Monday, June 28, 2010

Liveblogging the Gospel of Mark I

When I set out to learn Greek, my goal was to read Thucydides. Hah, fat chance. No one told me that Thucydides was hard even by Greek standards, and that given my resources and abilities I had best (as my high school guidance counselor might have said) select some more suitable employment.

By contrast I did my best to stay away from the Bible, which I thought "just not classical enough." But a while ago, cooling my heels in the jury-pool waiting room, I wrapped my mind around a copy of New Testament Greek: A Reader from the Joint Association of Classical Teachers in Britain. I should have foreseen: like all JACT's stuff, this one is a masterpiece of pedagogy: impeccably edited with just the right amount of help to keep you going. Given a lot of hours in a windowless room, it was a perfect companion and I may even have learned a bit.

I didn't follow up on JACT at the time, but just lately, reorganizing a bookshelf, I stumbled on something I didn't know I owned. It's called A Reader's Greek New Testament.* It's not as elegant as JACT, and there are none of those little prodding footnotes that you get in so many student editions. What it does have is a ton of vocabulary: it footnotes virtually every word except the most common. In an introduction, the editors explain that to master this much vocabulary on your own, you'd have to knock off about ten words a day for two years. As the editors do not add, not bloody likely. The (pious) hope is that by reading along with the vocabulary crutches, you will pick up at least a good deal of the vocab on your own.

Oh, goody, I thought. I can read the New Testament. Wait, the whole thing? Again, not bloody likely. For one thing, do I really need to read, say, all those minor letters that are in there only because the editors made mistakes about their authorship? Do I really need to read all of the (admit it, now) sometimes mad ravings of St. Paul?

Well, so maybe some Paul. And Revelations ought to be fun. And the Gospels, oh yes the Gospels. Well, one Gospel.

I actually started with the Gospel of Matthew; I read a few chapters and it was going okay but then it occurred to me: by almost universal assent, the Gospel of Mark is said to be the earliest composed. Might as well approach this task in an intellectually disciplined manner. So I abandoned Matthew (for the moment?) and tackled Mark.

So far, to my pleasant surprise, it is going okay. I'm most of the way through Chapter 6 (of 15) which means, inter alia, that I already got the story of Salome (although I can't seem to find the line that goes "the hell we won't Salome said, and kicked the chandelier!"). I do indeed need the vocabulary notes, though the grammar is pretty straightforward--and though it may be simple, I'd say it is also pretty good review-practice of some basic forms.

As a pony, I also keep around the copy of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, which Mrs. Buce picked up in graduate school. I've also taken a flyer at Burton L. Mack's Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of Christian Myth (1995). Mack is a big fan of the Gospel of Mark--he calls it "a literary achievement of incomparable historical significance," (181). The book as a whole is absorbing and instructive, but I mustn't let myself get distracted.

Of course I still don't know if I have the stones to keep going at this. I'm posting this now as a kind of hostage, to commit myself through a form of public shaming. I'll keep you posted. Or maybe I won't. But who knows, if this works, then someday I might even get back to Thucydides.
*Richard J. Goodrich and Albert L. Lukaszewski (Zondervan 2003).

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