Three Gospels

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2043

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...

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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, indicate: “Let’s go elsewhere to the nearest cities so I may spread the word there too. I came for this” and “Leaving there they passed through Galilee. He wanted no one to know since he was teaching his disciples.” The preeminence of teaching explains, in part, Jesus’ “sporadic concern for secrecy” and why he often commanded people he healed to tell no one—the publicity that brought crowds of people seeking to be healed by Jesus interfered with his teaching so that “he could no longer enter a city openly but was out in desert places.” As Price suggests, there may be a common ethical core to major world religions, but it is unlikely that Mark, a Galilean Jew, was acquainted with Buddhism, Hinduism, or Confucianism, and the ethical demands of the Greco-Roman gods and the mystery religions of the Roman world were negligible. Jesus’ teaching finds common ground with Judaism, obviously, but the spirit of the law and the lofty teaching of the prophets was obscured in his day by the legalistic and ritual demands of the Pharisees. Jesus’ message, therefore, must have seemed as fresh to his listeners as Price hopes his will be to modern readers. Furthermore, as Price points out, Jesus taught with unparalleled authority, unlike any his listeners had ever experienced; it astounded the crowd and enraged many of the Pharisees, an outcome that eventually led to his crucifixion.

In a discussion of the question of authorship of the gospel, Price leans toward the tradition that much of Mark’s narrative is derived firsthand from the apostle Peter. He then presents another outline—the “spine” of Mark’s story which ends with the empty tomb—and confronts the reader with the boldness and immediacy of Mark’s challenge: “Obey this man I have summoned before you; take your own cross and walk behind him.”

The Gospel or “The Good News” According to Mark is the next chapter. Verse and chapter indications found in other versions are omitted in this and his other gospels, which makes for smoother storytelling, but complicates comparisons with other translations. Some redundancy of the King James Version is corrected—for example, “And very early in the morning the first day of the week” (King James Version) is translated “Very early on the first day of the week”; and some passages are clearer: “Take your pallet and walk” makes more sense to a modern reader than the familiar “Take up thy bed and walk.” Nevertheless, the frequent omission of punctuation and a very literal translation make the going rough at times. The last twelve verses, which do not appear in the earliest manuscripts, are omitted from this translation.

In his preface to the Good News According to John—a “work of madness or blinding revelation”—Price includes anecdotal and scholarly evidence supporting the early tradition that the gospel was written in Ephesus toward the end of the first century c.e.. He invites veteran readers of the Bible to make their approach to this gospel “freshly” to discover the “hair-raising newness of one slender tract.” John’s purpose is to convince people that Jesus is the Messiah and he packs the whole story into one brief introduction—“At the start was the Word.” . . . “the Word became flesh and tented among us. We watched his glory, glory like that of a father’s one son full of grace and truth.”

There follows a summary of the gospel, noting omissions, comparisons and a few contradictions to the other gospels, and many details, such as place names, not found in other gospels: For example, John recalls three trips to Jerusalem; the others, only one; he skips Jesus’ early Galilean ministry; he tells readers that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God to Nicodemus (and how Nicodemus later shared in the cost of Jesus’ burial). Yet John gives little attention to the parables and ethical teaching found in the other gospels.

Price’s discussion of how Jesus’ sense of humor comes through in his meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well is delightful, and his exegesis of Jesus’ use of the Greek pronoun and verb “I am” (the name of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14) and the “I am” metaphors (“I’m the bread of life”), is very good. He explains the revulsion of the Jews when Jesus, speaking metaphorically, tells the crowd that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood—“Eat me, flesh and blood”—or they cannot have life. Thereafter, according to Price, John has only three great deeds to present: Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, his acceptance of death, and his resurrection. Price omits the story of the woman taken in adultery, even though he believes it has the ring of authenticity, because it is not in the oldest manuscripts, although he includes it in his own gospel narrative. He captures the rage of Jesus’ enemies when Jesus says,“Amen amen I tell you before Abraham was I am,” clearly indicating his claim, “I am God himself, here and now; I have always been, will always be”— Jesus had blasphemed the name of Yahweh, and, according to Mosaic law, deserved to die. Price’s retelling of the story of Lazarus is especially warm and moving—Jesus makes Martha “the promise that anyone bereaved of a loved one wants— Your brother will rise again. . . . I’m the resurrection and the life. Who trusts in me even if he should die will live.’” The next scene is that of the enemies of Jesus plotting his death; Jesus again retreats, but returns to face death. The rest of the text, almost half its length, tells the story of that last week on earth, full of incidents and discourses which Price outlines with a running commentary; he then returns to a discussion of authenticity and authorship, ending with his summation of the thrust of the gospel, “The Maker of all things loves and wants me.”

The translation of John’s gospel, which Price believes to be an eyewitness account, follows. It is eloquent, and reads very much like the King James Version, with updated pronouns and other changes already discussed.

The preface to Price’s own gospel explains that this work is the result of a seminar Price conducted, in which students composed their own gospels or “lives.” Price follows Mark’s chronology, integrating selected events and discourses from the other gospels; he includes a few invented speeches and “bridges” between incidents, that are suggested by apocryphal stories and his own firsthand knowledge of Palestine. His gospel presents the story with a clarity that will appeal to modern readers. It is an account even more meaningful to readers who know of Price’s long, personal struggle with cancer, pain, and paralysis.

Although both fundamentalists and liberals may be offended by this book, Price’s honesty, his obvious comfort and delight with the texts, his skill as a storyteller and his ability to involve the reader in an intimate exploration of ancient accounts that still have meaning for contemporary lives make Three Gospels a rewarding experience.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXXIV, March 16, 1996, p. 18.

Booklist. XCII, February 15, 1996, p. 963.

The Christian Century. CXIII, June 5, 1996, p. 633.

The Christian Science Monitor. May 30, 1996, p. 14.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 30, 1996, p. 6.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, May 19, 1996, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, April 8, 1996, p. 60.

Southern Living. XXXI, June, 1996, p. 130.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, May 5, 1996, p. 4.

The Wilson Quarterly. XX, Summer, 1996, p. 102.

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