in the first century never practiced it.
Hart also misinterprets James’ denunciation of the rich in James 5:1-6.  He dismisses the traditional view that it was “a dire warning issued only to wealthy persons who have acted unjustly toward their employees”, and says that this traditional view “inverts the text”, since James had previously denounced the rich simply because they were rich.  Hearkening back to James 1:9-10, Hart says that the rich “should rejoice in being ‘made low’ or impoverished, as otherwise he will wither and vanish away like a wildflower scorched by the sun”.  In Hart’s reading, unless the rich man gives away all his wealth, he will be doomed, for he “scarcely merits the name of ‘brother’”.  However, this is not what the text actually says. There is no hint in it that the rich scarcely merits the name “brother”.  The contrast is between the two types of brothers/ Christians.  Both the poor and the rich Christian are told to boast:  “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation and the rich in his humiliation”.  Vanishing away like a wildflower is not mentioned as a threat which will overtake the rich if he refuses to give away his wealth, but as the reason for his boasting—he can boast of his inevitable humiliation and vanishing away because for him also his true wealth is in the Kingdom.  When James considers the man who says “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” (James 4:13-16), James does not rebuke his intention to make money, but the boastful arrogance accompanying it.  James does not counsel him to forego making a profit, but simply to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (v. 15).  There is no hint that the wealth gained in profit was intrinsically evil; only that presuming one would live to see tomorrow was arrogant folly.  Hart simply misunderstands the message of James.
He similarly misreads Paul.  In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, Paul accepts that rich men exist among the Christians, and he does not tell them to give all their money into a communal fund.  Rather, he tells them not to be haughty, but to trust in God rather than in their wealth, to do good, and to be generous and ready to share (1 Timothy 6:17-19).  Hart translates the word often rendered “ready to share” (Greek koinonikos) and renders it “communalist” (the word “communist” comes in a footnote), on the slender basis that a koinonikos property is one jointly owned.  It is clear from the entire passage that Paul is urging an attitude, not a change of financial state.  If Paul were telling the rich man simply to dump all his money into the common fund, what then would be the sense of telling him to “be rich in good works”?  For obviously after he had dumped his money he would be incapable of doing any private works of giving, since the money and the decisions of how to use it were no longer his.  Paul’s advice presupposes the man retains control of his money.  That Paul is urging personal generosity with private funds is apparent from how everyone else has translated koinonikos:  the King James renders it “ready to communicate”; the RSV renders it “generous”.  The English Standard Version and the New Revised Standard, “ready to share”; the New King James, “willing to share”; Young’s Literal Translation, “willing to communicate”; the Complete Jewish Bible, “ready to share”; Phillips, “to sympathize with those in distress”; the Living Bible, “always being ready to share with others whatever God has given them”; the New International Version, “willing to share”; the New English Translation, “sharing with others”; Douay-Rheims, “to communicate with others”; the Message, “to be extravagantly generous”.  Here it is Hart contra mundum, and my money is on the mundum.  As another bit of ancient wisdom has it:  securus judicat orbis terrarium—the whole world judges rightly.  Again, my money is on the orbis terrarium.

What is most troubling about Hart’s view of the New Testament is that he asserts that the Church from the early third century has consistently misread and misunderstood its own Scriptures (“Clement of Alexandria may have been the first”), so that the error thus has gone on “throughout Christian history”.  No wonder Hart was deeply melancholy. This is an astonishing charge for an Orthodox to make, and one that effectively sets at naught the reliability of the exegesis of the Fathers.  If Clement and others throughout Christian history “apply a reassuring gloss to the raw rhetoric of Scripture” so that (for example) not even Chrysostom’s counsel to his congregation may be received as a reliable guide, then the Fathers’ guidance about pretty much anything in the Bible is worthless.  If they can miss an obvious thing like the New Testament’s teaching that wealth is an intrinsic evil and Christians must therefore be communalists, why trust them about such complex matters as Christology?  Hart says that the only real Christians were the Desert Fathers, and yet these men never ever said that Christians living in the world with property were not real Christians.  That charge was left to Hart to make.  Hart therefore stands in a long line of people telling the Church that its doctrine and practice throughout the centuries were wrong, and that only now by listening to them could the Church get it right.  In the sixteenth century, such people were the radical Protestants.  Hart seems to be of one spirit with them.