The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation
N. T. Wright
544 pp., 29.99
Time was when everybody understood a translation to be a more or less word-for-word transfer of meaning from one language to another—"or less" because grammatical constructions differ in languages foreign to each other and therefore sometimes require renderings looser than word-for-word. On the other hand, everybody understood a paraphrase to be recognizably freer: more thought-for-thought than word-for-word. But translation of the Bible increasingly into languages featuring grammatical structures far different from those of biblical Hebrew and Greek, and carrying cultural freight far different from that of the Bible, made word-for-word transfer a lot less feasible.
Along came the dynamic (or functional) equivalence theory of translation. For the sake of languages and cultures exotic to those of the Bible, this theory incorporated paraphrase into translation, so that even in English versions of the Bible the boundary between translation and paraphrase became as porous as the border between the USA and Mexico. You can even hear Eugene Peterson's The message, a paraphrase if there ever was one and self-identified as such, quoted as a "translation." The incorporation of paraphrase into translation may best be illustrated by the shift from the marketing of Kenneth Taylor's The Living Bible originally as "a paraphrase" to its being marketed now as The New Living Translation, though those who revised it (I was one of them) were told at the start to keep it recognizable as a paraphrase by Taylor.
In the wake of this development arrives The Kingdom New Testament (from here on KNT) by N. T. Wright, identified effusively in its back ad as "the world's leading New Testament scholar (Newsweek)" and accurately in its gatefold as "one of the world's leading Bible scholars." Duly distinguishing between translation and paraphrase, Wright asks, "Is this new version really a translation or a paraphrase?" and answers, "It's a translation, not a paraphrase." Why a new translation? Because language is constantly changing, so that "translating the New Testament is something that, in fact, each generation ought to be doing." (I leave aside the question whether for the present generation enough new translations have already been produced.)
KNT originally appeared in Wright's series of popular commentaries on the New Testament—Matthew for Everyone et al.—and therefore sports a colloquial style. I'll call Everyone "Joe the plumber" and "Jane the hairdresser." Or to suit today's American culture, should I say "Jane the plumber" and "Joe the hairdresser"? Either way, "J&J." And since Wright calls me "Bob," I'll call him "Tom." Colloquialism all around, then, so that KNT is to be evaluated at the level of J&J's everyday speech.
Tom's preface helpfully alerts J&J (1) to translators' often having to take interpretive stances on controverted passages; (2) to the use of gender-neutral English in KNT when referring to human beings in general; (3) to the omission of some verses because they're missing from the best manuscripts, undiscovered as yet when verse-by-verse numbering was instituted; (4) to the desirability of reading in one sitting large chunks of the New Testament for their "flow and pull"; and (5) to the need in careful study for two or three English translations, not just KNT, even if you know the original Greek (as J&J do not).
KNT sparkles with many gems of spirited English. My favorites, in no particular order: "Were completely flabbergasted" (Matt. 19:25). "Mr. Messiah" (Matt. 26:68). "Hey, you!" (Luke 4:34). "Swapped" (Rom. 1:26). "Get this straight" (James 1:19). "The real stuff, not watered down" (1 Pet. 2:2). "Well then" and "There you are, then" (Matt. 5:48; 7:11; Mark 10:8) instead of "Therefore." "Play-acting" and "play-actors" (Matt. 6:2, 5) instead of "hypocrisy" and "hypocrites." "Fuss about" (Matt. 6:32) instead of "seek after." "A tight squeeze" (Matt. 7:14) instead of "narrow." "We're done for!" (Matt. 8:25) instead of "We're perishing!" "Tell him off" (Matt. 16:22) instead of "rebuke." "Salt is great stuff" (Mark 9:50) instead of "… good." "Eventually, Paul got fed up with it" (Acts 16:18). "God won't have people turning up their noses at him" (Gal. 6:7). "Put Jesus on the spot" (Luke 10:25). "Face it" (Luke 11:13) instead of "If therefore." "You have no idea" (James 4:14) instead of "You don't know." "Wine … fine" (Matt. 16:2). "Refused … used" (Luke 20:17). "Guzzling and boozing" (Matt. 11:19, though "guzzling" is rare for eating, as required here). "Silly … sensible" (Matt. 25:2). "Legion …. there are lots of us" (Mark 5:9). "He hadn't the guts to refuse her" (Mark 6:26).
Balancing the foregoing hits, though, are some misses: "Yes, I know that's weird, but there's more" (Phil. 3:8), instead of a simple "More than that," is too clever by half. "What d'you …?" "Where d'you …?" and "How d'you …?" (Luke 22:9 and often) are too colloquial. "Woe betide …" (Matt. 23:13 and often) is pedantic. "Without him knowing how it did it?" (Mark 4:27) is awkward. "Stone-cold sober" (Mark 5:15) makes an ex-demoniac seem to have been formerly drunk. To an American's ear, "Chloe's people have put me in the picture about you" (1 Cor 1:11) sounds as if they've included Paul in a photo of the Corinthians rather than that they've informed Paul about the Corinthians. Though traditional, Jesus' being "a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek" (Heb 5:6 and following) will sound to J&J as though Jesus became a high priest at Melchizedek's command. (How about "in alignment with Melchizedek," which corresponds to the Greek word's use for a line or rank of soldiers?)
"That indeed is what we are [viz., 'God's children']" (1 John 3:1) doesn't have the oomph of a literal translation: "And we are!" The characteristically British use of "lot"—as in "A fine lot [= amount] of faith you've got!" (Matt. 14:31); "This lot [= group] who came in last" (Matt. 20:12); "cut the whole lot [= male sexual organs] off" (Gal. 5:12); "you double-minded lot" (James 4:8); "Why do you lot eat and drink … with tax-collectors and sinners?" (Luke 5:30)—will befuddle some American readers. Tom dislikes "whom" where good grammar requires it, as in "I will show you who [instead of 'whom'] to fear" (Luke 12:5, also elsewhere), and regularly positions "only" too early, as in "only lasts a short time" (Matt. 13:21) instead of "lasts only a short time" (plus further examples). But in these cases he's reflecting popular usage.
KNT is peppered with words, phrases, and whole clauses that have nothing corresponding to them in the original Greek and that aren't needed for understandable English. Here are just a few of many such insertions: "And let everybody know it" (Matt. 20:25). "What had happened was this" (Mark 6:17). "Something new" (Mark 8:31). "Now look" (Luke 11:19). "After all" (Luke 19:11). "Really?" (John 1:46). "Oh, really?" (John 5:12). "Wait a minute" (John 1:50). "Come on" (John 4:31). "Well I never" (1 Cor. 5:1). "It's Passover-time, you see" (1 Cor. 5:7). "Well, well!" (John 3:10). Repetitions of legitimately translated words make up a special class of insertions: "For me, for me" (Luke 1:49). "Men, men" (Acts 14:15). "Kill him! Kill him!" (Acts 21:36). "Please, please" (Acts 21:39). "Welcome, welcome, welcome with a blessing, they sang" (Luke 19:38, plus an omission of "the coming one"). Admittedly, these insertions often add zest. They're the sprightly way Tom expresses himself. But they don't represent even loosely what the New Testament authors actually wrote.
Inconsistencies of translation also abound in KNT. But variety is the spice of life, and according to Ralph Waldo Emerson "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little … divines." Nonetheless, inconsistency can cause confusion and obscure connections, as happens in the following: A tunic is an undergarment, a cloak an overgarment; and Tom uses "tunics" for the undergarment (Acts 9:39), but also both "shirt" and "cloak" for the undergarment (Matt. 5:40; 10:10; Luke 9:3). Confusing! "Colleague," "servant(s)," and "slave(s)" alternate with each other for the same Greek word and in the same parable (Matt. 18:23-35; Luke 19:12-25). "The Righteous One," "Lord," and "God" get capitalized regularly (see James 5:1-11, for example), as does "our Lord and Master" for the Roman emperor (Acts 25:26). But "the father" (in reference to God), "the son" (in reference to Jesus), and "the holy spirit" (in reference to the third person of the Trinity) don't get capitalized. Are J&J to infer divinity versus nondivinity?
Tom makes a point of his translating the Greek conjunction gar variously and notes that English versions often translate it with "for" in the sense of "because." (It needs adding that a conjunctive "for" often introduces an explanation other than causal.) Judging this sort of "for" to be formal, stilted, and nonconversational, Tom translates gar variously with a semicolon, "So," "yes," "of course," "after all," "No way!" "Why not? Because …," "Look at it like this," "You see" (tiresomely often), even with elliptical dots (…), or not at all. For example, Mark 8:35-38 sets out four parallel reasons for the cross-taking demanded in 8:34. Jesus introduces each reason with gar. Tom translates the first gar with "Yes," the second with "After all," and the third and fourth not at all. So J&J may miss the parallelism of reasons given for cross-taking.
Tom's saying "I have tried to stick closely to the original" almost forces a reviewer to judge the closeness of KNT to its underlying Greek text. First, then, some outstandingly close and accurate translations: "Leaven" (a bit of fermenting dough) rather than "yeast" (Matt. 13:33 and later). "Born from above" (John 3:3, 7) rather than "born again." "Crossbeam" (Luke 23:26) rather than the whole cross as carried. "Life of the age to come" (usually) rather than "eternal life" (though the aspect of eternality is not to be denied), and "assembly" rather than "church" (the latter of which tends to mean a building). "The Messiah, the son of God, is … Jesus" (John 20:31) rather than "Jesus is the Messiah, God's Son." "The spirit-animated body … the nature-animated one" (1 Cor. 15:46) rather than "the spiritual [= ethereal] body … the natural [= physical] body."
Second, some questionable or disappointing translations: "After the Babylonian exile" in Matthew 1:12, leaving the misimpression that "Jeconiah became the father of Salathiel" after the 70 years of Babylonian exile rather than becoming so right after the deportation to Babylon at the start of the 70 years. "Some wise and learned men" (Matt. 2:1) for the Magi, who were astrologers (and in other contexts dream-interpreters, magicians, or even quacks). "God's kingdom," connoting territory, without a complementary translation, "God's reign," connoting activity. "Corn" (Matt. 12:1 and later), which will make J&J think of corn on the cob rather than wheat or barley. "Anything remarkable," being weak tea for "miracle" at Mark 6:5. "Mattress" (Luke 5:18-19, 24; John 5:8-9, 11), which will suggest to J&J something too cumbersome to carry. "Time" instead of "hour" (Matt. 24:36; Luke 12:39-40), so that the specificity of an hour as the shortest unit of time named by ancients is lost. "I'm your friend" instead of Peter's "I love you [Jesus]" (John 21:15-17) and despite Tom's translating the Greek verb with "love" seven out of eight times earlier in John's Gospel (the sole exception appearing in 15:19: "The world would be fond of its own"). "Plenty of room" and "home" instead of "abodes" and "abode" in John 14:2, 23, so that the connection with "abiding" in Christ (John 15) is severed, a further severance occurring in the translation "remain" instead of "abide." "With … no god" (Eph. 2:12) for Gentiles prior to their conversion, in seeming contradiction of their former polytheism. There are also frequent failures to bring out prolonged and repeated actions in the past and present, as in "Ask [rather, 'Keep asking'] and it will be given to you" (Matt. 7:7) for beggars' wisdom.
Third, some tendentious and outright erroneous translations: "My friend" (Matt. 15:28) for Jesus' addressing a Canaanite with "Woman." "Oh, Mother!" (John 2:4) for Jesus' addressing his mother Mary with "Woman," which introduces exactly the same question used by demons in an attempt to fend him off, as in Mark 5:7: "What do you and I have to do with each other?" Also John 19:26, where Jesus addresses Mary with "Woman" rather than "Mother" (as falsely again in KNT) when putting distance between himself and Mary by calling the beloved disciple her son, and her the beloved disciple's mother.
"You and your silver belong in hell!" (Acts 8:20) turns a wish (so the original) into an exclamatory statement of fact. "Do it quickly, won't you?" (John 13:27) turns the original's firm command, "What you're doing, do very quickly," into a whimpering question (compare KNT's "Why don't you give them something [to eat]?" instead of the original's "You give them [something] to eat" [Mark 6:37]).
"Heal yourself, doctor!" (Luke 4:23) isn't a "riddle." It's a "proverb." Against the original of Mark 7:2-4, Tom treats immersing as though it were the same as washing. Outside 3:16 of his Gospel, John doesn't use hout¯os for degree, as mistakenly in KNT: "This, you see, is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only, special son"—rather, for manner or method: "in this way," here referring back to being "lifted up" as "Moses lifted up the snake in the desert." "Giving wedding parties" (Luke 17:27) disagrees with "being given in marriage [as daughters are]" (so the original).
Tom speaks of "God's word" as a sword that "can pierce right in between soul and spirit, or joints and marrow" (Heb. 4:12). But the original has no "right in between," and a sword doesn't pierce in between joints and marrow. So, according to the original, "piercing to the point of a division of the soul and of the spirit, and of joints and of marrow," depending on whether the sword strikes between two jointed bones or elsewhere deeply into the marrow of one bone. Therefore penetration into the soul and into the spirit, not between them.
"Several" occurs erroneously and often for the Greek word polloi, which means "many," and this despite the nonuse of a Greek word that does mean "several" (tines). The use of "fox" (Luke 13:32) where the original has "vixen" (a female fox) misses the slur on Herod Antipas (which in The Passion of the Christ Mel Gibson got right by portraying Antipas as effeminate). The use of "Adulterers!" where the original has "Adulteresses!" misses a similar slur on the addressees in James 4:4. And "shake you into bits like wheat" (Luke 22:31) is puzzling for "sift you like wheat."
Following are some examples of the effect of Tom's interpretation on his translations: "Took a deep breath" (Acts 8:35; 10:34) interprets "opening his mouth." "Will you please tell me how I can get out of this mess?" (Acts 16:30) interprets "What must I do to be saved?" in terms of avoiding execution rather than in terms of escaping God's wrath. "Practicing homosexuals" (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10) interprets homosexuality in terms of behavior as distinct from inclination. "Or any intermediate state of" interprets "'angel' or 'spirit'" (Acts 23:8) as referring to dead and therefore disembodied human beings rather than to nonhuman angels or spirits. (I agree.)
Since in Tom's opinion "righteousness" tends now to mean "self-righteousness" and sound like "a proud, 'churchy' sort of word," he repeatedly uses "God's covenant justice" (Rom. 1:17 and following) to interpret "God's righteousness" (compare "your covenant behavior" [Matt. 5:20] for "your righteousness"). But will J&J, who haven't read Tom's scholarly publications, understand this new translation any better than the traditional one? Never mind the disputability of Tom's interpretive translation and its sounding at least as "churchy" as "God's righteousness." Similarly in regard to "the faithfulness of Jesus" (Rom. 3:22-26; Gal. 2:16; Phil. 3:9) rather than "faith in Jesus" as an interpretation of "faith of Jesus" (so the Greek), though Tom translates Mark 11:22, which has the very same grammatical construction, "Have faith in God."
Almost always (and extremely often even in short passages), Tom prefers "King Jesus" over "Christ Jesus," and "Messiah" over "Christ." "Christ/Messiah" means "Anointed One," of course; and the Christ/Messiah was to be a king. But there's another Greek word for "king" (basileus). So "King" for "Christ/Messiah" comes by way of inference more than by way of translation and despite the fact that others than kings were also anointed (priests most prominently).
"She will, however, be kept safe through the process of childbirth" adopts one of several possible interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:15 by translating "She will be saved" as "She will … be kept safe" and by injecting "the process of" into "through childbirth." Perhaps the most obvious example of a translation slanted by interpretation appears earlier in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, which Tom renders as follows: "They [godly women] must study undisturbed, in full submission to God. I'm not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them; rather, that they should be left undisturbed." Tom first replaces learning (from men) in quietness with studying undisturbed (by men). Then he imports "to God," with no support in the Greek text, to make God rather than men the object of women's submission—against the making of men, especially husbands, the objects of women's submission according to Tom's own translations of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1, 5. Finally, he changes Paul's "I don't permit [a woman to teach men or dictate to them]" into a wishy-washy "I'm not saying that …."
One more textual matter requires mention. Tom rightly rejects what he calls "two extra 'endings' for Mark's gospel," because "[t]hey are not found in the best manuscripts." Yet he includes these extraneous materials in translation, the shorter in single square brackets, the longer in double square brackets (the reverse of what he says in his preface). On the other hand, he includes the story of the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) without noting its absence from the best manuscripts, without enclosing it in any brackets, and without mentioning that in the inferior manuscripts it occurs willy-nilly after Luke 21:38, 24:53, John 7:36, 7:44, 8:12, and 21:25 as well as after John 7:52. This inconcinnity may appeal to the nonjudgmentalism that's prevalent nowadays even on moral matters (" 'Well, then,' said Jesus, 'I don't condemn you either!'" [John 8:11, frequently quoted without the followup: "'from now on don't sin again!'"]). If only the inauthentic longer ending of Mark hadn't encouraged snake-handling in the Appalachians, maybe that ending would have shed its square brackets.
Does KNT work, then, as a translation in the sense taken for granted by J&J when reading both KNT's subtitle, "A Contemporary Translation," the back ad's description of KNT as "modern prose that stays true to the character of the ancient Greek text … conveying the most accurate rendering possible," and Tom's own statement of having "tried to stick closely to the original"? No, not even by the standards of dynamic/functional equivalence, of which J&J are ignorant anyway. Too much unnecessary paraphrase. Too many insertions uncalled for. Too many inconsistencies of translation. Too many changes of meaning. Too many (and overly) slanted interpretations. Too many errant renderings of the base language.
But there is a body of religious literature characterized by all those traits, viz., the ancient Jewish targums, which rendered the Hebrew Old Testament into the Aramaic language. So KNT's similar combination of translation, paraphrase, insertions, semantic changes, slanted interpretations, and errant renderings—all well-intentioned—works beautifully as a targum. Which apart from the question of truth in advertising isn't to disparage KNT. For the New Testament itself exhibits targumizing, as when, for example, Mark 4:12 has "lest … it be forgiven them" in agreement with the targum of Isaiah 6:10 rather than "lest … one heals them" (so the Hebrew), and as when 2 Timothy 3:8 has "Jannes and Jambres" in agreement with a targum of Exodus 7:11-8:19, which in the Hebrew original leaves Pharaoh's magicians unnamed. Hence, Tom's Targum. Trouble is, J&J won't know they're reading a targum.
Robert Gundry is a scholar-in-residence and professor emeritus at Westmont College. His Commentary on the New Testament, carried by Baker Academic, includes for the purpose of close study a literal translation of the New Testament.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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