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N.T. Wright, David Bentley Hart and the latest tussle over biblical translation

In Christian orbits, debates over which translation one is allowed to favor have led to schisms and vicious conflicts.

An open Bible.  Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Pixabay

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One scholar, N.T. Wright, reviewing another, David Bentley Hart, prompted a response from the latter that the former’s writing was a “catalogue of complaints” by someone whose work “suffers from a dangerous combination of the conventional and the idiosyncratic,” and other nice judgments. The headline of a Christianity Today story about the exchange refers to all this as a “tussle.” Were this to-do about two heavyweight boxers or politicians debating war and peace or decline and fall, it would not draw the attention of us pacific Sightings authors. But when we read on to learn that the antagonists are top Orthodox theologian Hart and equally top Anglican biblical scholar Wright, we have to step up in an effort to fulfill part of our mission to connect the interpretation of religious themes with their “public understanding.”

And, believe us, Hart and Wright are in the public eye, as much as scholars in these fields can ever expect to be. They come with attached fan clubs and retinues. While debating the quality and character of biblical translations might lead many public understanderers to turn their attention to other topics and events, we are in the company of those who believe that debates over biblical texts and their translations are fateful. In Christian orbits, debates over which translation one is allowed to favor have led to schisms and vicious conflicts. For one moderate example: not until after the Second Vatican Council were some Roman Catholics to favor and use the King James Version of 1611. Senior readers of Sightings will recall the bitter melees which followed the publication in 1946 of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, popularly or unpopularly known as “Stalin’s Bible,” as designated by some Cold Warriors who suspected and charged Communist influences in the RSV. Why did “virgin” of The Virgin Birth in Isaiah 7:14 now appear as “young woman” or “maiden” in the new translations, et cetera?

While we may not be proud of the way scholars and agitators on many sides of these translation conflicts have acted, I’d like to change emphasis quickly and argue that the intentions then and issues now between Wright and Hart are not trivial. Biblical texts in translation turn up in international affairs, U.S. constitutional-legal traditions, poetry, political campaigns, and piety, and they are spiritually very important to millions of citizens. The introducers of the 1946 RSV, which people of my generation lugged around (along with, soon after, the “New Revised Standard Version,” the “Revised English Bible,” the “New American Bible,” and the [Catholic] “New Jerusalem Bible”), knew of their importance in scholarship, worship, and the living of lives. So we pay attention.

Professor Hart says the issue is representative of “traditional disagreements between proponents of ‘dynamic’ and ‘formal’ equivalence,” whatever that turns out to mean. For the curious, be they devotees or enemies of the Bible—there are millions of both in our worlds—consulting some of our linked sources will be informative, and may inspire many to regard, more than before, the difficulty and value of the work of translators of documents which are regarded as sacred. Have fun, ye advocates of “dynamic” or “formal” equivalence translations, and all the rest! Or consult the article by Garry Wills, “A Wild and Indecent Book,” in The New York Review of Books. It ends with a Willsian reminder that Orthodox Christian Hart wanted to make his own book wild, repellent, “just a bit indecent.” Wills’s judgment: “He succeeded.”