by David Bentley Hart
Garry Wills reviewed my recent translation of the New Testament in the February 8th issue of the New York Review of Books. I am grateful for his article, both for the praise it offers in general and the disagreements it records on certain particular matters. I can even say that I learned something from it: I had not been aware before reading it that the term “great tribulation” had any special association with certain nineteenth-century schools of Protestant chiliasm; on the one occasion that I use that phrase in my rendering of Revelation, as opposed to the term “great affliction,” it is simply because, in that passage, the word “tribulation” happened to sound better to me. But, all that having been said, Wills’s review in a number of ways misrepresents certain of the claims I make in my introduction, and strangely misinterprets certain of the choices I made for my translation; and, at one point, his observations become rather odd (though perhaps in an illuminating way). I should simply write a letter to the editors, of course, but that would require confining myself to 800 words, and I am too lazy to be that concise.
Before all else, I want to note that it is not in fact the case (as Wills gives the impression that it is) that I condemn all previous English translations as inadequate. My actual complaints concern modern committee-generated translations (like the New International Version) that repeat old usages unthinkingly or willfully impose theological agenda on the text. He also makes it sound as if I claim that all the authors of the New Testament wrote bad Greek. Many did, admittedly; but, as I also say in my introduction:
The unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews commanded a fairly distinguished and erudite style, and was obviously an accomplished native speaker of the tongue; and Luke, the author of both the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, wrote in an urbane, unspectacular, but mostly graceful prose; the author of the first letter attributed to Peter was clearly an educated person whose primary language was a fairly refined form of Greek, while the author of the second letter wrote in a somewhat bombastic style, of the kind classically called Asiatic Greek …
Had I thought of it, I might have said a good word or two about the style of James as well. Moreover, I do not think it the case that I boast in my introduction of my ability to “do the police in different voices”; I say only that the practice I adopted of not tidying up the Greek of the original allowed me to represent the different styles of the various authors without worrying about making them all equally comprehensible and flawless. Nor do I claim that I can purge the text of all theological constructs; I merely say that I have not altered the text to accord with later doctrinal and theological developments (like the great systems of, say, Thomas or Luther). I freely confess in my introduction that I allowed my thinking on various verses to be influenced by earlier theological readings produced by figures (like Origen or Gregory of Nyssa) who were able to read the Greek and who inhabited a conceptual world closer to that of the first century.
Those are fairly minor issues, however. More important to me are questions concerning the translation itself. And here, I have to say, Wills makes a few unexpected mistakes. The most trivial of these is in his claim that I exaggerate the harshness of the language that Paul uses about Peter in Galatians 2:11-13. With all due respect, I do nothing of the kind. In fact, I merely record a harshness that is there in the text, but that it is customary in most translations discreetly to intenerate. The word “hypokrisis,” for instance—literally “play-acting”—was anything but a mild rebuke in the context either of late antique Hellenistic culture or of the New Testament (where it is the most withering accusation Jesus repeatedly makes against the scribes and Pharisees). Actors were viewed with considerable disdain, for one thing; more to the point, though, to arraign a man for “hypokrisis” was to accuse him not merely of evasiveness or insincerity, but of public deceitfulness and charlatanry—of behaving, that is, like a confidence man or snake-oil salesman. As for the word “kategnōsmenos,” it comes from a verb, “kataginōskō,” that means not merely to “blame” someone for something, but to “condemn” and even “hold in contempt.” If he doubts this, I invite Wills to survey the word’s usage—along with all related forms, substantive, adjectival, and adverbial—in late antique literature. This is, after all, hardly the only instance of intemperate language on Paul’s part.
Where Wills’s remarks become distinctly peculiar, however, is in a list he adduces of six (or seven) choices I make in my translation, which he claims arise from a desire on my part to “oust” the idea of hell from scripture. Wills is correct that I believe that the later, fully-developed Christian concept of hell as a place of perpetual conscious torment to which countless souls are irrevocably damned is absent from the New Testament (which is not to say that various images of damnation are not present, a few of which can be read as being consonant with the later view). The problem is that almost none of the items on Wills’s list has any bearing on the matter at all. He only imagines he sees some pattern in these choices. And this is instructive, because it attests to his (and our) tendency to see things in the text that we have been taught to see, even though they are not there. For instance, he notes that (1) I choose to render the adjective “aiōnios” not as “everlasting” or “eternal,” but in various ways as relating to the idea of the Age (aiōn) to come or of the divine Age above. This has an effect, perhaps, on precisely one verse that concerns the final judgment (Matthew 25:46); but even in that verse, were I to use the word “eternal,” there would be no reason to assume that Christ is speaking of perpetual conscious torment rather than final annihilation; and, indeed, there are other ambiguities about the language of the verse that would render even that uncertain. In fact, my choice was based on the work of many decades of biblical scholars who have seen in the word—both in the New Testament and the Septuagint—primarily a Greek form for an Aramaic or Hebrew invocation of the ôlām ha-ba, the “Age to Come” of God’s reign (though in John’s Gospel the reference might also be taken as referring to the divine “aeon” above the cosmos, rather like the aeon of Plato’s Timaeus).
Wills also sees some sort of exegetical cunning in my decision (3) to render the Greek “Hades” simply as “Hades,” and (2) to render “Gehenna” literally as “Vale of Hinnom.” I also, for that matter, render “Tartarus” as “Tartarus” (see below). Wills seems to think I am perversely avoiding the word “hell.” But I use these three different terms for the simple reason that they refer to three very different things in the text. Hades, in the Septuagint and the New Testament, is chiefly the realm of the dead, Sheol in Hebrew, not a place of punishment for the wicked. It is, in fact, the kingdom of death to which all of humanity is enslaved, but which is conquered by Christ (especially in Paul’s theology), and which is now destined (at least, in Revelation) for final annihilation. The Vale of Hinnom, Gehenna, by contrast, is indeed a figure for a place of final condemnation, but its exact nature is impossible to discern from the texts of the New Testament, and its meaning in prophetic, intertestamental, and later Rabbinic literature is too various to give us an exact sense of how it was understood by Christ or his immediate contemporaries (I explain all this at length in my translation’s postscript). Most good New Testament scholars believe it is an image of final destruction, either historical or eschatological, though it could mean a place of conscious penance, temporary, eternal, or terminal. I interpret it literally because, as I explain in my introduction, I wanted all those words whose meanings would have been directly audible to their original hearers to be visible to readers of my translation.
This is also why (5) I render “diabolos” as “Slanderer” rather than by the later English word “devil”; and I confess I haven’t the foggiest notion why Wills thinks this constitutes a “demotion” of Satan (any more than my rendering of “Christos” as “Anointed” rather than as “Christ” constitutes a demotion of Jesus); nor indeed can I grasp why Wills thinks this has any bearing on the idea of hell at all (though he does apparently think, mistakenly, that the earliest Christians held to the later view that the devil is the chief supervisor of that establishment). By the same token, I do not understand what relevance to the issue Wills sees in (4) my refusal to render “proörizein” as “to predestine.” After all, one can be predestined to any number of ends, and the later fully developed picture of “hell” need not be one of the destinations on offer. I refuse that translation for the very simple reason that that is not what the word means, even though such a definition has backed its way into some lexicons as a result of theological tradition. The reason that a theology of predestination never took shape in the Greek-speaking Eastern Christian world is because, well, it was Greek-speaking. Again, I lay this out in my postscript.
The place where Wills goes furthest astray, however, is where he asserts that, although (6) I point out that there is a reference to “everlasting” (aidios) chains in Jude 6, I “dodge the bullet” by claiming that Jude is speaking here of the imprisonment only of daemons and angels. First of all, were my concern what Wills imagines it is, I would not have accomplished anything; all notions of the eternal torment of any beings, angels or daemons no less than humans, are equally horrific to me. Second of all, Wills might have noticed that, while the chains mentioned in that verse may be “everlasting” (which here effectively means “unbreakable”), the term of imprisonment is described as ending on the last day. In point of fact, the reason that I note that Jude in that verse is referring to the prison of the Apostate Angels and their offspring the Nefilim—as recounted in the intertestamental books of Jubilees and 1 Enoch (the latter of which Jude goes on directly to quote)—is that, simply enough, this is precisely and explicitly what he is doing. The same is true of 1 Peter 3: 19 and 2 Peter 2:4 (in the latter, the word used for that prison is “Tartarus”). Since most modern readers of the New Testament are unfamiliar with Jewish apocalyptic and intertestamental texts, it seemed wise to explain the reference. But this is not a controversial claim on my part; it is a mere statement of a fact that all scholars of the Bible know to be the case. Wills makes a similar error (and a very anachronistic one) in thinking that Jude 7, in speaking of the “aeonian fire” that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah, is referring to the endless torments of souls in hell. No competent New Testament scholar believes that. The fire in question is the physical “brimstone and fire” that destroyed the cities of the plain, and the term “aeonian” here (as the word often does) qualifies that fire and brimstone as divine rather than temporal in nature, coming—in the words of the Septuagint—”para kyriou ek tou ouranou” (“from the Lord out of Heaven”), and thus as neither kindled nor extinguishable by human hands. Again, as in John’s Gospel (and perhaps, again, as in the Timaeus), the word “aeonian” here is a reference to the timeless divine aeon above the created heavens, and beyond the realm of generation and decay. And, once again, this is not a controversial claim on my part at all, but simply a statement of the scholarly consensus.
And so, as I say, Wills has imagined a pattern in my translation choices that is not there. But why is this so? How does he come to think he sees so much in so little? In the end, it is solely because he has been indoctrinated to believe that something like the later picture of hell is present in the New Testament; and so he sees that picture in the texts whether it is there or not. In fact, what the New Testament provides are a number of fragmentary images that can be taken in any number of ways, arranged according to our prejudices and expectations, and declared literal or metaphorical or hyperbolic as our desires dictate. Yes, Jesus speaks of a final judgment, and uses many metaphors to describe the unhappy lot of the condemned. Many of these are metaphors of annihilation, like the burning of chaff or brambles in ovens, or the final destruction of body and soul in the Valley of Hinnom. Others are metaphors of exclusion, like the sealed doors of wedding feasts. A few, a very few, are images of torture and torment, and yet these are also for the most part images of penalties that explicitly have only a limited term (Matthew 5:36; 18:34; Luke 12:47-48, 59). Nowhere is there any description of a kingdom of perpetual cruelty presided over by Satan, as though he were a kind of chthonian god. Thus, pace Wills, there is no need on my part to “oust” this traditional picture of hell from the New Testament. It simply is not there. By letting my Hades be Hades and my Gehenna be Gehenna, all I have done is report a distinction present in the text. And, in not presuming the mythopoeia of later Christian eschatology and cosmology, I have done nothing more than leave a mystery intact that many translations, through their excessive fastidiousness and uniformity of expression, have tended to conjure away. A translator who does that can no more be said to have “ousted” the conventional picture of hell from scripture than a workman who oils the hinges on an upstairs door, repairs the window casement around a loose sash, and cuts away the tree branches that scrape against the eaves can be said to have “exorcised” the ghost that the residents of the house had imagined was responsible for all the strange noises keeping them up at night. After all, all those Greek-speaking fathers of the early church who were universalist—Origen, Didymus the Blind, Gregory of Nyssa, and so on—were perfectly familiar with the texts of scripture, and none of them felt in the least discouraged by what they found there.
While we are on the topic, however, I might mention that, alongside various, often seemingly contradictory images of eschatological punishment, the New Testament also contains a large number of seemingly explicit statements of universal salvation, excluding no one (for instance, John 3:17; 12:32, 47; Romans 5:18-19; 11:32; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:14, 19; Philippians 2:9-11; 1 Timothy 2:3-6;4:10; Titus 2:11; Hebrews 2:9; 2 Peter 3:9; Colossians 1:19-20; 1 John 2:2 … to mention only some of the most striking). To me it is surpassingly strange that, down the centuries, most Christians have come to believe that the former class of claims—all of which are metaphorical, pictorial, vague, and elliptical in form—must be regarded as providing the “literal” content of the New Testament’s teaching, while the latter—which are invariably straightforward doctrinal statements—must be regarded as mere hyperbole. It is one of the great mysteries of Christian history (or perhaps of a certain kind of religious psychopathology).
In any event, my translation is what it is, and I am grateful that Wills ultimately approves of it. I might observe, however, that it contains a great many passages rendered in ways that I tend to think more startling than any he adduces in his review (John 16:33, for instance, or I Corinthians 7:21-23, or I Timothy 6:18, or a host of others), and potentially more challenging to our received views of the earliest Christian communities. I hope that, in the end, these will come to generate the most substantial debates on my approach, since they concern things really present in the text that we generally fail to perceive, rather than things we merely perceive in the text that actually are not there.