Three Gospels

Three Gospels

  • reading group guide
A decade after he published his famous first novel, A Long and Happy Life, Reynolds Price began a serious study of the Hebrew and Greek narratives which combine to form that crucial document of Western civilization we call the Bible. Since early childhood, Price had known Bible stories of patriarchs, kings, prophets, and the boldly assertive women of Ancient Israel, as well as the four-fold gospel story of the life of Jesus -- another Jew whose career has exerted immense fascination on subsequent history.
In Price's early middle age, however, he felt compelled to go further than simple reading; he began to investigate the rudiments of the Bible stories as deeply as possible. He focused on the Hebrew and Greek originals that are unquestionably the most discussed and annotated texts with the close assistance of other literal versions and of numerous scholarly commentaries, old and modern. He was likewise encouraged and helped by frequent discussions with distinguished scholar-colleagues at Duke University, where he has taught since 1958.
As the work continued over several years, Price expanded his translation attempts into the Greek New Testament. And soon he had begun an informal navigation of the shoals of Koine Greek -- that common Mediterranean dialect in which a good deal of the business of the Roman empire was conducted and in which the gospels and all other books of the New Testament were written. Gradually, his translations of separate incidents from the four gospels evolved into a literal translation of the whole of the oldest gospel, Mark. His first version of Mark appeared, along with other translations from the Old and New Testaments, in A Palpable God (Atheneum, 1978). The book met with a wide and favorable reception from scholars, writers, and critics.
Price's studies have expanded steadily in the intervening decades; and in recent years he has worked at both a revised version of his early translation of Mark and an entirely new literal version of the Gospel of John (John is the last published gospel and almost surely the one that comes, at its core, from an eyewitness of the life of Jesus). To his new translations, Price has added extensive prefaces, which he hopes will be of interest to scholars and casual readers alike. The prefaces are the result not only of his own work as a translator and his discussions with New Testament scholars of more than twenty years reading in textual exegesis, in the life of the first-century Roman world (including the immensely complicated realities of Roman Palestine), but also in consideration of the widespread and ongoing attempt to reconsider the historical bases of our knowledge of Jesus.
Finally, after twice teaching a semester-long seminar on the gospels of Mark and John at Duke University, Price has written a gospel of his own. The new gospel, which he calls "apocryphal" in a non-canonical sense, makes a fresh attempt at a compact narrative of the life and work of Jesus. Yet it is an attempt grounded meticulously in the earliest available historic, biographical, and theological evidence. In a third and final preface, Price describes the motive for writing a gospel of his own. In brief, his new gospel (like the whole of Three Gospels) aims to render the highest possible contemporary justice to a life lived two thousand years ago, a life presented in -- and, to a startling extent, still recoverable from -- documents that have proved the most influential in Western history.
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  • Scribner | 
  • 288 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780684832814 | 
  • May 1997
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Chapter 1

I am hardly alone in the world in saying that the central narratives of the Old and New Testaments -- especially the four life stories called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John -- drew early at my mind and have kept their magnetism for me. In my case, their hold has lasted undiminished nearly six decades. Before I could read I often turned the profusely illustrated pages of Hurlbut's Story of the Bible, imagining what tales had produced such swarming pictures. By the age of eight, I had begun making drawings of my own from the knowledge I gained in reading the tales with my new-won literacy and yielding to the pull of their... see more

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Discussion Points

  1. One of the prime purposes of the gospels, obviously, is to induce belief in the reader -- belief that the man Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the only Son of God. If you resist that purpose (as millions of people do) what changes might you have made in the manuscripts of Mark and John -- changes that would have made their central contentions more convincing to you?
  2. Though Mark and John do not set out to give you a detailed, intimate biography of the birth, career, and death of Jesus of Nazareth, deduce from your study of their central figure whatever you can honestly find of biographical and/or physical distinctiveness. Does the fact that Jesus could cover large distances on foot in rocky landscapes suggest that he was an especially robust man, for instance; or does the fact that he died on a cross in about three hours suggest the opposite -- that he was frail and quickly succumbed to torture? Deduce, as well, any mental and emotional traits you find implicit in what the gospels tell you about their main figure.
  3. Given the immensely broad effects of Christianity (for good and for havoc) on the planet and on the lives of all living creatures, what changes do you think Mark and John might make in their works if they could return now and see the result of their efforts some two thousand years ago?
  4. Is there any convincing evidence in either Mark or John that Jesus of Nazareth intended to f
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About the Author

Reynolds Price
Photo Credit: Sara Barrett

Reynolds Price

Reynolds Price (1933-2011) was born in Macon, North Carolina. Educated at Duke University and, as a Rhodes Scholar, at Merton College, Oxford University, he taught at Duke beginning in 1958 and was the James B. Duke Professor of English at the time of his death. His first short stories, and many later ones, are published in his Collected Stories. A Long and Happy Life was published in 1962 and won the William Faulkner Award for a best first novel. Kate Vaiden was published in 1986 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Good Priest's Son in 2005 was his fourteenth novel. Among his thirty-seven volumes are further collections of fiction, poetry, plays, essays, and translations. Price is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and his work has been translated into seventeen languages.

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