The New Testament for Everyone – a Review

Over the past few years Tom Wright has worked systematically through the New Testament producing his “New Testament for Everyone” series. Each book of the New Testament has received the same treatment. He has provided his own translation of the book, broken down into manageable chunks, and then provided his own devotional thoughts on the reading. His work has helped to deepen and enrich the lives of many believers, and we are all in debt to his work.

Now at the conclusion to this work he has produced “The New Testament for Everyone” which his own complete translation of the New Testament. In many ways it is the J.B.Phillip’s translation of its own generation – an attempt to translate the text into modern, readable English and re-engage folk with Scripture.

As a book the SPCK hardback edition looks superb. The print is wonderfully readable, there is no fussing with footnotes, and the paragraph headings stand out clear and bold. There are also many useful diagrams and maps that supplement the text. It looks like the sort of book that asks to be read. It is a triumph of design.

It is also, and this is markedly different from so many translations, a version of the Bible that is easy to read out loud. Tom Wright has simplified so many of the conjunctions  which translators tend to trip over and produced short, fluent sentences that are easy to understand. He also adds quite deliberately certain colloquialisms to aid the flow of the text. For example, Mark 1:35: Very early – in the middle of the night, actually – helps to break up a chain of Greek time markers and convey Mark’s sense of storytelling. Or again John 3:16: 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. This translation should help us to engage with Scripture for what it was always supposed to be, a document to be heard, rather simply processed intellectually. (Let’s not forget the practice of reading silently is a relatively recent innovation, after all).

But the quote from John 3:16 also highlights an important issue about this translation. To some degree, translation always involves an element of interpretation, and there is no one translation that perfectly interprets the original text. However this translation shows clearly the theological preferences of the writer, and perhaps illustrates why translation by committee tends to produce the best results. To have eternal life may indeed involve sharing in the life of God’s new age, but it is not the whole story. Or again Rom 3:23-24: 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. To understand justification in terms of membership of God’s covenant community reveals the theological agenda of the translator. And for a translation that is meant to be easy to read, it seems that replacing justification with membership of the covenant is simply replacing one abstract concept with another. It certainly seems to go beyond dynamic equivalence.

I for one have less issue with replacing the term Christ with Messiah, because it helps to remind us of the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. But this attempt to reflect more accurately the Jewish background of the New Testament produces some unusual results. Readers of this Bible may be surprised to find the book of Judah. It is in fact the book of Jude, and while Judah may be the Hebrew rendition of the Greek name Judas, calling a book by a name other than by the title by which it is known throughout the English-speaking world is bound to cause confusion. On the other hand Judas Iscariot remains Judas Iscariot, not Judah of Karioth.

This leads to another question, of consistency. For example, the opening paragraph of Mark’s gospel is entitled The Preaching of John the Baptist  but then in verse 4 the prophet is called John the Baptizer. It is hard to see what is gained by renaming John in this way. Later on in Mark 2:1-12 we come across the healing of the paralutikos. The NIV translates this term consistently “paralytic” which nowadays has a slightly unfortunate connotation. To provide colour Tom Wright translates the term in three different ways – paralysed man, cripple, paralytic.  It is easy to see why he has done this, but I can envisage this might well cause confusion to someone seeking to make sense of the passage.

Finally the absence of footnotes adds considerably to the layout of the book, but provides little clue to the reader where the quotes have come from. And sometimes phrases are given in quotation marks without any explanation. For example, Mark 10:45: He came to be the servant, to give his life “as a ransom for many”. Those are Tom Wright’s quotation marks, but the reason is not apparent.

In summary this is a thoughtful, deeply readable translation that will engage the heart and mind. It will help considerably to bring out the flow of the text. But it should not be seen as the main translation for serious study of the Bible, and sometimes the choice of concepts can raise more questions than answers, and point more to the agenda of the translator,which is unfortunate. Do buy it, but use it wisely, and make sure you have at least one other translation at hand.

 

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