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N. T. Wright’s translation philosophy: “Kingdom New Testament”

October 26, 2011

9780062064912N. T. Wright gives his translation philosophy in the Preface to his new single-volume Kingdom New Testament.  What do you think of Wright’s philosophy towards translation?  Is this a volume you would want to read?

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The first thing that happened in the life of the church was translation.  On the day of Pentecost, God’s powerful wind swept through Jesus’s followers, filling them, like the sails of a great oceangoing sailing ship, so that they could take God’s good news to the ends of the earth.  And they found themselves speaking other languages, so that everyone in the crowd could understand.

Part of the point of Jesus’s message, after all, is that it’s about God coming to people where they are, not sitting back sternly and waiting for them to come to him.  Not for nothing does John call Jesus “the word of God.”  There’s no point speaking a word that nobody can understand.

So right from the start, they translated.  Sometimes it happened, as at Pentecost, by the direct action of the holy spirit.  Mostly, though, it was through people eagerly turning the message into other languages.  Much of the time, Jesus himself spoke Aramaic, an updated dialect of Hebrew, but the gospels were written in Greek.  Greek was everybody’s second language at the time, a bit like English in many parts of our world today.  So, since the message was designed to be good news for everyone, not just native speakers of one language, it was important to translate it.  Once begun, the process continued.

It took fifteen hundred years for the whole Bible to appear in English, but once that had happened – particularly through the work of one of my lifelong heroes, William Tyndale (d. 1536) – the idea caught on quickly.  Several translations appeared during the sixteenth century, culminating in the King James (“Authorized”) Version at the start of the seventeenth.  And in the twentieth century, too, there have been several new English versions.  some have been quite strict translations, almost word for word; others have been paraphrases, trying to convey the message in a looser, less formal way.

Two questions, then.  Is this new version really a translation, or a paraphrase?  And why do we need yet another one?

It’s a translation, not a paraphrase.  I have tried to stick closely to the original.  But, as with all translations, even within closely related modern European languages, there are always going to be places where you simply can’t do it word by word.  To do so would be “correct” at one level and deeply incorrect at another.  There is no “safe” option:  all translation is risky, but it’s a risk we have to take.

This is particularly so when the language in question is, in the technical sense, “dead.”  Nobody today speaks first-century Greek, so we can’t simply phone a native speaker and ask what is meant by a particular phrase.  Even if we could do so, there’s no guarantee that the person we called would necessarily understand all that a New Testament writer had put into a word, phrase, or sentence.  The New Testament, after all, is telling a story which is deeply rooted in the ancient scriptures of Israel.  Often its key technical terms mean something more like their equivalents in Hebrew than their regular usage in secular, non-Christian Greek.

Greek often goes quite easily into English, but not always.  A couple of examples may help, one about little words and one about big ones.

Greek often uses little words to join sentences together; English often makes do with punctuation.  (That last sentence is a good example:  I could have written “but English often makes do with punctuation,” but the semicolon does the job more elegantly.)  St. Paul, in particular, uses the little word gar a great deal to connect his sentences, and English version often translate it as “for” in the sense of “because.”  But people today don’t often use the word “for” in that way.  It sounds formal and stilted, especially if you repeat it over and over as Paul does.  People don’t say it much in conversation, and a lot of the New Testament is more like conversation than like a great literary work.  So, on various occasions, I have don it differently.  “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live,” writes Paul in Romans 8:13-14 in the New Revised Standard Version translation, “for all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”  I decided, instead of that “for” to put in the colloquial English, “you see”:  “all who are led by the spirit of God, you see, are God’s children.”  Or, sometimes, I have linked the two points by asking a question and answering it:  “There is no condemnation for those who are in the Messiah, Jesus!  Why not?  Because the law of the spirit of life in the Messiah, Jesus, released you from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2).  That “Why not?  Because…” is how I’d say it, if I were Paul giving a lecture.

Or take the bigger words.  Some of the great New Testament words are like ships loaded with several different kinds of cargo, and we simply haven’t got words that can carry all that freight today.  Thus, for instance, the English word “righteousness” has been a technical term in theology for many years, and has often been used to translate the Greek dikaiosyne.  But for many English speakers today it means self-righteousness:  it’s become a proud, “churchy” sort of word.  So what are the alternatives?  We simply haven’t got them.  We want a word that can pack “justice,” “covenant faithfulness,” and “right standing or relationship” all into the same hold, and can set off, with this cargo safely on board, to sail around the world.  There isn’t such a word.  So I have done my best to bring out the different flavor which dikaiosyne seems to carry in this or that passage.  I have done the same Christos:  most translations simply say “Christ,” but most English speakers assume that the word is simply a proper name (as though “Jesus” were Jesus’s “Christian” name and “Christ” were his “surname”).  For all sorts of reasons, I disagree, so I have experimented not only with “Messiah” (which is what the word literally means) but sometimes, too, with “King.”  These experiments are risky.  But they also present a glorious opportunity.

It’s an opportunity (here is the answer to the second question, why yet another translation?) because translating the New Testament is something that, in fact, each generation ought to be doing.  This is a special, peculiar, and exciting point about the very nature of Christian faith.  Just as Jesus taught us to pray for our daily bread, our bread for each day, we can never live on yesterday’s bread, on the interpretations and translations of previous generations.  To be sure, we can and must learn from those who have gone before us in the faith.  But they themselves would tell us that living faith requires that we do business with God for ourselves.  Inherited spiritual capital may help to get you started, but you need to do fresh work for yourself, to think things through, to struggle and pray and ponder and try things out.  And a new translation, as carefully faithful as it ought to be also open to new possibilities as it needs to be, is a key tool for that larger task.

There are two ways to use a tool like this.  First, it’s good to read right through chapters, sections, and entire books at a single setting.  The “books” which make up the New Testament weren’t meant to be read in ten-verse sections at a time; imagine what would happen if you tried to listen to a symphony that way, or to read a novel at the rate of a single page once a week.  I hope this present translation will make it easier for people to do this, to feel the flow and pull, the energy and power of larger chunks at a time.

But, second, it’s always worth sitting down with a short passage and studying it intensely , trying to work out precisely what is meant by each sentence, each phrase, each word.  And for that (even if you know Greek itself, but especially if you don’t) you should always have at least two English translations open in front of you.  No one translation – certainly not this one – will be able to give you everything that was there in the Greek.  But I hope this one will take its place as one of the two or three that will help the next generation do its own homework, to acquire its own firsthand, rather than secondhand, understanding of what the New Testament said in its own world, and what it urgently wants to say in ours.

That sense of urgency, indeed, has pushed me into a less formal and academic, and a more deliberately energetic, style Most of the New Testament isn’t “great literature” in terms of the high standards of the day.  Mark’s gospel is more like a revolutionary tract; Paul’s letters, though capable of poetic brilliance, often seem to reflect the kind of animated discussion you might have after a lecture in a crowded room.  Again, it has seemed to me more important to convey that sense of excitement than to imitate the more formal, somewhat stately English prose we know from the traditions of the King James or Revised Standard Versions, good in their way though have been.

This has affected all kinds of decisions:  for instance, how to reproduce Jesus’s discussions and debates.  We simply don’t say, in today’s English, “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and Tell John what you have seen and heard.’ ”  As with a novel, we’d be much more likely to say, “ ‘Go and tell John,’ replied Jesus, ‘what you’ve seen and heard.’ ”  So that’s how I’ve done it.  I think it makes quite a difference as to how we hear, and feel, the whole story.

In particular, this translation was made originally to accompany a set of “guides” or popular commentaries on the New Testament.  This series (Matthew for Everyone and the rest) was itself designed for people who would never normally read a “biblical commentary,” but who just wanted some help to get into the text for themselves.  People like that might well have been confused if I’d always been saying, “Well, the RSV says this, the NIV says that, but I’m telling you something different.”  I wanted to comment on a text without having to make that kind of remark all the time.  Equally, as with all translations ever made, I have taken a particular view on point after point of interpretation, and my understanding of the many controversial passages in the New Testament shows up, naturally enough, in the translation as well.

A couple of final comments.  First all translations of the New Testament depend on other people’s work in producing editions of the Greek New Testament from the literally thousands of manuscripts that have survived from the first few centuries.  From time to time, I have had to make tricky decisions about which text to follow, but in a work of this sort I haven’t wanted to distract the reader by inserting notes saying, “Other ancient authorities say ….”  For that you will have to elsewhere.  In the same way, sometimes whole verses were added to biblical manuscripts, often by scribes who remembered (say) the equivalent passage in Mark to the one they were transcribing from Matthew or vice versa.  Thus, for instance, Matthew 6:15 has crept into into some manuscripts of Mark 11, creating an extra verse (26).  Modern editions leave these “extra” verses out, because they aren’t there in the best and earliest manuscripts.  But occasionally this means that the verse-numbering has to skip, since the numbering was done several centuries ago, before these much better manuscripts turned up.  Again, translations which include footnotes will make this clear.  There are two extra “endings” for Mark’s gospel.  They are not found in the best manuscripts.  Most likely the original version was damaged; this often happens to scrolls.  (Some think Mark intended to stop with 16:8, but I consider this less likely.)  Then, some time later, two copyists decided to and “endings” to round the story off, and these found their way into the manuscript tradition.  The shorter of these two endings (printed in double square brackets) doesn’t have a verse number.  The second is known as Mark 16:9-20.

Finally, I have tried to use gender-neutral language throughout when referring to human beings.  Sometimes this has been, to put it mildly, quite difficult.  I have often had to use what some people regard as an ugly and ungrammatical form, saying “they” rather than “he or she.”  This is a classic example of what happens when a language is going through a time of change.  That can’t be helped.  Indeed, it is because languages are constantly changing that we regularly need fresh translations.

My hope and prayer for this book is that many people will discover through it just how exciting and relevant the New Testament really is.  If it helps the church as a whole, and individuals within it, to be refreshed in their faith reinvigorated to take forward God’s mission in tomorrow’s world, I will be delighted.  I have had the amazing privilege of spending the best years of my life studying and teaching the New Testament both church circles and academic settings, and I hope that this translation will enable that work to reach a wider audience.

[Wright then gives a paragraph of acknowledgement and a paragraph dedicating the work to his family.]

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The volume itself is nicely presented in hardcover (one of the nicest mass-market hardcovers I have seen from HaperOne) with an attractive single-column paragraph layout, section headings printed in bold large sans-serif type in the generous margins, and 39 black and white maps (all but four of them accompanying Acts).  I did not notice any footnotes while skimming the volume.

I should also mention that Wright has another volume out today, Simply Jesus, which I hope to read soon (although I am a bit backlogged on my reading queue just now.)  Also, of the two final volumes in Wright’s popular “… for Everyone” commentary series, Early Christian Letters for Everyone has appeared, and Revelation for Everyone is scheduled for release at the end of the moth.

39 Comments leave one →
  1. October 27, 2011 2:22 am

    A curious voice it is to me. I have not heard or read much of his work. I doubt that I will read it either, but there are a few points in this intro that are worth considering. The analogy of a symphony is a good one and it should lead to some recognition of form in the NT and each book of it, but the concentration on ‘words’ won’t take you there. The figure it out for yourself approach is likewise good but also insufficient by itself. Who helps the reading? Who ‘has’ the words of eternal life – or whose ‘loving-kindness is better than life itself’ – to use an expression from the psalms that would place the reader in the relational space needed to learn. I suspect he wants this perspective but can’t say so.

    Re the translation examples, I would generally avoid some of his colloquial additions – but sometimes my muse carries me away too. The examples he gives I personally don’t find appealing. It is perhaps because I wouldn’t want to lean on that particular insertion (like why not? in Romans 8 ) Paul has a 10 part structure with dozens of internal questions already and a very careful use of words in Romans. Wright has not improved it with yet another question inserted into the text.

    Earlier he says re native speakers – there’s no guarantee that the person we called would necessarily understand all that a New Testament writer had put into a word, phrase, or sentence

    Indeed – or the TNK either in any language or in any period. We have in each testament something that is of unsearchable depth – even if this is taken purely from the point of view of the ‘problem space’, historical, psychological, and somatic in which we find ourselves. And to boot, I think ‘understanding’ is overrated – ‘we will do then we will understand’. That alone is a very ‘narrow’ starting point.

    Thanks for this intro to NTW.

  2. October 27, 2011 4:45 am

    Bob, here is how Wright translates Romans 8. I’ve put in his section headings in brackets, but this is a bit misleading as it interrupts the flow of the text. In the actual book, they arenotes in the margins, and the text reads continuously:

    [God’s Action in Messiah and Spirit] So therefore, there is no condemnation for those in the Messiah, Jesus! Why not? Because the law of the spirit of life in the Messiah, Jesus, released you from the law of sin and death.

    For God has done what the law (being weak because of human flesh) was incapable of doing. God sent his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and as a sin-offering; and, right there in the flesh, he condemned sin. This was in order that the right and proper verdict of the law could be fulfilled in us, as we live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit.

    [The Work of the Spirit] Look at it like this. People whose lives are determined by human flesh focus their minds on matters to do with the flesh, but people whose lives are determined by the spirit focus their minds on matters to do with the spirit. Focus the mind on the flesh, and you’ll die; but focus it on the spirit, and you’ll have life, and peace. The mind focused on the flesh, you see, is hostile to God. It doesn’t submit to God’s law; in fact, it can’t. Those who are determined by the flesh can’t please God.

    But you’re not people of the flesh; you’re people of the spirit (if indeed God’s spirit lives within you; note that anyone who doesn’t have the spirit of the Messiah doesn’t belong to him). But if the Messiah is in you, the body is indeed dead because of sin, but the spirit is life because of covenant justice. So, then, if the spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives within you, the one who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies, too, through his spirit who lives within you.

    [Children of God, Led by the Spirit] So then, my dear family, we are in debt — but not to human flesh, to live our life in that way. If you live in accordance with the flesh, you will die; but if, by the spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

    All who are lead by the spirit of God, you see, are God’s children. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery, did you, to go back again into a state of fear? But you received the spirit of sonship, in whom we call out “Abba, Father!” When that happens, it is the spirit itself giving supporting witness to what our own spirit is saying, that we are God’s children. And if we’re children, we are also heirs: heirs of God, and fellow heirs with the Messiah, as long as we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

    [Creation Renewed and Patient Hope] This is how I work it out. The sufferings we go through in the present time are not worth putting in the scale alongside the glory that is to be unveiled for us. Yes: creation itself is on tiptoe with expectation, eagerly awaiting the moment when God’s children will be revealed. Creation, you see, was subjected to pointless futility, not of its own volition, but because of the one who placed it in this subjection, in the hope that creation itself would be freed from its slaver to decay, to enjoy the freedom that comes when God’s children are glorified.

    Let me explain. We know that the entire creation is groaning together, and going through labor pains together, up until the present time. Not only so: we too, who have the first fruits of the spirit’s life within us, are groaning within ourselves, as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our body. We were saved, you see, in hope. But hope isn’t hope if you can see it! Who hopes for what they can see? But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it eagerly — but also patiently.

    [Prayer, Sonship, and the Sovereignty of God] In the same way, too, the spirit comes alongside and helps us in our weakness. We don’t know what to pray for as we ought to; but that same spirit pleads on our behalf, with groanings too deep for words. And the Searcher of Hearts knows what the spirit is thinking, because the spirit pleads for God’s people according to God’s will.

    We know, in fact, that God works all things together for good to those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. Those he foreknew, you see, he also marked out in advance to be shaped according to the model of the image of his son, so that he might be the firstborn of a large family. And those he marked out in advance, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

    [Nothing Shall Separate Us from God’s Love] What then shall we say to all this?

    If God is for us, who is against us?

    God, after all, did not spare his own son; he gave him up for us all!

    How then will he not, with him, freely give all things to us?

    Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones?

    It is God who declares them in the right.

    Who is going to condemn?

    It is the Messiah, Jesus, who has died, or rather has been raised;

    who is at God’s right hand, and who prays on our behalf!

    Who shall separate us from the Messiah’s love?

    Suffering or hradship, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As the Bible says,

    Because of you we are being killed all day long;
    We are regarded as sheep destined for slaughter.

    No: in all these things we are completely victorious through the one who loved us. I am persuaded, you see, that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor the present, nor the future, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in King Jesus our Lord.

  3. October 27, 2011 11:45 am

    Thanks for the taster. It’s a curious mixture of translating up and down. On the ‘downside’ as I noted already – I find ‘why not?’ intrusive as a connector. Here are a few other bits that I like, don’t like, or that I wrestle with.

    the adjective ‘human’ as applied to flesh – this is a complete failure for the chapter. It is gratuitous and misleading. He does it twice and doesn’t need it at all.

    ‘you see’ – another rendering of gar I suppose and – what if I don’t ‘see’ – the English is a faulty colloquialism on its own. There is a false resonance with the true usage of ‘see’ and the argument for hope later in the chapter. And I note that in his initial definition of flesh ‘For God has done what the law (being weak because of human flesh) was incapable of doing. God sent his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and as a sin-offering; and, right there in the flesh, he condemned sin’ he does not use ‘you see’.

    ‘covenant justice’ – not bad, maybe even good – I wonder how consistent he was on this usage?

    ‘This is how I work it out’ – what! Is this a confident argument from the Apostle?

    ‘on tiptoe’! Hardly the preparation stance for creation giving birth. (The birthing of creation is a theme in the psalms.)

    King and Christ, Messiah – my wrestling is this: I prefer the Anointed because, (God forbid I should say ‘you see’), I think Jesus was given the Anointing Spirit (God is Spirit) without measure. This is the same Spirit of Anointing that is the Root of the Anointing of Israel of the flesh. The Spirit of formation who ‘shapes according to the model of the image of “his son”‘ is evident in the formation of the covenant people of mercy that can be effected by the reading of the Psalter, the dialogue between God and “his son”. This “formation of God’s people” is identified by Paul through Paul’s citation of Psalm 44:22 at the end of the chapter. That Paul should use this psalm in this context identifies the wrestling match we are truly involved in. The same obedience of faith applies for all in all ages.

    (Now Bob – remember to click the notify me checkbox – I keep forgetting.)

  4. October 27, 2011 12:03 pm

    I’d be interested in this translation not so much because of the style but because I think Wright’s a very sharp guy who has pointed out very interesting alternate readings of particular passages before. I’m interested to know what those passages look like in this translation. However, it looks more the The Message than the sort of translation I normally read. (Not that I’m knocking that – I don’t think I’m as thrown by the sort of English with Greek syntax that something like the ESV loves so much as Wright’s main audience here might be.)

    I do note that several of the things Bob comments on are Wright clarifying very specific points that he’s written on. “Human flesh” is probably trying to steer people away from reading a modern spirit/physical divide into the text but, instead, see it as a God/human divide. “Covenant justice” sounds like exactly the sort of thing I’d expect out of him given his work on justification and his complaint that we don’t have a great vocabulary for that set of concepts anymore. However, this does mean that the work is very much influenced by Wright’s reading (but the alternative is to leave some key points obscure).

  5. October 27, 2011 6:48 pm

    On a different note, is Aramaic an “updated dialect of Hebrew?” I thought Hebrew was a dialect of Aramaic, and Aramaic was the language of empire and the common language of the Middle East.

  6. October 27, 2011 7:04 pm

    Bob, Eric — thanks as always for your thought-provoking comments. I’m still forming an opinion of Wright’s work, but for me, it is too loose.

    Suzanne — my understanding of the leading theory is that Aramaic and Hebrew are cousin language families:

    Proto-Semitic -> Northwest Semitic -> Canaanite -> Hebrew

    Proto-Semitic -> Northwest Semitic -> Aramaic

    There is substantial evidence of Aramaic influence even on some of the oldest passages in the Bible, though. From Encyclopedia Judaica (2007):

    THE INFLUENCE OF ARAMAIC ON BIBLICAL HEBREW

    This influence is mainly prevalent in the vocabulary, morphology, and possibly in the syntax of biblical Hebrew. However, both the dating and the extent of this influence have not yet been sufficiently determined. In the early biblical books, certain roots and grammatical forms which deviate from the standard are not to be regarded as Aramaisms, but rather as representing a common heritage which in Hebrew had survived mainly in poetry and in Aramaic in the everyday (spoken) language. Among these words are אֲתָה “came” (Deut. 33:2), (אָזְלַת (יד (Deut. 32:36; instead of the standard Hebrew אָזְלָה). However, וְשָׁבַת (instead of וְשָׁבַה in Ezekiel 46:17, a book replete with Aramaisms) goes back to Aramaic. It is therefore possible that a certain word or form appearing in an earlyPage 347 | Top of Article biblical book, where it is archaic Hebrew, may disappear for a time and reappear in a later biblical book as a result of Aramaic influence. Other Aramaic roots and forms, not to be considered Aramaisms, are to be found in those biblical passages where the author deliberately gives an Aramaic texture to his words – when, for example, he wants to emphasize the “foreignness” of a gentile speaker; e.g., different archaic forms of the verb אתה, which is mainly Aramaic, given as התיו, אתיו as well as the forms בְּעָיוּ, תִּבְעָיוּן (“demand”) which look like pure Aramaic (Isa. 21:11–14; the reference is to the Edomites).

    It seems that Aramaic in the Bible was used as a poetic form, e.g., in Deborah’s song (Judg. 5:26) there are the words מחק and תנה (ibid. 11) – both Aramaic forms: מחק being the presumed Ancient Aramaic parallel of the Hebrew מחץ (“deal a severe blow”; compare Ancient Aramaic), while תנה (“to repeat”) is the Aramaic cognate of the Hebrew שנה. The same is true of the Book of Proverbs where the Aramaic בר (“son”) appears three times (31:2).

    The ordinary Jerusalemite of Isaiah’s time did not know Aramaic and only the kings’ counselors and ministers understood it (see above). Nevertheless, we find in the Book of Isaiah the Aramaic noun pattern haqṭālā: (הַכָּרַת (פניהם “the show” (of their countenance; 3:9), and הֲנָפָה “to sift” (30:28); it is possible that the same is true concerning the noun pattern qәtāl. The existence of an Aramaic element per se in the Bible cannot (as has been shown here) always serve as proof of the late origin of a book. The books in which the Aramaic influence is most obvious are Ezekiel and certain chapters in Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Books of Chronicles. The influence is recognizable (1) in the usage of certain Aramaic roots, e.g., מחא (Ezek. 25:6), the cognate Hebrew is מחץ (“dealt a severe blow”); טלל (Neh. 3:15), the cognate Hebrew is צלל (“to roof “); שהד (Job 16:19), in Hebrew עד (“witness”); (2) in idioms translated into Hebrew (a loan translation): אֲשֶׁר לָמָּה (Dan 1:10) meaning “why,” in Aramaic זָכָר; דִּי לְמָא (“male sheep”) instead of the standard Hebrew אַיִל, because of the Aramaic דִּכְרָא which means both “male” and the “male of the sheep”; (3) in an Aramaic noun pattern: e.g., הַשְׁמָעוּת (Ezek. 14:26); and (4) in syntax: perhaps in the regression of the conversive ו in the Books of Chronicles and in Ezra, etc.; and in its final disappearance from mishnaic Hebrew. Other syntactical forms in these books which deviate from standard biblical Hebrew may also be due to the influence of Aramaic.

    Also, Hebrew is largely written today using Armaic script.

  7. October 27, 2011 7:19 pm

    In any case, Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Middle East, and the language of empires, shouldn’t really be relegated to being called “a dialect of Hebrew.” I am puzzled by this comment, as it gives the impression that the author is not looking at the nation of Israel in the larger socio-political context.

  8. October 27, 2011 7:40 pm

    I’ve noticed that Wright is sloppy sometimes on his details (although he is by no means the most serious offender in the Biblical studies world.)

  9. October 28, 2011 12:01 am

    I found this statement pretty odd:
    “I’ve noticed that Wright is sloppy sometimes on his details”
    I’ve found Wright to be one of the few people who I think really does his due diligence. As a scientist I tend to think that Biblical Studies is hopelessly full of half-proofs being treated as full proofs and I appreciate Wright’s willingness to spend 100 pages going through all known uses of a key word four hundred years in either direction before making an argument.

    However, this statement is really weird:
    “Much of the time, Jesus himself spoke Aramaic, an updated dialect of Hebrew, but the gospels were written in Greek”

    From looking over this introduction this seems to be a very casual work by Wright. I have some acquaintance with his “For Everyone” series and I felt it was pitched way too low for me to want to read. On the other hand, his Christian Origins and the Question of God series is heavily footnoted and often takes an entire chapter out to address this or that technical point. My suspicion here is that Wright does not actually think that Aramaic is a dialect of Hebrew but that this is the best way to encapsulate that relationship (especially when parts of the New Testament call Aramaic Hebrew) in a single sentence and has decided that in this book he won’t give himself more than one sentence to cover the idea. Actually, that might be the best way to describe my own doubts about the utility of this translation – I don’t know that Wright is pitching this at a “serious” audience.

  10. October 29, 2011 6:31 pm

    Why couldn’t Wright simply have written, “Jesus himself spoke Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew…..” Then the readers would have understood that Aramaic and Hebrew are different languages.

  11. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    October 29, 2011 7:50 pm

    I was raised to think that Aramaic was a dialect of Hebrew so I can see how he made the slip. But the point of scholarship should surely be to shift our viewpoint in the direction of historical evidence and more useful categories.

  12. October 29, 2011 11:17 pm

    Eric, Rebecca, Suzanne — Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that N. T. Wright’s statement is wrong as phrased, and I hope he corrects it in future editions.

  13. October 30, 2011 2:48 pm

    Elsewhere, Wright has more carefully qualified how he sees Aramaic:

    Jesus’ first followers were in any case already almost certainly bilingual. Their mother tongue was Aramaic (a language which developed from the classical Hebrew of the scriptures, a few hundred years earlier). But Greek had been everybody’s second language in their part of the world for three hundred years by their day, and it’s quite likely that many “ordinary people” in the Middle East had a smattering of other languages as well.

    The question of translating scripture had already been faced when scribes, after the exile in Babylon, “interpreted” the ancient Hebrew scriptures into Aramaic so the ordinary people could understand it. It was then faced even more directly by those who, somewhere between one and three hundred years before Jesus’ day, translated Israel’s scriptures from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek.

    That’s a little better. But then he goes on in the same context to say this (with Wright’s own emphases here):

    The fact that the New Testament is written in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic, tells its own story: this, the early writers were saying by clear implication, is the Jewish message for the whole world. To translate is to suggest that, just as the gospel of Jesus is for all people, so the early Christian writings which bear witness to Jesus are for all people.

    The very odd thing here is that Wright forgets, or neglects intentionally, to mention the Septuagint. To bring up the Jewish translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek might imply that “to translate” implies not some inherent and anachronistic therefore impossible Christian evangelical missionary effort but that “to translate” means something, well, Jewish.

    If I recall, in his book Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, Wright bends over backwards to say that the only way to understand the (Christian) story of Jesus is to see him historically as Jewish. In the same book, he says Jesus spoke Aramaic as his mother tongue, if I remember.

    What’s strange is Wright’s questions of whether languages and whether their translation must signal Christianness or Jewishness (i.e., Hebrewishness, if you will).

  14. October 30, 2011 8:57 pm

    “To bring up the Jewish translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek might imply that “to translate” implies not some inherent and anachronistic therefore impossible Christian evangelical missionary effort”

    Wouldn’t Paul being a missionary effort that is either simultaneous with or before every New Testament work?

    One of Wright’s major ideas is that Jesus sees the role of the Messiah as one who will cause the nations to come to Zion (a Jewish hope for the world) against the Zealots’ idea that the Messiah will rain fiery judgment on the nations (or swordy judgment, given the Zealots’ own attempts to participate in judging). It seems fair to point out that the Christians write in Greek while the Jewish nationalists write in Aramaic or Hebrew, sometimes even in “obselete” scripts.

    I’m also not sure that your comment about Christianness versus Jewishness doesn’t involve its own anachronism.

  15. October 30, 2011 10:53 pm

    Eric: I think you misunderstood Kurk’s point. His point is that the Septuagint (and other early Jewish translations, such as the Targumim) represent a Jewish outreach effort that predates Christianity. If the Jewish scriptures were in Greek (Septuagint) and Aramaic (Targumim), aren’t they, by the same logic, “for the whole world”?

    It seems that Wright must concede that:

    (a) Judaism was (before the Common Era) “for the whole world”; or
    (b) Christianity in its early stages was not “for the whole world”; or
    (c) Christianity was “for the whole world” and Judaism was not, and that Wright erred in making the assertion that scriptures being in Greek “imply” that they are for “the whole world.”

    I think that Kurk feels that (a) is the case; whereas I would say that (c) was the case. In either case, Wright’s logic is faulty.

    (It should be noted that several books of the Septuagint and Targumim appeared in the Common Era, but these efforts do not appear to have been influenced by the [at that point quite small] Jesus movement.)

  16. October 30, 2011 11:59 pm

    ‘I think that Kurk feels that (a) is the case; whereas I would say that (c) was the case.’

    (a) Judaism was (before the Common Era) “for the whole world”

    Judaism? In the era in question Is there already a movement associated with Judah in contrast to Israel prior to Rabbinic Judaism?

    ‘whole world’? Our notion of the ’round world’ (Coverdale 96.10) is likely quite different from theirs, but I think there is a very strong argument in the Psalms that God is not confined to Israel (Judah, Israel, Levi, etc). I consider e.g. the many inclusions for ‘all who fear Hashem’ in the psalms (22.24, 25.12, 14, 33.8, 18, 34.8, 10, 12, 40.4, 66.16, 67.8 (the centre of Books 2 and 3), etc and especially 115.13, 118.4, 135.20 where the import of the repetitions are universalizing. Off the top of my head, Third Isaiah and Jonah again make the inclusion of the Gentiles explicit.

    So if Judaism can be known through its canonical writings, then some aspects of the universal are evident beyond the parishes of Judah and Israel.

  17. October 31, 2011 12:29 am

    Bob: I am referring here to the various groups (what some call “Judaisms”) extant during the Second Temple period. There is in fact some evidence of proselytization during this period; I’ve seen arguments particularly focused on Alexandria and Rome. I think it is fair to say that there was no simple consensus at the time; you already know about the arguments that threatened to split apart the early Jesus movement over recruitment of gentiles; although as you point out there universal messages in Scripture as early Isaiah 49:6 (or even the Noachide laws).

    However, in any case, it seems that Wright claiming that Christianity was universal because its Scripture was in Greek, while ignoring the question of the “universality” of Judaism through the Septuagint is a serious inconsistency.

  18. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    October 31, 2011 2:56 am

    I am still puzzling over why Wright wrote,

    “Their mother tongue was Aramaic (a language which developed from the classical Hebrew of the scriptures, a few hundred years earlier).”

    I understand that Aramaic was already a standard and widespread language when Hebrew was recorded as the literary form of the Jerusalem dialect. I don’t think I have ever before heard any scholar claim that Aramaic came from Hebrew.

  19. October 31, 2011 11:08 am

    Suzanne,
    With you, I’m interested in and am puzzling over what Wright suggests. I’ve found what he wrote in Simply Christian (pages 71 – 72, again his emphasis retained here):

    It is fundamental to the Christian worldview in its truest form that what happened in Jesus of Nazareth was the very climax of the long story of Israel. Trying to understand Jesus without understanding what that [long] story [of Israel] was, how it worked, and what it meant is like trying to understand why someone is hitting a ball with a stick without knowing what baseball, or indeed cricket, is all about…. At the risk of begging several questions, I am going to tell the story the way Jews of Jesus’s day might have told it, or at least in one such way. Here we are on safe ground. We have the Old Testament itself, in Hebrew (with a few parts in Aramaic). We have its Greek translation, commonly called the Septuagint, written in the two or three centuries before the time of Jesus. We also have several books from within a century or two of Jesus’s day, which retell some or all of the biblical story and which highlight certain features for particular emphasis. The best know of these is the massive Antiquities of the Jews by the brilliant (if maverick) Flavius Josephus, a Jewish aristocrat who fought in the war against Rome in the mid-60s, changed sides, worked for the Romans, and retired to Rome on a state pension after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year AD 70. Telling the story the way a first-century Jew might have seen it not only avoids the massive historical questions that still rage around the early period, but prepares us for understanding why Jesus of Nazareth said and did what he did, and why this had the impact it had.

    Eric,
    The “comment about Christianness versus Jewishness” that I made does indeed “involve its own anachronism.” But I hope you’ll see that the anachronism is Wright’s. Notice how he puts “that story” (i.e., the long story of Israel of which Jesus of Nazareth “was” the ostensible climax) in past tense. In Wright’s Jesus, Jewishness was and Israel’s story is finally terminal.

    Bob,
    It should be clear that Wright’s “long story of Israel” is monolithic, that Jewishness to Wright is not plural even if a waffling and treasonous Josephus is representative of the [singular] way Jews of Jesus’s day might have told it, and that Wright hints how the “Old Testament” Hebrew and Jesus’s mother tongue Aramaic are superseded by the universalizing Greek language of the LXX and of writers such as Josephus.

    Theophrastus,
    You did get the point I was trying to make: Wright sees both the lingua franca of Greek and translation (away from Hebrew and away from Aramaic) into Greek as inherently a sign of the universality and the universalizing mission of Christianity. I would tend to agree with you on your (c) Christianity was “for the whole world” and Judaism was not, and that Wright erred in making the assertion that scriptures being in Greek “imply” that they are for “the whole world.”.

    Nonetheless, let’s add (d): to broadstroke “the long story of Israel” and the “Jewish Jesus of early Christianity” as singular and monolithic is also an error Wright might concede.

    On the Septuagint and the Targums, there is no consensus in legend or in scholarly conclusion about whether they were initially motivated by or subsequently led to efforts to convert the nations. Sylvie Honigman, a historian at Tel Aviv University, in The Septuagint and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria, has suggested that the LXX translation was produced in resistance to the Greek Alexandrian empire and that it rather unified the Jews in the Egyptian kingdom. Similarly, Naomi Seidman (Koret Professor of Jewish Culture, and Director of the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies at Graduate Theological Union), in her Faithful Renderings, notes how the “Talmud does present an extraordinary Jewish counternarrative to the [Christian] patristic Septuagint legends” and that this Jewish counter-interpretation sees that “the Septuagint, as an imperfect translation, is also a perfect mistranslation.” Of course such a “counternarrative” isn’t the only one, not the only Jewish one. Seidman also gets at how varied the theories can be about universalizing Judaism, questioning Marc Hirshman’s Torah for all Humankind (Torah lekhol ba’ei olam) and Azzan Yadin’s elaborations of the thesis. Here’s a salient quote from Seidman’s introduction (pages 26-27):

    The analyses of Hirshman and Yadin can serve as evidence for rabbinic translational impulses directed to “the seventy nations.” But rabbinic literature knows at least two varieties of translation: the first of these is emblematized by the Septuagint, with its ostensible Ptolemaic origins and its dispersion beyond the Jewish world; the second, which include the Aramaic Targums and Aquila’s Greek “retranslation,” are connected liturgically with the synagogue and exegetically with rabbinic methods. The rabbinic move from translation to midrash outlined in Yadin’s article — that is, from a polyglossic to a polysemic Torah — marks not simply a growing resistance to translation, as is often assumed, but rather a move from one type of translation to another, one intercultural and the other intracultural. What mattered to the rabbis about translating the Torah was as much audience as content. // A talmudic lecture by Emanuel Levinas on the dense passage in tractate Megilla that is perhaps the most extended rabbinic discussion of translation is remarkably sensitive to the degree to which translation, for the rabbis, involved the negotiation of cultural boundaries

    Wright’s Josephus, writing in his universalizing language — Greek –, is hardly reflective of the histories of Greek writing and of Jewish LXX (and Targum) translating. Wright’s story of Israel that “was” is climaxed in a Jesus who “spoke Aramaic, an updated dialect of [‘Old-Testament’] Hebrew.” And Wright’s notion of translation, first into Greek, UP-dates and universalizes all of that into a present and on-going evangelical Christianity.

  20. October 31, 2011 10:50 pm

    “Eric: I think you misunderstood Kurk’s point. His point is that the Septuagint (and other early Jewish translations, such as the Targumim) represent a Jewish outreach effort that predates Christianity.”

    Do they? Or do they represent documents foundational to specific communities that are translated as that community begins to speak other languages?

    To actually make a direct comparison we’d need a Hebrew or Aramaic original of the New Testament (except for the Pauline Epistles, which are obviously already addressed to the Hellenistic world) or we’d need Jewish documents coming out of Palestine being written initially in Greek. There’s a difference between writing a document down in your first language and then translating it and taking events, including a lot of speech in one language, and initially writing it down in one’s second language. It suggests some deliberate thought about the audience.

    Of course, there are patristic rumors of a Hebrew version of Matthew, Hebrews, and a document called “The Gospel of the Hebrews” but only the latter seems to be given much credence these days.

    “But I hope you’ll see that the anachronism is Wright’s. Notice how he puts “that story” (i.e., the long story of Israel of which Jesus of Nazareth “was” the ostensible climax) in past tense. In Wright’s Jesus, Jewishness was and Israel’s story is finally terminal.”

    It’s not Wright’s. In fact, much of what you write to reconstruct Wright’s views directly contradicts what Wright has elsewhere written in his technical works. (We are doing something somewhat equivalent to evaluating my work as an ecologist based not on my dissertation but on the emails I send to my mother explaining my research. Obviously Wright is publishing these books but he’s also publishing much more serious ones where he actually deals with most of these issues.)

    In Wright’s own writings the statement you make here makes no sense. Wright spends a lot of time describing early Christianity as a Jewish movement that makes sense within Judaism as an idea about the Messiah opposed to that of the Zealots – a Messiah for the nations and not against them. You’ve accused him of seeing Judaism as monolithic, a charge he explicitly denies and goes into some detail on in “The New Testament and the People of God”.

    You’ve based most of this claim on this:
    “that Jewishness to Wright is not plural even if a waffling and treasonous Josephus is representative of the [singular] way Jews of Jesus’s day might have told it”

    However, the actual text does not support you:
    “We also have several books from within a century or two of Jesus’s day, which retell some or all of the biblical story and which highlight certain features for particular emphasis. The best know of these is the massive Antiquities of the Jews by the brilliant (if maverick) Flavius Josephus, a Jewish aristocrat who fought in the war against Rome in the mid-60s, changed sides, worked for the Romans, and retired to Rome on a state pension after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year AD 70. Telling the story the way a first-century Jew might have seen it not only avoids the massive historical questions that still rage around the early period, but prepares us for understanding why Jesus of Nazareth said and did what he did, and why this had the impact it had.”

    What in this text leads you to conclude that Wright believes that Josephus is the representative of THE Jewish way? There isn’t anything in the text that actually says that – and Wright has, elsewhere, described Josephus as attempting to reconcile various strands of Jewish thought in a number of odd ways including, notably, deciding that Vespasian must be the focus of the Messianic prophecies. Wright clearly thinks that Josephus is an odd duck and spends part of his discussion of plural Judaisms in NTPG discussing how reliance on Josephus as an honest, straight-up source may have lead some Biblical critics wrong about the Jewish sects Josephus describes since Josephus is also engaged in addressing some of the same theological problems as these sects (and, probably, in downplaying the extent to which the Jewish people were really behind the revolt rather than being mislead by a few prominent and conveniently dead ideologues). Wright’s actual use of Josephus appears to be more of the sort of “Josephus finds it necessary to reconcile Messianic ideas with the actual events of AD 70, therefore Messianic ideas are pretty widely known and regarded as having a solid basis in that time period,” than, “Josephus is a totally ordinary Jew whose ideas represent that of the average 1st century Jewish Palestinian.”

    A proper understanding of Wright’s idea undoes much of this critique: Wright does discuss “the long story of Israel” in monolithic terms. But this is because he is primarily interested in one particular retelling of Israel’s story: the Christian one. (He would not claim that 1st century Judaism would have agreed with the Christian claim – in fact, he would cite alternate interpretations of that story as the primary reason the early Christians eventually split off from Judaism entirely.) His main emphasis is that early Christianity is closely tied to its Jewish roots and that the Pauline concepts that have now been thoroughly redone in Hellenist or European modes of thought were once Jewish debates rooted in a Jewish context. That, functionally, one can see Pauline Christianity not as a new religion but as a particular interpretation of “the long story of Israel”. Which is why I find this insistence that Wright is pushing some sort of Jewish vs. Christian narrative so unconvincing.

  21. November 1, 2011 12:12 am

    Eric: a few corrections.

    First, Targum Onkelos (according to legend, at least) was written by a proselyte, and Septuagint Pentateuch (according to legend, at least) was commissioned by a gentile king, suggesting some sort of outreach effort.

    Second, I think you are misreading Kurk when he speaks of Josephus as a Jewish representative. Kurk is making a reductio ad absurdum argument — if Wright is correct in supposing a single Jewish outlook (and I must say that is an implicit argument in many of Wright’s works, particularly his New Interpreter’s commentary on Romans), then Josephus necessarily would be a representative of that single view, which is absurd.

    Third, I have not read enough of Wright’s technical works to judge whether or not he is more careful in them than he is in his popular writings. I do find him sloppy in his popular writings (although, as you point out, not as sloppy as some Biblical scholars). But I do not think that the analogy of your e-mails to your mothers to Wright’s popular work is a compelling one. First, your e-mails are likely meant for a single person, a single audience, while Wright is looking to write mass e-mails. Second, your e-mails are part of your unselfish filial duties, whereas Wright is presumably motivated by pastoral concerns (he did hold the Bishopric) and perhaps by the prospect of royalties — and thus he has some reason to be correct. Third, Wright suggests that his books may be of interest to some scholars; an audience which presumably he would treat with respect and care. Fourth, Wright claims to have been inspired by C. S. Lewis; and his Simply Christianity is at least in part an homage to Lewis’s Mere Christianity. However, Lewis took more care in his writing (while still maintaining a prodigious and prolific output.

    For these reasons, I believe it is fair to hold Wright to standards of accuracy even for his popular books. I do accept that if Wright puts forward a tendentious statement, it is fair for him to substantiate that in his technical writings; but I find it hard to excuse him for incorrect statements — especially if the error is fundamental and not incidental.

  22. November 1, 2011 1:28 pm

    Wright does discuss “the long story of Israel” in monolithic terms. But this is because he is primarily interested in one particular retelling of Israel’s story: the Christian one.

    Eric,
    I’m so glad you said this. First, it gives us all a point of agreement. Second, it makes the point I was trying to make: Christianity, for Wright, supersedes Judaism. Christ is the climax of and the reason for the long but no longer necessary story of Israel. The trajectory of this historiography parallels Wright’s views of language and his philosophy of translation. Old [Testament] Hebrew, for Wright, evolves into Aramaic, both of which get translated into Greek. But, as I also was trying to say, I’m just trying to hear Wright out, and as Suzanne puts it, “I am still puzzling over why Wright wrote.”

    (I would say that Wrights own writings follow his historiography trajectory and his translation philosophy trajectory as well: he does the work of the Jesus Quest — i.e., in works like The New Testament and the People of God [Christian Origins and the Question of God] — in order to get to a more popular and more universal message for everyone else — i.e., his “for Everyone” series of commentaries and now his English New Testament for Everyone. In this way, I think your analogy to emails might work this way: the emails Wright wrote were not for one’s mother or “for everyone” – at least not at first; rather, they were first for Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk, the Jesus Seminar generally, and Burton Mack. Yes, I’m name dropping, but this is rhetoric. Wright, the former Bishop of Durham now an academic and a broadcaster and a New Testament translator, was first a Jesus Quest scholar — this was his ethos first, for his Christian logos with popular pathos. Sorry for that. I’ve done too much academic work with Aristotle myself that I from time to time like to throw it out there in blog comments. 🙂 )

    Theophrastus,
    Thank you for making the argument so clear. I’m going to muddy the waters again here by quoting Wright from one of his early Jesus Quest books (The Contemporary Quest for Jesus, pages 31-34).

    Let me try to walk us through this. I really may be misreading Wright but, if not, I hope to be clear about what seems to be his view. In the quotation below, it may sound, at first glance, as if Wright’s Josephus is just one of many Jews of just one of many periods of the history — even the histories — of Judaism. Watch early on for this phrase in the sentence just after the mention of Josephus: “the Judaism of that period in all its complex pluriformity.” But do notice this: “that period” of Wright’s focus is narrow indeed; and he narrows who counts in the period even more. The long history of Israel is for this moment and for a certain, singular, type of Jewishness. Notice also: Wright is interacting with a small society of other Third Quest scholars. The rules of their game is to see Jesus only as Jewish first; and then to draw the conclusions of history. Wright plays by the rules, gives a nod to “complex pluriformity,” and proceeds on to explain why he’s so excited that Josephus qualifies as a Jew. Wright’s Jewishness, for Jesus (the Jesus “for everyone”), has to be a particular kind of Jewishness within a particular period of the long story of Israel. Jesus has to be a Jewish Jesus who can be a “crucifiable first-century Jew.” And this is where Josephus is so valuable as a would-be real Jewish Jew — he’s got those 1st-century Roman empire connections, and his allegiances do not ultimately lie with those who’ve come before him in that long history of Israel to that point. I’ve probably said enough to set up this quotation but just want to add that it’s important to see how Wright tap-dances “with great caution” around his renewal of the old Second Quest “criterion of dissimilarity” which he’s superseding by his own version of the Third Quest. Even if there are necessary variations on the Jewish theme, for Wright, the theme is rather qualified (historically and typologically) and is absolutely singular. “The long singular story of Israel was the necessary preface to the present history of Christianity” seems to be the trajectory.

    Wright:

    First, though, some general remarks about the Third Quest. There is now a real attempt to do history seriously. Josephus, so long inexplicably ignored, is suddenly and happily in vogue. There is a real willingness to be guided by first-century sources, and to see the Judaism of that period in all its complex pluriformity, with the help now available from modern studies of the history and literature of the period (Wright, [The New Testament and the People of God] 1992:339-464)…. Certain basic questions emerge: Jesus’ message is evaluated, not for its timeless significance, but for the meaning it must have had for the audience of his own day, who had their minds full of poverty and politics, and would have had little time for theological abstractions or timeless verities. [Kurk says here — Never mind that some there would have been in synagogue and in the Temple weekly, making much time for theology and for eternal truths]…. The question still presses, as to whether Jesus in any way sided with those who wanted to overthrow Rome.

    If we start out with historical questions such as these, there are important consequences for our method…. The Old Quest was determined that Jesus should look as little like a first-century Jew as possible…. The present “Third Quest,” by and large, will have none of this. Jesus must be understood as a comprehensible and yet, so to speak, crucifiable first-century Jew, whatever the theological or hermeneutical consequences.

    To this extent, the old so-called “criterion of dissimilarity” may still be applied, though with great caution. Plenty of Jews were not, in this sense, crucifiable; plenty of early Christians were less comprehensibly Jewish. There were, of course, thousands of other Jews crucified in Palestine in the same period, but few if any were handed over by Jewish authorities, as Jesus seems to have been. There were many “Jewish Christians” in the first generation of the movement; to begin with, of course, all Christians were Jewish. But their allegiance to Jesus made them, from very early on, far less comprehensible as mainstream Jews…. This way of setting up a “criterion of dissimilarity” is substantially different from the way in which something by that name has been used in the past… Likewise, it assumes a major continuity between him and his followers, while respecting the fact that, unlike him, they were very early on not perceived as simply one more movement within Judaism…. This, as we saw in the first volume, is what serious history is all about (Wright, [The New Testament and the People of God] 1992:81-120)

  23. November 1, 2011 2:17 pm

    What we need is a Copernican Revolution in the narrative. The centre should not be “us” and “our” story, with every other story viewed as retrograde motion. The centre should be the sun – and our story, only one of the planets. Until we make that shift we will all be wanderers in a Ptolemaic gridlock, but deluded into seeing ourselves as the stable centre.

    And if you don’t actually believe the Ptolemaic model, then one shouldn’t write as if one does just because that is the way other people think.

  24. November 1, 2011 2:19 pm

    Well, the uniqueness of Jesus (and his arrival as part of the unstoppable evolution of Israel) pretty much goes with the Christian territory, doesn’t it? It is the story that the New Testament tells. Some Christians may believe in Dual Covenant theology, but that merely posits that Christianity and Judaism as sister religions. It is a bit hard to view Christianity simply as another Jewish sect with its creative force derived from Judaism. Historically Christianity certainly emerged from Judaism, but Christians like to believe that Jesus brought something new to the table. (The view that Jesus was unique is not necessarily held by non-Christian scholars. See my mention of the forthcoming book by Boyarin, at the end of this post, for a brief outline of one proponent of the latter view.)

    And in trying to understand the Jewish Jesus (and even more the Jewish Paul), Wright (like his colleagues) has to give some meaning to the term “Jewish”; in particular, Wright seeks to understand Jewish theology. Christianity famously comes with a theology, and it is natural to presume that Judaism does the same, and thus Wright makes much of the technical notions of “Israel” and “justification” (this book is a popular account of his ideas). Wright gives those terms a specific technical meaning, based on the universal Jewish understanding of those terms at the time they were written.

    But I don’t buy it. Judaism today is famously a religion without a theology (like the title of Menachem Keller’s book, Must a Jew Believe Anything?). This is not to say that all Jews lack theology, but that a theology is not required as part of Judaism. (Judaism is not unique in not having a theology — the same could be said of Buddhism, for example.) This is such a radical departure from the traditional Christian view that it is hard to conceive (even for many Jews, all of whom live in the diaspora and thus have been deeply influenced by Persian, Greek, Islamic, Christian, etc. cultural outlooks.)

    If that is true today of Judaism, how much more likely it is to be true on Second Temple Judaism, with its famously divergent sects and beliefs. Wright’s “discovery” of Jesus’s and Paul’s message requires that he gives a specific technical meaning to certain terms, and I am unconvinced that those terms had a single fixed meaning that was universally understood by Jews at the time they were written. We know from the writings of the Church Fathers that those terms became fluid as early as a century after the New Testament was written; why assume that the terms had a universally-understood-and-fixed meaning at the time they were written?

    The basic argument of Wright is that by understanding Second Temple Jewish theology, we gain insight into the meaning of the words and actions of Jesus and Paul. But it seems that Wright makes two errors — first, in assuming that there was a single Second Temple Jewish theology, and second in assuming that there was any Second Temple Jewish theology.

  25. November 1, 2011 2:59 pm

    I should also mention that this “theology” vs. “no theology” dichotomy can be applied throughout European intellectual history. That is one of the key points of Jonathan Israel’s quartet of books: Israel argues that there were two enlightenments — a Moderate Enlightenment led by Descartes and a Radical Enlightenment led by Spinoza. In Israel’s view, part of Descartes’ burden was his theological view, which prevented him from achieving the heights of Spinoza, who as a Jewish intellectual did not hold a of commitment to theology.

  26. November 1, 2011 3:16 pm

    Thanks for this analysis.

    “Some Christians may believe in Dual Covenant theology, but that views Christianity and Judaism as sister religions.”

    As Darbyites, we firmly believed in Christianity and Judaism as two planets in God’s solar system. At the same time, there was a sense of progression, but still a view that the nation of Israel had real import in God’s plan. Most Anglicans that I know are unaware of this view, but recently I read this book – in its prepublication draft.

    Donald M. Lewis. The Origins of Christian Zionism: Lord Shaftesbury and Evangelical Support for a Jewish Homeland.

    http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=29314

  27. November 1, 2011 4:25 pm

    Now, our conversation has gotten really interesting. We’re moving from missionary, Christological translation philosophy to historiography to helio cosmologies to a-theological Judaism to contrastive Enlightenment epistemologies. And yet these threads are intertwined. I don’t want to pick on anyone in particular (and have already picked on Wright too much, maybe). But I do want to ask if Menachem Kellner must believe what he writes when he asks, Must a Jew Believe Anything? 🙂 Please, nonetheless, hold on; I really think it’s fair for him to ask the question. Why wouldn’t it be?

    Theophrastus,
    Jonathan Israel is on to something.

    Suzanne,
    You’re on to something too.

    Where there’s a god (or not even one God) and where we place our sun do matter.

    So can we talk more about translation philosophy with respect to the New Testament? Wright’s philosophy of translation, maybe even his translation practice, corresponds, I think, with his Christian beliefs (or at least with what he writes and preaches as his beliefs). But is he falling prey to and somehow held back by the religion of Rene Descartes? Is there only now the dichotomy, with the other option only the one of Baruch Spinoza? Can’t we live beyond this either or of that The Enlightenment?

    How does what Wright has done with his translation (theory) compare with, say, Willis Barnstone’s (Jewish) New Testament translation philosophy? With his translation practice?

    Is David Stern’s B’Rit Hadashah (New Testament) (in translation philosophy and practice) a complete (Jewish) aberration?

    And, really, does the Jewish Annotated New Testament have to be so unusual?

    I wish Amy-Jill Levine would translate the New Testament. She very rightly has said, “For Jews to make a statement on Christianity is not the same thing as for Christians to make a statement about Jews.” She then turns to the earliest Christian statement, one of Paul’s, in the New Testament, to the Thessalonians, “talking about ‘the Jews’.” The critical thing is that there are “two different texts” or at least very different approaches to a set of texts that we call the New Testament, Levine suggests. What is translation? How to translate? Here’s where, some time ago, talking mostly to Christians in her audience, Levine makes the statements (and I think it’s about 11 minutes and 35 seconds in) where we hear Levine make the statement I’m quoting above:

    PS – You’ll hear if you listen long enough to what Levine says about “sister” — or rather “sibling” — as the unfortunate metaphor relationship between Judaism and Christianity.

  28. November 1, 2011 7:52 pm

    So can we talk more about translation philosophy with respect to the New Testament? Wright’s philosophy of translation, maybe even his translation practice, corresponds, I think, with his Christian beliefs (or at least with what he writes and preaches as his beliefs). But is he falling prey to and somehow held back by the religion of Rene Descartes? Is there only now the dichotomy, with the other option only the one of Baruch Spinoza? Can’t we live beyond this either or of that The Enlightenment?

    Well, besides monism (Spinoza) and dualism (Descartes), what is there? The belief that nothing exists only holds sway as a philosophical curiosity; even a solipsist believes that she exists (perhaps, as in the story of the woman who buttonholed B. Russell at a party, she wonders why more people aren’t solipsists.) Belief in more than two substances certainly exists, but usually they are grouped into at most two categories. (Thus, although one can argue that chemistry discusses many different substances, they all fall into the ultimately monist category of “nature”; and this was true even before it was discovered that energy and matter were the same substance governed by Einstein’s equation E=mc^2.)

    To me, the interesting thing is that Wright doesn’t seem to ultimately believe in his translation very much. He states:

    “No one translation – certainly not this one – will be able to give you everything that was there in the Greek. But I hope this one will take its place as one of the two or three that will help the next generation do its own homework, to acquire its own firsthand, rather than secondhand, understanding of what the New Testament said in its own world, and what it urgently wants to say in ours.”

    But this is a very strange sentiment. No one but a specialist reads more than one translation of Aristotle, for example. Furthermore, when we do recommend reading multiple translations, they express considerably more diversity than typical Bible translations. For example, Homer is translated many different ways, or Dante is translated many different ways, or Cervantes is translated in many different ways, or Tolstoy is translated in many different ways, or Goethe is translated in many different ways — and even Chaucer (who, after all, wrote in English!) is translated in many different ways — but all of the translations in the Tyndale tradition tend to be highly similar, as do many other popular translations. For example, the NIV certainly shows Tyndale’s influence, and that was all but officially acknowledged by linking the NIV11 to the 400th anniversary of the KJV.

    Now occasionally someone tries something really different (e.g., Everett Fox or Eugene Peterson) but I think it is fair to say that typical Bible translations show much less diversity than the range of typical Homer or Dante or Cervantes or Tolstoy or Goethe or Chaucer translations. Moreover, innovative biblical translations tend to attract withering criticism — at least on the Internet (although Peterson certainly had his revenge through his excellent royalties.) But I am less convinced that someone reading a KJV/NKJV parallel Bible is really getting a diversity of opinions. I think that Wright’s advice makes more sense if one is really in parallel translations that adopt fundamentally different approaches to the text.

  29. November 2, 2011 3:55 pm

    “First, Targum Onkelos (according to legend, at least) was written by a proselyte, and Septuagint Pentateuch (according to legend, at least) was commissioned by a gentile king, suggesting some sort of outreach effort.”

    Are we to give these legends any credence? They certainly fit a narrative but I doubt we’d be taking them seriously if they didn’t.

    There’s also some issues of temporal positioning. The Septuagint predates the tensions that lead to the First Roman-Jewish War (note how favorably 1 Maccabees speaks of Rome) while Onkelos postdates that conflict. It’s not nearly as notable to see Jewish writing that are aimed at prostelyzation on either side of a time period marked by an apocalyptic spasm of anti-Gentile feeling. The New Testament, on the other hand, contains a fair bit of work from within that time period.

    “Kurk is making a reductio ad absurdum argument — if Wright is correct in supposing a single Jewish outlook (and I must say that is an implicit argument in many of Wright’s works, particularly his New Interpreter’s commentary on Romans), then Josephus necessarily would be a representative of that single view, which is absurd.”

    We agree that it is absurd. However, I think it’s absurd to claim that Wright thinks any such thing. I think it’s absurd to claim that it’s an implicit claim in Wright’s commentary on Romans. I think your frequent usage of terms that imply that Wright means to indicate all Jews without exception is absurd, and not true to Wright’s own writings.

    What we differ on is this claim. I’m not unaware of it – the John Piper fanboys at my church love to trot it out – I just think it makes no sense.

    In the interests of not turning this into a forty-page response I’ll respond to this and the issue of theology simultaneously:
    As I see it, Wright is not proposing that there is a single Jewish theology in the sense that modern Christians (and most non-Christian Westerners) would have heard that term (as something we could write out in a “systematic theology”). Instead, he proposes that there is a single set of 1st century hot-button Jewish issues. We could create a list like this for modern American Christians – the ordination of women, the place of homosexuals in the church, evolution, infant baptism, and predestination. On all of these issues there are varied answers (the pluralism of modern Christians, and of ancient Jews) but if one identifies as Christian in the US people will expect you to have and defend a stance on these issues.

    So, for instance, Wright seems to think the issue of resurrection was a big deal. This doesn’t mean that he thinks all Jews of the 1st century held to a single doctrinal stance but that, instead, all Jews of the first century held an opinion on the issue because their neighbors would say, “What do you think about the resurrection of the dead?” For the Sadducees that’s a distinctly negative opinion but they still need to hold and defend an opinion on the subject.

    Wright is also pretty big on refusing to divide religion and politics in the first century. This also makes it problematic to talk about ideas of Jewish pluralism or a lack of theology. The fundamental nature of human societies is that we converge on a set of political issues because when the other guys bring up some new issue you have to respond to it. So Wright would identify themes like Israel’s land, resurrection, and Messianic prophecy as theological facets of political commentary on Roman rule. This also comes through in the discussion of justification where I don’t see much discussion of justification as a Jewish theological term but as a Jewish legal term being applied to a theological setting in which covenant forms the legal framework.

    “Second, your e-mails are part of your unselfish filial duties, whereas Wright is presumably motivated by pastoral concerns (he did hold the Bishopric) and perhaps by the prospect of royalties — and thus he has some reason to be correct.”
    And simple. I remember you suggesting that the RSV was a better translation than the ESV. I talked to some people at my church (a decent enough sample for average Christians) and found that they thought the RSV was unreadable. I think you may be overestimating the reading level of Wright’s audience.

    That said, I fully agree that several of his statements here are misleading and that it’s fair to say that when you suggest that a book might also be of interest to scholars that you do a better job. However, I don’t think it’s very convincing to claim that this is because Wright doesn’t know better. I think it’s because he did a bad job expressing himself. I’m perfectly happy to say that this document isn’t very good (although I remain interested in his translation of some key passages) but we are now expanding the discussion to one of Wright and the data isn’t matching the claims there.

    “I’m so glad you said this. First, it gives us all a point of agreement. Second, it makes the point I was trying to make: Christianity, for Wright, supersedes Judaism. Christ is the climax of and the reason for the long but no longer necessary story of Israel.”
    This depends on what one means by “necessary”. Wright certainly seems to think that one needs to be familiar with Israel’s story to understand the New Testament (unusually so for someone with such a large following amongst lay Christians).

    “The trajectory of this historiography parallels Wright’s views of language and his philosophy of translation. Old [Testament] Hebrew, for Wright, evolves into Aramaic, both of which get translated into Greek. ”
    I don’t see any data in this statement, only narrative. The thing that comes closest to data is Wright’s statement about Aramaic but it’s pretty clear from other things he’s said that this is simply a terribly-phrased statement and that he’s well aware that Aramaic does not come from Hebrew but from Assyria’s incorporation of the Aramaic city-states, its adoption of Aramaic as one of the languages of official correspondence, and the subsequent continuance of this usage by later Empires, including two under which Israel is subjugated.

    “Wright, the former Bishop of Durham now an academic and a broadcaster and a New Testament translator, was first a Jesus Quest scholar”
    Let’s also point out that both ends of this stream are academic. Once an academic, then a pastor, now an academic again. My understanding is the Wright took his current post because he wanted to do more scholarly works but that his work as a bishop prevented him from doing more than writing lay commentaries and occasional responses to Piper and Carson. So I’m not sure that we should regard Wright’s lay commentaries as the pinnacle of his craft.

    “Even if there are necessary variations on the Jewish theme, for Wright, the theme is rather qualified (historically and typologically) and is absolutely singular.”
    I’ve addressed this above, more or less. But let me address a few aspects of the quote you provide:

    “who had their minds full of poverty and politics, and would have had little time for theological abstractions or timeless verities. [Kurk says here — Never mind that some there would have been in synagogue and in the Temple weekly, making much time for theology and for eternal truths]”
    This seems like a simple misreading of “theological abstractions or timeless verities”. The average farmer isn’t a philosopher as well. There’s a lot to be said in synagogue that is aimed at your life now. Just as many Christian Bible Studies today try to skip over understanding the text for some “application” I have no trouble seeing a first-century Jew, who may be in real doubt about whether he or she will be able to eat next month if the drought doesn’t let up, being concerned with immediately applicable questions.

    Of course, this statement is now colliding with the idea that Wright is trying to sketch a single Jewish theology since he’s apparently denying that 1st century Judaism did much that looks like modern theology.

    “But this is a very strange sentiment. No one but a specialist reads more than one translation of Aristotle, for example. Furthermore, when we do recommend reading multiple translations, they express considerably more diversity than typical Bible translations.”
    No one thinks that Aristotle is the word of God.

    It’s my understanding that Muslims regard translations of the Qu’ran as inherently second-rate. Wright’s idea (which is hardly novel, except that I’ve rarely heard it actually come from the translator before) seems to cut a balance between the idea that important things (hugely important things given the nature of the text) are lost in translation and the idea that “If the King James Bible was good enough for Jesus it’s good enough for me”. It also makes quite a lot of sense to treat Christians as if they should all be Bible specialists.

    However, I do like your point about the variance between translations quite a lot.

  30. November 2, 2011 5:01 pm

    Eric, thanks as always for your thoughtful remarks. I do in fact suspect that the parts of the legends of the Septuagint and Targum Onkelos dealing with proselytization have some truth; but in any case it inconsistent to say that the NT being written in Greek indicates that it was intended to be universal but the Septuagint being written in Greek indicates that it was intended to be particular.

    * * *

    If you look at Chapter 8 of The New Testament and the People of God you can see what I mean about Wright assigning a single belief system to Second Temple Judaism(s). I’ll just quote the first paragraph, but it gets worse as the chapter goes on

    Within the turbulent history described in chapter 6, and amidst the pressure of parties described in chapter 7, there lived the ordinary Jews of the first century. It is difficult to tell what books, if any, such people read (other than their Bible, and not everyone would have been able to read that for themselves). What we do know, however, is that they shared to a lesser or greater extent in the worldview which, beneath the party differences, united the great majority. We can plot this worldview with some accuracy through studying, initially, three of the four worldview-components that we discussed in chapter 5: the stories which were told and retold, which embodied and integrated, as only stories can, the varied aspects of the worldview; the symbols to which all except the most non-observant would have attached themselves in some ways; and the praxis, closely integrated with those symbols, which would have characterized the great majority.

    [emphasis added]

    Wright clearly believes that “the great majority” (he repeats the phrase twice in the paragraph) and shares a “worldview” (he repeats the phrase four times in that paragraph) which “unites” them.

    Moreover, in a personal chat with Wright, I have found that his perspective of Second Temple Judaism is consistent with the paragraph I just quoted — that it was unified by a common worldview.

    * * *

    Regarding the ESV and RSV — the principal difference in grammar between them is that the RSV retains second person singular forms (thou/thee/thy) and the ESV does not. I can imagine that some readers might be daunted by these, but other than this difference, I do not detect a significant difference in the complexity of the translations. Have you found otherwise?

    * * *

    I do believe it is possible to write simple books that are completely accurate. They may not be able to give the whole story, but they can make statements that are all correct. Since you are a scientist, I’ll mention some scientific classics: Feynman, The Character of Physical Law or QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter; Hawking, A Brief History of Time; and Watson, DNA: The Secret of Life. These are all challenging books dealing with challenging ideas, but they are written in a simple manner that can be understood by any high-school graduate.

    * * *

    Aristotle’s writings are certainly among the most influential Greek writings that survive. Certainly much ink has been spent trying to figure out what Aristotle really meant in Nicomachean Ethics, The Politics, and Poetics — and I suspect that most college students come at least portions of these at some point in their academic careers. Yet I do not recall seeing a translation of these works which says that the translation does not really capture the meaning of the Greek.

  31. November 2, 2011 6:10 pm

    Aristotle’s writings are certainly among the most influential Greek writings that survive…. Yet I do not recall seeing a translation of these works which says that the translation does not really capture the meaning of the Greek.

    In rhetoric studies, there’s argument over the translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. For example, Thomas Crowley has slammed Lane Cooper’s, J. H. Freese’s, W. Rhys Roberts’s translations, arguing that readers are better off not reading them (in “The Greekless Reader and Aristotle’s RhetoricQuarterly Journal of Speech (1979). And rhetoric scholar George A. Kennedy has said philosophers (particularly platonists) have no business translating the Rhetoric and so he himself has translated, as a rhetorician-translator, making Aristotle, not a philosopher — and definitely not a platonic philospher — but a rhetorician.

    http://speakeristic.blogspot.com/2008/02/translation-logical-case-vi.html

    One of the most interesting translators of Aristotle (and now also of Plato) is Joe Sachs. But Sachs also seems, like N. T. Wright, to be interested in making the message “for everyone.” Now, the other ostensible and apparent translation alternative to this drive is clearly to make the translation obscure. But what if Aristotle is being rhetorical and not logical (as Kennedy claims). And what if Aristotle is trying to be logical but ends up being contradictory (which is what Sara J. Newman proves in “Aristotle’s Definition of Rhetoric in the Rhetoric: The Metaphors and Their Message.” Written Communication [2001])

    I’m not so sure translators can be (or will be even if they try to be) objective. Wright in translating the New Testament seems driven by his agenda, by his lens, to see a prototypical-1st-century Jewish Jesus “for everyone.” Rhetoricians and philosophers, likewise, fighting over Aristotle as the prototypical Athenian philosopher or as the prototypical father of Greek rhetoric translate by (what rhetorician Kenneth Burke called) a “terministic screen.” The very first English translator(s) of Aristotle’s Rhetoric that I can find, translated for King James II and VII, and saw Aristotle as the tutor of the world dominator, Alexander the Great, the model for conquest, for domination, for empire building. The translator thus encouraged empire building and colonizing and conquest of all sorts, announcing in the preface: “The Emulation of the Englifh Verfion to approach as near as might be to the Greek Original, and to follow the Authors Example, embolden’d this Addrefs to your Honour. For they were not the Pedantic Rudiments of Rhetoric, which Ariftotle offer’d to one that had been his Royal Pupil, … Alexander.” All translators want to “capture” the meaning of the Greek, but what meaning indeed!

    This is one reason why the claims about Judaism seem to me rather non-objective, even biased in favor of one’s translation preference. If Wright wants Jesus understood as Jewish, even represented by a first century writer such as Josephus, then he’s fair to define Judaism at that time in that way. However, at what risk? The translation of the New Testament will be affected. Likewise, if the assumption is that mostly Judaism is non-theological and if one then sets out translating the Hebrew scriptures, then the translating will reflect that. The translator should (and will) bring out the Hebrew (or Aramaic or Greek) that best shows his or her understandings of what’s at stake.

    (Interestingly, I think Plato may have coined the Greek phrase θεολογίας, or theologia, for his Socrates in his Republic [379a]; but in his Metaphysics Aristotle first developed the notion [Bekker 983b, 1000a] into θεολογική, or theo-logic [1026a and 1064b, for example]. How do we English translators handle that? What if we ourselves are not particularly interested in or, worse, not especially skilled at theo-logy? Or what if theology IS our concern? Was Aristotle writing for “everyone”? For us barbarians too, even if we consider ourselves scientists like him, or logicians somehow as he was, or a rhetorician possibly? Are these questions about ARistotle and translation of his works into English really so different from questions about translating Paul or Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Personally, I believe Aristotle would be appalled that we read him not as he wrote but in English. And I imagine the translators of Targum Onkelos or the LXX from Hebrew and of the Aramaic of the NT into Greek would be amused by some of our — very different — purposes of our English translations. Does that really matter to us?)

  32. November 2, 2011 7:48 pm

    Sure, other people say “such and such a translation doesn’t capture the sense of the Greek.” But who brags about his own translation, saying “No one translation – certainly not this one – will be able to give you everything that was there in the Greek”?

  33. November 4, 2011 5:25 pm

    “but in any case it inconsistent to say that the NT being written in Greek indicates that it was intended to be universal but the Septuagint being written in Greek indicates that it was intended to be particular”

    Notably, Wright did not say that. He said only the first part – perhaps Wright also believes that the LXX is also produced out of an impulse to give the Jewish message to the world. That particular idea comes from Kurk here:

    “The very odd thing here is that Wright forgets, or neglects intentionally, to mention the Septuagint. To bring up the Jewish translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek might imply that “to translate” implies not some inherent and anachronistic therefore impossible Christian evangelical missionary effort but that “to translate” means something, well, Jewish.”

    This cites no evidence that Wright is attempting to make any sort of comment about Judaism. The evidence is the absence of a comment about the Septuagint. Without establishing evidence that Wright should have felt compelled to mention the Septuagint in his statement (and I can’t see any reason why he should) that simply doesn’t say anything. (The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.) The statement actually made me wonder if Kurk had some bone to pick that I was unaware of.

    “If you look at Chapter 8 of The New Testament and the People of God you can see what I mean about Wright assigning a single belief system to Second Temple Judaism(s). I’ll just quote the first paragraph, but it gets worse as the chapter goes on”

    So, terminological problems: what’s a belief system? What’s a worldview? What would make one singular or plural?

    When you say that Wright assigns a single belief system to all Second Temple Jews I here that as the following: “Wright believes that some comprehensive statement of faith, in the form familiar in Western Christianity and upheld with special intensity in certain flavors of Protestantism, united all Jews in the first century, at least those living within Israel.”

    This seems clearly false. Wright believes (as I read him) that there are a number of points in which the majority of the these Jews would have agreed (which is why we can say “Judaism” and mean something). This does not mean that there were not significant differences on other issues or that the majority might not have been slim sometimes. But it does mean that one could talk in the terms of the majority and be understood because everyone would have heard those ideas before.

    Obviously, on one end of the scale is a Judaism where the Jewish Pope uses his secret Kabbalistic mind-control to enforce correct doctrine (if there isn’t a Jack Chick tract about this I’ll be disappointed) and on the other end of the scale “Judaism” is simply a term that means “non-pagan, non-Samaritans inhabiting the region of Judea and Galilee along with those in the world at large whose beliefs are held by the aforementioned group”.

    The truth seems to be that some things are generally agreed upon in Second Temple Judaism. For instance, the uncleanliness of pigs and dead bodies seems universal. Nobody seems to have thought that the Temple system was inherently flawed – the closest we get is that it needs to be replaced with a new Temple system which is, clearly, the embrace of the idea of the Temple system. The New Testament suggests that Gehenna was a term that was widely understood which, as near as I can tell, means that rabbinical ideas about the location of the mouth of hell based on the Book of Enoch had wide enough currency for a verbal shorthand to have developed. (Note, as our discussion of simple writing goes, how hard it is to write that sentence without leaving some opening for misinterpretation, as I have by using “hell” and not spelling that out fully.) (This, obviously, also suggests that most people were familiar with at least one idea in which the wicked were punished eternally, which also suggests that most would be familiar with an idea in which the righteous were raised to life.) And, finally, the Roman-Jewish wars were popular uprisings which, by definition, requiring some popular ideological elements (some of which Josephus gives his biased take on).

    Given this, I have little problem accepting Wright’s premise. The real question isn’t whether Jews were united or differed on “theological” issues (the answer to both those statements is “yes”) but whether the particular issues Wright claims Second Temple Judaism was more or less united on are ones were this is actually true.

    (I’ve put “theological” in quotes here because I felt that the earlier definition of theology in these comments borrowed far too much from one branch of Christianity where I don’t fit and I don’t think Wright does either.)

    “I can imagine that some readers might be daunted by these, but other than this difference, I do not detect a significant difference in the complexity of the translations. Have you found otherwise?”

    I’m frequently annoyed by the fact that the ESV translates normal Hebrew syntax into abnormal English syntax (i.e., leaves it as Hebrew as it can) but I don’t read the RSV frequently enough to compare the two. However, I do find that this phrasing throws people who would otherwise have no issue with the sentence. (One of my tasks some time ago was to teach a “How to Read the Bible” course at my church. I wrote the course out with material that was far too advanced for our actual audience who, it turned out, frequently needed very practical advice like “this sentence will make sense if you rearrange the clauses”.)

    “I do believe it is possible to write simple books that are completely accurate. They may not be able to give the whole story, but they can make statements that are all correct. Since you are a scientist, I’ll mention some scientific classics: ”

    I’d thought about science writing but science writing is read only by people interested in science. If you failed all your science courses in high school, took none in college, and hate science you don’t read Feynman. However, if you failed English class you may still feel compelled by religious devotion to read the New Testament, or at least attend a Bible Study where the New Testament will be read aloud in tiny little chunks which you are asked to have feelings about. I think it makes the task a lot harder.

    “Yet I do not recall seeing a translation of these works which says that the translation does not really capture the meaning of the Greek.”

    Orthodox Muslims obviously feel this way about the Quran. Which, unlike Aristotle, is a religious text. The burden of proof is on you to show that this is a weird statement since, by default, it isn’t. So far you’re on your way to demonstrating that scholarly and religious communities may approach translating in a different manner.

  34. November 4, 2011 5:58 pm

    Eric, thanks for your detailed reply. I am afraid I am too busy to engage further at this point, so I’ll just let my previous comments speak for themselves.

  35. November 4, 2011 6:19 pm

    Without establishing evidence that Wright should have felt compelled to mention the Septuagint in his statement (and I can’t see any reason why he should) that simply doesn’t say anything. (The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.) The statement actually made me wonder if Kurk had some bone to pick that I was unaware of.

    Eric, Thank you for attempting a close reading of my blog comments. It seems you’ve quoted me twice now saying what I said. I have no bone to pick. What I see now is that I missed Wright’s allusion to the Septuagint in the very context where I said he failed to mention the LXX. Another blogger had excepted his piece elsewhere. So let me just add (no axe to grind) that I think Wright’s emphasis on translation being inherently an evangelical (i.e., especially Christian) thing is strange. (Do correct me if I’ve missed something or added something this time.) Here’s the quotation from Wright in longer context (with his emphasis):

    The question of translating scripture had already been faced when scribes, after the exile in Babylon, “interpreted” the ancient Hebrew scriptures into Aramaic so the ordinary people could understand it. [Here’s what Kurk missed:] It was then faced even more directly by those who, somewhere between one and three hundred years before Jesus’ day, translated Israel’s scriptures from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek.

    Christianity was born into a world where biblical translation was already an established fact. There was little sense, as there is in the stricter forms of Islam, that the sacred language was the “real thing” and that translation meant desecration.

    But if scriptural translation was already a fact of ancient Jewish life, with the Christian gospel there was an extra dimension. It wasn’t just that there were some members of the wider believing community who happened not to read or speak Hebrew or Aramaic.

    It was, rather, that from the beginning the early Christians believed that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah and therefore the rightful lord of all the world. This belief is etched across the New Testament, from the Magi offering homage to the King of the Jews (Matthew 2.1-12) right through to the grand declaration, in the book of Revelation (11.18), that “the kingdom of this world has passed to our Lord and his Messiah.” Put Pentecost in the middle of that sequence, and we get the picture.

    It isn’t just that some non-Jews might want to avail themselves of a new religious or spiritual opportunity. Nor is it the case, however, that the early Christian message had to be “translated” away from “Jewish” thought-forms and into “non-Jewish” ones in order to be “relevant” to the wider world.

    It is, rather, the much more robust claim – one that remains unknown to many modern western Christians! – that Israel’s Messiah was supposed to be king over the whole world, and that the resurrection had demonstrated Jesus to be this Messiah, this world-king.

    This is, and remains, a deeply Jewish message, rooted in Israel’s scriptures, but it is a Jewish message that in its very nature demands translation. The message of the cross, declares Paul, is “a scandal to Jews and folly to Greeks.” But the scandal has nothing to do with its being expressed in a different language, and the folly has nothing to do with Greeks having to learn Hebrew to read about their new lord and saviour.

    Translating the message into the world’s many languages is therefore organically linked to the central claim of the gospel itself. Not to translate might imply, perhaps, that Jesus belonged, or belonged specially, to one group only – a dangerous idea which some of the earliest New Testament writings strongly opposed.

    The fact that the New Testament is written in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic, tells its own story: this, the early writers were saying by clear implication, is the Jewish message for the whole world. To translate is to imply that, just as the gospel of Jesus is for all people, so the early Christian writings which bear witness to Jesus are for all people.

    Wright’s understanding of “translation” as a broadcast of a universal message seems not to square with some of the histories of Jewish Bible translation. I think that’s about all I was trying to say in that comment of mine you’ve repeated. No bone to pick.

  36. November 7, 2011 3:06 pm

    Thanks for your reply. That does clarify somewhat. I think I’ll follow Theophrastus’ lead, though, and bow out. The time/productivity quotient has probably dropped below the level where it makes sense for me to continue.

  37. March 14, 2018 9:05 am

    The Kingdom New Testament reminds me of the New World (Mis)Translation from the Watchtower, in that, N.T. Wright mistranslated many words not according to what best helps one understand the word and words together in context in the original Greek, but rather to cause the reader to see it according to N.T. Wright’s new beliefs (his new perspective). He has a mixture of some truth with some new beliefs new to church history, influenced by E.P. Sanders, a liberal scholar who denies biblical inerrancy.

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