The Polyphonic Gospel

At one point in Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum the narrator speculates about how the Gospels came to be written: “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are a bunch of practical jokers who meet ...

At one point in Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum the narrator speculates about how the Gospels came to be written: “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are a bunch of practical jokers who meet somewhere and decide to have a contest. They invent a character, agree on a few basic facts, and then each one’s free to take it and run with it. At the end, they’ll see who’s done the best job. … Actually, though, the books have an appeal, they circulate, and when the four realize what’s happening, it’s too late.”1

The ethos of Eco’s Gospel writers—agree on a few basic facts, take it, and run with it—neatly encapsulates the history of individual translations of the Bible. While Bible translation has often been done by committee, the 20th and early 21st centuries saw a proliferation of efforts produced by single scholars. Among them are J. B. Phillips’s The New Testament in Modern English (1959), Kenneth Taylor’s The Living Bible (1971), Richmond Lattimore’s The Four Gospels and the Revelation, Eugene Peterson’s The Message (2002), and N. T. Wright’s Kingdom New Testament (2011).2

Although committed to orthodox understandings of the text, these translators mostly followed the ambitions of William Tyndale’s 16th-century Bible, bringing the scriptures to the people with generous helpings of informal expression. In this they traveled far afield from the King James Version’s elevated style; Taylor’s version, recounting how Saul “went to the bathroom” in 1 Samuel 24:3, became known as the “bathroom Bible.”

In his recent translation of the New Testament, philosopher and theologian David Bentley Hart both echoes and deviates from these efforts. In the introduction, he declares that the “anodyne blandness and imprecision” of translations by committee erase the text’s original meaning. However, he also implicitly rebukes individual translators who have sought to make that meaning palatable to a general readership. Opting to re-create what he perceives to be the original text’s linguistic difficulty, Hart emphasizes that the New Testament’s politics and theology spring from what he calls its “indiscriminate polyphony.” Of all the Bible’s individual translators, he may have run the farthest.

Hart’s less-than-irenic comments should come as no surprise to readers familiar with his work. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (2009) brandishes its combativeness in its title, while the less polemically named The Consciousness of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (2013) chastises atheists for not trying a regimen of prayer before rejecting religion.3 True to form, Hart’s New Testament has already riled reviewers for casting the early church members as “communalists,” which a footnote claims should really be rendered “communists,” and for implying that the New Testament writers believed everyone would be saved, a choice that N. T. Wright’s lukewarm review questions at length.4

Chiefly, though, Hart’s provocations register as matters of style: with its steady parade of syntactical and lexical oddities, this New Testament signals an almost belligerent disinterest in providing a frictionless reader experience. It’s this very disinterest that makes the translation noteworthy as a literary achievement, not simply as a theological or historiographic statement.

Take, for example, Mark 3:20–21: “And [Jesus] comes into a house; and again a crowd assembles, so that they are not able to eat a loaf of bread. And his relatives, hearing this, went out to seize him forcibly; for they said, ‘He is beside himself.’” As far as theological controversy goes, the passage offers nothing to unsettle a small-o orthodox audience. However, it does exhibit Hart’s choice to preserve the original texts’ artless vacillations between present and past tense.

The effect is especially pronounced in Mark, known for its emphasis on sheer incident: the spirit of the Marcan writer’s favorite word, “immediately,” finds expression in the rapid succession of “comes” and “assembles” before switching to past tense (“went out”) just as the relatives are suddenly introduced. The first use of “they,” with its unclear antecedent, only amplifies the reader’s sense of dislocation. Finally, there is the phrase “seize … forcibly,” elsewhere translated as “take charge of” (New International Version [NIV]), “lay hold on” (King James Version [KJV]), or simply “seize” (English Standard Version [ESV]), to suggest an essentially well-meaning family alarmed about Jesus’s mental health.

Hart’s extra hint of aggression, however, subtly reframes the family as one more element in a welter of forces jockeying for pride of place: the needy crowds, the “scribes” who accuse Jesus of demon possession in the next verse, even the demons themselves. (Focus on the family, indeed.) Rather than merely documenting this volatile situation, Hart’s disorienting style immerses the reader in it.

Here as elsewhere, Hart’s Gospel narrators sound like raconteurs too caught up in the tale to bother with niceties like verb consistency or clear pronoun antecedents. Their breathless storytelling contrasts with Jesus’s own fastidious manner of speech. Coming off as a curiously twee populist, this object of plebeian fascination favors terms like “Madam” and “charlatan”; instead of asking the disciples “Are your hearts hardened?” or “Do you still not understand?” in Mark 8:17, he asks, “Do you keep an obdurate heart in you?”

This disparity between Jesus and his bemused observers, an implicit feature of any Gospel translation, occasionally reaches near-comic heights in Hart’s rendition. In John 6, lyrical declarations like “Whoever comes to me most assuredly does not hunger, and whoever has faith in me most assuredly does not thirst” elicit the disciples’ prosaic response: “This word is hard; who can listen to it?” When the disciples discourage the masses from bringing their children to Christ in Mark 10:14, he is neither “indignant” (NIV) nor “much displeased” (KJV) but “deeply annoyed”—an ironic description, since “annoyance” probably best characterizes the reaction that the disciples were trying to avoid in the first place.

Flashes of this odd-couple dynamic between Jesus and his disciples imbue the former with a familiar sort of human frustration; those accustomed to translations in which Jesus only exhibits “grand” emotions, like compassion or righteous anger, may be unnerved to see him expressing something like irritation. Finding that his disciples have failed to keep vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane—and thus failed to notice the advent of the Roman guards, the Passion’s inciting incident—Hart’s Christ does not pose the anguished question of standard translations (“Are you still sleeping and resting?” in the NIV) but makes a sarcastic suggestion: “Sleep some more and rest” (Matthew 26:45).5

Paul, or the literary persona ascribed to Paul, similarly escapes the role typically assigned to him, that of the early church’s stentorian paterfamilias. No silver-tongued authority, Paul sounds almost Raskolnikovian in his fevered flights of reason; particularly in Romans, the apostle rushes from one broken clause to the next, practically discovering his convictions as he writes.

Hart’s Gospel narrators sound like raconteurs too caught up in the tale to bother with niceties like verb consistency or clear pronoun antecedents.

Here is Paul in Romans 5:9–11, attempting to explain the salvific effects of Christ’s atoning sacrifice: “So much the more, therefore, shall we—having now been vindicated by his blood—be saved from the indignation. For if, being enemies, we were reconciled with God through his Son’s death, so much the more shall we—having been reconciled—be saved through his life—though not only that: rather, boasting also in God through our Lord Jesus [the Anointed], through whom we have received reconciliation.” Hart’s tendency to keep paragraph breaks to a minimum and to dispense altogether with chapter titles further compounds the feeling of getting lost in the thickets of ad hoc disquisition, as qualifiers beget qualifiers.

In the introduction, Hart gestures toward the pedigree of his translation’s multivocal form. Alluding to T. S. Eliot’s working title for The Waste Land, he writes that his “stubbornness regarding the idiosyncrasies of the text allowed me to ‘do the police in different voices,’ so to speak.”6 Hart shares modernism’s affinity for heteroglossia, the melange of “different voices” (say, Mark’s unmannered expression and Paul’s technical verbiage) that characterizes The Waste Land and Ulysses alike.

In playing up the New Testament’s heteroglossic qualities, Hart extends a project begun by Eliot and his contemporaries: their fascination with linguistic experimentation issued, in part, from a drive to attain a new perspective on Europe’s tradition, to which Christianity was obviously foundational. Eliot’s concern with “the idea of a Christian society” is well known, and Michael North has pointed out how Ezra Pound’s slogan “make it new” evokes Revelation 3:20’s “Behold, I make all things new.”7 Whereas Eliot and Pound drew on the New Testament to articulate their vision of modernism, Hart draws on modernism to reimagine the New Testament.

This feedback loop, however, does not lead Hart to repeat his forebears’ reactionary politics. Instead, his literary provocations are informed by the politico-theological radicalism he perceives in Christianity’s founding documents; foregrounding the New Testament’s panoply of voices enables him to cast into relief what he calls, in the introduction, the “genuine harmony” that faith forges from “ecstatic clamor,” a divine unity-in-diversity that “[alters] all terms of human community and conduct … at the deepest of levels.”

This social transformation, and the linguistic effects that proceed from it, can be heard in Hart’s take on Revelation 6:15–17. There, “the kings of the earth … the great men … the chiliarchs and the rich” join “every slave and freeman” in heralding “the anger of the suckling lamb” (italics added); the phrasing of their chant adds to this metaphor for the returning Christ an adjective absent from virtually all other translations. Specifically likening Christ to a “lamb that is still nursing,” as Hart writes in a footnote, underscores the shocking reversal of power promised in John’s apocalypse. It’s not hard to see why the imperial order might have been threatened by a religion that envisions Rome’s power brokers genuflecting, along with their slaves, before helplessness incarnate.8


The Joys of Multiplicity

By Susan Bernofsky

Indeed, the impulse to make the New Testament new again is especially apt in an era when Christianity is being “made new” as a post-European religion, primarily based in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.9 In regions where the Bible once served as a vehicle for cultural imperialism, it has undergone a surprising rebirth, suffusing the imagination of authors like Chigozie Obioma, Carlos Velazquez, and Hwee Hwee Tan to a degree that approaches its absolute centrality to Victorian literature.10

It’s telling that, in explaining why he left the “logos” of John 1 untranslated, Hart insists that no equivalent exists in English, though the word could be translated into Chinese as “tao.” His comment highlights the possibilities of postcolonial translations that exceed Hart’s experimentation—mixing, say, the Chinese and English lexicons, as would be the norm in a place like Hong Kong. Another precedent might be the ongoing committee-translated First Nations Version Project, an English-language New Testament that aspires to the “rhythm and feel” of Native American storytelling, undertaken by Christians of indigenous heritage. Indeed, the crowdsourced nature of the FNV’s translation process suggests how the internet might empower lay scholars at the margins of the religious establishment.11

For all its creative liberties, then, Hart’s translation may well presage approaches to the Bible that, informed by the text’s complex relationship to the language of former European colonies, dispense with the conventions of “Western” tradition altogether. Whether such translations attract the attention of literary circles, though, depends on how attuned such circles are to the Bible’s ongoing life, not merely among religious believers but also within global written culture as a whole. Or, as someone once said, on whether they have the ears to hear and the eyes to see.


Thanks to Alastair Morrison for contributing his expertise on heteroglossia in literary modernism.


This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley. icon

  1. Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum, translated from the Italian by William Weaver (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1989), p. 193.
  2. In his 1979 review of Lattimore’s translation, Frank Kermode observes “the abundance, in our time, of singlehanded noninstitutional translations of the Bible.”
  3. For a response to this particular aspect of Hart’s argument, see Jerry Coyne, “Religious Believers’ Favorite New Book Is a Failed Argument for God,” The New Republic, April 16, 2014.
  4. N. T. Wright, “The New Testament in the Strange Words of David Bentley Hart,” The Christian Century, January 15, 2018. For a critique of Hart’s defense of “Christian Communism,” see Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, “Are Christians Really Supposed to Be Communists? A Response to David Bentley Hart,” America: The Jesuit Review, November 6, 2017.
  5. Admittedly, the King James Version has Christ saying, “Sleep on now, and take your rest” in this verse. Still, its stately rhythms cast the saying as an earnest injunction, a solemn farewell rather than a sardonic rebuke.
  6. For more on T. S. Eliot’s interest in this phrase, and its origins, see this excerpt from Calvin Bedient’s He Do the Police in Different Voices: The Waste Land and Its Protagonist (University of Chicago Press, 1986).
  7. For the gist of Eliot’s essay, “The Idea of a Christian Society,” see this excerpt published in Humanum Review, no. 2 (2016). For North’s argument, see “The Making of ‘Make It New,’” Guernica: A Magazine of Global Arts and Politics, August 15, 2013.
  8. In the centuries leading up to Constantine’s Christianization of the empire, persecution of Christians was sporadic and largely dependent on the whims of local governors. Still, emperors did occasionally issue edicts proscribing Christianity, casting it as “un-Roman.” See “Mythbusting Ancient Rome—Throwing Christians to the Lions,” The Conversation, November 21, 2016.
  9. See also Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2002).
  10. For more on these authors’ interest in the Bible, see, respectively, Trine Tsouderos, “Review: ‘The Fishermen,’ by Chigozie Obioma,” Chicago Tribune, April 23, 2015; Tobias Carroll, “Norteño Culture and the Cowboy Bible: An Interview with Carlos Velázquez,” Electric Lit, April 22, 2016; and Toh Hsien Min, “Mammon and the Discipline of Writing: Tan Hwee Hwee Gets Real,” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, October 2001.
  11. For a detailed description of this collaborative effort, see “FNV Translation Process” on the First Nations Project website.
Featured image: Donaukanal Graffiti “Christo” (2016). Photograph by Silvano En / Wikimedia Commons