In 1981, an older publishing colleague took me to the Playhouse Theater in Manhattan to see the English actor Alec McCowen in a revival of his one-man show, St. Mark’s Gospel: McCowen on stage, no props or scenery save a table upon which he placed a paperback copy of the Gospel (saying with a wink, “Just in case . . .”), and in about an hour and forty-five riveting minutes recited all 11,304 words. McCowen described Mark’s writing as moving “with wonderful speed from event to event,” and of Mark (as author) that he “constructed his Gospel with the skill of a great dramatist.”
Michael Pakaluk, a regular contributor to The Catholic Thing and a professor at the Catholic University of America, does something similar in his new book, The Memoirs of St. Peter: A New Translation of the Gospel According to Mark. Professor Pakaluk provides not only a thrilling new rendering of the ancient Greek text but also provides lively scholarship in the commentary that follows his translation of Mark’s sixteen chapters.
Prior translators of the Bible have tended to level out Koine Greek verb forms as a way, by their lights, of making Scripture more understandable. Since everything recorded in the Bible happened in the past, nearly everything we read there should be stated in the past tense. The Bible as history.
But that’s not necessarily the way it was actually written. There is in Biblical Greek a grammatical tense, neither exactly past nor present, called the aorist for which there’s no exact equivalent in English, but which – as Pakaluk explains – may, if translated properly, give immediacy to the events described. In Greek one “sees” a present action taking place in the past that, if translated as past tense, can seem lifeless. Pakaluk gives a humorous, non-Biblical example of the aorist in action:
“So I left my driveway. And I turn the corner. And what do I see? I see a man with a pig. And I thought, that was strange. So I stopped and I asked him. . .” Someone speaking from memory in this way will change tenses to keep the hearer’s attention, but mainly because, as he is speaking “from memory,” he finds it easy to revert to the viewpoint of “what it was like to be there.”
The effect of this in his translation of Mark is electrifying, and two things came to mind as I read: St. Benedict’s admonition at the start of his Rule to “listen with the ear of your heart;” and a professor of Shakespeare I had in college who urged me to “see the plays in the theater of your mind.”
Yes, what Mark describes happened THEN, but in Pakaluk’s translation you feel it happening NOW. It reads almost like a novel, which is exactly right. There is that “suspension of disbelief” that in a novel is critical to the reader’s immersion and enjoyment, and which here means you are caught up in, again, that immediacy of action to which Pakaluk refers in the very first sentence of his introduction: “The immediacy of the Gospels, their closeness in time and place to the events they narrate, can be a shocking discovery.”
But after my talk of plays and novels, I hasten to make clear what Professor Pakaluk has not done: he has not invented anything. This IS Scripture, but presented as the story told to Mark, sometime after the events described – days, months, years after – by Peter, whose love and joy, pain and passion come through as vividly as ever they have in any translation of the Gospel.
Pakaluk follows an ancient tradition about Mark: the assurance we have from Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 340) via Papias of Hierapolis (d. 163) via “John the Presbyter” (d. 100, who may have been the Apostle John): “Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care: not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictional into the statements.”
Pakaluk accepts as given (and cites ample evidence to support it) that Mark was Peter’s amanuensis, which then makes the Gospel a kind of acceptable hearsay testimony: Mark reporting Peter’s remembrances. Not that Mark wasn’t a firsthand witness to some of the events he describes. For instance, Pakaluk’s translation of Mark 14:51-52 (the drama in Gethsemane) reads this way:
(A certain young man was one of his [Christ’s] followers. He had clothed himself with a fine linen garment, wrapped around his naked body. So they [the Temple guards] capture him. But he just left his garment behind and got away, naked!)
In his commentary on the passage, Pakaluk points out that the garment was a sidon, a kind of summertime robe, and that this humorous detail “if written by Mark [is] self-deprecating.” But it’s what comes next that’s truly wonderful and characteristic of the book:
Jesus likewise escaped “capture” by death, leaving his sidon behind in the tomb and “getting away” naked.
In my home library, I have seven Bibles: KJV, NKJV, RSV, NIV, JB, NAB, and RSV-CE. I confess I haven’t made an extensive, comparative analysis of all the versions of Mark vis-à-vis Pakaluk (although I did look closely at the RSV, chapter by chapter), but none of the others has the readability of The Memoirs of St. Peter. This is due to a union of scholarship and insight – to a knowledge of the nuances of Koine Greek and an intuition about the intimacy of the conversations between Peter and Mark.
The beautiful cover illustration of Michael’s book is the painting (attributed to) Giuseppe Vermigilo, “St. Mark Writing Under the Dictation of St. Peter,” which suggests both that intimacy and the immediacy in one moment of a collaboration that now includes Michael Pakaluk and, thanks to him, all of us.
The book’s official publication date is tomorrow, but you can buy now. And you should.