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The Gospels According to Price : FICTION : THREE GOSPELS, By Reynolds Price (Scribner: $23, 288 pp.)

June 30, 1996|Christopher Tilghman | Christopher Tilghman is the author of the short story collection, "In a Father's Place," and the novel, "Mason's Retreat," just published by Random House

In the preface to his splendid and exhilarating new exploration of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, "Three Gospels," fiction writer Reynolds Price tells us that the stories--the "central narratives" as he calls them, in the Old and New Testament--"drew early at my mind and have kept their magnetism for me . . . undiminished for nearly six decades." He tells us that as he embarked on a career as a writer of stories, he pursued--and continues to pursue--a magnificent ambition: To write stories that "might somehow share in these old stories' will to change whole lives and alter the sun in its course if need be."

While pursuing this ambition, he has also spent considerable time studying, translating and teaching university courses in the Gospels. Now, the author says, he has "paused in the usual work I do and attempted to pay in this book a partial installment on my old debt."

"Three Gospels" is just what it says: Three Gospels, along with introductions that give moving insight into the author's purposes and passions. The first two sections are Price's translations of the Gospel according to Mark, the oldest of the New Testament accounts, and the Gospel according to John, generally thought to be written by an eyewitness and, in Price's terms, "the strangest story." His primary purpose is to give "Greek-less" readers the experience of reading the Gospels in the original archaic tongue.

As he encounters occasionally incomprehensible passages, Price does not insert what the writer "meant to say," unlike countless other translations over the years. Instead, he attempts to give us, in English, what was on the page in Koine Greek. Koine--or common language--Greek is a blunt and limited form of communication. And the purpose of Price's exercise is clear: to give us "the fairest sense of the stern limitations" that John and Mark "strained against" to express complexity.

It may not be surprising, then, that this decidedly "Greek-less" reader found some rough going. I read them the first time straight through, and then a second time with my Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard version, not Price's favorite by far, for reference. I could report all sorts of quirky and eccentric insights from this experience, but I would do better simply to tell readers that it is worth the effort. I will give one personal reaction: More than ever before, I understand and sympathize with those poor disciples, constantly baffled, forever saying: "Master, what do you mean?" As Mark tells us, Jesus spoke in parables so that, "Seeing they may see and not find / And hearing they may hear and not understand." In Price's translation there were passages that all over again I heard and did not understand, and because of that, I read them anew.

The third Gospel, entitled "An Honest Account of a Memorable Life," is Price's own telling of the story, a piece of modern apocrypha. The first two are the fruits of a life lived with the story. In the third, Price has entered into the story, past the crises of faith that are so much a part of the story, and has mingled his own words with the Word of the Lord.

It is nowhere near the act of arrogance or folly that it might appear. The impulse to write it, Price explains, sprang from the high calling of this "magnetic" mystery, represented by "the career of a particular Palestinian Jew of the First Century." Price also reveals that he has "a slightly more grounded desire: to bring the odds and ends, unique details and meaningful agreements of the four canonical Gospels into a single tale, into, at least, a mental harmony."

This ambitious effort is guided by the author's research, his professional impulses as a storyteller, and by his desire to clarify the mysteries of his faith. In Price's commentary, he gives us a rough outline of where he drew what and what he inserted where. He speaks of "bridgework" that might be needed. He adds speeches that we all might have longed to hear over the years: Peter at the Transfiguration, for example.

So what of it? The story opens: "It began with a girl who was loved by God." The story closes with a bitter cry--thus far unanswered--"Lord, come now!" In other words, Price's honest account is a story of simple human emotions, of political forces and unfulfilled yearnings. Insignificant things; people just trying to get by. Among them, Jesus himself, fighting his own doubts until, on Mount Hermon, they are finally dispelled by a voice from the clouds. Thus do insignificant lives change history. And thus does Price's glorious project remind us once again of the almost unbelievable paradox at the heart of the stories of Jesus: A man was the son of God.

What has this book taught me? As one of those churchgoers who has listened more or less attentively to these stories and sermons upon these stories, on and off for nearly 50 years, I'd say nothing new. Yet it reminds me, as a Christian, that I cling to a faith that what is insignificant in this world is somehow glorified with meaning in another world. It has reminded me, as a fiction writer, that I truly believe my made-up stories of families under siege, of people falling in and out of love, can point the way for me to some personal truth that I had not recognized before I began.

Sometimes, the best thing we can do for others is to remind them what it is that they truly believe.

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