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Translating the Apostolic Fathers: A Blast from the Past

In my last post I answered a question about whether I would ever publish a translation of the New Testament. (Short answer: almost certainly not!). But I want to take a couple of posts to talk about the work of translation.

There is a very big difference between being able to read an ancient text in its ancient language (Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Coptic, whatever) and producing a translation of it for publication. You might think that it’s all basically the same thing: if you can read it, you can publish a translation of it. But as it turns out, it’s not that simple.

I didn’t realize this for years and years, until I started publishing translations of ancient texts. My first experience was about fifteen years ago now, when I was asked to do a new edition of the Apostolic Fathers for the Loeb Classical Library. Here I’ll give some background on that project and the series it appeared in, and in the next post I’ll talk about the difficulties of producing a translation.

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Taking the Temperature of the Blog October 2017
The Sheep and the Goats



  1. Avatar
    HenriettePeterson  October 27, 2017

    2 questions:

    1. Where is the best place to order, say a good English translation of Origen’s/Augustine’s etc… writings that you would trust?
    2. I want to read “The UBS Greek New Testament: A Reader’s Edition” but I can’t read or speak a word in Greek. As a lay person, where can I start? Can it be self-taught?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2017

      1. Different works by these different authors appear in different English translations; just look on Amazon or Google the specific works you are interested in reading to see what translations, if any, are available 2. No, to read the Greek New Testament you would need to be able to read Greek. I’m sure there are on-line resources, but Greek is difficult enough that you really need a teacher/tutor.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 27, 2017

    I recently came across what I think is probably the rapid development of a remarkable legend which may shed some light on how such legends develop even in modern times. The legend is that there is a psychologist, Dr. Hew Len, who, using a Hawaiian meditation technique, called Ho’oponopono, cured an entire ward of criminally insane patients in Honolulu without ever seeing the patients. I have encountered a number of people who believe quite passionately that this occurred. Yet, I can find only one source of the story, namely a book entitled “Zero Limit” co-authored by Dr. Len some 25 years after the described events. I can find no nurses, doctors, patients, or other eyewitnesses etc. confirming the story nor are these remarkable results published in any medical journal. Yet, this matters little to those believing the story who contend that I just need to quietly open my mind and I will see the “truth” and that I just need to be less close-minded. Interesting ….It reminds me of how you write that historians try to find multiple, independent sources contemporary with the described events.

  3. Avatar
    ardeare  October 27, 2017

    What is your opinion of “Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance?” I know of some excellent bible teachers who hold it as sacred.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2017

      There’s nothing sacred about it. It simply tells you where every single word occurs in the text of the King James Bible (so if you want to know what verses have the word “holy” or the word “Jerusalem” or … pick your word — it will tell you each and ever verse)

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  October 31, 2017

        Rather clunky and obsolete, now that we have ebooks and word search.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  October 27, 2017

    I’ve noticed that it’s kind of accepted as common knowledge by Christians that Polycarp, Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch personally knew (if not directly studied under) disciples of Jesus (correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe it was John, Peter and John, respectively). Now, I’m inclined to seriously doubt this claim. Personally, I don’t think any of Jesus’ disciples ever left the westerm Mediterranean, let alone traveled to Rome. It’s possible that some, such as Peter in particular, ventured to Damascus or Antioch or even Cyprus, but I find it very hard, indeed, to believe they went to Rome. What I think probably happened is Peter and/or John traveled to some ecclesia in those areas and, more or less, sanctioned those groups. That is, John might stop by an assembly in Cyprus, spend a few days there, give it his blessing, and move on. And from then on, it’s as if anyone who attended that ecclesia was now a “disciple” of John. And any and all ideas that came out of that ecclesia had John’s approval. Did it really have John’s approval? Who knows? Assuming John really was a Galilean Jew, I can’t imagine John really cared all that much to begin with. John’s main concern would have been that the goyim were hearing about Jesus and preparing to side with the Righteous at the eschaton. And once that message had gone out to the entire world, then Jesus would return with the heavenly host and inaugurate the Messianic Age.

    Anyway, I guess what I’m asking, Dr. Ehrman, is how much of a connection do you think the so-called Apostolic Fathers really had to the original disciples?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2017

      None of these authors says anything about knowing the apostles. That is simply a later proto-orthodox tradition trying to establish the “apostolic succession.”

      • Avatar
        RVBlake  October 30, 2017

        Do you mean that Peter never actually visited Rome? I read in some article that they had discovered Peter’s remains in Rome a while ago. I don’t know how they could possible identify them as Peter’s.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 30, 2017

          I”m not sure he did or not. But neither Ignatius nor Polycarp had either, and we don’t know who the author of 1 Clement was, except to say that he was writing about 30 years after the traditional date of Peter and Paul’s deaths.

  5. Avatar
    ardeare  October 27, 2017

    I’m currently studying with you in your lecture series, Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication. It’s my second time through it. From the onset, you draw a distinction between what scholars refer to about orthodoxy and heresy. Without that knowledge, I don’t think the rest of the course would make much sense, so
    thank you. I would love to have more information show up about the Ebionites.

    Just a quick tidbit. I was born and raised in “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” (Mormon) religion. If one denies the pre-existence, that is to say, one’s own pre-existence, you’re called an apostate and thrown out. If one goes to a Protestant or Catholic denomination and professes a belief in one’s own pre-existence, you’re called a heretic and thrown out. I haven’t attended church on a regular basis for over thirty years. I prefer to value my own beliefs instead.

  6. Avatar
    Stylites  October 27, 2017

    Anyone who wants excellent insight into the thoughts of the Apostolic Fathers might start with your Great Courses course on the subject and then follow it up with the purchase of the Loeb volumes. This is all very enlightening stuff and highly useful reference material. I own both and would not think of parting with them.

  7. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  October 28, 2017

    Dr Bart how reliable is Josephus account about Jesus? and what other best source outside the gospel do we have for proofing the historicity of Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2017

      Parts have been interpolated. I give all the evidence in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

  8. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  October 28, 2017

    There’s seem to be a problem with what Jesus said in Luke 23 to one of the criminals, “today you will be with me in paradise…” Jesus didn’t resurrect(presumably) until 2days afterwards and didn’t ascend to heaven until days after. so how could the criminal be with him that same day? so it seems that this is one of the false development by the gospel writers. what do you think ?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2017

      The idea is that they both were in paradise at the moment of their deaths. Then later Jesus was raised from the dead.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  October 31, 2017

        Could he have meant “I’m telling you today: you will be with me in Paradise?”

        • Bart
          Bart  October 31, 2017

          It all has to do with how the author places his adverbs — before or after the verb it is modifying. But it appears in this case he is saying “Today you will be with me”

  9. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  October 28, 2017

    I would like to know if Philo of Alexanderia, Josephus, and paul took the story of the patriarchs literally or metaphorically. Thanks

  10. Avatar
    ask21771  October 28, 2017

    Was the idea that the messiah was the son of god created after the old testament and before the new

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2017

      In the OT kings are called the messiah. The word just means “anointed one”

  11. tompicard
    tompicard  October 29, 2017

    are your translations available absent the greek latin, which wouldn’t do me any good

    and with your commentary


    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2017

      Most of them are in my book After the New Testament.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  October 29, 2017

        >My first experience was about fifteen years ago now

        I see a 1998, 2014 editions of ‘After the New Testament’
        does the 1998 version include your translations and the Didache?


  12. Avatar
    bknight  October 31, 2017

    Bart, just curious: How different from the modern Greek language is the Greek of the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2017

      Pretty different. Kind of like Chaucer and Dickens. My sense is that someone who knows modern Greek would be able to read the NT (thought the prounciation wuold be radically different); but someone who knows NT Greek could only understand some words in modern Greek.

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