An interview with Michael Pakaluk, author of The Memoirs of St. Peter, a new translation and commentary on the Gospel of Mark (Gateway Editions, $18.89).
Catherine Pakaluk: Mark’s Gospel has been around for quite a while—two thousand years, in fact. Why did you write a book about it now?
Michael Pakaluk: We do things for personal reasons, and then sometimes it turns out there are larger reasons. It’s no secret that the Catholic Church is facing a serious crisis these days. Whether it’s “the most serious” it has ever faced, or comparable to the Protestant Reformation or something like that, remains to be seen. But it’s very serious. Historically, what happens when the Church goes through a crisis is that Catholics return to basic things—such as an emphasis on the life of prayer and a personal relationship with Christ. But we also turn to Scripture as a sure touchstone. Suppose the crisis in the Church has something to do with the Petrine office: then so much the better if one can write a book which meets this need to return to Scripture while at the same time emphasizing the reality and presence of the Petrine office. That’s precisely what my book does.
As a purely personal matter, it is a dual expression of my love of Scripture, which I acquired in my evangelical Protestant years, and of my love of the pope, which I acquired as a Catholic. Or it’s my wanting to share with others some of the things I’ve learned from a thirty-year habit of reading the Gospel daily, typically in Greek.
Catherine: What are some of those insights you have wanted to share?
Michael: One thing I want people to see is that even an apparently simple Gospel such as Mark’s is extremely interesting intellectually, if one approaches it as true (that is, on its own terms) and if one asks, “What must things have been like for this to be truthfully reported as it is here?” I have found that asking this question about the so-called “literal” sense—that is, how things actually happened—is tremendously fruitful.
Commentators today—and most priests in their homilies—move quickly to psychological or moralistic lessons they draw from Scripture. But I say: See what you can find in the literal sense. Why? Because Christianity is incarnational. The Word became flesh for a reason, so that we see it in the flesh. It’s a mistake to take a well-crafted story and say that what it is really asserting is some kind of moralistic lesson, and that the story is mere window-dressing. When people would ask Flannery O’Connor about the meaning of her stories, she would say, “The story is the meaning.” When we look at the Gospels in that way, they become intensely interesting.
Catherine: I agree that this is interesting. But you said in particular that this was “intellectually interesting.”
Michael: Christianity gets shortchanged as stupid and simplistic. Yes, often Christians are to be blamed for this—piety has a way of overriding cleverness. It can make us lazy and not develop virtue. We easily take it to be a substitute for virtue—in the original sense of strength, facility, power. In reality, when deeply meditated upon, Christianity has been a great engine of creativity in science, in art, in literature. I think of those really clever people at Google and tech firms and feel a certain jealousy for the intellectual interest of the gospel, and I want to make that case to them—that this is as interesting intellectually as anything else or perhaps even more so, because the matter is so important. Why should they take Christianity seriously if it’s stupid and dull? As St. Josemaría Escrivá said, “You catch a fish by the head.”
Catherine: You haven’t said anything about the translation yet. It almost sounds as if you think the commentary, not the translation, is the chief contribution of your book. But every reviewer has praised your translation, and to be honest, it was the translation that most captivated me at first.
Michael: I wrote the commentary first, and the translation as an afterthought! But one last point about the commentary: One other thing I’m interested in doing is breaking the stranglehold that professional biblical scholars have on intelligent reading of the Bible. This is something new. They did not have this monopoly 150 years ago, when every educated person could read Greek, Latin, and often Hebrew. And scholars back then would destroy most of the things asserted by the professional biblical scholars now. I can’t supply a knowledge of Greek to a reader who hasn’t studied it. But I wish to show that someone who uses ordinary methods of reading a text carefully can usually do better on his own. For example: asking why this word and not an available alternative was used; asking what is presupposed in a certain manner of speaking; looking for the structure and order; or simply paying better attention to details.
Here’s an example of how we don’t pay attention to details. When Jesus says “Get behind me Satan!”, who is he looking at? You’d think Peter, but Mark says that he turns away from Peter and looks at the disciples when he says this. Does that detail have a meaning or not? We can’t say until we notice it.
Catherine: What makes your translation different? You just said it was an “afterthought.”
Michael: Let’s say that one cannot write a careful commentary without also looking at the language so carefully that one might as well do a translation. But I’m a big stickler for accuracy in translation. I want each English sentence to capture everything that’s going on in the Greek sentence without conveying or suggesting anything not in the Greek sentence. This is a very high standard, and most translations don’t live up to it. That’s the first thing that needs to be said about my translation: It is not a paraphrase. It is highly accurate and could be used as a Study Bible (although that’s not its purpose).
Catherine: Would you have to get Church approval for a Study Bible?
Michael: Canon law says that translations into the vernacular must be approved by one’s bishops conference or the Vatican itself. But the canon which stipulates this is meant for translations that “hold themselves out” as official, the sort of thing that one might use in a liturgy or common devotion. When a canon lawyer friend consulted with the relevant USCCB committee about my translation, he was told that it did not need official approval.
Catherine: You mentioned the accuracy of your translation, but what readers seem to love is its vibrancy.
Michael: One of the things “in the Greek sentences” of Mark, which I strove to capture in the English—with rewrite after rewrite, revision after revision, and much tweaking—is a sense of immediacy, of an eyewitness telling about something he’s seen. It’s something ineffable, similar to what we call the “ring of truth.” It comes through, for example, in how different a soldier’s diary is from a detailed history or work of historical fiction. Mark’s Gospel is like that, and scholars who read it in Greek regularly comment on it. So my goal in the translation was always to preserve this freshness and sense of immediacy.
Catherine: Some have said reading your translation is like reading the Gospel for the first time.
Michael: That’s good, because I want people to love the Gospel more, and see more in it, and that feeling of a new encounter helps toward those things. But I also want my book to be apostolic. I want it to pose the question: Is it true or not? You can’t decide that until you take Mark’s Gospel “on its own terms,” and this means reading it as an eyewitness account of something that actually happened.
I want the translation to “slap people in the face” and wake them up, so that they see what is at stake, and decide one way or the other. And I think when the question of the good news is posed in that way, there are only two alternatives: to assent that it is true, or to conclude that Mark was hallucinating. There is no reasonable third position. So in that sense I hope the book proves valuable for evangelization. There are few books better to give to an atheist for posing the question of the truth of Christianity.
Catherine: Your book is entitled The Memoirs of St. Peter. An underlying idea of your commentary is that Mark was something like a scribe or interpreter, whose written account is based on St. Peter’s preaching, presumably in Rome.
Michael: That’s related to the vivid eyewitness character of Mark’s narrative. Mark, after all, was not an eyewitness. So who was? When one looks at the evidence it’s surprising how little we think today of what was taken for granted in the early Church, that St. Peter is the authority behind Mark’s Gospel. In fact, the description “memoirs of St. Peter” is from the Church Fathers.
Catherine: Is there other evidence supporting St. Peter as the origin?
Michael: I did not write this book to argue for that thesis. I would enjoy writing such a book and could do so, but that’s not what I did here. Actually, that Mark’s Gospel is the “memoirs of St. Peter” is something I became gradually convinced of in the course of writing this book. But I do “in passing” touch the most important evidence. Some of it is quite subtle, as one would expect. For example, Mark’s Gospel is mainly about deeds, not discourses: Jesus is presented as someone who expels demons, does mighty works, and forgives sins. He preaches very little, and then mainly at the end of the Gospel, after he’s entered the Temple. But that’s what we expect someone like Peter would be impressed by and find most salient for introducing us to Jesus. After all, Peter was a man of action, and his first response to Jesus was apparently “depart from me, Lord, because I am a sinful man.”
Mark’s Gospel shows a preoccupation with the nature of authority in religion and especially in the new Church, in contrast with that of the Pharisees. There is also a great correspondence between the themes in Mark’s Gospel and those in the first letter of Peter. And Mark’s Gospel puts St. Peter’s foibles on display, more than other Gospel accounts.
Michael Pakaluk is professor of ethics at the Catholic University of America. Catherine Ruth Pakaluk is Michael’s wife, and also Assistant Professor of Social Research and Economic Thought at The Tim and Steph Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America.