David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian who has made waves in his own sphere through his radical atavism (he refers often to the early Church fathers’ concept of the divine), his sympathy for and grasp of the languages and cultures of the ancient world and his unsqueamish, ferocious attacks on modern atheism. Perhaps more relevant to this readership, he writes acute and vivacious prose that betrays a thoroughgoing knowledge of literature, both secular and sacred. This is worth bearing in mind when considering his latest and, to date, boldest project: a fresh translation of the books of the New Testament.
Hart’s stated aim is to offer an ‘almost pitilessly literal translation’ that is ‘not shaped by later theological and doctrinal history’, with the intention of making ‘the familiar strange, novel, and perhaps newly compelling’. ‘Where an author has written bad Greek,’ he announces bluntly, ‘I have written bad English.’ In doing so he has provoked a backlash of complaints from more traditionally minded colleagues, as well as attracting some respectful applause.
Cards on the table, I am not a theologian and my Greek is not adequate to test his translation or the fresh interpretation he gives to certain well-known phrases and words. But in a sense I am an ideal reader for an enterprise the object of which is to cleanse the ear of the echo of time-honoured cadences that, Hart argues convincingly, have emerged more through a wish to smooth rough surfaces in the original or to add weight to a particular doctrinal bias than from a strict regard for accuracy.
The translation is prefaced by an elegant and witty foreword, in which Hart explains that in doing ‘the police in different voices’ (a nod to both Dickens’s phrase and T S Eliot’s borrowing of it that subtly underlines both his own sophistication and the multilayered matrix of the books of the New Testament) he hopes to convey ‘the wildly indiscriminate polyphony’ of the different authors’ styles – ‘as if an early Baroque vocal trio, an Appalachian band, a couple of Viennese tenors piping twelve-tone Lieder, and a jazz crooner or two were all singing out together.’ One of his most pointed observations relates to the stark contrast between the conservative and socially compliant nature of many modern Christians and the disturbing character of the first converts, who, as Hart puts it, formed not a ‘church’ but an ‘assembly’. These are people, he wryly observes, whom ‘most of us would find … fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable’. Theirs was a radical, life-changing vocation, inspired by a ‘vibrant certainty that history has been invaded by God’ with the coming of Jesus, meaning that ‘nothing can stay as it was’.
No less radical, in Hart’s reading, is the young Jewish teacher, to whom he gives the title not of ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ but of ‘Anointed’, whose antinomian ‘concern for the ptōchoi – the abjectly destitute – is more or less exclusive of any other social class’. It has been suggested that this is a Marxist Jesus, for whom the rich are the ‘revilers of the divine name, who should howl in terror at the judgment that is coming upon them’, and it is here that Hart has attracted the most cavils and harrumphing. In this translation, Jesus’s teachings on material wealth are emphatically not advisory suggestions, counsels of good karma, but commands; far from the metaphors that we might wish them to be, they are clear injunctions urgently to rid ourselves of possessions, which keep our souls from the light.
This is stressed, in another departure from tradition, in the rendering of the word that we are accustomed to hear as ‘blessed’. For Hart, the Greek makarios conveys ‘a special intensity of delight and freedom from care that the more shopworn renderings no longer quite capture’. Thus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3) we hear, ‘How blissful the destitute, abject in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of the heavens.’ To lack, to be empty of possessions, is here to become a vessel imbued with bliss.
He goes against the tide again in John’s Gospel. The famous and time-honoured ‘word’ repeated in the opening chapter – ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ – becomes, less sonorously, ‘logos’. The translation itself is followed by a long and fascinating ‘Concluding Scientific Postscript’, in which Hart nimbly defends his departures from the commonplace. He argues that ‘logos’, in this context only (elsewhere he translates it conventionally as ‘word’), has a much wider, less rational meaning than its more common alternative. He cites the example of the Greek-speaking Jews of late antiquity, among whom ‘logos’ had come to stand for a higher spiritual reality, and a Chinese translation of John’s Gospel, where it appears as tao. This was one of the few occasions where my ear, rather than being rinsed, heard an overpedantic note, but the illuminating defence of this decision sparked thought.
Hart is from the Orthodox tradition, which eschews the Augustinian notion of Original Sin and proposes, more congenially, that humans are born not already stained by sin but merely capable of sinning. This temperamental distinction gives rise to his most controversial translation (among Christian bigwigs), that of aiōn, aiōnios, which is generally given to us as ‘eternity, eternal’. According to Hart, there is an ambiguity in the Greek that means it has no English equivalent. Taking his cue from the Septuagint, the second century BC Greek translation of the Old Testament, he insists that it can equally mean an age, a lifetime or a temporal span. Consequently, in his version of the story of Jesus, the punishment meted out, for example, to the goats, who are notoriously divided from the sheep, is remedial rather than retributive, temporary rather than everlasting, which allows for an altogether kinder, more 21st-century-friendly outlook.
Hart sets out to unsettle, startle and disturb. In this strange, disconcerting, radical version of a strange, disconcerting manifesto of profoundly radical values, his aim is scintillatingly and sometimes unnervingly achieved.