Another Iconoclastic Translation
Although David Myatt’s translation of the gospel of John from the Christian New Testament is a work-in-progress, sufficient has been released for a preliminary review. Thus far he has published the completed translation of the whole of chapters 1,2 and 3, which partial and regularly updated translation is available, as a pdf file, from The Gospel According To John.
To describe the translation as iconoclastic is something of an understatement. Perhaps more aptly it is heretical in the sense that Wycliffe’s 14th century and Luther’s 16th century translations were at the time considered by some to be heretical. To understand why it might be considered heretical, by mainstream Christians at least, we need to examine Myatt’s methodology.
Myatt’s methodology is the same as that used in his translations of chapters from the Corpus Hermeticum which was written in the same Hellenistic Greek as the New Testament. His methodology is to use some transliterations – theos instead of god/God; phaos instead of light; and so on – and to find unusual English words for Greek terms which he considers are important to preserve the meaning current at the time the writings were composed. His reasoning is that particular English words – and angel, Word, spirit, prison, heaven, hour, and Jews, come to mind vis-a-vis the gospels – have acquired or now convey meanings which are not appropriate to the time of the gospels and which thus distort the text.
One very striking example is his translation of verse 24 of chapter 3. The King James Bible has “For John was not yet cast into prison.” All other English translations are similar. Myatt, however, has “And John had yet to be hurled into a guarded cage.”
In his commentary on this verse he writes,
βεβλημένος εἰς τὴν φυλακὴν. A phrase deserving some consideration, for φυλακή is not ‘prison’ as prisons are understood today and in the past few centuries but rather ‘a guarded cage’, with βεβλημένος εἰς implying a forceful ‘throwing’ or a hurling into such a cage.
A quick check of a dictionary of ancient Greek reveals that φυλάσσω – the origin of the term φυλακή – does mean “to keep guard” and figuratively, in the likes of Herodotus, implies a ‘cage’.
But possibly most controversial of all is his rejection of English terms such as Jews, angel and heaven. In place of Jews he has Judaeans, writing in a comment on chapter 1 verse 19,
After much consideration I have translated ἰουδαία not by the conventional term ‘Jews’ but rather by Judaeans, given (i) that the English terms Jews and Jewish (deriving from the 13th/14th century words gyv/gyw and Iewe) have acquired connotations (modern and medieval) which are not relevant to the period under consideration; and (ii) that the Greek term derives from a place name, Judaea (as does the Latin iudaeus); and (iii) that the Anglo-Saxon version (ASV) retains the sense of the Greek: here (iudeas) as elsewhere, as for example at 2.6, æfter iudea geclensunge, “according to Judaean cleansing.”
In a long and bound to be controversial comment on the term ‘heaven’ he writes,
Conventionally, οὐρανός here is always translated as ‘heaven’ although the term ‘heaven’ – used in the context of the Gospels – now has rather different connotations than the Greek οὐρανός, with the word ‘heaven’ now often implying something explained by almost two thousand years of exegesis and as depicted, for example, in medieval and Renaissance Christian art. However, those hearing or reading this particular Greek gospel for the first time in the formative years of Christianity would most probably have assumed the usual Greek usage of “the heavens” in the sense of the “the star-filled firmament above” or in the sense of “the sky” or as the abode of theos and/or of the gods (ἐν οὐρανῷ θεοί), an assumption consistent with the fact that the Evangelist explains and interprets certain non-Greek words (qv. the comment on 1.42) and considering also his use of a colloquial Greek expression (qv. the comment on 1.51).
It therefore seems apposite to suggest a more neutral word than ‘heaven’ as a translation of οὐρανός and one which might not only be understood in various ‘classical’ ways by an audience of Greek speakers (such as the ways described above) but also be open to a new, and Christian, interpretation consistent with the milieu that existed when the Gospel of John was written and first heard. That is, before the exegesis of later centuries and long before post-Roman Christian iconography. Hence my suggestion of the post-classical Latin term Empyrean, which can bear the interpretation of the abode of theos and/or of the gods, of “the sky”, of the “the star-filled firmament above; and a Christian one suggested by Genesis 2.8 – παράδεισον ἐν Εδεμ (the Paradise of Eden) – and also by shamayim, שָׁמַיִם
Which is why the standard translation of a verse such as chapter 1,19 – “And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who are you?” – is interpreted by Myatt as
For such was the evidence John gave when the Judaeans dispatched priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him: “Who are you?”
His heretical interpretation is evident in so many passages it is difficult to pick out just one or two. But the following is a typical example, from chapter 3, verses 19-21, with Myatt pointing out in his commentary that in the gospel of John the phaos is identified as Jesus himself and thus is in the gospel of John a synonym for Jesus.
And this is the condemnation: That the Phaos arrived in the world but mortals loved the darkness more than the Phaos, for their deeds were harmful. For anyone who does what is mean dislikes the Phaos and does not come near the Phaos lest their deeds be exposed. But whomsoever practices disclosure goes to the Phaos so that their deeds might be manifest as having been done through Theos.
This is conventionally translated as “And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”
The effect of Myatt’s interpretation of the gospel is that it not only humanizes Jesus but also Christianity so that the message we apparently get is not of “fire and brimstone” – not of evil verses good, not of sin and the need to believe – but of what the likes of Julian of Norwich, George Fox and William Penn wrote and spoke of, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Myatt mentions those persons in the Preface to his translation.
As to whether Myatt’s translation, when completed, will find a niche is an interesting question given not just his iconoclastic methodology but also the esteem in which the gospels are held by Christians the vast majority of whom, were they to read his translation, would probably be offended by his interpretation.
As to when the translation will be completed, if the rate of updates is any guide it will be in about a year from now.