One of the finest perks of a vocation in teaching is the time off around Christmas.  My wife and I were lucky enough to stay with my parents and relive my New England childhood for nine December days last month.  On the feast of Saint John, my mom and I went to an early morning Mass and over breakfast she told me, “I’d like to know more about Saint John.”  She asked me if there was a particular book about him that I should read.  In a flash, I remembered an interview with Michael Pakaluk I’d conducted for this blog right as the pandemic started.  He had recently released a translation and commentary of Mark’s Gospel entitled The Memoirs of Saint Peter.  Part of the interview had concerned his ongoing work on John’s Gospel and plans to make a complete translation of the four Gospels.  Living the chaotic life of a COVID-era schoolteacher I had lost track of Pakaluk’s work since then.  I put down my fork, picked up my phone, and checked to see if the translation of John had been released.  Not only had it been released, it was almost two years old!

Entitled Mary’s Voice in the Gospel According to John, Pakaluk has once again graced us with a fresh translation with a commentary written for the praying and believing Christian.  For those not familiar with his earlier work, Michael Pakaluk is a philosopher and professor at Catholic University’s Busch School of Business.  He studied at Harvard and under John Rawls wrote a dissertation on Aristotle’s theory of friendship.  His subsequent work has continued in this rich vein of Aristotelian philosophy and personal relationships.  Both of his scriptural works contain rich insights based on the tradition passed on from the ancient Church that Mark knew Peter and that John truly did take the Blessed Mother into his home and live with her until her Assumption.

Pakaluk’s commentary on each chapter first views the block of text as a whole, and points out the Marian dimension present.  I do not mean that this is a work of Mariology, but that it looks at Jesus through the eyes of the one who “pondered all these things in her heart” and meditated on them in those years after the Ascension.  It is these meditations in particular that make this book excellent spiritual reading. 

After this meditation, Pakaluk annotates particular verses of the text.  Often they are features of the Greek that don’t quite come through in English.  Other times he is explaining a choice or making us aware of some historical point.  They are much more complete and detailed than that which you would find in a study Bible, but much more approachable and devotional than what you might find in, say, Fr. Raymond Brown’s translation and commentary.  This reminds me of something I have long felt: what we think of as “scholarly” is a result of a particular rationalism that can only coexist with Christian faith in tension.  Pakaluk’s commentary feeds one’s faith.  He does not accomplish this by dumbing down the material.  Rather, he views it with the same eyes of an intelligent and lively faith that the Church Fathers did.       

As for Pakaluk’s translation, I meant it when I called it “fresh”.  Especially if your bedside Bible is the RSV, NRSV, ESV, or even the NABRE or Douay Rheims, the vocabulary and diction of your scripture reading remains in the shadow of the Tyndale-King James tradition.  Professor Pakaluk’s rendering of the text is indeed fresh and new.  Its language is contemporary but never colloquial.  It is on the literal end, but never feels like an interlinear.  One of its more interesting features is his literal translation of the “I am” passages.  Like the work of Richmond Lattimore, for those who are familiar with his translation of the New Testament, it gives you insight on the work in its original language without resorting to Elizabethan vocabulary.

In the interview below, I think you will find Michael Pakaluk a fascinating guide into the world of scripture.  If you are looking for a book to read this Lent, I think his translation and commentary would be an excellent choice.

“Mary’s voice in the Gospel According to John” is your second Gospel translation and commentary project, following your work with Mark in “The Memoirs of St. Peter”.  Tell me about the differences you found working with these two sacred authors.

On its face, Mark’s gospel is fresh, boisterous, all blunderbuss, and obviously telling the story of someone who is deeply impressed by Jesus as a doer of works which show forth divine power, especially casting out demons.  John’s gospel in contrast looks upon the life of Jesus from a distance, with a little bit of sadness, and mainly wants to capture him in relationship with others, especially in conversations and debates.  Mark’s gospel presents Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion as a sudden, unexpected, and completely unaccountable calamity; John’s gospel presents it as something foreseen, and which unfolds almost as if it is commanded by the Lord, and which in a sense ‘had to be’, because the Word could not enter the world without being as it were spat out.  The two gospel writers could not be more different.  Admittedly the differences can get hidden by translations which aim at a certain uniformity of high, Biblical language.  In contrast, I’ve tried — not through any kind of paraphrase, mind you, but rather through scrupulous accuracy—to bring out as much as possible what is distinctive in each.

You take seriously the tradition that the Virgin Mary spent years with Saint John in Ephesus, and that one may hear her influence in the work of the apostle.  For our readers, could you summarize how you listened for the voice of the Blessed Mother in the sacred text?

I’m an Aristotle scholar. I’ve done a lot of work in comparative textual analysis, developmental studies, and redaction criticism, because Aristotle scholarship too went in this direction in the 20th century.  However, in the interpretation of Aristotle I’ve found these methods to be ultimately sterile for philosophical insights into Aristotle.  In contrast the study of his relationship to persons, especially his arguments with Plato, proves to be tremendously fruitful.  So too, then, in the case of the gospels also: although I have studied so-called higher criticism carefully, I have chosen in these books to adopt the approach of reading each gospel in relation to a person— to read the gospel of Mark as in relation to Peter, and the gospel of John in relation to Mary.  I’ve picked these persons because a fairly reliable tradition connects them with the gospel writers.  I have no interest in proving or attempting to prove that Mary influenced the way John wrote the gospel. My approach is rather, as I say, Bayesian — I simply suppose, as a working hypothesis, that Mary did live with John for thirty years, and that therefore she inevitably would have shaped everything he thought about Jesus, and then I ask whether one can identify details of the gospel which might plausibly be attributed to this relationship.   I do so not as an abstract scholarly exercise, but with the express purpose of looking at the gospel in an entirely fresh light— because we all enjoy and profit from looking at things in a new way, when that new perspective is truthful and illuminating.

I was struck with how intelligently faithful your commentary is.  One example is noting the use of “heōs” in John 9:18, and how its use is mirrored in Matthew 1:25.  Could you say a few words about this particular passage for the benefit of our readers?

When in English one says, “they refrained from doing F until time T,” one does not state but implies that, after time T, they did F.  The philosopher Paul Grice called such a presupposed but not stated idea an “implicature” of one’s statement.  For example, if someone asks, “Did you stop beating your dog?”, it is presupposed but not stated that you have been beating your dog. That’s an implicature.  Whether a language does or does not have implicatures for certain expressions is solely a matter of convention.  A speaker would have to have an “ear” for it.  For a written, dead language, one gleans the presence or absence of implicatures from the study of the word in many contexts.  The Greek term heōs does not carry with it the implicature of “until”, and John 9:18 shows that nicely.

There seems to be a hunger for Bible study resources which draw on the riches of the Church’s exegesis of scripture, and not just historical-critical studies.  Your two Biblical works would certainly appeal to one who feels that need.  What resources do you use as a faithful and believing reader of scripture?

St. Thomas Aquinas’s Catena Aurea is a tremendous first source.  This is a work, a “golden chain,” in which St. Thomas weaves together a running commentary drawing freely from nearly all of the Fathers who wrote on a text.  You can find it online here.  But different gospels also have masterwork commentaries from the Fathers and other spiritual writers.  For example, probably the greatest commentary on any gospel of all time would be St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew.   But I also profit greatly from the sober, balanced commentary of fellows at Oxford and Cambridge in the 19th century.  These were tremendously learned men, very skilled in ancient languages, who were generally working in an Anglo-Catholic framework—especially the scholars influenced by the Oxford movement.  I think it was Peter Kreeft who pointed out that it’s stupid to say “you can’t turn back the clock.”  You can, and, if it’s not telling the right time, you certainly should.  I see no reason why we shouldn’t back to this high period of erudite scholarship and draw deeply from it.

It seems to me that the preferences of many young Catholics are for Bible translations like the RSV, ESV, Douay Rheims, and even the King James which retain some or all of the traditional phraseology: Behold, begat, multitude, and so on.  Your translation work seems more meant to replicate the initial oral proclamation of these Gospel texts, even if it means using a humble word rather than an elevated one.  In your rendering, for example, John 1:36 is in part, “Look! It is the Lamb of God.”  Reading that made me realize I have a silly attachment to the word “behold”, though I never ever use it in my own writing or reading.  Were there “memory verses” or consecrated phrases that were difficult to dispense with in your translation work?

When I first did serious work of translation of Aristotle, I did so under the line-by-line scrutiny of a really fine scholar who had a knack for that sort of thing, J. L. (“John”) Ackrill.  John would insist that I never render anything into English except into a sentence a current English speaker would say — not necessarily colloquial English—it can be high English—but most definitely English.  I am an English speaker, and fairly adept at the language, and what I am using right now is English.  If I would never say it, then I should never put a translation like that.  I am a good judge of that, because I’m good at English.

Besides the Virgin Mary, Saint John Henry Newman is a constant companion in your commentary, both as a preacher and as translator of the Catena Aurea. What draws you to Newman, and how would you suggest our readers familiarize themselves with this saint?

Newman’s motto when he was created a cardinal was “Cor ad cor loquitur,” which means “Heart speaks to heart.”  A key theme of his thought is the importance of what he called “personal influence,” an unstudied and spontaneous mode by which friends help one another to be better.  Since my interpretation of John’s gospel is predicated on precisely this sort of personal influence between John and Mary, and I take the gospel to be recounting a series of encounters between persons, Newman was a natural choice as a guide.  It turns out the that Newman Reader website has a concordance which maps verses of the New Testament to pages in Newman’s works, where he comments on the verse.  I didn’t know it in advance, but wouldn’t you know that the verses which Newman comments upon most, and most consecutively, are those in the gospel of John?  It was clearly the most important gospel for him.  As for readers who want to become familiar with this saint, everyone recommends, and I agree, beginning with his great spiritual autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

My copy of Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons was on my bedside table last Advent.  It was like sleeping next to a cinder block!  I never settled on a strategy for reading it.  At times I just opened to a random page and read for a little while.  What is your way of tackling this massive and amazing work?

It took me a year to read it.  In consultation with my spiritual director, I adopted it as my daily spiritual reading. I ’m a pretty fast reader, so others will likely take a little longer, but I found that by reading a little of it each day faithfully for a year, I got through the book.  It is an amazing work to be sure.  People say it is one of the very great classics of Christian spirituality.  I agree entirely.  Something one sees in the sermons is a very lively, concrete encounter with the persons in the Bible.  It was from Newman that I learned to read the Bible as I do.

Newman wrote these sermons when he was still an Anglican, though he was plainly already 9/10ths of his way into the Catholic Church.  Are there any religious figures outside of our communion that you think more Catholics ought to know and read?

Well, yes, most of those 19th c. scholars at Oxford and Cambridge I mentioned were not Catholics.  One scholar I can definitely endorse is Alfred Plummer.  He wrote the ICC commentary volume on Luke, as well as St. John for the Cambridge Bible.  But the riches of the Catholic tradition are so vast that a Catholic really ought to begin there.

Your love and knowledge for Saint Thomas Aquinas comes through in this book.  I sense he is slowly being known as a biblical commentator and not just “the Summa guy”.  What do we get from the Angelic Doctor’s commentaries that we won’t get from his works of theology?

Some really great Thomists have said that a student does not know St Thomas until he’s studied his commentary on the gospel of John.  There one sees clearly the devotion that underlies all of his elegant philosophizing.  In the commentaries we see most clearly St. Thomas’ faith.

We just lost a modern giant in Pope Benedict XVI, a thinker who I think will rate with Newman and maybe even Aquinas for the Catholics of a future century.  I think your biblical works fit in perfectly with his call for a renewal in ecclesial exegesis.  How did the late Pope influence your work, whether in scriptural commentary or philosophy?

I share completely with the late Pope the conviction that we are all called to be saints, each in his own way, and that the Christian life is and should be a life of adventure, joy, and dynamism, in the discovery of the Lord, and in entering into a “personal relationship” with him.  That the essence of Christianity is a personal relationship with Christ is something I learned, and first experienced, as an Evangelical Protestant, and I have never flagged in this conviction as a Catholic, but just the opposite.  I see no path of ecclesial renewal which does not run through the project of meeting Our Lord in Sacred Scripture.

My devotion to Saint Mary Magdalene has been growing the past few years.  I feel I know her a bit better from reading your book.  Who did you grow in fondness for through your work on this project?

For sure, Mary Magdalene as well, but also some women saints in general.  My work on the book helped me gain a better appreciation for the distinctive holiness of women.  In particular, I developed a deep love for the saints mentioned in the Roman Canon— Felicity, Perpetua, Lucy, Cecilia, Agnes, Agatha, Anastasia. I go to them constantly and call them “my philosophical ladies.”

My vocation is that of teaching, and during some recent professional development I encountered a psychologist admitting that “girls and boys are as different from the neck up as they are from the neck down…I’ve come to believe that the brain is the most genderized part of the body.”  A lot of recent battles over gender ideology seem to be based on minimizing or denying all differences between the sexes.  Some of your meditations on John’s Gospel stem from the recognition of feminine aspects of the text, even one as subtle as feminine patterns of memory as they differ from masculine ones.  Tell us a bit about this.

It’s a sensitive topic, still, all good educators discern the distinctive talents of their students and aim to draw these out, and amplify them, rather than suppress them, rendering everyone uniform.  Therefore, it becomes of the highest importance to discern properly what is male and what is female.  Of course, this task has been carried out in foolish and destructive ways.  That is why Scripture can be so helpful for us.

When I first started reading the Bible, I often skipped John’s farewell discourses.  There was not enough action!  Jesus seemed to be talking in circles.  My attitude has changed completely over the years.  Now I find when I read it that I am in the presence of a living and burning fire.  What insight can you offer as a translator of these chapters of John’s Gospel?

We take them for granted.  Imagine then that we never had them, but somewhere in the tradition there was a reference to “the farewell discourses of Our Lord at the Last Supper.”  Wouldn’t you burn with love in the hopes that some day someone might discover them?  Well, on my understanding, this is what Mary gave the Church: she in effect told John that the writings of the Apostles absolutely could not omit these discourses.

You did something in “Mary’s Voice in John’s Gospel” that I rarely encounter in a contemporary book: a sense of how the Gospel narratives fit together.  You mention how Jesus perhaps expected the disciples to remember the Wedding at Cana when they heard the saying about new and old wineskins from Matthew 9, Mark 2, and Luke 5.  You made me realize how often I read or hear the Gospels as if in a vacuum, separate from each other.  What comes alive for the reader who reads the Gospels as four parts of a harmony?

We have to understand that the life of Our Lord was preached for decades and even centuries in some places without written texts.  Maybe you know people who have known a saint — for example, I know several different people who knew Mother Theresa.  It would be absurd to conceive of the inheritance passed down by these acquaintances as somehow separated into different silos. The different gospel accounts must be interpreted in this way.  It’s not a special hermeneutic principle but just commonsense.

I have heard that your Matthew volume is nearing release.  Will we be getting a complete set of four Gospels with your commentary someday?

My contract stipulates August for finishing Matthew.  I am certainly planning to translate Luke so that all four can be placed into a single volume.  But whether I write a commentary on Luke depends upon whether I discover a valuable enough line of investigation. For Matthew, I have looked carefully at banking, accounting, and tax practices at the time of Christ, and I have asked whether we see in the gospel of Matthew the work of someone who was familiar with that “world” of accounting and banking, and did not leave it behind but brought it forward into his life as a disciple.

To finish off, could you leave us with a translation of which you are particularly proud?

I like how I detect, or so I believe, changes in how Jesus is represented as speaking, to match the character of the person he is speaking with — how he exchanges witticisms with the woman at the well, or becomes precise and legal in dealing with Nicodemus, or uses philosophical language in dealing with the inquirers who come from Greece.  It’s clear to me that (as many scholars suppose) Jesus spoke Greek, and in this last passage I hear his own use of Greek, not Aramaic rendered into Greek.  The language has philosophical precision.  Each sentence (as I explain in the commentary) contains a compressed argument which corresponds to a philosophical view common among the Greeks. True, the language can seem at first a little stilted for this reason—because it is so precise and philosophical, not ordinary language.  But precision here is essential.

Here is the passage, John 12:24-27:

24  “Amen, amen, I tell you—if a grain of wheat, after it falls into the earth, should fail to die, it stays itself alone. But if it should die, it bears much fruit.”
25  “If someone loves his soul, he destroys it. If someone hates his soul, in this world, he will guard it safely for life everlasting.”
26  “If it be me that someone would serve, then let it be me that he follows: and then, where I am, there too my servant will be.”
“If it be me that someone would serve, it is him that the Father will honor.”
27  “As it is, my soul is greatly troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, rescue me from this hour?’ Yet it was because of this that I came to this hour:
28 ‘Father, glorify your name!’”

4 thoughts on “Q&A with Michael Pakaluk, Translator of the Gospel of John — Guest Post by Bob Short”

  1. This sounds like a winner. I might try and pick up the existing volumes at the library, but I think I’ll definitely get the complete set of the four Gospels once they’re all done. From the sound of things, this is what many had hoped DBH’s New Testament would’ve been, just without the more troubling aspects; a fresh, new translation that sounds in English to English speakers in the 21st century how it would’ve sounded in Greek to Greek speakers in the 1st and 2nd centuries.

    1. Well, it is really quite impossible for us to know how it sounded to the original readers, all we can do is guess. What makes the translations good is how he uses simpler language than the Tyndale-KJV tradition to emphasize things that can be obscured by a familiar language. Sometimes, the mere fact that you know what a passage “should say” means that you have never given any thought about what it really means. Sometimes, translators who try to accomplish this end up producing translations that are impious or irreverent. But Pakaluk’s respect for the text prevents him from falling into this error. His translation is simple, unique, and original but still treats the text with the same respect and reverence as more traditional translations.

  2. Wait, I just mentioned Pakaluk and his translations of Mark and John the other day and suddenly there is an article about them here? This cannot be a coincidence, right? I’m glad to see it because I like the unique approach to his translation task and I especially like his commentaries, he needs to be better known. I probably wouldn’t want to read an entire Bible translated like this, and it definitely shouldn’t be read in church, but such unique translations do have their place.

  3. In the five verses quoted at the end of the interview, the Greek word psuche (or psyche) occurs twice, in verses 25 and 27. Michael Pakaluk has translated it as “soul” in both places, whereas most translations put “life” the first time and “soul” the second time. I wonder whether he has chosen to follow a rule that psuche must invariably be rendered as the same English word “soul” every time it occurs?

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