The gospels according to E.V. Rieu

After a glancing-at-best familiarity with the bible as a young man, I started to turn to it more and more over the past twenty years, and back in 2018 I came across E.V. Rieu’s contemporary version. It engendered the below consideration of bible translation (more recently I’ve been intrigued by this new translation of the Gospels from the Modern Library by Sarah Ruden).

I keep my own contemplations on the Gospels close to my vest for now. I can only say that I’ve found them both comforting and intensely challenging reading and confess that while I can’t in good conscience call myself a Christian (only Christ can do that, perhaps), I would join Rieu in defining the Gospels as “the Magna Carta of the human spirit.”

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.”

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 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.

These 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 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 of 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 republishing 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.