Book Review: John Goldingay, The First Testament: A New Translation

Goldingay, John. The First Testament: A New Translation. Downers Grove Ill..: IVP Academic, 2018. 262 pp. Pb; $24.00.    Link to IVP Academic

In Goldingay’s recent Reading Jesus’s Bible (Eerdmans 2017) he argued Jesus and the writers of the New Testament not only read the First Testament, but use it as the bedrock for their theology and practice. In two other recent publications from IVP Academic, Do We Need the New Testament? (2015) and A Reader’s Guide to The Bible (2017) Goldingay argued the First Testament is foundational for a proper understanding the New Testament. Although he said few Christians would actually question the need for the First Testament in Do We Need the New Testament?, recent comments from Andy Stanley on “un-hitching” Christianity from the Old Testament reflect the struggle of the modern Christian reader to see the relevance of the first two thirds of their Bible. Or worse, they are embarrassed about much of the content in the Old Testament, preferring the loving God of the New. John Piper responded to Andy Stanley (as did virtually every blogger under the sun), forcing Stanley to clarify his views and un-hitch himself from his own comments.

Goldingay, First TestamentIn order to further his goal of bringing the First Testament alive for the church today, Goldingay has produced a new translation of the Hebrew Bible. The title of the translation reflects a modern allergy to the phrase “Old Testament” since the title implies antiquated or out-of-date. It is not the “we do not need it anymore testament,” but the first three-quarters of the canon of Scripture. As I have often said to my students we need a thorough knowledge of the literature and theology of the Hebrew Bible in order to fully understand the New Testament.

This translation had its origins in Goldingay’s Old Testament for Everyone series published by Westminster John Knox. The translation done for those popular commentaries was “substantially revised.” In the preface to the volume he lists a series of principles for the translation, beginning with his desire to stick as closely to the original Hebrew and Aramaic as possible using everyday English as much as possible. For example, he uses contractions and other colloquial expressions, but this is not a paraphrase. For example, most traditional Bible translate the euphemism for sex as “he knew his wife.” In Genesis 4:1, the man “slept with his wife” and in Isaiah 8:3 it is “I had sex with my wife.” Since the goal is a translation which reflects the underlying Hebrew, occasionally there are rough or jerky sentence; but that is the nature of the Hebrew Bible. In addition, he sets poetry out to look like poetry, a common practice in modern Bible translations. The goal is accurate translation while preserving the ancient Hebrew flavor of the First Testament.

For the name of God, Goldingay chose to use Yahweh rather than the common circumlocution Lord. Goldingay transliterates most names so they appear more akin to their Hebrew equivalents. Most of these will be apparent to readers, Mosheh for Moses, Yehoshua for Joshua, etc. For others, the first occurrence has the traditional name in brackets: Havvah for Eve, Qayin for Cain, or Ha’ay for Ai in Joshua 8. Seeing names like Iyyob (Job) and Hisqiyyahu (Hezekiah) are quite shocking, but reflect the actual pronunciation of these names which have been blended through translations of the Hebrew into Greek, Latin and English. Fortunately he uses the traditional names for the book titles. This practice moves away from traditional spellings but also traditional (easier) pronunciations. This may present some difficulty for some readers, but it is important for Goldingay’s goal of allowing the reader to hear the Hebrew sounds in the Hebrew Bible.

Although this is not a study Bible, Goldingay includes a short introduction to the history of the First Testament as well as for each book. He is not particularly concerned with traditional introductory issues in these single-page prefaces. Instead his focus on the main themes of the book and how the book fits into the overarching canon of Scripture.

Like most modern Bibles, Goldingay has added a short title to sections. These are often mini-interpretations, such as “How to stand tall” (Psalm 52) or “How to weave a sanctuary (Exodus 26). Exodus 1:1-19 is labeled “On how not to render to Caesar,” an appropriate title with a New Testament allusion. Others are tongue-in-cheek, such as Esther 5:6-6:4, “The girl who knows how to work her man” or Ezekiel 37:1-14, “Dem bons, dem bones, dem dry bones.” Some may not be helpful for someone who does not know the story. For example, Ruth 4:1-10 is entitled “how not to get overextended in property ownership.” Although that is what happens in the section for Boaz’s rival, someone reading just the heading might be led to believe this is some legislation on taxation.

As observed above, Goldingay uses traditional names for the books of the First Testament. He also chose to use the traditional order of the books. This order is based on the Septuagint and reflects that Greek translation rather than the order of the First Testament itself. Perhaps it would be too jarring to see Ruth, Esther or Daniel moved out of their traditional place in the canon. On the other hand, this translation is intended for Christian readers so the order of the Christian canon is understandable.

Conclusion. Some will be as skeptical of this new translation as they were when N. T. Wright released his The Kingdom New Testament or David Hart Bentley’s recent translation which highlighted the “fragmentary formulations” of the New Testament “without augmentation or correction.” Others will receive this new translation for what it is, one scholar’s attempt to produce a readable translation which is faithful to the spirit of the First Testament. As Goldingay says in the preface to The First Testament, there is no such thing as a “best translation of the Old Testament.” Goldingay’s translation is an example of a faithful translation which comes from a scholar with a deep passion to see Christians read the First Testament in a form as close to the original Hebrew as possible.

 

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: John Goldingay, The First Testament: A New Translation

  1. I’m glad to see a move away from the title “Old Testament”, but not fully satisfied with “First Testament” either. I’d like to see Christians broadly get more comfortable with what a great many scholars of the Bible have been using for a long time: “Hebrew Scriptures”. Of course, coupling “New Testament” to that is not good parallelism, and “Greek (or Greco-Roman) Scriptures” for “NT” is not quite apropos, either, as “NT” authors were mostly Jewish also, tho writing in Greek… so it’s complicated.

    But the fact that the big majority of Judaism takes the “First Testament” as the ONLY canonized Bible, the implication of a second or later testament without the qualifier of “Hebrew” seems too disregarding of what actually came via their ancestors. And, at least in some sense, that body of work has been co-opted by Christians in adding to and re-labeling the historical first portion, whether as “first” or “old”.

    Another reason I feel including “Hebrew” with “Scriptures” or even with “Testament” is appropriate is to keep from implying (as in “First Testament”) that these scriptures are necessarily the earliest or the only (maybe with NT added in) “Word of God” given to humanity. I know many from India and regions nearby (Hindus and others, including Western scholars or devotees) would like to chime in with a probably-valid contention that at least portions of THEIR scriptures are significantly older and they have a comparable claim to being divine revelations.

    I think I’m o.k. with Testament, in that covenant/testament is central there, so if that is kept, right now my preference would probably be “Early Hebrew Testament”, leaving room for a later “new covenant” (Hebrew scriptural term) potentially called something clumsy like “Later Hebrew Testament in Greek”. This might be seen as both more accurate and more suitable to keeping respect for Jewish beliefs that do not recognize the later as “testament” or scripture. Not a “hill to die on” but something to give further thought to.

    Like

  2. I do have a hard time not calling it “Hebrew Bible” since that was drilled into me in my PhD, but there is always a new trendy thing in scholarship. The bad thing about Hebrew Bible is the NT is not the Greek Bible, that properly refers to the Septuagint. First Testament works, but you are right, none of this is a hill to die on.

    Goldingay has been pushing First Testament for a while. I am surprised no one has tried “Majority Bible” yet….

    Like

  3. As with Bentley’s critics (and the critics of Brian Simmons Passion Translation) I wonder if a single person should be translating a collection like the First/Second Testaments? Isn’t it better to work in a committee with deeper perspectives and broader knowledge to fill in the gaps?

    Like

    • Yes, absolutely! A massive committee structure that produces major Bible translations like the NRSV, NIV or ESV is much better than an individual, although even those structures have theological assumptions. I do not think scholars will cite Goldingay’s translation like they would the NRSV or NIV either, just as they ought to avoid Bentley or the Message.

      Everyone should recognize this as one scholar’s honest effort at a good translation (and it is good), but no translation is every perfect.

      Like

  4. “First Testament” is appropriate for Goldingay’s translation, as would be, e.g., “Original Testament”. Because of Goldingay’s theological stance “First Testament” is arguably a better designation than “Old Testament” while, at the other end of the spectrum, an ESV better retains “Old Testament.”

    If one is happy to overlook the presence of Aramaic passages within it, “Hebrew Bible” makes sense as a designation for this body of writings in Hebrew, just as “Greek Bible” makes sense as a designation for an overlapping body of writings in Greek. It makes no sense to call what is clearly (part of) an English Bible a “Hebrew Bible.”

    Like

    • In my ph.D program, Hebrew Bible was preferable to OT, “Greek Bible” was the Septuagint although LXX was better, and Greek New Testament for the NT. That is fairly standard in the academy. Everyone knows there are a few chapters of Aramaic but the designation has stuck.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.