A Wild and Indecent Book

It was subtle of God to learn Greek when he wished to become an author, and not to learn it better.

—Friedrich Nietzsche on the New Testament

Museum Ludwig, Cologne/Peter Willi/Bridgeman Images/© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
Max Ernst: The Virgin Chastising the Christ Child Before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard, and the Painter, 1926

At last a man comes riding to the rescue of the English Bible. Condemning earlier translations of the New Testament, David Bentley Hart claims that “most of them effectively hide (sometimes forcibly) things of absolutely vital significance.” He does not tell us what “forcibly” means here, but he condemns translations done by committee (even the majestic yet punchy King James Version) and those done by an individual (even the ones who claim to stick close to the Greek). The committees, according to Hart, are bound to strike compromises between the individuals’ contributions. Actually, King James’s panel of translators had the good sense to incorporate William Tyndale’s New Testament almost wholesale. As David Daniell wrote, “Nine-tenths of the Authorised Version’s New Testament is Tyndale’s.” We should change the common view that the KJV and Shakespeare are the most influential shapers of the English language and say that Tyndale and Shakespeare share that honor.

But that will not give the KJV immunity from Hart’s indictment. He says that any translation filtered through one person’s literary sensibility (even Tyndale’s magnificent one) is bound to homogenize the collection of different genres and authors in the New Testament—what Nietzsche claimed is an agglutination of letters, sermons, putative biographies, tendentious histories, and fever-dream revelations. How does Hart escape his own criticism in this, his own single-translator exercise? Does he not have a literary sensibility? Of course he does. But he claims that he has suppressed it here, that he reveals the idiosyncrasies of each element in the collection. He even boasts, in the vein of Dickens and T.S. Eliot, that he can “do the police in different voices” for the different texts.

He clearly agrees with Nietzsche on the quality of the book’s koine Greek. He finds the Gospel of Matthew “rarely better than ponderous,” that of Mark “awkwardly written throughout,” and that of John “syntactically almost childish,” while Paul’s letters are “maladroit, broken, or impenetrable” and Revelation is “almost unremittingly atrocious.” Sometimes he does convey the original’s sheer goofiness: “Fallen, fallen, Babylon the Great who has given all the gentiles to drink from the wine of the vehemence of her whoring” (Rev. 14:8). No wonder Hunter Thompson said he did not have to worry about running out of LSD in a hotel. He could trip on the Gideon Bible’s Revelation.

But is the direct transmission of bad Greek into bad English always as clear as Hart claims? He says he will avoid later theological constructs of the text, but then renders thlipsis…

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