Translating the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew

My book The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Nativity of Mary is now available from Cascade Books! I’ve written about these texts and my work on them before, and I’d like to take the opportunity of the book’s release to talk a bit about translation.

I’ve been interested in both the practice of translation and translation theory for a while now. For example, I’ve enjoyed translating shorter Old English texts before, and I used translation theory as a way to understand medieval media in my first book, Preaching Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England. Tackling longer Latin works like Pseudo-Matthew, the Nativity of Mary, and various related medieval texts presented a fun challenge.

Translating Pseudo-Matthew especially was a challenge, largely because some of the medieval Latin is so weird. One of the complications for translation–though it’s more common in medieval literature than we might expect–is capturing the use of multiple versions of the Bible. But many of the oddities have more to do with language. The author of Pseudo-Matthew and the authors of the later medieval additions to the story used some quirky Latin: rare or otherwise unknown words, odd syntax choices, even extended metaphors that depend upon tortuous linguistic choices. But it was fun to tackle that weirdness.

I’m also grateful to Janet Spittler (one of the Early Christian Apocrypha series editors), who talked with me about the text, challenged me to reconsider some of my own translation choices, and helped me puzzle through some of the quirks. Because of our conversations I learned how fun collaboration in translation can be.

As I translated Pseudo-Matthew, I often found myself reconsidering how to translate passages indebted to the canonical Bible. Much of this apocryphon relies obviously on the Bible in many ways, including general parallels, specific allusions, and direct quotations. Some quotations even come with citation attributions, as the author is fond of drawing typological connections by claiming “Then was fulfilled…” (“Tunc adimpletum est”) and naming an Israelite prophet alongside the quoted verse. Yet the author of Pseudo-Matthew also knew at least a few versions of the Bible. Sometimes the typological connection only works by relying on an Old Latin version of a verse based on the Greek Septuagint, rather than the Latin Vulgate translated by Jerome. Other times, the author adheres to Old Latin renderings of the Psalms rather than the later, standard Vulgate versions (and even in medieval bibles there were multiple, since Jerome translated them a few times). I discuss some of these divergences and their significance in my introduction to Pseudo-Matthew, and I believe there is a lot of theological sophistication in the author’s many subtle uses of biblical sources. For that reason, I constantly sought to distinguish how I rendered individual uses to catch some of the nuances in these biblical details.

Some of the intriguing translation issues within Pseudo-Matthew and later additions to the narrative concern rare words or hapax legomena. Hapax legomena are words that appear only once in a record–like in the known vocabulary of a language, or in a specific group of works by an individual author. In the case of Pseudo-Matthew and the later additions, several terms are either unknown elsewhere or relatively rare in classical, late antique, or medieval Latin literature. In fact, Rita Beyers previously identified some of these hapax legomena and used them to demonstrate that the text is more linguistically sophisticated than previous scholars had given credit for (I discuss this point a bit more in my introduction).

Some of my personal favorite aspects of translating Pseudo-Matthew were in these rare and otherwise unknown words. Below are a few that stand out to me the most (with chapters and verses where you can find them in my translation, where I have commentary on them).

infantula: I love this diminutive, used for Mary as a young girl (4:3), and I translated it as “baby girl,” although it was difficult to capture in English what I think is a rather tender term in context. The male form (infantulus, “baby boy”) is also used later in the text to refer to Jesus (20:6), creating a nice parallel between the two figures. As another point of connection, the diminutive familiola is used in the Nativity of Mary as a term for the “little family” of Anna and Joachim (1:4).

praeuaticinatione: This term is used to indicate something like a “prophecy” about Mary (as I rendered it, 8:37). It’s an uncommon compound that combines the prefix prae- and the word uaticinatio, which is more commonly used for the sense of prophecy; in this combination, it seems to indicate something like a “pre-foreshadowing.”

A few quirks in the vocabulary of Pseudo-Matthew seem to indicate the author’s sustained interest in Greek. Of course, this apocryphon is based on the Greek Protevangelium of James, so there is already knowledge of Greek already behind the Latin text. But some Grecisms appear in parts of Pseudo-Matthew that do not derive from the Protevangelium, and some of these instances even defy contemporary (late antique/early medieval) usages of more common Latin words. Some of these include the following (again, I provide more commentary on these in the book).

heremus: Meaning “desert,” this loanword from Greek (ἔρημος) is used a few times in Pseudo-Matthew (17:3 and 20:1), rather than the more common term desertus, as found in the Gospels in Latin. A similarly rare usage of heremus is also found in the Rule of the Master, which is a source for Pseudo-Matthew. Curiously, the author of Pseudo-Matthew doesn’t wholly avoid the word desertus, since that term does appear elsewhere (19:1).

perithomen: Meaning “circumcision” (about Jesus, 15:3), this is another strange loanword from Greek (περιτομή), considering that the Latin term circumcisio is more common in late antique and medieval texts. In the passage about Jesus’ circumcision in Luke 2:21, the verb περιτέμνω is found in the Greek, while the verb circumcido is found in both Old Latin and Latin Vulgate versions.

Finally, I want to end by calling attention to a difficult passage for translation that occurs in the prefatory material appended to Pseudo-Matthew, in a series of pseudepigraphic letters. Although written by an anonymous author, these letters are stylized as if written from Bishops Chromatius and Heliodorus to Jerome, and Jerome’s response acquiescing to their request to translate the work. (Though note that Pseudo-Matthew is not really a translation at all, but a Latin composition on its own, even though it is based on the earlier Greek Protevangelium of James.)

The author of the prefatory letters does a pretty good job of mimicking Jerome, including his vocabulary, style, and some of his characteristic hedging about translation. The letter that is supposed to be written by Jerome begins with an evocative image, although rendered in rather meandering syntax (and perhaps an instance of textual corruption in the manuscripts):

Whoever digs in ground known for gold does not immediately seize whatever the torn trench might pour out, but first holds the sifting shovel, lifting up the shining stone from the bottom, pausing to turn and overturn the dirt, and maintains hope for profits not yet increased.

(Qui terram auri consciam fodit non ilico arripit quicquid fossa profuderit lacerata, sed priusquam fulgidos fundos pondus uibrantis iactus ferri suspendat interim uertendis supinandisque caespitibus immoratur, et spe alitur quae nondum lucris augetur.)

The point seems to be about scholarly discovery, about the labor involved in the mundane and tedium (of translation as well as learning in general), until finding a treasure worth more than mere money. I’m rather fond of the image and the way it builds meaning through its meandering.

I also like that this passage is based on an image found in Jerome’s genuine letters. He uses the idea specifically in Letters 54, addressed to a widow named Furia, and 107, addressed to a noblewoman named Laeta about the education of her daughter Paula. In fact, the image is one of my favorites about apocrypha. My first book begins with a discussion of the passage in Jerome’s letter to Laeta, and I keep coming back to it. Jerome discusses reading apocrypha (which he warns is a cautious activity) as a way of sifting through the mud to find gold. As he says about such reading, “it demands great discretion to seek out gold in mud” (“grandis esse prudentiae aurum in luto quaerere”).

The medieval author’s image of digging also serves as a lovely metaphor for translation. This part of the prefatory material highlights translation as a specific type of labor of love. Looking back on my work on The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Nativity of Mary, I can relate. It was laborious at times, but the gold that I’ve found in these texts is certainly worth much more than I can express.


  1. Chapter 19 of the Quran describes Mary clinging to a palm tree (she had withdrawn to the wilderness) upon entering labour, upon which Gabriel appears and tells her to shake the trunk and eat the dates that fall from the tree. A brook also appears at her feet. This account has been said by some to echo the story of the palm tree in Pseudo M.

    Now this Quranic chapter was composed c. 616 a.d. (see Muslim migration to Abyssinia) while Pseudo M was written no later than c. 650 a.d. according to one scholar (see Wiki), allowing a 34-year interval.

    So I’d like to ask Mr. Hawk: how feasible is it that the story in the Quran (an Arabian document) had reached the author/sources behind Pseudo M (any info on its geographic origin would be equally appreciated), and hence could conceivably have been the indirect source for this particular palm tree parallel?

    Any answers would be highly appreciated. Regards

  2. Your question about the parallel in the Qur’an is a great one. In fact, that question opens up a number of issues that I find fascinating about the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and possible relationships with other late antique and early medieval religious literature. I discuss the passage in the Qur’an at a few points in my book: in the introduction, in the section about potential sources (13-19), and in my commentary on the episode about the palm-tree in the apocryphon in chapter 20 (76-77). Here’s just a brief answer to your question.

    As it turns out, the Qur’an is just one of several late antique and early medieval works that have parallel episodes relating the veneration of Mary by palm-trees. Parallel versions of the story also appear in Christian literature about Mary’s Assumption, like the 4th/5th-century Ethiopic Liber requiei, the 6th/7th-century Georgian Dormition of Mary, and (later) a medieval Irish translation of the Dormition. All of these Dormition narratives must go back to a common tradition, as the Qur’an probably does. Gabriel Said Reynolds also discusses some of these connections in his recent book The Qur’an and the Bible: Text and Commentary (2018), in his discussion of Qur’an 19. The exact relationships between all of these texts are unclear, but the Christian stories about the Assumption of Mary must have been around before the Qur’an.

    In short, it’s unlikely that the version of this story in Pseudo-Matthew is based on the Qur’an. Instead, it’s more likely that the author of Pseudo-Matthew knew something about the Dormition narratives. It’s difficult to know which Dormition text the author of Pseudo-Matthew knew, or if the story comes from another source based on the Dormition texts, or perhaps a common tradition.

    In any case, there are more details in my book, and further references there to other scholarship on these issues.

    1. While lacking the palm tree motif, Sozomen in the 5th century relates a parallel narrative of a tree bowing down to the holy family in Egypt:

      “At Hermopolis, in the Thebaïs, is a tree called Persis, of which the branches, the leaves, and the least portion of the bark, are said to heal diseases, when touched by the sick; for it is related by the Egyptians that when Joseph fled with Christ and Mary, the holy mother of God, from the wrath of Herod, they went to Hermopolis; when entering at the gate, this largest tree, as if not enduring the advent of Christ, inclined to the ground and worshipped Him.”

      Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 5.21

      1. Right, I’ve seen that passage, too–another instance in the network of related works with this episode. Sozomen presumably found the episode in an apocryphal source. His Ecclesiastical History was translated into Latin in the early sixth century, so it’s one possible avenue for how the author of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew might have known the story. (I hope to follow up on this in future research.)

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