Tom Wright’s New Testament Translation

Tom Wright’s New Testament Translation January 19, 2012

I’m not hearing much chat about Tom Wright’s new translation of the New Testament, called The Kingdom New Testament, but it sure does deserve careful consideration to be on your desk or chair when you read the Bible. I hope everyone gets a copy and puts it next to the Bible they are now reading — read them together for a month or so, take it to church, and see what you think. I think you will like it.

Before I say any more about Tom’s splendid achievement, I want to make one observation about all translations.

Who has been reading The Kingdom New Testament? What are your judgments on this translation?

There is room for someone — or a team of someones — to translate (at least) the New Testament into the specific idiom, syntax, and style of individual authors. Matthew doesn’t sound like Mark, though those two would be much closer to one another than either is to Luke. And John’s an entirely different author, and then Acts belongs with Luke so those two books ought to sound alike (though Luke 1-2 is a bit of its own kind of style). Of Paul’s letters there is some dispute about authors and secretaries writing for Paul but that’s not the point: Romans and Galatians and 1-2 Corinthians are more alike, while those prison letters and then the pastoral letters deserve to have their own stylistic translation. Then Hebrews, well, there’s a book that is unlike anything else in the New Testament … I could go on. You get my point. One of the decisions of translation committees is to make every author sound like the host language — in my case, American English. Translation committees have been amazingly successful, then, at making the Bible readable and, because that is their intent, at hiding the styles of the authors.

On to Tom Wright’s KNT.

Better than any translation I know today, other than the most literal of translations (which have an entirely different problem), I hear the author’s Greek behind Tom’s translation. Still, Tom Wright is much more in tune with rendering the Greek NT into contemporary English, and that’s the subtitle of the KNT: A Contemporary Translation. He does so with elan at times. The translation is brisk and energetic, it’s gender neutral, and it has some real surprises that will make you smile — and provide insight at the same time.

I’m writing a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, and thanks to the many who have inquired where I am in the process — I’m done, but am reading a bundle of items I just don’t want to ignore though one could read on and on … in reading Tom’s Sermon translation I found the following notable renderings:

Instead of saying Jesus “opened his mouth” and said in 5:2, Tom has “He took a deep breath…”
We get “Blessings” and not “Blessed.”
He turns it all into a I’m-talking-to-you promise when he has “You’re going to be comforted” instead of the 3d person plural passive “They will be comforted.”
“… hunger and thirst for justice…”
On the bad salt … “and walk all over it.”
As I said, “… unless your covenant behavior is far superior to that of the scribes…”
“to the ancient people”
We get “foul and abusive language” in 5:22.
He uses “Gehenna” instead of hell, and this is puts us in 1st Century Jerusalem.
“If your right eye trips you up…” in 5:29.
The exception clause: “unless it’s connection with immorality” (5:32).
At 5:3: “say yes when you mean yes.”
5:47: “Even Gentiles do that, don’t they?”
6:1: “When you are practicing your piety, mind you don’t do it with an eye on the audience!”
He uses “play-acting” and “play-actors” for “hypocrite.”
And when you pray, “don’t pile up a jumbled heap of words” (6:7).
“Give us today the bread we need now” … “don’t bring us into the great trial.”
In the fasting passage, “tidy your hair and your beard…”
“Show me your treasure, and I’ll show you where your heart is” (6:21).
“If your eye is honest and clear…”
“Take a tip from the lilies in the field” (6:28).
And “you little-faith lot” (6:30).
“Make your top priority God’s kingdom and his way of life” (6:33).
Golden Rule: “So whatever you want people to do to you, do just that to them. Yes: this is what the law and the prophets are all about” (7:12).
“He was teaching them, you see, on his own authority…” (7:29).

There is something quite distinct about Tom’s translation: he wants the reader to feel the 1st Century, to hear a Jew call Jesus “Messiah” or “King” and he wants his readers to know that the word “righteousness” just might not cut through ecclesial thickets and deserves to be translated at times a “justice” and (I observe in Matt 5:17-20) as “covenant behavior.” So, yes, there’s a touch of the new perspective, or as Tom calls his approach, the “fresh” perspective, but it’s very even-handed and not at all overdone.

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  • The former Bishop of Durham is a welcome voice in a crowded translation landscape.

  • What is specifically “Kingdom” about the translation?

  • I’ve enjoyed reading it. There are some unexpected words and phrases, and Scot, you seem to have hit on all of them in your post. Again, I’m enjoying reading this NT.

  • Paul W

    Full disclosure. I grew up on the RSV in my early years and gravitated to the NRSV as my primary Bible soon after its publication. As far as Evangelical translations go I like the ESV (regardless of the power politics)and the NET. Years ago I also learned a bit of Greek too.

    In short I think Wright’s translation efforts make for an enjoyable read. It is clear, vivid, and comprehensible English. Stylistically I particularly like how he has punctuated the text. The punctuation goes a long way toward keeping his mostly word-for-word translation from being stiff or stodgy. At times punctuation is used in place of the translation of a word or its nuance.

    I also enjoy how dialogue is written in the Gospels. Rather than start a sentence,‘Jesus answered and said to them’, he has provided the opening spoken words and then added ‘said Jesus to them’ or whatever.

    I also rather like that at junctions where all sorts of little translation options are available Wright tends to make interpretive choices which specifies the text in a particular direction. Major translation committees, it seems to me, leave the majority of all those options rather ambiguous, bland, and noncommittal.

    IMHO such interpretive specificity is both a strength and weakness of any translation written by an individual rather than by a committee. Translations by individuals are almost always more stylistic than those by committee and accordingly almost always more interesting. Wright being such an exceptional communicator stands out even among others who have traveled this path before him (e.g., E. Peterson; J.B. Phillips; James Moffatt etc.).

  • Sorry to see it is not in the Kindle format yet. Love to download those samples.

  • Glad you posted this. Recently, I saw an advertisement about his translation and realized that I had actually heard very little said about it since it has been out.

    I have not purchased it yet but your list of his renderings is good motivation. Thanks.

  • Bob

    I’m enjoying it thoroughly. As with you, it has made me laugh at times (in a good way). Some of the Anglicisms are amusing too, as in the occasional “you lot” when Jesus is talking to the disciples (or “you little-faith lot.”).

  • I got it when it came out, but haven’t read through it all yet. I do use it in my study and sermon prep. from time to time. I like it a lot. If the new NIV hadn’t come out at roughly the same time, I would probably use the KNT more.

    Scot, I heartily agree with your assessment of a lack of authorial voice and style in our English translations. I have been thinking for a while now how cool it would be to have a translation that draws out the flavor of each author!

  • Nadine

    Its a good translation. Mine is by my bed. I’ve found it valuable for helping to get at what the authors were actually trying to say.

  • DRT

    I have had it on my desk since it came out and have enjoyed the perspective Tom brings to the text. I admit, I still read his and others in parallel though, it makes me appreciate his all the more!

  • Johnathon

    I’m reading it and reading his translation of James in preparation for your class in Orland Park this Saturday. Looking forward to it.

  • Clay Knick

    I use the KNT right beside the RSV, NIV’11, & NRSV. I love it for all the reasons you mentioned, Scot.

  • Is there anywhere available a sample (maybe a short book of the Bible) to read before purchasing?

  • Rodney

    I hear Tom’s voice when I read it.

  • Gordon

    how does it compare to the “message”?

  • Craig Beard

    Scot, I appreciate your comment, “There is room for someone — or a team of someones — to translate (at least) the New Testament into the specific idiom, syntax, and style of individual authors.” Numerous times over the years I have read scholars saying “such-and-such a NT author’s writing sounds like this in Greek.” For those who can’t appreciate individual authorial styles and the differences between styles, it would be great to have a translation to turn to that would help in that regard. Perhaps someone(s) will take notice and move forward on this.

  • I love reading it! I love the way it personalises things – and the very different wording forces me to read it with new eyes – rather than scanning over familiar texts because I know them so well. Great.

  • Amos Paul

    I haven’t gotten it yet… but I’ve wanted to! Oh the joys of being still fairly young and poor.

  • I have it – love it. We also have his “For Everyone” series for individual studies – I think they are perfect for use in our home school. If I leave them lying around, my teens read them.

  • Ben

    Just got my copy. Mildly disappointed he didn’t move the chapter/verse numbers to the margins so you could more easily read uninterrupted. But I like what I’ve read so far. I’m impressed w/how much cultural context he’s able to bring out of the Greek w/o turning it his text into a paraphrase or a commentary (still a bona fide translation).

    Some of Wright’s word choices may seem a bit obscure to an outsider (“covenant behavior”)…but I suppose that’s b/c he’s connecting his translation of the NT to the story that precedes it. In which case, he needs to hurry up and publish the “Kingdom Old Testament”!

  • Kenton

    While I don’t have a copy of the KNT, I have read several of Wright’s “For Everyone” commentaries. I believe the KNT is a compilation of the translations he used in those, and I loved those.

  • Nick

    Scot, how does this compare to his “New Testament for Everyone” translation or is this the US name for it?

  • Brian Lowery

    Any chance you’ll be publishing that commentary in the next week or so? 🙂 I kid, I kid. And I kid because I’m currently helping our faith community explore Matthew 5-7, and would love for them to be able to hear from your heart.

    Looking forward to chewing on this new translation by Wright. Thanks for passing along your thoughts.

  • Sherman Nobles

    In sharing my appreciation for Peterson’s “The Message” I’ve noted that the one thing I don’t like about it is it seems to homogenize the scriptures and fails to take into account the vast diversity in the various authors of scripture. And I have often said that I’d love to have a translation done by a team of scholars with various individuals being the lead scholar, one for each author – a Jewish scholar for Matthew, a young man for Mark, a historian for Luke, etc. What about even having scholars with significantly differing theological perspectives, like maybe a universalist for Paul and an Arminianist for Matthew!

    I look forward to picking up a copy of the KNT.

  • Lorna E

    We are using Wright’s Luke for Everyone in a small group Bible study, so I’ve been reading at least that book and the translation helps to open our eyes to new ways of looking at the passages. Going to add the NT to my “wish list” now.

  • Scot McKnight

    Yes, these are the translations from the Bible for Everyone series, though there are differences. Cleaned up and all gone over with meticulous care.

  • I wanted to purchase this, but this post has convinced me to get it sooner! I really look forward to seeing the stylistic differences in English. Can’t wait to preach out of this too.

  • Will Varner

    It is good but it is a translation into British.

  • I started with Romans specifically so I could see how he handled Paul. I’m currently in Hebrews and am saving the Gospels and Acts for last. So far my impression is that Paul has had nearly two thousand years to talk with people who had read him and realized that he could have communicated a whole lot better and was given a do-over. Tom even looks like the pictures we have of Paul tho he may be taller, which Paul would probably have asked for as part of the deal.

    I most appreciate the avoidance of church and legal language that has acquired so much baggage over the years. I simply can’t listen to ideas any more that contain words like justification and sanctification and righteousness without scrunching shut. More than any other, our English translations have hammered home the word “Christ” for five hundred years until it has lost almost all meaning except as an expletive or maybe Jesus’ last name. Wright brings this alive with his use of Messiah and King, both of which bring the abstraction back to reality for me. After all, the Gospel According to Jesus was about the Kingdom, nevermind what we have tortured out of that since.

    Most modern translations sound to me like what they set out to do, say old and foreign documents in modern English. Wright’s translation so far has sounded to me like Paul himself explaining things and dealing with problems as a contemporary native speaker. When reading Wright’s own writing along with this translation, sometimes it gets fuzzy which book I am reading. I look forward to seeing what he has done with the others. A real keeper.

  • I have been reading straight through for a few weeks and I am up to 1 Corinthians. Loved the Gospels and Acts, he conveys action and dialogue brilliantly.

    I think I will hesitate on key Pauline passages that I have already turned to (his translation of II Cor 5:21 is too awkward for me). But Wright has given his reasons for these translations elsewhere in print.

    There is an acknowledged tension between a source language and a target language when working in translation. I think N T Wright has handled it well and I happily recommend this version along with the caveat regarding his ‘fresh’ perspective. Thanks for the post.

  • Simon Nash

    I am using Wright’s NT (published as the “NT for Eyeryone” un Europe, for my daily Office, but sticking to NRSV, NASB and even NIV for writing projects (mainly for ease of electronic concordance and cut / paste).

    I think Wright’s styling is fresh enough to keep me alert to the text (so easy to wander off to what you remember the text as saying), and also has a way of sticking in the mind through the day. Buy one!

  • Paul Walker

    NT Wright should record the audio version himself:)

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I have been enjoying Wright’ New Testament for Everyone series so I have been looking forward to seeing all of his translation gathered into one place. It is truly a joy to read.

  • Ana Mullan

    I just got a copy for the Bible Institute where I work but not read it yet. But I have read his translation in his New Testament commentaries, For Everyone. Is is a very refreshing translation, and though I like The Message very much, as Eugene Peterson said in his own book The Pastor, he translated it into american, so some of the expressions used in it, need a “translation”. So it is good to have another user friendly translation on this side of the Atlantic.

  • Rereading this, your first point, Scot, is most interesting to me. I thought at one point some months ago you said that it is hard to reach agreement on just how to bring out the stylistic differences from one language/grammar to another. Maybe you meant to the point of being assured that the finished product essentially matched the original in that way. But I see here that you see the attempt as worthy.

    I wonder if down the road the NIV or some standard translation like that might decide to do something of that. Or perhaps what would be needed is another translation altogether.


    Yes – It’s in British English, but with American spelling (e.g. practicing instead of practising). It’s “The Message” for middle-class, English leftists.