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On Producing a New Translation of Ancient Texts

I’m in the middle of discussing what it’s like to publish a trade book for general audiences and an  academic book for scholars on the same topic.  The third time I did this involved a completely different situation from the other two I have described.   One thing that was similar was that in this instance, yet again,I had no idea, initially, of producing a popular version, but planned simply to publish a work of scholarship.  Only later did I realize that a trade trade version could be very useful.

This scholarly book – trade book combination involved an edition of the apocryphal Gospels, the ancient accounts of Jesus words and deeds that did not make it into the New Testament.  To explain how the books came to be imagined I need to provide a bit of background.   Actually, a lot of background.  This will take a couple of posts.

It all started with a completely different project altogether, unrelated to the apocrypha.

In the mid 1990s I was teaching a PhD seminar on the group of authors known as the “Apostolic Fathers” (none of these produced an apocryphal Gospel, but they’re relevant for other reasons).  Sometimes non-experts use this term “apostolic father” in a broad sense to refer to the writings of early church fathers, but in fact the term refers to a very specific group of writers – ten of them by the most common count  — who were all of the proto-orthodox persuasion (meaning that their works were later taken to be forerunners of the “orthodox” understanding of Christianity that emerged as victorious in the various struggles over the proper understanding of the Christian religion sometime in, say, the late third century) who were writing soon after (or in a couple of cases, in the latest stages of) the New Testament tradition – that is, around the beginning of the second century CE (a couple date to the end of the second century).  These include the following, some of which you may have heard of before:  1 and 2 Clement, the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, the letter of Polycarp, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the letter of Barnabas, the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Letter to Diognetus, and the fragments of Papias (and possibly of Quadratus).   These authors all wrote in Greek, although in a couple of cases, for some portions of the writings, we have only Latin translations.

When I was teaching this seminar, in the mid 1990s, we were using the Greek-English edition of these works produced in 1912 by a brilliant scholar of Christian antiquity named Kirsopp Lake, who taught at Harvard; his two-volume edition was in the Loeb Classical Library published by Harvard University Press.   The Loeb Classical Library comprises many, many ancient Greek and Latin texts in bilingual editions – that is, on the left side of the page can be found the Greek or Latin original language and on the right side an English translation (e.g., editions of Homer, Plato, Cicero, Virgil, etc. etc. — hundreds of these things!).  Students of the classics make abundant use of these editions.

In my seminar that year, my students were complaining…

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  1. Avatar
    Silver  August 27, 2019

    Recently you mentioned that your early work involved analysing patristic citations of the New Testament. I believe it has been said that virtually all of the NT could be recreated from such mentions if the need ever arose. Do you believe that this would, indeed, be possible, please?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2019

      Yes, I suppose most of the NT is quoted in the church Fathers. But they never give chapter and verse (since such things didn’t exist), so it would be hard actually to reconstruct the text. (Imagine having separate lines of a Dickens novel scattered across quotations for five hundred years, without any references to how one relates to another. You might have all the words of the novel, but how would you assemble them back into the novel?) Maybe I’ll post on that!

      • Avatar
        doug  August 28, 2019

        Quotations from the NT (and especially from the NT gospels) by the church Fathers sounds interesting. And as with other early Christian writings, I can’t help but wonder how many of the church Fathers’ writings we don’t currently have.

  2. Avatar
    cmdenton47  August 27, 2019

    This is fascinating, particularly after a career of using textbooks.

  3. Gary
    Gary  August 27, 2019

    These kinds of posts are like old TV and movie adventure serials. The episodes always ended with a “cliff hanger”. Fans would anxiously wait for the next episode to see how it turned out.

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