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Gospel translations: That openeth the window, to let in the light

10 December 2021

Madeleine Davies explores theories behind translations of the Gospels


A room at the Museum of the Bible, Washington, DC, displaying Bibles translated into hundreds of languages

A room at the Museum of the Bible, Washington, DC, displaying Bibles translated into hundreds of languages

“AT THE inauguration was the true account, and this true account was with god, and god was the true account.” These words are unlikely to be read aloud at many carol services this month, but for Dr Sarah Ruden, this is what it sounds like to translate the Gospels “more straightforwardly than is customary”, to help the reader to “respond to the books on their own terms”.

Not everyone has enjoyed the effect, she tells me: “I have been told by a great number and variety of people that my innovative, speculative translation of the opening of the book of John is terrible. The Greek is beautiful, the standard English is beautiful, and I have just mucked it up . . .

“I was just really glad to hear that from people because they participate, as they ought to. They are part of this enterprise; so they can see why I did this, and they are still not buying it, and that’s good. I want them to be that interested and that active.”

A philologist who has translated classical texts, including The Aeneid (described by Ursula Le Guin as “the best translation yet”) and St Augustine’s Confessions, Dr Ruden is unafraid of ruffling feathers with her approach. In her introduction to The Gospels (Vintage, 2021), she argues that, when it comes to the New Testament, “the self-expressing text has fallen under the muffling, alien weight of later Christian institutions and had the life nearly smothered out of it.”

Her aim is to liberate it from accretions of the centuries, to “reconstitute the Gospels as books — to be read, understood, interrogated, enjoyed, and debated as they are . . . calling every word as I see it, after the requisite research”.

The English word “grace” has become “heavily abstracted” and “theologically overwrought”, she writes in her glossary, opting to use instead a variety of words for kindness. “Righteousness” has an “archaic and pompous ring”, and “rescue” is better than “save”, being “resistant to modern theological and institutional baggage”.

Her baseline was a standardised edited text in Greek (“the result of hundreds of years of expert work by the best biblical scholars in the world, minutely vetted and persuasively reconstructed”). The standard translations that followed were, she says, “so rigorously controlled to avoid challenging and offending that their surface is flat and dull, their meanings obscure, and their footnotes an exercise in hiding anything interesting”.

She doesn’t produce these objections from an “anti-religious” position, she emphasises. “In fact, I don’t think there is anything more dangerous to our morals, our politics, our spiritual health than the prevailing malleability of sacred literature and translation. If you read these documents in the original languages, nothing will come across more strongly than their vivid realities. To the authors, and to those who inspired the authors, what we call the unseen world was not only real: it was seen. There was no division between the natural and supernature. There is just one universe to enjoy or to try to destroy.”

Jenny MillerDr Sarah Ruden

It follows, she observes, that “what was written could be challenging. Characterisations of God were not soft-pedalled.” She gives the example of the parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19 (better known in St Matthew’s version with the ten talents). In it, she argues: “God is depicted as a brutal head of a puppet regime, a client of the Roman Empire, who punishes with a massacre what are implied to be cogent objections to his rule among the citizenry.” In the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20, God calls the worker who objects to his approach to payment “pal” or “buddy” in “very condescending, really nasty” terms.

“I had long long talks with my editor about how I could possibly handle this word, and she was very much for the consideration that the translators generally call dignity,” she recalls. “They make this judgement, this decree, about what’s appropriate for the author to have said. I’m sure they wouldn’t want anybody handling their work that way. But they feel justified in doing it when they translate sacred literature.

“I find this very troubling, and I don’t do this. If it’s going to be a bit jarring, what I write — what I feel compelled to write when I look at the lexicon and the commentaries — then that is too bad. We have the task of coming to terms with the best version of scripture that we can get at — and not remoulding it wilfully around our own preferences for how the world is supposed to look.”


THE result, The Gospels, is not Dr Ruden’s first translation of the Bible. In her 2017 book The Face of Water: A translator on beauty and meaning in the Bible (Pantheon, 2017), she offered translations of passages from both the Old and New Testament after first setting out some of the inherent “impossibilities”.

As a reader of ancient literature, she writes, “most of what I see in English Bibles is loss: the loss of sound, the loss of literary imagery, the loss of emotion, and — inevitably, because these texts were performances deeply integrated into the lives of the authors and early readers and listeners — the loss of thought and experience.”

A strong theme in the chapters that follows is the “large territories of meaning” in a single word of Greek and Hebrew and the impossibility of capturing these in the English one chosen.

“Sometimes I just give up,” she tells me. “I crumble and I translate the word with two or three English words.” She compares the “very powerful, small vocabulary” of the original language to a “linchpin, the ball-bearing there, and the whole passage with its meaning moves around this word, with the very flexible meanings”. We are accustomed to thinking of English as an “incredibly rich language”, she says. “But in certain ways, English is limited . . . a pragmatic language.”

We discuss pneuma and its translation as “Spirit”. In John 3 (“no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit”), she observes, “there’s this whole play on the word pneuma and it becomes a life breath, this essence of life, an essence of God’s life, of God giving life, and then the wind and its mysteries, the mysteries of its movement. It’s really kind of mind-blowing, the poetics of the whole thing, and the medieval scribe or Renaissance translator up to the modern era — people did not have an idea of how the rhetoric of this vocabulary could work, or how this vocabulary could work to elaborate the very important concepts here. Just rubber-stamp one word ‘spirit’ in English.

“And we are supposed to accept that. as if they have some kind of authority, and I say, No. Those translations and interpretations, often theological, that they bring along with them — those are accretions, those are later, they do not command our obedience; or else, why do a new translation?”


ALONGSIDE Dr Ruden’s passion for her work, her commitment to trying “to communicate in English what is in the ancient texts” is ready acknowledgment of the impossibility of success. “I would like to deal with the Gospels more straightforwardly than is customary, to help people respond to the books on their own terms,” she writes in her introduction. “Yet never before, in nearly forty years of translating, have I found texts so resistant to this purpose.”

In her introduction, she seeks to convey the sheer strangeness of the text, which “speaks to itself and not to me; there is no author in his familiar role, reaching out to me across the centuries and using all his training and ingenuity. The Gospels are an inward-looking, self-confirming set of writings, containing some elements of conventional rhetoric and poetics, but not constructed to make a logical or aesthetic case for themselves; the case IS Jesus; so the words don’t stoop to argue or entice with any great effort . . .”

The Gospels are, she argues, “the first of the truly power-hungry Truth writings”, a “sweeping assault of words” against the modern world’s huge apparatus of material power, in which “assertions take over the poetry and the sense as well, making the text suitable as a basis for force, reform, or both.” The authors “thought that all conventional assumptions should be adjusted or replaced”, with the result that “great jolts” were given to the meaning of words, leaving translators aiming at “moving targets”. She finds in the Gospels “the stretching of traditional language past the breaking point”.

While she isn’t chary of criticising the language of the Greek, which can tend towards “dutifulness and dullness”, she is also utterly convinced of the importance of her task. The Bible is a book that matters, she writes. “We all to some degree define ourselves in relation to it, whether we mean to or not.”

CREATIVE COMMONS/CHESTER BEATTY A folio from Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews from a codex containing the Pauline epistles (P46), written in Greek with ink on papyrus; made in Egypt and dated c.200. One of 11 Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri codices

When I ask her what motivated her to undertake The Gospels, she talks about the political context in the United States, where for years she was committed to communicating with conservative Christian institutions, concerned about the “widening social and political gap” in the country. This latest act of translation was her response to the election of Donald Trump, she says, “to emphasise how dangerous idolatry was. I more or less used the Gospels as an example of how populist authoritarianism gets going and it always involves some kind of idolatry. In the case of the Gospels, it’s been an idolatry of the text. . .

“Donald Trump could not have the poisonous influence he continues to have without the support of conservative and even mainstream Christians. And part of their intellectual operations is an idolatry of the text . . . I was really interested in taking a more critical look at the Gospels and starting to deconstruct them as an idol.”

She speaks of their “very disturbing” anti-Semitism, and the Gnosticism in John (“This is Gnostics getting in there and claiming a very privileged authority to say what the truth is, to shut other people up, and to be the ‘we say so’ corporation”).

“I really would like believers to come to terms with the fact that being Christian does not defeat human nature,” she says. “It doesn’t. It properly, I think, should be an acceptance that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that we need self-examination, we need repentance . . . It sounds weird, but I think it’s appropriate to this political era that the Gospels translation is in part a protest against political and religious extremism.”


IN HER introduction, Dr Ruden explains that she has “often turned to a word’s basic imagery as a defence against anachronism, obfuscation, and lethargy, which drain communications of their primordial electricity”. Reading her translation during Advent I enjoyed reading that the baby "capered" in Elizabeth's womb. The rendering of "crucified" as "hung on the stakes" is a powerfully vivid. Her choices undoubtedly have the ability to unnerve.

In a review for Commonweal, Dr Luke Timothy Johnson, Professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Candler School of Theology, complained that “striving for original or striking expressions leads at times to simple clunkiness” and that in other places “her over-literalness serves to confuse”.

Such critiques are to be expected. In the introduction to his own translation of the New Testament (Yaly University Press, 2018; Books 23 February 2018) the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart observes that, “no matter what one produces — recklessly liberal, timidly conservative, or something poised equilibriously in between — it will provoke consternation (and probably indignation) in countless breasts.”

His own approach suggests sympathy with Dr Ruden’s critique of existing translations, which, he argues, tend to use language “determined as much by theological and dogmatic tradition as by the ‘plain’ meaning of the words on the page”. He seeks to avoid trying to “make the words on the page conform to what later dogmatic reflection found in them”, digging beneath “layers of received hermeneutical and theological tradition”.

The result is not, he emphasises, for liturgical use. His aim is accuracy rather than literary eloquence, giving readers “a sense of the strangeness of the text: the novelty, the impenetrability, the frequently unfinished quality of the prose and of the theology”.

For Dr Hart, “the power and the beauty of the New Testament are, for the most part, largely unrelated to its literary quality, which is often meagre.” Revelation is, he suggests, “almost unremittingly atrocious”. The writings are, rather, “the devout and urgent attempts of often rather ordinary persons to communicate something ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ that transcends any language, but that nevertheless demands to be spoken, now, here, in whatever words one can marshal”. He writes of being struck by “a new sense of the utter strangeness of the Christian vision of life in its first dawning”.

Most of us would find Christians “truly cast in the New Testament mould fairly obnoxious”, he argues, and draws attention to the “reassuring gloss” applied to the “raw rhetoric” of the New Testament’s strictures on wealth, for example, and its “relentless torrents of exorbitance and extremism”. In the New Testament, “everything is cast in the harsh light of a final judgement that is both absolute and terrifyingly imminent. In regard to all these texts, the qualified, moderate, common-sense interpretation is always false.”

Like Dr Ruden, he provides extensive notes on several of his key choices, in which he explains that he has allowed his thinking to be shaped by both the studies of modern biblical scholars and those of “ancient authorities”: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Theodore of Mopsuestia. Anyone who has read his apologia for universal salvation, That All Shall Be Saved (Books, 13 December 2019) will be unsurprised to see extended discussions concerning translations of what is typically rendered as “eternal” and “hell”.

Predictably, Hart’s attempt to produce a translation “not shaped by later theological and doctrinal history” has come in for criticism. “Part of the churches’ understanding of creeds, catechisms and confessions and the doctrines they promulgate — doctrines like the deity of the Holy Spirit or the eternal pre-existence of the Son of God — is that they are meant to aid in the reading of Scripture,” wrote Wesley Hill, associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry, Pennysylvania, in a review for ABC Religion and Ethics.

“They were not forged, and they were not intended to be used, as improvements upon Scripture’s lack of clarity but rather as a kind of grammar to assist in discerning the meaning Scripture latently bore.”


WHILE critiques of particular approaches are well-rehearsed, debates about translation can also stir up doubts about placing any confidence in it at all. The Revd Dr A. K. M. Adam, tutor in New Testament and Greek at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, and lecturer in theology at Oriel College, Oxford, is conscious that some people subscribe to “a sort of language mysticism: ‘Oh, you couldn’t possibly understand if you didn’t read it in the Greek!’

“If that were pertinent then we would never be able to run the UN or international diplomacy in general, because we would never be able to attain anything like cooperative agreement with other language groups,” he tells me. “Translation does its job.”

Dr A. K. M. Adam

He has written previously on “the code metaphor”, giving the example of encoding a military message that can be deciphered unambiguously. “When you go from one language to another, that’s not what happens at all. There’s no secret message that I’m seeing in Greek or Hebrew or French or German such that, if you do it right, there’s the exact meaning brought over into English. . . What makes a translation a good or great translation is its success in people who know both languages saying ‘That’s a darn’ good job!’ . . . Not capturing exactly every word, not revealing the hidden truth — there is no hidden truth — the expression is the expression and we make of it what we can, what we will. . . A translation is always a compromise between shadows cast and highlights illuminated.”

Translation is both “essential” and “never quite satisfactory”, he concludes. He gives the example of the “notorious” phrase “Son of Man”. In Greek, it’s “the son of the human”, and in Daniel it’s “a son of a human”. Yet, “we say ‘Son of Man’ and may well always say ‘Son of Man’, even though that’s plainly not what the Greek or Aramaic says. It’s what we’re used to; it’s punchy; it makes a metric rhyme with ‘Son of God’.”

He also questions the philosophy behind “more extreme” translations, which seek to “draw you out of your casual Bible-reading habits . . . You are being confronted with something alien, with its own loveliness and oddities, but certainly not in any way like English.” The English interpretative tradition has a “very strong emphasis on the plainness of expression and interpretation”, he observes. While there is a “thrill” that accompanies “risky” alternatives, they also present problems for the English reader: “In the effort to capture the Greek, what they have actually done is make a construction that’s alien in English to the idiomatic pattern that would have been instantly recognisable in Greek.”

It is notable that the Jacobean translators of the Authorised Version were clear that a literal translation had not been attempted, writing in their preface: “we thinke good to admonish thee of (gentle Reader) that wee have not tyed our selves to an uniformitie of phrasing, or to an identitie of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done. . .”


TODAY, study of biblical languages is not a requirement for ordinands, although on many pathways it is either required or optional. Most will come to study with no prior knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, and, at St Stephen’s House, Dr Adam has observed students becoming “very excited at first discoveries”.

It is difficult to achieve reading proficiency in either language in the amount of time available, he says, and one of the pitfalls that he seeks to avoid is confirming the “ingrained inclination to think of other languages as more or less successful simulations of English in a sort of secret coded way. They aren’t simulations of English: they are living cultural and expressive phenomena on their own. . .

“It’s really important, if it’s at all possible, to get people to the stage of being able to read another language for the sake of the other language rather than the purpose of just rendering it in English.”

He is sympathetic to concerns that biblical languages are being squeezed from the curriculum. “One part of that formation involves helping to sensitise ordinands to a different world, a world populated by leaders and ministries and forces and presences that people do not generally contemplate most of the time,” he says.

“One can do some work toward equipping ordinands to inhabit the world of principalities and powers, of angels and demons, of spirit and soul and flesh, without acquainting oneself with the languages in which the people of God began to articulate their and our relation to that world; but one can travel more rapidly, deeper, more readily into that world by learning those languages, than by standing outwith those worlds and interacting only through the mediation of translators.”

Good translators are a “great thing”, he emphasises. But learning the biblical languages is a form of discipline, an ascesis. “Would you sing with Miriam or David? Learn Hebrew. It will take you a while, it will take significant effort, but that’s how you learn to praise God with their words.”


THE effect of encountering biblical languages and exploring various translations should not be underestimated, suggests Dr Cressida Ryan, who teaches New Testament Greek at the University of Oxford.

In a reflection for colleagues in Classics departments on teaching Greek for a theology faculty, she writes that the discipline “sometimes risks provoking a crisis of faith in new undergraduates at a time of transition in their lives when perhaps their faith is also being tested. There is a different kind of pastoral sensitivity needed when teaching the Gospels as opposed to Homer.”

For an ordinand, the motivation for learning Greek is very different from that of the average undergraduate. “It really matters that they understand the text well,” she writes. “Their very identity is bound up with doing so.” Biblical exegesis “carries a culturally transformative value in a way thinking about Homer is far less likely to — it isn’t preached from the pulpit on a weekly basis.”

She recalls one student informing her: “I checked the passage we read in class and that’s not what it says.” This left Dr Ryan “very aware of how fundamental translation was to understanding the Bible”.

Jack Belloli, a second-year ordinand at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, has chosen to study Hebrew in addition to Greek, and will be translating set portions of scripture from both languages as part of his finals this summer. Many ordinands have opted to take informal evening courses in the two languages, he reports: “I haven’t really encountered the ‘dumbing down’ or anti-intellectualism one occasionally hears moaned about of TEIs — there’s a general recognition that this kind of learning can and should be a joy, and we won’t have as easy a chance to do it again when in ministry.”

He has been taking his Greek New Testament and Hebrew Bible to Morning and Evening Prayer in the chapel — “I love the way that it changes the kind of attention I pay to God in prayer, without losing intensity or prayerfulness” — and, having started to preach, has come to question the “received wisdom” that “they’ll switch off if you mention the original Greek in the pews.”

In an echo of some of the Ruden and Bart commentaries, he reports having noticed that the “academic register” of some translations, such as the NRSV, “softens or neutralises the force of some of the original terms, such as the language directed at slaves in Acts; we lose some of the pathologisation and punishment.

“I sometimes feel that the teaching I’ve had leaves me in a — quite broad — no man’s land: more than enough to be able to understand original-language references in a biblical commentary, not quite enough to apply it with scholarly precision in biblical studies,” he reflects. “I’m not sure where the future will take me with regard to this, but there are worse places to be. If it sometimes feels like redundant knowledge now, I have faith that it’s a kind of redundancy that’s good to sit with, and that might yet bear fruit.”


AMONG the seminars that Mr Belloli is taking is one exploring post-colonial and anti-racist approaches to the New Testament. Both Denise Buell and Willie James Jennings have drawn attention to “which languages are given less prestige both in priestly formation and in the academy”, he observes.

“Without necessarily regretting the emphasis on Greek and Hebrew, I wonder what options could be given for people in my position to learn other languages of the Anglican Communion and the implications it might have for ministry — especially as some of the most effective places in which Churches have made reparations for their colonial history is by using their resources to preserve and teach indigenous languages, including through Bible translation.”

The director of communications for Southwark diocese, Sophia Jones, finds that the Bible “comes alive” when she listens to the Bible Society’s Jamaican Patois audio version. Launched in 2012 (News, 28 September 2012), the Jamaican New Testament is the result of 20 years’ work by translators at the Bible Society of the West Indies, with a team from the Department of Linguistics at the University of the West Indies translating from the Greek.

Sophia Jones

“Honestly when I heard it, I cried,” Ms Jones recalls. The daughter of a couple who moved from Jamaica in the late 1950s, she grew up listening to Jamaican Patois at home and has come to regard it as her “mother tongue — because that is what we first heard. So hearing it really chokes me up. Hearing Jesus speak in that vernacular, in that language, is like home. There are words he uses that mean more when spoken in Jamaican than in English. . . It’s like family talking.”

The Bible Society has estimated that five million people around the world speak Jamaican Patois, and Ms Jones notes that it has “found its way into young people’s language”, including that of white children. She describes switching between “pure English” in some contexts and Patois among her friends.

The Patois translation allows the Bible’s humour to come through, such as in Jesus’s words about the log in one’s eye, she says: “the way he says it would be like how my Dad would have said it.” Patois is a “very animated” language, she explains, with its origins in West Africa and some words taken directly from Twi. Sometimes, she notes, laughing, Jesus will ask “ee? ee?” when asking a question. “I just love it.”


IT IS hard to write about biblical translation in England without thinking back to some of its most famous proponents — and the fate that befell them. In Oxford, Dr Adam is conscious of “the power of translation in the history of England, the Church of England”. The “ideological force of having things available in English” is “tremendous”, he observes.

Speaking about William Tyndale at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2017, the theologian Dr Jane Williams suggested that he and all translators “show us something of the sheer attention and love called out by faith”. Tyndale had believed, rightly, that “the Bible is too important to be in the hands of only a few.”

“The Bible is gift,” she said. “It comes to us. But it is also ours to work at. It can be translated into all the different languages of the world without fear of losing its reality, because it’s a witness to the reality of God, rather than being that reality itself. . . The Bible’s story gets richer and richer and richer as more and more people come to be part of that story.”

Today, Dr Paula Gooder, Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s and a popular author on the New Testament, has reassuring words for those who worry that they are at a disadvantage at only being able to read the Bible in translation.

“You are at a disadvantage, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t read the Bible as well,” she tells me. “That is the big distinction I would make.” Her recommendation, in the tradition of St Augustine, is to read a variety of translations. “A translation is an interpretation, just like a commentary or a book is . . . Very few people would ever say ‘I will only ever read one person or listen to one person preaching.’”

Graham LacdaoDr Paula Gooder

Her own motivation to teach herself Greek as a teenager was her father’s tendency to pronounce “This is what the Bible says” and her question “Does it really?” In her experience, there is an appetite among many Christians to learn more about biblical interpretation. Some of the most positive feedback about her book on the parables (Books, 19 March) has been praise for her exploration of individual words.

“I think everything you can see in the Gospels is that Jesus wants us to think for ourselves,” she tells me. “He would be sad at somebody saying ‘Tell me what it actually means.’ He would say ‘no, no do some thinking. . .’”

In their preface, the translators of the Authorised Version wrote that translation “is that openeth the window, to let in the light”. Without it, “the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well . . . without a bucket or something to draw with.”

Four hundred years later, for the thirsty there is no shortage of vessels to choose from.

The Gospels by Sarah Ruden is published by Vintage at £22.50 (CT Bookshop £20.25); 978-0-39959-294-2.

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