- A Reply to N. T. Wright
by David Bentley Hart
Posted on 16 January 2018
- (wherein, at long last, our author unburdens himself of a great number of complaints he has long wished to make against that pious man’s earnest but problematic approach to the New Testament, embellished with a few moments of sly mockery, but ultimately intended as a good-natured — albeit inflexible — expression of deep disagreement)
- I have to confess (though it should come as no surprise to the attentive reader of footnotes) that, when I set out to translate the New Testament for Yale, the modern English translation of the same text to which I found all my hermeneutical and literary principles most starkly opposed (at least, among versions produced by respected scholars) was N. T. Wright’s The Kingdom New Testament (2012). My disagreements with Wright’s method in general, and with his readings of many texts in particular, were and are both large and irreconcilable. So, it is no great shock that his review of my translation in The Christian Century is mostly a catalogue of complaints, only one of which looks opportunistically malicious (an obvious printing mistake of Romans 8:12 that he describes as an “error” in translation). He is, however, kinder to me than I would have been to him had I written a review of his translation; so, I suppose I should not take umbrage. I do want, however, to reply, because his remarks, to my mind, exhibit a host of what I regard as some of the profounder errors that can be made by any reader or translator of the New Testament. While I have respect for some of Wright’s theological inclinations, I am one of those captious few who think his New Testament scholarship suffers from a dangerous combination of the conventional and the idiosyncratic, with a few significant historical misconceptions mixed in, and that all too often it is an exercise in imposing meanings on the text that best conform to his own convictions, plausible or not.
- He makes this same last accusation against me, by the way. On the whole, though, if he is right that I too fall into a tendentious pattern, I still think it easy to establish that his transgressions on this score are the more numerous and willful. In fact, as far as I can see, Wright hits the ground running in his own direction from the early chapters of Matthew, where (for instance) he renders the word Magoi (Magi) as something along the lines of “wise and learned men,” which I assume he knows perfectly well to be flagrantly nonsensical (I expect he was cossetting the anxieties of his Evangelical Anglican readers regarding things occult or heathen). He laments the variety of ways in which I deal with words like “dikaios” and “dikaiosis” in Romans, and yet his own translation is notoriously capricious in that regard. Regarding, for example, his insistence on rendering “dikaiosyne” by the cumbersome phrase “covenant righteousness” (a special hobby-horse of Wright’s, which he takes out for a gallop around the paddock whenever he can), I would be only one among legions in pointing out that this arbitrarily isolates a single dimension of a term with a far larger range of possible meaning in the text.
- Some of our differences, I hasten to note, merely rehearse traditional disagreements between proponents of “dynamic” and “formal” equivalence in translating ancient texts. I am very much a champion of the latter. There are those who believe that the difference between ancient and modern idioms is simply a difference between distinct ways of expressing identical meanings (which apparently float above the flux of language and culture like Platonic ideas); I believe that different idioms reflect different ways of seeing reality and shaping experience, and so I choose to retain ancient turns of phrase or images that do not seem natural in modern English, on the assumption that it is misleading to do otherwise. Wright says that I claim my rendering is “pitilessly literal.” I do not; what I actually say in my introduction is that there are a great many particular passages where I adopt “an almost pitilessly literal” rendering precisely to preserve the difference between the ancient and modern ways of saying (and seeing) things. This can involve even very small matters. Wright complains of those places where I left intact constructions that use the words “houtos” (“this one”) and “ekeinos” (“that one”) — “the one who…, this one…” “having received…, that one…” — rather than assimilating them to simpler “he did so-and-so” constructions. After all, he notes, Greek and English work differently. And, indeed they do, which is why my choice is the correct one. I have no idea how large a classical education Wright has, but I suspect he knows that such constructions generally occur where the author is adding (for some reason or other) a special emphasis: “this one” (as opposed to someone else); “that one” (as opposed to “this one” or “just anyone,” and sometimes perhaps with a hint of disdain, like the Latin iste). Since in my translation I was interested not in producing a smoothly gleaming modernized gloss, but rather a “formal” correspondence of tropes, I chose to alert readers without Greek to that added emphatic note, and I remain absolutely convinced that I was wise to do so. Moreover, not having quite as colloquial a sensibility as Wright where the question of good English is concerned, I actually like the rhetorical effect, in all its stiff and strange formality.
- On the other hand, some of our differences appear to be matters of personal formation and education. Wright claims that I undertook to produce a “literal” rendering in plain modern English. I did not. I was quite willing to use slightly obscure words (“tilth,” for instance, or “chaplet”) where I thought their exact meanings were the most accurate correlates of certain Greek terms (a “chaplet” is not exactly a crown, but a very specific kind of ornament for the head). As Nabokov said, a good reader always has a dictionary near at hand. But, really, I would hope most readers would not need one for these particular terms. Then again, it seems that what Wright and I regard as normal English are wildly different. For instance, he finds the phrase “going and washing, I saw…” weirdly archaic. It is inelegant, perhaps, both in Greek and in English, but it is hardly syntactically exotic. And then there are the words that Wright finds “obsolete” that, to my ear, are neither particularly old nor particularly new, but simply reasonably literate English. He thinks that the nautical term “alee” is antique (not among the seafaring folk in my corner of Maryland, or in fact anywhere in the Anglophone sailing world). He even seems to think that the phrase “rapt up” will be unintelligible to modern readers; but to me phrases like “rapt in contemplation” or “rapt up in his own affairs” or “rapt admiration” are fairly normal parlance. To be honest, I feel no shame or chagrin in admitting that I did not pitch my version to readers for whom the word “rapt” would prove an insuperable enigma. (And, to be honest, it is a little rich to hear such criticisms coming from someone whose own translation is notorious for fustian phrases like “woe betide!”, as well as a general drab clumsiness of expression.)
- Certain other disagreements, I suppose, are matters more of scholarly debate than anything else. But, even here, I have to wonder whether Wright’s self-confidence is somewhat suspect. For instance, he does not like my decision to render the singular and plural of Abraham’s “kolpos” as, respectively, “vale” or “vales” rather than “bosom” (though, happily, not “bosoms”). He mistakenly calls my usage “metaphorical,” though in fact it is one of many perfectly literal renderings of the word (“bosom” is no more literal). More to the point, according to Wright, I have “ignored the well-known ancient Jewish idiom of Abraham’s bosom.” Really? Do tell. There is in fact no such “ancient idiom” known to modern scholarship. There is no extant instance of the image’s use before Luke’s gospel, and it is believed by a good many very impressive scholars that the image actually migrated from Christian sources into later Midrash and Talmud; hence the actual meaning of the phrase in Luke’s Greek cannot be established with any certainty, as I admit in my notes, and certainly not on the basis of a seemingly parallel idiom in later Rabbinic literature. The shift from singular to plural in the course of the parable, moreover, opens up the possibility that the original image has typically been lost in translation. Luke, whether speaking as a Greek Christian familiar with pagan pictures of the underworld or just as a Christian conversant with various first-century Jewish pictures of the afterlife1, would have had no difficulty in imagining the next world as having a kind of geography separating the happy souls from the desolate. And, after all, Luke does describe Lazarus as inhabiting a place of flowing water. Again, in my text I offer my rendering as a purely speculative reading of Luke’s language, to apprise readers of the possibility of different interpretations. On the other hand, I find it very disquieting that Wright so confidently invokes a tradition of which no record exists. It raises doubts for me regarding his sources.
- Our largest differences, however, revolve around what we believe the texts actually say on certain theological matters. At times, admittedly, these differences can look like disputes over Greek usage, but the real issues are invariably deeper. Wright observes, correctly, that Greek sometimes uses a definite article before a noun where we would use none, since it names an abstract property; at the same time, he says, sometimes Greek often omits an article where we would use one. This too is correct, but not quite in the same way. He is objecting to my practice of advancing formulae such as “a Holy Spirit” where pious convention would write “the Holy Spirit”; and the deeper contention here is that clearly the text always means what later tradition unambiguously intended when it spoke of “the Holy Spirit.” (He also objects to some of my choices regarding when to capitalize “spirit” and when not, but I explain that quite adequately in my critical postscript.) Here I am right and Wright is wrong. True, a particular substantive often lacks an article in ancient Greek where it would carry one in English — as when, for instance, it functions as a predicate in a sentence — but where a noun is used as a specific denominative title (or even as an honorific version of an otherwise common name) it will usually be marked as such by the definite article. The absence of an article generally indicates that the author did not think of the noun as warranting a definite rather than indefinite designation. And, frankly, I have to assume that Wright would not make this argument if he were not committed to finding something like a fully theoretically operative Nicene-Constantinopolitan theology already present in the New Testament (the unthinkable alternative being to assume that his feel for ancient Greek is a little deficient).
- Mind you, it would have helped things immeasurably had Wright paid closer attention to what I said in my critical apparatus, rather than to the snippets he misleadingly prised from it. I did not claim to be presenting a perfectly “undogmatic” translation, but rather one freed (as much as possible) from the later developments of “doctrinal history.” My version is perfectly “dogmatic”; I simply believe that it is usually closer to the dogmatic interpretations of the earliest readers of the Greek. Beyond that, when looking for guidance in interpretation (as I say in my postscript), I consulted figures in the tradition who were at least reading the actual Greek original. At times, I admit, I was guided by the desire to translate the texts in a way that made more intelligible the commentaries of figures as diverse as Origen and Theophylact, on the assumption that their ears for the Greek were better guides to its meanings than would have been theological and doctrinal formulations that, having been first generated from Latin translations, then evolved into entire systems of their own in later centuries. I am unrepentant on this score. It would have helped, also, had Wright followed my critical notes with greater care. For instance, he insinuates that in my wrestling with the adjective “aionios” — and, to a lesser extent, the noun “aion” — I only reluctantly allowed my thinking to be governed by Judaism’s theology of the two ages. This is nonsense. That was the consideration to which I devoted the most space in my postscript and the one that was absolutely determinative for the translation on which I settled. But this brings me to another aspect of Wright’s review, and here I am not disposed to be genial.
- Wright wants to suggest that my reading of Paul pays scant attention (and scanter tribute) to the Jewish background of his writings; and I suspect that he says this, broadly speaking, for two reasons. The first is as a distasteful rhetorical device, cynically employed: To hint that I somehow slight Judaism in my translation is to suggest that I must be an insensitive lout, and that really we should all be dashing back hell-for-leather to the sheltering baroqueries of “covenant righteousness” and other laborious devices, or else risk being suspected of supersessionist bigotry. The second is simply dubious scholarship: Wright’s picture of first-century Judaism is at once a rather fanciful projection backward of later Rabbinic tradition and a projection forward of the canon of Hebrew scripture — both of which are perfectly relevant to our understanding, but neither of which is capable of placing the New Testament texts within a first-century Judaism that had been shaped by intertestamental literature and traditions, and that had absorbed Hellenistic thought in various ways and at various levels, and that was still a diverse and marvelously farraginous clash of cultural, spiritual, and intellectual worlds. Thus Wright objects to (and dismissively misrepresents) my observation that Paul may literally mean what he seems explicitly to say in 1 Corinthians 10:11, that some of the stories recorded in the Torah may already be allegorical in form rather than strictly literal historical narratives. For Wright, to say as much is to discount the presence of Israel’s history in Paul’s thinking on the covenant. What on earth is Wright talking about? Does he really know so little of the age in which Paul wrote, and of the diversity of views in Jewish thought at the time, as to think that, for an educated student of Gamaliel, only something like a fundamentalist literalism could be counted as faith in the reality of God’s presence with Israel through the generations? (Well, the question answers itself, really.)
- To be frank, I have never thought Wright’s understanding of late antique Judaism particularly sound or subtle (a friend of mine who is both a Rabbi and a fine scholar calls Wright’s view of late antique Judaism a Protestant Christian fantasy); at the very least, I certainly think Wright fails to grasp the full scope of Paul’s struggles with the question of God’s covenant with Israel. If, after all, the only one of Paul’s writings that had survived till today were the letter to the Galatians, we would think him a fairly extreme supersessionist. Thankfully — if perennially troublingly — we have the tortured but ultimately glorious reflections of Romans 9-11 to balance the picture. Even so, as Jon Levenson has so aptly remarked, a tendency toward supersessionism is one of the most purely Jewish aspects of Christian tradition; and Paul, whether we like it or not, clearly believed that aspects of Jewish tradition had been superseded so as to make room within God’s covenant with Israel for those who had otherwise been excluded. We all know this, surely. What makes us uncomfortable, however, is how extreme Paul really was at times on this score. Wright is aghast that at certain crucial junctures I render the word “gramma” not as something vague and unthreatening like “the letter,” but as “scripture.” I suppose this is only to be expected. We do not want to hear Paul speak of “scripture’s obsolescence” (Romans 7:6), or say that “scripture slays” (2 Corinthians 3:6). Surely, we cry, he cannot mean that in some sense scripture has been surpassed by God’s self-revelation in the face of Christ! Except that he does, and explicitly so. One need only read what follows in 2 Corinthians, all the way to verse 18, to grasp this. There is no question that Paul here is opposing God’s revelation in Christ not merely to “the letter” in some abstract sense. What this means ultimately, I cannot say, since in an even greater sense the testimony of scripture is also fundamental to Paul’s teaching regarding who Christ is. Then again, I do not expect perfect consistency from Paul, but only fervent fidelity to the mysteries with which he is grappling. Wright, however, calls my rendering “as idiosyncratic as it is bold.” I thank him for this, as it happens. But it is one other thing beside — it is correct. Or, to be more exact, it is honest. Interpreting Paul’s meaning here may be difficult, but translating his language is not. It is a tiresome fact of theological history that, generation upon generation, Christian exegetes choose to draw a veil of delicacy over some of the more jarring claims made by Paul. I fully understand the impulse; but I am no longer as patient with it as I once was.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)