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Will the ‘First Testament’ Grab Your Attention?

Scholar John Goldingay wants readers to rediscover the original feel of the Old Testament in his new translation.

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Many people struggle with Bible reading and engagement in general, but this is particularly true with the first part of the Bible. We know that those who do read tend to spend more time in the New Testament. But there is no good way to understand Jesus without understanding what came before him—the stories, songs, and promises that shaped everything he said and did. Old Testament scholar John Goldingay wants readers to rediscover the original feel of these passages in his new translation, The First Testament. Glenn Paauw, senior director of content at the Institute for Bible Reading, spoke with Goldingay about how certain ways of rendering the Bible can usher us back into the Bible’s own world.

First, the inevitable question: Why does the world need another Bible translation?

I suppose the reason we make new Bible translations is the same reason we write new commentaries: It’s not necessarily that something brand new is being said, but more that you get to learn from someone else’s interaction with the text. Every translation is a collection of the compromises that someone is choosing to make. Translations must also change over time, as cultures change. Every so often we need to hear a fresh presentation of what the Bible is saying.

Most popular Bible translations have been done by committee. What is the value of having an individual do a Bible translation instead?

Of course, a committee approach is going to avoid the idiosyncrasies of an individual translation, and it provides some corporate safeguarding from the kind of mistakes an individual person might make. But when I worked on The First Testament, I was able to pursue my particular goals and work them through the entire thing. This was a rare opportunity. I’ve been living with this text for a long time, and it was good to work on bringing the fruit of that engagement to others.

Why call the Old Testament the “First Testament”?

When we talk about something being “old” in our culture, we typically mean that it’s out of date. It goes along with the idea that what’s new is what counts. This language of “old” and “new,” as applied to the Bible, comes from long after the time of Jesus—several centuries later, in fact. We can be misled by that phrase “Old Testament,” which doesn’t itself come from the Scriptures. I think that name inhibits people from reading it.

I hope that changing the name to “First Testament” can get people’s attention. I’m hoping to invite people into this part of the Bible so they can rediscover its huge significance for Christian faith.

Some Bible translations emphasize contemporary language, while others concentrate more on bringing readers into an ancient world that is somewhat strange. The First Testament seems to favor the latter approach. What are your reasons for not smoothing out all the rough, strange-sounding phrases?

I’ve mentioned that translation always involves a compromise, and this choice between emphasizing the ancient world or the contemporary world is an example of that. It isn’t that one of these approaches is completely right and the other wrong; rather, it’s a matter of choosing an emphasis. In fact, it is simply impossible to produce a completely faithful equivalent of one piece of writing in another language. One has to make choices, and I decided to help people hear the words as closely as possible to what they would have heard in the ancient world.

There are some advantages to using more paraphrasing, and the “dynamic equivalence” approach has been more fashionable. But I wanted to offer people something they haven’t encountered as much with their Bibles. I am trying to recover the advantages of a more word-for-word rendering, because this can help readers get back into the details of the language of Scripture. For instance, one thing I do is to convey the actual names of biblical characters by using transliterations of those names (like Mosheh rather than Moses). De-familiarizing the text like this allows the Bible to strike us all in fresh ways.

There is a longtime convention of rendering God’s name as “LORD” (with small caps to distinguish it from “Lord,” meaning simply “master” or “ruler”). Why do you prefer to use “Yahweh” instead?

It was God who said to his people, “Here’s my name; call me by my name.” It’s an odd thing theologically that we ended up saying, “Oh, no thanks, we’d rather call you Lord.” We’re used to the idea in the New Testament that Jesus has a name, yet he is also Lord. But the same thing is true about the First Testament. God has a name, Yahweh, but can also be referred to as Lord. By not using his name, we can lose sight of the fact that God is a person with a particular character and personality.

In the New Testament, saying “Jesus is Lord” was quite radical, because the people around you were expecting to hear “Caesar is Lord.” Again, it’s the same in the First Testament. People were saying “Marduk is Lord” or “Baal is Lord.” By giving us God’s name, the First Testament is reminding us who the real God is and what the nature of the commitment to that real God is supposed to be.

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How important is it for today’s readers to encounter the literary qualities of ancient Hebrew writing—things like wordplay, irony, repetition, cadence, and poetic lines?

Getting a sense of these kinds of literary features helps us gain not only the meaning of the words but, just as importantly, their impact. For instance, sometimes I placed a transliteration of a Hebrew word in brackets, simply to help readers see how things were working in the original. I translated Genesis 2:7 like this: “Yahweh God shaped a human person [Adam] with earth from the ground [adamah] and blew into its nostrils living breath . . .” The connection between the first human person and the ground is therefore made clearer and stronger.

As another example, it’s crucial to know that Hebrew poetry is built on connected lines of thought. We need to think of that first line as a whole, as a unit of thought, and then secondly to think about the relationship between that line and the next one. Often the impact comes precisely in that relationship between the two lines—there is reinforcement, or maybe surprise, or some other key thing happening. Highlighting these kinds of literary features (as far as possible in English) helps our imaginations as we try putting ourselves into the Bible’s world. What was it like to see Isaiah standing in the temple courts and hear him declaiming? It’s important that we feel the impact of what was being said, which is more than knowing the meaning of the words. Seeing how the words work together aids in this experience.

Our translation disputes often focus exclusively on figuring out the meanings of certain words, rather than what you describe as their impact. What’s at stake in these debates?

God is concerned to bring us understanding and meaning—doctrinal information, as it were. But God is also very concerned to change us, to have an impact on us, to move us. God knows that this happens not merely from having the accurate meaning of things. Transformation is the goal of the Scriptures, and that’s why I’ve tried to capture the force of the words too. God’s Word pierces our hearts.

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