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Another Translation Project: The Apocryphal Gospels

In my last reposted-post I mentioned that some years after the Apostolic Fathers (after, apparently, I had forgotten all the pain involved), I took on another (very large) translation project, of wider interest to the world at large — the ancient Gospels that did not make it into the New Testament.  Here is how I have described that one, just to finish out the thought.


 After having done the Apostolic Fathers in two volumes for the Loeb, I had decided never to do another translation project again.  Too hard!  But then, forgetting my decision, I thought it would be useful to have a Greek/Latin – English version of the early Christian non-canonical Gospels.  And at the urging of the editor at Harvard, submitted a proposal also for the Loeb Classical Library.  But the editorial board decided that they did not want to start publishing new editions of Christian texts in the series, since that would detract from its typical focus on Greek and Roman classics.   And so I was now interested in a project without an publisher.

I should say – this may not be widely known – that most of the time a scholar writes a book, s/he does not know who will be publishing it, or even if *anyone* will be.  This can be a source of real anxiety, especially for younger scholars who desperately need to get a book published in order to get a good teaching job or, if they have a job, in order to get tenure.    But for a big project like this, I was not about to put in all the work – I knew it would be an enormous amount of work – without being assured of a publisher.   So before beginning the project, I decided to secure a contract on the book.

Years, ago, Oxford University Press had told me that they would be willing to publish all my work.  They wanted to be my sole publisher – for scholarly monographs, textbooks, anthologies, and trade books.   (I eventually started publishing my trade books with another press — Harper; and now Simon & Schuster; but this was before all of that.)   And so I approached Oxford with the idea of a bi-lingual edition (well, tri-lingual) edition of the “Apocryphal Gospels” and they were eager to do it.  So I was set to go.

But then a thought occurred.

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Did Jesus Mean that Literally? Rewards and Punishments in the Afterlife
The Loeb Apostolic Fathers: The Challenges (Again)



  1. Avatar
    modelthry  November 1, 2017

    When your students learn Greek, are there special courses specifically devoted to Koine Greek? I’d like to learn Koine but don’t know where to begin, don’t know how similar it is to other forms. Could one of your students who can translate Biblical Greek pick up Homer or Socrates and translate that too, or are they way different types of Greek?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 3, 2017

      Yes, in seminaries they teach only NT Greek, which is Koine. Anyone who learns classical Greek can read it, but not vice versa so well (my students would not be able to read Homer).

      • Avatar
        modelthry  November 7, 2017

        Bart, I’ve noticed some translators render the historical present tense into English present tense, but rarely. I’ve read the tense was intentional by the Greek authors, to achieve a sense of immediacy. And therefore you lose some of the original style by changing it. Do you have an opinion on this?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 7, 2017

          It’s a good point. I’m not sure I’m familiar with English translations that use the present tense for the historical present.

          • Avatar
            modelthry  November 7, 2017

            Two that come to mind are “The Five Gospels” by the Jesus Seminar and “The Unvarnished New Testament” by Andy Gaus. I was also under the impression that the KJV’s English, while archaic, is faithful to the sense (eg that “saith” is like “says” and not “said”).

          • Bart
            Bart  November 8, 2017


  2. Avatar
    gwayersdds  November 1, 2017

    Question: Is the Greek from 2000 years ago as different from modern Greek as say Elizabethan English is from modern English? I can appreciate the difficulty of translating from one language to another as I have tried to decipher the directions for some of my electronics which were written in Japanese, translated into Korean, then into German then into English. Grammar, vocabulary and syntax can get pretty screwed up.

  3. Avatar
    bknight  November 1, 2017

    Bart, I have an unrelated question: Have you written specifically about the early Christian communities, e.g. where they were, how they developed, what happened to them, and which prominent figures came from them? I know you’re busier than a one-armed paperhanger, and that you’ve discussed the early communities in other contexts, but an overall history of the first three or four centuries of early Chrustianity from your perspective would be interesting.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 3, 2017

      No, I haven’t. Other scholars have, or at least have tried. The problem is that for the earliest communities we have no evidence (even of where they were located), other than the writings that authors within them produced. And so the communities have to be “reconstructed” based on hints in the surviving literature.

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 1, 2017

    You are truly amazing!

  5. Avatar
    turbopro  November 1, 2017

    Prof, an off-topic question, but perhaps related to the afterlife.

    Am now reading E. P. Sanders’, “Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought.” And in the text, Sanders mentions that “[it] was standard in Judaism to think that there was no double jeopardy: a person who suffered or died because of sin would thereby atone for the transgression and would not be further punished in the world to come” (read with Kindle, so I do not have a page number reference). For this understanding, Sanders referenced and quoted 1 Corinthians 11:29-32.

    My question: in your research on the afterlife, would the erudite Sanders’ understanding be something you found also–if not exactly, but a similar understanding?

    And I thank you for recommending Sanders; it’s a great and wonderful thing to observe a rational mind at work.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 3, 2017

      I think Sanders was (is) one of the truly great scholars of Jewish and Christian antiquity; but I don’t see what 1 Cor. 11:29-32 has to do with this claim about double jeopardy (or if there is any explicit evidence of it).

  6. Avatar
    Pattylt  November 1, 2017

    Ordered! (The Other Gospels)
    I am amazed at your talent not just in being able and willing to do this type of scholarship but your willingness to also do a non scholarly version for the rest of us. Nothing is more frustrating to me than scholars who may be brilliant but unable to communicate their knowledge to those outside their speciality. How are we to expand our knowledge? No one is a specialist in everything nor has the ability or time to become one yet this is knowledge we need and want. At least, I do.

  7. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  November 1, 2017

    I am always awed by the brilliance of scholars like Dr. Plese and yourself.

  8. Avatar
    stokerslodge  November 1, 2017

    Bart, you might be interested in the two (short) video clips below, you’re the topic of conversation in both.



  9. Avatar
    caseyjunior  November 1, 2017

    Off topic: Have you had a chance to look at Paula Fredrkson’s new book Paul: The Pagan’s Apostle? I know you’re very busy but was wondering if you had any thoughts on it. I bought it but haven’t read it yet. Thanks!

  10. Avatar
    Pegill7  November 1, 2017

    This is somewhat off the topic but I have noticed that you do not refer to Migne’s Patroligies. Are these nineteenth century publications of any use for modern scholarship?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 3, 2017

      They were an *enormous* undertaking and breathtaking in their scope. But for most ancient author of importance for early Christian studies they have been surpassed by newer and better editions.

  11. Avatar
    Tobit  November 1, 2017

    Very interesting! Out of curiosity: how easy was it to put together Lost Scriptures since it’s mostly previous translations rather than a new project? (I really appreciate it as an affordable alternative to the J.K. Elliot or Schneemelcher collections)

    • Bart
      Bart  November 3, 2017

      It wasn’t the hardest thing to do. The Introductions were a bit of a challenge, but a lot of the work was mechanical rather than intellectual. (I didn’t want to do the volume, actually; but my publisher thought it was a good idea, and as it turns out, they were right!)

  12. Avatar
    Judith  November 1, 2017

    Best possible reviews on Amazon!

  13. Avatar
    Hume  November 2, 2017

    Capitalism is inherently selfish, most people provide for their family or themselves. Pursuing self-interest and free enterprise has taken 3 billion people out of poverty. Capitalism is the best system we’ve got. My question is if giving and sharing and selling all your possessions (Matthew 19:21) is a good thing, why does self-interest capitalism work the best? Specifically better than the sharing ideology of communism.

  14. Avatar
    Stephen  November 3, 2017

    On the subject of translations I’ve come across a website with an article entitled “Deliberate Mistranslation in the New International Version (NIV)”. Going though the fairly extensive list of examples it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the translators have deliberately altered the text to fit an agenda. I realize that some degree of interpretation is going to be necessary when dealing with these ancient languages. And capitalizing “Spirit” whenever the text refers to the “spirit of God” to give it a trinitarian veneer is one thing, but they seem to have left out words and added words not in the original text apparently to resolve obvious contradictions between sources. Here’s the link – https://isthatinthebible.wordpress.com/articles-and-resources/deliberate-mistranslation-in-the-new-international-version-niv/

    What do you think about this? Is this an issue in the scholarly community?


    • Bart
      Bart  November 3, 2017

      I haven’t read the article, but I’ve long been intrigued by some of the mistranslations of the NIV. I wonder, though, if this is actually nefarious and ill-intended. Sometimes translators just don’t want readers to be led astray by renderings that could be taken the wrong way. (Of course, I’m agreeing, that what they *think* is the “wrong” way is probably the “right” way in many instances.)

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  November 3, 2017

      I have a FB acquaintance who is a NT scholar and says he’s friends with some of the translators for the NIV. He certainly doesn’t believe they’re deliberately trying to deceive people. That being said, he believes the Bible is inerrant. (Our modern society imposes exactitude on the writings; contractions are only apparent, but judgement should be suspended until further light is shed.)

  15. Avatar
    Bstevens  November 4, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, when you present that John’s gospel has Jesus dying on the day before the Passover meal [day of preperation] and Mark (I think) has him dying the next day after the passover meal, you are normally met by fundamentalists with a long drawn out explanation about how OT Jews celebrated on 2 different days. I have seen you answer this by stating “first century Jews in Jerusalem only celebrated the Passover meal on one day, not two. What evidence do you have for that or how did you come to that conclusion?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2017

      Interesting question. It’s kind a like asking what kind of proof someone would have for claiming that Americans all celebrated Thanksgiving on the same day and not on two different days. The answer would be that this is what all the sources presuppose, not that any source rejects a statement to the contrary, if you see what I mean. If someone claims that Americans traditionally celebrate Thanksgiving on two different days, you’d want to know what evidence they have of it, not if someone claims they celebrate it on just one day. On passover, we do konw that the sectarians in Qumran had a different calendar. Is there any evidence that this calendar was followed in Jerusalem where Jesus was celebrating it or in Galilee where he was from? No evidence at all, so far as I know.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  November 5, 2017

        In fact, I can report that my father told me that, when Thanksgiving was “standardized” as the 4th, rather than the last Thursday in November, some dissidents continued to observe it on the last Thursday when there were 5 Thursdays in November. Then there were opportunists like my dad who finagled invitations to Thanksgiving dinner from both camps. Sort of like what we still see with Daylight v. Standard Time. I predict Daylight time will eventually be renamed Standard Time, since it covers about 2/3 of the year. Standard Time is in practice, nonstandard.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 6, 2017

          Right! But if someone today said they had Thanksgiving at their mother’s house, you would have zero reason for thinking that this took place on some day other than the fourth Thursday in November. So too the Passover in ancient Jerusalem.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  November 6, 2017

        These fundamentalists may be confusing the Passover celebration in Jerusalem with the later practice of celebrating all holidays (except Yom Kippur) with an extra day for those living outside Israel. The Talmud established this because the calendar was set according to the sighting of the new moon in Israel, and the diaspora communities would not get word of that immediately, so they celebrated for two days just to be sure.

        However, in Eretz Israel (the land of Israel) itself, the custom has always been one day.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 6, 2017

          I think they are thinking of the Essenes and their objection to the Jerusalem temple authorities and their calendar.

          • Avatar
            dankoh  November 6, 2017

            Could be, but the two calendars would have to have been more than one day apart, or else too many people would have been confused by them. It has the sound of a desperate argument, anyway.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  December 5, 2017

        Some Jews celebrate certain holidays on 2 days to account for the difference in time zones, so that “all” Jews are celebrating the holiday on one day or the other or both. I doubt this has anything to do with 2d Temple times.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 6, 2017

          And it doesn’t explain why Jews in Jerusalem one year would celebrate the holiday at two different times.

  16. Avatar
    bknight  November 5, 2017

    Bart, how do your graduate students learn Biblical Greek and Latin? Do they study it on their own, or do you give courses on it? And is it all reading and writing, or do you teach pronunciation and ask them to read aloud passages from the ancient texts, in the original language? Do you ask them to try to carry on conversations in the ancient languages? Would that even be possible?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2017

      Almost always they have taken Greek in college or in a masters program (or both) before coming to us, and Latin the same way. These are not languages you can reliably learn on your own. But no, we treat these as dead languages, not spoken ones.

  17. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  November 5, 2017

    Did all the NT authors think Jesus never sinned? I’m thinking particularly of Mark’s account of his encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman. He calls her daughter a dog and, when she challenges him on it, he reconsiders and grants her request. I think we would call that repentance.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2017

      My sense is that ealry Christians would not consider that a “sin” exactly.

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