The Bible Made Strange: Sarah Ruden’s Four New Gospels

Scot McKnight on Sarah Ruden

Sarah Ruden, The Gospels: A New Translation (New York: Modern Library, 2021), lxviii + 333 pages. $28.00
People think they know how a specific verse should sound. Such opinions flow freely from those who have never learned a word of the original languages. Our Bibles are so Englishy sounding, most readers think their preferred translation is the translation. Add to this that committees authorize our most common translations: the New Revised Standard, the English Standard Version, the New International Version (2011), and the Common English Bible. Authorized translations are publicized and marketed and then used in churches where they acquire sacred standing.

Churlish such accusations may be, but each of these translations represents a particular tribe of Christians, and it takes no hard thinking to recognize the tribe behind each. As a sometimes preacher I learned long ago to ask which translation a church uses and go with it, for anything else leads to not-so-gentle questions about one’s orthodoxy. The only translations transcending tribalism are done by individuals, despite the obvious shortcomings of one person translating the whole Bible (Eugene Peterson’s The Message) or separate testaments.

Robert Alter and John Goldingay have translated the Hebrew Bible, while N.T. Wright and David Bentley Hart have done the same for the Greek New Testament. These individual translations often shed more light than the committee-based ones. In the last two years I have read Goldingay twice and most of Alter once. The former makes me wonder at times if I have ever actually read that portion of the Bible before encountering Goldingay’s version, while Alter makes the poetry of the Bible poetic in English. Hart’s translation takes the prize for eccentricities and opinionations, while Wright’s reflects his own flourishes as passage after passage pleases the ear all over again. (Fortunately, Wright had a good editor; Hart, alas, did not.) Translating the Bible requires perfectionist editors, and the standard translations benefit from ongoing corrections. Those who read Greek well tolerate the translations while they secretly admit, to quote Mark Polizzotti, that “translation is the poor cousin of literature” and a “necessary evil” and that there are “no ground rules” for translating. He reminds us that  translating a great work qualifies the translator as a traitor. Translators, if I may, are not traitors; instead, they are priests.

Theory matters, so most translators search for “dynamic equivalencies” of Greek expressions. Today those equivalencies skew toward plain English; the CEB translates the classic “blessed” of the beatitudes of Jesus with “happy.” There are countless stylistic choices to be made. What to do, for instance, with the thoroughly Aramaic “son of man:” capitalize or not? N.T. Wright gives it “son of man,” Hart has “Son of Man.” Is it a title or not? Most render it as a title, drawing perhaps on Daniel 7’s heavenly Son of Man. However, with courage the CEB surprises with “the Human One.” Yes, the Human One is that common in Greek.

All of this and more become manifest on every page of Sarah Ruden’s new translation, The Gospels: A New Translation.  She is a master translator, a classicist known for her acclaimed translation of The Aeneid, which recently appeared in a new edition. Like Dorothy Sayers translating Dante, Ruden was the first woman to translate Virgil. Of her translations my favorite is The Lysistrata of Aristophanes. Chalk up also her Homeric Hymns and Augustine’s Confessions. Hence we have a first-class translator with a sensitivity to a variety of styles and languages turning to the Gospels with a fresh eye. She wants to de-sacralize the hallowed language of the Gospels, which she does well, not only because of her classical world but because she wants to jolt readers into seeing more clearly what these words are actually translating.

If translators are priests, then some mediate the text, the author, and that world better than others. A taste of Ruden’s mediation comes by sitting at her table as she sidles over to the table of the Gospel writers and then back to us. In this sense a translator collaborates with the text and her readers. Ruden with Luke, Ruden’s Luke with us.

In the famous healing of the demoniac in Mark 5:1-20, she gives us “mangling himself with stones” (5:5), “groveled at his feet” (5:6), “barreled down the crag” (5:13), and “clearheaded” (5:15): all fresh, and equally persuasive. This passage follows one of her finest renderings: on the sea Jesus “scolded the wind” and said “Put a muzzle on it!” (4:39). The unconventional word choices are faithful to the spirit of the Greek, bringing familiar texts alive for the reader. Her translations are like this from Mark 1:1, where she chooses to begin, to John 21:25. In the passage where Jesus unmasks the disciples’ desire for status (Mark 10:35-45), we hear her odd penchant for the left side with “on your ‘better’ side” (10:37); gentiles become “the other nations”;  their “great men impose top-down authority on them” (10:42). The conclusion of this passage is superbly down-to-earth: Jesus was to “give his life as the price to set a lot of other people free” (10:45). In the two great commandments passage (12:28-34), we read that the “chief” one is “ ‘Listen, Israēl: the lord our god is one lord, and you are to love the lord your god with the whole of your heart and the whole of your life, and the whole of your mind and the whole of your strength.’ The next most important command. . .” and then, where most translations use “neighbor,” she gives us “the one next to you.” Here one peers into her theory: desacralize the text with “lord” and “god.” Ruden steers her ship as far from classic orthodoxy as often as she can. She dedicates her translation “To the Quakers.”

When I peer into new translations, I always begin with the Lord’s prayer, which she renders in italics, indented into poetic lines, as

Our father in the skies,

Let your name be spoken in holiness.

Let your kingdom arrive.

Let what you want happen

On the earth, as in the sky.

Give us today tomorrow’s loaf of bread’

One of her notes reads “There is no good basis for translating this adjective as ‘daily’,” and she is joined by many because there is no good basis for any rendering of the unusual Greek term. She consistently, but not always, translates ouranos with “sky” against the customary “heaven.” Even N.T. Wright, who gripes more than anyone about the common (mis)understandings of “heaven,” continues the use of “heaven” in the Lord’s prayer. So, I don’t understand why she translates the identical Greek of Matthew 4:23 and 9:35 differently.

In the former we have “healing every disease and debility,” a nice turn of phrase, but it becomes “curing every disease and every infirmity” in the latter (as well as at 10:1). Healing becomes curing, we get the repetition of “every” as in the Greek text, but debility becomes infirmity. What is missed is that Matthew has intentionally closed 4:23 through 9:35 with an identical expression to tell his readers where they’re headed and then to remind them where they’ve been and then to push the twelve into extending the very work of Jesus.  At Matthew 18:1-5 we have “the students approached Iēsous.” Notice she transliterates names to remind readers that this is an ancient text with its own language and names. We are too familiar with the text. We need these reminders.

Ruden is at her best in the parables—usually translated (rightly) as “analogies” but other times as a “story for comparison.” So we look at her version of Matthew 25. “Next the kingdom of the skies can be compared to ten unmarried girls,” five of whom were “silly” and five “sensible,” and some “nodded off”; I find these refreshing and fun and true. The “least of these” comes off her pen as “who are of no importance at all” while the expression for eternal torment is “punishment for all time.” I will turn to her translation of the parables over and over.

In the parable of the prodigal son, we encounter these expressions: “he threw his property around” (15:13), “fall short of essentials” (15:14), “graze pigs” (15:15) and “carob pods” (15:16). The runaway son was a “corpse” (15:24) and the miffed older son accuses the runaway of bad behavior: “after he wolfed down, in the company of whores, the property” (15:30). For some reason Ruden goes with “heaven” in 15:18 but “skies” in 15:7. One expression after another in her translation of the parables sheds light, creates a smile, or turns a phrase that leads to pondering the impact of her choices.

When it comes to Greek, though Ruden is not above pointing a long critical finger at the skills of the NT writers, Luke’s is the Gospels’ best. Ruden’s skills, on full display in Luke 1-2, are breathtaking.

The two old parents of John (Iōannēs) “were both lawful” (1:6), one of her renderings of what is usually translated “righteous,” and they went to the “shrine” (1:9); and Zacharias was “thunderstruck” (1:12). Mary is a “young girl” (1:27) and Gabriēl says “Joy” (1:28) to her. Mary, who says “I’m not familiar with a man” (1:34), is told that God “will send a shadow over” her (1:35), and when she gets to the home of Elizabet “the baby capered” in the latter’s “womb” (1:41). Zacharias’ song, the Benedictus, has “his holy dispensation” for “his holy covenant” (1:72), and the NIV’s “tender mercy of God” becomes in Ruden “from God’s inmost self” (1:78). Jesus is born in a “feeding trough” (2:7), and later the parents offer “two pigeon chicks” (2:24). As a twelve-year-old, Jesus goes with the family to Ierousalēm, and “everyone who listened” to the young man was “transported by his understanding” (2:47). His response to his parents was that he had to attend to “my father’s concerns” but he goes along with them and “minded them” (2:49, 50). No more stimulating translation can be found than Ruden’s version of Luke 11:53-54: “Once he’d gone out of there, the scholars and Farisaioi began to hold a terrible grudge against him, and to drill him by word of mouth about a number of things, lying in ambush to pounce on some statement emerging from his mouth.”

It is my practice to turn from the Lord’s prayer in reviewing new translations to John 1, and here again we find Ruden’s imposing presence, confirming Polizzotti’s point that, while translators should be “self-effacing,” they must also be creative. All good translations, then, are not simply word-for-word renditions but attempts to make the text come alive again.

Ruden’s “At the inauguration” in John 1:1 creates in this spirit, but it also makes me wonder how she would render Genesis 1:1. She expresses concerns with how the Greek word logos should be translated, and she often renders it as she does here with “account.” Having delved into the etymology, she has concluded that logos is connected to calculation and so most of the time she avoids translating it with anything like “word.” Hence in John 1:1, “At the inauguration was the true account…” and “god was the true account.” I’m not convinced. She decides to amplify some Greek words with two words, so at 1:12 we have “to become, to be born, children of God.” Sarx, that difficult-to-interpret word in the NT, becomes “body” in 1:13 and verse fourteen is rendered “And the spoken word, the true account, became flesh and blood”—where did she get “and blood”?—“and built a shelter and sojourned among us”: another amplification. She has “But the only-born god, who is in the father’s lap, made the father understandable” (1:18), which in the NIV is customary: “but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”

These samples of each of the Gospels can serve us for a review. Some of her translation choices can be listed here, though she is not compelled to make every instance identical. Every rendering into English is what Alter called “an endless series of compromises” (Art, ix). To use, as she does, “life-breath” for pneuma (usually “spirit”) is to cut off one sense for another, but such compromises are needed in translation.

Her choices – far too many to show here – suggest the degree to which she pushes the reader into thinking, the mark of a good translation. Most of our translations today do everything they can not to offend; the individual translators of our day seem bent on pushing in the opposite direction. Especially Ruden.

Much of this is anticipated in the introduction. The “Gospels’ writerly point of view is omniscient with a vengeance” (xiv), which made me pause to ponder which texts in the ancient world that generated social imaginaries weren’t omniscient to the same degree. On authorship decisions she says the traditional names are “far-fetched,” except that statement is as open to pushback as the traditional views. “We don’t know” is not the same as “no way.” She’s right that the Gospels are all about Jesus. She opines that “a normal kind of explication” of Jesus “is in himself or nowhere, so it is nowhere.” She tells us the ending of John’s Gospel “looks rather prankish” and asks, “What does it all mean? Don’t ask the author, who merely avers that his testimony about ‘these things’ is true.” I question “merely” when this Gospel does tell us right there who Jesus is and what this text means.

The Gospels were written in Greek. She observes that “Nearly all the words attributed to [the apostles] are thus in a language they never have voluntarily uttered, belonging to a cosmopolitan civilization they may well have despised.” But not a few scholars today have made a case for Galileans at least and some leaders in Jerusalem having some facility in Greek. The Gospels, again, Ruden tells us, “are ruggedly composed, defensively hermetic, yet stumbling over themselves in their ambition.” She thinks they are “the first of the truly power-hungry Truth writings” and that “even Nietzsche is friendlier to ordinary engagement and interpretation.” I feel these judgments in her choices throughout the translation.

According to Ruden, in the “translations of the pagan Greek and Roman Classics, the nexus has, as a rule, been ignored. In New Testament translation, it’s worse: the self-expressive text has fallen under the muffling, alien weight of later Christian institutions and had the life nearly smothered out of it.” In Ruden’s own words: “I have had to be more blunt and literal than I would have liked.” So while many translators do their work with an ear for specific denominations or a particular group of Christians in mind, Ruden works to awaken in us a fresh understanding and startle our ears to listen anew.

Scot McKnight is Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lisle, Illinois. He has a translation of the New Testament, tentatively titled The Second Testament, forthcoming from Intervarsity Press.