Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Gospel Truth: Michael Pakaluk’s Hermeneutics of Faith

Michael Pakaluk is doing really extraordinary things with the gospels. I predict his translations (of Mark in 2019, and now of John) will only grow in stature over time. He gets right to the marrow, both at the level of English rendition and in terms of his brilliantly subtle approach to the place and uniqueness of each text.

This work is long overdue. After two centuries of scholars laboring under a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” Pakaluk does something like the opposite. He goes straight to what the very earliest records tell us of the gospels, then asks himself the question: “If the early testimonies about the writing of these texts are correct, what might we expect in terms of the kind of text we’d get?” In short, Pakaluk applies what we may call a hermeneutics of trust, or more properly, a hermeneutics of faith. In both Mark and John, this approach ends up bearing much fruit--multiple new insights other translators have missed, multiple questions they've not thought to ask. Really, there’s a boldness in Pakaluk’s project that has something of the quality of lightning to it.

For years I’ve been waiting for a scholar who took Mark’s widely remarked “roughness” seriously enough to try to render it in English. It matters, because Mark’s was the first gospel, the text that established the model for what a gospel was to be. Further, the reeling speed and breathlessness of Mark’s narrative are part of what make it so powerful as witness and account. Finally, the fact that Mark reads as a transcription of someone speaking buttresses the ancient account of the gospel--namely, that the evangelist Mark transcribed it directly from Peter’s testimony.

The Apostle, leader of Rome’s Christian community, naturally recounted his experiences to the faithful there. Getting on in years, it was recognized that his testimony should be recorded in writing, and Mark was called to transcribe it. That the text we have shows all indications of being a spoken narrative stands as strong evidence it is in fact what it was said to be: Peter’s memoirs.

What we’ve lacked is an English translation that showed sufficient care in rendering just these more “spoken” aspects of the text. In Pakaluk’s translation, which he titles The Memoirs of St. Peter, we finally have just that. His English Mark is supremely effective as spoken narrative, and follows the tense shifts and quick perspectival shifts of the original Greek. The translator lays out these uniquely Markan characteristics in his commentary, and convincingly makes the case that, indeed, they indicate the speech of a witness. In any case, no ancient writer was sufficiently cunning to fake so many natural characteristics of firsthand narrative. Any reasonable reader will be convinced: this gospel is a transcription from speech, and it is a transcription of the speech of someone who was there when the events happened.

With his new translation, Mary’s Voice in the Gospel According to John, Pakaluk again begins by turning his keen attentiveness to the situation of the gospel’s composition. He knows that both the gospel itself and the earliest testimony tell us that after his crucifixion Jesus’ mother Mary went to live with John. How then, the scholar wonders, would sharing a house over many years with the Lord’s mother, remembering and recounting His life in company with her, likely shape the gospel writer’s later portrayal of Jesus? It’s a brilliant thought experiment, and in his introduction and commentary, Pakaluk lays out the possibilities. These, in turn, go a long way toward explaining why, in such striking ways, the Gospel of John is so different from the three synoptic gospels.

Pakaluk’s actual English translation of John, his word choice and phrasing, are explained in his notes via reference to the Greek. But what is really different here, in its very rareness, is how sharp and precise, and often poetic, the English is. One feels the pith of debate in these sentences (Jesus in John is often in dialogue) and one feels it in chiseled, natural English. Why is this so rare in our translations?

I believe it was Robert Alter who wrote somewhere that the problem with the King James Version was that they didn't really know Hebrew, whereas the problem with modern Bible translations is that they don't really know English. It is apt.

Modern Bible translators tend to fall into one of two opposing vices. Some seek to render scriptural texts in an English as wooden and unproblematic as a high school textbook. This flattens out the power of the Spirit-inspired writers--whose texts are often intentionally problematic!--even as it often ends by smuggling the translator’s own biases directly into the English phrasing. This is done for “for clarity’s sake”. (Think of the NIV.)

The other, opposing vice is to believe that the Greek, by virtue of its inherent linguistic difference, conveys things that can’t be conveyed in English. And so, to get to the scriptural meaning, one must create a kind of “Hellenized English”. In this way we end up with translations that are neither really Greek nor English, written in an unwieldy, eccentric new language that often (again) only conveys the translator’s own interpretive claims. (Think David Bentley Hart.)

Pakaluk somehow manages to avoid both these vices. Partly, I’m sure, it’s his training as a philosopher, but partly it’s his strong literary grasp of English that keeps him on the straight and narrow. He’s done the hard work of finding a native English that grabs the reader even as it grabs the gospel truth.

Pakaluk’s Mary’s Voice in the Gospel According to John, just published this Lent, is a must read for Catholics serious about Scripture. More, it is a blessing to have, besieged as we are by cant, ideology, and misguided novelty.

Eric Mader

At Amazon:

Check Pakaluk's Mary’s Voice in the Gospel According to John

Check Pakaluk's The Memoirs of St. Peter

[Note that there is currently an offer
to buy both books together at discount.]

Some deadpan with your coffee? My Idiocy, Ltd. is now in print. Dryest humor in the west.

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