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The Difference a Single Verse Can Make

David Bentley Hart—

When I first set out to translate the New Testament, my aim was to return as faithfully as possible to the original Greek, and to its ambiguities. I especially wanted to avoid renderings that imported later doctrinal and theological developments back into the text, as has been the established practice—conscious or unconscious—of most translators over the centuries. And, when my version appeared in 2017, I was more or less satisfied with the results. A very eminent New Testament scholar warned me that all translators of the Bible eventually produce a second edition, but I was sure this would not be so for me. I should have listened. While my translation went a great way toward the goal I set for myself, I have since realized that in several instances I had been diverted from my path by standard (but defective) renderings of certain verses that had impressed themselves a little too indelibly on my memory over many years. 

So now, as was foretold, I have produced a second edition, incorporating roughly a thousand alterations, major and minor, and in some cases both at once.

Take, for example, Romans 11:24. The original reads thus: 

εἰ γὰρ σὺ ἐκ τῆς κατὰ φύσιν ἐξεκόπης ἀγριελαίου καὶ παρὰ φύσιν ἐνεκεντρίσθης εἰς καλλιέλαιον, πόσῳ μᾶλλον οὗτοι οἱ κατὰ φύσιν ἐγκεντρισθήσονται τῇ ἰδίᾳ ἐλαίᾳ.  

Which the King James version renders thus:

“For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?”

That has been the pattern of translation ever since.  And I confess that my first translation fell into that pattern quite guilelessly:

“For if you were cut from an olive wild by nature and, contrary to nature, grafted into a cultivated olive, how much rather will these, in keeping with nature, be grafted into their own proper tree.”

I now regret that choice.  For all my avowed intention of getting back to the barest essence of the text, I find that at this juncture I yielded to theological tradition and to the established model of translation precisely when I should have been most resistant to both.

This verse is, you see, the locus classicus for what became a cardinal tenet of much later theology, especially in the West: that there is some grand and crucial theological principle called “grace” that stands in opposition or tension or ambiguous relation to another, somehow antinomous or antithetical or extrinsic principle called “nature.” It would be impossible to exaggerate the degree to which this simple but inflexible polarity shaped much of Western (and some Eastern) theology at the deepest of levels. Unfortunately, these categories are almost certainly absent from Paul’s original Greek (at least as read in the context of Paul’s time). Like other similar oppositions—“grace” as opposed to “works,” “nature” as opposed to “supernature” (a nonexistent concept in Paul’s writings)—the opposition between “grace” and “nature” is more a trick of the light than a proper reading of the text.

Paul certainly, it is true, speaks a great deal about God’s χάρις (charis)—gratuity, grace, generosity—but it never really functions as some kind of pure principle in its own right. It is simply a characterization of God in all his dealings with his creation. That God is magnanimous, that he requires none of the old ritual observances of the Law in order to love his creatures, that indeed he requires little from us other than fidelity and moral effort, and that he makes room in the covenant even for gentiles, who are entitled to no ordained share in its blessings, is for Paul the great joy and surprise of what he believed occurred in Christ. And, so Paul reasons (in Romans 11:6), if God were to require ritual observances from us before being willing to admit us into covenant, he reasoned, what would be so very generous about that? Even so, this understanding of χάρις is still a far cry from any grand principle of divine action that stands dialectically opposed to other grand principles of divine action (or inaction).

As much as he invokes this χάρις, moreover, Paul hardly speaks of “nature” or φύσις (physis) at all; it simply does not figure in his theological lexicon. In fact, even to have translated φύσις in standard fashion as “nature” was an error on my part, since we now take “nature” almost exclusively to mean the essence or essential character or abiding “whatness” of a thing, in a metaphysical (or at least taxonomic) sense. And, in many contexts outside of the Pauline corpus, in the metaphysics and theology of late antiquity and later, that is precisely what it means—or, rather, that is the vague designation to which the word corresponds even when it fails to mean anything specific. But that is not what the word meant in the most common usage of Paul’s time. Rather, just like the Latin word natura, its primary connotation was still “origin,” in the sense of “birth,” “family line,” “race,” “lineage,” “pedigree”—and there can be no doubt that this is precisely how Paul is using the word in this verse. Hence the imagery of grafting wild olive branches into a properly cultivated tree as a metaphor for admitting gentiles into the covenant that by birthright belongs only to Israel.  As in the case of arboriculture, so in the case of national or religious or familial identity: just as there are cultivated lines of direct derivation from an original stock or root and uncultivated lines that can be attached only indirectly to that stock or root, there are those who enjoy rights of inheritance by virtue of birth (κατὰ φύσιν) and those to whom those rights are extended only through legal adoption (παρὰ φύσιν).

In fact, the preposition παρὰ (para) does not actually mean “contrary to” or “against” when used properly. It means only “outside of” or “beyond,” and I ought not to have translated the phrase παρὰ φύσιν (para physin) as I originally did, in keeping with venerable tradition. My new rendering, which will set some teeth on edge but which I think about as literally correct as I could get it, is:

“For if you were cut out of an olive tree that was from a wild lineage (κατὰ φύσιν) and grafted exogenously (παρὰ φύσιν) into a cultivated olive tree, how much rather will these, in keeping with their pedigree (κατὰ φύσιν), be grafted into their own proper tree.”

That use of “exogenously” for παρὰ φύσιν is, I am the first to acknowledge, almost miraculously discordant; but I wanted to make it as clear as possible that what later theology was talking about when it spoke of grace and nature as complementary or contrary principles is not what Paul was talking about in this verse, and resembles nothing he says anywhere in his writings.

Then again, so much of theological tradition has involved getting Paul drastically wrong—you should see what has become of Philippians 2:6 in my revised rendering.

David Bentley Hart is a research scholar at the University of Notre Dame, in philosophy, theology, and religious studies, as well as a writer and cultural commentator. His books include The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss and That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. He lives in South Bend, IN.

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