Presenting the New Testament

So I’m on the subway, and this guy gets on at Times Square, and  he comes over and takes the seat next to me and says — 

We all know how talking (writing) in the present tense about something that happened in the past captures the interest of our listeners (readers), and makes the events themselves remain vivid.

Using the present tense for past actions was a device that the earliest known transmitters of the gospels employed quite a bit, but most translations of the New Testament (NT) have moved such descriptions of Jesus’s actions into the more magisterial past tense.  Or, as in the King James Version, the present tense is there, but the dignity of "saith" for "says" takes the immediacy from our ears. 

So it’s an enormous pleasure to discover Robert H. Gundry’s monumental new Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation, coming out from Hendrickson in July. 

Gundry (scholar- in-residence, Westmont Coll.) seeks to present the NT’s books in an English that captures the emphases and tones of the earliest known gospel manuscripts.  In his introduction he explains: "…I’ve portrayed the New Testament authors as speaking rather than writing and their original addressees as hearing rather than reading. For first-century authors would normally have dictated their words to a writing secretary; and given the low rate of literacy and the scarcity of private copies, first century addressees would normally have heard the text read to them."  

I daresay many readers, whatever their religion, think of reading the NT as a chore beyond consideration, but they should consider Gundry’s book, whether or not they share his believe in "spirit-inspired" authors, sacred text, or even the divinity of Jesus. An interest in the historical Jesus is sufficient. (Gundry, right, states, "Above all, this volume aims to serve Christian ministers, Bible study leaders, and serious-minded lay students…." — that last category describes me.) The majority of the text in Gundry’s book is made up of his very helpful interpretive and editorial comments, rather than the translation itself. But the translation is bolded, so it’s possible to follow its alone and save Gundry’s comments for a separate reading.

Sure enough, Gundry’s translation strips away lyricism that had been artificially imposed into the gospels. What’s fascinating is how—with the present tense weaving in and out of the text, and with the choppy rhythms, another kind of lyricism manifests itself, with a power all its own. For example, here’s Mattew 21:18-22 translated by Gundry: 

"And on seeing one fig tree by the road, he went to it and found nothing on it except leaves only; and he says to it, "No longer should fruit come from you — forever!"  As Gundry explains, "I’ve refused to sacrifice meaning for lightness of touch." When the original was emphatic in a particular way, so is Gundry.

When Jesus speaks casually, so does Gundry. Here’s John 21:4-6 translated by him. "And when it now got to be early morning, Jesus stood on the beach. The disciples didn’t know that it’s Jesus, however. So Jesus says to them, ‘Boys, you don’t have anything to eat, do you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ And he told them, ‘Throw the net on the right side of the boat, and you’ll find [fish]." 

Gundry elects to skip John 7:53-8:11 as being non-canonical (it didn’t enter gospel manuscripts until later).  Frustratingly, not only is that where we hear the admonition "let he who is without sin cast the first stone," but it also offers the only instance in the entire NT of Jesus writing: "But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground." 

How many readers love to ponder what he may have written, canonical or not, in those shifting sands!

Last year, LJ’s "Spiritual Living" columnist, Graham Christian, reviewed several new editions of the Bible (see the reviews here); I look forward to reading our forthcoming review of Gundry’s volume.

Margaret Heilbrun About Margaret Heilbrun

Margaret Heilbrun is a former Senior Editor, Library Journal Book Review.


  1. Richard Fraser says:

    Speaking as a fellow “serious lay student,” it sounds like this book is long overdue. Maybe someone has written a book like this before, but if so, I never heard of it, and I’ve looked. I’ve asked informed people (clergy, or academics, or both) what they consider the “best” NT translation, and their highest recommendation is invariably the one that’s most “poetic.” I didn’t want to ask for the most “faithful” translation, fearing that I would get an even less satisfactory answer.
    One beef, though: I think it’s a mistake to omit anything as “non-canonical.” By all means explain any controversies attached to the passages, but leave it to the reader to decide on the veracity of the incidents related in the text. John 7:53-8:11 is widely considered to be a late interpolation, but it almost certainly began life as an oral tradition. Gundry appears to be taking pains to stress the spoken voice of the Gospels, so including it would be consistent with he task that he assigns himself. Moreover, even if it was included later, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. The key here is Jesus’ act of writing; the text doesn’t say what Jesus wrote, just that he wrote something. If the story were made up, that probably wouldn’t be left hanging. Why mention the writing and not what it said? I think it (or something like it) happened because that detail has no bearing on the story itself. The words that Jesus wrote were incidental or their importance was forgotten, but that detail was so well known that it couldn’t be left out.
    Besides, the end of Mark, after “And they were afraid,” is widely considered to be an interpolation. Surely Gundry left that in. But minor hair-splitting and curmudgeonliness aside, it’s about time somebody wrote this book. Good for Gundry.

  2. Margaret Heilbrun says:

    Thanks for that thoughtful comment, Richard! I agree! I think of it (John 7:53-8:11) just like those other bits that are usually maintained with their slight oddity arguing for their extending back to a genuine witness, e.g., that bit in Mark 4:38 where Jesus is specifically described as resting on a cushion, and of course there’s Paul’s request in 2 Timothy that Timothy bring back his (Paul’s) cloak, which he’d left with Carpus at Troas, which is evidence of 2 Timothy being a genuine Paul letter. Still, three cheers for Gundry, as you say! MH

  3. Mary Bisbee-Beek says:

    Thanks for this Margaret, stellar insight and information as always! MBB

  4. Stewart says:

    Well, I guess. But it doesn’t sound like people will still be fondly repeating this biblical language 500 years from now!

  5. Crystal Goldman says:

    How intriguing! As beautiful as the language in the King James version is, I’ve always preferred the more direct translations.

  6. A quip is just what the doctor ordered to lighten things up a bit. “Avoid cutting yourself while chopping vegetables by getting someone else to hold the veggies while you cut.”