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Adventures with The Unvarnished New Testament

July 26, 2009
The Unvarnished New Testament

The Unvarnished New Testament

A few weeks ago, I became interested in biblical translations. I was lamenting the high unlikelihood that we’d ever get an *authoritative* “modern” “retranslation” of the Book of Mormon. For one, we kinda don’t have any source texts whatsoever. For two, the church is kinda committed to believing that it is the most correct book on Earth (OK, so maybe that wasn’t said in a spirit of prophecy…but certainly, when we consider the 8th Article of Faith, notice how the Book of Mormon doesn’t have a “as far as it is translated correctly” caveat?)

So, the Bible, Old Testament and New, intrigued me, because we do have source texts (or, to be more specific, copies of copies of copies of what could be source texts). And so many groups have attempted varying translations.

And so that made me interested in a few things…why did the LDS church stick with such an antiquated King James Version? What secret goodies could be found in the OT or the NT?

And so I started investigating. I read about a bunch of the big translation efforts (NRSV, KJV and NKJV, NIV, ESV, too many acronyms). I didn’t know what route I wanted to go…because it seemed to me that each translation effort had its own bent. If I went NRSV, then I’d be getting rather liberal interpretations…if I went ESV, I’d get Calvinistic interpretations…but ESV and NIV would also give me a good evangelical perspective (and you know, there are a lot of those guys). NKJV might avoid some of the antiquated language problems of the KJV, but otherwise, it would have all the other faults of the KJV…and then depending on the other translation, I’d get something that might not be so readable in English, or something that would be quite readable but too far paraphrased.

Somehow, I came across Church Discipline’s blog entry “10 really good Bibles you may not know about”. And indeed, I didn’t know about most of them. The one that caught my eye was The Unvarnished New Testament, translated by Andy Gaus. At first, I was skeptical, because there weren’t so many other reviews for it, and it definitely did seem unknown (so, I wondered how much ‘legitimacy’ it would have with other Christians).

But after reading a sample of it online (a significant portion is available), I decided that the other stuff wouldn’t matter: I wanted to go for readability without compromise. I was impressed by Gaus’s translation philosophy, and I went for it. After all, I can always get a traditional translation later.

And so for the past couple of weeks, I’ve had my adventure with the UNT. I was not let down by readability. I can’t say that about the KJV. Sorry. Additionally, it makes each character seem like a real person. (One thing I have hated in reading the Book of Mormon — and maybe this is because of its pseudo-Jacobean English — is that the characters don’t seem like people. They seem like paradigms or icons of whatever combination of virtue or vice was needed.)

This led to a problem, though. I thought the characters were too real, and that washed it of divine consequence. Maybe it’s me (perhaps I just don’t have ears to hear, lol) or maybe it’s the translation, so whenever I get to closely reading a traditional translation, I’ll double check. Through the “unvarnishing” of the NT’s terms (e.g., Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit is rendered as the Holy Breath, which is correct, but in English, we have lost the rather organic connection between “ghost” and “breath”…or where “disciple” becomes “student” or “baptism” becomes “bathe” — all of which are justified, but which have become warped through institutionalization and consecration), it doesn’t seem so high and mighty. It seems rather accessible, actually.

If I may recall my days in A.P. English, learning about the literary device of the unreliable narrator, that is what I feel about the authors of the various NT works. From even a vertical reading of the Gospels, for example, you get the sense that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are borrowing from each other (or that unknown Q document), but that their recollections are spotty…and this seems apparent to me even though I have not explicitly researched Bart Ehrman or others’ ‘criticisms’ of biblical accounts.

It doesn’t seem overtly like the work of fiction that can’t keep itself consistent though…rather, it seems the work of people who are accidentally unreliable because certain things just weren’t important to them (like how many times the crow cocks while Peter denies Jesus thrice).

And Paul. Lovably sexist Paul. He laments how no one takes him seriously enough (2nd Corinthians: 11 and 12?). I understand a brotha’s plight: what it’s like to have to do twice as much to only get half the recognition. But it doesn’t make me want to believe him.

That’s the issue: unreliable narrators are, well…unreliable. So while I can get on board of some authors’ messages (love, show love through action, love, darn it!), these messages seem foreign from messages emphasizing divinity aspects. I have no idea why Christians nowadays pay any kind of attention to eschatology, since it seems apparent this was one thing the early believers and Apostles were seriously misinformed about. Why are we paying so much attention to Revelations, a hallucination! (Ok, that’s skeptical). And so on.

But still, it was a great read. I don’t regret having purchased and read it.

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21 Comments
  1. Andrew, I do say that you are hard to figure out. I would have thought this unvarnished book would appeal to you.

  2. Well, didn’t you know that I’m very mysterious?

    I personally liked the book. If I were in a vacuum, then I would prefer it. But at the present moment, I am skeptical because it’s not well-known and I don’t have so much familiarity with the versions of scriptures people are used to reading (e.g., NIV, KJV [oops!], NRSV, etc.,) So it feels like I have to be wary with the UNT.

  3. Hi Andrew. Glad it was helpful. I love Gaus. I’m glad you enjoyed. If you want something that sounds high and mighty and complements the KJV well the REB or the TNIV. The Scholars version will walk you through the Q stuff you are interested in.

    I agree with you on the Book of Mormon needing an update.

    Best wishes

  4. Nice article. Very thoughtful. In my own studies (I have a degree in “this stuff”), I found Gaus’s book very helpful. I like that he makes great strides in presenting the material the way it was originally intended to be presented.

    The gospels were narrative stories, not parsed-out chapter and verse, foot-noted and commentaried to death, dogmatic documents meant to be argued about. Instead, the beauty of them is that each presents a recollection of Jesus meant for a specific community who enjoyed hearing (and re-hearing) the story.

    Paul’s letters were just that: letters. So, to see them presented as letters makes them more understandable. He was writing to specific people about specific issues. He was not writing for the “universal Church” to create dogma. Imagine if your emails to friends and family, and your blog postings, were turned into universal dogma for believers everywhere? First of all, you’d probably be much more careful about what you write–if you wrote anything at all!

    To see these texts “come alive” is what makes this book special. Now, I think the main reason that “Christians” haven’t given Gaus’ book more street cred is that the churches themselves weren’t involved in the usual political-theological discussion of every word translated. The typical process involves years of work and committees of people who vote on each and every word to ensure that the translated words fit the church’s accepted theology first–not that the translated words are the most accurate to the original texts (and then the accepted theology may or may not have to adapt to the text).

    Anyway, thanks for the great post. Seems that may be the issue with the Book of Mormon, too many political committees and not enough accurate text.

  5. thefoff, I actually agree with you on all of the accounts, and with your characterization of how the typical translations differ from what Gaus was doing (and how it actually makes Gaus’s work more faithful to the original)…but I still can’t help but feel that many people aren’t quite concerned about that…as you say…they want a fit for theology first.

    The Book of Mormon certainly has issues (seeing as there’s 0 text to compare against, and even if there were, it seems like the “translation” process was meant in a creative sense.)

  6. One question I’ve always had about the Book of Mormon is, since there’s no “original”, how can it be translated? There is a “fatal flaw” in there somewhere that I’ve never quite been able to get over. I mean, as religious stories go, Joseph Smith’s is perhaps one of the more fantastical. At least with the Bible there is a “paper trail” so to speak that we are able to follow back to the original sources, even if some of those originals are lost, we know their history and who wrote them for the most part.

    None of the Bible was written by the actual hand of God, nor does anyone pretend that that happened. Instead, we understand that the Bible is “inspired” by God, or rather inspired because of people’s experience of God. But it is human beings, operating our of human understanding, that brought it forth into being (sounds so much better than “wrote it down”, and is a little more accurate considering it was first orally transmitted, then written down, then edited together, then re-edited, then translated, re-translated, compiled, re-edited, translated so more, theologized, commented upon, re-edited, re-translated, and ultimately sold in a store near you.)

    The Book of Mormon just doesn’t have that kind of lineage. It seems to have just “appeared” (at the hand of Joseph Smith) and he seems to be the only one who was there when it happened.

  7. Well, the idea is that there was once an original (the golden plates), and it was attested to by witnesses (first 3 who attested that they had seen and had handled the plated from an angel…and then 8 who attested that they had been shown the plates by Joseph Smith). The reason we don’t have them now is because after translation, the plates were supposedly taken up by an angel. So if you can believe that (you’d be surprised how many do), there you go.

    But even with this (which is a relatively faithful position), there are questions about *how* Joseph Smith translated. So, it ends up being that during the translation process, he wasn’t really using the plates (!), but a seer stone (!!) and hat.

    Similarly, with the Book of Abraham, another one of Smith’s projects…there was a discovery of some of the papyrus that Joseph Smith had used, and even some notes detailing paragraphs and whole sentences that Smith had gotten from mere characters. The problem was that when the papyri were found, Egyptologists independently and overwhelmingly noted, “Uh, this is simply a funerary text.”

    But even with such a stinging indictment, no one left in droves. Rather, now there’re ideas that 1) perhaps that wasn’t the papyrus used (despite the notes comparing hieroglyphs with what they were translated to) or 2) (probably the more tenable), that Joseph’s “translation” process was more of an “inspiration” process anyway.

    The irony is that there is “suspicion” about the translation process the Bible went through, and that the early church screwed things up enough that a restoration was necessary [enter Joseph Smith]. So, it may look like a double-standard, but it serves to create the framework, see?

    You’d probably want to ask a faithful, knowledgeable member about it (note: there are faithful members who don’t know the issues…knowledgeable nonmembers who aren’t faithful, but some people, even though they know the issues, stick with the church.) Some come by occasionally so they’ll probably comment. But to me…I can’t help feel like saying, “And scientology is alive and well too…so obviously, some people don’t really care about rigor, authority, lineage, plausibility.”

  8. And there you have it. 🙂

    It seems that people have forgotten the first rule of creation: God created human beings with brains, so we can *reason* things out. Instead, it seems that many would like to buy into the notion that *faith is completely blind*. But faith without reason is just as heretical as reason without faith. I’m positive there’s a middle ground.

    If people of faith believe in a “living God”, then inherent in the concept of living is *changing*. Which means that the God we interact with today would be changed from the God of old anyway, and so we should strive for a present-tense relationship based on reason-guided faith instead of blind faith based on what doesn’t really seem to be like reason at all.

    But people still buy the Snuggie, so what do I know about reason?

  9. Interestingly enough, faithful members would point out that they are reasoning things out. They would simply point out that into the calculation must be figured subjective experiences relating to the scripture, church, etc., And the manifest fact is that they’ve had some spiritual experiences that can’t be reasoned away.

    Even more interestingly is that many would say that with latter-day prophets and modern-day revelation, the LDS church pays more heed to a living God than other denominations. So, much to the chagrin of church critics, LDS theology ad doctrine can change…so that the God of 1820BC isn’t the same as the God of 1820AD and that God isn’t the same (or rather, perhaps he is the same, but the doctrines that he applies to humanity isn’t) as 2009AD.

    In fact, your last comment holistically taken is very pro-LDS.

  10. I think it is even less reasonable to think that God intends to have a “one size fits all” relationship with human beings. That seems to be the most unreasonable thing of all… as in:

    1. I have a relationship with God that looks like A.
    2. Therefore all human beings should have a relationship with God that looks like A.
    3. Anyone who does not have a relationship with God that looks like A is going to hell.

    That, by definition, is an absence of reason. Yet, that is what almost every (there are some notable exceptions) religion, like LDS, asks of their followers (and non-followers alike).

    Human institutions, all human institutions, will always fall short. That’s by design, and it’s something that every person should taken into account when they join one.

    http://www.lightplanet.com/mormons/daily/health/tea_eom.htm
    …is an example of what I’m talking about. Really? Anything in excess will cause problems with our health, but science tells us that some caffeine is actually very good for us, and that teas have wonderful healing properties. Yet, an outright ban because “God said don’t drink it.” These are the things that churches really ought to avoid defining. Jesus certainly avoided it, because a relationship with God is not filled with universal “do’s and don’ts”.

    Although, if a church were to come out against the Snuggie as an abomination against nature, I certainly wouldn’t argue the point.

  11. The problem is that LDS theology sidesteps a lot of that.

    It’s something like

    1) I have a relationship with God that looks like A
    2) But I recognize that my relationship isn’t “complete” and others don’t necessarily see the “complete” nature of God either. So, other human beings may have a relationship with God that they perceive doesn’t look like A.
    3) Those who have a relationship with God that looks like A have more understanding (we believe…), but those who do not have such a relationship cannot be blamed for not having a relationship.
    4) We should share our “A God” with others, showing them the similarities and where we believe we have more understanding.
    5) If any man comes to a full understanding of God A (which is really difficult, btw) and then rejects God A, this is the only way he can go to “hell.”

    Is the LDS church ethnocentric? You betcha. Of course it claims that it and its institutions know more about God, have the most correct idea of God, etc., But most members aren’t going to deny that other people have spiritual experiences. What they are going to say is something like, “But look at where you (or your leaders or your religious text) misinterpreted. Check out our book, ask if it rings true, and pray about it.”

    Meanwhile, not only does the church have to deal with religious proscriptions, but most religions similarly have to deal with ‘dos and don’ts.’ Again, you have stated that you’re suspect of all religious institutions, but I mean, many, many, many people are against gays (and especially gay marriage) and one of their top reasons is: “Because God said so.” When they are using the words of old Jewish lore or of Paul and attributing it however they want.

  12. At least with the Bible there is a “paper trail” so to speak that we are able to follow back to the original sources, even if some of those originals are lost, we know their history and who wrote them for the most part.

    I’m not so sure the situation is any better with the bible than with the Book of Mormon. With almost all the books we know we are looking at books in several layers that have been redacted. We aren’t clear about where the layers came from or how they came together or who was redacting and why. We know where the Book of Mormon first appeared The Greek NT aren’t “originals” anymore than the Book of Mormon in English is an original.

  13. I saw this translation and showed interest due to the fact that the many different translations of the Bible interest me. Just by reading these posts it sounds like this translation is aimed toward Mormons, is this a correct observation?

  14. Ray D,

    I don’t think that’s correct at all. The Unvarnished New Testament is a way of stripping away a lot of the church-language baggage that various denominations (including, yes, the LDS church) have attached to the New Testament.

    • Thanks, that helps, I was just curious, thought maybe the language in it was possibly written for the LDS specifically. Once again thanks.

  15. Ray,

    No problem. Yeah, the thing about The UNT is how it strays away from any language that would seem “familiar” to any religious group at all.

    For example, I mean, “baptism” is a word that has a lot of connotations to a lot of folks. But the UNT sticks to words like “bathe” — which wouldn’t have the same connotations. As a result, one can really look at the New Testament from a much FRESHER perspective.

  16. I had a chance to read “The Unvarnished Gospels” – (I haven’t had the chance to read the UNT yet.) But I remember the author mentioning in the preface to the UVG that as a Greek scholar, he had discovered an interesting dichotomy in the way Greek was translated:

    1. If the item being translated was NOT “religious” (i.e. a bible or other religious work), then there was a certain “way” (rules, so to speak), that the Greek was rendered into English, So, for any “profane” work, someone’s “e-mail” 🙂 or letters or various books, etc. the Greek would always be translated in a certain way – or in a way substantially similar.

    2. However, if the item being translated *WAS* scriptural, religious, or whatever, then there was an entirely different set of rules used, common Greek words were translated in ways that were entirely different from the “standard” way Greek is normally translated. In essence, religious translations treated Greek as if it were an entirely different language than “common” Greek, even though the same people might be speaking the same way about the exact same things that non-religious works discuss.

    So, he decided to “re-translate” the Gospels, (and eventually the entire NT), using the “normal” rules for translating Greek that linguistic scholars have agreed upon for hundreds of years instead of the rather twisted “religious” rule set.

    Having read the UVG, I believe that this style of translation – using “normal” translation rules – presents both all the various people, as well as both Jesus and God, in a much more approachable manner. Which, by the way, jibes more closely with what the apostles say further out in the New Testament.

    What say ye?

    Jim (JR)

  17. Re: God “A”, “B”, or whomever:

    God is God. Period.

    However, the way God chooses to reveal himself to each of us, individually, may differ. Because of this, there may seem to be a multitude of “Gods” because God chooses in what way he is reveled to us.

    Another important point that most “christian” religions miss is that God is actually a loving God, and his primary mode of action is one of grace. Because of that I have no right to judge you as regards to your faith any more than you have the right to judge me.

    Here’s one I love to toss back in to the teeth of those holy-roller bible pounders that teach hellfire and damnation – this come right out of their own sermons: (And supposedly comes out of the Book of Revelations – I haven’t found it yet. . . .)

    As the story goes; at the end of time, all of us, individually, will have to stand before God to be judged worthy or not.. According to their reading of the Book of Revelations, God then turns to Jesus Christ and asks “Does this person’s name appear in the Book of Life?” Whereupon Jesus answers either “Yes Lord” or “No, Lord”.

    Now, note something very interesting here: If there was anyone on this earth who was qualified to judge us, it would be Jesus Christ. Yet, if you pay close attention, you notice that even when we stand before God at the end of time, Jesus still does not sit in judgement over us – he simply adduces evidence. It is God, and God alone who has the right and authority to judge us as worthy or unworthy.

    So, if Jesus Christ Himself does not and cannot sit in judgement over us, what gives me the right to sit in judgement over anyone else?

    What say ye?

    Jim (JR)

  18. Jim (JR),

    I completely agree with your first comment. By translating using “normal” translation rules, the New Testament seems very different, but it also seems more approachable.

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