Pietro Lorenzetti, ‘The Crucifixion,’ 1340s (Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift and Gwynne Andrews Fund, 2002/The Met)

Sarah Ruden is a translator of ancient literature with considerable experience and a good reputation. She has translated from the Latin Augustine’s Confessions, Virgil’s Aeneid, and the Satyricon of Petronius, and from the Greek Plato, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and the Homeric Hymns—a substantial body of work. 

I have not been able to locate a genuinely negative review of her earlier efforts, which gives me pause, because I have so many problems with this translation of the Gospels. On one side, I see her track record. On the other side, I read what is before me. 

She tells us in the first lines of her introduction that, as a Quaker, she would like “to deal with the Gospels more straightforwardly than is customary, to help people respond to the books on their own terms.” This sentence already confused me. What does she mean by “more straightforwardly”? In what manner are the King James Version or the Revised Standard Version not straightforward? And does she seek to have people respond to the books on the books’ own terms or on the people’s own terms? The ambiguity of referent in this clause is significant, for it points to the classic problem of all translation, namely, how to navigate between fidelity to the historical embeddedness of ancient literature and the cultural lens of present-day readers. 

It is quite clear, furthermore, that Ruden is far from “straightforward” in her approach. She has a fifty-four-page introduction that includes a twenty-three-page “glossary of unfamiliar word choices in English,” in which she explains and defends her often unusual decisions concerning diction, and a list of one hundred thirty “unfamiliar transliterations of important Greek names in the Greek text.” Her translation itself moreover is studded with footnotes (some two hundred per Gospel) that comment on translation choices as well as a variety of historical, cultural, and religious matters. Hers is a well-armored presentation. 

Before getting to more substantial issues, I should note that I found her heavy use of transliterations both distracting and off-putting. What is gained, after all, by having Farisaios rather than Pharisee, Saddoukaios rather than Sadducee, Ioudaios rather than Jew? Such transliterations make the texts of the Gospels appear stranger, it is true, but they do not make them any more intelligible to present-day readers. Perhaps the intention was to strip the proper nouns of accumulated associations, to allow a fresh look, for example, at the Farisaioi apart from the centuries of Christian anti-Semitism. But I fear the transliterations change the optics of the text without accomplishing that end. 

Reading further through Ruden’s lengthy introduction, I became increasingly uneasy about her claim to “straightforwardness.” She starts by providing a characterization of each Gospel that is, in the main, unexceptionable, if not always accurate. She gives no indication, for example, that the Gospel of Luke is (with the Acts of the Apostles) part of a two-volume composition, and she thinks that this most non-docetic narrative was influenced by Gnosticism. She similarly states that the Gospel of John has the “strongest links to Gnosticism,” a view that few if any scholars after the time of Bultmann would maintain. Unless Ruden has access to evidence unavailable to the general run of competent New Testament scholars, one would have to declare these statements simply erroneous.

Ruden vacillates between a sort of linguistic primitivism and a desire to help contemporary readers.

It is when she turns to the canonization of the Gospels, though, that her tone suddenly changes: “When, quite early,” she says, “the administrators of the texts (that is, the solidifying church hierarchy) began to put more space between themselves and the audiences of the texts, the texts began to veer out of control, like any authoritarian project” (emphasis added). I am not sure that the last part of the sentence makes any sense, but it clearly expresses Ruden’s animus, which continues: “The Gospels were the first of the truly power-hungry Truth writings…a collection like the Gospels could arise only after the start of the essentially modern world” (emphasis added). Once more, a statement both confused in content and strident in tone, little mitigated by Ruden’s comparing the Gospel collection unfavorably to Das Kapital and Nietzsche. In discussing her treatment of the Greek noun logos, which has universally been translated as “word” but she thinks should be rendered as “true account”—more on this later—she somehow connects the ordinary translation to notions of vengeance, and concludes, “I hope that American Christians in particular find my fresh cast of the Gospels’ language helpful for this purpose.”

Ruden provides, remember, a twenty-three-page list of fresh readings. She not only replaces “word” with “true account”—showing herself in this as in many other instances enamored of etymology—but has “inauguration” rather than “beginning,” “stake” rather than “cross,” “sky” in place of “heaven” (“Our father in the skies”), “hound” rather than “persecute” (because persecute suggests present-day situations). She avoids “righteous/righteousness” because of their “archaic and pompous ring,” even though her replacements are sometimes weak. Instead of language about “resurrection,” she prefers variants of “waking up” and “awakening.” She has “wrong-doing” or “offense” rather than “sin,” because for us, sin is a “heavily sectarian word” (whatever that means). She replaces “spirit” with “life breath”—once more etymology reigns. “Son of Man” is naturally “son of mankind” or “son of humankind.” There are many more, but I add only “spread the good news” rather than evangelize (because evangelize has associations with televangelism). Given this extensive list, I found it strange that she did not find it helpful to discuss the term “glory,” which in the Gospels is not only something quite other than present-day assumptions, but (especially in the Gospel of John) has a significant literary and theological role, precisely in its polyvalent range (see. e.g., John 12:28–43). 

Her list of terms reveals how Ruden vacillates between a sort of linguistic primitivism (“true account” instead of “word,” “stake” instead of “cross”) and a desire to help contemporary readers who are either smugly content with or horribly scarred by the language of the Church derived from these texts in translation. Remarkably absent from her introduction or from the notes to her translation, however, is any awareness of the two most important historical contexts for the Gospels. First, the language of the Old Testament mediated by the Greek Septuagint was profoundly formative of the Gospels’ diction (with the prophetic literature, for example, making “spirit” already much more than a “life-breath”). Second, the writings of the Christian movement antecedent to the Gospels—such as the letters of Paul—also affected the language of those compositions (making “Holy Spirit,” for example, a far more richly connotative term than “Holy Life-Breath”). The first readers of the Gospels would, in short, have a rich set of linguistic associations for pneuma beyond the etymologically determined translation provided by Ruden, who has John the Baptist declare, “He’ll baptize you with the holy life-breath” (Mark 1:8), and who has Jesus declare in the Beatitudes, “happy are the destitute in the life-breath because theirs is the kingdom of the skies” (Matt 5:3).

On some occasions, Ruden tries to make the translation do too much, seeking to provide nuances of meaning that commentaries ordinarily supply, and ending up with a version that confuses rather than clarifies. For Mark’s version of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, for example, she tries to capture Mark’s unusual phrasing and ends with incoherence: “Then he ordered them to have all the people recline in communal cohorts that abutted on the verdant turf. So they reclined by fifties and hundreds, all lined up as in garden allotments” (Mark 6:40). Is this better than the stately King James: “Then he commanded them to make them all sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in ranks, in hundreds and in fifties”? 

In another passage, Ruden tries to capture the double meaning of Jesus’s adverb anothen, which incites Nicodemus’s confusion in John 3:3. The term can mean either “again” or “from above,” and the discourse plays on the polyvalence. She translates: “Unless someone is born anew—taking it from the top—he cannot see the kingdom of God.” But “taking it from the top” is a contemporary idiom (from music and theater) that does not in the least mean what John means by “from above.” Ruden’s striving for original or striking expressions leads at times to simple clunkiness. Compare the simplicity of the King James Version of Mark 14:21, “but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had never been born,” to Ruden’s version: “But he has it coming, that specimen of mankind through whom the son of mankind is handed over. It would be better for that specimen of mankind if he hadn’t been born.” The use of the italic type for that in this verse reveals a translation tic. Ruden frequently relies on italics to clarify referents that her translation fails to make clear, a habit that becomes particularly distracting in her translation of John. In the seven verses of John 7:24–30, for example, she italicizes five words, in the six verses of John 8:14–19, she italicizes four words, and so forth. Similarly, in Luke 7:34, she has Jesus attacked in these terms: “Look, that guy’s an eater—and a drinker of wine” rather than the non-italicized and crisper, “Look, a glutton and drunkard.”

At other times, her over-literalness serves to confuse. She wants the reader to know that the term usually translated as “left” (in distinction from “right”) is an apotropaic euphemism meaning “the blessed name.” Rather than tell the reader this (not so important) fact in a note, however, she inserts it in the translation; thus, at Jesus’ Crucifixion—or his hanging on the stake—she has, “and along with him two bandits were hung on stakes, one on his right, and one on his side ‘with the blessed name’” (Mark 15:27; see Matt 20:23; 27:38). I am at a loss to say what this “correction” of the word “left” accomplishes.

Sometimes, her choices are disastrous. One can take exception to the King James Version of John 1:1–2 because it capitalizes “word” and “God” and supplies “He” in the second verse. But it is otherwise as close to the Greek as English can be: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” Here is Ruden’s version: “At the inauguration was the true account, and the true account was with god, and god was the true account. He was at the inauguration with god.” Not only does this translation blast away all the literary resonances and theological significance of John’s stately opening—as well as fundamentally altering the third phrase of the first verse—it is both pedestrian and misleading. The word “was at the inauguration with god”? Present-day readers cannot escape the sole contemporary use of the term inauguration. Was the true account at the presidential ball? Because she has botched these opening lines, furthermore, Ruden must back and fill in her translation of John 1:14, through an unjustified amplification: “The spoken word [now it is a word], the true account, became flesh and blood and built a shelter and sojourned among us.” This is paraphrase rather than translation. 

Anyone who has translated any part of the New Testament from Greek knows how difficult a task it is, so full credit to anyone who undertakes it. But in her attempt to wipe away all the accumulated meanings that she regards as intrusive or harmful in earlier translations, Ruden has also failed to take seriously enough the wise decisions made by many of her predecessors. The result is original, to be sure, but it is also something of a hot mess. 

The Gospels
Trans. by Sarah Ruden
Modern Library
$28 | 416 pp.

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor.


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Published in the October 2021 issue: View Contents
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