In March of this year, a new translation of the four gospels by a single translator (Sarah Ruden) was published. Sarah Ruden has been a translator of Greek and Roman classical literature, with published editions of Homer, Virgil, Aristophanes, Petronius, and Augustine. In the last several years, she has turned her attention to the New Testament. In 2011, she published Paul Among the People, which was an attempt to describe Paul’s teaching in the context of his culture and pare away modern misconceptions and stumbling blocks to understanding. In 2017, she followed that work with The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible. That book appears to fall in the venerable tradition of translators talking about the nuances of their work and offering examples of how they would translate differently from traditional renderings in common Bibles. Fr. Ronald Knox’s On Englishing the Bible comes to mind as another example in the same category.

Ruden has now published a translation of the four gospels after reflecting on the task of biblical translation in her previous work. Overall, her aim is similar to a number of recent translations: to bring the reader back to the original Greek and pare away traditional language that has taken on new meanings over the centuries of theological reflection in the Church. Like David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament or the Common English Bible, she embraced using language that is not traditional in the hope of helping modern readers to connect with the text on its own terms.

There are benefits to that approach, especially for Bible readers who are used to the traditional language they hear at Mass and can easily “tune out” nuances that they’ve heard countless times. On the other hand, traditional language is what many people remember and pray, and it has meaning and familiarity in their life of faith. This review by Casey Cep in The New Yorker reflects meaningfully on the positive and negative aspects of avoiding traditional language in Bible translations.

I have not heard much buzz about this translation, and I have not yet purchased a copy. If any readers have purchased it, I’m very interested to hear your views of it. Interestingly, non-believer and economist Tyler Cowen read sections of it and was very impressed. His brief comments are here.

6 thoughts on “New Translation of the Gospels by Sarah Ruden”

  1. I enjoy her translation of The Confessions quite a bit, albeit as a “third” translation behind Sheed and Boulding.

    There was a time that I was very interested in a translation pulling me out of a comfortable understanding of the Gospels, but I am not in a phase like that. I’m sticking with the RSV-CE and the Knox these days. I read a lot of David Bentley Hart’s New Testament last year but I gave it away after going through it about one and a half times.

    I’d be interested in hearing how people like this, but I’ve truly come to believe that one cannot understand the biblical text without the Church and without faith. Translations like these (or at least their marketing) seem to think that the Church and faith have caused us to be blind to the text.

    As I grow in faith, I find that I am challenged by the text more and more, not being lulled to sleep by the familiar!

  2. I have to say I’m not a fan of Bible translations done by a single person. Translations done by a single person are more likely to reflect weird biases or a personal pet theory than those done by a committee. The requirement of being forced to convince others and create a consensus helps avoid these kinds of problems. Sometimes, committees may choose to play it too safe, sticking to traditional wording only because it is the only thing they can agree on, but better that than dealing with someone’s personal ax to grind.

  3. I agree. I have read Rudin’s Gospel of Matthew twice. Along with her excellent introduction and glossary. The first time I read it by itself. The second time I read it in parallel with the NRSV. In the end I came across nothing really new other than a “well that’s interesting” thought here and there. I then felt no desire to read further. Thus I may be missing something.
    When we are spiritually formed in Catholic teaching and Tradition we look through a lens at the Bible that “distorts” in a good way, the Biblical image to match our Catholic viewpoint. Thus, for me over time, I have found that I can pick up nearly any Bible translation and find a meaningful Bible reading experience. Further, over time, for me, the importance of any single Bible translation has become less and less important.
    Thus, when a Catholic, new to Bible Study, comes to me and asks me what is the best Bible to read my response is: The best Bible is the one you will frequently read. If they press further I will say any Bible in the Jerusalem Bible family and, not based on actually reading it, especially the Revised New Jerusalem Bible. This is only because of my bias against only reading Bibles rooted in the English Protestant Reformation. I recognize that this is really a religious bias rather than a Biblical bias.
    Lastly, I find it much more interesting to use two different Bible commentaries when studying a book of the Bible than to use two different translations.

  4. Personally, I like reading new Bible translations. I find that I do gain some insights from different ways of phrasing things together with explanatory notes on the translation decisions.

    However, I like to have a couple translations that I consider “standard” and generally use most of the time in prayer and reading, so that I can memorize and also have a sort of “basis” for comparison. For these purposes, I generally use the NABRE, ESV-CE, and RSV-CE.

    Translations that I’ve enjoyed reading alongside these for a different take include the Jerusalem Bible, the EOB New Testament, Michael Pakaluk’s translations of Mark and John, Richmond Lattimore’s NT, and the Confraternity NT. These are mostly Catholic translations though, and the differences in these often arise from textual decisions. I haven’t ventured far out from the Catholic world into things like NT Wright’s translation or Hart’s translation though — I feel like it would not be helpful for me right now. As a review of Hart’s translation on this blog mentioned, it probably would feel more like reading someone’s argument rather than lectio divina. Not that I’m unwilling to deal with arguments, but it’s a different activity, and I’m not terribly bothered about the debate about universalism at the moment, and don’t find Hart’s basic scriptural arguments convincing.

    Not sure whether Ruden’s translation is like that or not though. Definitely would be interested in hearing from others here who have read it.

    1. Oh I definitely collect all sorts of Bible translations, I especially like collecting the weirder ones that make downright bizarre choices, like the infamous James Moffat translation in which John 1.1 reads ‘the logos was with God, the logos was Divine’ trying to make it sound like Jesus was kind of a lesser god, almost approaching ditheism because Moffat had a bizarre view that the lack of a definite article in the original Greek is significant (most Greek scholars say it isn’t significant at all). David Bentley Hart does something similar.

      But for me, the reason I collect these weird translation s is that reading them is a kind of outrage porn, I read a weird rendering and then get outraged and make angry notes in the margin. It’s a weird habit I know.

      I also like collecting really bad translations, like the Common English Bible, which offers some of the most pedestrian, valid, downright awful renderings I’ve ever read. I enjoy these the way some people like watching really bad movies.

      But as for what I prefer fir actual reading,a boring conventional translation that retains traditional wording like the ESV or RSV or even the NABRE.

      1. Hahaha!

        I imagine the outrage process (and resultant outrage notes) can be helpful. Might actually be fun to go through one of these weirder translations sometime that I probably don’t agree with and actually look closely at some of those controversial verses. It probably is good to know in detail why orthodox translations prefer the standard reading to the outrageous ones!

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