Not long after Jesus ascended into heaven, his bewildered friends huddled in a room together and wondered what would come next. Then it happened: “[S]uddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues of something like fire, branching out and landing upon each of them, and they were all filled with the holy spirit and began to speak in different tongues” (Acts 2:1-4). All at once, the disciples started preaching fluently in foreign languages that none of them had ever learned. Bystanders from all over the Mediterranean and the Near East heard these native Israelites telling the story of their savior in Latin, Greek, Egyptian, Phrygian. The Gospel was multilingual—miraculously so—from the very first time it was preached.
I believe this really did happen. But the enormous significance of the tale does not entirely depend on its being true. Even if you think miracles are humbug, you can recognize what this story meant as an emblem of the upstart religion that would soon “make disciples of all nations,” just as its founder commanded. The tongues of flame were said to have appeared during Shavuot, a Jewish festival commemorating the moment when God dictated his “teaching,” or Tōrah, to Moses on Mount Sinai. Shavuot is held 50 days after Passover. And so in the rough “common language,” the koinē Greek of the New Testament, Shavuot was simply called “the fiftieth day”: pentēkostē. By declaring a revolutionary faith in a cacophony of foreign tongues, on a day traditionally set aside for celebrating the Torah, Jesus’ followers were broadcasting a strange new attitude toward both Scripture and religion. They were turning the Jewish Shavuot into the Christian Pentecost.
The Torah had been given in Hebrew. Translations were available, but the exact words of the original text had—and still have—unassailable cultural and theological primacy. At least some of those words were thought to have been composed directly by God: not just the underlying meanings but the actual letters and syllables, jot and tittle, faithfully recorded by Moses in his role as chosen amanuensis. By contrast, the New Testament has translation in its bones—some would say parts of it already are a translation, even in the “original” koinē. For in the Greek text we have recorded exchanges, such as those between Jesus and his disciples, which can only have occurred in Hebrew or its sister tongue, Aramaic. From the beginning, there was no escaping the fact that Christians would have a different relationship with Scripture than Jews have with the Torah, or than Muslims later came to have with the Koran—a word that literally means a “Recitation” of specific words dictated in the language of classical Arabic. Not so the word “Gospel,” which is an Anglo-Saxon translation of the Greek word euangelion, meaning simply “good news.” It is that news—and not the letters or syllables in which it comes packaged—that constitutes the essential core of the New Testament. None of this is to say that the original Greek words are unimportant, or that the propositions of Judaism and Islam cannot be faithfully conveyed in other tongues. It is simply to suggest that by dint of its very content and structure, Christian Scripture compels faithful readers to assume that the urgent message contained therein can be accurately and wholly expressed to any speaker of any language.
This has a tendency to cause problems.
What Fresh Hell
All translation involves interpretation. Every sentence, every clause, every word comes trailing clouds of meaning and history that no other utterance in any other language can totally capture. Translators must ask which of the many possible connotations or literary effects was foremost in the author’s mind, then seek an analogue in what is called the “target language”—the one whose native speakers need access to the experience of reading the original. When it comes to Scripture, performing such interpretation is an audacious act: a new translation of the Bible plants a theological flag simply by existing. There is no way to do this without causing offense, and sometimes the offense is intended. At the very least, when you write a new version of the Bible, you are implying that the existing versions no longer have the desired effect because the target language has changed. Some translators, though, are more extreme—they imply by their work that gatekeepers have kept the Bible willfully obscure, in order to defraud the people whom Jesus meant to free.
That spirit of exegetical pugilism is on full display in David Bentley Hart’s recent, much-discussed translation of the New Testament. Hart, a fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, set out in 2017 to provide a version of Scripture etsi doctrina non daretur, as if no doctrine were predetermined as certainly true. Hart wrote his New Testament in part because he wanted to take the Bible out of the hands of a clerical class which in his view had dreadfully mismanaged it: “To be honest,” he writes in his introduction, “I have come to believe that all the standard English translations render a great many of the concepts and presuppositions upon which the books of the New Testament are built largely impenetrable, and that most of them effectively hide (sometimes forcibly) things of absolutely vital significance for understanding how the texts’ authors thought” (emphasis added). A staggering claim.
Hart’s introduction and explanatory notes reveal that he is not without his own theological commitments. He believes, for example, that the idea of eternal suffering in hell is a church invention, not a Biblical reality—he is what is sometimes called a “universalist,” meaning he suspects the salvation won by Christ on the cross will eventually be granted to everyone. He feels sure he is supported in this conviction by the Greek text, which he translates accordingly. This means first and foremost that the Greek word aiōnios, which many translations render as “eternal,” appears in Hart’s version as various phrases meaning roughly “for a long [but not infinite] time.” So Matthew 25:46, which many read as threatening perpetual torment for the insufficiently charitable, becomes “[sinners] will go to the chastening of that Age, but the just to the life of that Age.” This indicates that the torments described are only temporary, quasi-purgatorial chastisements which will purify the dead until they are ready for heaven’s bliss.
Hart is right that aiōn refers principally to an indeterminate amount of time, not necessarily an infinite one. It is fair enough to point out that the Gospel authors are less specific on the subject of everlasting torment than many Christians assume. But Hart wants to say more than that: he wants to paint basically everyone who preaches eternal hellfire as a vindictive fearmonger. To those “who are doctrinally or emotionally committed to the idea of eternal torment for the unelect,” Hart writes, “I can only say that, if they really wish to believe in the everlasting torment of the reprobate, they are perfectly free to do so, whether there is any absolutely unquestionable scriptural warrant for doing so or not.” This is going way too far. It is not as if all or even most people who believe in hell are willfully imposing sadistic fantasies onto Scripture. “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power,” wrote the apologist C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. Nevertheless, Lewis’s reasoning compelled him to affirm the existence of hell and, contra Hart, he had more scriptural evidence to go on than the mistranslation of one contested word.
Here, for instance, is Hart’s own rendering of Mark 9:47-48: “It is good for you to enter one-eyed into the Kingdom of God rather than, having two eyes, to be cast into the Vale of Hinnom, ‘Where their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched.’” That sounds pretty eternal to me, and the scare quotes Hart puts around it don’t help much. He puts them there because he thinks Jesus is only referring to conventional sayings about the material deterioration of corpses in Jerusalem’s Valley of Hinnom, once the site of pagan child sacrifice. In Hebrew, “Valley of Hinnom” is Gē Hinnom, which comes down to us through Greek as “Gehenna.” Gehenna is among the traditional Christian names for hell, and there’s a reason for that: it seems plain that Jesus is using Hinnom here not simply as a place on the map, but as a metaphor for something more supernatural. At the very least, someone could reasonably read that metaphor as implying eternal torment. Not so according to Hart, who can’t see anything other than spite in those whom he accuses of seeking “delicious clarity” on the subject of damnation.
Here as elsewhere, Hart seems to accuse practically every previous Biblical translator of dissimulating in bad faith. In fact, revealing the disingenuousness of those who disagree with him is almost the whole point of his book. In his introduction, he disavows any claim that his translation will be artful—it will simply be, in his view, correct where all others are not. Sure enough, at a stylistic level his translation is often awkward. Hart is trying to prove points, not write literature: “[M]y principal aim is to help awaken readers to mysteries and uncertainties and surprises in the New Testament documents that often lie wholly hidden from view beneath layers of received hermeneutical and theological tradition.” His arguments and suggestions are learned, and many of his points valid. But he is hardly working etsi doctrina non daretur (as if doctrine is not given). He just thinks his own beliefs are so irrefutably right that they don’t count as doctrine. In fact, though, his translation is plainly shaped by his theological commitments.
Words, Words, Words
Indeed, no matter how pure their intentions, all serious Biblical translators are unable to escape taking sides in church disputes. It is the nature of their work. Take for example Saint Jerome, the severe ascetic who translated the Bible into Latin. Jerome used the Hebrew text, rather than the later Greek translation (the Septuagint) as the source for the Old Testament of his Vulgate Bible. This occasioned an academic firefight between Jerome and Saint Augustine, who was scandalized that Jerome should consider the Septuagint insufficiently authoritative. “I cannot sufficiently express my wonder that anything should at this date be found in the Hebrew manuscripts which escaped so many translators perfectly acquainted with the language,” wrote Augustine, rather archly. Other translators have gotten much more than a stern letter in return for their efforts. The disaffected English cleric John Wycliffe wrote the first complete English-language Bible as part of his effort to break Church officials’ monopoly on Scriptural exegesis. His works were condemned by the Church, in part because he and his revolutionary followers, the Lollards, were suspected of fomenting class tensions in the leadup to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Wycliffe himself was imprisoned, hauled before Church authorities at Lambeth Palace, and posthumously excommunicated—a fate worse, in some respects, than death.
More recently Sarah Ruden, a celebrated translator of such classics as Virgil’s Aeneid and Augustine’s Confessions, has thrown her hat into this dangerous ring. Ruden has produced a new edition of the four Gospels. Like Hart and Wycliffe, she hopes her work will dispense with unhelpful theological presuppositions and give people a Gospel unmediated by dogma. Ruden is nowhere near as confrontational or absolutist as Hart or Wycliffe in her presentation—“I mean no offense,” she writes in her introduction, and I think she is sincere. But she will cause some nonetheless, since her translation cannot help but make implicit statements about how best to read the New Testament. Ruden is aware of this, and the statement she most wants to make is that it would be good if readers could come to the Gospels without the intrusive mediation of doctrine. “As a Quaker—a member of perhaps the least theological, most practical religious movement in the world—I’m supposed to be open to looking first at a thing in itself,” she writes. “As a Quaker translator, I would like to deal with the Gospels more straightforwardly than is customary, to help people respond to the books on their own terms.” But of course that is, itself, a kind of theological approach. At the very least Ruden is motivated by a set of ideals about how to approach Scripture: get back to basics, make the words accessible, and grant believers or seekers entrée, without middlemen, to what was originally said.
This is hard to do, in part because a book as culturally central as the Bible shapes the language into which it is translated. This in turn prompts the very semantic shifts in the target language that make a fresh translation necessary. For instance, before the miracle of Pentecost, Jesus foretold that his disciples would be baptizomenoi—“immersed” or “washed”—in the Holy Spirit. In the ancient world, “baptism” just meant any kind of immersion: it could indicate a ritual of spiritual cleansing, but it could just as easily refer to drowning or washing your hands. Jesus’ words at the time would have sounded cryptic. What was this “Holy Spirit” (pneuma hagion) that would come “from above” (anōthen) to drench the disciples? Would it hurt? By now, though, the word “baptism” comes freighted with centuries of post-Scriptural history and instantly prompts English speakers to imagine a well-known liturgical practice. We are in danger of missing how strange it would have been for Jesus to tell his disciples they would be “baptized” in the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. No one hearing that at the time would have thought he was about to put on white robes and be doused with holy water in a drafty church. Familiarity breeds misapprehension: we hear “baptized” and feel cozy or bored. Jesus said “immersed in the Holy Spirit,” and his disciples probably felt perplexed and afraid.
Something similar has happened to words like “sin” and “repentance”—traditional renderings of the Greek hamartia and metanoia, respectively. These words basically mean “going wrong” and “change of heart,” phrases which conjure up fewer feelings of guilt and shame than “sin” and “repent” now do after centuries of ecclesial injunctions to self-flagellation. “Metanoia is literally a ‘change of mind,’ not a groveling moral submission,” writes Ruden in her “Discursive Glossary,” where she explains some of her more unorthodox word choices. A defender of the Church might reply that “groveling” (or, more generously, an act of contrition) is often an earnest response of believers when they realize they have been in the wrong. But it’s fair to point out, as pastors often do these days, that the realization and not the groveling is the point. Over time, some have come to associate the words “sin” and “repentance” more with the rituals of abjection they inspire than with the actual conversion and self-reform they describe. So Ruden uses “wrongdoing” and “change of purpose” in her translation.
This kind of diction characterizes Ruden’s Gospels throughout. She has done her best to make the texts straightforward and readable, to ensure they will land with a modern reader as nothing more or less than simply themselves. Sometimes she succeeds admirably, and the effect is refreshing. Particularly bracing is her rendition of Mark’s Gospel, the oldest and simplest of the four. In Greek, Mark is terse and clipped: it was likely passed down orally among the first believers as they shared their dangerous new faith. It has the feeling of a hushed and conspiratorial story, told on the run. Ruden’s pared-down vocabulary captures this well, and the drama of Jesus’ arrest by Roman soldiers is hugely effective because it is so understated. By chapter 14 Jesus knows, as we do, that he will soon be tortured to death. Suddenly, while he and his closest confidants are praying, the awful reality of it all tears his heart in two. “[A]s horror and anguish started to come over him, he said to them, ‘The life within me is in terrible pain, to the point of death. Stay with me and keep awake.’” Until this point, Jesus has marched through the pages of the story with an almost maddening self-assurance. He has performed miracles without blinking and affronted everyone around him without blushing. It is moving to see him brought low, and to hear him say in stark words of plain English that he can hardly bear his own grief.
Not every passage comes across so well. In particular, Ruden doesn’t quite get at the luminous strangeness of John’s Gospel. It is a famously difficult task: John is doing something utterly original in this bizarre little book. He was apparently influenced by a strain of ancient Greek metaphysics in which God was thought to express himself by means of an “utterance” or “communication”—a logos. Hellenistic philosophers like the middle Platonists believed God was totally ineffable and beyond the material world, but that he “communicated” some shadow of himself by way of the reason and order (another meaning of logos) that pervades creation. John takes this abstruse ontology and turns it into a kind of tone poem, in which God’s self-expression takes the form not just of the created universe but of a human man in the flesh. The language John uses to say all this is at once unpretentious and elevated—a seamless blend of homespun storytelling and philosophical mysticism.
Here is how Ruden translates John’s prologue, which is a string of gnomic pronouncements that became crucially important for trinitarian doctrine:
At the inauguration was the true account, and this true account was with god, and god was the true account. He was, at the inauguration, with god. Everything came into being through him, and apart from him not even a single thing came into being. What came into being in him was life, and that life was the light of humankind. And the light appears, radiant in the darkness, and the darkness did not take hold of it.
It’s all perfectly accurate, and there are some great moments: “radiant in the darkness” is a nice way to manage en tē skotia phainei, which means both “appears in the darkness” and “shines in the darkness.” Ruden’s English captures all the meanings and gets some of the rhythm right besides. But in an effort to be as exact as possible, she gives us “true account” for logos and “inauguration” for archē. The problem with English here is that many of our words have a very definite tonal register: they are either formal or informal, decorous or plain. Greek is more supple: archē is a rudimentary vocabulary word, but also a magisterial one. It implies kingship and power as well as primacy in time. Ruden gives us a sense of formality and rulership with “inauguration,” but loses the straightforward ease of archē—her version ends up sounding a bit like a White House press release. This is indicative of her tendency to err on the side of academic nicety rather than poetic fluency, which makes her sound stilted in places where her source material sings.
For comparison, here is that hoary old classic, the King James Version of 1611:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
Antiquated though it may be, this still gets the feel of the thing about right: simple yet stately. Something is admittedly lost in terms of accuracy. Logos doesn’t quite mean “word” in our normal sense—but then, no English phrase really does get at what logos means as John uses it. Thomas Jefferson lamented to John Adams in an 1823 letter that no standard edition translated logos as “reason,” to emphasize “that the world was created by the supreme, intelligent being.” But “reason” is just as inadequate and incomplete a rendering as “word”: the Bible hardly represents Jesus as a mere academic or limits his teaching to a series of purely naturalistic syllogisms. Hart simply leaves logos untranslated, which amounts to throwing up his hands. Ruden’s “true account” is a little better. But it still requires considerable glossing to understand, and that gets in the way of our engagement with the text. Perhaps the King James version has the best strategy: find a familiar word and, just as John did, use that word somewhat unusually until it takes on its own idiosyncratic meaning over the course of the book.
Whatever their missteps, both Ruden and Hart have plenty to offer. Hart is very good at navigating Paul’s letters to fledgling Christian churches, which ricochet back and forth between ecstatic doxology and dense argumentation. “For we know that all creation groans together and labors together in birth pangs, up to this moment,” writes Hart at Romans 8:22-3. “Not only this, but even we ourselves, having the firstfruits of the spirit, groan within ourselves as well, anxiously awaiting adoption, emancipation of our body.” Ruden, for her part, does a good job managing Luke’s ornate stylistic flourishes, which repackage the Jesus story as a work of professional historiography: “I also have deemed it right that, precisely following everything from the onset, I write it down in the proper order for you.” Ruden’s Luke sounds like he’s aiming at the academic credibility of a Polybius or a Thucydides—which, judging by his meticulous attention to detail, is exactly what he was doing.
Ultimately, these new translations successfully remind the reader of just how unusual the texts are—how varied in style and innovative in structure. Jesus emerges as a consistent and recognizable figure: imperious and inscrutable, terrifyingly self-assured, yet suddenly and astonishingly tender when confronted with human suffering. But his whole extraordinary life is seen from a thousand different angles, as in a cubist painting. There is novelistic detail of a kind that would not be fashionable in Western literature for another millennium. There are mysterious sayings that seem to come straight out of Jewish wisdom teaching. There are precise reckonings of dates and events sandwiched uncomfortably in between abstract philosophical musings. Ruden and Hart both manage to let these coexist in a sort of ad hoc pastiche, which helps readers experience the texts as breathlessly urgent missives rather than canonical tomes. Their greatest service is to make us stop short and wonder: what even are these books, anyway?
Ruden’s own answer to that question is probably what will make her orthodox readers most unhappy. She never quite comes out and says it, but she obviously doesn’t set too much store by the truth of the Gospels’ more supernatural bits. And she certainly doesn’t revere the thing as inviolately accurate. “The Gospels were the first of the truly power-hungry Truth writings,” she claims, and “[w]hen, quite early, the administrators of the texts (that is, the solidifying Church hierarchy) began to put more space between themselves and the audience of the texts, the texts began to veer out of control, like any authoritarian project.” In other words, not only did the Gospel writers have ulterior motives, but a good portion of traditional Christian doctrine was also imposed spuriously onto the Bible by an ascendant oligarchy for reasons of its own. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, is “a theological construct based on a few enigmatic New Testament verses”—not a faithful understanding of the Bible’s God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Ultimately, though she offers her work in a spirit of openness, Ruden has to concede that she thinks much of what most Christians have believed for most of history is, to put it bluntly, wrong.
This doesn’t ipso facto make her a bad translator or a bad scholar. But it does mean that she has her own blind spots. The footnotes are full of doubts, some of them quite silly. For instance: Matthew 26:6 and Mark 14:3 both quite plainly state that Jesus visited the home of a man named Simon, who was a leper (lepros). This statement is not in the other Gospels, but it’s not contradicted by them either. Ruden, however, notes that Simon’s disease was “probably not leprosy, as the disease rendered a person untouchable.” Of course, a believer will instantly reply: that’s the whole point. The Gospel writers are telling us that Jesus performed an act of solidarity with a man considered unclean among the rabbis of the Second Temple period during which he lived. All four Gospels make it clear that transgressing social and religious taboos was something of a habit with Jesus, and that it outraged the two sects, the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were vying for dominance over Israelite culture and ritual.
Ruden is essentially setting up a standard according to which no such report can ever be believed, no matter how reliable its source: the Gospels say Jesus did something unthinkable in his social context; the thing they say he did was unthinkable in his social context; therefore, he didn’t do it. This is circular logic. Ruden’s not really doing scholarship here: she’s simply telling us she doesn’t believe what the book says. She’s entitled to that unbelief, but I don’t see why it should obtrude into our reading experience as though it were somehow authoritative.
Tradition and Authority
Both Ruden and Hart deny the truth of certain conventional beliefs with what seems to me an unmerited confidence. I think this indicates a bias of our own era, a set of cultural assumptions no less pervasive or prone to error than the assumptions of more dogmatic times. Ours is an age of debunking, in which distrust of institutional authority is widespread and intense. Sometimes that distrust is merited. The cultural and political leaders who claim to run our best educational academies, our most trustworthy newspapers, our most reliable public health consortia—many of these supposed elites have in the past few decades issued ironclad pronouncements of certainty which turned out to be spectacularly false. Even good institutions, such as Christian churches, are run by fallen men and women: they are guilty, sometimes, of hypocrisy and even outright betrayal.
But it does not follow that all dogma is inherently wrong or all tradition inherently deceitful. Interpreters like Sarah Ruden, who approach works of canonical authority with the intent of deflating and demystifying them, benefit from a knee-jerk supposition that their skepticism is sophisticated and erudite because it is skepticism. Others, like David Bentley Hart, get considerable mileage out of declaring with unblinking certainty that a lot of what you were taught in church is fiction. Our learned classes derive a certain satisfaction from deconstruction, and it gives them an air of worldly wisdom when they take for granted that the respected eminences of yesteryear were self-serving impostors. This is what allows Ruden to claim rather blithely that Jesus didn’t really eat with a leper, or that priests and scribes made “anachronistic changes” to the Gospel text to prop up “doctrines and worship practices supporting an essentially feudal church.”
Both Ruden and Hart are gifted scholars. But I object to the notion that Quakerism, or universalism, or any other unconventional opinion, equips them better than more conventional translators to get at the real meaning of the text. The intellectual atmosphere of our times renders iconoclasm almost imperceptible, as if to dissent from standard articles of faith is to be neutral and unbiased. But jettisoning orthodoxy is not by default the same thing as getting to the truth. Too often we simply replace traditional assumptions, shaped by long centuries of scholarship and theology, with modern assumptions that are more invisible because they are more contemporary.
Perhaps, in the end, this predisposition toward heterodoxy is rendered inevitable by the nature of Christianity itself. When the Holy Spirit set the disciples speaking at Pentecost, the door to sacred wisdom was suddenly blown open. Such wisdom is usually considered the preserve of a privileged few whose specialized training—including linguistic expertise—equips them to handle and dispense it. The long and contentious history of Biblical translation shows that making Gospel truth available to everyone, in every language, has always posed an uncomfortable challenge to law and order. This is in part why the history of Christendom is such a fissile one: there is probably no way to spread the good news far and wide without inviting dissent, reformation, and even religious war.
It is my view that God prefers freedom at the price of chaos to obedience at the price of slavery, which is why he invites us to seek him voluntarily rather than under duress. So I welcome both Sarah Ruden’s and David Bentley Hart’s skillful new translations, and I salute their right to question received wisdom. But it is also my view that God’s providence is sovereign over the messy, fractious, and sin-riddled history of his people and his Church. This means that the gradual shaping of doctrine over centuries is more than a mere charade or power play: it is a journey, guided by the same Holy Spirit who descended centuries ago in tongues of flame, toward a deeper and fuller understanding of how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection upended the world. Ruden and Hart are both part of that story, and their work can contribute to that process of understanding—whether or not they quite believe that themselves. I will add both of them to my bookshelf. But I will keep reading my King James in church.