During Dr Johnson’s conversations with a Quaker lady, Mrs Knowles, she mentioned an “amiable” young woman who had left the Church of England and joined the Society of Friends. At this Johnson “frowned angrily” and said, “Madam, she is an odious wench.” Moreover, she was ignorant. But, said Mrs Knowles, she had the New Testament before her. “Madam,” said the Great Cham, “she could not understand the New Testament, the most difficult book in the world, for which the study of a life is required.”
Johnson, whom Boswell often found poring over his large copy of the Greek New Testament, would appreciate this translation by David Bentley Hart, an American academic, philosopher and member of the Orthodox Church. It recognises the extreme difficulty of the texts that we all think we know, or understand, so well; and it frequently shocks us, as the sometimes clumsy, sometimes charming “Koine” – the vernacular Greek of the early eastern Mediterranean – of the original is able to do if we are lucky enough to be able to read it.
Moreover, written from a position that is scholarly, but decidedly Orthodox with a capital “O”, it puts into sensible and often shocking perspective the controversies of the Western Church in the past 1,600 years.
In the many excellent essays and books published last year on the subject of Luther and the Reformation, I did not read anyone asking: why has there been no Reformation in the Eastern Churches? One reason is that the New Testament is written in Greek, and therefore so many Eastern Christians have been able to read the original texts of Christendom in their own tongue. Hart, in a radical retranslation, points to the “notoriously defective” translation of Romans 5:12 into the Latin Vulgate by Saint Jerome, in the Authorised Version, which reads: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” Hart instead renders this verse, “Just as sin entered into the cosmos through one man, and death through sin, so also death pervaded all humanity, whereupon all sinned.” The curse of original sin, in Orthodox theology, was an inherent capacity for evil, not an in-built programme by which everything we do as human beings is sinful.
From Jerome’s mistranslation stems the self-flagellating traditions of Western Christianity, contrasting with an Orthodoxy that recognises inherent human goodness, as well as evil. This shows itself in the Orthodox custom of giving Communion to children who are not yet old enough to have committed grave sin, contrasted with the Western, Augustinian sense that children are brimful with the curse of sin until purged by penance.
Hart says that the verse is the “locus classicus of the Western Christian notion of original guilt”. Upon this verse is founded the whole of Augustine’s vision of depraved humanity. By extension, upon this verse is built the Roman Catholic notion of an everlastingly damned humanity, requiring the purification that only sacramental baptism, later penance, can bring about.
From that sprang the Roman abuse of indulgences, and Martin Luther – from this verse, too, sprang self-torturing Jansenism and, in reaction against the falsity of the verse, came much of the thin hedonism of modern secularism.
Eastern Christianity, however, had no need to posit the idea that all have sinned, merely by being born. The Greek of St Paul does not say that we are born with “an inherited tradition of criminal culpability” (Hart’s phrase). Paul did not state the doctrine of original sin as it has pervaded and haunted Western consciousness. So for Eastern Christians there has never been a need to react against a doctrine that is not there in the original Greek.
So much for the theology. What of the ethical teaching of the New Testament? Hart reminds us that, “One thing in startlingly short supply in the New Testament is common sense, and a commonsensical view of the early church is invariably the wrong one.” His introduction explains that the New Testament “condemns personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil”. Through his translation he shows us a Jesus who was commissioned to preach his good news to the poor (Luke 4:18).
Hart reminds us that Jesus’s injunctions – repeated throughout the Gospels – to abandon personal possessions are not, as so many later Christians have wanted to suggest, counsels: they are commands. Even the conclusion of the First Letter to Timothy, which in the Authorised Version has the apparently mild instructions to the rich that they should be “ready to distribute, willing to communicate”, is much more Corbynista in Hart. “To work the good, having their riches in good deeds, readily giving away, communalists”. A footnote adds: “It would probably be accurate to render the term here as ‘communists’.”
There are any number of such points where Hart’s version illuminates the strangeness of the texts. “Makarios” is the word rendered “blessed” in the Authorised Version, as in “blessed are the poor in spirit”. Subsequent translations have come up with “how happy are those who…” or “how fortunate” or “how blessed”. However, he tells us that the original Greek is associated with the idea of divine blessedness, a special intensity of delight. He therefore chooses to express the idea as, “How blissful those who mourn, for they shall be aided.” I do not find this sentence euphonious, literary, or comprehensible, but it does bring me up short, and that is the point of this book.
His version above all highlights the peculiar theology of the New Testament. I belong to the generation that was taught by theologians who – whatever their particular churchmanship or stance – had been steeped in the demystifying, demythologising mid-20th century Germans, above all Rudolf Bultmann. We were taught that the New Testament contains none of the high Christology of the fourth-century Council of Nicaea, which defined Christ as “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God”; that is to say, not merely a everence for the human person of Jesus, but belief that, even before his conception and birth, he was divine.
Even those who detested Bultmann, such as Géza Vermes, in books such as Jesus the Jew, thought you could somehow unpick the Synoptic Gospels and find a simple Galilean peasant-healer who made no claims for himself beyond being the Son of Man. Hart’s Jesus is not called Christ. He leaves the title with its Greek meaning, the anointed (he simply calls the Church the ecclesia, “assembly”).
On the other hand, he emphasises the high Christology of the Fourth Gospel when doubting Thomas salutes the risen Jesus as “My Lord and my God (“ho kurios mou kai ho theos mou”) – meaning not that Jesus is godlike but that he is, with the definite article, “ho theos”, God himself. In the Revelation to John, we meet a quite different figure, “Who has been clad in a robe deep-dyed in blood, and his name is called the logos [word]of God.”
This book will probably never become the favourite reading version for anyone. However, it will be a long time before I put it back on my shelf. It in particular points up the many deficiencies of the New International Version and the English Standard Version, which are both unjustly popular.
Having read some “comforting” passage from the New Testament in the Authorised Version, I will now turn back to Hart and allow myself to meet the first-century “assemblies” of Christians who believe in a prophet who rose from the dead and called his followers to the path of crazy anti-materialism – more than that, a prophet who demonstrated that God himself, in order to redeem the world, was stripped naked, as he called his ragamuffin communist followers to be dispossessed.
AN Wilson’s books include “The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible” (Atlantic)
The New Testament: A Translation
David Bentley Hart
Yale University Press, 616pp, £30
This article appears in the 31 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration