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Impressions of “Mary’s Voice in the Gospel of John,” by Michael Pakaluk

I read this translation of the Holy Gospel according to St. John because I previously read another translation by Pakaluk: The Memoirs of St. Peter, a translation of the Gospel of Mark. Once again, this is a solid translation marred by distracting notes. But in this case, the translation does not add as much to previous attempts as did Pakaluk’s translation of Mark, and the notes are even more irrelevant.

Pakaluk’s Previous Work

In Memoirs of St. Peter, Pakaluk kept rather than “corrected” the inconsistent verbal tenses that occur in Mark’s original Greek. This choice is brilliant. The rugged, street-like speech of the narrator (Peter) is contrasted with vivid and archetypal imagery. The experience of reading Pakaluk’s Mark is like reading a great mafia story, like The Godfather or The Irishman, where uneducated characters are present in a timeless story that touches all men.

Pakaluk’s approach fits within Church tradition, which saw Mark as written by St. Mark based on first-person reports from St. Peter. It also shows loyalty to the text of the Scripture, even when it is “embarrassing,” a virtue I first saw in Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis.

John’s Writing Style

But the author of John seems to have a solid understanding of Greek. There’s little to “correct,” as John wrote in a mostly formal, correct style that is appreciated by academics. Pakaluk’s contribution is largely to highlight John’s mastery of the language. To see this effect, consider Peter’s (in Mark’s) rugged language

Well, as for John, he was clothed in camel hair, with a leather belt around his waist. And for food he ate locusts and wild honey. And he cried out, “Right behind me comes someone greater than I! I am not worthy to stoop down and loosen the tie on his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he himself will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.”

So it was in this setting that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. And immediately, as he was emerging from the water, he saw heaven opened up and the Spirit coming down upon him as a dove. And there was a voice from heaven, “You are my son, my beloved one. I delight in you.”
Mark 1:6-11

compared with John’s mastery of dialog:

Along comes a woman, who is from Samaria, to draw water.

“Give me a drink,” Jesus says to her –
– as his disciples had gone to the city, to buy some food –

“How is it that you, a Jewish man,” this Samaritan woman says to him then, “are asking for a drink from me, a woman, and a Samaritan?” –
– as Jewish people have no dealings with Samaritans –

“If you knew God’s free gift, and who it is, who has saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’” Jesus said in reply, “it is you who would have asked him for a drink. And he would gave given you living water.”
John 4:7-10

Which is similar to, but easier to read, than say, the New Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition:

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.
John 4:7-10

John in the Qur’an

There is beauty in John, and you can still feel it in this volume if you ignore the translator’s notes. I had been puzzled, for instance, at the Qur’anic references to a drop of fluid giving life:

Then He made his progeny from an extract of a a base fluid. Then He proportioned him and breathed into him of His Spirit, and invested you with your hearing, sight, and hearts. Little do you think.

They say, “When we have been lost in the dust, shall we be indeed created anew?” Indeed, they disbelieve in the encounter with their Lord.
Qur’an 32:8-10

but that comes through in John…

Whenever I am in the world, I am a light to the world.

With that, he spat on the ground and made some mud from his spittle. He put the mud formed of his spittle like an ointment on the eyes of a blind man.

“Go,” he said to him,” wash in the pool of Siloam.”
– which has the meaning, “sent man.” He therefore went away, and he washed and he went on his way, seeing.

So his neighbors, and those who, before that, would regularly see him, because he was a beggar, started saying,

“Isn’t that the fellow who sits there and begs?”

“That’s the very one,” some said.

“No, it’s not,” others said. “It’s someone very much like him.”

“I am the one,” he was insisting.”
John 9:5-7

The style of translation, the inclusion of implied punctuation and line breaks, in Pakaluk’s makes the meaning of this section (where Spirit and Water combine for new life) much more obvious than in the New Revised Standard Version, for example.

As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”

“Mary’s Voice”

But presenting John’s “high Christology” as the work of an intellectual is hardly new. So looking for a hook, Pakaluk teases the idea it may be possible to find a Marian “voice” with John. But almost immediately, Pakaluk emphasizes no actual evidence can be found for this, but evidence can be found compatible with it. And that evidence, entirely, are lines in John that Pakaluk judges to be feminine.

We hear the voice of Mary three ways in this chapter’s first story of the Lord’s dialogue with the woman form Samaria (verses 7-42). The first is the very fact that the story was included at all…

Second, who sought out the details of this conversation and then preserved those details for decades? …

In addition, it seems unlikely that she would have recounted the conversation – including the exchange about her “five ‘husbands’” – to men, or that men would have been interested in the details, or if they did hear her report of the conversation, they would think it worth preserving. These considerations point to a woman as the preserver of this story.
Michael Pakaluk, Mary’s Voice in the Gospel of John, ppg. 45-46

Unfair Commentary

As if aware that labeling John’s words as effeminate risks error, the other half of his notes are as safe as possible: excerpts or summaries of St. John Newman’s summaries of St. Thomas Aquinas’ summaries of the church fathers. These may be dramatically unconvincing and totally detached from this volume’s gimmick, such as this unconvincing argument against the original text of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed:

So, Aquinas asks, if we take “proceeds” to mean merely “comes from,” and the Spirit as much as the Son is understood as a divine Person who proceeds from the Father, who would the Spirit and the Son be different from each other? Each is divine, each proceeds from the Father. They cannot differ by being different instances of the same kind of thing, because different instances of the same kind of thing can exist only because of distinct matter (for example, two cubes of the exact same dimensions made of different “stuff”), and there is no matter in God. Thus they can differ only in virtue of some formal opposition. But there are only four types of formal opposition: there are contradictory opposites (hot versus not hot); contrary opposites (hot versus cold); private opposites (sighed versus blind); and relative opposites) like hotter versus less hot). Of these, the Son and the Spirit cannot differ by contradictory or contrary opposition, because they have the same nature; and neither can they differ by private opposition, because they are equal. Thus, they can differ only by the relative opposition;, that is, that the Spirit is reckoned as one who proceeds from the Son, and the Son as one from whom the Spirit proceeds. Therefore, it must be the case that the persons of the Trinity are distinguished in this way: the Spirit is distinguished from the Son as proceeding from the Son as well as the Father; the Son proceeds only from the Father; and the Father is the one from whom the Son and the Spirit both proceed.
Michael Pakaluk, Mary’s Voice in the Gospel of John, ppg. 208-209

In the Trinity, which is beyond human conception or understanding, it “must be the case” that…

I never felt the Eastern Christian skepticism of St. Thomas Aquinas as strongly as when I read these words.

One might respond that perhaps God has kept some mysteries from us. One might respond that the Latin procedit implies the viewpoint of the observer (as a pro-cession), while ekporeuomenon (as in ec-stacy) implies the Origin’s perspective. There’s a lot of controversy around this issue. But, in this book of the “Mary’s voice,” we learn it “must be” that…

In other cases, Pakaluk is simply unfair. For instance, in his rendering of the famous lines:

“Take him away! they shout.”Take him away! Crucify him!”

Should I crucify your king?” Pilate says to them.

“We have no king but Caesar!” the chief priest replied.
John 19:15

The two villains of the story, Chief Priest Caiaphas and Chief Priest Emeritus Annas, explicitly call for the killing of Jesus. But Pakaluk’s footnote finds the one unfair way to criticize them in the episode:

“We have no king but Caesar!” the chief priests replied.
They are confessing their own worldliness; it is Caesar’s way to sacrifice innocents to keep control.
Michael Pakaluk, Mary’s Voice in the Gospel of John, pg. 259

But this is eisegesis. The plain meeting is that the Hebrew Bible outlined several critical offices, including King, Prime Minister, Chief Priest, and Prophet. To state that the only extant office holder at the time was Chief Priest would not have been controversial. For the same reason, the Jewish scholar Nahamedes could later state that “I have no king but James.” Likewise, it is as a rejection of the status quo that Christ proclaimed himself King and Peter his Prime Minister. Christ introduced a constitutional revolution in the Kingdom of Israel, unifying the offices of King, Priest, and Prophet in Himself. It is unfair to claim that repeating what had been obvious for centuries – in the absence of a Jewish King, Israel would be ruled by either a Jewish prince or a foreign king – is evidence of “their own worldliness.”

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed Pakaluk’s translation of John. But the translator’s notes are ultimately distracting and dubious. I previously read John’s Gospel in the St. Paul Catholic Edition. If asked to recommend one, I suspect I would still recommend that one now.

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4 thoughts on “Impressions of “Mary’s Voice in the Gospel of John,” by Michael Pakaluk
  1. Why call the hypothesis of the book a “gimmick”? This seems unfair. Also, it’s up to you to explain, isn’t it?, why you think Mary might have lived with John for perhaps 30 years, and yet it made no difference for John’s gospel. If you deny the premise, then the hypothesis of the book is simply false or ungrounded on your view, rather than a “gimmick”.

  2. Michael,

    Thanks for the comment on the blog! It’s a huge honor. I’ve given your translation of Mark to a close friend and spoken about it often. In both your translations of Mark and John, you seem to give us the language register better than any other New Testament translation I know of. The only peer I can think of is Robert ALter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible.

    I also admire you directing your attention to the more challenging part of my review. It speaks a lot about your scholarship and seriousness. So let me respect that and reply directly as well…

    I think your hypothesis that Mary’s voice had a dramatic impact on the Gospel of John — that an unwritten Marian witness was a major con-text for the text of John — is fascinating. It makes sense given our understanding of Mary’s and John’s later life, and your prior scholarship prepares you for exploring that.

    But (to me, an outsider), the method used in this book seems too simple as to not be credible. Is it really the case that Mary’s voice is equivalent to passages that appear on its surface feminine to a 21st-century readership?

    Here, let me give a random example, based on flipping through the book just before writing this:

    “But this way of looking at things — pondering how things might have been in order to make oneself feel more deeply the hurt and suffering that it did happen — is essentially feminine. For men, such feelings are not actionable. “It might have turned out differently” is irrelevant from the point of view of action, but not from the point of view of com-passion, which is Mary’s point of view.”

    We hear the oversound of Mary’s voice, too, in the way the Lordship of Jesus is conveyed in this chapter: the image of sheep hearing the voice of their shepherded, called one by one, by name, and following him. The Lord’s governance is presented softly, not as a matter of commandments to which one bends one’s will, but as personal bond and a winning attractiveness.”
    – pg 140

    Really? Hypothetico-deducitve reasoning and introspection are essentially feminine? Are Ecclesiastes,t or Job? Perhaps, because Wisdom is so often seen as feminine… But does that mean these authors were women, or perhaps they were living with an older woman for several decades?

    Are Mary’s actual words in the Gospels (if they are direct quotes and in context) similar to this? For example, we have direct commands (“Do whatever He tells you,”), an incompressible statement (“How will this be, since I am a virgin,” which as Joseph Ratzinger pointed out, appears to assume a since-lost context, as the normal method for a teenager traveling with her fiance becoming pregnant is rather obvious), and what appears to be a song that still feels very ‘Middle Eastern’ (the Magnificat, which parallels Miriam’s song at the joy of avenging justice). Perhaps they are, or perhaps Mary’s personality changed due to living with her Son, but this isn’t addressed. Instead, a line is identified as feminine and immediately ascribed to Mary.

    A similar issue is in the second paragraph. There are at least three obvious implications of the sheep analogy (sheep as sacrificial victims, sheep as military conscripts, sheep as shy animals needing a winning attractiveness). Maybe this is compatible with a Marian perspective, a martial one, or a priestly one, but this isn’t addressed. The most obvious, 21st-century reading is assumed, and that is projected upon Mary.

    If you are still reading, thank you! I love your translations, and the idea behind your comments is fascinating. But I feel this book did not include the actual argument for this position. That might make sense if it was written for a general audience looking for something closer to devotional text. My own goal was to find a historical or literary commentary that allows me to enter a deeper relationship with my Lord by understanding the words by and about Him.

  3. These are fair complaints. But I would reply that you are placing too much emphasis on each of these observations in isolation. As I say in the Introduction, my method is to assume robustly Mary’s influence on John’s gospel, and then see which passages might reasonably be assigned to that influence, on that hypothesis. The method is Bayesian. If many such passages are plausibly so assigned, then a case develops for that influence, through a Newmanian accumulation of probabilities. I agree that each such passage can be explained away by some other means–sometimes, explained equally well or better by some other means. (In the Introduction, I also say how we can construe Mary’s roles as mother, virgin, spouse, daughter, and handmaiden, in such a way as not be captured by 20th century stereotypes or feminist constructions of womanhood.) — Above all, thank you for your many kind words.

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