Thursday, October 5, 2017

On the David Bentley Hart New Testament

It should surprise no one that there is a veritable cavalcade of theologians and clergy lined up to write something about this new text. Given what I have read about it so far, this amount of attention is deserved given Mr. Hart's popularity (not to mention his charged beliefs on things like universal salvation). As always, Fr. Lawrence Farley has a timely article on the topic. It is entitled "The Deep Melancholy of David Bentley Hart." An excerpt is below.

Dr. Hart has recently completed his translation of the New Testament, and it is now for sale at a book store near you. One naturally asks, “Why do we need another translation of the New Testament since so many translations already abound?” One could understand someone wanting to have another crack at translating the Old Testament, since the verbal concision of the Hebrew tongue and the corruption of the text at a number of places offer opportunity for a number of different readings—to say nothing of the question of how to factor in the Septuagint readings in a modern English translation. But the New Testament? Surely the field has been worked over pretty thoroughly and no real puzzles remain? And the versions offered by individuals have not always met with universal acclaim as worthy alternatives—versions such as those by William Barclay, J.B. Phillips, Ken Taylor, and Eugene Peterson.

Dr. Hart lets us know why he thinks we need yet another version of the New Testament—present translations are not sufficiently literal and serve to hide from their readers the radicality of what the texts actually say. Reading them in the old versions such as the RSV, the King James Version, and the New American Standard Bible, leave us too cozily at ease in Zion, and we might imagine that we are like the Christians of the first century when in fact we are utterly different. If we were to read the New Testament with the fresh and newly-opened eyes free from the bias foisted on us by centuries of tradition, we would see for ourselves how unlike the first Christians were from ourselves, and how utterly we fail to understand the New Testament’s radical message. Indeed, we comfortable Christians would regard our first century compatriots as “fairly obnoxious: civilly reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent”. Hence Hart’s title for his explanatory essay of 2016, “Christ’s Rabble”.

Hart begins his broadside on the reliability of the Church’s Tradition (for that is what it is) with a bit of personal history, including the fact that he suffered an extended spell of ill health. This, he said, forced him “to take an even more reflective and deliberate approach to the task”. It forced him to think more deeply about the world of the early church, which in turn surprised him by leaving him with “a deeply melancholy, almost Kierkegaardian sense that most of us who go by the name of ‘Christian’ ought to give up the pretense of wanting to be Christian”. By this he meant that if we truly understood what the New Testament meant by being Christian, we would reject it, for it would be too radical for us to accept. We would find it, (in his words again) “fairly obnoxious”. We misunderstand the New Testament that badly, but with the aid of his new New Testament, we can now at last see what the New Testament really says and what Christianity is really about.

Hart goes on to share that perhaps his melancholy at this discovery “was deepened by an accident of timing”—viz. his debate with Samuel Gregg over the intrinsic evils of capitalism. Hart had denounced wealth as “an intrinsic evil”, where Gregg argued with him that it was not wealth itself that the New Testament condemned, but a spiritually unhealthy preoccupation with it. I am not sure that the timing was as accidental as all that. I wonder rather if Hart’s diatribe against later Christian culture and its understanding of the New Testament was not simply a part of his ongoing personal quarrel with Gregg. Either way though, Hart’s arguments should be considered on their own merits...
Complete article here.


  1. I read somewhere that people were worried when he (Hart) stopped attending services some time ago. Having read Father Lawrence's blog entry, I am prettying this is not one of those situations where Hart could say, "Oh guys, you just misunderstood me. It's all really quite simple," and then explain why his translation, apparent lack of blessing from his bishop, etc. is all still very "kosher."

  2. Hart stopped attending services because he had a long debilitating illness and could not attend. He also has serious respiratory problems and cannot handle incense well. He wants to attend regularly but breathing is kind of important, too.

    He would need an official blessing from a bishop if he were making an official translation for liturgical use but for an academic translation he is just doing what academics do: translating texts related to his specialties.

    I have the new translation and I think it is just fine as an academic reference Bible. I am glad to see it in print.

    1. Rdr David, don't you think that such a thing as an "academic reference Bible" even exists is more than a bit sad?.

      Besides a lot of people will buy it and assume it is authoritative.

  3. If Mr. Hart is truly arguing for wealth=evil he is neither new nor right. That position dprang up in various Protestant sects at different times in the sixties through the eighties. All of them I was aware of we're anti-sacramental.

    That is a major risk with that type of approach. Of course during the same time many prosperity gospel teachers reared their ugly heads. First one I saw was Rev. Ike.