Sunday, 20 March 2016

Demythologizing and Translation

I recently made the following comment on Facebook, in regard to a conversation about Rudolf Bultmann's demythologizing program, in which James McGrath referred to Bultmann's project as one of translating between the first-century milieu in which the New Testament texts originated into the 20th-century milieu in which Bultmann operated. The comment was well-received, so I thought that I would post it here, with some minor edits to ease the translation from Facebook to blog, and then expanded upon in a way that FB does not allow.

"Translation" is the perfect word for demythologizing, and I would suggest allows us to situate Bultmann's project not as a radical break in Christian theologizing but rather as something right at its core. I think it very enlightening that Luke presents the first major act of Christian proclamation as an occasion of miraculous translation, wherein the Holy Spirit overcomes all linguistic barriers (I refer of course to Pentecost). Then the first significant internal Christian struggle mentioned in the text is between two groups defined by their language (the Hebraists and the Hellenists). Then we see throughout the balance of Acts and the bulk of the Pauline corpus a focus upon how to translate Christianity from its Jewish home into a Gentile milieu. The story of Christianity is the story of how to translate certain initial convictions about Jesus and the God of Israel into the languages and thought-worlds of other peoples. I don't see what Bultmann is doing as any different. In fact, I think that perhaps what many people find objectionable is not that he engages in translation but rather that he does so openly, never pretending to be simply relating what the biblical tradition says.

I would argue that the problems in the specific project of demythologizing, as carried out by Bultmann and his disciples, come not from the theological impulse to translate, which is at least as old as Christianity, but rather from the reality that Protestant theologians often tend to assume that one can jump straight from the New Testament to their own time, neglecting the couple or so thousand years of other translation efforts in between. They quite simply overlook a significant amount of data as they undertake their work. As such, theological translation today cannot be simply of the New Testament material but also of past, theologically-decisive translations of that material. [N.B. the original comment ended here].

The failure to consciously reflect upon past acts of theological translation leads them to unreflectively import much from the history of that translation. For instance, the Protestant Paul tends to be read through an Augustinian become Protestant become modern prism. What we have in actuality is a Paul translated into a fourth-century Latin Christian idiom translated into a sixteenth-century Protestant Christian idiom translated again for the 20th or 21st century. It is this Paul with which the New Perspective tends to engage. Perhaps the question then becomes not "Who today reads Paul best?" but rather "What do modern New Testament scholars need to do with the Augustinian heritage? the Lutheran? the Calvinist? the 19th-century liberal Protestant tradition that most immediately birthed modern New Testament scholarship?"

1 comment:

  1. Don't meet in someone's eyes but mine
    Return, whilst I am alive
    for the sake of God, turn your horse toward country, your abode
    Don't meet in someone's eyes but mine Übersetzungsbüro Essen

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