The Good News according to Mark
This post has been republished from a post on SomeTheologica.com
Nearly twenty-two years ago, I set out on what I thought would be a fun intellectual exercise: translate the Gospel of Mark into a new kind of English translation. In seminary, I came to love the Gospel of Mark because of its emphasis on Jesus’ humanity, its radical call to discipleship, and its subversive nature. It seemed appropriate to try my hand at translating this remarkable gospel. Who knew that what would be a fun little side project as a seminary student would take over two decades to complete?
But now, at long last, the project is complete, and The Good News according to Mark: Translation and Commentary is available from Amazon in paperback, hardcover, and Kindle formats. (
As of this writing, the paperback ($18) is showing up as “out of stock,” but that should change within a couple of days as Amazon’s algorithms get to work.) All versions are in stock.
I have written about this before in posts sharing news of a first draft and a little bit of a glimpse of the content, but it’s worth taking a few moments to share what made this book such an effort and why it was such a passion to work on for so long.
The Language of the Scriptures
As anyone who knows me can tell you, I have always been fascinated by languages. Just before I started my seminary studies, I took a summer intensive course in Biblical Hebrew. When I began my full-time studies that fall, the first course I had, appropriately enough, was New Testament Greek.
As I studied those languages, I began to understand just how much was being lost when we read the scriptures only in English. I knew that it wasn’t reasonable to expect everyone to learn Hebrew and Greek, but I wondered if there were a way to translate the scriptures that allowed a reader to get a glimpse of the underlying text.
I’m not the first to have thought of this, of course. There are plenty of translations that help you peer into the original (Everett Fox’s translation of the Torah comes to mind). Those translations are fun and really interesting, but they’re also weird. That is, it can be really instructive to see that one passage in Genesis speaking of appease, on ahead, presence, receive kindly, and ahead of him is really just a series of idioms using the word face: wipe his face, ahead of my face, see his face, lift up my face, and before his face. That translation really helps you to see the underlying structure and idiom of the Hebrew. The problem is: no one talks like that in English. So, you have traded faithfulness to the original for comprehensibility and naturalness in English—and English translations already struggle to be natural sounding.
Ever since the Bible was translated into English, it has suffered from attempting to sound like the Hebrew or the Greek originals, perhaps not as much as the Fox translation, but enough that it doesn’t entirely sound like natural English. For example, traditional translations are fond of following the formula “the X of Y,” such as “the Kingdom of God,” even though the natural English way to express that relationship is “Y’s X”: “God’s kingdom.” Similarly, Greek has no problem with a sentence that reads, “And after entering, coming up to him they said to him, saying….” But if you were to have written that sentence in English from scratch, it would have been closer to: “After they entered, they came up to him and said…”. English just doesn’t use as many participles as Greek does. Many Bible translations are unable to shake the echoes of prior translations and the underlying syntax.
So, what to do? Should I translate the gospel text with an eye toward peering through the English to the underlying Greek (and even Aramaic)? Or should I endeavor to write a translation that sounded as if it had been written in English from the very beginning? One of the reasons that this project took so long was that I kept changing my mind about this question, leaping from literal to dynamic in my translation approach.
Eventually, I would heed those ancient words of wisdom recently expressed by Taco Bell: ¿Porque no los dos? Why not both?
So that’s what I did. I decided to do two translations. The first translation was a hyper-literal translation, so literal that it often preserved the awkward syntax and phrasing of the Greek and even provided the literal meanings of names and places: Jahsaves for Jesus and Comfortville for Capernaum. The second translation was a “reader’s translation,” designed to be easily read and to sound like it had been written in English from the start. For this version, I translated names and places as they would have been in the Old Testament to provide some continuity there: Jeshua for Jesus, Jacob for James, and Mariam for Mary.
But what should such a translation look like? What would be the best way to present these two translations side-by-side in a way that is engaging and informative? Well, all the best ideas are usually stolen, so I stole my idea from the Talmud.
The Talmud is a body of Jewish law, teaching, and interpretation based on commentaries around the Mishnah, a first-century record of the Oral Law. Over the centuries, different rabbis would offer their insights and understandings concerning a portion of the Mishnah, creating a centuries-spanning conversation on Jewish law. In the sixteenth century, a Dutch-Venetian printer named Daniel Bomberg introduced an innovative layout to publish the Talmud, in which the Mishnaic text was placed in the center of the page, and the various commentaries were placed around it.
Ever since I first saw the layout of the Talmud, I have been intrigued by its design and the way that so much information can be presented on a page. So I stole it for my translation. Here is how that translation begins (Mark 1:1–3):
With this format, I placed the Greek text of the New Testament (using the Nestle–Aland version) in the center of the page. In the left-hand column are the Hyper-Literal Translation, Translation Notes explaining the translation choices made, and an Excursus on the authorship of the Gospel of Mark. In the right-hand column are the Reader’s Translation and the commentary. In the marginal column are text references from the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament, some text notes about the original manuscripts, and references for material I have cited in the text.
Here is how The Good News according to Mark presents the story of Jesus’ stilling of the storm (Mark 4:33–41):
The Language of Mark
I had a lot of fun researching and writing the commentary and providing the maps, tables, charts, and diagrams that are found throughout The Good News according to Mark. But this project is, first and foremost, about translation. Although there is textual analysis and commentary, my primary aim in this book was to put before the reader a presentation of different levels of translation for this sacred text. In so doing, I hoped to allow the reader to see the fundamental strangeness of the text and its familiarity at the same time, and come to see just what it is that I have come to love about Mark’s gospel.
I hope you will explore this book and enjoy it; I think a lot of people would enjoy such a text—from beginning learners to adult Bible study classes to college and seminary students. If people purchase it and get something out of it, that would make me very happy.
But really—I’m just happy that it’s done. ❦
The Good News according to Mark: Translation and Commentary is available from Amazon.