Three Gospels

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Three Gospels: The Good News According to Mark; The Good News According to John; An Honest Account of a Memorable Life, noted author Reynolds Price presents his translations of the Gospels of Mark and John and “An Honest Account of a Memorable Life,” his own narrative of the life of Jesus. The book is more than translation and an attempt to tell an old story in a fresh and appealing way—it is a tribute to the Gospels that have had such an impact on Price’s thought and work, and it is a witness to Price’s faith in the message and power of Jesus.

The book begins with a general preface. Then each gospel is introduced by its own preface. The prefaces make a significant contribution to the book, comprising almost as many pages as the translations of Mark and John and Price’s own gospel. They provide historical background and information useful to understanding the translations and personal gospel, as well as numerous insights into Price’s perspectives, motivation, and qualifications for undertaking this work.

In the general preface, Price describes his lifelong interest in the Bible. Even as a child, before he could read, he was fascinated by pictures in Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible. Later, as an adult, he came to realize that the power the stories of the Bible held over him for so many years also shaped the thought and work of his early “models and masters”: Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo, John Milton, and others. Price traces the history of the canon and deals with issues of style, contrasting the appeal of Mark’s plain, abrupt, and efficient style—his “great and spare eloquence”—with that of John’s gospel, which is written in a language that is obviously not the writer’s native tongue, yet self-confident and powerful, despite its “flat-footed and droning monologues.”

The texts are translated into literal English by Price from Koine Greek, or common language (as opposed to literary Greek), the vernacular of the Roman Empire in which the Gospels were written. (According to the oldest manuscripts, the four gospels were one single gospel, with headings According to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.) The translation of Mark is based on Price’s earlier translation, published in A Palpable God in 1978, and it includes numerous changes intended to convey the force of the original more clearly and to make the story fresh to its readers. The word “gospel” is translated as “The Good News”; sin, which means “a missing of the mark” in Koine, is translated error; men is usually translated people; and the phrase “kingdom of God” is translated the “reign of God.” Price admits to being less than a professional scholar of Koine Greek, but he has studied Greek for more than twenty years and has also consulted innumerable commentaries and resources on the texts. His goal is to communicate the truest possible sense and tone of the original gospels to modern Greekless readers, suppressing any tendency to paraphrase or to read twentieth century assumptions and understandings into first century experiences, a tendency, according to Price, all too common in many other well-intended versions of the Bible and in Hollywood films. He cites specific examples of problems related to translation at some length, and concludes the preface by sharing his own biases—his gospel, “An Honest Account of a Memorable Life,” is honest in the sense that it is “not infallible but void of deceit”—and personal beliefs—his trust in the Jesus of early Christianity (the Jesus sect), his belief in the resurrection of Jesus and in his “uniquely filial relation” to God, and his disillusionment with organized, orthodox Christianity with its history of intolerance and violence.

The preface to Mark’s Gospel, “The Good News According to Mark,” runs longer than the gospel. For much of the chapter, Price summarizes the gospel story, punctuating it with comments and frequent, somewhat distracting, references to background information or details in the other gospels that Mark omits. Later he explains that Mark is probably writing for the persecuted believers in Rome to strengthen their belief in facts that they already know—thus, he can assume a prior knowledge on the part of his intended readers of the “geographic, sociological, and psychic background” of his story. Mark’s focus is on action; he seems to believe that his story—in and of itself—is so compelling that explanatory details are unnecessary.

From Price’s perspective, Jesus’ ethical instructions are “worn advice”; he questions why Mark includes them, since they occur in “virtually all world religions.” This perception is unfortunate, because it was not healing, but teaching or preaching—“spreading the word”—that was of primary importance to Jesus, as the following passages, among others,...

(The entire section is 2043 words.)