The Gospels: A New Translation

By Sarah Ruden. Modern Library, 2021. 416 pages. $28/hardcover; $12.99/eBook.

Why would you want to read the Gospels? And if you are familiar with them, why bother with another new translation? Two reasons: first, this one was translated by a Quaker; second, because this book is revelatory and alive!

Translating is not a simple thing to do. There are no obvious one-to-one correspondences between words in different languages. In particular, the Greek used to write the Gospels has far fewer words than modern English, so each one carries a variety of possible correlates. For each Greek word, a translator needs to construct a best match, knowing that every selection potentially obscures significant subtleties. At the same time, Koinē Greek contains some words that have no direct English equivalent; even a short English phrase may not convey their meaning. To meet the needs of a modern reader, some Bible versions resort to paraphrasing. This allows them more room to provide a comfortable and readable text for a particular audience but carries the risk of the new text being alienated from the original.

Literature is not composed in isolation. Writings come from and reflect a unique culture that existed in one geographic locale at one particular time. The Bible has its own special difficulties in this respect. As Sarah Ruden notes, “It isn’t time alone that has made this world different, but also geography, ethnicity, language, politics, religion, and culture from the start.” As familiar and comfortable as it is to many of us, even the King James Bible comes from a time and place foreign to the modern reader. Bible translators cannot transport readers to first-century Palestine; they can only frame a window into that world and hope the glass is not too fogged.

Moreover, despite all efforts, a translator’s background, training, and life experience will flavor the resulting text. Ruden has been translating ancient texts for decades, and she’s good at it. Ursula K. Le Guin declared her translation of The Aeneid to be “The best translation yet, certainly the best of our time.” In her Introduction to The Gospels, Ruden carefully lays out the unique obstacles the Gospels present and the principles she followed to produce this new translation. Ultimately, Ruden aimed “to reconstitute the Gospels as books—to be read, understood, interrogated, enjoyed, and debated as they are.” She has tried to present us with a text as the original writers wrote it; equally, one we readers can experience as its first readers read it; or, as was more common, as its earliest hearers heard it.

The first words in her introduction are “As a Quaker—a member of perhaps the least theological, most practical religious movement in the world. . .” These are soon followed by “As a Quaker translator, I would like to deal with the Gospels more straightforwardly than is customary.” We have been warned. The translation to follow will not be theological but instead practical. Its English will follow the conventions of Koinē Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew. It will, for example, sometimes use words repetitively for emphasis as in Luke 2:8-9, where the shepherds are “on guard to safeguard” and, when an angel appears, become “fearful on a fearsome scale.” The result is straightforward, not smooth and melodious. It is practical—nearly rough-hewn. It invites us to feel the texture of the text. Her goal is to reveal the Gospels as they were: “ruggedly composed, defensively hermetic, yet stumbling over themselves in their ambition.”

Her word choices are fresh, and her use of transliteration for names and some words (e.g., Iēsous for Jesus and pascha instead of Passover) gave me the chance to hear passages anew. She sometimes makes “whimsical word choices to represent slang and wordplay” and presents a text reflecting “much more in the way of jokes, color, point, and cohesion in the Greek than in their standard English translations.” 

The result is characters with more depth. For example, in the King James Version of John 19:5, Pilate is almost reverential when he says, “Behold the man!” In Ruden’s hands, this becomes a contemptuous, “Look at this guy.” Likewise, in the King James Version of Matthew 26:50, Jesus, who has just been wrestling in prayer with God about what is soon going to happen, seems clueless: “Friend, wherefore art thou come?” In Sarah Ruden’s rendition, Jesus is defiantly scornful: “Do what you came for, pal.”

We meet a Jesus who is fuller, more real. He’s a teacher “but often a short-tempered, contemptuous, and withholding one” who sometimes struggles with students (none other than the holy apostles) who “tend to be lazy, incurious, and distractible.” This Jesus can be funny: he uses puns and clever wordplay to make his points. He is not always kind and gentle. “He answers many questions analogically, cryptically, not at all, or with a joke or a scolding.” He can be evasive and deliberately obscure. This is not Sunday school Jesus.

Although Ruden consciously tried to keep footnotes to a minimum, the ones included are exquisite. As promised, these are not theological but practical: providing background that gives us glimpses into a long-gone culture and the words it spoke. This often illuminates the text in new ways. For example, on the very first page of Gospel text, we learn that “The word for ‘wasteland’ in Hebrew is literally ‘the place of speaking.’” How do I incorporate that information into my understanding of “The voice of one crying in the wilderness” (Mark 1:3 in the King James Version)? Do I revise my interpretation of this verse or of Isaiah 40:3, which is being quoted?

Even so, I endorse her desire that “readers will pursue my translation almost without pausing.” Before reading a chapter, first review all its footnotes. Then go back and read the text without pausing. To get even closer to a first-century experience, read it out loud and listen as the words clatter by.

You will be amazed in amazing ways.

Paul Buckley has recently returned to Richmond, Ind., where he worships with Clear Creek Friends. Paul is the author of numerous articles and books on Quaker history, faith, and practice. When possible, he travels in the ministry urging spiritual renewal among Friends. His most recent book is Primitive Quakerism Revived: Living as Friends in the Twenty-First Century.

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