As the first-ever scholar-in-residence at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest, Sarah Ruden didn’t waste any time being scholarly.

She brought books from her home in Connecticut to study, a book she is writing to work on, and materials to prepare for lectures and Bible studies. Oh, and she did some learning, too, about Abilene people, places, and history.

“Frontier Texas was a great place,” she said of Abilene’s history museum. 

Ruden, who is “just about to be 57,”  was invited to Abilene and the church by David Romanik, rector at Heavenly Rest, to spend a week at the church’s Hospitality House, Oct. 19-26. The two met when Romanik was rector of a church in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Ruden previously was a scholar-in-residence for three years at Yale Divinity School.

Ruden, who lives in Connecticut with her husband and “a very spoiled dog,” currently is a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. 

“It means I can come and go as I like,” Ruden said of the title of visiting scholar.

It is obvious from Ruden’s job titles that scholarship is an essential part of who she is. According to her website, Ruden is a “poet, translator, essayist, and popularizer of Biblical linguistics.” She has published numerous books and has written articles for scholarly and religious publications. She currently is working on a new translation of the gospels for The Modern Library, taking into account linguistic, literary, and historical research that she believes has been poorly represented in standard translations. She hopes her book will be completed and published by the end of 2020. 

It won’t look or sound like a standard Bible” she said. “I mean it to be helpful to everyone.”

A book published in 2010 was based on Ruden’s study of the classics, her translations of pagan literature, and her mastery of several languages, including Latin, Greek, and German. The book was titled, “Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time” and was published by Pantheon.

“I just got annoyed that people were running down Paul,” she said. “So I sat down and started writing about Paul.”

An example of a misinterpretation of a word discovered by Ruden comes in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. Both relate the story the woman who asks Jesus to relieve her demon-possessed daughter. The gospel passages include the confusing words of Jesus, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” The woman replies, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

The passages seem harsh, but Ruden says that the correct translation of the Greek word “kunaria” should be “little doggies,” not “dog,” which eliminates the insulting tone. 

“It changes the tone of the whole passage,” Ruden said. “You change one little thing and you may be turning that one passage inside out.”

Ruden was born to be a scholar-in-residence. Growing up in rural Ohio, she was the daughter of a Bowling Green University biology professor and a mother who worked with Headstart, was a substitute biology teacher, and ran a history museum. Ruden studied French in high school, while also taking classes in Latin, German, and Greek at Bowling Green. 

She earned college credits in high school and graduated at age 21 from the University of Michigan, earning a degree in the classics. Also at age 21, Ruden started work on a doctorate from Harvard University. While at Harvard, she was a teaching assistant and learned that she didn’t like teaching. So, she decided to try her hand at writing, specifically poetry.

“It surprised me how easy it was to publish those,” she said.

After earning her doctorate at Harvard, Ruden dramatically changed her life, moving to South Africa to teach at the University of Cape Town. She left that job after three years but remained in South Africa for another six or seven years, working as a journalist and editor. She returned to the United States in 2005 and lived for a while at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat center in Pennsylvania. Ruden grew up in the United Methodist Church and became a Quaker when she was about 30. 

As a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, Ruden has time to work on the new translation of the gospels, which she hopes is published in another year. She has no predictions about how it will be received by the public.

“It might make an impression,” she said. “It might be completely ignored.”


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