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Impressions of “The Memoirs of St Peter: A New Translation of the Gospel According to Mark,” by Michael Pakaluk

My brother and sister-in-law gave me this translation of the Gospel According to Mark for Christmas. The work is great, and made me think about Mark’s gospel in a new way. In these impressions I’ll share some background of Mark’s gospel, my impressions from the first translation I read, and my impressions now. I’ll also comment on the quality of the translation as well as translator’s note.

As I said almost four years ago, “The Gospel of Mark is so fast it leaves you dizzy.” What I now see is, The Gospel of Mark shows you the reality behind the reality.

Mark’s Gospel

According to tradition (which on its face is so boring that it’s hardly worth commenting), Mark was Peter’s personal secretary, in the way that Baruch was the secretary to Jeremiah, or as Titus was the secretary of Paul.

However much the Apostle Paul possessed knowledge of the holy Scriptures, and had a gift of speaking and abilities in various languages… he still was incapable of expressing himself, in eloquent Greek words, in such a way as to match the majesty of the divine meanings of things. Therefore, he employed the services of Titus as his interpreter, just as St. Peter employed the services of Mark, whose Gospel was composed by Peter narrating and Mark transcribing.
Excerpted by Pakaluk from St Jerome, “To Hebdia,” Question 11

As the first Pope and Christ’s Prime Minister it stands to reason that Peter was a good speaker, and (as a fisherman) it makes sense that Peter’s written works would be mediated by someone he trusted.

Mark’s Gospel is considered to be stories told by Peter, but arranged by Mark. It is shorter than either, and feels written in a rush. In the New Testament, Mark’s gospel sits between the very Jewish Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, which focuses on women and gentiles. When read in order, Mark serves to underline the basic themes introduced by Matthew, giving depth to Luke’s re-contextualization of them. Or, one could view the entire Hebrew Bible and Matthew as part of one color palette — Mark representing Matthew’s material in black and white — and Luke presenting it again, with a different color palette.

What’s Now Obvious

Pakaluk’s notes begin with an observation that the tenses (past, present, and future) in the Gospel of Matthew are all over the place. A scene will begin in the past tense, shift to present tense, and shift to another tense in Greek. Most translations view these as errors — perhaps Mark was not that good at Greek, or perhaps he was trying to preserve Peter’s stories word-per-word — and smooth them out.

Pakaluk’s “gimmick” is to preserve the confusion of tenses. They make the story come alive. Like a mobster’s confession in The Irishman — “then i tell him,” “he says,” “you guys knows what he had done” — and so on — the narrator becomes a character. Mark is not a presented as a chronology of events — they are presented as a fisherman’s testimony to these events.

But this roughness is used by Mark to emphasize the allegorical and archetypal events of the Gospels. Christ is confirmed in terms by the Holy Spirit and the Father, emerging from the chaos:

Well, as for John, he was clothed in camel hair, with a leather belt around his waist. And for food he ate locusts and wild honey. And he cried out, “Right behind me comes someone greater than I! I am not worthy to stoop down and loosen the tie on his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he himself will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.”

So it was in this setting that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. And immediately, as he was emerging from the water, he saw heaven opened up and the Spirit coming down upon him as a dove. And there was a voice from heaven, “You are my son, my beloved one. I delight in you.”
Mark 1:6-11

And immediately Christ returns into the Chaos:

So right away, the Spirit carries him out into the desert. And he was in the desert for forty days, where he was put to the test by Satan. He faced dangerous animals. And the angels ministered to him.
Mark 1:12-13

In another of these cycles near the beginning of the text, another symbol of chaos and death — the Sea — is emphasized three times:

He began to teach again besides the sea. Such a large crowd gathered around him he had to get into a boat and take his seat there in the sea. The entire crowd was right up to the sea.
Mark 4:1

In the next verse the Narrator reminds the reader of the importance of understanding the real meaning of the story — of listening carefully — and reading between the lines:

He used to teach them many things by drawing comparisons. When he taught, he would say the following to them: “Listen carefully. Look. The sower went out to sow.”
Mark 4:2-3

The parable ends with a hermenutic key of the entire book:

So he says to them, “So you do not grasp this comparison — and how will you grasp every comparison?”
Mark 4:2-3, 13

And after the parable, after the Sea, the Sea, the Sea — what’s on the other side of the sea? Tombs. “Burial caves.” Hills. Death. The devouring mother.

So they arrived on the other side of the sea, in the district of the Gerasenes. As soon as he got out of the boat, a man with an unclear spirit came out of the tombs and confronted him.

This man had made his home among the burial caves. There was no longer any possibility of anyone trying him up, even with chains — he had been repeatedly tied up with chains and shackles, and the chains were pulled apart by him, and the shackles crushed. No one had strength to overpower him. Constantly through the night and during the day he would be among the burial caves and hills, shouting out loud and cutting himself with rocks.

So when he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran to him, and kneeled down in front of him. Shouting in a loud voice, he says, “What do you have to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High? God!! Swear by God that you will not torment me!” (The reason is that Jesus was saying, “Come out, unclear spirit, from the man.”) Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” So he says, “Legion is my name, because we are many.” He begs and begs him not to send them out of that district.
Mark 5:1-10

Christ establishes this pattern — entrance of death, salvation of man — and his disciples are slow to pick it up. Seen analogically, the miracles of the loaves introduces an almost identical theme — wilderness — and the need re-order it. This story begins with a statement that there is a teaching, once again emerging from the watery chaos:

He saw the vast crowd as he got out of the boat. He felt compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd, he started teaching them many things.
Mark 6:34

You are in the crowd. But He feels compassion for you. He is teaching you.

Even in this desolate place. You will not need to buy yourself food.

Come together, like a dinner party. There is more than enough.

When it was already very late, the disciples went up to him and were saying, “This place is desolate.” “It is getting very late.” “Send them away That way they can go to the surrounding farms and towns and buy themselves something to eat.” He replied to them, “You give them something to eat yourselves.” They say to him, “We are supposed to go out and spend two hundred denarii on bread and give it to them to eat?” He says to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go find that out.” They make a determination and say, “Five. And two fish as well.” So he told them to have everyone sit down and form as it were dinner parties, side by side, on the green grass. As they sat down in groups of a hundred and groups of fifty, looking like flower beds set side to side. So taking the five loaves and two fish, he looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to serve to them. He also divided the two fish among all the disciples. Everyone ate and was full.
Mark 6:35-42

Christ expects his disciples — including the reader — to take a lesson, as the scene ends as Christ entrances begin — to be with Him in the sea. While he ascends to the sky:

Immediately after, he made his disciples get into the boat and go across to Bethsaida while he dismissed the crowd. After he sent the crowd away, he went off to a mountain to pray. When the evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake. He was alone on the dry land.
Mark 6:45-47

The roughness of the speech emphasizes the allegorical reality.

And the pattern this creates while reading Mark — that the events have meaning, make it easier to notice variations on a theme

Calling together the crowd, along with his disciples, he told them, “If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself. Let him take up his cross. Let him follow me.”
Mark 8:34

I say to you, get up, take your pallet, and return home!”
Mark 2:11

What to one man is denying himself, is to another doing the opposite of his life: standing instead of sitting. What to one man is a cross to another is a pallett: the instrument of humiliation. What to one man is a journey away to another is a journey home: facing danger.

Pakaluk’s rough-and-ready translation of Mark makes the archetypal themes more vivid. Mark is not just a reset of Matthew, not just black-and-white, but “HDR” – the allegorical reality behind the physical reality bright shining as the Sun.

But sadly, this is not explored. The archetypes present in Mark alert us to an allegorical sense of these scriptures. It is not Pakaluk but Jordan Peterson who best describes this type of language:

It is primordial separation of light from darkness — engendered by Logos, the Word, equivalent to the process of consciousness — that initiates human experience and historical activity, which is reality itself, for all intents and purposes. This initial division provides the prototypical structure, and the fundamental precondition, for the elaboration and description of more differentiated attracting and repulsing pairs of opposites…
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 228-229

and presents its conclusion:

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is the Logos — the word of God — that creates order from chaos — and it is in the image of the Logos that man [“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26)] is created.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 87

An Aside: Peter Across the Texts

The beauty of this translation of Mark’s gospel, and the way it reinforced the Traditional understanding (that these are Peter’s thoughts, and Peter’s monologue, expressed through Mark’s pen) helps me see two inter-related themes across his works: the growing nature of faith, and the role of proclamation in faith.

Mark’s gospel expresses this truth didactically:

[Jesus] questioned the father, “How many times years has he been like this?”

]The boy’s father] said, “Since he was a child. Many times it even throws him into fire or into water, to destroy him. But if if you can do anything… have mercy on us and help us!”

Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’?! Everything is possible for a man who believes.”

Without missing a beat, the father of that little boy cried and out said, “I believe! Help my unbelief!
Mark 9:21-24

The same reality is expressed in narrative form, showing Peter himself believes through proclamation, but has unbelief through his actions:

So while Peter is below the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the chief priests comes up. Seeing Peter warming himself, she looked right at him and then says,”You too were with Jesus of Nazareth.” But he denied it and says, “I neither know nor even understand what you are asking. So he left to go outside the courtyard, to the anteroom. Then a cock crowed. So the servant girl, watching him, started saying again to the men standing there, “This man is one of them.” But he denied it again. So, after a little while, again the men standing there said to Peter, “You are definitely one of them. You are a Galilean, You speak like a Galilean. He began to curse and swear, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” Right then and there a cock crowed for a second time. Peter remembered the statement Jesus had spoken to him, “Before a cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down crying.
Mark 14:66-71

The same theme of dynamic faith is made explicit in Peter’s second letter to the Catholic Church:

But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins.
2 Peter 1:5-9

And the same theme is preserved in the eleventh Qur’anic chapter, which itself is a commentary on 2 Peter:

It was revealed to Noah: ‘None of your people will believe except those who already have faith; so do not sorrow for what they used to do.
Qur’an 11:36

Faith means allegiance, and it can be greater or lesser, but if we judge by the lack of any of it, we may miss God’s patience with us as we desire to have all of it.

Translation and Notes

Given all this praise, it’s inexplicable that Pakaluk does not translate the actual words Mark writes. Throughout the work he translates, and then in a footnote states the actual translation is something else…

So Jesus said to them: “Come, follow me, and I will turn you into fishers of men.”
Mark 1:17

but then as a translator’s note, Pakaluk writes:

The point is reinforced by Lour Lord’s language “I will turn you into” is literally “I will make it so that you become.” Their becoming Fishers of Men will be the result of some kind of effective action on Our Lord’s part.

I have no idea when I can trust the words on the page to be what they mean. An interlinear Greek-English Bible implies the word-for-word translation is:

And said to them, Jesus: “Come after Me and I will make you to become fishers of men.”

But why did Pakaluk add “turn” and remove “make.” No explanation is given.

Robert Alter’s translations of the Hebrew Bible, and Gabriel Said Reynold’s translations of the Qur’an add much to the text. One gets a sense of the significance of the words used, the linguistic subtext to the phrase, and cross-references to other works (including the Bible) with similar themes or phrases. Pakaluk provides some of this, but most of the footnotes are didactic Catholic theology. I appreciate this as a Catholic, but the reader definitely receives what Pakaluk believes to be the correct ideas to believe, and not a fully appreciation for the Word of God in human language.

Here’s a specific example. Note how Pakaluk opens a fascinating door (why do some people have nicknames), and closes it immediately after getting a pre-determined answer (Peter was important, ignore the others). First, the setting:

So he goes up a mountain, and he summons the men he himself had decided upon. They left and came to him. He created Twelve (whom he also named “apostles”), who would be with him; and he would send them out to preach; and they would have authority to expel evil spirits. He appointed the Twelve men: Peter (the name he gave Simon), and James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James (he gave them the names Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder), and Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James, the son of Alphaeus, Thaddeus, Simon from Cana, and Judas Iscariot (the man who actually betrayed him)
Mark 3:13-19

And in the notes…

Peter
Peter is mentioned first, implying priority. By mentioning the conferral of the name Peter, or “Rock,” in connection with the appointment of men to the Twelve offices, Mark suggests that the role of Peter, too, is an office. In the case of the Twelve, the offices are established first and then men are appointed to them. In the case of Peter, however, the man is first chosen and given preeminence, and then the name is conferred on him. The name “Peter” indicates the offices itself is identified with Simon Peter. If it can be passed down, it must be as the office of this man, Peter…

and

Sons of Thunder
This seems a nickname with no juridical significance: Why isn’t Peter, then, also a mere nickname? For two reasons:

Listing the apostles, Mark uses the conferred name Peter and mentions incidentally tat this is the man originally referred to in his narrative as Simon. That is, the conferred name has supplanted the original name. His name as an apostle is Peter, not Simon. Nicknames don’t have that kind of priority.

We do not know with certainty why Jesus called James and John “Sons of Thunder” or why only those two apostles had a special name. So we do not know that it was only a nickname. Yet certainly it has no juridical import, because the names of these apostles remained James and John, not Sons of Thunder, whereas the name of the first apostle becomes Peter.

To me this makes no sense.

  1. Why is the name Peter obviously an office, but “Sons of Thunder” “obviously” not
  2. In what other cases in context of the first century Near East is an Office established this way?
  3. How does “Peter” being an office accord with Christ establishing Peter as Prime Minister?

We don’t know, and the translator doesn’t tell us. Instead we are told what to think.

Conclusion

I am so grateful for having received “The Memoirs of St Peter: A New Translation of the Gospel According to Mark,” by Michael Pakaluk. The preservation of the original tenses is a great gift, and makes Mark’s gospel vivid. It has a distinct narrator and has a clear presence. It’s true that the “message of Mark is that Jesus is for everyone,” but Mark also uses constrast in narrative styles (archetypal settings, approachable dialog) to describe who Jesus is and what He does in ways beyond words. I do not think the translator fully rises to the challenge presented by Mark, but the scope of the work Pakaluk comments on transcends the human.

I read The Memoirs of St Peter is the hard-bound edition.