Review by Walter Cummins
First, came the gospel writer cluster of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Now, two thousand years later, the world has another “according to” version, in this case, according to H. L. Hix. Anyone who takes on the challenge of a new version of a work so central to Western culture must embody the gift of language, courage, knowledge, commitment, and—perhaps—a touch of hubris.
Hix comes to the task with a number of strengths. He grew up in an Evangelical Christian world in which the New Testament was central. Even though his own beliefs have strayed for that certainty, the Gospels imprinted on him. This version culminates a decades-long quest. He possesses the linguistic proficiency to translate ancient Greek, and he brings the sensibility of a poet who was National Book Award finalist and recipient of the Grolier Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize, and the Peregrine Smith Award. He has also published works of philosophical theory and translations, all integral to his ability to achieve this new Gospel.
The Hix Gospel is not merely a new translation of the four canonical books. He did extensive research into a host of non-canonical gospels, gathering close to fifty that are listed in his introduction. It turns out new gospels are being discovered constantly, some that have not available in English versions until recently.
Only half of the Hix Gospel is taken from the four canonical versions, the rest a combination of passages from the many other sources he consulted. The result, while reading like an integrated, coherent document, combines new information about the life of Jesus along with variant retellings of familiar Biblical happenings that place them in a fresh perspective.
An example of this mixture may be found in the segment on Jesus’ first preaching. The sequence of sources is Luke 4:16-21, Dialogue of the Savior 130: 14-22, Odes of Solomon 42, Mark 6:2-4, and Gospel of Thomas 105. These choices were written originally in Greek, Syriac, and Coptic. The result in Hix’s translation is seamless, his ability to sort through, select, and unite from such an abundance of material especially impressive.
Beyond translating the Greek into a modern idiom, Hix also address both nouns and pronouns he considers problematic, coming up with both new usages and inventing new words. For example, he notes that since the 1611 King James English translation the Greek kurios as “Lord” continues in all translations since then, but while “Lord” would have been in common usage in early seventeenth-century England through the term’s associations with a noble rank, the word is rarely used in contemporary America. Hix translates kurios as “boss” to convey a position of authority.
Pronouns of gender are another issue for him. While the human form of Jesus is clearly male, God, Hix believes, should be considered beyond gender. For his translation, Hix invents new pronouns—“xe” for “he” and “xer” for “him” and “his.” God is the “fother,” a new combination of “mother” and “father.”
Beyond the feat of scholarship and linguistic concerns, the test of Hix’s Gospel for the majority of readers will be the quality of the words on the page, the poetic sensibility behind the translation. These Hix versions of two well-known gospel passages exemplify his telling.
Ask and it will be given you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you. All who ask receive, all who seek find, all who knock enter. Who among you, if your child asks for bread will give a stone, or if for a fish will give a snake? If you who are harmful determine to give good gifts to your children, how much more surely will your fother in the skies give good gifts to those who ask xer.
In everything act toward others as you would have them act toward you: this sums the law and the prophets. Jesus said, Love your sibling as you love your soul, protect your sibling as carefully as you protect your own eyes.
Despite the resonance of the familiar, the Hix Gospel combines a sense of recollection of the known with discovery of the new.