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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with translator and poet Sarah Ruden about how other ancient texts should influence the way we read the Bible as they explore the following questions:

  • What are some difficulties of accurate translation?
  • Why is author intent so important in translation?
  • How does Sarah Ruden approach the translation of ancient texts?
  • What kinds of texts help us understand the New Testament writings?
  • What dirty jokes does Paul make?
  • In what ways does Paul write like pagan authors of his time?
  • Why is context so important in sacred text translation?
  • Is sacred text translation different than ancient literature translation? 
  • What inferences can we make about Paul based on what we know of him?
  • What are some problems Sarah Ruden sees in standard translations of the Bible?
  • What is the Vulgate and how has it influenced our English Bible translations?
  • Should we try and be objective in our Bible translation?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Sarah Ruden you can share. 

  • “[Paul’s] bad tempered. He’s got a sense of humor. He is very, at times, he’s very tender, very loving toward his followers. At times, he’s absolutely fed up with them. “ –Sarah Ruden
  • “This is kind of the inspiration of Paul, in that he knows his faults, yet he’s still to some degree under the control of them, but ultimately not, because he never allows them to get him down or to distract him for long, to deter him.” –Sarah Ruden
  • “[Paul] needs to get attention, he needs to be clever… he’s arguing to the pagan world which has very high standard for entertainment.“ –Sarah Ruden
  • “Influences is important here. You can’t say that you’re translating in the true sense… if you disregard the author’s will.” –Sarah Ruden
  • “What was it about these [New Testament] books that brought such an exciting message, such a warmly received message to so many people throughout the Roman Empire?” –Sarah Ruden

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript [Introduction]


Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. Serious talk about the sacred book. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

 Pete: Welcome normal people, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People and our topic today is getting inside the head of Paul and Jesus and our guest is Sarah Ruden.

Jared: Yeah, we had an interesting conversation with Sarah, who is a Ph.D. from Harvard University –

Pete: Never heard of it.

Jared: – in Classical Philology. She was at the University of Cape Town as a lecturer in classics, she’s written a few books, and, yeah, just a fascinating conversation. She’s clearly very bright.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: And I really appreciated her ability to, maybe, kind of cut through the noise sometimes, I think, of academia and just kind of come to some really creative and interesting insights.

Pete: Yeah, I mean, and namely about translating the Bible. And that may sound boring, but that’s maybe only because a lot of translations are boring and that’s sort of her part. She doesn’t really say that, she’s too nice. But, instead of just trying to be, like, mechanically accurate, and that’s one thing that a lot of translations have in common. They say things a little bit differently, but they’re very similar in terms of this mechanical attention. She tries to enter into the head of the ancient person and, you know, that sounds a little esoteric, but it’s really not. It is an active imagination, but it’s an informed –

Jared: Yeah, it’s very practical too. It seems like, as she was talking, I just kept thinking, well, duh.

Pete: Yeah, exactly. It makes some sense.

Jared: Right.

Pete: You know, because these are real people trying to move other people with their words. And that’s the thing that a lot of translations miss, you know? One thing I was thinking about, Jared, is that, you know, like, how could we get into that just with our own English Bible’s and stuff.

Jared: Right.

Pete: Sometimes I tell students, like, just stand up and read it out loud as if you were reading this to people and actually trying to convince them of something. And even if the translation isn’t great, that at least maybe reproduces a little bit of the sense of what this biblical literature was really intended to do. It was an attempt to persuade people on an emotional level, not just on, say, an intellectual level. And that’s, if I had to capture, that’s what I think Sarah was trying to bring to the table through her vast experience in translating Greek and Latin classical text and then turning your attention to the Bible, and coming at it from just a very different point of view than most conventional translation committees come from. I’d love for her to do a whole, a Bible like Robert Alter we had on a few weeks ago –

Jared: Right. Who did the translation…

Pete: Right. And do, just do like a New Testament like that. And what would it look like? I would love to read something like that.

Jared: Yeah. Let’s get to this conversation, I’m really excited from you guys to here from Sarah here on getting inside the head of Paul and Jesus.

[Music begins]

Sarah: In a couple places, he, you know, he makes dirty jokes. For example, you know, in Galatians, he, he wants, he wants his critics castrated. And he’s on the subject of circumcision and he just loses his temper and he says they just ought to go castrate themselves. This did lead me to, to want to look at the scriptures with fewer presuppositions.

[Music ends]

Pete: Sarah, welcome to our podcast.

Sarah: Thank you, thanks. I’m very glad to be here.

Pete: Yeah, great to have you. So, uh yeah, why don’t you introduce yourself to our listeners a bit, and just, you know, who you are and what you do, and maybe even how you got into this whole issue of translating things. That’d be really interesting to hear.

Sarah: Okay! Well, I guess I have to describe myself as a hayseed translator. I’m from rural Ohio.  

Pete: Uh huh.  

Sarah: Both my parents are from farms, and I was raised in Wood County, so surrounded by fields. Though, pretty early on, I imbibed this urge, you know, to learn ancient languages and I’m still not sure where I got that urge, but I was quite a pretentious child, so… 

Pete: [Laughter] 

Sarah: So anyway, Bowling Green State University was close by. My father was teaching there, so I was able to learn, start learning Latin at sixteen, Greek at eighteen and started Ph.D. program at Harvard at twenty-one. I was trained in what they call philology, which is the study of text. Not language, that’s linguistics, but philologists are concerned with, well classical philologists are concerned with Greek and Roman text. So, yes, I was trained in that, but I was always more interested in translation, which they don’t allow you to study at Harvard, they didn’t at that time in the classics department, but I was a poet from a very, very early age. I would say, my mother says, you know, from the age of one or two.  

Pete: [Laughter] 


Sarah: I was, I was composing poetry. I started publishing it in my late twenties. And yes, I was just, I was absolutely fascinated with the sound of words.  

Jared: So how did that intersect with maybe a little bit of your faith upbringing? You know, get a little bit of your upbringing with philology, but how does faith fit into that?  

Sarah: Well, I was raised a Methodist. I became a Quaker around the age of thirty, and it was only some years later, this was after I returned from ten years in South Africa, that I became interested in sacred literature. And this does have to do with my Quaker faith. It was through a Quaker institution, Pendle Hill Quaker Study Center, that I began exploring the letters of Paul, because Quakers wanted to know more about them and it actually suited my take on literature to start exploring, and the Quaker tradition as well, to start exploring from brass tacks.  

Pete: Mmm.  

Sarah: I’d always, as a poet, been concerned with originality. I didn’t want other people’s words.  


This was a bit of a strange obsession when I was a kid. You know, I would listen, and people would always seem to be saying things the that other people said and it irritated me. So, part of my poetic development was to figure out other ways to say things and that helped me, I think, in thinking about things in different ways. And this led me to Quakerism, helped lead me to Quakerism, because, you know, Quakers, they emphasize silence. We Quakers think that in the presence of God’s love and power, there isn’t a lot that human beings can initially say. We worship in silence; we sit together, and we wait on God’s will. So, this did lead me to, to want to look at the scriptures with fewer presuppositions.  

Pete: Hmm.  

Sarah: Institutional, ideological, personal. All the things that are brought to the Bible that may not have been there originally. So, I was very, very pleased that Quakers, you know, asked me, well, what can you tell us about Paul –  

Pete: Yeah.  

Sarah: That we didn’t know, that we’re not going to learn from standard translations.  

Pete: Yeah, so Sarah, I mean, back up a little bit because you said that, um, you came to an interest in sacred literature a little bit later. So, after you came back from Cape town? I think, is that right? 

Sarah: Yes.  

Pete: So, at what point roughly in your life did you start getting interested in translating and dealing with the New Testament, let’s say. And then also, on top of that, the Hebrew of the Hebrew Bible, right? Because your background is Latin and Greek, and you just sort of picked up Hebrew?  

Sarah: Well, no, it’s kind of a longer story.  


Pete: Okay.  


Sarah: Um, Yes.  


Pete: I hope so, because a lot of discouraged students out there think so as well. I mean, you have a background in languages, so you know how languages work, and you’re going to pick things up a little more quickly probably, but…  

Sarah: Right, right. I emerged from Harvard not academic.  

Pete: Okay.  

Sarah: They didn’t really know what to do with me, because here I was a poet, I was a translator, this is, at least back then – I got my doctorate in 1993 – at least at that point, you couldn’t sell a classical philologist or somebody from a classical philology program to a university for junior professorship. It just, it just didn’t work. Things were not, um, interdisciplinary enough at that point. So, here they were, you know, trying to sell me to somebody and the only department in the world that was buying was the classics department at the University of Cape Town. So off I went there, and there was just too much political upheaval for the classics department even to survive, so I got off the tenure track after three years, but I stayed in South Africa because I had fallen in love with the country. It is fascinating, it is beautiful, and it was wonderful. And so, I stayed nearly ten years in all in South Africa, between nine and ten years and did all kinds of things, you know, business, volunteering, medical. I did some medical writing and editing. And, but I really got to work on my classics translation while I was there. But I really, eventually wanted to come home, so I came home to the U.S. and then spent some time in, at Pendle Hill as a resident student in this Quaker institution, and that is where they began, purely by accident, it emerged that, yes, I could tell them about Paul in the original Greek. So, yeah, I thought, wow, I’m going to write this book. So, I wrote a book called Paul Among the People, which is about, here’s the subtitle – Paul reinterpreted and reimagined in his own time.  


Pete: Hmm.  

Sarah: That is, I was trying to get into Paul’s head.  

Pete: Well, tell us about that. I mean, what did you find there with your own approach to translation that maybe others hadn’t thought about, or just something that caught you by surprise, or just something that if you’re trying to capture Paul for other people, you know what I mean? What, like, how would you present Paul, and just who he is to people who might be interested. What insights did you gain?  

Sarah: Well, you know, I was already used to getting inside authors heads, or at least trying to. So, I had published several classics translations at this point, and I still, I was and I still am interested in the reform of ancient literature translation generally, so when you’re translating, say, Vergil, you’re translating The Aeneid. You read the text in the original, and this was Latin, of course. And again, read it again and again, and you think about the author in his own cultural context. You think about his struggles as an artist, you think about, just all kinds of things and you try to make an emotional connection to him. Emotional connection for me is more important. I mean, we, factually, linguistically, we kind of know all about these authors, you know, all that work has been done. There are mountains and mountains of scholarly publications and very, very good commentaries, line by line, exactly what’s likely that he meant by this word or that word, but to see this author as a whole, and more importantly, to hear him, you gotta think about him as a person. You have to enlist as his servant, if you will, as his interpreter for the world, and this is the thing that I thought from a very young age had not been done properly.  

Pete: Hmm 

Sarah: You have these dutiful, dull, Penguin Classics. You know, you have these condescending translations for the masses, and yeah, okay, in a clunky was they are accurate, but they do not bother at all with aesthetics and the reason these works are important is that they were, to their hearers, gorgeous. These authors were the rock stars.  

Pete: Hmm.  

Sarah: They were the most exciting thing going. Saint Augustine describes his Vergil fandom.  

Pete: [Laughter] 

Sarah: How, you know, as quite a young kid he’s, okay, he’s reading Vergil in school and he adores it. He’s so excited about it. He’s caught up in the tragedy of Dido, this is the Venetian queen with whom Aeneas, the Roman, the proto-Roman hero is in love and he has to leave her, you know, to go to Italy and found what will become Rome. So, yeah. So, Augustine is, this is his great sin, his temptation, his attachment to the beauty of Vergil. So –  

Pete: So, you’re trying to recreate that beauty for somebody like Paul for readers today to really, maybe, move beyond things like, yeah, this is linguistically accurate, or, this is historically accurate, but – you’re not reading Paul really, right? Because you’re not in his head or you’re not really recreating the aesthetic or even the emotion of reading Paul.  

Sarah: Right, yes. Now, Paul, for Paul that’s very important, because, you know, you read him, I’m for reading sacred literature as books. That is, forget for a little while about, you know, no matter how precious it is, forget for a little while about the liturgical use of these books. Forget about the Bible study that is, you take a little passage and you go into that, you deal with things piecemeal. This is the normal way they’re dealt with. I’m for reading sacred literature as books, continuously, as stories, so that they have, they have something like, in translation anyway, they have something like the original flow. They have something of the dynamism, so you’re going from here, to there, and you know, taking a, not only a narrative, but an emotional journey, not only an argumentative journey, but an emotional journey with these authors and this is, I think, the way you see their world. And Paul is really interesting in this sense, in that he’s, he’s got a really distinct personality.  


Pete: Uh huh.  

Sarah: He’s bad tempered. He’s got a sense of humor. He is very, at times, he’s very tender, very loving toward his followers. At times, he’s absolutely fed up with them.  

Pete: Is he sarcastic?  

Sarah: He’s sarcastic.  

Pete: Thank goodness. That’s my love language.  

Sarah: Oh yes, yes.  

Pete: That’s why I like Paul so much. Anyway, yeah.  

Sarah: Yeah. He’s self-righteous.  

Pete: No, that’s not me.  


Jared: Oh no, go on. Yeah, go on.  


Sarah: And then he backs off from it. This is kind of the inspiration of Paul, in that he knows his faults, yet he’s still to some degree under the control of them, but ultimately not, because he never allows them to get him down or to distract him for long, to deter him. He goes on and on. That is, that is the miracle of Paul, that he keeps going.  

Jared: So I hear, the phrase that comes to my mind, is putting Paul kind of in his emotional and aesthetic context where there’s this, like, spiral of interpretation where we’re kind of trying to extrapolate from the text themselves kind of the ethos of Paul, and then that may shape again how we go back and reread that text. My question would be, how do we avoid, or how have you found avoiding putting your own kind of emotional or aesthetics. You had talked about, kinda, not going to with presupposition, but when we get in this realm of aesthetics and emotion, it feels pretty subjective. So, how do you, how do you navigate that?  

Sarah: Right. Well, how I handled it, how I continue to handle it with, with sacred literature translation, is that I build, try to build a huge amount of context. Now, you know, when you’re in a classical studies doctoral program at Harvard, they just, cram you with books. You read all kinds of things, great, great variety. So, I do have in my head storage, you know, a lot of, a great many pagan works, and I tell biblical scholars that, you know, I respect their work tremendously, but, they haven’t read the dirty books.  

Pete: [Laughter] 

Jared: Uh huh.  

Sarah: It is true, they haven’t. Try to find a professor of divinity school who has read Aristophanes or Petronius or the Priapus poems. They’re, I’ve gotta be fair, you know, that in recent generations there is more experience with popular literature, but, it’s very hard to find a Biblical scholar – 

Jared: And those things kind of put meat on the bones, so to speak. It is giving you this broader context in the world in which Paul lived, where, like for me growing up, we sort of put the Bible outside of space and time and by reading it next to Aristophanes and other things, you’re sort of making these connections it sounds like, that gives you this fuller, more robust picture that’s not two dimensional, but makes Paul human with human emotion and the ups and down of all of that.  

Sarah: Right, yeah. I mean, when you think of him, he’s, in a couple places, you know, he makes dirty jokes. For example, you know, in Galatians, he wants his critics castrated.  

Pete: Yeah.  

Sarah: He’s on the subject of circumcision and he just loses his temper and he says they just oughta go castrate themselves or be castrated, I’m not exactly sure. Anyway, I think it helps to understand the, he was raised in the midst of a pagan culture. Tarsus was an important port city. So, he’s in a Jewish household but he’s just surrounded by the pagan culture and he does have pagan literary education. So, in that context, you know, you go to dinner parties where pretty much everything, anything goes, you know? You drink, you make jokes, and it’s a little hard to place, well, impossible in fact, you know, to place Paul precisely. Okay, so, who did he associate with, what would he do? You know, what were his limits as an observant Jew? It’s really hard to tell. The diaspora’s really complicated. But, you know, he has a sense of humor that you can find parallels to, you know, in all kinds of pagan authors. You know, he definitely has this, you know, rhetorical manner, so he’s just kind of grabbing at anything. You know, he needs to get attention, he needs to be clever, he needs to, he’s arguing, you know, to the pagan world with, which has very high standard for entertainment.  


Pete: Mm hmm. 

Sarah: So if you kind of balance him out in this way, and say, well, this is like this author, this is like this genre, then you have a whole lot of evidence, you’ve got a whole lot of support for a new cast that you want to put on a passage of his. 

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Sarah: And you can tell, you have some confidence in saying, no, this isn’t just me.  

Pete: Yeah.  

Sarah: I’m not just goofing off here, I’m not just entertaining myself and doing something different for its own sake. No, I actually have some support here and I can build a whole structure of rhetoric in which to imagine him.  

Pete: Yeah. And I think imagining him is a helpful phrase, because, I mean, we shouldn’t fool ourselves, this isn’t about objective historical study, but it’s trying to dive into the time more deeply and drawing some conclusions about how you might want to present this person. It’s very similar to, you know, it makes sense even if you don’t know completely. Now, some might say, well, that’s really taking sort of a subjective kind of risk and we want to be more accurate. But of course, that’s nonsense. Because, I mean, I think the way, you know, many Christians that we, you know, deal with and we’re familiar with these communities. Like, Paul in his context, I mean, well he’s got the whole Greek thing happening, the Hellenism. He’s also got the Jewish part, and you have to remember those two things. But, at least in popular thinking, it doesn’t go much deeper than that, but you’re actually trying to imagine what Paul’s influences might be that can never make it into a history book, right?  

Sarah: Right, yes. And I think influences is important here. You can’t say that you’re translating in the true sense, I believe anyway, you can’t say that you’re doing this if you disregard the author’s will. The author’s drive to communicate, and this is the problem that I have with standard translations. If they are flat, if they are dull, if they don’t have, if they don’t reflect that mood and the sound and the performance of the original, you know, this song and dance that the author, the ancient, every ancient author, you know, very energetically went through. You are really not collaborating in what that author meant to do, and the evidence did very effectively for his original audience.  

[Music begins] 

[Producers group endorsement] 

[Music ends] 


Pete: Yeah, I mean, there’s a whole other ton of reasons why that might not ever happen in Bible translation because of marketability and keeping constituencies happy and things like that, you don’t want to be too risky. But, do you, I mean, which is a shame. Do you have, okay, this is the worst question to ask somebody like you, but I’m going to ask it anyway. Do you have a favorite English Bible translation? I get asked that all the time, my answer is always “not really.” But, I mean, do you have one, like if someone were to ask you that question, just someone in a Quaker meeting would ask you, what’s a good English translation for reading Paul, do you have an opinion on that?  

Sarah: No, not really.  

Pete: Yeah, no.  


Sarah: You know, in the book after Paul that I wrote about Bible translation, Face of Water, I compare the different ones and it was, you know, different very popular Bible translations and it was a very, very depressing experience because you would take Bible’s that you would think would be quite different – Jewish Study Bible for one, a Catholic Bible, the New Revised Standard Version, and say, the Revised Standard Version – you know, a whole array and you would find that they look almost identical. 

Pete: Uh huh.  

Sarah: They’re just making, in a typical passage, tiny adjustments and this is very frustrating for me when I, ya know, can see for example in the Lord’s prayer that you have that line, you know, “give us this day our daily bread.” Daily is definitely not on as a translation, the word can’t mean that.  

Pete: Really?  

Sarah: Yes.  

Pete: You just ruined my life, explain that further.  

Sarah: [Laughing] Sorry, yes. No, it means –  

Pete: Everyone out there is dropping to their knees right now, it’s okay, go on.  

Sarah: It probably means tomorrow’s bread.  

Pete: Okay.  

Sarah: It’s literally the bread that’s coming on, but it doesn’t mean daily. That was just a mistake translation of convenience – 

Pete: Does it literally mean tomorrow’s, like the bread for the next, the twenty-four hour period – 

Sarah: I think that’s the best – 

Pete: Or is it something more metaphorical?  

Sarah: No, the best translation would be tomorrow’s bread.  

Pete: I’ve heard it like eschatological bread.  

Sarah: Oh, yes. No, see, that’s, it’s a compound word with ousía in it and it was mis-divided.

They made an error in construing that word, so part of the word – 

Pete: Back up, who made the error?  

Sarah: Well it was –  

Pete: In ancient manuscripts?  

Sarah: In the Vulgate Bible, so this is the Latin Bible, it appears in the, it’s being put together around the end of the fourth century A.D.  

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Sarah: And the Vulgate Bible was to become standard in the, you know, throughout the west – 

Pete: Right.   

Sarah: In western Christendom.  

Pete: This was Jerome.  

Sarah: Yes, yeah.  

Pete: Yeah. 

Sarah: So, he was, by this time the error had been established, that they would see in this Greek word the part of it that looked like ousía, which means the essence. So, the other part they saw was epí, on, so the compound they saw was “on the essence” instead of what it really means is “going toward.”  

Pete: Okay. Oh.  

Jared: Mm hmm, so it gives it that future sense.  

Sarah: Yeah, yeah. So, Jerome anyway, was convinced that this meant the panem supersubstantialem. So, give us our bread that is transcendent. So, it is epí super, ousía–

Jared: Yeah, being, like super being. Transcendent.  

Sarah: Yes, yeah. So, he saw, he had made this into a meta-physical bread.  

Pete: Okay.  

Sarah: And it’s pure error. There’s no chance that it was meant this way by the author.  

Pete: So, what does tomorrow’s bread mean? What do you think that means? Getting into Jesus’ head I guess is what we’re doing now, right?  

Sarah: Right, yes. I don’t know.  

Pete: Yeah.  

Sarah: I don’t really know.  

Jared: She’s a philologist, she just points out all the mistakes and then asks everyone else to figure it out.  

Pete: Well, I guess, I wish more theologians would say I don’t know, you know, so that’s a good point.  

Sarah: I should have an opinion. I wrote, you know, I was composing all of these experimental translations for the book Face of Water. 

Pete: Face of Water. 


Sarah: So, I said the next loaf, the next loaf, give it to us today. And I related that to the anxiety of ordinary people for getting their next ration. So, you’re talking about loaves, it’s not bread, but it’s a loaf, it’s really important. So, you have these standard loaves. They’re made with molds, so, and you get the loaf as a ration from the household. So, if you’re slave you get your bread or your loaf or your hunk of loaf, and they’re perforated so they rip apart. It’s kind of a pie shape, so you get your wedge of bread as an individual if a loaf is being broken up. So, or you get, also you get loaves as a dole from the state if you’re poor. So, this is, these are the people who are hearing and speaking this prayer. You know, they are, they’re lowly people, they are slaves, they are poor citizens, they are foreigners, people throughout the empire and so, the, some of the archeology that’s happened shows that, if slaves who were laborer’s were more or less starving. They weren’t fed enough. So, think of the point of view of somebody who’s, you know, he gets his ration and eats it pretty fast and maybe saves some, but as soon as he gets it, he’s thinking of the next one. 

Pete: Hmm, yeah.  

Sarah: So, it’s a plea for God to be there continually providing.  

Pete: Yeah, we can count on you.  

Sarah: Yes.  

Pete: To, yeah, okay. That’s really interesting.  

Jared: Okay, well, I appreciate the deep dive into this particular verse, but something you said earlier, it has, it just struck me in a way that I haven’t thought of before –  

Pete: And he can’t let go of it. 

Jared: I can’t let go of it. I gotta test this.  

Pete: Can’t let go of it, right.  

Jared: So, you keep coming back to authorial intent, right? The intention of Paul, the intention of Jesus, and what I hear you saying is, maybe I’m putting words in your mouths, that’s why I want to test it with you. But what I hear is, in the history of translation, we’ve talked about authorial intent, but we’ve really only talked about like, half of it, which is kind of, I would call it like the logos centric side of it, where it’s like, we assume they’re always just like, constructing arguments and we’re trying to like, pull the emotion out of all of it, because that’s kind of the less risky thing to do. It’s the more “objective” thing to do, but what I hear you saying, which I think is fascinating, and I’d never thought of it and I think it’s actually really valuable to say, is that if we’re trying to understand authorial intention, we can’t strip it of its emotion and its aesthetics and its, there’s some texture that I think we are scared of and in order to be “objective” or mechanical or accurate, we’ve lopped that out of the equation, and I hear you saying should, we need to bring that because, because these were people who were writing these things, and if we’re talking about their intention and what they’re trying to communicate, communication is about more than just words on a page, or more than just the logic A+B=C. There is a lot more to it than that. Would that be a fair way to look at what you were saying?  

Sarah: Yes, that’s very helpful, I think that is a fair way, yes. So, you’re thinking not only of authorial intent, but you’re thinking of the reception of the text.  

Jared: Right. Mm hmm.  

Sarah: And reception studies have become really important in recent years. So, the really fascinating thing to me about, one of the fascinating things to me about sacred literature, is its very excited reception.  

Pete: Hmm.  

Sarah: This is, and for the New Testament, this is particularly important. What was it about these books that brought such an exciting message, you know, such a warmly received message to so many people throughout the Roman Empire, and these were people, you know, from very different backgrounds, but they responded, you know, with tremendous enthusiasm to the message, but also the form and, you know, one thing I can’t repeat enough is that form and content are more closely fused in ancient literature.  

Pete: Hmm.  

Sarah: You’re going to school, okay, you’re a typical boy in the educated classes, and the main thing you learn all through school is literature and speaking and how to express yourself. And, this is not really about argumentation, it’s more about formal speaking.  

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Sarah: It’s more about ornate and performative and dramatic speaking.  

Pete: Isn’t the point of that, I mean, this is, I mean, I know a little bit but not very much about this, but is the point of this to make an emotional appeal?  


Sarah: Mmm, yes.  

Pete: To sway people, not just to, like, convince them logically, but you want to, almost, draw them into your way of looking at things and at an emotional level, right?  

Sarah: Right, right. So, as a typical use to which this education was put, was speaking in the law courts. And in the law courts, the law, the technicalities of the law, the letter of the law meant diddly squat. You would only refer to it, you know, very occasionally. Mostly were going in there and telling the story and putting on a song and dance and bringing people to your point of view. Now, that’s your point of view as an individual. Sacred literature is very different in that it’s built to communicate on all occasions and to all kinds of people, so it is a super-charged rhetoric. It is of an intensity and a, an applicability, a breadth of applicability that really has no comparison. So, you know, imagine the challenges to a simple-minded translator thinking about the enormity of this, this literary achievement and how to just start approaching it. You know, I must be crazy.  

Pete: [Laughter] 

Jared: Can I make a leap here, I want to see, because I think there’s also, I keep thinking of, you know, I love hearing about translation work, but I also know, like, our listeners aren’t really ever going to try to go translate the Bible, but I see some parallels and even, like, things like, I started in my mind with like Shakespeare, where even though it’s written in English, in some ways I think it needs a translator for a lot of people today, like figuring out what it means. Like, you know, when you talk about the wittiness and the sarcasm of Paul, I feel like some of that gets lost with Shakespeare, which seems ultra-formal to us today, but what he was really trying to do is, you know, was widely recognized in his own day in a different way than maybe how we would see it. And I wonder, when you think about the New Testament and the Old Testament, and people who just read English, like, what are some principles that you’ve learned in your translation work that might help people approach the Bible differently even if they’re just reading it in English? Because I think some of what you’re saying, even as I think about the New Testament in English, some of what you’re saying to kind of make Paul human and understand it that way, impacts how I would even read it in English. So, do you have other ways of thinking that may help people who aren’t going to translate, but just read the Bible in English?  

Sarah: Oh, well. Read my books.  


Pete: [Laughter] 

Sarah: She says shamelessly.  


Pete: There ya go.  

Sarah: I’ll give you an example because I –  

Pete: We teed that one up for you didn’t we Sarah? That’s it, alright.  

Sarah: Yeah.  


I do not see anything in the original text that other scholars do not see.  

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Sarah: It’s all right there, you can find it in footnotes, there are ways that you can get at it, but my goal is to make it much more accessible. You know, to bring it out, incorporate it in that translation. If it can’t be expressed, and there aren’t many cases of this, but then, if it can’t in any way be expressed English, then an accessible footnote will do. But that really hardly ever happens, and I’m just continually tearing my hair. You know, when I see what hasn’t been, you know, could easily be included in a passage but hasn’t been because people are nervous. They think about the reaction of the Sunday school class and of the Bible study class and they think, “oh, no, no, I can’t, I can’t”, but, you know, I’m a Quaker so what can they do to me?  

Pete: Right.  

Sarah: I’m not part of that culture. In fact, you know, I do a lot of lecturing and discussion with mainline churches, Catholic churches, evangelical churches, and, you know, that I find in, you know, my actual experience that even quite conservative readers of the Bible are not resistant to translations that are more accurate –  

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Sarah: And more nuanced, more literary. And, they’re kind of tickled, in fact to find out that in, for example, in Matthew and Mark there’s the scene of Jesus with the Syrophoenician woman –  

Pete; Mm hmm.  

Sarah: So, she is of Canaanite extraction, she’s Venetian, so you know, huge differences from Judaism, then she barges in to Jesus and demands for her daughter – 

Pete: Yeah.  


Sarah: And he, in standard translations, makes this really cutting remark. Tells her that she’s asking that the children’s bread be tossed to the dogs. That doesn’t say dogs.  

Pete: Really?  

Sarah: It says little doggies.  

Pete: Little doggies?! 

Sarah: It’s not kuōn – 

Sarah: Little doggies.  

Pete: Little doggies.  


Sarah: It’s not kuōn, it’s kunarionKuōn would be an insult. You know, dogs, filthy outcast animals –  

Pete: Huh.  

Sarah: So, unacceptable ethnic groups. Fine, that would be an insult, but that isn’t what the Greek says. The Greek says kunarion, which is a rare diminutive, this is the only time it occurs in all of Scripture, these two incidences. These two twin stories –  

Pete: It’s in both in Matthew and Mark, it’s in both.  

Sarah: Matthew and Mark, yes.  

Pete: Okay. 

Sarah: Yeah. And this is a word that you would find in Aristophanes, you find it in a sort of comical passage of Plato and it means little doggies and it’s a funny word, it’s a cute word. And, she throws it right back at him. And he’s apparently delighted, and he says because, you know, because of what you said, your daughter is healed. Get out of here.  

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Jared: So maybe take a second, and maybe reframe, right. So, there’s one way of taking this, which is Jesus is insulting this woman and she kind of bitingly comes back and it’s a very serious episode. So, given this change, even in that one word to little doggy, maybe give us a sense then, of the tone and the, yeah, the tone and the texture of this, and how is it different?  

Sarah: Okay, you have to go and look at the literary context. This is a process that I was describing before, so you have to go to other examples in ancient literature to see what the tone is of this word and how it’s typically used. So, it doesn’t mean puppies, it’s not simply little dogs, it’s cute little dogs.  

Pete: [Laughter] 

Sarah: Lap dogs. So, you’ve got to think, so, we’re too removed, cultural removed, this is not a term that you could easily imagine the historical Jesus saying, so he’s speaking in Aramaic and he, you know, he’s a provincial Jew, a pious one. So, he doesn’t, you would think, have any conception of lap dogs. This is what we’re really taking about, lap dogs.  

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Sarah: In the Greek or Roman experience. So, this is not what he’s saying, but the tradition has it, he said something that the Greek author, or the Greek speaking author interprets as cutie dogs, lap dogs. And in pagan literature, the dogs being fed under the table, the dogs getting scraps, are getting them at some kind of joyous, very generous, very rich feast.  

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Sarah: So, we’re talking, okay, theologically about the eschatological banquet. This is the feasting in heaven at the end of time, and there is so much food there that, you know, even the dogs under the table, they get stuffed. And that’s the image that you find in comic literature such as the novel, The Golden Ass, mid-second century A.D. So there’s a wedding banquet, the bride is rescued from fearsome kidnappers, and she’s a, she’s a very rich, very noble young lady, so the whole town just has this wild feast and this is the best thing that’s ever happened, you know, that she is safe and she is married and the dogs, the dogs are rendered just helpless and bloated, they eat so much.  

Pete: [Laughter] 

Sarah: Yeah! That’s the ultimate joy. And you’ve got to, you know, think about the general poverty that prevailed in the ancient world. You know –  

Pete: Yeah.  

Sarah: You feast, and you eat meat, you know, a couple times a year if you’re an ordinary person and you’re kind of hungry all the time. But, and then, for the dogs to get enough, that’s amazing. So, you know, think of this in relation to the people of, the multi-ethnic audience, mainly of people with pagan backgrounds who are reading the Gospels as the Christian religion spreads and this is themselves, right?  

Pete: Mm hmm.  


Sarah: They are included. They are heirs to the kingdom also. Everybody. The most ordinary people they can imagine, you know, a banquet in which, you know, it never stops. And no one is lowly enough to be excluded enough, no one excluded before is going to be excluded now. I think it’s a very tender passage.  

Pete: Yeah. It becomes more tender and more hopeful –  

Sarah: Mmm.  

Pete: Than more like a concession that Jesus makes, which is, that’s the morally troubling part of that for a lot of people. Like, he seems to not be treating her very nicely.  

Sarah: Mmm.  

Pete: Yeah, so. Well listen, Sarah, this is, I feel like we’re just getting started here. There’s so much here to just rethink some things in the Bible by using, let’s say, an informed imagination for thinking about what these things might mean that we take for granted, but we’re coming to the end of our time here and, do you have an online presence? Can people find you online? Can they stalk you somehow?  

Sarah: [Laughter] I am at, that is my website.  

Pete: Okay.  

Sarah: And my books are all shown there. I’m working on number ten or eleven; it depends on how you figure it.  

Pete: Yeah.  

Sarah: Some are written with other people, and some of my poetry is there. So, yes, I would love people, for people to visit me there.  

Pete: Wonderful. And they can get information on your books and other kinds of things too, like maybe speaking schedule or things like that on there too, or –  

Sarah: I do not have, I do not put my speaking schedule on there –  

Pete: You should get that out there.  

Sarah: I probably should get that, get that up there.  

Pete: Yeah, that way people can say, oh! She’s in my area. I’m going to go listen to her. So that’s fantastic, so –  

Sarah: Right, right.

Pete: Yeah.  

Sarah: Well, yes. If anybody is interested in me speaking, visiting, the information is there about how to contact me.  

Pete: Wonderful. 

Sarah: And I am very delighted to visit, you know, any kind of religious group, any kind of institution, and to share about my work. Yes. And I do this –  

Pete: Yeah.  

Sarah: It’s my great delight to talk to a great variety of people.  

Pete: And same here. So, listen, Sarah, thank you so much for taking the time.  

Jared: Yeah, it’s great to have you on.  

Pete: Yeah, wonderful. We learned a lot and it’s fantastic, so –  

Sarah: Thank you so much!  

Pete: Alright, Sarah, thank you. See ya.  

Sarah: See ya, bye bye.  

[Music begins] 

Jared: Thanks everyone for listening to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. We really appreciate all of your support. And if you want to continue the conversation and get involved more in the community, you can head to There’s all kinds of blog posts, written by mostly Pete, some of me. But, also you can find us online, if you don’t want to go to, you know, that’s kind of old school going to a website. I mean that’s like –  

Pete: Who does that?  

Jared: Websites?!?  

Pete: Yeah.  

Jared: But you can go to social media, we’re there. You can look up Pete, you can look up Jared, you can look up –  

Pete: Instagram. We’re on Instagram.  

Jared: Instagram.  

Pete: The Bible for Normal People Instagram.  

Jared: We’re Instagramming all over the place. I mean it’s just, it’s obscene.  

Pete: You can see my cat and my dogs and my grandchildren.  

Jared: Yeah, so we hope to see you online continuing the conversation, or back here next week when we have a brand new episode of the Bible for Normal People. See ya then.  

Pete: See ya folks.  

[Music ends]
Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.