What I’m Reading: Markos

Markos is better known as the Gospel of Mark, but in Sarah Ruden’s new translation of the Gospels, she hews more closely to the original Greek than most versions. Hence, Mark becomes Markos, Matthew becomes Maththaios, Luke becomes Loukas, John becomes Iohannes, and Jesus becomes Iesous. Similar things happen with most names and even whole verses and passages.

Ruden’s not being fancy or pretentions with this treatment. Just the opposite: Ruden believes that most translations of the Bible take too many liberties with the language to make it accessible to English readers, but thereby lose much of the beauty and the power of the original. Of course, we’ll never get a completely true meaning for the Gospels unless we all learn ancient Greek–every translation necessarily requires judgment calls and compromises–but with a more literal translation, we can get closer to the original feel and meaning.

This makes a difference in reading! It’s amazing how fresh and interesting many parts of Mark struck me. Verses I’d read or heard read dozens of times hit me with new impact. One example is the word Ruden uses for “spirit”–life-breath. Consider the twist this puts on this familiar verse from John, speaking of the soon-to-arrive Jesus: “I’ve baptized you with water, but he’ll baptize you with the holy life-breath.” It really makes the picture of how Jesus baptizes vivid and real, doesn’t it? And how physical the process seems when put that way! At least in my mind I can really imagine the breath of Jesus, warm and moist, and infused with crackling power.

I even noticed things I’d never realized before. For instance, Peter is married. Right there in the very first chapter of Mark, one of the first miracles Jesus performs is going to Peter’s house and healing his mother-in-law of a burning fever. Of course, if Peter has a mother-in-law, he must have a wife, or perhaps he’s widowed. We don’t know, we don’t meet the wife and the situation is never explained. But she may very well be still alive. For me, that puts quite a different spin on Peter’s following Jesus–he’s not just a young man leaving home on an adventure. He’s really giving up his family and home, sacrificing everything to follow this amazing man.

Ruden has even changed the order of the Gospels, putting Mark first rather than Matthew. (Markos rather than Maththaios.) And why shouldn’t she? After all, Mark is the oldest Gospel, and the shortest. Why does Matthew come first in regular bibles, anyway? I wonder if putting it first might not turn off many people who turn to the bible for the first time, starting with Matthew and its initial long list of Jesus’ genealogy. Mark, however, gets right into the story. I think it’s the right call, and gives a different sense to the whole order of Gospels.

Sarah Ruden’s translation of the Gospels is just what I hoped it would be when I ordered it. The familiar stories, but enlivened with a vigorous, and possibly truer, approach to the original material. I plan to continue on and tackle Matthew in this Lenten season, and get to Luke and John next year.

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