Anent Garry Wills and the “DBH” Version

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.

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20 Responses to Anent Garry Wills and the “DBH” Version

  1. Donald says:

    I think for the sake of its readers you should write a shortened letter to the NYRB. I have known people who couldn’t believe in Christianity because they thought the doctrine of hell was the clear teaching of the Bible.


    • DBH says:

      Frankly, I’m more worried about those who find Christianity especially appealing precisely because they believe that the traditional picture of hell IS present in the text. I’ve met a few persons for whom hell is the best part.


      • I’ve met a few persons for whom hell is the best part.

        To be fair to said persons, I think that the latest survey in the Onion… or the New York Post (I forget, but it was one or the other of these equally trustworthy sources) showed that largest sample group of the percentage of persons truly wishing in an eternally painful hell were also middle-school teachers. Perhaps we can give this unfortunate but necessary group of people a pass for such macabre wishes, there but for the grace of God go we all.


      • Donald says:

        I have met a few like that, though the underlying motives were different. Some just seem like authoritarians who like being part of the in group with others getting what they deserve.

        But one woman who later stopped being a Christian said that our choices in life wouldn’t have any lasting meaning if there weren’t eternal consequences. She didn’t strike me as a sadist, but just someone who hadn’t thought it through very far.


        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          I am not sure Christian universalism does deny eternal consequences to one’s actions, only that those eternal consequences do not include eternal torment in hell: take a life, and, even if you are ultimately forgiven and redeemed, even if God ultimately works your evil deed to the good, no matter what, what that life might have been, all its potential, remains lost eternally; save a life, and that existence of that life will always and eternally be a memorial to your having saved it.


          • itivino says:

            George Macdonald in The Inheritance –

            “Little would any promise of heaven be to me if I might not hope to say, ‘I am sorry; forgive me; let what I did in anger or in coldness be nothing, in the name of God and Jesus!’ Many such words will pass, many a self-humiliation have place. The man or woman who is not ready to confess, who is not ready to pour out a heartful of regrets–can such a one be an inheritor of the light? It is the joy of a true heart of an heir of light, of a child of that God who loves an open soul–the joy of any man who hates the wrong the more because he has done it, to say, ‘I was wrong; I am sorry.’ Oh, the sweet winds of repentance and reconciliation and atonement, that will blow from garden to garden of God, in the tender twilights of his kingdom! Whatever the place be like, one thing is certain, that there will be endless, infinite atonement, ever-growing love.”

            The eternal consequences that we think gives our earthly life meaning is the atonement that we must make with everyone. Heaven will be a great and endless atonement, all the more beautiful because of the depths that Christ has brought us out from. The evil things we did and were and the grace of God and atonement He is and creates IS the meaning.


      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        After all, what is the point of heaven if everybody gets to go there? How would it make me special if everyone else wasn’t going to hell? (NB Sarcasm – internet posts convey tone badly.)


  2. Tom Talbott says:

    From what I have read above, it looks to me as if David Bentley Hart has given us a magnificent (and much needed) translation of the New Testament, one that reflects the very best of the available scholarship. For my own part, I am neither an expert in the Greek language, nor an expert in the historical background of various documents that make up the Old and the New Testaments of the Bible. But even as a non-expert in these scholarly matters, I think I can offer a decisive objection to Garry Wills’ evident supposition that in Matthew 25:46 “aiōnios” should have been translated as “eternal” or “everlasting.”

    My objection is that Wills’ supposition is theologically irrelevant on account of one simple and utterly non-controversial point about the word “aiōnios”: it is an adjective and must therefore function like an adjective. Because adjectives often vary in meaning, sometimes greatly, when the nouns they qualify signify different categories of things, the following widely accepted argument is deeply flawed: if the life of which Jesus spoke in Matthew 25:46 is life without end, then the punishment of which he spoke must likewise be punishment without end. We can illustrate the flaw in this argument by switching from Greek to English. Consider how the precise meaning of the English word “everlasting” can vary in different contexts. An everlasting struggle, if there should be such a thing, would no doubt be a struggle without end, an unending temporal process that never comes to a point of resolution and never gets completed. But an everlasting change, or an everlasting correction, or an everlasting transformation need not be an unending temporal process at all and certainly not one that never gets completed; it might instead be a temporal process of limited duration, or perhaps even an instantaneous event, that terminates in an irreversible state.

    Nor is there much doubt that the life and the punishment of which Jesus spoke in our text belong to different categories of things. For whereas the life (zōē), being rightly related to God, is clearly an end in itself—that is, valuable or worth having for its own sake—the punishment (kolasis) is just as clearly a means to an end. And throughout the Greek world, furthermore, the word “kolasis” was widely understood to signify a means of correction. But even if the Gospel writer had chosen the word “timōria,” a common word for vengeful punishment, you cannot infer the absence of a corrective purpose from harsh language alone. Accordingly, given Paul’s explicit teaching in Romans 11 that even God’s harshest judgment serves a merciful purpose, it follows that, whatever additional purpose it might serve, divine punishment is always administered, at least in part, for the good of the one being punished.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      It seems to me one can render the word “lasting” in both halves of the verse without (as I understand it) doing any violence to the Greek, or to comprehensible English, and without implying either that there is necessarily no end to the punishment or, if there is, therefore necessarily an end to the life. I get the impression that the problem with aionios is less working out whether in context it means “everlasting” or “lasting for long time” and more that Greek word simply doesn’t distinguish between the two, and so can’t be accurately rendered in English, which requires it.


      • Ben W says:

        Actually, there are far more problems than that. In the Septuagint and in the New Testament, there are many places where it has very different meanings, and the question of how it translates Hebrew and Aramaic idioms is an old one. The mysteries surrounding the word go all the way back to Plato.


  3. A. G. Pereira says:

    I understand what is challenging in the translation of both I Corinthians 7:21-23 and I Timothy 6:18, but I don’t see what is startling about John 16:33—am I missing something? (And just a ittle correction: the verse with a limited term for punishment is Matthew 5:26, not 5:36.)



    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Here’s David’s translation of John 16:33: “I have spoken these things to you so that you might have peace in me. In the cosmos you have suffering; but take heart–I have conquered the cosmos.”


      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        Apart from “cosmos” for “world”, which seems more stylistic than anything, isn’t this a pretty standard translation?


      • A. G. Pereira says:

        I had already seen that. “Cosmos” is the only difference from other translations and, besides, isn’t unique to this verse. For that reason I thought there could be something else I was overlooking… To keep the Greek word untranslated can surely be thought-provoking, even necessary at times—and this should be the point here. It didn’t seem to me especially startling only because one can get used even to strange things.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Is it startling for giving us an impression of the boldness of the image of ‘conquering’ something so good as “the cosmos” (cf., e.g., the second clause in St. John 1:10, and 3:16)?


  4. Julian says:

    My uneducated guess about the difference between “world” and “cosmos.” The former is usually associated with the order of things involving human beings. The latter would be the entire Earth, or solar system, or galaxy, or even universe.


    • Ben W says:

      Precisely. That sentence leaped out at me in the translation because we usually think of that verse as meaning that Jesus, in his faithfulness to the Father, has overcome the sinful realities of our human world. But when you put it as “conquered the cosmos,” you’re reminded that the whole salvation narrative in John is all about the one “from above” who enters the “cosmos” to “conquer” its “archon” and restore the whole of creation. It reminds you that in some ways the so-called “gnostics” were closer to what John is saying than much later dogma, and that salvation in John and the rest of the NT is basically a cosmic rescue mission, involving an invasion of captured territory and victory over a foreign despot.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I found Garry Wills’s review to be one of good will and usefulness. Sure, he places some blows perhaps even unfairly, but Hart is a big boy and we want a confrontation of minds.

    Reading the review reminded me of how different in kind the gospels are from the epistles. The gospels are scripture proper – the distillation of Jesus’s momentous message of good news, and were written after some decades of the whole thing maturing. The epistles were just that – letters send from one person to a particular small community in one particular state of affairs, and are mostly concerned with the organization of the incipient church, a purpose which includes the ordering of beliefs of course but also some speculative thoughts of the moment. And they are much younger than the gospels. I think they speak more about their authors than about Christ. Great stuff but of a different order.

    Incidentally a minor geographical correction. Paul sent First Thessalonians to the Christians of the city of Thessalonica which lies in Macedonia, not to the Christians in Thessaly which is geographical region further south.


    • Ben W says:

      Hart doesn’t seem annoyed at Wills. But I was, because that list of six consequences of Hart’s universalism didn’t make any sense at all. What does the translation of “diabolos” have to do with eternal hell? Why wouldn’t one distinguish between hades and gehenna when they’re two different things that shouldn’t be lumped together under the word “hell”? Why is it odd not to to use the word “predestine” when that’s a mistranslation? And what does that have to do with hell? Lots of Christians don’t believe in predestination, and most of them believe in eternal hell. In fact, not believing in predestination makes it easier to believe in eternal hell as a just sentence. Why does Wills not know that the Petrine epistles and Jude are talking about Mastema and the nephilim and such from 1 Enoch, especially when Hart’s footnotes give the references? I have to say that when I read the review I began to think Wills might be getting kind of senile. Of course, back when he was in seminary maybe Catholics still hadn’t gotten much into New Testament scholarship. But a little bit of Raymond Brown and John Maier would be good for him.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Alex Silva says:

    I looked up Hart’s list of passages explicitly indicating (a divine goal, at least, of) universal salvation. One struck me because I’ve never noticed it before. Here’s how it reads in the NIV, since I haven’t ordered Hart’s (yet!): “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.” Doesn’t that “therefore” seem to imply that the cause of everybody’s death was that the one died? Shouldn’t it rather read, “We are convinced that all died, therefore one died for all”? It just seems backwards. Does this have something to do with the fact that he is said to be the “Lamb slain before the foundation of the world”?


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