November 25, 2020

N.T. Wright’s “The Kingdom New Testament”

Tom Wright has now given us a fresh translation of the New Testament: The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation.

In the preface, Wright explains that this is a translation, not a paraphrase. However, he also explains that, since “Greek often goes quite easily into English, but not always,” translators must make decisions about how to present things in the receptor language.

With regard to “little words” like “for” (Gk., gar), Wright says that we don’t always use connecting words like this in English because it makes our communication sound formal and stilted, especially if we repeat it as often as Paul did. So, he explains some of the alternate ways he provides connections between clauses in his translation. I find this to be a weakness in many contemporary English translations. Often the connecting words are simply left out, leaving one to wonder about how one phrase, clause, or sentence relates to another. Wright, on the other hand, seems committed to making those relationships clear.

Then there are “big words,” such as “righteousness.” This is an important word (which has caused much controversy) for Wright in his NT studies. “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,” he writes. This sentence is significant for those familiar with Wright and the “justification” debate, because it shows that he does not eliminate the “old perspective” while advancing a so-called “new perspective” on this subject. Since there is no one word in English which conveys all those meanings simultaneously, he uses different words in different contexts to bring out the nuances in each case. You can see this in some of the sample passages below.

Similarly, he sometimes renders “Christ” in the traditional way, but at other times he uses “Messiah” or “King.”

N.T. Wright believes each generation should be about the task of Bible translation, for each new generation must go to God’s Word for itself, while continuing to learn from those who have gone before us.

This particular translation arose from Wright’s “everyone” commentaries, and he says plainly at the outset, “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.”

Here are a few samples of passages from the various NT authors, as rendered in The Kingdom NT:

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-10)
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the hillside and sat down. His disciples came to him. He took a deep breath and began his teaching:

“Blessings on the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours.
“Blessings on the mourners! You’re going to be comforted.
“Blessings on the meek! You’re going to inherit the earth.
“Blessings on people who hunger and thirst for God’s justice! You’re going to be satisfied.
“Blessings on the merciful! You’ll receive mercy yourselves.
“Blessings on the pure in heart! You will see God.
“Blessings on the peacemakers! You’ll be called God’s children.
“Blessings on people who are persecuted because of God’s way! The kingdom of heaven belongs to you.”

John 3:14-17
So, just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, in the same way the son of man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may share in the life of God’s new age. This, you see, is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age. After all, God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world could be saved by him.

Acts 2:42-47
They all gave full attention to the teaching of the apostles and to the common life, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Great awe fell on everyone, and many remarkable deeds and signs were performed by the apostles.

All of those who believed came together, and held everything in common. They sold their possessions and belongings and divided them up to everyone in proportion to their various needs. Day by day they were all together attending the Temple. They broke bread in their various houses, and ate their food with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and standing in favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being rescued.

Romans 3:21-26
But now, quite apart from the law (though the law and the prophets bore witness to it), God’s covenant justice has been displayed. God’s covenant justice comes into operation through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, for the benefit of all who have faith. For there is no distinction: all sinned, and fell short of God’s glory — and by God’s grace they are freely declared to be in the right, to be members of the covenant, through the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus.

God put Jesus forth as the place of mercy, through faithfulness, by means of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his covenant justice, because of the passing over (in divine forbearance) of sins committed beforehand. This was to demonstrate his covenant justice in the present time: that is, that he himself is in the right, and that he declares to be in the right everyone who trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus.

Ephesians 2:8-10
How has all this come about? You have been saved by grace, through faith! This doesn’t happen on your own initiative; it’s God’s gift. It isn’t on the basis of works, so no one is able to boast. This is the explanation: God has made us what we are. God has created us in King Jesus for the good works that he prepared, ahead of time, as the road we must travel.

1Peter 2:11-12
My beloved ones, I beg you — strangers and resident aliens as you are — to hold back from the fleshly desires that wage war against your true lives. Keep up good conduct among the pagans, so that when they speak against you as evildoers they will observe your good deeds and praise God on the day of his royal arrival.

• • •

I’m sure that I will be consulting N.T. Wright’s translation often (as I do his commentaries) in my own study of the New Testament.

Comments

  1. Very interesting. John 3:16 is certainly new. But God’s “new age” sounds weird because of the New Age movement.

    How does he translate the Our Father?

    • I’ll put that up when I get a chance, Devin.

    • Our father in heaven,
      May your name be honored,
      May your kingdom come,
      May your will be done
      As in heaven, so on earth.
      Give us today the bread we need now;
      And forgive us the things we owe,
      As we too have forgiven what was owed to us.
      Don’t bring us into the great trial,
      But rescue us from evil.

  2. Perhaps it’s just me, but I find that Wright’s translation of “The Beatitudes” to somehow change the thrust of the meaning. I get a picture in my head of Jesus turning and indicating separate groups of folk rather than indicating folk on a journey, incorporating each of these qualities in their life-long journeys. In the Church Fathers, this teaching of Jesus is taken to be the synopsis of the whole of the Gospel and, as such, is typically taken to be a sort of “ladder” of growth, indicative of the movement of Christian life.

    If, in the last two verses, we read and interpret them as a single verse in that both describe the suffering frequently imposed upon those who truly love the Gospel, we find there are eight Beatitudes, each of them an aspect of being in communion with God. In our journey into theosis, we find ourselves moving from each step along the way: poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering, and so forth until, at the end, we find ourselves persecuted, reviled, hated, and evil-spoken against because our love for Him is so great, it cannot be silenced either in word or deed. Just our presence in a room is enough to make His presence known!

    I guess I am not getting the same thrust I am used to in the translation offered. Again, it’s probably just me. Yet have we lost something long the way as modern language changes and morphs it’s way into a sort of relativism that reflects our fear of speaking with strength and conviction? I hope not…

    • Laura I think you are right that Wright represents a different interpretation — one which I myself hold, by the way. These are not “qualities” that we are to incorporate into our lives, but they represent different situations and positions of people in the world that the rest of the world despises. Jesus is announcing “The Great Reversal,” when the last shall be first. This is my understanding.

      • I think that Laura’s post reflects typical “western” type thinking. We (for I also include myself) too often look for progressive patterns in passages and in themes that amount to a “How to” instruction book for Christian belief and behavior. We want rules, we want step by step guides to help us become “better” Christians, we try to avoid anything that seems vague or fuzzy. That is why systematic theology is so popular. The guess work is gone, we have successfully put salvation into a subscribed “box” that we can understand and control.

        But just as this type of thinking can kill the romance in a marriage, so too does it lead to lukewarmness in our dealings with our heavenly Father. I have to be honest, though, because I still struggle with this issue in my own life and ministry. Now, whenever I study or teach, I strive to uncover the spirit of what the text says as well as the context. You just can’t separate the two.

        As this relates to Wright’s translation it probably is best to try to divine what, exactly, his translation is attempting to convey before we start picking it apart. Also, although English is his native language, it is British English that he uses. The slight differences in word usage and meaning may present a minor obstacle to catching the full meaning of his translated text.

        All that being said, I will probably purchase it when I can afford it.

        • Thank you for your replies.

          It’s interesting that you see a “Western” POV, Oscar, in my post. I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian, and, as far as I know (and I checked… ;p), the Beatitudes are traditionally taught as who we are meant to *be* (as in become)…not qualities we are meant to “put-on”. They are not a “how-to” in a Western sense, but a “ladder of progression” towards theosis with God: one begins with an awareness of one’s poorness of heart, therefore seeking after that ineffable “Something/Someone”…and, finding Christ, is then given the Kingdom of Heaven; to God willing, finding himself worthy of the type of persecution long suffered by those who emanate the Spirit of Christ so thoroughly they cannot hide it under a basket.

          Perhaps I am not articulating this well… but a mature Christian will become that which the Beatitudes presents, truly, not artificially; a changed life, a changed person, a changed personality. Along with this, we teach that the Beatitudes is a complete synopsis of the teaching of the Gospel.

          Unfortunately, the whole of Eastern Orthodoxy, it’s differences with the West, and it’s nuances, is impossible to convey in a combox…and when you begin with a different theology of Original/Ancestral Sin, these sorts of interpretative things are bound to happen.

          In any case, you’ve answered my underlying concern: this “translation” is interpretative along the lines of a particular theological understanding. When I read the commentaries and teachings of Early Church Fathers, who wrote in Greek and who taught in Greek, this interpretation is not there. So what we have, then, is a teaching conveyed through Wright’s New Testament.

          BTW: I speak fluent British English. ;p So that may or not be helpful here!

          • Laura, I happen to be Catholic, but I like the Eastern Orthodox understanding/teaching of Original/Ancestral Sin. It solves a number of issues.

    • You should read The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard. His take on the beatitudes fits very nicely with the way Wright has translated them. Jesus isn’t giving people a set of if/then statements. He’s pronouncing blessing on the people He’s talking to.

      Anyway, I bought this book and Wright’s other new book. Unfortunately, I haven’t really had time to sit down with either or them yet. I hope to soon.

    • I am not willing to make this argument with certainty, but I suspect that Jesus primary, immediate meaning was actual people, and groups of people. He can simultaneously be talking about qualities or experiences, as a secondary meaning. One does not exclude the other, I think. That sort of “stacking” seems to happen throughout Scripture. And it does seem that there are difference emphases between the gospels, i.e. “blessed be the poor” and “blessed be the poor in spirit.”

    • I never thought I would say this, but MacArthur actually has some enlightening thoughts on this in one of his commentaries (a friend showed me recently, I don’t own them :P). He views the beatitudes as the outlining not the progression of the Christian life, but the actual process of coming to faith and then growing in it. The poor in spirit are convicted of sin. The mourners express a sorrow that leads to repentance. The meek come to God on their knees and when asking for the righteousness of Christ are freely filled. Then the rest describe the life of a disciple.
      I think there’s no limit to the angles that one can have on this text, and yet I don’t think any of them are exclusive. Jesus probably just knew how to teach with the depth of meaning that would give people material to ponder for thousands of years.

  3. Very interesting. I intend to read more.

    It’s such a small thing, but I just cannot get over his use of contractions in The Beatitudes. It sounds wrong somehow.

  4. Very readable, but I hope it’s not too late for him to reconsider the John 3:16 translation. No eternal life? What’s this new age all about? I think he’s going to meet resistance.

    • I believe he’s trying to re-present the idea that eternal life isn’t just something that happens after you die, but after you’re born again. The life of God’s kingdom, the new age, is now available to all who believe.

      • I think you’re right, Miguel, but I think he could have worded it more carefully. That verse is too important to leave unclear.

  5. It sounds as if he translated it not necessarily for accuracy or to model a new theological paradigm, but rather to put Jesus words into his style of speaking. I mean seriously, I can hear Wright reading his translation with his British accent. My first thought when reading the Beatitudes was, “Wow, Jesus sounds like N.T.Wright now!” Really, all the passages seem like this is how the Bible would have ended up being written if the Spirit had inspired Wright instead of the apostles. I seem more of a personality difference than a substance change.

    • BINGO!!! So very true! A translator cannot help but put things in his/her own words, as long as it is faithful to the text. What we will read is the New Testament as delivered to N.T. Wright.

    • I think this is part of what makes a translation by idividual’s interesting. It is both a potential strength and weakness of any translation written by an individual rather than by a committee. I rather like that he has taken particular views at specific junctures of interpretation throughout. Major translation committees, it seems to me, leave the majority of all those small translation options rather ambiguous, generic, and noncommittal. Thus, translations by individuals almost always seem more stylistic IMHO.

    • “My first thought when reading the Beatitudes was, “Wow, Jesus sounds like N.T.Wright now!”

      That’s funny, Miguel! I agree with what you and the others are saying about Wright saying things in such an interesting way. I have watched a few of his videos online and enjoy them. And when he writes, he often puts in “aside” stories which lend interest. I think I have read four or five of his books now. He’s my favorite living guy writing about God/Jesus/theology.

  6. Jon Bartlett says

    I’ve been using the UK edition in home groups and for general reading. It reads well, and makes an interesting contrast to the “Nearly Infallible Version”, the “Rather Stodgy Version” and the “Extremely Slanted Version” . But there again, I DO rather like NTW….

  7. Clay Knick says

    I like Wright’s translation for what it is: a translation by a man who loves Christ, the Word, and his Church and has immersed himself in the NT his entire life. It is fresh and gives us a new take on the text. It will stay close by when I study. I don’t think I’ll use it as my default, I don’t think that’s his intention either. For that I’ll use the RSV and then check the NRSV & NASB, then NIV, NEB/REB, & a few more. This translation is a gift and I had hoped he and his publishers would do this as I read them in his commentaries.