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The Original New Testament edited and translated from the Greek by Hugh J. Schonfield (Harper & Row: $19.95; 594 pp.)

March 30, 1986|Vinton A. Dearing | Dearing is preparing an edition of the New Testament in Greek. and

The dust jacket of Hugh J. Schonfield's version of the New Testament calls it "a radical translation and interpretation . . . by the author of 'The Passover Plot.' " Actually, it is not particularly radical except when it rearranges the order of some of the texts, and Schonfield keeps his speculations about Jesus' resurrection (the Passover plot) well out of sight. What we have here is a responsible translation into modern British English of writings that Schonfield wishes us to read as historical or literary rather than as sacred documents.

Schonfield contends that Christians have been preconditioned to read the New Testament in ways that have been established by theologians. He seeks to jar the reader loose from this preconditioning by refusing, for example, to use the word "church" in his translation (he uses "community"). He tries, also, to preserve the formality or informality of the originals, as the case may be. Finally, as a Jew familiar with Hebrew, he feels he is particularly sensitive to the Jewish flavor of the New Testament. In sum, he tries to give the reader a better sense of how the authors expressed themselves than other translations allow. One might call his work a new kind of literalism.

Sometimes he is more successful, sometimes less, in what he seeks to do. When he uses "immerse" instead of "baptize" he puts himself in the camp of the Baptists rather than that of the Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians, which is hardly removing the text from theological interpretation. He does better when he translates what the King James Version calls the hem of Jesus' clothes as tassle. Wearing tassels was prescribed for the Jews (they wear them today at the corners of their prayer shawls). Other translators prefer fringe, but either word gives us today a better picture of Jesus' clothes than the word hem.

Readers who are most familiar with the King James Version will find Schonfield's text less like what they are used to than those who are familiar with other modern translations. The King James translators knew of few Greek manuscripts, and trusted the oldest of them least, whereas modern translators know of many and trust the oldest most (translators do not feel bound to any particular edition of the Greek text; they read the published lists of differences between the manuscripts and make their own choices). Since Schonfield does not believe Jesus was God, he always chooses manuscript readings that support his point of view, but he is no more tendentious in this respect than "The Translator's New Testament" (British and Foreign Bible Society, 1973), which to support the opposite point of view puts words into John 8:58 that are not found in any manuscript.

Schonfield is more radical in the way he arranges the text. When he finds passages that may be explanatory, he puts them at the bottom of the pages. He does not try to decide whether the authors wrote these "footnotes," and of course he is speculating that they would have appeared as footnotes if the books had been written today. He removes the Gospel of John from its usual position as the fourth book of the New Testament so that the third and fifth, Luke and Acts, may be more easily read as their author (Luke) presumably intended, that is, as the first two volumes of a history of Christianity, and he rearranges the contents of John. He also chooses his own titles for the books. "The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews" becomes an anonymous "Homily on the High Priesthood of Christ for Jewish Readers," but this title reflects what others besides Schonfield think about the book's author and subject. In the earlier British edition, titled "The Authentic New Testament," Schonfield dispensed with chapter and verse numbers as well, making it effectively impossible to use it as a reference book. The new edition has the chapters and every fifth verse numbered in the margins, but the reader will still find it hard to look things up.

Schonfield provides his own footnotes to the text, as well as introductions to the books and to the translation as a whole, in the same manner as the Oxford Study Bibles and similar publications. His views are clearer than his reasons for them, for like most of those who interpret the Bible for lay persons, he does not include enough supporting data nor does he adequately represent opposing views. It seems naive also for "the Jewish historian of Christian beginnings" (title page) to suppose that a modern Jew knows more about what Jesus and his followers would have said and written than a modern Christian. He may know more about their Jewishness, but he probably knows less about their Christian side. Readers of Schonfield may well learn from his remarks, but they must do their own research before they can decide whether they have learned more than one man's opinion.

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