Kenzo Tagawa, 61, a leading New Testament scholar, finds the sales of his latest book ‘‘encouraging’’ and ‘‘surprising.’’

His latest scholarly work — more than 700 pages — has undergone a seventh printing in six months since its publication and has found its way to some 10,000 readers.

‘‘For a book of this thickness and price (¥8,000), it is quite a phenomenon, ’’ Tagawa says.

‘‘This is an astounding figure, considering that a book dealing with an academic subject usually sells only 1,000 to 1,500 copies a year,’’ says Masaru Tomioka, editor at Keiso Shobo Co., the publisher.

Tagawa’s book is titled ‘‘Shomotsu to shite no Shinyaku Seisho’’ (‘‘The New Testament As a Book’’).

‘‘People will probably wonder what this title means,’’ Tagawa says. ‘‘The implied meaning is that originally, the New Testament was not a book. The title serves as an introduction to my latest book’s first three chapters.’’

From earlier experiences working on his books, Tagawa says, he knows there are a lot of people with a broad intellectual perspective interested in the New Testament but unsatisfied with any ‘‘Christian-propaganda Bible-interpretation.’’ They want to read a historically exact introduction and the newly published book is intended for them, he says.

He characterizes his book as an ‘‘introduction to introductions’’ for each writing included in the New Testament.

The first chapter details the long process from the second to fifth centuries, during which many writings were rejected and only 27 accepted and incorporated into a new, exactly defined canon called the New Testament.

‘‘In its first 200 years, Christianity had a powerful energy peculiar to something newly emerging,’’ Tagawa says. ‘‘The canonization, however, deprived Christianity of such energy. But even so, that energy is still preserved in various parts of the New Testament.’’

Had it not been for the canonization, some writings, such as the Gospels of Mark and John, whose outlooks were different from those of mainstream Christianity, might not have survived, he says. ‘‘Without the New Testament as a canon, the Reformation is inconceivable.’’

Translation conundrums

Tagawa, a Protestant, obtained his doctorate from the University of Strasbourg in 1965 for his dissertation ‘‘Miracles et Evangelie’’ (‘‘Miracles and Gospel’’), which focuses on the Gospel of Mark, and Mark’s own thoughts.

Tagawa has been working on a detailed commentary on the gospel for many years.

‘‘Once the New Testament became established as a canon, the concept of canon took precedence, and Christians started reading it with the idea that contradictions and diverse views should not exist within it,’’ Tagawa says.

He believes each writing must be read in its own light.

‘‘For example, I am not confident that I can translate the Gospel of John. The text contains many sentences for which direct translation does not make any sense,’’ Tagawa says.

‘‘But why do translations of the gospel exist? Because the translators have supplied words to the original text to make the translation agree with the mainstream dogma,’’ he says. ‘‘I would like people to be aware that in translations of the New Testament, the distance between the original text, which is almost 2,000 years old, and the translations is huge.

‘‘Translators of the New Testament must extensively use footnotes explaining the original text and which words they have supplied in translation, ’’ he stresses.

Tagawa’s second chapter shows that the use of Greek, a language commonly used in the eastern half of the Roman Empire and the language of the New Testament, was mainly limited to Hellenistic cities.

Christianity rapidly spread among people there who were uprooted from their traditional communities and cultures under Rome’s colonial rule and had no choice but to speak Greek and to live in the larger Hellenistic cities — the strongholds of the empire, he says.

‘‘In this sense, Christianity is a religion of imperialism,’’ Tagawa explains. ‘‘Many Christians have forgotten that the New Testament was a phenomenon created by the conditions of imperialistic rule.’’

Tagawa, who taught in the theological department at the National University of Zaire for two years from 1974, notices a parallel phenomenon occurring today — Christianity is rapidly spreading in African countries where the influence of Islam is weak.

‘‘Present-day imperialism is permeating every sphere of people’s daily lives in these countries,’’ Tagawa says. ‘‘Given the harsh conditions of their life, it is understandable that they rush to Christianity. We must realize that a world in which Christianity rapidly spreads is this kind of world’’

Versions differ widely

Tagawa’s third chapter touches on the different types of New Testament manuscripts and the reconstruction of the original Greek text, while the fourth traces and assesses various translations.

Tagawa praises the present-day Luther translation and the Revised Standard Version as excellent translations. He also praises the Jerusalem Bible and La TOB (the joint Catholic-Protestant French translation) for their extensive use of footnotes.

But he is highly critical of Today’s English Version, also known as the Good News Bible, which is aimed at both native English speakers and nonnative English learners everywhere, including in Asia and Africa.

‘‘The attitude of the TEV translators is sheer racism because they presume that the readers do not have the ability to understand direct translations from the original text,’’ Tagawa says.

‘‘What the translators did, despite their claim that they understand the text’s meaning, was to read their version of Christianity into the text.’’

For example, Today’s English Version omits references to blood on the cross, Tagawa points out.

According to Tagawa, the American Bible Society is pushing projects to spread New Testament translations in various parts of the world, using Today’s English Version as the model.

‘‘It often happens that missionaries without adequate knowledge of local languages direct the projects. This is cultural imperialism,’’ Tagawa says.

Among the Japanese translations, he recommends ‘‘Kogo-yaku’’ (the 1954 ‘‘vernacular’’ translation). Tagawa criticizes a move by the United Church of Christ in Japan (Kyodan), the nation’s largest Protestant church, to exclusively use the ‘‘Shin Kyodo-yaku’’ (the new Catholic-Protestant joint translation of 1987) as imposing unreasonable uniformity.

For those who want to read an English translation, Tagawa suggests ‘‘they first read the RSV, and then find out how the New Revised Standard Version is different from the RSV.’’

Tagawa, who is teaching women’s studies as well as religious studies at Osaka Women’s University, praises the NRSV for its serious efforts to remove expressions discriminatory to women.

‘‘It also incorporates the results of recent research,’’ Tagawa says. ‘‘But in the name of removing male-centered expressions, it has tampered with some parts of the original text.’’ Such alterations may cause misconceptions about the New Testament writers and the culture in which the New Testament was born, he says.

Tagawa, known for his dissecting criticism of Christianity and contemporary society through many books, says of his basic position: ‘‘The meaning the New Testament and Christianity have for humankind is so enormous that we must tackle them seriously and earnestly.’’

Tagawa says he wants his criticism to be informed with profound understanding, because only those who profoundly understand can make radical criticism.

‘‘Looking at the situation in Africa, I think how wonderful it would be if we had a society where people could live without Christianity. And I think that Christianity should eventually be superseded.

‘‘But until such a society is created, Christianity must not be allowed to leave the scene so easily … and how splendid Christianity is must continue to be proclaimed.’’

Tagawa says one of his hopes is to publish a Japanese translation of the whole New Testament, with extensive footnotes.

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