IN 1979 RICHMOND LATTIMORE published his ad-mirably readable, if doggedly conservative, translation of the four gospels. In the same volume he reprinted, with slight revisions, his earlier translation of the Revelation or Apocalypse of John. Now with Acts and the apostolic epistles, he has completed singlehandedly an undertaking that can assume an honorable place alongside both his own shelf of translations from classical Greek and such other one-man versions of the New Testament as those by Goodspeed, Moffatt, and Phillips.

It was Lattimore's stated aim in a brief preface to the gospels to follow as closely as possible the word-order and syntax of the Greek in the hope of revealing what has generally been obscured in Biblical translation -- the strong, even clashing, individuality of the four evangelists: roughhewn speedy Mark, ponderous Matthew, suave but tedious Luke, and John in his full battery of sublimity, tenderness, and violence. Whatever one's response to any particular choice of phrase, it was easy to concede that Lattimore had achieved that variety (if with an occasional archaic sedateness not often shared by his originals).

In the new version, his procedure remains much the same -- and for similar reasons apparently. But in the epistles especially, he encounters an obstacle not presented by the gospels. (The gospels occupy only a little less than half the New Testament. What remains is a long narrative, traditionally ascribed to Luke the evangelist, of the vicissitudes and triumphs of the early heroes of Christianity in Palestine and the Mediterranean basin. After an initial focus on Peter, the most interesting of the 12 disciples, the narrative settles exclusively on the single fiery and stringy figure of Paul, a converted Pharisee who out-apostled the apostles. Acts is followed by the 13 letters that tradition ascribes to Paul; they occupy about a fourth of the entire volume. The remaining epistles, including the only likely specimen of the writings of Peter, occupy less than a tenth.)

The problem for a translator of this second half is precisely the problem of variety, interest, monotony. Once the vivid but fragmentary narrative of Acts is ended, the translator must embark upon a vast flat sea of sermon, utterly devoid of narrative -- amazingly so, if one considers the writer's proximity in time and personal memory to a story of such stunning power. The authors of the epistles do unavoidably write in different voices -- and Paul's own voice is a famous amalgam of styles, from dazzling eloquence to thudding brutality -- and there are hundreds of fine distinctions of theological assertion. But even in the first decades after Jesus' death, a small department of verbal and structural stereotypes had entrenched itself in the fledgling community. And so, for a modern reader with no special hunger for the wrangles and execrations of first- century Christianity, the epistles can be a daunting and wearying (even repellent) experience -- a long series of stops-and-starts, built in much the same way, enlivened chiefly by Paul's occasional bursts of feverish lyric and a few moments of sublimity in the very rabbinical argument of the Letter to the Hebrews.

Lattimore's unruffled solution to the problem makes no concession to the secular reader's dilemma. With his commitment to literalness, he is not free to break through into the refreshing (and arguably more literal) freedom of, say, the Phillips version. His reader, then, will be well advised to partake of the book slowly and in spaced segments.

A further problem for any translator of the whole New Testament who hopes to make a text readable by an audience other than ready-made Christians is the absence of Jesus as an active presence from the second half of the volume. He is of course steadily referred to and built upon, but only in Revelation's scarey visions of an avenging Messiah does he have palpable presence and a momentary narrative compulsion. His absence is filled by the arrival of Paul (after quick appearances by Peter, John, and James in Acts). In Luke's narrative of the conversion and missionary travels of Paul, he possesses an intermittent picaresque charm, wit, and moxie. But if one reads his epistles in anything approaching the order of their composition, then one confronts a personality as repellent to secular modern taste as it apparently was to Paul's own Jewish, Greek, and Roman contemporaries. Continually, one hears Paul descend from magnificent affirmations of irresistible divine love into a slashing and almost certainly neurotic obsession with sex, the simple use of the human body.

Lattimore is unflinching in his communication of the ugly paradox. Indeed, in his very conservatism, he makes unusually clear a central fact about Paul (and the entire New Testament, considered both as literature and as revelation) -- Paul had never known the man Jesus; and to a nearly overwhelming extent, Paul's theology is an attempt to make a virtue of that omission. The absence of the broad scent of Jesus' human variety, his flexibility and humor, his immense physical magnetism, acts as a blight throughout the letters of Paul (and, through the institutional triumph of a few partial strands of Paul's thought, on the entire development of Christianity and thus Western civilization).

The two volumes of Lattimore's translation stand now as one of the trustworthy guides to the origins of a force as powerful as any in history. One should not expect the frequent perfection of phrase and rhythm of the King James Version (nor, as I've suggested, the vigor of some other singlehanded efforts); often Lattimore echoes the King James only to crash -- for the King James' "the wages of sin is death," Lattimore offers "the stipend of sin is death" -- but he sometimes follows his originals up into a trim and breathy poetry, and that's a helpful lure. If what one's seeking is patient service to a mysterious and now partly unknowable original, without bright swags of personal conjecture, then Lattimore's stands in usefulness with another widely available conservative version, the Revised Standard. It remains only to hope that he will find some forum in which to publish a full essay, discussing his reasons for attempting the task and his findings in the process.