Biblical Translation Leads to Tussles, Clashes - Sightings (Martin Marty)

We readers of the Bible often have our favorite translations. I am partial to translations that emerge from committees, like the NRSV and CEB. Others like the more personal translations like Eugene Peterson's The Message. Debates can get heated, as we engage in conversation about which underlying texts should be used and whether to go in a more formal or dynamic direction. While I've not engaged in much reading of the new translation from David Bentley Hart, apparently N.T. Wright doesn't like it very much (as seen in his scathing review in the Christian Century). According to Martin Marty, Hart pushes back with great vigor and perhaps a bit of vitriol.  But then, is this really new?  Anyway, Marty lays things out nicely. If you've read Hart's self described wild and repellent "formal" translation with an Orthodox twist, I'd love to hear your reactions. 

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Biblical Translation Leads to Tussles, Clashes
By MARTIN E. MARTY   January 29, 2018
Photo Credit: Olga Caprotti/Flickr (cc)
One scholar, N. T. Wright, reviewing another, David Bentley Hart, prompted a response from the latter that the former’s writing was a “catalogue of complaints” by someone whose work “suffers from a dangerous combination of the conventional and the idiosyncratic,” and other nice judgments. Headlines of stories about the exchange speak of all this as a “tussle” or a “clash.” Were this to-do about two heavyweight boxers or politicians debating war and peace or decline and fall, it would not draw the attention of us pacific Sightings authors. But when we read on to learn that the antagonists are top Orthodox theologian Hart and equally top Anglican biblical scholar Wright, we have to step up in an effort to fulfill part of our mission to connect the interpretation of religious themes with their “public understanding.”

And, believe us, Hart and Wright are in the public eye, as much as scholars in these fields can ever expect to be. They come with attached fan clubs and retinues. While debating the quality and character of biblical translations might lead many public understanderers to turn their attention to other topics and events, we are in the company of those who believe that debates over biblical texts and their translations are fateful. In Christian orbits, debates over which translation one is allowed to favor have led to schisms and vicious conflicts. For one moderate example: not until after the Second Vatican Council were some Roman Catholics to favor and use the King James Version of 1611. Senior readers of Sightings will recall the bitter melees which followed the publication in 1946 of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, popularly or unpopularly known as “Stalin’s Bible,” as designated by some Cold Warriors who suspected and charged Communist influences in the RSV. Why did “virgin” of The Virgin Birth in Isaiah 7:14 now appear as “young woman” or “maiden” in the new translations, et cetera?

While we may not be proud of the way scholars and agitators on many sides of these translation conflicts have acted, I’d like to change emphasis quickly and argue that the intentions then and issues now between Wright and Hart are not trivial. Biblical texts in translation turn up in international affairs, U.S. constitutional-legal traditions, poetry, political campaigns, and piety, and they are spiritually very important to millions of citizens. The introducers of the 1946 RSV, which people of my generation lugged around (along with, soon after, the “New Revised Standard Version,” the “Revised English Bible,” the “New American Bible,” and the [Catholic] “New Jerusalem Bible”), knew of their importance in scholarship, worship, and the living of lives. So we pay attention.

Professor Hart says the issue is representative of “traditional disagreements between proponents of ‘dynamic’ and ‘formal’ equivalence,” whatever that turns out to mean. For the curious, be they devotees or enemies of the Bible—there are millions of both in our worlds—consulting some of the “Resources” at the end of this column will be informative, and may inspire many to regard, more than before, the difficulty and value of the work of translators of documents which are regarded as sacred. Have fun, ye advocates of “dynamic” or “formal” equivalence translations, and all the rest! Or consult the article by Garry Wills, “A Wild and Indecent Book,” in The New York Review of Books. It ends with a Willsian reminder that Orthodox Christian Hart wanted to make his own book wild, repellent, “just a bit indecent.” Wills’s judgment: “He succeeded.”


- Hart, David Bentley. “A Reply to N. T. Wright.” Eclectic Orthodoxy. January 16, 2018.

- Lindgren, Caleb. “Translating the N. T. Wright and David Bentley Hart Tussle.” Christianity Today. January 24, 2018. [Ed. Note: This article appears elsewhere under the heading “The Clash Between Scholars N. T. Wright and David Bentley Hart Over Bible Translation.”]

- Wills, Garry. “A Wild and Indecent Book.” The New York Review of Books. February 8, 2018. [Ed. Note: This article is paywall-protected.]

- Wright, N. T. “The New Testament in the strange words of David Bentley Hart.” The Christian Century. January 15, 2018.
Author, Martin E. Marty (PhD’56), is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at
Sightings is edited by Brett Colasacco (AB'07, MDiv'10), a doctoral candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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