Mark’s Gospel Through the Eyes of St. Peter
New translation offers interesting insights into the work of the evangelist.
The Memoirs of St. Peter
A New Translation of the Gospel According to Mark
By Michael Pakaluk
Regnery Gateway, 2019
256 pages, $29, hardcover
To order: amazon.com
St. Mark’s Jesus is in a hurry. The most famous word in this famously terse Gospel is “immediately” (Greek: euthys). Apostles immediately leave their boats and nets. Lepers are healed in an instant, and the sick and lame practically leap to their feet at the barest touch of the Lord. Jesus seems to be rushing everywhere, dishing out snappy parables and trying to light a fire under some very slack followers. He crackles with life and energy, and Mark’s rough-and-ready Greek forsakes smoothness and grammar to give us a portrait of Jesus that is, to use a related sense of the word, intensely immediate.
From the earliest days of the Church, this was understood to be an artifact of Mark’s source: St. Peter. Eusebius quotes Papias, a follower of John the Apostle, saying: “When Mark became Peter’s interpreter, he wrote down accurately, although not in order, all that he remembered of what was said or done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord nor followed Him, but later, as I have said, he did [follow] Peter, who made his teaching fit his needs without, as it were, making any arrangement of the Lord’s oracles, so that Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things down as he remembered them.” Similarly, in the Dialogue of Justin With Trypho, Justin Martyr remarks that Jesus changed the name of Peter, as it is “written in the memoirs of him [i.e., Peter] that this so happened.”
In other words, Mark’s Gospel is the preaching of Peter. This is obvious from the text itself, which is grounded in Peter’s point of view. More than the other Gospels, Mark is a witness to the rebukes and failings of Peter, as though they come from the mouth of a man still stung by his earlier ignorance and denial and witnessing against himself. There are passages that read as though you could swap out “I” for “Peter.”
The other characteristic of Mark is its wonky Greek. Tenses shift within a single sentence, and he seems to always be rushing on to the next thought. Greek is continuous, without punctuation, relying instead on participles to connect ideas and make “sentences.” Most writers vary these linking words, but Mark hammers one participle over and over again. That word is kai, and it’s like beginning every sentence with “and”: “And then Jesus did this; and then he said that; and Peter said this.” Once again, this contributes to this Gospel’s oral feel and forward momentum, but it can make for tough sledding on the printed page.
Michael Pakaluk, professor of ethics and social philosophy in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America in Washington, wants to give people who don’t read Greek a taste of that experience. Pakaluk has published widely on Aristotle, including a translation of the Nicomachean Ethics (Books XIII and IX). After his first wife, pro-lie activist Ruth Pakaluk, passed away from cancer in 1998 at age 41, he shaped her letters and talks into the book The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God. (Ruth’s cause for canonization is currently under investigation.)
Pakaluk takes the title of The Memoirs of St. Peter from Justin Martyr’s comment and seeks to offer English readers some of the peculiar vigor of the original. Naturally, this raises the question of whether or not Mark’s text was a conscious artistic choice. Was he straining to capture the patterns of speech? Or was he just bad at Greek? In other words, is it really such a bad thing that generations of translators have smoothed over Mark’s Greek to make readable English?
All modern translators want to capture the freshness and particularity of the original language in English. As an exercise, this can yield fascinating insights and results, as it does here. We read old phrases and scenes in new ways, and that opens up the text to us. This is always worthwhile.
The risk is that literal translations can make bad English. English flows differently than a highly inflected language like Greek or Latin. If someone wants to experience pure original-language word order and word choice, a Greek/English interlinear translation is the best way, short of learning Greek or using an expensive piece of software like Verbum. Pakaluk is not making a purely literal translation, in part because that would be unreadable. Instead, he captures Mark’s peculiar tense shifts while simultaneously varying certain word choices, particularly kai and euthys. The result is more readable than a literal or interlinear, but less polished than something like the Revised Standard Version.
For example, in Mark 5:41, a roughly literal translation is: “And taking hold of the hand (of) the child he said to her talitha koum which is translated little girl to you I say get up. And immediately rose the girl and began walking around. She was 12 years old. And they were amazed immediately with great astonishment.”
The RSV has: “Taking her by the hand he said to her, ‘Talitha cumi’; which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise.’ And immediately the girl got up and walked (she was 12 years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement.”
Pakaluk translates this as: “So he takes the hand of the little child, and he says to her, ‘Talitha koum’ — that means, ‘Little child, I say to you, arise.’ Right then and there, the little girl gets up and starts walking around. (She was 12 years old.)”
Similarly, we have Mark 8:22, literally: “And they come to Bethsaida and they bring to [Jesus] a blind man and beg him to touch him. And he grasped the blind man’s hand to lead him out of the village and [when he had] spit in his eyes and laid hands on him [Jesus] asked him do you see anything.”
RSV: “And they came to Beth-saida. And some people brought to him a blind man, and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the village; and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands upon him, he asked him, ‘Do you see anything?’”
Pakaluk: “So they go to Bethsaida. They bring a blind man to him. They beg him to touch him. Taking the blind man by the hand, he brought him out of the village. Spitting upon his eyes and placing his hands upon him, he asked him, ‘Do you see anything?’”
Mark is thus rendered in a readable English word-for-word translation that captures its immediacy, but without the polish of the RSV. That’s an important contribution to understanding this Gospel, and readers unfamiliar with Greek will find startling things on every page. It can’t replace a less-jarring sense-for-sense translation, but it’s a wonderful experience for the insights it provides. Strangely, Pakaluk’s varying of kai (he uses “so,” “well” and others) and euthys (“directly,” “right then and there,” “right away,” etc.) is his least effective decision. If we’re looking to capture the Markan experience, wouldn’t a more limited word choice be appropriate? Many readers of Mark are struck by the cumulative effect of repeating immediately in English versions.
The Memoirs of St. Peter is made even more valuable by Pakaluk’s line-by-line commentary, which runs after each of the 16 chapters. This is a commentary for general readers, rather than academics, and doesn’t get bogged down in linguistic minutiae. He offers interesting insights about his word choices, but more important, it is the intelligent, faithfully Catholic unfolding of the text, obviously informed by years of thought and study. Again and again Pakaluk reorients the text through the eyes of Peter — what does it say about what Peter knows, or thinks, or preaches? — as a way of understanding Jesus and the early Church. Little gems of insight are commonplaces, such as pointing out the connection among green grass, dinner parties, flower beds, spring, Passover, miracles and word repetition in Mark 6:39.
This is a very rewarding version of Mark, and even those who have made long study of the text will find a wise and sensitive guide in Michael Pakaluk.
Thomas L. McDonald writes about the unusual side
of Church history and Tradition at WeirdCatholic.com.