Do you know how weird the gospels are?

You might have forgotten, because Western/WEIRD culture is so saturated in Christianity. Or maybe you’re from another part of the world and have never read the Bible (this could easily be true of the average Westerner these days). But if you think the gospels are anything other than radical and downright strange, then Sarah Ruden’s new translation (US) will remind you.

If you didn’t know, the original gospels were written in (Koine) Greek, so if you want to read them in any other language then you have to have some kind of translation. I’m a Christian, and I grew up mainly reading the New International Version (NIV), first published in 1978, and later switched to the English Standard Version (ESV) at university. The version that’s been the most influential in Western literature is the King James Version (KJV).

Why do all these different versions matter? Surely the text is pretty much the same no matter how you translate it?

Well, no. The best way to figure this out is to find a translated text you’re familiar with, and see it rendered differently. The Bible might be a good option (it’s the best one for me), or maybe some piece of literature that’s old enough to have been translated multiple times, like the Odyssey or the Iliad.

If you find a good translation that’s new to you, the text suddenly comes alive. Consider the verse below:

Then the slanderer left him, and, look, messengers came to him and tended to him.”

‘The slanderer’? ‘Messengers’? What on earth is going on? Maybe these verses will be more familiar here, in the NIV:

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.”

Matthew 4:11

Oh, of course. The devil. And angels. But then if you think about it – why are angels any more explicable than ‘messengers’? They are mentioned, dangled there, and then the narrative sweeps on.

Ruden’s translation repeats this with other words. I particularly noted the ‘holy life-breath’ – the Holy Spirit in common parlance. But is the term, ‘Holy Spirit’, truly understandable to us? I’d wager it’s merely more familiar. Ruden’s Gospels forced this Christian, at least, to confront the Gospels as if reading them for the first time (even if there might be reasons not to make them the only translation I use).

I have yet to make my way through the entire work, but I also enjoyed this rendering:

Iēsous answered by saying to him, “Amēn amēn I tell you: unless someone is born anew–taking it from the top–he can’t see the kingdom of god.””

John 3:3

Tyler Cowen reviewed the book here (and originally told me about it), and Jeff made some interesting suggestions:

I don’t know whether that’s a pre-Reformation thing or not, but my church tradition really values digging into the text and trying to find out what the author’s purpose is. In this (my) view, the gospels are not a random collection of stories, but a document written with a purpose (see Luke 1:1-4 or John 20:30-31 if you want more evidence of this).

This is all good so far as it goes, but then you have to decide what you actually make of Jesus, described in Mark 8:29 as ‘the anointed one’ (i.e. the Messiah/Christ). I strongly suspect he isn’t what you expected either. He’s esoteric, controversial, subtle, and perhaps even Straussian (see Peter Thiel and Tyler discuss this here). Some moments to surprise you: Mark 8:27-38; Matthew 5; Luke 9:37-43; John 1 (especially fresh in Ruden’s rendering, but strange regardless of the translation).

I’m a Christian, so obviously I have particular conclusions and convictions about Jesus based on the gospels. But even if you aren’t one, I challenge you to read the gospels and not learn anything new.


  1. As a former student of classical ancient Greek, when I converted and read the gospels in both Greek and English, these points were all obvious. But I also realized that one missed nothing important by reading the KJV. What is hard is to read with an open mind. The role of the holy apostles is to be wrong on every issue until the resurrection, for instance. Many other examples. We all have filters to conceal from ourselves the reality that reality is really strange. Without hard work, and the Holy Spirit, this strangeness is impossible to internalize.

    1. I agree! I hope to learn Greek one day and experience that myself. And I should probably use the KJV instead of the ESV sometimes.

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