The Gospel of Thomas has been translated into English many times, beginning with the inaugural translation of 1959. Here are my comments on a selection of these translations, assessing them for the ordinary reader who wants a clear and accessible translation..
The Brill translation. By Guillamont, Puech, Quispel, Till and Al Masih.
By the middle to end of the 1950s a group of scholars had got together to produce a critical version of the Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas and to translate it into the major European languages. The English translation that Brill of Leiden published remained the standard until the late 1970s when Thomas Lambdin’s version, and his later revision of it, took over. The standard edition of the Brill translation presented a very peculiar impression for the general reader, even though it sold extremely well and went through many printings. It was a parallel edition, with the Coptic on one side and the English on the other. The Coptic text contains many Greek loanwords, and for some reason the translators included these Greek words in parentheses within the English translation. This produced a peculiarly unreadable English text.
The formality of the Brill translation sometimes gives it, if accidentally, an certain elegance. Particularly obvious is its use of archaic language, such as ‘thou.’ Most people now have the impression that ‘thou’ is a formal or poetic usage, since the word is most familiar to the modern reader in poetry and in the King James translation of the Bible. Its poetic and religious use obscures the fact that ‘thou’ was originally a familiar way of speaking–‘tu’ in French, ‘du’ in German– and ‘you’ either a polite, respectful usage, or one that referred to many people. Since the Coptic language, along with Greek, and most modern European languages, has both plural and singular forms, the Brill translation uses ‘thou’ where ‘you’ is singular, and where it is plural it uses the standard ‘you’, with no intention of being poetical. The translators made the material available to a wide audience. One feature of their translation that I have taken over into mine is the inversion of the ending of saying 7, the lion and the man.
Another translation produced around that time, by
Schroedel, is quite similar in tone to the above, and is from the same
Brill edition of the Coptic. It was quite popular and was available in
a mass market paperback edition, The Secret Sayings of Jesus According
to the Gospel of Thomas, by Grant and Freeman.
Thomas Lambdin in The Nag Hammadi Library in English
The Lambdin translation was part of the Nag Hammadi Library in English, edited by James Robinson, the first complete translation of all of the texts in the stash found at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Lambdin’s translation is quite readable and became the standard until the late 1990s. It gives a sense of incompleteness: some words are in parentheses, gaps in the text are noted, and it has rather a roundabout mode of expression, taking us away from the directness of the original. Translation always involves a balancing act, tipping towards one aspect, and away from another, and Lambdin gives little evidence of the repetition of imagery and terminology that is the key to understanding Thomas. Yet he definitely made Thomas more accessible and understandable than the Brill translators did. This volume, in its second edition, is still the standard English edition of the Nag Hammadi Library.
Of the major translations, Layton’s is the least essential. His volume, the Gnostic Scriptures is the only real alternative to the Nag Hammadi Library in English. He organises the texts by ‘school’, e.g., classical gnosticism, Valentinism, Thomas texts, etc., and gives useful introductions. But his translation of Thomas is an uneasy mix of gender neutrality and stiff vocabulary. On the other hand, I found his footnotes useful, and he has made a considerable contribution to the standardisation of the Coptic text.
The Scholars’ Version is a series of translations produced by the Jesus Seminar, a large group of scholars headed by Robert Funk. The Jesus Seminar is famous for assessing the sayings and deeds of Jesus and producing a verdict, by vote, as to which of them are likely to go back to the historical Jesus. They have also translated every single gospel and fragment of early Christian writings, whether in the New Testament or not. They describe their method in the introduction to The Five Gospels (Polebridge Press, 1993), “The SV translators attempt to give voice to the individual evangelists by reproducing the Greek style of each in English. The translators agreed to employ colloquialisms in English for colloquialisms in Greek…” In principle this sounds wonderful, but in practice it leads to examples such as, “Okay—you’re clean” in response to the leper who wanted Jesus to heal him, or “Damn you, Pharisees!” instead of “Woe unto you, Pharisees.”
The scholars Versions reminds me of John Wayne playing the centurion in the Greatest Story Ever Told, grasping his spear and flatly intoning “he truly was the son of God.” For good secular modern American translations of the gospels, have a look at Richmond Lattimore’s translations, or, for a different effect, Willis Barnstone’s. The Scholars’ Version translation of the Gospel of Thomas doesn’t display the worst excesses of their method. Marvin Meyer and Steven Patterson, noted Gospel of Thomas scholars, are the translators, and Meyer went on to produce his own translation, independent of the Jesus Seminar. One particularly obstructive element of the SV is the translation of the kingdom of Heaven. Rather than render this in the familiar way, they give us “Heaven’s Imperial Rule. While I am in favour of divorcing the Bible from the kind of language that we associate with the church, certain terms are more evocative in a literal translation. Their rendering of this phrase differs in various places, but always avoids the conventional way of translating it. (How about 'the domain of heaven's sovereign imperial rule' as an inclusive version?) I suppose that they are implying that Jesus was concerned with social conditions, and was offering an alternative to Rome’s imperial rule. But in translating ‘domain’ or ‘imperial rule’,they have cut off all connection to the imagery of being a king that occurs throughout the Gospel of Thomas and the New Testament.
While I find their translation unrewarding, the Jesus Seminar are to be commended for placing the Gospel of Thomas on an equal footing with the other gospels. Their book, the Five Gospels, contains their translations of the four canonicals plus Thomas, along with their assessments of which saying might go back to Jesus, and useful notes on each pericope or saying. The Five Gospels and the Acts of Jesus are two essential books for anyone interested in modern NT scholarship.
Marvin Meyer, The Gospel of Thomas
The SV translation of Thomas was made by Marvin Meyer and Stephen Patterson in accordance with the Jesus Seminar’s guidelines. Meyer’s own translation, published after the Scholars Version, is rather better than the joint attempt. Stephen Patterson is a considerable scholar but, after all, the SV was designed by a committee. The kingdom of heaven becomes Heaven’s kingdom, not the domain of the sky or whatever, although ‘the son of man’ is now‘child of humankind.’ Meyer sticks close to the Coptic, and his translation is published in parallel with the Coptic text. Along with Bentley Layton, he uses gender neutral language whenever possible. The use of gender-neutral language is good in principle (and the current writer is of course male), but in practice leads to some ugly English, such as, “Whoever has found oneself, of that person the world is not worthy.” Saying 114 in the Gospel of Thomas offers a sensible alternative to gender-neutral language: “For any woman who makes herself male will go into the kingdom.” That is, masculine language can and should be taken as referring to both sexes.
Berlin Working Group
This is the most recent scholarly translation. As translations accumulate, new translations have to either consolidate the consensus of scholarship, or decide on new readings. The Berlin Working Group translation goes for the latter, but without giving any great insight into Thomas, Thus, they substitute “resurrection of the dead” for “rest of the dead” in #51, even though “rest” is a common theme in Thomas. The word ‘resurrection’ finds its way into the text twice, despite it never actually appearing in the Gospel of Thomas, whether in Coptic or Greek. Time after time this translation includes variations that don’t actually help in understanding Thomas, and it reverts to the stiffness of the older translations. We are also treated to several different kinds of parentheses. One interesting feature of the Berlin Working Group’s Translation is their use of ‘Jesus says’. This is the literal meaning of both the Coptic and Greek texts—a present tense. I considered using this in my translation but I found that its effect in English was rather too harsh and assertive. The Berlin Working Group translation is probably a good one for practising Christians who like the Gospel of Thomas.
Coptic Ecumenical Project, translated into English and Spanish by Paterson
This is available on the internet only. It is quite literal, and reads like the first or second draft of a translation. Paterson has brought the ‘thou’s back in, but refuses to use the appropriate form of the verb, so we have ‘thou say’, rather than ‘thou sayest.’ In a correspondence with him, I mentioned that this sounds very peculiar, so he provided a little note on his site to explain his reasons for it. His translation is eccentric, which also makes it interesting. One interesting peculiarity is that he has decided that the ‘three words’ (or possibly sayings) in saying #13 are “I-am that I-am”, the form of the divine name as spoken to Moses, and has put it straight into the text. It’s an intriguing thought, but surely not definite enough to include in a translation instead of a commentary. There are also a number of paraphrases and adaptations available on the web, but this one is a true translation.
Interlinear Coptic-English Translation by Mike Grondin
This is also available only on the internet, although it may eventually—and deservedly—appear in book form. Mike provides us with an edition of the Coptic text with literal English translations beneath each Coptic word. This is the basis of both my and Stevan Davies' translations, and an excellent guide to the Coptic original. Mike also provides us with a lexicon and lists all the occurrences of each word in the text. This is not just a translation, but a wonderful tool that makes the original Coptic available to everyone.
Stevan Davies is the most stimulating scholar in Thomas studies, and this volume, intended for the general reader, has terrific notes. His translation is in plain English with no scholarly axes to grind, and he avoids excesses. For my taste, it can be it a little too plain at times, and very occasionally is so direct that it cuts corners. Here's my Amazon review of Steve's book:-
Stevan Davies was one of the first scholars to take the Gospel of Thomas
seriously as a first century text. An acknowledged expert in his field,
he is fascinated by early Christianity, has few preconceptions as to its
earliest form, and is always willing to try out new ideas.
of Thomas Material:
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