I’ve been talking about translations of the Bible — especially the King James Version — and I’d like now to move to a broader issue. EVERY text from the ancient world needs to be translated in order to be made accessible to a modern audience. Hey, we’re not back in the 19th century when going to university meant learning Greek and Latin! And texts even then also came from even other languages (Hebrew, Coptic, Syriac, etc.).
If you’re a graduate student in antiquity, you have to learn to read these texts in their original languages; you simply can’t get the nuances of a text — especially a fairly sophisticated one dealing with, say, philosophy or religion — in translation. And translators have to make decisions about how to translate a text. It’s not a mechanical process. Whether you like it or not — most people when they learn of this don’t much like it, and even more people have never learned of it — translation is also an act of interpretation. You have to know what a text means before you can render it into a different language, and the only way to know what a text means is to interpret it.
I’ve known that since college, when I started taking Greek. But I didn’t realize the full significance of it 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. I’ve talked about that a bit on the blog before, and now want to devote some more sustained attention to it. Here I’ll give some background on that project (my Apostolic Fathers translations) and the series it appeared in (the Loeb Classical Library) and in the next post I’ll talk about the difficulties of producing a translation.
First, the Loeb Classical Library. Some readers of the blog will be familiar with this valuable resource, but most others have probably never heard of it. The Loebs are bi-lingual editions of ancient Greek and Latin authors – all of the major (and most of the minor) authors of ancient Greece and Rome (Homer, Euripides, Plutarch, Cicero, Livy, Seneca and on and on and on). They are set up to have the original language and an English translation on facing pages (so the Greek or Latin is on the left page and the English translation on the right, when you open up the volume on any random page). Under the original language is a small apparatus indicating places where different manuscripts have different ways of wording the text.
The Loeb volumes are an enormously valuable resource for scholars and students with facility in Greek and Latin; if you are working through a text and want to know what the original language actually says, these volumes make it all very easy. (Many [most?] high-level scholars think it’s “cheating,” or at least “second-rate” to use a Loeb edition of an author instead of an edition that gives only the original Greek or Latin text.)
There are not very many Christian authors included in the Loebs, but one of the very first volumes published (in 1912: the first year any were published) was the two-volume edition of the Apostolic Fathers, produced by the Harvard scholar of early Christianity, Kirsopp Lake. When I was in graduate school, all of us knew about and had these two volumes. They were essential possessions for anyone in the field of early Christian studies.
I’ve talked about “Apostolic Fathers” before on the blog, but not for a long time at any great length. Many people have a confused understanding of what the term refers to. It is, in fact, a technical term to refer to a specific corpus of writings by a group of ten or eleven authors writing after the New Testament period. As it turns out (somewhat weirdly) there is no unanimity concerning which authors these should be, although everyone agrees on the main ones. The most generous view includes the following writings: 1 Clement, 2 Clement, the seven letters of Ignatius of Antioch, the letter of Polycarp, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, the letter to Diognetus, and the fragments of Papias and of Quadratus.
They are called “apostolic fathers” because in the early modern period it was widely – but incorrectly – thought that these authors were companions of the apostles. And so they were the earliest church fathers whose writings survived. Today we have serious reasons for thinking that in fact none of them knew any of the first-generation apostles of Jesus. But they are our earliest proto-orthodox authors from outside the New Testament. The term “proto-orthodox” is a bit complicated, but I need to explain it before going any further for those who aren’t familiar with it.
The term “orthodox” means “right belief” or “correct opinion.” It stands over /against “heterodox” which means “another opinion” (i.e., a view that is, by definition wrong, since it is not the “right opinion”!). A synonym for heterodoxy is “heresy,” a word that means “choice.” A “heretic” is someone who “chooses” to believe something that is wrong. It should be crystal clear to anyone familiar with historical discourse that these are problematic terms, historically, since historians have no way of knowing which religious beliefs are “right” and which ones are “wrong.” Those are theological judgments, not historical ones.
Yet historians continue to use the terms “heresy” and “orthodoxy.” When they do so, they are not indicating which beliefs are right (e.g., that there is only one God; that Christ is both fully God and fully man, not just one or the other; that the world is the creation of the one God, etc.) and which ones are wrong. They are instead indicating which beliefs ended up being declared “orthodox” (right) and which ones “heretical” (wrong). And so calling an early Christian “orthodox” simply means saying that s/he accepted the views that ended up becoming dominant in the religion. Orthodoxy came into a position of dominance by the end of the third or beginning of the fourth century. But what do we call Christians who held to the views that were later deemed orthodox in earlier periods? These Christian authors are typically referred to as “proto-orthodox” – to distinguish them from writers living after the time orthodox views had emerged. The earliest proto-orthodox writers we have are the ones that were later grouped by scholars (starting in the 17th century) into the collection that I’m referring to here as the apostolic fathers.
All of these authors wrote in Greek – although in a few places we do not have Greek manuscripts but only Latin translations (e.g., the end of the letter of Polycarp). Kirsopp Lake’s edition was a standard work for years and years. But in the late 1990s, Harvard University Press wanted to have an updated edition, since Lake’s by that time was out of date, for lots of reasons. And they asked me to do them. (I’ve talked about how that happened recently on the blog: it was an act of pure serendipity. The post is here: How Serendipity Changed My Life: The Apostolic Fathers – The Bart Ehrman Blog )
The experience of doing so had a significant affect on my life and thinking, and showed me in very real and concrete terms the problems facing translators of ancient texts (whether classical, biblical, non-canonical –Christian), problems that are somewhat different (oddly) from those facing those who can read the languages but aren’t publishing a translation of them.