A revolutionary, new translation of the gospels

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[This is a guest post by Mark Metcalf, who makes no claim to having any language proficiency with New Testament Greek.]

Since you're an überlinguist, thought I'd forward some thoughts on a recent translation of the Gospels by Sarah Ruden.
Wasn't sure if you're interested in New Testament translations, but her introduction is inspiring. As is the subsequent glossary. Just like the comments on your translation methodology in the forward to your translation of the Sunzi, understanding how & why a translator implements his or her craft.  Here's what I sent to our rector and the parishioner who recommended the translation:

This is a spectacular work.
The 32-page introduction presents a thorough explanation of Ruden's rationale for generating (yet another) translation of the Gospels and is supplemented by example after example of where many English language translations have fallen short. Her comments aren't anything close to a "mine is the best translation ever" rejection of earlier versions, but she does explain how our contemporary understanding of specific words can diverge from the meaning in the Greek. "Nuanced" is the watchword as she explains why she uses slightly, yet significantly, different words in her translation. As a language geek, I genuinely enjoyed the way that she shared her translation methodology. I also enjoy excerpts like this:
"When Jesus introduces a story, analogy, or precept…he sounds much more condescending or exasperated than, say, a Hebrew Bible prophet does in interlacing his poetic sermon with hinneh ["Look!", "See!"]. But this difference suits who Jesus is. He is a "teacher," but often a short-tempered, contemptuous, and withholding one – not a prophet with a passion to persuade. Moreover, Jesus' "students" seem to deserve this treatment, as they tend to be lazy, incurious, and distractible. The motif of failed instruction is integral to this work of literature; it is thematic. Jesus, who is the point, is above having to explain himself; he is above everything, and certainly not accountable to feeble human language. And his students are so far below him that their demands for answers verge on impious rebellion."
The introduction is followed by a 23-page section entitled "Discursive Glossary of Unfamiliar Word Choices in English" – an explanation of how & why she translates key words (e.g. disciple, evil, forgive, gospel, hell, etc) the way that she does. This is very useful because it's where she explains one of the significant challenges of translating the Gospels – identifying *the right* English word to accurately translate the Greek word without introducing unintentional meanings/baggage in the English translation. In many cases she opts for a literal translation of the Greek (e.g. "play-actor" for "hypocrite").
Once you make it through those two sections, then you're prepared to begin to read her translation in an informed way. By understanding her approach and her rationale, all I can say is "Wow!". Don't worry. There are no new theological revelations, but the tone/shades of meaning that her translation brings to the text are consistently thought-provoking. And (unsurprisingly) she provides copious footnotes throughout the translation to further explain her decisions. I'm 5 chapters into "The Good News According to Markos" and am thoroughly enjoying it.
So, when you have the chance, I encourage you to take a look at the translation. Even if you're not a language geek, it will likely give you a new perspective or two on the Gospels.

Selected readings


  1. Alexander Browne said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 9:02 am

    I'm no classicist, but I can say Ruden's translation of The Golden Ass by Apuleius is very enjoyable.

  2. Rodger C said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 9:26 am

    "Play-actor" for "hypocrite" is not new.

  3. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 9:33 am

    Thanks, Prof. Mair!

    Here are some initial impressions from a Catholic who is currently attempting to read the NT in the original Greek (i.e. me), using, for comparison's sake, the Greek NT (from Perseus), the New American Bible (from the Vatican webpage), and Dr. Ruden's translation of the first few verses of the first chapter of Mark.

    (1) She reorders the Gospels chronologically! "Markos, Maththaios, Loukas, Ioannes." I'm not sure what difference that makes.

    ΑΡΧΗ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ .
    NAB: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ (the Son of God).
    SR: The Inauguration of the good news of Iesous the Anointed One [the son of god]

    (2) Arkhe — "inauguration" versus "beginning". Sounds clunky. Does she also translate John, "In the inauguration was the word"?

    (3) Etymological readings; "good news" for euaggelion instead of "gospel"; and the "the Anointed One" instead of "Christ", being the literal translation of khristos.

    Καθὼς γέγραπται ἐν τῷ Ἠσαίᾳ τῷ προφήτῃ “ Ἰδοὺ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου, ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου:
    NAB: As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: "Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way.
    SR: As it is written in the prophet Esaias, "Look, I'm sending my messenger ahead of year, And he will build your road

    (4) I think "look" is a bit informal for "Idou". I mean, prophets don't say "look", they proclaim "behold".

    (5) Unclear why word order of "Isaiah" and "prophet" are swapped, given otherwise faithful adherence to original syntax.

    (6) "Build your road" kind of makes John the Baptist sound more like a civil engineer than a prophet; "prepare your way" seems to capture the meaning more accurately.

    Φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν Κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ,
    NAB: A voice of one crying out in the desert: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.'"
    SR: The voice of someone shouting in the wasteland: Prepare the lord's road, make his beaten paths straight.

    (7) NAB is more literal here in terms of syntax. Again, she uses "road" for "hodos" instead of "way", which I think obscures the metaphorical sense a bit.

    ἐγένετο Ἰωάνης ὁ βαπτίζων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν.
    NAB: John (the) Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
    SR: Ioannes [the] baptizer appeared in the wasteland, announcing baptism to change people's purpose and absolve them from their offenses.

    (8) "to change people's purpose" for "metanoia" instead of "repentance" captures the "noetic" root of "metanoia", but "metanoia" is used in the Septuagint to translate "teshuvah", which, while literally signifying a "turning" or "changing direction", is used for "repentance" fairly consistently.

    καὶ ἐξεπορεύετο πρὸς αὐτὸν πᾶσα ἡ Ἰουδαία χώρα καὶ οἱ Ἰεροσολυμεῖται πάντες, καὶ ἐβαπτίζοντο ὑπ᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ Ἰορδάνῃ ποταμῷ ἐξομολογούμενοι τὰς ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν.
    NAB: People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.
    SR: And they traveled out to him, inhabitants of the whole countryside of Ioudaia, and all the Hierosolumitai, and they were baptized by him in the river Iordanes, acknowledging their offenses.

    (9) I like that she translates all the Greek "kais" into "and" or "now" to really give the feel for the original syntax.

    (10) Puzzled why she uses "were baptized" for ebaptizonto, which obscures the imperfect (i.e. continuous, progressive, or repeated action) sense of the verb, as distinguished from an aorist (i.e. single completed action) sense.

    (11) "offenses" instead of "sins" for amartias? Don't know enough Greek to opine. Is "amartia" also used for, say, criminal offenses, or social offenses?

    καὶ ἦν ὁ Ἰωάνης ἐνδεδυμένος τρίχας καμήλου καὶ ζώνην δερματίνην περὶ τὴν ὀσφὺν αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἔσθων ἀκρίδας καὶ μέλι ἄγριον.
    NAB: John was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey.
    SR: Now, John was dressed in unshorn camel hide, and he had an animal-skin belt covering his groin, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

    (12) "groin" for "osfon" instead of "waist"? "osfon" has meant "loins" all the way back to Homer, why change it now? "Groin" seems a little vulgar for the Bible; you don't celebrate Passover by eating with your groin girt, etc.

    Here end the opinions of a non-expert, but isn't that what the internet is for?

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 10:09 am

    I really don't know why we can't just stick with the KJV — to my mind, it has never been bettered, and every time that I hear (or read) a passage from a more modern version, it just sticks in my throat.

  5. Alexander Browne said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 10:36 am

    @Benjamin E. Orsatti: Ruden uses similar informal and vulgar language in The Golden Ass, but then again that is a Roman novel, not a religious text.

  6. E Bruce Brooks said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 11:06 am

    Ruden gets the Gospel sequence right, and it does make a difference (Mark's Jesus is the human one, the theological divinization process hae not yet gotten underway at that time). But there is a lot more to the matter than the Gospels. It needs a historical approach, including some texts (such as popular and Rabbinic ones) outside the NT canon. I can only recommend my book Jesus and After.It is not burdensome; one of the chapters is only one word long. But it does give a sense of what the Jesus movement and its differently Jewish neighbors were up to, until they finally split at the end of that century.

  7. John F said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 11:37 am

    The Greek NT translator has to interact with a lot of stuff going on: knowledge of Koine, text criticism, ANE culture, Hebrew references, the Septuagint, not to mention the accumulated prior translations or which English may have the bulk, but by no means has a monopoly on meaning.

    Benjamin Osratti has done an excellent analysis on the end result, much better than I could. I only look up the odd Greek verse when I'm curious. So I shall focus on the rationale.

    I suppose English is such a flexible language with such a global variation that it can support innumerable translations aimed at the lay reader, the pastor or the academic.

    Individual translation efforts also tend to have a theological agenda. Some are narrower than others (ESV: gendered pronouns/respect for 'classic text' vs NIV: constantly revising to modern English including changes to gender idioms). An individual doing a translation like Ruden, Peterson (The Message) or Alter (Hebrew Tanakh) will have a narrower perspective than a committee no matter how hard they try not to.

    Even subtle things like re-ordering the gospels based on date is interesting and allies the translator to a particular party of the 'guild'.

    Very often a generalist translation probably is the best to get a general sense of the passage based on commonly understood language and then you can dig in to individual words, phrases and passages ad hoc. Scholars like James Jordan seem to do this for works aimed at laity, basing their study on say the Fox Hebrew (OK, Fox may not be mainstream, but he often refers to the ESV complaining that 'burnt' offering should be 'ascension' offering and that he knew the translator who did that passage but the committee wouldn't change it) and highlighting how certain words or phrases might be better translated. Scholars and pastors will want to read as many translations as time allows.

    Finally, I think the success of a translation often has to do with its material accessibility. I remember buying an ESV not long after it came out, back when people bought books in book shops and the proprietor was lamenting that the ESV wasn't selling well except for a small number of churches doing bulk purchases. To me the ESV seems to have stuck in well, edging out of its niche largely due to the fact that its publishers made it freely available to online Bible compendia, but also because it has a fantastic iOS app.

  8. Keith said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 11:52 am

    Very interesting…

    I'm 5 chapters into "The Good News According to Markos"

    I imagine that this is Ruden's translation for "Εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Μᾶρκον", more usually called "The Gospel according to Saint Mark", translating the Greek "evangelion" as "good news" to replace the Old English "gōdspel" that has become "gospel" in Modern English.

    If this is correct, then I find it amusing that the book uses the word "gospel" for its title.


  9. Stephen Goranson said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 12:17 pm

    Perhaps Gospel in the title came from the publisher.

  10. DMcCunney said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 12:43 pm

    @Philip Taylor

    I prefer the KJV too, simply for the glory of the language.

    But perspective matters. I am an agnostic who is skeptical about whether there *is* a God in the Judaeo-Christian sense, and if there *is* no God, what does that make Jesus Christ? Certainly not the Son of Gold, or a prophet sent by God to disclose his thoughts to his people.

    I'm quite willing to assume there was a human being we call Jesus Christ, and I'll happily respect him for what he taught – that we are fellow human beings, and it behooves us to act like it, and try to treat other humans like our brothers and sisters, and behave toward them as we would like them to behave toward us. (The Golden Rule.)

    If you treat the Bible as *Story*, and a work of literature where whether it might be *true* in an objective sense is irrelevant, the KJV is the translation to use.

    If you *are* a believer for whom the fact the the Bible *is* true in an objective sense is critical, other translations may both necessary and inevitable, as the issue is understanding what the folks who wrote the gospels actually *said*, and what *they* meant when they said it. It's made more complex because the folks who created the Gospels *weren't* Greek. They likely spoke Aramaic, so the Greek rendition has already imposed a level of translation.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 12:59 pm

    Solo projects like this are nearly inevitably exercises in ὕβρις, especially as the number of institutional "committee-based" translations have multiplied such that it's harder and harder to claim that there isn't one out there that even tries to take plausible methodological approach X, so I had no choice but to do it myself. But maybe she's got a zingy and unexpected alternative translation for ὕβρις.

    There seems to me to be both methodological tension and resultant stylistic incongruity from the combination of (a) going for more "plain vernacular" English words than is traditional when it comes to common words (e.g. "look" or "wasteland" or "road"), while (b) simultaneously treating proper names as essentially untranslatable (Iesous instead of Jesus, Iordanes instead of Jordan, and the even more egregious Hierosolumitai where she can't even be bothered to use an English suffix like -ites on the transliterated toponym).

    Refusing to translate the proper names into their standard English equivalents, as if they are ineffable magical tokens whose numinosity would be lost in the transition, is particularly ironic since our original Greek text is writing about predominantly non-Greek-speaking characters in a predominantly-non-Greek-speaking geographical setting, so the Greek proper names of both people and places are themselves translations/transliterations. This is IMHO a useful point to keep in mind when faced with certain excessively literalistic approaches to the Scriptures – we assume that most of the dialogue recounted took place in Aramaic, yet we have no access to the exact word-for-word Aramaic text (the extant Aramaic text of the Gospels is generally believed to be a translation from the Greek and not represent any alternative underlying source), and however confident we might be that the Holy Spirit ensured that the Greek is a fair rendition of the Aramaic words it will usually be the case that it is simply one of multiple fair Greek renditions that were available for a given stretch of Aramaic dialogue and/or that there are multiple slightly-differently-worded Aramaic originals that a given string of Greek words could be a fair rendition of.

  12. Ivan I Plis said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 1:06 pm

    @Benjamin E. Orsatti

    Per the New Yorker, John 1:1 is “At the inauguration was the true account."

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 1:39 pm

    To expand a bit on Benjamin Orsetti's comparison, it is easy enough to get the internet to show you a LOT of different English translations of the same verse. So here's Mark 1:3: https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Mark%201:3. Looking at Ruden's wording in that context rather than just side-by-side with a single prior translation makes it easier to see how "revolutionary" it is or isn't. In that verse her use of "wasteland" is somewhat innovative, with almost all prior versions choosing either "wilderness" (majority variant) or "desert" (minority). On the first participle you've already got her choice of "shouting" extant, side by side with "crying [out]" or "calling [out]," along with some other versions that tweak the syntax so that it doesn't involve a participle. And so on.

    To DMcCunney's point, there is a disconnect between saying that "the folks who created them weren't Greek" (true except possibly for Luke, although Mark was sufficiently "assimilated" to have a goyische name) and the conclusion that they couldn't write in Greek. That's like assuming a 21st-century Swede (or Slovene, or Slovak) can't write in English. What is true is that by the time they stabilized the Gospels were intended for an audience that knew (perhaps in many cases as a second language) Greek and mostly did not know Aramaic. But it is unnecessary to assume an entire lost original in Aramaic as opposed to the transformation of oral traditions and personal recollections into a stable Greek written text by "folks" who knew both languages.

    I like the KJV just fine myself and tend to use it as my default, but it does require a certain level of working comfort with archaic syntax and an understanding of how the semantic scope of various English lexemes has shifted over four centuries. So for some modern readers interested in "understanding the story" for secular reasons it may not be the best translation if they don't have that grounding. If they lack that grounding and end up finding it very "poetic-seeming" in the sense that they are left mildly befuddled in their ability to actually understand what's going on even though the wording seems sonorous and aesthetically-pleasing, they may be missing the point.

  14. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 3:17 pm

    Ivan I Plis said, "Per the New Yorker, John 1:1 is 'At the inauguration was the true account.'".

    I hope you're kidding about what's behind that New Yorker paywall. "Lógos" is "true account"? I'm no philologist, but what was wrong with "word"? Also kind of scrambles the Johannine rhythm of "En arché en ho lógos, kai ho lógos en prós ton Theón."

    …unless her schtick is to deliberately use idiosyncratic terms in order to get us to look at the text in different ways, and spark further revelation therefrom, as the phenomenologists do?

  15. Thiago Ribeiro said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 3:24 pm

    "I really don't know why we can't just stick with the KJV — to my mind, it has never been bettered, and every time that I hear (or read) a passage from a more modern version, it just sticks in my throat."

    It is not a bad option, but:

    1) Most people probably benefit from a version closer to the English they speak even if not as
    eloquent.as the KJV.
    2) If a scholar thinks he can provide a version more faithful to the original meaning, why shouldn't hetry? Why shouldn't some people adopt it?

  16. Julian said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 5:46 pm

    Mixing the plain language approach ('gospel' > 'good news' ) with the untranslated names (Markos etc) does seem odd. Does she explain why she treated the names that way?

  17. Scott P. said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 6:00 pm

    I really don't know why we can't just stick with the KJV — to my mind, it has never been bettered, and every time that I hear (or read) a passage from a more modern version, it just sticks in my throat.

    The KJV is actually a pretty bad translation, littered with errors and archaic language (I consider the errors a bigger problem).

  18. Coby said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 6:31 pm

    What Scott P. just said is certainly true of the Hebrew scriptures, in my opinion. This is in addition to the clumsiness of the language, which was already archaic for its time, given that it's more like that of King James's great-grand-uncle Henry VIII than of James.

  19. Bathrobe said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 8:07 pm

    @ Benjamin E. Orsatti:

    Logos as 'Word' is a nice literal translation but there may be other ways to put it. Many Chinese translations translate it as 道, the Way.

  20. John Swindle said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 8:17 pm

    The King James Version has the benefits of familiarity, for the many to whom it is still familiar, and the connection to Early Modern English. For modern English with the benefit of modern scholarship consider the Revised English Bible (Oxford and Cambridge 1989). Its Wikipedia page gives a description.

  21. Viseguy said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 9:58 pm

    I love the KJV, which is graceful, and stately, and scholarly for its day, and awesome in the proper sense of the word. But considering a prophet for what a prophet is supposed to be — the voice crying out in the proverbial desert — I have no problem with a biblical prophet proclaiming, in translation, "Look!", or even, today, "Look, goddammit!", if that conveys the spirit of the original. To paraphrase Andy Tannenbaum, the nice thing about translations of canonical texts is that you have so many to choose from. (Or, as the almighty dollar bill proclaims, "E pluribus unum".)

  22. David Morris said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 4:03 am

    I don't use 17th (or 16th) century English in any other part of my life. Reading the bible in 17th (or 16th) century English would compartmentalise it as 'different' from the rest of my life.

  23. Miles B said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 4:24 am

    To add another translation to compare the verses Benjamin E. Orsatti set out, and to join the KJV debate, here is the how KJV opens Mark's gospel – see below. A couple of immediate observations:
    a – it misses out the name of the prophet
    b – "before thy face" seems to obscure the meaning based on how it's translated in other versions
    c – talks about loins for the belt, but "girdle of skin" is not obviously a leather belt to my modern ear.
    d – some of the language eg use of "did" as part of a verb 'sticks in my throat' to coin Philip Taylor's phrase

    1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God;

    2 As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.

    3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

    4 John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.

    5 And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.

    6 And John was clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;

  24. Lasius said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 4:29 am

    @ Bathrobe:

    Geschrieben steht: „im Anfang war das Wort!“
    Hier stock’ ich schon! Wer hilft mir weiter fort?
    Ich kann das Wort so hoch unmöglich schätzen,
    Ich muß es anders übersetzen,
    Wenn ich vom Geiste recht erleuchtet bin.
    Geschrieben steht: im Anfang war der Sinn.
    Bedenke wohl die erste Zeile,
    Daß deine Feder sich nicht übereile!
    Ist es der Sinn, der alles wirkt und schafft?
    Es sollte stehn: im Anfang war die Kraft!
    Doch, auch indem ich dieses niederschreibe,
    Schon warnt mich was, daß ich dabey nicht bleibe.
    Mir hilft der Geist! auf einmal seh ich Rath
    Und schreibe getrost: im Anfang war die That!

    [It’s written here: ‘In the Beginning was the Word!’
    Here I stick already! Who can help me? It’s absurd,
    Impossible, for me to rate the word so highly
    I must try to say it differently
    If I’m truly inspired by the Spirit. I find
    I’ve written here: ‘In the Beginning was the Mind’.
    Let me consider that first sentence,
    So my pen won’t run on in advance!
    Is it Mind that works and creates what’s ours?
    It should say: ‘In the beginning was the Power!’
    Yet even while I write the words down,
    I’m warned: I’m no closer with these I’ve found.
    The Spirit helps me! I have it now, intact.
    And firmly write: ‘In the Beginning was the Act!’]

    Faust; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 5:19 am

    David M — "Reading the bible in 17th (or 16th) century English would compartmentalise it as 'different' from the rest of my life". Is that not exactly the point ? Unless you are one of the few for whom religious experience is a daily event, religion and belief are as different from the rest of one's life as anything could possibly be.

  26. Miles B said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 7:10 am

    Philip Taylor – this may not be the best venue for this discussion, but what you say about religion is the complete opposite of how I see it as a Christian.

    Faith is a matter of a living relationship with God and if you believe that God is the most important presence in the world, then "religion" is not a daily event for the few, but instead a way of life for the many. I believe this was one of the things that the gospels proclaim – Jesus condemned those who made religion a special compartment and sought from every person that deep, life-changing repentance / change of purpose (as quoted from Mark above depending on your translation!).

  27. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 7:13 am

    There's also the liturgical dimension. The Bible, the Mass, and the Divine Office should be consistent. That is to say, for those of us 1.2 billion Catholics, alternatively, the "few for whom religious experience is a daily event", it would be jarring to go from praying Matins, and use the word "word", and then to Mass and use the word "way", and then to lectio divina (i.e. prayerful reading of holy writings) and encounter "true account" — all for the same word, "logos". The intended unity is broken.

  28. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 7:28 am

    (edit to previous post)

    The above post reads like I'm saying Catholics are the only truly religious people in the world. That was not my intent at all, but I guess it came out that way because I didn't want to presume to speak on behalf of other faith traditions, so I just stuck with what I know. Certainly there are non-Catholics for whom religious experience is a daily event, and there are also other traditions with a longstanding liturgical tradition (Orthodox Judaism, Orthodox Christianity, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, etc.). It's just that I don't know enough about those traditions to presume to speak for them. So, yeah, sorry about that.

  29. ohwilleke said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 7:39 am

    I suspect that one of the reasons to choose the unfamiliar versions of proper names is to intentionally make the entire translated text unfamiliar, with the hope that the reader will overcome the complacency of thinking that the reader knows what the passages say with a long overlay of having read them in other translations literally hundred, ir not thousands of times, so that the reader can encounter the substantively translated portions afresh with open eyes.

    It helps to weaken the gloss a reader imposes upon the new translation based upon prior familiarity with the text.

  30. David Marjanović said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 9:34 am

    (4) I think "look" is a bit informal for "Idou". I mean, prophets don't say "look", they proclaim "behold".

    The Gospel of Mark, in particular, is supposedly so informal in the original that that has to be a deliberate decision by the evangelist.

    Matthew didn't quite get that it was deliberate, and tried to improve the style; Luke was unhappy with Matthew's attempt and actually did improve the style (and the storytelling). But in doing so they missed the point.

    (8) "to change people's purpose" for "metanoia" instead of "repentance" captures the "noetic" root of "metanoia", but "metanoia" is used in the Septuagint to translate "teshuvah", which, while literally signifying a "turning" or "changing direction", is used for "repentance" fairly consistently.

    That does have a long tradition of being rendered literally as Umkehr, "turnaround", in German. Prophets say Kehrt um! all day long.

    This may be interpreted as having a theological dimension: don't just feel bad about your past sins and move on, no, turn around and walk in the opposite direction.

    (10) Puzzled why she uses "were baptized" for ebaptizonto, which obscures the imperfect (i.e. continuous, progressive, or repeated action) sense of the verb, as distinguished from an aorist (i.e. single completed action) sense.

    Are you suggesting "were being baptized"?

    I really don't know why we can't just stick with the KJV — to my mind, it has never been bettered

    It may not have been bettered as a work of English literature; but our understanding of Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic & Greek has improved since 1611, and, as several people have pointed out in this thread, the English language has changed so much since then that the KJV simply isn't understandable for most of the target audience. (Happens with Shakespeare, too. Dozens of millions of people believe Wherefore art thou Romeo! means "Where are you, Romeo!", and go on to use wherefore as a funny substitute for where.

    The grammar of the KJV is so obsolete that the first few printings of the Book of Mormon, which is written in an attempt at KJV style, contain lots and lots of grammatical errors. Even in the early 19th century, people of Joseph Smith's education level simply didn't understand how it worked.

    (This is not to say that every more recent translation is simply better than the KJV in every way. Sometimes they make different errors; sometimes they underrepresent the style of dramatic passages. But to just stick with the KJV does not work.)

    Mark was sufficiently "assimilated" to have a goyische name

    And a specifically Roman one at that. …Or not. The names of the evangelists are a separately transmitted tradition; they're nowhere in the text.

    (Mark's gospel does contain at least as many Latinisms as Aramaisms. But that's probably just what the spoken koiné was like in that time & place.)

    those of us 1.2 billion Catholics, alternatively, the "few for whom religious experience is a daily event"

    Few Catholics are like that these days. I'm sitting here in a country where being Catholic is the default. Many people go to church only for Christmas and Easter. Most of the rest go nearly every Sunday. Neither sort participates in any other part of the liturgy. Very, very few people pray Matins, and I hadn't even heard of lectio divina.

  31. Bloix said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 9:43 am

    The Hebrew of the Hebrew Bible has been archaic almost from the day it was written. The Pentateuch was compiled and edited in the 5th-6th centuries BCE, and recounted stories, legends and events which were already centuries in the past and concerned peoples whose experiences were remote from those of the readers. And the best evidence is that by the 6th century, Aramaic was already replacing Hebrew as the language of daily life, and Hebrew was on its way to becoming a liturgical language. So for all, or all but a very few earliest readers, the language of the Hebrew scriptures has always been a heightened poetic and spiritual one, and it's a mistake to attempt to translate it into a modern idiom of daily life.

    I don't mean to imply that we must be wedded to the KJV, which often doesn't reflect the tone of the scriptures very well. I talked about this some years ago in comments to a post about the Song of Songs. As I said then, "The KJV – which IMHO is (putting theological disputes to one side) the most beautiful English translation – is more ornate and dignified than the original, which is often quite vigorous and raw in comparison."


  32. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 9:43 am

    Criticizing the KJV (and other translations that do the same thing) for not mentioning Isaiah by name in Mark 1:2 sidesteps an important question that is prior to any translation. There is no universally-accepted definitive Greek text of (certain verses of) the Gospels. The KJV translators were looking at "Ὡς γέγραπται ἐν τοῖς προφήταις, ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου, ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου ἔμπροσθέν σου," which does not mention Isaiah and refers to "the prophets" in the plural rather than a single one, such as Isaiah. There is no a priori reason to believe that the different Greek text Benjamin Orsatti googled up somewhere on the internet is correct in any given verse where textual variants are extant. It likely reflects the majority view among modern secular academics, but they are engaged imho in an inherently speculative enterprise and often just end up proving their own often-unexamined presuppositions. If we have no alternative but to defer to some authority in choosing between variants of the Greek text we are basing a particular English translation, I am personally inclined to side with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople (which agrees with the KJV on this particular verse) than with a bunch of German professors in love with their own Extreme Cleverness, but everyone is free to make their own choices.

    To Benjamin Orsatti's laudable reticence in presuming to speak for religious traditions of his own, I would add that one of the tragicomic-and/or-entertaining features of Anglophone Eastern Orthodoxy is a complete lack of uniformity of translations, leading almost inevitably to a certain glorious cacophony (if you listen carefully you will often hear worshippers standing side by side using different memorized wordings for the Lord's Prayer and the Creed, and sometimes the translation of the psalms chanted by the choir will veer around within a single service because the different musical settings for different parts of the service that were available to the choir director weren't congruent with each other – heck, sometimes something that's supposed to be a call-and-response of the exact same psalm verse will be off-kilter because the caller and the responders have different wordings in front of them). If you view uniformity as a strong ecclesiastical desideratum, this is to be deplored, but the sort of grass-roots ramshackleness of it is not without its own arguable spiritual benefits, and it is a helpful reminder that all translations are tentative and imperfect.

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 10:52 am

    Miles, Benjamin, and anyone else I may have inadvertently offended. I did not intend for one second to suggest that those for whom religious experience is a daily event, those for whom religion is a way of life, those who are Catholics, Muslims, Christians or any members of any other faith group are in any way mistaken in their beliefs or in their faith. But as one for whom religious experience is not a daily event, and for whom religion is not a way of life, when I hear, or read (for example) "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life", I hear/read something profound, something altogether different from words and ideas which I hear in everyday life, and those words/ideas cause me to reflect. But if I hear/read, for example, "For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life.", I hear/read something mundane, something commonplace, something that has no impact on me whatsoever.

    Incidentally, I know that I am not alone in detesting more modern translations of the Bible — a good friend, whom I have know for over 40 years, who describes herself as moderately devout, for whom religion is a way life and religious experience a daily event, refers to the Good News Bible as "Eyup Jesus, how's your Dad ?".

  34. Miles B said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 4:49 pm

    No offence taken, Philip Taylor! I was merely challenging your implication that there are a only a few people for whom reading the Bible is a regular act of faith – there are many such people reading the Bible, keen to get at its underlying meaning to live by rather than just wanting to savour the poetry of a translation.

    I understand your friend's desire to retain some grandeur and perhaps mystery to words of faith, but there is also an intimacy in the relationship with God, (there are passages where we are told to address God as "Abba, Father" – ie 'daddy'!) and truths that should be understandable to a child. The Good News Bible, in the hands of a good teacher, is one way that we can get the message across to children (and perhaps those who don't have English as a first language or are just unfamiliar with the ideas of Christianity) without creating barriers with difficult-to-understand language.

  35. John Swindle said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 6:10 pm

    In the lengthy preface to the King James Version, the translators, after fawning over the king, set out to justify their audacity in making a new translation. "But how shall men meditate in that, which they cannot understand?" they ask. "How shall they understand that which is kept close in an unknowen tongue?" Despite what I said earlier, the language of the KJV may be for many today "an unknowen tongue."

  36. TR said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 11:28 pm

    "In the beginning was the Word", familiar and pithy as it is, is arguably a mistranslation: λόγος means (among other things) "verbal account", but it practically never refers to a single "word".

    Some of Ruden's choices in Benjamin Orsatti's quotes seem very justifiable to me. εὐαγγέλιον transparently means "good news", as gospel does not. Ἰδοὺ is everyday language, not hifalutin like behold. "Transgression" for ἁμαρτία is sensible since the Greek word is not specifically religious in sense. And choosing "Ioannes the baptizer" over "John the Baptist" is an effective defamiliarizing device. OTOH "build your road" for κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου is indeed less precise than "prepare your way" and seems to gain nothing by the inaccuracy. And they traveled out to him, inhabitants of the whole countryside of Ioudaia preserves the verb-subject order of the Greek, but there's no particular need to do that (Greek word order is much freer than English), and it comes at the cost of adding an anaphoric referent "they" which isn't there in the original.

  37. Rachael Churchill said,

    May 6, 2021 @ 3:10 am

    On modern translations in general: I can understand why those who appreciate the KJV as literature dislike them. It would be like modernising Shakespeare. But for those of us who see it as a message with important content, it's better to have an easily comprehensible translation in everyday language. It avoids misunderstandings (not just intellectual confusion, but emotional dissonance, like the passages about people's bowels being moved with compassion), and it makes it easier to identify with the characters. I think using everyday language is also more faithful to the original, at least parts of which were written in basic and vulgar prose. (But can we both agree that having both kinds of translation available is better than having only one? Then we can use each for the purpose it's suited to.)

    On this translation specifically: I don't like it.

    @Benjamin E. Orsatti, yes, it really does say 'At the inauguration was the true account.' Ugh.

    It also translates the daily bread in the Lord's prayer as "Give us today tomorrow's loaf of bread", which is the opposite of what I thought it was supposed to convey: that today we should only ask for today's bread. I thought it was supposed to evoke the daily bread (manna) that God gave the Israelites in Exodus, where they weren't allowed to stockpile it for tomorrow but had to trust God each day. The usual translation also fits better with Jesus' instruction to not worry about tomorrow but let tomorrow worry about itself.

  38. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    May 6, 2021 @ 7:23 am

    Rachael Churchill said,

    "[F]or those of us who see it as a message with important content, it's better to have an easily comprehensible translation in everyday language. […] I think using everyday language is also more faithful to the original, at least parts of which were written in basic and vulgar prose. (But can we both agree that having both kinds of translation available is better than having only one? Then we can use each for the purpose it's suited to.)"

    Your concluding parenthetical makes a lot of sense. This sentiment is writ large in the practice of the Lubavitcher Chassidim (at least in Pittsburgh) — you can read whichever translations you like of the Torah, Talmud, Tanya, etc. in your own time, for your own edification, but when you _daven_ (i.e. pray), you daven in Hebrew!

    Slightly off-topic, but sparked by this discussion: Blackstone Audio has a recording of Boccaccio's Decameron in English (still waiting for the original Italian recording — Blackstone, take note!), per John Payne's translation, and read by the inimitable Frederick Davidson. Now, the thing about translating a book, which, having been published in Italian in 1353, was notable simply by virtue of its having been written in the "vulgar" tongue, and not in Latin, is — do you translate using 21st Century informal language, to approximate the informality of the original 14th Century Florentine, and vary your register according to whether your speaker be a noble or peasant? If you do this, you also "lose" the "mediaeval" character of the story. Personally, I think John Payne (fl. 19th C.) took the best approach. Per Wikipedia:


    The first truly complete translation in English, with copious footnotes to explain Boccaccio's double-entendres and other references. Introduction by Sir Walter Raleigh. Published by the Villon Society by private subscription for private circulation. Stands and falls on its “splendidly scrupulous but curiously archaic… sonorous and self-conscious Pre-Raphaelite vocabulary” according to McWilliam, who gives as an example from tale III.x: “Certes, father mine, this same devil must be an ill thing and an enemy in very deed of God, for that it irketh hell itself, let be otherwhat, when he is put back therein.”

    Listening to it, it's almost like you're there with the ten storytellers in some splendid mediaeval Tuscan garden. So, yeah, archaizing can certainly be an effective translation technique.

  39. Rodger C said,

    May 6, 2021 @ 8:51 am

    I found myself having to use Payne's Decameron with my undergrads, and I apologized to them for it. I'm sure that's not what Boccaccio sounded like to himself.

  40. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 6, 2021 @ 9:00 am

    It may not be what Boccaccio sounded like to himself, but is it what Boccaccio sounds like to a currently-living native speaker of Italian? I think "books written centuries ago should sound, in translation, like they were written centuries ago and/or like they would have been translated into English contemporaneously" is, up to the point where basic comprehensibility is lost, a perfectly defensible approach. Translating 14th-century Italian into Middle English would probably fail the comprehensibility test, because how many centuries back you can go and still have a well-educated modern reader be able to follow the text varies from language to language.

  41. Ralph J Hickok said,

    May 6, 2021 @ 5:51 pm

    Hmmmm..maybe I'm misreading, but it seems to me as if she's basing at least some of her word choices on her own view of what Jesus and his students were like.

    But this difference suits who Jesus is. He is a "teacher," but often a short-tempered, contemptuous, and withholding one – not a prophet with a passion to persuade. Moreover, Jesus' "students" seem to deserve this treatment, as they tend to be lazy, incurious, and distractible. The motif of failed instruction is integral to this work of literature; it is thematic. Jesus, who is the point, is above having to explain himself; he is above everything, and certainly not accountable to feeble human language. And his students are so far below him that their demands for answers verge on impious rebellion."

    How does she know "who Jesus is" or what his students were like? Is she somehow getting this from the original text? If so, I'd like further discussion of how she reached her conclusions.

  42. Alexander Pruss said,

    May 6, 2021 @ 9:00 pm


    "there are passages where we are told to address God as "Abba, Father" – ie 'daddy'!"

    As far as I can figure, the translation of "Abba" as "Daddy" is at best speculation and at worst an urban legend.

    While in *modern* Hebrew, "abba" does seem to mean daddy (at least that's what Ben Yehuda's dictionary says), Jesus is usually taken to be speaking Aramaic. And in Aramaic "abba" is just "the father" (the "-a" suffix is a definite article in Aramaic).

    There is one wrinkle here that I've wondered about. It's my not very informed impression that in Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic, when one addresses a relative it is more natural to use a suffixed personal possessive pronoun — e.g., "my/our father/mother/sister/brother/daughter/son" — and there may be some sort of significance to the lack of the possessive pronoun in "abba", but I don't know what that significance is.

  43. bloix said,

    May 7, 2021 @ 1:16 pm

    Alexander Pruss-
    In modern Hebrew, "abba" is what a son of daughter of any age uses to address their father. Unlike "daddy," it's not a childish word. Depending on the context, the translation could be Father, Papa, Dad, Daddy. "Av" meaning father is not a term of address.

  44. Philip Taylor said,

    May 7, 2021 @ 2:22 pm

    In some areas and/or demographics of the UK, "mummy" and "daddy" are not solely childish words. As an example, when my then girl-friend and I entered a shop in Nantwich (Cheshire) some years ago, the shop owner recognised her and after saying "Hallo" went on to ask "and how is mummy ?". My girl-friend would have been 23 or so at the time.

  45. Philip Anderson said,

    May 9, 2021 @ 6:01 am

    As others have said, there’s room for different translations for different readers and/or at different times. And (from the extracts) this version does make me look at some familiar texts anew – not necessarily in a new way, but at the actual meaning of phrases. Some phrases jar with me, like inauguration (of what?), which is not unexpected, others care clearly fit for their stated purpose: good news, play-actor. Logos has many meanings, but word doesn’t convey any of them.

    While the general reception here is negative, I see most of that stemming from quite different theories of (Biblical) translation. It should:
    Sound old-fashioned,
    Be different from everyday speech,
    Use the traditional words,
    Be the same as the liturgy (which sounds like the tail wagging the dog).

    The KJV (aka the Authorised Version in England) is generally praised as English literature, but its meaning is often obscure – which probably helps its popularity with a certain type of atheist (or Catholic) :-)

  46. SusanC said,

    May 13, 2021 @ 11:28 am

    I like the KJV, but I like it as a loose poetic translation that isn't necessarily always accurate as to what the original actually meant. If I have some reason for wanting to know accurately what a particular verse means, I might take a peek at a different translation.

    Another thought. Some people recite Buddhist liturgy with the same reading style/inflection they would use for the KJV. it strikes me as odd when they people this, because Vajrayogini is such a different character from the authors of the gospels, and you want her to speak in a rather different style.

    To return to the gospels: the narrators' speech patterns (in translation) should correspond with the kind of character they are.

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