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 fresh unnerving actions -- Abraham bent on butchering his Isaac, the boy David with the hacked-off head of a monstrous Goliath, or (strangest and most riveting of all) the birth of a unique glistening child in a strawy stable with attendant angels, shepherds, and Wise Men.
By then, in the countryside near my parents' home, I had also undergone solitary apprehensions of a vibrant unity among all visible things and the thing I guessed was hid beneath the visible world -- the reachable world of trees, rocks, water, clouds, snakes, foxes, myself, and (beneath them) all I loved and feared. Even that early I sensed the world's unity as a vast kinship far past the bond of any root I shared with other creatures in evolutionary time, and the Bible stories had begun to engage me steadily in silence and to draw me toward the singular claim at their burning heart -- Your life is willed and watched with care by a god who once lived here.
Soon I was hoping to spend a good part of my coming life in making pictures and stories of my own. That hope arose partly in emulation of the row of secular books I had come to prize, partly because I had spent hundreds of hours of my childhood in dark movie houses consuming the great filmed stories of the 1930s and forties (some of which told Biblical tales) but also because I meant to learn to exert a power as nearly strong and awful, as irresistible and fertile, as those old stories of ancient Jews and their endless trials. Mine would be stories that felt as near to the truthful ground as the ones I had learned in Genesis, Exodus, Judges, Samuel, Kings, or Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I wanted, over all else, to make new stories that might somehow share in those old stories' radiant will to change whole lives and alter the sun in its course if need be.
By the time I was broiling in adolescence, I could see especially that the four gospels' successful accounts of a single life, a life that was tortured and then transfigured by the dark hand of the source of creation, had not only shaped the actual Earth and the lives of its creatures through two thousand years, those brief accounts had also produced -- as sparks from their core -- the work of my early models and masters: Dante, Michelangelo, Milton, Bach, Handel, the late poems of Eliot, those stories of Ernest Hemingway that also ache for sublime transcendence, and a good many more of the props of life for millions at least as curious and needful as I. My own hopes for work began to take a big share of heat from what I thought was that same core, the life of a man who apparently refused to die (or to be precise, the acts of a man who could rise from death; for the gospels are more nearly records of a chain of acts and a few indispensable words than of a single consecutively examined life).
Given the gospels' continuing force on the lives around me, in the years to come I began to sense that any subsequent secular writer -- even Shakespeare or Tolstoy -- was hardly likely to equal the pull those brief works exert on human minds with no resources but words and an invisible architecture as severe as the desert their hero frequents. Though I have yet to concede entire defeat in my own stories, still -- here after decades of emulation -- I have paused in the usual work I do and attempted to pay in this book a partial installment on my old debt to a pair of tales that have counted as much in my life -- for hope and long-range grounding on Earth -- as the primal tales of my parents' love and its sorrows, the memories of my own first loves and pleasures.
That payment takes the form of close and thoroughly plain translations of the two entirely original gospels -- Mark and John, with prefatory essays -- and a modern gospel written by me on the basis of the classic ancient four, on my knowledge of other early documents pertaining to Jesus, and on what I have gained in reading widely in the recently revived attempt by scholars to provide a minimally reliable history of Jesus' life and work (the original gospels are accurately described, not so much as histories but as histories perceived through the lenses of a sober yet unquestioning trust in the supernatural roots of their hero).
Though I have always tried to make my private narratives -- novels, poems, short stories, plays -- useful beyond my own mind and place, I think I can partly discern why the tales of the ancient gospels, which are one joined tale, have kept their steady heat for any witness who is at least half ready to watch the news that they press toward us and to face, with the guts to answer Yes or No, their imperious claim on our lives. Those partial findings are laid out in my prefaces to the gospels -- Mark's, John's, and my own -- and the findings are open to any reader's judgment once he or she has read the translated texts in my literal English.
The English word gospel is a descendant of the AngloSaxon word godspel or good news. Godspel was an accurate equivalent of the original Greek word euaggelion, literally a good message or good tidings. And the oldest surviving Greek manuscript copies of the four canonical gospels bear only the headings According to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John (the four books together comprise the whole of the single gospel; and the word canonical derives from the Greek kanon or measuring rod and indicates, in this case, those few gospels that were approved as holy scripture by the orthodox church of the late second century).
Those first available complete manuscripts date from the fourth century AD and are copies made more than two centuries after the completion of their originals and well over three centuries after the death and resurgence of their subject. That subject was the scarcely known man Jesus, an itinerant Jewish healer and teacher who worked briefly in an obscure corner of the Roman empire, who moved his mission south from rural Galilee to the Judean capital of his people's theocracy, who incurred there (perhaps intentionally) the lethal opposition of the Temple hierarchy, was executed at the pleasure of the Roman prefect, was thought by his colleagues to have risen bodily from death three days thereafter, to have appeared to them unmistakably, then ascended to Heaven, and proved deserving of their subsequent proclamation that he had been the anointed Son of God who would soon come again to judge humankind and transform the Earth into the reign of God.
Whatever their roots in Aramaic, which was the Semitic language of Jesus and his pupils, the four gospels were written and first circulated in an evolved form of classical Greek, a form called Koine or common language. Anyone writing in the Roman empire in the first century with hopes for the widest possible audience outside Italy itself would have been virtually compelled to write in Koine Greek since Koine was not only the vernacular of Greece itself but also of the Roman Middle East from the fourth century BC until at least the mid-sixth century AD. Yet it was not long after the gospels' slow dissemination in handwritten copies throughout the Roman world that the four texts began to be translated into other languages -- first Latin and Aramaic; then the other languages of Asia, Africa, and Europe. As a result of sustained activity, by the Jesus sect, from the first century till now, the gospels are presently available in some 2,018 languages and dialects -- an unparalleled magnitude of communication whose breadth conceals the complex difficulties of the project. For each of the four texts confronts any would-be translator with a number of both common and individual challenges.
Mark -- the earliest, for instance -- is written in an extremely plain, abrupt, often unidiomatic and dogged Koine which has generally been made to seem falsely natural, even eloquent, in English translations (Mark was anciently called "Stump-fingered," perhaps from the unusual size of his digits or more aptly in the sense of maladroit or all thumbs). Admittedly, Mark's final effect in Greek is one of a great and spare eloquence; but that strength is seldom owing to the actual words or structure of his sentences and never to calculated effects of mellifluous rhetoric. If his eloquence has primarily linguistic origins, that power rises from the struggle between Mark's headlong intent and his gravely hobbled command of his medium. Yet a strong argument can easily be made that Mark -- whoever he may have been (and we have no other sure work from his hand) -- is the most original narrative writer in history, an apparently effortless sovereign of all the skills and arts of durably convincing storytelling. He is, above all, the first great master of ideal narrative distance -- he stands his reader in the ideal position before his subject: the reader sees precisely enough at any moment to induce in him or her a further hunger to see more; and to the very end, that hunger is never surfeited, perhaps never sated.
My translation of Mark is based on a version I published, with other translations from the Old and New Testaments, in A Palpable God in 1978. In ensuing years I have often read through that aging version; and while I have also continued to study the Greek and to read widely in both new and old studies of Mark's original text -- especially those studies by the almost unimaginably well prepared scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries before the mainstream of German, British, and American scholarship succumbed to its present obsession with a punitively unreasonable degree of historical doubt -- I feel no need to start again from scratch.
I have, however, introduced a number of changes in word, idiom, and word order. All my revisions are intended to match the tone of Mark's original more nearly than before. Throughout, for instance, the Greek word which I previously translated as sin or its cognates sinners and sinning is now translated as wrong or error and their cognates -- the word hamartia means at bottom a failure of aim, a missing of the mark and appears to have fewer connotations of the fleshpot than the English word sin, so long ago hijacked by the puritan and the hypocrite. I have also, when the Greek allows me and because the change seems to me more than trivial, extended the implications of gender in Mark's nouns -- men has become people, for instance, where mixed groups seem indicated. Again as before, throughout the breathless pages, I hope to let the reader feel the invisible but startlingly rude force of Mark's thrust and the all but perfect efficiency of his hobbled Greek. I discuss the concealed richness of his complex results in the preface below.
The writer of The Good News According to John is likewise fluent in moving an action steadily forward through his Greek; and he is also rough handed, though in quite a different way from Mark. From the opening sentences of John, a reader of Greek can see that this writer is working with immense self-confidence both in what he has to tell and in how he is going to tell it. For a modern reader of his Koine original, John seems like nothing so much as a hugely skilled and intelligent expatriate (which early tradition in fact claims he was) -- an Einstein or a Thomas Mann, a Conrad or a Nabokov: one who is able to express himself readily and powerfully on most of the difficult matters he encounters but in a homemade and eccentric patois. No one can for a moment believe that Vladimir Nabokov was born writing English; but the English of his later novels is, to say the least, imposing in the bizarre strength with which it insists on oaring upstream against the whole natural flow of English. John likewise is always pushing hard uphill in what is clearly an acquired vehicle, a medium that requires him often to work outside and against the thought processes of his native tongue, which Semitic scholars can tell us is Aramaic.
And while John narrates with unadorned speed, in the several metaphysically complex discourses set in the voice of Jesus (especially in Jesus' almost maddeningly looping and repetitive farewell address to the disciples), John is even more gravel), impaired than Mark by his entrapment in an alien tongue. Seemingly undeterred however -- like an intelligent but not entirely communicative guide who offers to lead us through the remains of, say, old Palmyra -- John readily resorts to the circling and numbing reiterations of a very small vocabulary of Greek words and idioms in the hope of conveying his unprecedented meaning. So a modern translator, especially one with religious preconceptions, is constantly tempted to convert John's flat-footed and sometimes droning monologues into an English that is too lucid, too idiomatic, and resourceful. I have tried to give the reader some sense of John's dilemma and his Pyrrhic victory.
My own translations then are aimed at giving a Greekless contemporary reader the truest possible sense of the narrative and discursive atmosphere of my originals. Though I have studied it for more than twenty years, my own command of Koine Greek is not that of a professional scholar. But since the gospels are, by a long stretch, the most written about and minutely commented upon texts in the history of literature, even an imperfect student like me can resort to mountains of helpful guidance on the meaning of virtually every word and phrase of Mark's or John's original. The problem often becomes one not of too little available help but too much.
Still, through more than two decades of work, I have availed myself of a wide assortment of the more serious aids -- the United Bible Societies' edition of the Greek New Testament, Arndt and Gingrich's magnificent edition of Bauer's lexicon of Koine Greek, numerous individual commentaries on Mark and John, several word-by-word interlinear translations (which are fascinating to read for their own sake -- naked English words in the original order of the Greek); histories of Rome and Israel, of Judaism in its numerous sects, of the mystery religions of Hellenistic cultures, of the early life of the Jesus sect, and any other reliable source that has come to hand as relevant. My constant aim has been to suppress any tendency to think that I know precisely and unmistakably, here toward the end of the twentieth century, what my originals "meant to say" -- linguistically or theologically -- to variously constituted audiences in the first-century Mediterranean world.
Despite such a likably humane doctrine as what might be called the universality of the human heart in all times and places, it remains beyond doubt that human beings alive on the same day in the same city block -- not to speak of different countries and centuries -- will witness, reflect on, and respond to equal stimuli in ways as divergent as an infant's and a leopard's. Can any of us claim seriously to feel at all confident of sharing the feelings of a poor Roman Jew -- or a Roman senator's well-heeled wife -- as they sat together in a threatened domus ecclesia (a house church) in the mid-sixties AD and listened as Mark or some literate friend read the agony scene in Mark's gospel -- Jesus terrified in the lonely hours before his arrest -- while, a few yards away, Nero's or Galba's police combed the streets for bodies to feed an imperial craving for scapegoats? Or try imagining the contrary pulls on a young Greek sailor as he paused near the harbor in Ephesus, by the great temple of Artemis with its many-breasted statue of the goddess, and then chose to follow a gently importunate man from the Jesus sect up a blind alley into a dim room to hear the ancient Beloved Disciple recount Jesus' fourth and last appearance after death. Now try to convey your imagined experience to others less resourceful than you.
Such exercises are both entirely legitimate and also laughable; they smack more of the ludicrous Hollywood fumblings in Quo Vadis or Ben Hur. In fact, we have no firm notion of how it felt to exist in Rome, Palestine, or Asia Minor some two thousand years ago -- burdened with all the assumptions and hopes of our past lives; then confronted in words by the flaming demands of a recently dead, maybe resurrected Jew named Jesus with a ravenous will to change us and the Earth. Neither do we know something so initially obvious sounding as how the emperor Nero felt when he kicked his consort, the pregnant Poppea, to bloody death -- no more, in all candor, than Cecil B. DeMille comprehended in his Biblical and historical epics the tone and unconscious principles of daily life on the Palatine Hill or in pharaonic Egypt.
Archaeology has often made it possible for us to imagine clearly enough the look of ancient life. What is certain to be lost forever is the feel and the tone of specific moments in prior centuries -- the million unexamined assumptions that underlie the thoughts and actions of a particular human being at a given moment. Especially irrecoverable are the thoughts and choices, the fears of and reliance on the realms of angels and demons, of that large majority of people who never read or wrote a word but were sure that they lived at the momentary mercy of overlords, goblins, not to speak of an unimagined world of microbes. Nonetheless, in an understandable effort to bridge the chasms between our minds and those of the gospel writers -- as well as the minds of their subjects and their audiences -- translators who convince themselves of possessing access to the psychic atmospheres of the first century have frequently lurched into slangy or loose-mouthed approximations that ring suspiciously wrong and pretend to strip from their subjects the immovable screens of age and distance.
Attempts to find, for instance, what some leading students of modern translation have called a dynamic equivalence for first-century Greek are logically suspect in the extreme but have been pursued so often by individuals and groups that we now have in English several popular versions of the gospels that constitute what are well-intended but almost certainly major distortions of their originals. Among gospel versions that have most frequently stumbled in their efforts to make the originals contemporary, I note especially J. B. Phillips's single-handed effort (often lively but very approximate); the American Bible Society's immensely widespread committee translation called The Good News Bible (so committed to oversimplifying paraphrase as to lose itself often on errands of its own), long stretches of The New English Bible, The Amplified Bible (which is honest in admitting its expansive method), The New Revised Standard version, and the several editions of the Polebridge Press versions (Polebridge editions result from the work of the notorious Jesus Seminar, a group of American scholars which has recently -- and with a straight face apparently -- announced that 80-odd percent of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels are later inventions and that the resurrection, of course, never occurred except as a psychic phenomenon).
By contrast, I have tried to work in much the same manner as the forty-seven committee members who worked at the most successful English version of all -- the Authorized Version of 1611, commonly known as the King James. Though its translators express, in their preface, the same hope that enlivens even the most egregious of paraphrasers -- "we desire that the Scripture may speake like it selfe, as in the language of Canaan, that it may bee understood even of the very vulgar" -- and though their result derives heavily from older English versions by Wyclif, Tyndale, and others, in general King James's translators proceeded under a single guiding principle (one word of the original in the fewest equivalent words of English, with the preservation when possible of at least some suggestion of the Greek word order), it is debatable how much "the very vulgar" in Canaan or elsewhere in western Asia would have understood some of the more archaic language of the Hebrew scriptures or of Mark's and John's later Greek gospels.
Five minutes spent even today in the Bible section of an ordinary bookstore will show that no later version has equaled the King James in popularity; and in many conservative churches still, it is the only version consulted, as it is in a thousand college courses on "The Bible as Literature." And while it is customary to say that such enduring popularity derives from the King James's sonorous diction and stately syntax -- the diction of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson -- a close comparison of its language to that of the originals will very often show that the power and memorability of the King James is an almost automatic result of its loyal adherence to principles of literalness and the avoidance of paraphrase. Nearly four centuries of Greekless readers have sensed, unconsciously perhaps but with considerable accuracy, that the very strangeness -- the sober exoticism -- of the language of the King James is truer to its strange originals than any of its successors. Unfortunately for its present readers, the passage of time has made it inevitable that much of the diction of the King James is now obscure; and the subsequent discovery of new and better manuscripts has made its text occasionally unreliable.
Nonetheless a straightforward conversion of one word of Koine into the scholar's best estimate of its contemporary match is likely to come, in the hands of a watchful craftsman, as near as we can get to a sense of the weight and tone of such ancient texts. The rest is left to our personal reaction -- the resources, or lack of resource, that an individual reader brings to the task. Reading the gospels, in whatever language or era, is the same perilous and incessantly demanding transaction that we conduct by the moment with our nearest kin and loved ones. What do you mean? How have I failed you? What do you demand of me?
Whatever my own translations may offer by way of legitimate freshness, then, derives from a working fidelity to the by no means simple or always possible aim of word-for-word conversion. Such a method hardly makes for idiomatic modern English, but again neither of my originals is written in a suavely idiomatic nor always lucid Greek. A lingua franca like Koine Greek or twentieth-century English acknowledges no authoritative standard for the measurement of idiomatic ease. Alexandrian Jews, Roman prefects, tribal chieftains in Macedonia, merchants in Galilee, and priests in Jerusalem all employed a Greek that could look to no particular dialect as "correct." Likewise, the English of educated London, New York, or Washington is hardly a standard against which we judge, say, the English of a U.N. diplomat not born to the language. So the pursuit of idiomatic translations of ancient texts is illusory on yet another score.
And in fact, since my attempts on Mark and John have developed over a stretch of twenty years, they show minor differences of approach from one another. In the hope of conveying the supreme originality and strangeness of Mark, my version of him is the more earnestly literal of the two. With the more fluent John -- alien to Greek and idiosyncratic as he is -- I have taken a very little more liberty in diversifying his small vocabulary, though I have awarded myself nowhere near the license taken by such recent and church-endorsed translations as The New English or The New Revised Standard versions that, again, resort to loose paraphrase and occasionally conceal instances of gendered language which, as evidence of the kinds of energy that moved the gospel writers, should not be concealed. In the discourses which John attributes to Jesus, I have hewn close to the original's relentlessly limited battery of words and to the original order of the Greek when feasible (it is, after all, the order in which an early reader or listener encountered the writer's images and ideas). In that respect at least I think my translation gives the reader perhaps the fairest sense of any modern version of the stern limitations John strained against to express his complexity.
But why Mark and John without Matthew and Luke? I have already mentioned the conclusion of most modern scholars that Mark is the oldest of the gospels, the one that stands closest in date to the lifetime of its subject. It is also the most striking in its rude but functional language and structure and -- above all -- it is the surprisingly brief document (a pamphlet really) that single-handedly invents a literary form which has only three other successful companions in history and which constitutes, with them, the most successful known form of narrative (if we measure success by the ability of a story, over long arcs of time, to elicit belief from the largest number of human beings in the fidelity of its representations to observable nature or to some alleged transcendent reality). So, however a reader may value the additional episodes and considerable stretches of teaching that are advanced in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, there can be no question that Mark is primary and indispensable both to any attempt at comprehending the acts and intentions of the man Jesus and to any full reflection on the aims and possibilities of narrative art.
John is the one gospel -- whatever we make of the long and apparently endless debate on the identity of its writer -- which makes an explicit claim to come from an intimate eyewitness of Jesus' life and which gives steady and convincing narrative support to that singular claim. When members of the Jesus sect were choosing characteristic visual emblems for the four gospel writers, they cannot have chosen arbitrarily in assigning the emblem of an eagle to John (who was also early designated as John the Divine, or John the Theologian, in deference to the probing and soaring thought implicit in his curious words). No other gospel writer, even Mark, climbs above the limits of language and the closely knit spine of his story with a comparable ferocity of focus and intent. And any translator choosing among the gospels would be punitive indeed to deny him- or herself the high challenge and rewards of John. Whatever the virtues and riches of Matthew and Luke, they remain secondary to their briefer but weightier companions.
I have made clear above that my own translations attempt as faithful a conversion as is possible of my Greek originals into modern English. By modem English I do not mean that I have sought an English that is more idiomatic or eloquent than I can perceive my originals to be in their timelocked Koine. Again, we do not know how Mark and John sounded to their authors or to any members of their original audiences. Above all, we have little sense of what constituted verbal decorum for the various audiences who would have heard the gospels in the years immediately after their composition. To have Mark's Jesus turn to the leper who asks for healing and tell him "O.K., you're healed!" (as he does in a translation sponsored by the Jesus Seminar) suggests Woody Allen far more nearly than the agonized and self-doubting thaumaturge of Mark's early pages.
Rather than repel modern readers, however, with an unjustifiably obstructive literalism, I have introduced a few consistent revisions of the Greek. Chief among them are these.
1. The King James version has conditioned us to expect that the narrative prose of the New Testament, as in the Old, moves by a progression of subject-verb clauses joined by the word and. And in fact the Greek of both Mark and John often proceeds in that manner. But we have come to understand that the Greek word kai, which the King James translates fairly invariably as and, has implications not conveyed by our English word and -- meanings that range through such connotations as also, but, even, so, likewise, and next. I have therefore tried to translate kai by the appropriate English conjunction when necessary; otherwise I generally omit it.
2. Where the Greek frequently says "He answered and said to them," I generally translate only the more appropriate verb, answered or said. The double verb sounds excessively liturgical in modern English.
3. A more difficult decision concerns matters of verb tense. Mark especially, but John as well, often shift verb tenses from various levels of the past to the historical present -- "Jesus turned to the woman and says to her." Though tenses in modern English oral narrative shift with equal frequency and arbitrariness, and though I experimented in preserving tense shifts in my early drafts, I have finally abandoned the attempt to reproduce my originals in this respect. Inconsistent tenses in written English are frequently misleading to the passive reader who is out of the presence of a controlling narrator (a good storyteller can sweep a bodily present listener along in his shifts of tense; a written author has no such access to his silent distant reader).
4. Since the earliest surviving manuscripts of my originals are not divided into chapter, verse, or paragraph -- in fact, there is no space between their individual words -- and since the originals are devoid of marks of punctuation, I have arranged the prose in standard modern narrative form without the distraction of the chapter and verse numbers, which were added by the printer Estienne only as recently as 1551; and I have severely pruned my punctuation wherever possible. These texts were not written for, nor can they be successfully read by, the inattentive.
5. Single words -- or occasional short phrases -- when set in italics, are generally transliterations of Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek words. Longer italic passages represent translated quotations from the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament.
6. In the prefaces and the gospel texts, I indulge only once in a footnote. Otherwise I follow my Greek originals in assuming the reader's native wit and the availability of a few standard reference works.
But why provide a gospel of my own? The preface which accompanies An Honest Account of a Memorable Life explains its origin, but I can add here that in no sense have I entertained a hope of rivaling the authority of the canonical gospels. My own attempt arose from a desire to study the ancient originals so closely that I could extract from them at least one feasible chronology of Jesus' career, a very few guesses at the turns of his private thought and self-understanding, and a possibly representative choice from his teaching and dialogues. None of my narrative or theological choices is intended to imply a silent suppression or condemnation of any elements in my sources. Those sources consisted of the four gospels themselves with occasional hints from other early Jewish and Roman history, from the earliest apocryphal gospels; and the canonical letters of Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and John. Like most storytellers I have attempted both the reader's spellbound pleasure and some degree of challenge to his or her assumptions about Jesus' life and to the reader's own choices in the world of thought and action. My gospel's title is meant to describe both its contents and its conscious purpose -- the word honest means of course, not infallible but void of deceit.
In my preface to The Good News According to John, I mention the problem presented to translators and to modern readers by John's characterization of Jesus' opponents as the Ioudaioi, a Greek adjective or plural noun that has generally been rendered in English as the Jews. Since John's word seems often deployed with a negative connotation, there is more to say here on the problem. Despite a virtual certainty that the author of John was himself a Jew and that Jesus the Jew went to his death as a man profoundly loyal to the faith and law of his people, it is worth repeating that -- by the time John wrote -- some sixty years had apparently passed since Jesus' death. From the crucifixion onward, a gulf had deepened inexorably between the all-Jewish members of the early Jesus sect and those members of the Pharisee and Sadducee establishments who maintained the Temple and its sacrificial worship in Jerusalem and who exerted a considerable degree of civil power under the watchful eye of Rome. Though the destruction of Jerusalem and its resplendent sanctuary occurred in AD 70, with a subsequent dispersion and exile of those powerful groups, the antagonism between subsequent synagogue Judaism and the Jesus sect only compounded fraternal bitterness on all sides; and the author of John was candid in his rancor.
Mark, who wrote -- probably in Rome -- some twenty-five years before John, employed the plural noun Ioudaioi only a few times and without an apparent negative charge; but by about the year 90 that chasm between the Jesus sect and the religious authorities of Judaism had widened sufficiently to permit the insertion into mainstream synagogue worship of a prayer that effectively cursed all members of the Jesus sect and thereby precluded their synagogue attendance. John seems to reflect that historical situation with a baffled and bitter sorrow, though alas he employs a generic noun for a limited group of his own blood kin.
Though John does not repeat the terrible words of the crowd in Matthew as they harangue Pilate for Jesus' death -- "His blood be on us and on our children" -- he nonetheless leaves a modern translator with a troubled wish that the English language provided some word with a less tragic history than Jew as an equivalent for the Greek Ioudaios and its plural Ioudaioi. Recent versions by members of the Jesus Seminar have offered the translation Judean as a substitute for the traditional Jew. The translators argue with some initial cogency that, since Israelites denotes those who worshiped Yahweh in the time of the first Temple, so we might identify those who worshiped at, and especially those who administered, the second Temple as Judeans.
I have tried to convince myself that this substitute provides an accurate solution to a dilemma with grave implications beyond the linguistic. But after close examination, Judean seems little more than a quixotic gesture and one that stands no chance of wide acceptance. Two major objections to its use are the facts that many devout first-century Jews did not live in nor were natives of the region strictly defined as Judea and that we cannot, after all, know precisely who John means by the word Ioudaioi nor can we gauge the shades of meaning in each of his sixty-two uses of the plural noun. Granted, in the majority of cases John seems to indicate the Temple hierarchy alone -- the allied aristocratic enemies of Jesus. But in a few instances (as when John mentions "the Passover of the Ioudaioi"), he seems to mean all the Jewish people -- all the family, friends, and enemies of Jesus; and at such points the version of the Jesus Seminar is forced to abandon Judeans for Jewish. So despite the initial attractiveness of Judeans -- and the fact that it is a near transliteration of John's Greek noun -- I cannot see that it mitigates the huge dilemma.
In any case I have worked throughout in the strong hope that every reader will consider how far from the recoverable thoughts of Jesus are those wastes of destruction that have poured, and still pour, from the savage pit of a wide crevasse which yawned so tragically and so soon within a single family -- the children of Abraham and Sarah and of their tither Yahweh, some of whom came to see the man Jesus as a unique aspect of God in the world of flesh and time. Try as we may to comprehend the atmosphere of familial discord in which John wrote, we can only lament the two millennia of genocide that have partly grounded themselves on words he would almost surely revise could he know of their subsequent career.
The reader may legitimately wonder, by now, at the entire reason for my own work in these tangled matters. Do I have a purpose that extends beyond a narrative writer's desire to comprehend the structure and strategy of two remarkable ancient narrations? In short, and fairly enough, do I participate in that state of mind which John's Jesus calls "trusting" in him? And if I share that trust, even sporadically, do I share it because of the gospels of Mark and John, with their important companions Matthew and Luke?
The answers to both halves of that question are complicated forms of Yes. The man Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew of first-century Galilee whose life affected very few of his contemporaries, seems to me to have stood in a demonstrably but inexplicably intimate relation to the creator of our world and all that we see and don't see beyond our world in this one universe (one of perhaps many). The intensity of that relation and its resultant climax in Jesus' execution, resurrection, and abiding influence convince me that the relation was unique among all such relations known to me in human history -- unique to the point of some degree of identity, an identity comprehended first in that astonishing moment in The Good News According to John when Jesus himself, with a kind of blazing glee, rounds on his detractors in the Temple and claims in fact to be one with the sole God of all: "Amen amen I tell you before Abraham was I am."
A trust in that fact and its implicit promises for my life have been crucial for me in both the joy and devastation of more than fifty conscious years. That trust is braced above all for me by the patently honest, if ultimately immeasurable, testimony of those first terrified followers who saw Jesus alive and palpable after undoubted death -- an honesty that soon made them into fearless bearers of his unprecedented news and that, launched from an unthinkably insignificant fishing village in a backwater province of imperial Rome, transformed all subsequent history. I have come to that trust through years of reading and watching the probing efforts of other times and peoples at the comprehension of mystery in their own cultures, through the unimplored early arrival of an uncanny sense of the rightness of one man's claim, but above all from the overwhelming impression of both an emblematic truth and an honest effort at accuracy conveyed to me in the hit-or-miss words and domestic wonders explicit in both Mark's and John's stories.
If their slender documents say anything to a human being at the end of the twentieth century, it is surely that -- by the end of his career among Jews, Greeks, Romans, and other Gentiles -- Jesus of Nazareth was a man, above all else, merciful and welcoming. He was as well a man who knew himself to be, by birth and choice, one of the central aspects of pure reality (whatever that reality is, wherever it resides, whatever hopes it holds for my fellow creatures and for me, who am after all a creature as much like Jesus and his pupils as are the great balance of humankind) but who made no crushing demand of any other creature rapt in the struggle for decent existence or blind in innocence to the depths of reality.
I don't however assert for an instant that my private convictions in any of these matters, beyond verbal translation, are worth the unthinking trust of anyone else alive. I clearly believe that the gospels deliver what they claim to contain -- excellent news for anyone with ears to guess at the tone of its naked first-century, voice, with eyes to pierce its local dress and gait -- but I cannot believe that even such excellent news excludes any member of the human race. Though much of what we can glimpse of the historical Jesus seems immensely far from our modern selves, though he announced God's coming justice and scalded the hypocrites and the self-pleased pious of his time, Jesus the Jew also dined -- by free conviction and desire -- with the furthest outcasts of his time and place, Jew and Gentile, the sheep despaired of by all other shepherds; and he did not apparently exhort them to shame but pledged them first entry rights into God's kingdom.
Orthodox Christianity, the church in most of its past and present forms, has defaced and even reversed whole broad aspects of Jesus' teaching; but in no case has the church turned more culpably from his aim and his practice than in its hateful rejection of what it sees as outcasts: the whores and cheats, the traitors and killers, the baffled and stunned, the social outlaw, the maimed and hideous and contagious. If it is possible to discern, in the gospel documents of Mark and John, a conscious goal that sent the man Jesus -- himself an urgent function of the Maker of all -- to his agonized death, can we detect a surer aim than his first and last announced intent to sweep the lost with him into God's coming reign?
Two last observations. First, any reader who does not possess prior acquaintance with the ancient gospels may well gain by reading the texts of the gospels here before reading the prefaces I have added to them -- those fairly loaded essays may well serve better as afterwords; and since they are meant to provide independently useful companions to the texts they accompany, a watchful reader will notice some necessary repetitions in their contents. It is fair to inform the reader, as well, that my approach to Mark and John is a generally conservative (though by no means hidebound) one. Despite wide reading in the radical wing of contemporary gospel studies, I am led by my own long experience of the texts to find a mostly reliable basis for speculation and understanding in the oldest surviving traditions about their sources, their composition, and their intentions. As with all ancient documents, my originals demand a powerfully attentive intelligent reader and -- above all -- a reader with an acknowledged personal share of humankind's old fears and hungers.
Second, I have often described early Christianity as the Jesus sect. The phrase is devoid of praise or blame and is meant only to suggest the threatened and marginal atmosphere of that small and often clandestine group who persevered in loyalty for three bloody centuries after Jesus' death and resurrection until the emperor Constantine made their faith acceptable to Rome. The name provides, as well, at least one accurate alternative to the word Christianity, a word which continues to evoke, for millions throughout the world, a history of murderous intolerance so foreign to Jesus' apparent hopes, and worse, of a violence that has gone on issuing from institutions and individuals still immensely potent among us who hope to conceal their viciousness beneath words that form themselves from a single hapless Greek word Christos, a word which was meant by its first Jewish users to mean no more nor less than God's Anointed.
Copyright © 1996 by Reynolds Price
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- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- Is there any convincing evidence in either Mark or John that Jesus of Nazareth intended to f