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.


Roundup: A voyage to Laputa

Yesterday I paid my respects to Russian satirist Vladimir Voinovich, and today the front page of the New York Times reminded me of another satirist, Jonathan Swift.

Voinovich takes a few swipes at Russian education in his books, but Swift made a satire of corruptions in learning a cornerstone of his work. Gulliver makes a visit to the floating island of Laputa in the third book of Gulliver’s Travels, and among Swift’s earliest satires (and the satire which made his reputation) was A Tale of a Tub, which he himself described as an attack on corruptions in religion and learning. Most recently, the Times reports, pranksters at the online journal Areo made another visit to Laputa.

Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian submitted a number of bogus papers with titles like “Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Ore.,” “Moon Meetings and the Meaning of Sisterhood: A Poetic Portrayal of Lived Feminist Spirituality,” and “An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant” to a variety of both peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed academic journals. To the surprise of nobody who is familiar with Alan Sokol’s similar 1996 hoax, many of the papers were accepted and published. You can find Areo‘s full study here.

The target of the Areo tricksters (and Swift was a pretty good trickster himself) is the field of what they call “grievance studies,” which have “a common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity.” Like Alan Sokol’s target Social Text, these are journals devoted to social sciences rather than what we can call “real sciences” like biology, physics, and chemistry, and the processes of empirical study and experiment are far less precise than those of the classic sciences. Even given this, it’s no comfort, for there are real consequences to such shoddy oversight of what are considered academic publications. As ridiculous as many of their papers were, the Areo team found that, as peer-approved researchers, they could be ranked as new peers themselves, piling deliberate fraud upon fraud:

[We received] 4 invitations to peer-review other papers as a result of our own exemplary scholarship. (For ethical reasons, we declined all such invitations. Had we wished to fully participate in their culture in this way, however, it would have been an unrivaled opportunity to tinker with how far we could take the hypothesis that the canon of literature within these fields gets skewed in part because the peer-review process encourages the existing political and ideological biases.)

Detractors of current academic social science studies will laugh and file this under “barrel, ease of shooting fish in.” But there’s something more problematic that the New York Times report doesn’t address, and that’s the role that academic publishing plays in the current ecology of higher education. (In my day job I have some knowledge of this myself.) One of the reasons for the rise of what are called the “social sciences” was the Enlightenment project of introducing a certain level of empiricism into what used to be the realms of philosophy and the humanities — to put them on a scientific footing so that university and college departments could be put together to attract not only students, but research money as well. There has been a growing tendency to rank colleges and universities on the basis of the number of citable journal publications that their researchers produce; the reputation that a high number of these publications can render to a university or college; and, as an obvious corollary, the amount of money that this reputation can attract from donors, philanthropists, and other funding sources.

If this were true only of the social sciences, we might be able to rest more easily. But it’s not. In 2016, a Last Week Tonight with John Oliver segment examined the plethora of questionable scientific studies published by reputable, peer-reviewed researchers, and though the segment laid most of the blame on media hype, Oliver pointed out that the researchers themselves engage in this same hype hoping for media attention, recognition from their own university administrations as ambassadors to the public, and (no doubt) attractive research dollars.

In the wake of the Oliver segment, the academic publisher Elsevier, which has some skin in the game itself, admitted that the problem did not lie merely with the media:

The science world is heavily influenced by the current culture of “publish or perish”: researchers’ output is measured through quantitative metrics, based on which they receive recognition and rewards. Consequently, similar to journalists, publishers are under pressure [to] publish as much as possible. This results in some researchers “playing around” with variables until they get a significant result, which is further meaningless.

Moreover, this system hinders the publication of negative results or replication studies. As Oliver proclaims, “There’s no Nobel prize for fact checking.”

Of course, not all real- or social-scientific research is half-baked or even fraudulent; most of it is germane, useful, and necessary. But a lot of bullshit can be found as well, and it can be dangerous bullshit. The Areo research, for all of its undeniable entertainment value, is a warning that, as much as these thousands of studies and research papers may be contributing to the vast mountain of human knowledge, they may also be contributing to the even vaster mountain of human ignorance as universities and colleges place more and more importance on mere numbers of citations and grant moneys. These days, when the very idea of scientific factuality (or any other kind of factuality) is under political attack when it comes to climate change or vaccination and autism (or our current political climate), it’s worth admitting that, just perhaps, we’re being conned. Common sense dictates skepticism in the face of absurdity, even or maybe especially when that absurdity reflects our own prejudices. Such poor research and poor peer-review only undermines the credibility of these social-scientific and scientific disciplines. Which, these days, is the last thing we need.

I encourage you to read the full Areo report, which you can find here. I will be researching my own latest project, “The Effects of Fermented Beverages Consumed in an Austrian-Themed Culinary Environment on Middle Class White Male Professionals Following a Five-Day Work Week,” at Cafe Katja this afternoon. Prost!

A touch of the human

In honor of Vladimir Voinovich‘s memory, I’ve been reading and enjoying Monumental Propaganda, his great satire of the cult of personality in the former Soviet Union and contemporary Russia (and, these days, the United States as well). I’m glad to see that following his death a few months ago, his body of work has been increasingly recognized as the wonderfully humane panorama that it is; most notably, Cathy Young wrote this touching memoir for the Weekly Standard.

Voinovich was one of the great satirists of the 20th century, and he became so at great personal risk, as Young’s essay will attest. Time will tell whether he was also one of the great satirists of the 21st. Beginning with his earliest fiction, collected in In Plain Russian, Voinovich evinced a sense of the absurd as well as a deep concern with ordinary Russians as they negotiated the evils of the Soviet state; his settings aren’t prison camps or the back offices of the KGB but small towns, and most of his characters are merely trying to get by. There are few actual villains in books like The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, but, as in Monumental Propaganda, there is always a sense of the oppressive evil attaching to authoritarianism of any stripe, and the foolishness and stupidity that seem to be an innate part of our makeup as individual human beings. Through all of Voinovich’s work runs the realization that, because we all live in history, the personal is political and the political is personal, and that this can have hilariously comic as well as profoundly tragic consequences.

Although many of his books are fairly easy to come across thanks to their availability in second-hand editions (and despite their being out of print), I make my own unrealistic demand here that some savvy publisher will release his final novel, The Crimson Pelican (2016), in English translation (Young has already completed one; you can sample it here), as well as his 2007 autobiography.

Happy 185th to Petroleum V. Nasby

“A nickel-plated son of a bitch”: Petroleum V. Nasby.

September 20 marked the 185th anniversary of the birth of David Ross Locke, the Civil War-era journalist who created the Rev. Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby, described by his creator as “a nickel-plated son of a bitch.” Last year I posted a brief appreciation; I republish it below, with a few minor revisions.

Locke was born on this day in 1833. Back in the Pleistocene Era when I was wasting my time on a master’s degree, I was hoping to prepare some kind of dissertation on Locke’s work before common sense dissuaded me from a career in academia. Still, I remember it fondly.

David Ross Locke.

Locke and Mark Twain were close friends and drinking buddies, and Twain has some very nice things to say about the man in his autobiography. The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, Twain’s first book, was published in 1867; the same year saw the publication of Swingin’ Round the Cirkle, perhaps the best collection of Locke’s Nasby letters. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. By the end of the Civil War, Locke was recognized as the most important satirist of his generation; in the persona of Nasby — a drunk, racist opportunist — Locke underscored the hypocrisy and plain stupidity of the Democrats and Copperheads who emerged from the Civil War and laid the groundwork for today’s version of “white rage.” By 1865, Locke had become Lincoln’s favorite humorist: Lincoln once said, “I intend to tell him if he will communicate his talent to me, I will swap places with him!” And legend has it that just before his journey to Ford’s Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865, Lincoln was reading the latest installment of the letters.

Like Twain, Locke (as Nasby, who shared a few of his creator’s weaknesses for alcohol and poor hygienic habits) had a phenomenally successful career on the lecture circuit, for humorists the precursor to stand-up comedy; unlike Twain, Locke had already developed a blisteringly satiric perspective on the American culture of the Civil War years and immediately thereafter. It may be too much to say that Locke paved the way both for Twain’s later, bitter vision of America’s racial heritage, and for the likes of Stephen Colbert. But it may not. Occasionally Locke and Nasby arise in the most curious places, most recently in the New York Times. In a 2012 column, Jon Grinspan, now a Curator of Political History at the Smithsonian Institution, wrote about Locke, Nasby, and their legacies, and Nasby’s prejudices echo today:

Beginning in early 1862, [Locke] aggressively lampooned dimwitted reactionaries who, in Nasby’s words, pined for “the Union ez it uzd to was, and the Constitooshn ez I’d like to hev it.” …

In letter after letter, Locke parodied the deluded belief in white supremacy. Nasby was proudly bigoted because “it is soothing to a ginooine, constooshnel, Suthern-rites Dimekrat to be constantly told that ther is a race uv men meaner than he.” Though he could barely “rede and rite,” Nasby worried that emancipation might mean that “our kentry will be no fit place for men uv educhashen and refinement,” like himself. Ultimately, Nasby fretted that freed slaves would begin “tyranizin over us, even as we tyrannize over them.”

Locke even defended interracial marriage, at the time reviled by almost all Americans. The Democratic Party accused Republicans of wanting to marry white women to freed slaves, a concern Nasby shared. He joined a rally by white women against miscegenation, but concluded that the hideous protesters he met had nothing to worry about; no freed slave would have any interest in them. Nasby did make an exception for sex between married masters and slaves, so long as “yoo temper it with adultery.” …

Through his risky satire, the slovenly, drunken Locke probably had more influence on the direction of American history than any other humorist.

Nasby’s own language, as you can see, may lead to a few orthological headaches for the contemporary reader — a not uncommon problem with the “Phunny Phellows” of this era — but there are rewards to be had. So here’s to the Rev. Petroleum V. Nasby, that nickel-plated son of a bitch whose descendants continue to fill the voting booths and the rosters of the GOP. You can read Swingin’ Round the Cirkle — still a book ripe for someone’s dissertation, especially when race remains a central problem of the American experiment — for free right here. And in 2013, Ron Gorman, a volunteer docent at the Oberlin Heritage Center, wrote this appreciation, which features more of the Nasby letters and fills in quite a few biographical blanks.