Reading Sarah Ruden’s The Gospels

Sarah Ruden is an scholar of ancient literature who has translated classic works such as The Aeneid. Her new book is an English translation of the 4 first books of the Bible’s New Testament, the Gospels.

If you buy a standard Bible, there is usually only a 2-page preface to a 500+ page book. Ruden’s introduction and glossary takes up closer to 50 of the first pages. I would pay just to read the introduction. Ruden describes what it was like, as a professional translator of classics, to approach the Gospels. A reader who is already familiar with the Bible will learn as much from this introduction as from the translation itself. It’s rare to hear the Gospels discussed simply as books instead of as weapons wielded by all sides of the culture wars. I found it interesting to learn about how the Gospels, stylistically, compare to other ancient texts.

Ruben’s enthusiasm for listening to the voices of ancient writers is contagious. She makes it all sound so interesting that anyone, regardless of their previous stance on god (the lowercase g is her idea of what the ancients would write), will want to keep reading. Speaking as someone who has already read the New Testament, I have never been more excited to read the Gospels as I was after finishing Ruden’s introduction. Ruden promises to deliver to modern readers the voices of the ancient writers, with as much accuracy as possible.

There are two main approaches to Bible translations: literal versus idiomatic. An opposite approach to Ruben’s is The Message translation by Eugene Peterson. The Message is a paraphrase, explicitly. The project is not disingenuous. The idea is that we in 2021 are so far from the ancient writers that we’ll understand the ultimate meaning better if it sounds like a peer is talking to us. The Message serves a purpose, but it’s fundamentally a different undertaking.

One of the most noticeable differences in Ruden’s translation is that she uses the original names of people and places. She provides footnotes if you want to quickly translate Iēsous to “Jesus”. Who’s translating now? When Americans hear “Jesus”, a lot of negative political baggage comes along. Ruden is not writing about your Jesus; she’s conveying accounts of Iēsous from 2000 years ago.

My experience is unusual, but when I read about the town of Capernaum in ancient Judea, I think about a VHS tape of a white American man lecturing in the Holy Land to other Americans. Reading Ruden helps me dispense with that guy’s opinions. She writes it as “Kafarnaoum,” which is closer to what Jesus might have called it. Her stated goal is to get the 2000 years of additional history out of the way so that readers can encounter the original text.

Similarly, Ruden writes sabbata instead of “Sabbath” (pg 5). If I read “Sabbath” I think about coffee shops, the weekend, and other modern trappings that the original writers did not have in mind. When I read sabbata, it encourages me to consider what the word meant to ancient people.

In Ruden’s version of Mark 2 (pg 8), Jesus heals a man and tells him to “get along home”. I can trust Ruden that she wrote that phrase in a folksy way because Jesus said it in a folksy way. Are the scriptures formal or are they folksy? It’s hard to tell from The Message. Peterson’s writing is so “Hey. ‘sup guys?” that it can be hard to infer the tone of the original writers.* Much of the Ruden version is straight-forward, as she claims the original style was. When jokes and wordplay are intended, the reader can tell.

The footnotes are short and practical. Having footnotes enables the translator to be more literal in the body of the text without losing important references.

There can be no objective ranking for Biblical translations, because people read scripture for different reasons. If there is one thing everyone agrees on (in a contentious field) it’s that reading more than one translation will give you a more nuanced understanding of the text. I recommend Sarah Ruben for anyone’s next pass through the Bible or to anyone who is interested in learning more about our civilization and the Jesus who shaped it in many ways.

If you would like to read another book by a woman about scriptures, try Joy Davidman’s Smoke on the Mountain. Davidman is writing in the 1950’s, but see if you can find any instances in which her references to “modern values” seem outdated today. Yours truly has also written a book inspired by the New Testament events. In that project I was making up things that probably didn’t happen, as opposed to literally translating ancient texts.

*Peterson absolutely never used the phrase “Hey. ‘sup guys? ”. Here’s an actual example of his text: “You’ve concealed your ways from sophisticates and know-it-alls, but spelled them out clearly to ordinary people.” (Matthew 11:25)  This blog is not a criticism of his hard work.

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