E.V. Rieu’s Four Gospels

E.V. Rieu

During the darkest days of the Second World War, as German bombs were falling around London, E.V. Rieu gathered his wife and children together after supper and translated to them passages from Homer’s Odyssey. It was one way to pass the time; more importantly, it was a gesture of civilization and faith in the classics in the midst of one of their greatest threats in human history. After the war, Rieu, a classics scholar who graduated from Oxford before joining the Methuen publishing house in 1923, typed up his translation and with it launched the now famous Penguin Classics series in 1946. According to his son, Rieu’s intent with the series was “to make available to the ordinary reader, in good modern English, the great classics of every language.” (A most interesting history of Penguin Classics can be found here.)

It wasn’t long before Penguin Classics turned to the Bible and a plan to render that classic in good, accessible, and modern English as well. That plan quickly fell apart, but not before Rieu completed his own translation of the Four Gospels, which Penguin published in 1952. Rieu’s translation of the Gospels (unlike his Penguin translations of the Odyssey and the Iliad) is currently out-of-print.

This is rather a sad situation. Readers coming to the Gospels for the first time are faced with a bewildering variety of English translations, not a few of them forbiddingly impressive in size, language, and annotation. The New Revised Standard Version, perhaps the edition most in use in English-language churches, is more or less an update of the King James Version first published in 1611. The latter is now considered a masterpiece (if not the masterpiece) of English prose and a cornerstone of English-language culture; the former, scoured by a community of scholars examining ancient texts unavailable to the KJV translators and eliding the more difficult 17th-century English language constructions of the KJV, is a thorough and authoritative revision.

I’ve read all four gospels in both translations, in a variety of editions, and however moving they are I can understand that these translations and editions can place unhappy barriers between reader and text. The sheer beauty of the KJV can be for many readers an acquired taste. Though the KJV is easier to navigate than Shakespeare’s contemporaneous, more linguistically complex work (the translators did their best to render the Bible in a language easily comprehensible to men and women with an average education for their time), the English language has evolved somewhat in the past 400 years. Much of it is clear and comprehensible to us, but much of it is archaic and presents stumbling blocks to the average reader without a firm grounding in the history of the language. Fortunately, the NRSV is far more accessible and retains much of the elegance and grace of the KJV. But, in addition, the sheer bulk of these translations can be off-putting. Those seeking an annotated text that would deepen their understandings of the nuances of the Bible’s history, poetry, and theology face even bulkier editions. I wouldn’t be without my Norton English Bible or my Oxford NRSV, but I admit to a certain muscle strain as I pull them down from or put them up on the shelf, not to mention considerable eyestrain as I refer to the annotations.

More recent translations of the New Testament are less inconvenient to stash in a shoulder bag or backpack, and though they’re not authorized editions by any church I know of, that doesn’t discount their value for newcomers to the gospels. Classics experts like Rieu and Richmond Lattimore bring a deep knowledge and experience of classic Greek texts, as well as a mission to bring these texts to a wider English-language audience, that serve the gospels well. Though it’s commonly accepted that Jesus spoke Aramaic, the gospels were first written in Koine Greek, a particular version of the Greek language common in the Middle East in the first century (which suggests that Jesus spoke this dialect of Greek as a second language). “It had changed much in the thousand years since Homer wrote it, and if one comes from the study of the earlier classics straight to New Testament Greek one experiences the sort of shocks that Dr. Johnson or Jane Austen might have received had a copy of a modern novel been put in their hands,” Rieu points out in his excellent introduction to his own translation. And in discussing Luke 17:8, Rieu makes a compelling argument for his own efforts to produce a translation in “good, modern English”:

Luke reports Jesus as imagining a scene in which a master says to his slave, “Get something ready for my supper.” The Greek, as it should be, is colloquial and the master is not represented as speaking politely — far from it. Yet the Authorized Version [KJV] puts into his mouth the words, “Make ready wherewith I may sup.” I contend that no Englishman alive in 1611 or at any other date would have used such an expression; that though the words follow the Greek with some exactitude they do not represent its spirit; and that the point of the parable is blunted by their use.

E.V. Rieu, tr., The Four Gospels. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1953, p. x.

And, what’s more, few contemporary English readers would have the time or the patience to work their way through 200 pages of the stuff.

Of the making of new translations of the Bible there is no end, with aims that include a closer rendering of the original Koine Greek texts and a presentation of the Bible more relevant (whatever that may mean) to modern readers. Most recently, both N.T. Wright and David Bentley Hart have rendered the New Testament into English, and this December, just in time for holiday giving, W.W. Norton will publish Robert Alter’s full translation of the Hebrew Bible, which will likely be a landmark of Bible translation and scholarship for decades to come. (R. Crumb used Alter’s translation of Genesis for his own remarkable version of that book.) I must admit, though, I have particular affection for Rieu’s rendering, and if I were pressed to suggest a version of the gospels appropriate for readers coming to them seriously for the first time, I wouldn’t much hesitate to recommend Rieu’s version, not least because I’m in full agreement with his own sentiment:

For the last hundred years [the Gospels] have stood up to ruthless analysis and have emerged from it supreme in both [literary and spiritual importance]. … [The] decision to place the volume side by side with other masterpieces of ancient art brings home to me a truth I did not realize before I undertook my task. The Four Gospels are spiritually supreme largely because they are great literature. The two values interlock. Other gospels were written in the first hundred years of the Christian faith, but they failed because in one or both of these respects they showed a weakness. The Church, when it canonized the Four, displayed the excellence of its literary as well as its religious judgement.

Rieu, op. cit., p. ix.

If any further evidence of this is required, let it be noted that it wasn’t until after their close examination and work with these texts that both Rieu and Lattimore were moved to formally join the church (Rieu the Church of England and Lattimore the Catholic Church).

I hope that one day Penguin Classics will see its way clear to re-releasing Rieu’s translation. In the meantime, thanks to the internet, used copies are not hard to find. Rieu discusses his translation of the Four Gospels with J.B. Phillips, who translated the New Testament Epistles at around the same time, in this interesting dialogue.

A prayer of St. Francis

Blessed be Thunder.

Yesterday was the feast day of St. Francis in the Episcopal Church, and many churches celebrate it with a Blessing of the Animals, in which parishoners and others are encouraged to bring their cats, dogs, and other pets along for a sometimes noisy and chaotic service during which — as the name of the ceremony itself explicitly makes clear — animals can receive blessings along with their companions. Yesterday Marilyn, Goldie, Billie, and I made our way uptown to the 5:00pm Blessing of the Animals service at New York’s St. Bart’s, where for a number of happy reasons we’ve been spending more and more time lately. Though we had to leave the rest of the menagerie at home, we brought photos, through which Biscuit, Max, and Thunder were duly honored.

The current Catholic Pope took his name from the Italian saint Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone (1181/1182–1226), informally named as Francesco and canonized under that name in 1228. Since then St. Francis has become one of the most beloved Christian figures in the world, noted particularly for his love of animals and his ascetic devotion to Christian ideals. During the service, we read aloud the “Prayer of St. Francis” — a prayer attributed to the divine, but most likely an early 20th-century composition, written in French and first published in 1912. (In 2013, Christopher Howse wrote about the prayer for the UK newspaper the Telegraph, describing a genuine prayer by Francis as well as that prayer’s own moving inspiration.) The 1912 prayer reflects the ideals that Francis represented, though, and they seem particularly relevant in our own divided time:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.

Something funny about crucifixion

On location with Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Earlier this year, London’s TimeOut released the results of a poll ranking the “100 Best Comedy Movies,” and coming in at #3 — just after This Is Spinal Tap (#1) and Airplane! (#2) — was the 1979 Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Though it’s been a few years since I’ve watched it, I probably saw it several times upon its first release and the years immediately afterward. Of the three official Monty Python films, it’s the one that holds together the best (and contains a lovely Chaplin-esque performance from Graham Chapman as Brian), and I have a feeling that it, like the other two of the top-three comedies, retains its strengths, even 40 years later.

Its interest, too, remains. In June 2014, the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London hosted an international conference exploring the historical Jesus and his times through the lens of the Python satire. Pythons John Cleese and Terry Jones also participated in the conference, and the results were released in book form in 2015 by Bloomsbury T&T Clark as Jesus and Brian: Exploring the Historical Jesus and His Times via Monty Python’s Life of Brian, edited by conference organizer and King’s College Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism Joan E. Taylor. It’s a cracking good read, too.

Mind you, the idea behind the book doesn’t suggest a rip-roaring page-turner. The conference and collection are experiments in “reception history,” a comparatively recent development in Biblical Studies. As John F.A. Sawyer defines it, reception history assumes that “what people believe [the Bible] means and how they actually use it — in everyday situations, in the liturgy, in preaching, in the media, in literature, in art, in music, in film — can be studied with the same degree of scientific sensitivity and rigor as the original,” and that this study can, in the words of Paul Joyce, “shine a spotlight on biblical verses that have been dulled by familiarity; it can foreground biblical concepts and concerns that have faded over time into the background; and it can even give rise to new readings of difficult Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek terms.” In short, it can deepen our insight into the texts of the Bible themselves, how people live with and without the Bible, and, perhaps for some of us, provide different perspectives on Christian and Judaic faith.

The first half of the book looks at the film itself, its production and contemporary reception. In doing so, it reveals a few fascinating perspectives that may not have been obvious at the time. In Taylor’s own “The Historical Brian: Reception Exegesis in Practice,” she reminds us that Brian’s trip with aliens through the Terry-Gilliamesque skies may have been a parodic reference to Erich von Dänekin’s 1968 spurious potboiler Chariots of the Gods?, which suggested that extraterrestrial beings visited the ancient world and left behind structures that remain mysterious (fun fact: its German editor, Wilhelm Roggersdorf, was a best-selling author himself during the Nazi era); a documentary based on the book was released in the US in 1972, narrated by Rod Serling. William R. Telford’s essay looks at Life of Brian as a parody of the “Jesus film,” intriguingly asking whether it’s a “Jesus film,” an “anti Jesus-film,” or an “anti-Jesus film”; Anglican Bishop Richard A. Burridge looks back at the controversy that surrounded the film upon its original release in “The Church of England’s Life of Brian — or ‘What the Bishop Saw,'” asking “whether the Church and the academy missed a golden opportunity in 1979 to debate the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth in wider society,” as well as addressing a decline in biblical literacy in the years between 1979 and today; and David Tollerson offers thoughts on what blasphemy means in the Bible, in 1979, and today. In my favorite essay so far, Philip R. Davies’ “The Gospel of Brian,” the founder of what we might call “Brian Studies”1 compares the Christ of history with the Brian of history, revealing considerable wit and style in the process. Interesting observations about the cheerful nihilism of the end of the film abound. The second half of the book delves more deeply into issues of Biblical scholarship and archaeology, as well as questions of sexuality and Jewish identity that Life of Brian raises.

I can already see you yawning, but you shouldn’t; all of the contributors are fully aware that they’re engaged in the frog-dissecting business of analyzing a movie that was meant as entertainment, as a comedy, and by and large their tone remains as light and irreverent as that of the Pythons themselves. John Cleese, who participated in the conference, said, “I think it was somebody who said you were going to say, ‘What was the most interesting part that came out of Pythons?’ and as far as I’m concerned it’s this conference.” Terry Jones, the co-director of the film, echoed Cleese’s comment with an “Absolutely,” and contributed a preface to the collection in which he concludes, “The comparisons are always illuminating, and the commentaries are right on the nose.”

There’s no evidence in the Bible to indicate that Jesus ever laughed; this is a point that Cleese himself brought up at the conference. He wept, yes, according to John 11:35; but never an indication that he chortled, or even smiled. On the other hand, if Christ was fully human, it’s hard to believe he didn’t, with the apostles or with the money-changers and prostitutes with whom he often shared dinner. This is, though, nothing to be surprised at. The Bible is a collection of books of various genres composed over 500 years — of laws, of history, of letters, of poems — everything except jokebooks, it appears; but jokebooks are a rather late development.

If God invented everything, as some would have it, he invented satire and humor, too. In the end, we have G.K. Chesterton’s most interesting observation, from Orthodoxy:

And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

The film Monty Python’s Life of Brian and this collection of essays may remind us of that. It’s something completely different, and worth a moment or two of reflection.

A few interesting videos mentioned in the book are below. The first is the 1979 debate between Pythons Cleese and Michael Palin versus Malcolm Muggeridge and Anglican bishop Mervyn Stockwood, broadcast on the BBC:

And, just to prove that parody is not beyond parody, here’s a satire of the same conversation — with Rowan Atkinson defending his film, Life of Christ, on the same basis that Cleese and Palin defended theirs — a little later on Not the Nine O’Clock News: