NT Translation and Mormon-bait

I’ve been reading Hart’s recent translation of the New Testament this year, and have found it really quite illuminating. He concludes his volume with a “Scientific Postscript on Translation” that explains some of his more non-traditional renderings. Frankly, it seems like it is Mormon-bait, though it clearly isn’t. Hart generally renders things literally, and happily sloughs off post-Augustinian (and really, post-Reformation) theological tropes. The scholarly shade he casts is fun to read, even if it is tempered by his affiliation (he is Eastern Orthodox). I thought I would share some of my thoughts on the intersection of his translation and our tradition, with the caveat that I have no particular expertise in ancient languages or biblical criticism.

In his postscript Hart discusses some of his most important translational choices. He starts with aiōnios, which is traditionally rendered “eternal” or “everlasting.”

I have discovered that there are many Christians whose sometimes furious objection to any other rendering revolves around a single verse, Matthew 25:46. After all in the original Greek of the New Testament, there really are only three verses that seem to threaten “eternal punishment” for the wicked (though, in fact, none of them actually does), and many who are doctrinally or emotionally committed to the idea of eternal torment for the unelect would feel gravely bereaved if the delicious clarity of the seemingly most explicit of those verse were allowed to be obscured behind a haze of lexical indeterminacy. To these I can say only that, if they really wish to believe in the everlasting torment of the reprobate, they are perfectly free to do so, whether there is any absolutely unquestionable scriptural warrant for doing so or not…

Hart explains that aiōnios is the adjective of the word aiōn (or aeon) and that both are rendered through the “whole of ancient and late antique Greek literature,” including that produced by Jewish authors, as “an age” or “long period of time.” Hart dedicates several pages and marshals a lot of evidence to make his point, one which he returns to for other words: Greek-speaking scholars and church fathers got things right more often than Latin-speaking alternatives.

I’d imagine most Mormons will prick up their ears with this. I immediately thought of D&C 19, which I agree with deeply, but have always thought was sort of funny. In verses 6 and 7 the voice of the Lord declares that while it is written “eternal torment” and “eternal damnation” the meaning is not that those things won’t end. Instead saying “eternal” is highly motivational hyperbole. Of course it will end (God isn’t a jerk)–it is “eternal” in the sense (vs. 10-12) that God is eternal and it is God’s punishment. It isn’t the most convincing piece of rhetoric, but I agree strongly with it, so no harm no foul. But then here we learn from Hart that eternal actually doesn’t mean eternal! Contextual Greek FTW. JS would have loved that.

The second word he digs into is the various words translated as “hell.” Again Hart discusses the significant evidence that “hell” is a very late construction and that Greek-speaking universalists such as Gregory of Nyssa were able to use the New Testament texts coherently whereas Augustine had to cherry pick from poor translations and do backflips to take the contrary view. Hart similarly sweeps the leg of “predestination,” “works” (as in faith and), and “justification.” There are many others—impressive for a couple of dozen pages.

Lastly, I have been vacillating in my use of “cosmological priesthood” to describe the material network of heaven constructed through the Nauvoo temple liturgy. The term fits into the primary argument of my book from last year, but I have worried that the term was overly precious. After reading Hart’s translational choices of “kosmos” I was reminded why I chose it in the first place and have emerged unrepentant and pleased.

Anyway, Hart’s translation is well worth the entry price. It has already changed my perspective on scripture and wended it’s why into my personal practice. Recommended.


  1. Carolyn says:

    We used David Bentley Hart a bunch in my college religious studies classes a decade ago! I had no idea he had a full New Testament translation out — yaaay!

  2. Thanks, J. My copy was an unasked for (but appreciated) gift, which had the unfortunate effect of making it “someday” read. You have pushed it way up the list. I am sympathetic to “Greek speaking scholars and church fathers got things right more often than Latin-speaking alternatives.” I have no Greek and the tiniest bit of Latin on my own, but referring to the text in Greek with a good dictionary has long been my go-to technique for unlocking difficulties.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    I’ve never been so sophisticated, Christian. Generally study bibles and commentaries are my tack. But I do hartily (see what I just did there) recommend this, at least once.

  4. Stephen Fleming says:

    Universalists always pushed the aeon-as-an-very-long-age argument. The 1790 Encyclopedia entry under aeon is really interesting.

  5. “Hart similarly sweeps the leg” heh. Nice.

    We had Hart assigned to our History of Christianity to the Reformation class. It’s quite refreshing. NT Wright has some gripes about it, and it’s been fun to see them spar. I’ve recommended it in my short list of resources.
    I’ve also talked about aiwn and its implications for things like Matthew 24, where the “end of the world” is the end of the wicked aiwn, not the destruction of the cosmos. This dovetails nicely with the JST’s appositive phrase, “the end of the world, or the destruction of the wicked.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    I’ll have to check out Wright’s criticism. And sort of the inverse of Hart’s bit about believing if there is no precise scriptural support, it is true enough, but it nice when the support is there!

    Stephen, Hart goes so far as to say that it can be as short as a lifetime. I can certainly see how Universalists would have been all over this.

  7. Stephen Fleming says:

    Earlier they stressed the idea of post-mortal punishments that lasted a finite amount a time, like a thousand years. Later ones started arguing for no post-mortal punishment.

    Here’s the entry from the third edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1790):
    “AEon, a Greek word properly signifying the age or duration of any thing.
    AEon, among the followers of Plato, was used to signify any virtue, attribute, or perfection: hence they represented the Deity as an assemblage of all possible aeons; and called him pleroma; a Greek work signifying fulness.”
    Universalists quoted this too.

  8. Ryan Mullen says:

    Ben S,

    Where can I find Wright’s review or response to Hart’s work?

  9. J. Stapley says:
  10. Thanks for sharing, J.

  11. Terry H. says:

    RE: Bible Translations. In about two weeks, Robert Alter (via Princeton) will be publishing the Art of Bible Translation. His recent Hebrew Bible has an introduction that provides some fascinating commentary on modern translations (which he finds a bit wanting). The free Kindle sample contains this introduction (along with other introductory material and the first 30 chapters of Genesis). A pertinent quote for me was “The unacknowledged heresy underlying most modern English versions of the Bible is the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible instead of representing it in another language, and in the most egregious instances this amounts to explaining away the Bible.” I’m sure that his new book will further expound on this.

  12. Dave B. says:

    Thanks, J. We really are suddenly spoiled with new NT translations this year. N. T. Wright has his own recent NT translation out there as well, “The Kingdom New Testament.”

  13. re: eternal punishment and aiwn, Hart also has a response to Gary Wills, in which he says, “(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.”

  14. Jared Livesey says:

    That which scholars build, scholars may destroy.

    The implicit position being taken seems to be that the authoritative New Testament, if there even can be such a thing, consists of the oldest Greek manuscripts that we have.

    It seems that position puts the New Testament solely in the hands of those who claim to understand Koine Greek, with the rest dependent upon them for light.

    Does any translation of Luke 6:30, read substantially different from “Give to everyone who asks of you, and do not ask for your stuff back from anyone who takes it.”?

    If the commandments of Jesus as recorded in Luke 6:20-49 and Matthew chapters 5-7, inclusive, are substantially invariant across translations, then what is the problem being solved by new translations?

    What are we looking for in new translations?

    How can we know when we have found it?

    What will it change about how we interact with our fellow humans and God?

    Why not effect that change now?

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