Three Gospelsby Reynolds Price
In Three Gospels, the esteemed novelist, dramatist, scholar, essayist, and poet, Reynolds Price turned his attention back to a literary love he had discovered earlier in his career: translation. But for Reynolds that didn’t mean abandoning his passion for writing original work; powerful and imaginative, Three Gospels offers eloquent translations of/i>/i>… See more details below
In Three Gospels, the esteemed novelist, dramatist, scholar, essayist, and poet, Reynolds Price turned his attention back to a literary love he had discovered earlier in his career: translation. But for Reynolds that didn’t mean abandoning his passion for writing original work; powerful and imaginative, Three Gospels offers eloquent translations of the Gospels of Mark and John as well as a gospel never before seen—an original one written by Price himself. These stunning triumphs of imagination tell and retell some of the most iconic ancient stories in Price’s unparalleled literary voice.
Forget that you ever read a Gospel or heard of Jesus. Read the texts afresh, in a new and relatively literal translation, and listen. This, Price explains, rather than yet another liturgical or "official" version, is his hope for his readers. He tells us that his starting point is literary: he sees the Gospels as stories that have exerted an unequaled pull on human minds. His translations are deliberately conservative, in that they stick closely to the original Greek and avoid paraphrase. The Word in John's Prologue "became flesh and tented among us"; to sin is to "go wrong"; to have faith is "to trust." Price's English has a rugged, plain quality, lacking either archaism or an affected use of modern idiom, except for contractions: e.g. "So they're no longer two but one. Thus what God yoked man must not divide." Price heightens the stark quality of his prose by a very sparing use of punctuation, arguing that the ancient manuscripts have none at all, although he is clearly motivated by his belief that minimal punctuation makes for a "clean" style and elicits attentive reading. His attempt to compose a Gospel of his own is a harmony of the canonical four with additions from unorthodox apocryphal sources. In the essays preceding each section, Price tells us a little about what the Gospels mean to him and how he approaches them. He displays a good working knowledge of Greek and a grasp of the complexities of current New Testament scholarship, much of which, in his capacity as a seasoned critic, he finds absurdly agnostic.
Both linguistically and spiritually stimulating.
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I am hardly alone in the world in saying that the central narratives of the Old and New Testaments -- especially the four life stories called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John -- drew early at my mind and have kept their magnetism for me. In my case, their hold has lasted undiminished nearly six decades. Before I could read I often turned the profusely illustrated pages of Hurlbut's Story of the Bible, imagining what tales had produced such swarming pictures. By the age of eight, I had begun making drawings of my own from the knowledge I gained in reading the tales with my new-won literacy and yielding to the pull of their fresh unnerving actions -- Abraham bent on butchering his Isaac, the boy David with the hacked-off head of a monstrous Goliath, or (strangest and most riveting of all) the birth of a unique glistening child in a strawy stable with attendant angels, shepherds, and Wise Men.
By then, in the countryside near my parents' home, I had also undergone solitary apprehensions of a vibrant unity among all visible things and the thing I guessed was hid beneath the visible world -- the reachable world of trees, rocks, water, clouds, snakes, foxes, myself, and (beneath them) all I loved and feared. Even that early I sensed the world's unity as a vast kinship far past the bond of any root I shared with other creatures in evolutionary time, and the Bible stories had begun to engage me steadily in silence and to draw me toward the singular claim at their burning heart -- Your life is willed and watched with care by a god who once lived here.
Soon I was hoping to spend a good part of my coming life in making pictures and stories of my own. That hopearose partly in emulation of the row of secular books I had come to prize, partly because I had spent hundreds of hours of my childhood in dark movie houses consuming the great filmed stories of the 1930s and forties (some of which told Biblical tales) but also because I meant to learn to exert a power as nearly strong and awful, as irresistible and fertile, as those old stories of ancient Jews and their endless trials. Mine would be stories that felt as near to the truthful ground as the ones I had learned in Genesis, Exodus, Judges, Samuel, Kings, or Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I wanted, over all else, to make new stories that might somehow share in those old stories' radiant will to change whole lives and alter the sun in its course if need be.
By the time I was broiling in adolescence, I could see especially that the four gospels' successful accounts of a single life, a life that was tortured and then transfigured by the dark hand of the source of creation, had not only shaped the actual Earth and the lives of its creatures through two thousand years, those brief accounts had also produced -- as sparks from their core -- the work of my early models and masters: Dante, Michelangelo, Milton, Bach, Handel, the late poems of Eliot, those stories of Ernest Hemingway that also ache for sublime transcendence, and a good many more of the props of life for millions at least as curious and needful as I. My own hopes for work began to take a big share of heat from what I thought was that same core, the life of a man who apparently refused to die (or to be precise, the acts of a man who could rise from death; for the gospels are more nearly records of a chain of acts and a few indispensable words than of a single consecutively examined life).
Given the gospels' continuing force on the lives around me, in the years to come I began to sense that any subsequent secular writer -- even Shakespeare or Tolstoy -- was hardly likely to equal the pull those brief works exert on human minds with no resources but words and an invisible architecture as severe as the desert their hero frequents. Though I have yet to concede entire defeat in my own stories, still -- here after decades of emulation -- I have paused in the usual work I do and attempted to pay in this book a partial installment on my old debt to a pair of tales that have counted as much in my life -- for hope and long-range grounding on Earth -- as the primal tales of my parents' love and its sorrows, the memories of my own first loves and pleasures.
That payment takes the form of close and thoroughly plain translations of the two entirely original gospels -- Mark and John, with prefatory essays -- and a modern gospel written by me on the basis of the classic ancient four, on my knowledge of other early documents pertaining to Jesus, and on what I have gained in reading widely in the recently revived attempt by scholars to provide a minimally reliable history of Jesus' life and work (the original gospels are accurately described, not so much as histories but as histories perceived through the lenses of a sober yet unquestioning trust in the supernatural roots of their hero).
Though I have always tried to make my private narratives -- novels, poems, short stories, plays -- useful beyond my own mind and place, I think I can partly discern why the tales of the ancient gospels, which are one joined tale, have kept their steady heat for any witness who is at least half ready to watch the news that they press toward us and to face, with the guts to answer Yes or No, their imperious claim on our lives. Those partial findings are laid out in my prefaces to the gospels -- Mark's, John's, and my own -- and the findings are open to any reader's judgment once he or she has read the translated texts in my literal English.
The English word gospel is a descendant of the AngloSaxon word godspel or good news. Godspel was an accurate equivalent of the original Greek word euaggelion, literally a good message or good tidings. And the oldest surviving Greek manuscript copies of the four canonical gospels bear only the headings According to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John (the four books together comprise the whole of the single gospel; and the word canonical derives from the Greek kanon or measuring rod and indicates, in this case, those few gospels that were approved as holy scripture by the orthodox church of the late second century).
Those first available complete manuscripts date from the fourth century AD and are copies made more than two centuries after the completion of their originals and well over three centuries after the death and resurgence of their subject. That subject was the scarcely known man Jesus, an itinerant Jewish healer and teacher who worked briefly in an obscure corner of the Roman empire, who moved his mission south from rural Galilee to the Judean capital of his people's theocracy, who incurred there (perhaps intentionally) the lethal opposition of the Temple hierarchy, was executed at the pleasure of the Roman prefect, was thought by his colleagues to have risen bodily from death three days thereafter, to have appeared to them unmistakably, then ascended to Heaven, and proved deserving of their subsequent proclamation that he had been the anointed Son of God who would soon come again to judge humankind and transform the Earth into the reign of God.
Whatever their roots in Aramaic, which was the Semitic language of Jesus and his pupils, the four gospels were written and first circulated in an evolved form of classical Greek, a form called Koine or common language. Anyone writing in the Roman empire in the first century with hopes for the widest possible audience outside Italy itself would have been virtually compelled to write in Koine Greek since Koine was not only the vernacular of Greece itself but also of the Roman Middle East from the fourth century BC until at least the mid-sixth century AD. Yet it was not long after the gospels' slow dissemination in handwritten copies throughout the Roman world that the four texts began to be translated into other languages -- first
Meet the Author
Reynolds Price (1933-2011) was born in Macon, North Carolina. Educated at Duke University and, as a Rhodes Scholar, at Merton College, Oxford University, he taught at Duke beginning in 1958 and was the James B. Duke Professor of English at the time of his death. His first short stories, and many later ones, are published in his Collected Stories. A Long and Happy Life was published in 1962 and won the William Faulkner Award for a best first novel. Kate Vaiden was published in 1986 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Good Priest's Son in 2005 was his fourteenth novel. Among his thirty-seven volumes are further collections of fiction, poetry, plays, essays, and translations. Price is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and his work has been translated into seventeen languages.
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