Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Bultmann and Translation

I recently observed, and briefly participated in, a FB conversation inspired by the following post by Bart Ehrman. This discussion centred upon Ehrman's description of Rudolf Bultmann's program of demythologization. Some of the critiques were aimed at typos ("Rudolph" vs. "Rudolf," for instance). A more substantive critique aimed at Ehrman's description of Bultmann's demythologization as an effort at "stripping away" the myth in the New Testament to bring out its true message. It was observed that this language was problematic. For Bultmann, the New Testament communicates its message through myth, not despite it, and thus in stripping away the myth the theologian does not reveal the message so much as remove the very thing by which we can know it. To Prof. Ehrman's credit, he entered into the discussion himself, acknowledged that the initial formulation could have been written better, and helpfully suggested that instead of the language of stripping away we opt for the language of translation: Bultmann wanted to translate the message of the New Testament from the idiom of ancient myth to the idiom of modern existential philosophy.

Now, this interests me, because such translation is exactly what Ben Meyer understood as a primary motor of development in Christian history. He connects this back to Newman (hence in part my interest in the latter on the development of doctrine), who apparently wrote in the margin of his own copy of The Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine that development is translation. Meyer also uses the term "transposition" to describe such translation, which is useful to note because this is Lonergan's language for much the same (which, of course, given that Meyer was a student of Lonergan's, should occasion not much of a surprise). If I might use as an example of such translation, I will take Ehrman himself. Ehrman, of course, is one of the most significant New Testament scholars of his generation. His primary contribution, I would argue, resides in the area of communication. What he does is communicate the discourses and thought current (now and previously) in New Testament studies from the language (or "horizon," in more precisely Lonerganian usage) of the specialist into the language of the non-specialist. This is incredibly valuable work.

As Meyer observes of any such translation, something is invariably lost in the translation, while other things are gained. Certain concepts and images must be abandoned in order to communicate particular insights, while new ones emerge to communicate the same. Sometimes those new concepts and images will be able to communicate said insights more clearly or more precisely than those of the originating horizon. This, for instance, Lonergan argues is in part what happens with the unfairly maligned movement from Jewish to Greek horizons (which Meyer rightly notes began not with Christianity's movement from the Jewish to the Gentile worlds, but rather from those Jewish believers more grounded in what we might call Hebraic culture and those more grounded in what we might call Hellenistic, here taking our cue--as does Meyer--from the distinction between Hebraioi and Hellēnistai introduced by Luke in Acts 6:1 as components of the early Jerusalem church). This movement allows early Christians to utilize the rich intellectual resources of ancient Greek thought in order to better examine, understand, and articulate their own. There is something of a movement away from the rich narrative tradition inherited from Judaism, and towards the rich philosophical tradition inherited from Greek thought. Something is lost, something is gained.

Unfortunately, Bultmann's particular work of translation largely turned out to be a dead end. Most fundamentally, I would argue, this is because he read the New Testament texts through a history-of-religions framework that has now been almost entirely abandoned, and aimed to translate into an existentialist framework that has largely been left in the past. In short, he translated from what is now a dead language into what is also now a dead language. Add in that the history-of-religions framework with which he worked died because it was in large part refuted empirically (despite mythicist trolls' desperate need to it in order to furnish themselves with the appearance of insight), and that there is some question about the extent to which Bultmann really apprehended existentialist thought, then as a translation of the New Testament writings into modern horizons (Bultmann's real aim) his work probably needs to be judged less than fully successful. That however does not obviate the possibility and indeed necessity of engaging in the ongoing work of translating the insights of the ancient writers into frameworks that can be adequately apprehended by presently living human beings.

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