Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Putting off the Old Man and Putting on the New: Ephesians 4:22-24 in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, and Dostoevsky

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Putting off the Old Man and Putting on the New: Ephesians 4:22-24 in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, and Dostoevsky

Article excerpt


I take as my prolegomenon Robert Frost's dictum that "poetry is what gets lost in translation." If we extend that paradox to the Bible, it may be said that even more perilous to the poetry of Scripture is what is lost when translation is itself translated. That is to say, in order to make classic biblical translations like the King James or Douay-Rheims ring true to modern ears, some translators have abandoned certain crucial images in the biblical text that had been rendered more accurately there. Take St. Paul's memorable images of disrobing the Old Man and robing the New in Ephesians 4:22-24, for example, which shall serve as the organizing biblical metaphor for this essay. (1)

The King James version reads:

   That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man which is 
   corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of 
   your mind; And that you put on the new man, which after God is created in 
   righteousness and true holiness. 

Douay-Rheims, slightly older than the King James and itself the English Catholic translation of Jerome's Latin Vulgate, is in remarkable concordance with its Protestant rival:

   To put off, according to former conversation, the old man, who is corrupted 
   according to the desire of error. And be renewed in the spirit of your 
   mind: And put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice 
   and holiness of truth. (2) 

A brief survey of late twentieth-century translations yields a livelier, more idiomatic rendering of Ephesians 4:22-24 but often at the cost of neutering the crucial images. (3) The most idiomatic translation is probably to be found in The New English Bible:

   Leaving your former way of life, you must lay aside that old human nature 
   which, deluded by its lusts, is sinking towards death. You must be made new 
   in mind and spirit, and put on the new nature of God's creating, which 
   shows itself in the just and devout life called for by the truth. 

The Good News New Testament is also aggressively idiomatic:

   So get rid of your old self, which made you live as you used to--the old 
   self that was being destroyed by its deceitful desires. Your hearts and 
   minds must be made completely new, and you must put on the new self, which 
   is created in God's likeness and reveals itself in the true life that is 
   upright and holy. 

Idiomatic they are, but almost bereft of any connection between the two images of divesting/vesting and Old Man/New Man. Even the more august translators of The Jerusalem Bible persist in excising most of the Pauline metaphor:

   You must put aside your old sell which gets corrupted by following illusory 
   desires. Your mind must be renewed by a spiritual revolution so that you 
   can put on the new self that has been created in God's way, in the goodness 
   and holiness of the truth. 

Only slightly truer to the original metaphor is The New Oxford Annotated Bible, which at least retains the infinitive "to clothe":

   You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt 
   and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 
   and to clothe yourselves with the new self. 

What is missing in these translations--the metaphor of putting off the Old Man and putting on the New--is clearly present in the original Greek, (4) which most modern attempts at idiomatic upgrade ("lay aside," "get rid of," "put aside" "put away") noticeably fail to capture. And such substitutes for "Old Man" as "old human nature," "old self" and "old being," which three of the aforementioned translations share, fail to render the striking image of the Old Man's being disrobed in order to be reclothed a New Man. (5)

In its translation of a cognate Pauline passage in Colossians 3:9-12, Douay-Rheims has made the disrobing even more explicit while retaining the image of the Old Man:

   Lie not one to another: stripping yourselves of the old man with his deeds, 
   And putting on the new, him who is renewed unto knowledge, according to the 
   image of him that created him. … 
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