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Plain Speaking: Juniata Religion Professor Editing Translations of Gospels

(Posted December 3, 2007)

Robert Miller, Juniata religion professor

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- For anyone who has read or listened to a passage from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, the often overly formal language used to recount these stories of Jesus can be a bit daunting, which is why Robert Miller is in the middle of editing translations of all the gospels into colloquial English. \"Most English Bible translations of the Gospels are written so they would be elegant and appropriate to be read in church. Jesus sounds less down to earth in a standard English translation,\" says Miller, Rosenberger Chair of Christian and Religious Studies. He is currently working on a new edition of \"The Complete Gospels,\" which was originally published in 1992. \"The original Gospels, which were written in Greek, are written in \'marketplace\' Greek, which is ordinary (language) spoken by ordinary people.\" The translations in \"The Complete Gospels\" are compiled by Miller and other scholars in The Jesus Seminar, a group of biblical scholars who use historical methods to determine what Jesus, as a historical figure, might have said and done during his life. The new edition, which should be out in 2009, will include recently discovered Gospels such as the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of the Savior. The scholars are making the language of the Gospels understandable and easy to read for readers of all ages and religious denominations. Thus, \"You cannot serve God and Mammon\" becomes \"You can\'t be enslaved to God and a bank account.\" Miller says the intent of the translations is to mirror how people in the ancient world actually spoke. Greek was the universal language of the Mediterranean in ancient times and most of the Gospels were written in that language. Some of the more recently discovered Gospels were written in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language. Originally, the Gospels existed as oral tradition and were written down starting with the Gospel of Mark around 70 A.D. The New Testament Gospels were written from 70 to 110 A.D. although Miller says there were Gospels written well into the Middle Ages. All these Gospels used the language of the time and a literary \"storytelling\" style to depict Jesus and his acts. \"Jesus was an ordinary person of his time, speaking to farmers, carpenters and fishermen. He was not going to speak using university Greek because (the audience) would not have understood it,\" Miller explains. Examples of translations from traditional Gospels and the \"Complete Gospels:\" Mark 1:40-41 A leper came to him begging him and kneeling, he said to him \"If you choose, you can make me clean.\" Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and said to him \"I do choose. Be made clean!\" Mark 1:40-41 \"The Complete Gospels\" Then a leper comes up to him, pleads with him, falls down on his knees, and says to him, \"If you want to, you can make me clean.\" Although Jesus was indignant, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and says to him, \"Okay -- you\'re clean!\" Also: Mark 4:38-39 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, \"Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?\" He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, \"Peace! Be still!\" The Wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. Mark 4:38-39 \"The Complete Gospels\" He was in the stern sleeping on a cushion. And they wake him up and say to him, \"Teacher, don\'t you care that we are going to drown?\" The he got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, \"Be quiet, shut up!\" Then the wind died down and there was a great calm. \"Some people love the translation because it makes the Gospels more accessible, and some are put off by it because they want Jesus to sound (more refined),\" Miller says. He says that one translation that takes readers aback is when Jesus exacts curses on people. Instead of writing \"Woe to you,\" as previous translators did, the translations use \"Damn you.\" As religion became more formalized and church traditions evolved, the language used in the Gospels evolved into more exalted styles. Miller explains: \"Even in the King James Bible, from 1611, it uses \'thees\' and thous\' and phrases like \'whither thou goest.\' People in England did not talk that way at the time. The writers took formalized language from an earlier time.\" Miller also points out that the Gospels became more formalized as the church codified the Gospels. Eventually, the New Testament Gospels were used more frequently and other gospels, especially those that have Jesus teaching things the church did not approve of, were suppressed, lost, or even burned or destroyed.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.