18 October 2011

the wright new testament

Scheduled for a late-October release in the US is The Kingdom New Testament, a translation put forward by The Bishop, N. T. Wright.  The UK version has already been published (as The New Testament for Everyone) and public reviews are beginning to come in for it.  Of course, the latter version reads with an accent so American readers will want to take that into account before deciding on which to purchase.

In July 2011 Wright gave a paper regarding his translation to the International SBL Meeting in London, "The Monarchs and the Message: Reflections on Bible Translation from the Sixteenth to the Twenty-First Century."

Why another translation?  Indeed, why do we have a plethora of translations in the first place?  Wright addresses these oft-stated concerns from the evangelical laity with: "The reason is that we believe in translation.  Putting the message of Jesus, and the message about Jesus, into different languages so that people can understand it in their own idiom is one of the things Christians characteristically do" (emphasis in original).  I rather enjoy the reading of that first sentence - we believe in translation.  Perhaps is cuts both ways (whether or not The Bishop intended for it to), in that while we are theologically committed to sharing the gospel, it is also true that our experience of belief happens in the translation fo divine to human.  Thus, our faith journey exists in translation - as the flow of Living Water to us, through us, and out to the world.

English Bible translations are traced back to the work of Tyndale, where Wright begins his story as well, identifying the social, cultural and political context into which that Bible was introduced.  The dedication and sacrifice of Tyndale certainly paved the way for translation, and his commitment to the kingdom message drove his own process, believing that he could help bring about much needed reforms from a public understanding of God's Word.  His move was somewhat counteracted by the work of the King James Bible (which uses more than 87% of Tyndale's original text), who sought to place the language just above the common reader once more.  Though, as Wright points out, ". . . in terms of style, Tyndale had already, as it were, let the English cat out of the bag."

With this historical background, Wright presents his own translation theory and approach to what he has provided in The Kingdom New Testament.  He begins with the example of 'Christ' - what is mostly used as a swear word in today's culture, or as the last name of Jesus and his family.  Others might take it as a sign of his divinity, but "none of these corresponds to what the word conveyed in the first century."  So there is a challenge in taking the meaning of that word (Christos) and communicating its importance and fullness to the contemporary reader.  While this one word can cause all sorts of problems in this regard (though, not all such problems would be considered bad), it highlights the vast amount of biblical language that is so contextually wrapped in first-century Judaism that translation becomes quite difficult.

One of Wright's aims therefore is found in his statement, "The best the translator can do is set up signposts pointing in more or less the right direction, and encourage readers to read on and glimpse the larger picture within which the words will flesh themselves out and reveal more of the freight they had all along been carrying."  Further on he shares, "Translation is bound to distort.  But not to translate, and not to upgrade English translations quite frequently, is to collude with a different and perhaps worse kind of distortion."

I believe that the latter statement is true for more than the translation of the text, inasmuch as it points to the way disciples of Jesus are meant to live their faith.  While it is certainly true that our witness is imperfect and bound to distort the truth, it is far worse to cease living out our faith in significant ways - a distortion that works along with the enemy's agenda.

The passion which Wright has for the text and its message comes through in this paper, and will undoubtedly be seen in the translation he provides.  Those who have been keeping up with the for Everyone series have already seen seeds of this.  He shares, "The whole point of the New Testament, after all, is that it is one of the most dramatic, subversive and life-giving collections of writings ever assembled.  lose that and you've lost the plot."

Yes, there are reasons for ongoing translation work and the continual production of versions of Scripture. Unfortunately, many in the church simply do not leave room for such reasons before grumbling, complaining and arguing.  It is probably too much to ask every churchgoer to have an appreciation for the work of translation, but is is certainly not too much to demand that no Scripture wars be started without a proper understanding of the original languages, translation theory, and proper Christian behavior.  Sadly, these realities continue on along with each new translation offered.

"But what a new translation can perhaps do today is to jolt people out of the familiar, and open their eyes and imaginations to new possibilities: particularly to the new possibilities which speak of the ultimate monarchy, of Jesus as the king of the world in a way that Paul and Mark understood well but most contemporary readers have hardly begun to imagine."

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