It’s All Greek to Me

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Most Sundays I prepare the bulletin of service for my church, St Elia’s Ukrainian Orthodox parish in Edmonton, and I know the rules: readings from the Epistles and Gospels in English must come from only one authorized translation, the New King James Version, or NKJV. 

Handily, among 58 other versions of the Bible on-line at Bible Gateway, the NKJV is there for copying and pasting straight into my bulletin.  Did I have need of any other? After all, the Orthodox Study Bible, comprising the New Testament and Psalms, is the Bible I own (more for its literary than study value, I also own the King James Version, with its Thous and Speakests) and it uses the NKJV, first published in 1982. According to Wikipedia, “the 130 translators believed in faithfulness to the original Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew texts including the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

Good enough for me, then, and I have faithfully used it for all bulletins and newsletters meant for an Orthodox reader.

And then David Bentley Hart, an “Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion,” published with Yale University Press The New Testament: A Translation in 2017,  and I absolutely had to have it.

After all, the book comes blurbed by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, as a “scrupulous, knotty, learned rendering” and by John Milbank of the University of Nottingham as a “theological and ecclesial event of the first magnitude.” That, in Milbank’s view, it also sets the Orthodox cat among the Protestant pigeons only whetted my appetite: by providing a literal translation of the Greek spoken in the first century “Hart has shown, after five hundred years, that the core of Reformation theology is unbiblical.” Well. 

So  I read it.  Although I skipped Revelation with its seven-headed dragon and Whore of Babylon and the like, it was still quite an effort through 577 pages. But these pages include fascinating, even gripping, material in Hart’s Introduction and in his Scientific Postscript.

But first he lays out his purpose, to write a translation of scripture  “to help awaken readers to mysteries and uncertainties and surprises in the New Testament documents that often lie wholly hidden from view” beneath layers of received theology and doctrine. To do this he offers us an “almost pitilessly literal translation” and so we do not find words we are accustomed to as Biblical, such as “eternal,” “forever,” “redemption,” “justification,” “repentance,” “hell,” among others (will we miss them?)  and do read the literal rather than theological meaning of words such as “Anointed” for “Christ,” “assembly” for “church,” and “Slanderer” for  “Devil,” an apparently Persian word. This is all to help us “think Greek” instead of thinking English for the same ideas. However, he decided to keep angelos as “angel” and not literally “messenger”, because to say “legions of messengers,” summons up “an image of massed ranks of bicycle couriers“.

Some literal truths are more brutal than others. Hart characterizes the style and fluency of the Greek of each of the Gospel writers: The Gospel of Mark is “awkwardly written throughout.” The prose of Matthew is “rarely better than ponderous.” The “power and the beauty” of the New Testament do not lie in its literary quality, which “is often meager.” Even St Paul’s Greek is “generally rough, sometimes inept and occasionally incoherent.” His letters’ power lies in the passion of his faith and “the marvel of what he believes has been revealed to him.” Luke wrote in an “urbane, unspectacular but mostly graceful prose.”

He takes a swing at other translations, which “distort” to a “discreditable degree,” “notorious examples” being the New International Version and The English Standard Version, “preposterous liberties” being taken to communicate “correct theology.”

So: as his reader, did I start to think like a Greek?

There were certain key passages or words that were particularly meaningful to me and these I paid special attention to. For example, who has not grown up with the admonishment – as often in a New Yorker cartoon as in the Bible – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven [The End] is at hand!”? What John the Baptist is actually saying is “Change your hearts, for the Kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” To me this is a much more salutary command than one of grovelling repentance: it increases my humanity. How about “Man does not live by bread alone”? The NKJV, the NIV and the RSV (Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition) all say “man shall not live by bread alone” but Hart has Christ saying that “The human being shall live not upon bread alone.”

And all those Beatitudes! Are we “blessed” or “fortunate” or “blissful” when we are “poor” in spirit? Taking his cue from the Greek makarios (“blessed, happy, fortunate, prosperous but originally with a connotation of divine or heavenly bliss”Hart translates  Christ’s word as “blissful”  and for “poor” has the “abject” in spirit, from ptochos: “a poor man or beggar, but with the connotation of one who is abject: cowering or cringing.” I turn to the Epistles, and the word “faith,” agreed upon by NKJV, the NIV and the RSV in the celebrated passage in Hebrews 11:1 –  “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hart gives us :” Now faithfulness is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of unseen realities.” The Greek is pistis, which, according to Rev Roman Bozyk, Dean of  the Faculty of Theology at St Andrew’s College at the University of Manitoba, is a word that denotes action, as in “to have vested in” something. The wonderful American writer, Kathleen Norris, puts it this way (in Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith): “I find it sad to consider that belief has become a scary word, because at its Greek root,’to believe’ simply means ‘to give one’s heart to.'”

Finally, the litmus test, of how badly we have misunderstood the Greek and been misled by the English: the Lord’s Prayer. Wikipedia uses the RSV Catholic Edition, which is in the familiar words (if you memorized them along the way of your life or read them) of “Our Father Who art in Heaven” etc but Hart goes back to the Greek, and so we have: “Our Father, who are in the heavens, let your name be held holy; let your Kingdom come, let your will come to pass, as in heaven so also upon the earth; Give to us today bread for the day ahead; and excuse us our debts, just as we have excused our debtors. And do not bring us to trial but rescue us from him who is wicked.” Many have puzzled why God would even think of “leading us to temptation,” so I am relieved that we pray rather to be rescued from the Slanderer’s temptations.

As an aside: what’s Greek to Hart is not the same as, for example, to Garry Wills, Classicist and liberal Roman Catholic author of What the Gospels Meant. His translation of the Lord’s Prayer:  “Our Father of the heavens, your title be honoured, your reign arrive, your design be fulfilled on earth as in heaven. Our meal still to come grant us today, and clear our moral account with you, as we clear our account with others, and bring us not to the Breaking Point, but wrest us from the Evil One.” Do they say the same thing?

Interestingly, the current Ukrainian prayer for “daily bread” is not the humble “daily” I learned as a child but “the essential,” from an Old Slavonic root meaning “super-essential,” that is, the Eucharistic bread (=Body of Christ). But both Hart’s and Wills’ translations retain the idea of actual bread needed to feed the real, empty stomach of the poor.

In his 44-pages of “Concluding Scientific Postscript,” Hart elaborates on his choices, from an admission that there is no satisfactory anglicism for all the possible meanings of “Logos,” so he keeps the conventional “Word” (“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God”) in the Prologue to the Gospel of John; to the explanation that the torments of hell are not in fact endless but age-enduring (aionios);  to why “Judeans” is the better word than “Jews” for the Temple authorities of Judaea; to pistis again, which,  as “belief” has been overladen in our English usage as “to believe in an impartial and merely intellectual way”  about the existence of God, say; but means rather “to have trust in,” an action of the heart, as Norris says.

My copy of this New Testament has many sticky notes now flagging all the words and language and explanations I will keep returning to as a kind of refreshment for a jaded or distracted psyche (“conscious self”) To quote Parthenios of Kiev, 19th century, “The Bible is the mother of all books…and enables one to see God with the heart while still in the flesh.” He does not specify which translation.

P.S. Hart’s account of the Letters of Paul and his numerous postscripts about what Paul’s words actually mean deserve a separate blog post. I have a lot to say about Paul, thanks to many books on my shelves, all with sticky notes.


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MyrnaHelen IbleRuth McMonagleGeorge Melnyk Recent comment authors
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George Melnyk
George Melnyk

Well done Myrna.The examples you selected and commented on are thought-provoking and liberating. Yes, liberating because new words provide new meanings and new meanings provide freedom from tradition. I also am impressed by your migrated Greek text into the blog, which is technically impressive for a techno-luddite like me. I look forward to reading about Paul.

Ruth McMonagle
Ruth McMonagle

I usually study the scriptures with various versions at hand. I even attempted a course in Greek and have looked up literal meanings in a “Word Book”, so I am happy to see thoughtful analysis.
I am especially interested in how you deal with the Pauline texts. Hope you send it out soon. I have always looked at textual analysis as important. It needs to be understood in its literal, and contextual reality. However, it is best digested with a touch of spiritual grace, allowing the words to integrate with our thinking, motivate our inner world and renew our whole being.

Helen Ible
Helen Ible

Thanks very much for this, Myrna! A great start to the new year to be taken to heart and held there.