The Gospels – A Translation

El Lissitzky, Record, 1926
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By JOÃO ANGELO OLIVA NETO*

Preface to the newly released version of the four gospels by Marcelo Musa Cavallari

There are many good reasons to read the Gospels and certainly some will be more important than others according to the interest of each reader. But regardless of their greater importance, some reasons are manifested beforehand, and the first is the construction of the text, the language of the narratives, which is exactly what Marcelo Musa Cavallari's translation brought us.

And because other reasons for reading the Gospels were considered more important (they may have been), their literary character was not well understood: the ends prevailed over the means; usages and practices obliterated the letter, the literariness of the Gospels, and what was first became last. The Gospels are literary because they were composed with deliberate formal assemblage to be intriguing to curiosity, to be moving to the affections, and to be edifying to the conscience, even if they are sometimes strange.

As they were written in Greek in the XNUMXst century in an already Hellenized territory that was then becoming Romanized, it is worth asking what ancient genre they belong to. But the question should not be: "What ancient genre do the Gospels belong to?" The question is: “To what genus do the reports of Luke, Matthew, Mark and John?” And the answer is simple: “gospel”.

If so, there are only four examples of the “gospel” genre, there are only four practitioners, only four authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. If it is understood, however, that they are all one narrative (because there is only one protagonist, which is Jesus) and that the narrators each give their perspective of the final moments of Christ's life (second Lucas, second Matthew, etc.), then the Gospel is a unique specimen of a unique genre, and so it is on Generis. Now, such uniqueness as a narrative strategy is wholly suited to the condition of Christ himself, the only begotten son of God.

Keep the reader in mind that the narration of the life and death of a character that was so singular required a language and a narrative form, of course, a “genre” that was also unprecedented, new and, therefore, singular, which was called "gospel". Perhaps we can better understand the reach of such uniqueness if we compare the Gospels with the ancient genres with which they bear similarity.

Written in prose, they all narrate the life of Jesus, but they do not narrate the whole life, but what is most significant in view of the end, I mean, the purpose and culmination of the narrative itself. Only Matthew and Luke narrate the childhood of Jesus, but they all relate the suffering (passion), death and resurrection. They all contain passages from the life of Jesus in which his miracles are narrated, and equally in all of them are found sayings of Jesus, that is, his own words.

In all four Gospels it is stated that Jesus is the heir and continuator of what is narrated in the Old Testament and in all of them he is the son of God. Well then, the ancient genre that comes closest to the Gospels is perhaps what the Greeks and then the Romans called “life” (BIOS, in Greek, and in Latin, life), which we call “biography”. To be philologically more precise, it is better to say that "life" is one of several species or subgenres of the broad ancient genre now called "History" or "Historiography", and in it the most important actions of someone's life are narrated so that Know your character.

If character and actions are virtuous, the reader is persuaded to imitate them; if they are vicious, the reader is deterred from imitation. Furthermore, as it were, in Matthew's account we read the genealogy of Jesus. Now, “genealogy” was the ancient narrative in which a person's descent was indicated; having lost, so to speak, its independence, genealogy ended up becoming part of other historiographical species in Greece from the XNUMXth to XNUMXth centuries BC. uttered, to which the sayings of Jesus could be compared. Moreover, the historiographical species “life”, which concerns us here, was widely practiced and famous, among others, by Greek and Roman authors, such as Plutarch and Cornelius Nepos, who narrated countless lives of Greek and Roman generals, and like Suetonius , who narrated the Life of the Caesars, and the similarities end there.

The very title of any of these examples reveals that it is both the species “life” and the character whose life deserves to be narrated. But this is not the case with the Gospels, where the simple term euangelion, “good news”, no longer just dealing with a unique character, which is Christ, but also that he is the son of the God of Abraham, whose actions had already been narrated in other books (which are today our Old Testament), they were sacred!

From the perspective of the Greeks of the first century, the books of the Old Testament would be like the cosmogonies that they themselves had, they would be like the poems, already very ancient at that time, like those of Hesiod and others, to which, however, surprisingly, four narratives are now articulated " stories” in prose, which give them continuity! This is new!

To say that the Gospels “tell the life of Jesus” may be true, but as we have seen, it is not the whole truth. None of the authors reveal in explicit terms what genre they are practicing, nor could they do so, because, if they did, their narrative would be just one more in an already known genre and their character “Jesus” would be just one more, certainly remarkable, but just one more case among many others. If they did, their narrative would not measure up to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and, as a witness, the narrative would not fulfill its purpose.

Narrative genres are discursive possibilities with inherent strategies, and among the genres then available in the XNUMXst century there was none at all suitable for narrating the life, passion and death of Christ: it had to be invented. Therefore, a form, a narrative strategy was invented, that is, a genre suited to an entirely new subject, and in this compositional dimension the Gospels are no longer just literary, but also poetic.

Therefore, the reader should know that much of the strangeness that he perceives in this translation is of a poetic nature, because it is due to the effect of strange novelty that is produced not only by the “information” that this Christ, who is now among men, is the son of the God of the Old Testament, but also for the way in which information is transmitted: the adequacy, the convenience between “information” (the matter) and the “way of informing” (the genre) is such that both are designated by the same Greek term euangelion, perfect unity: what is said and how it is said are one and the same thing.

In other words, in view of the novelty of the facts, the strangeness of the language and the translation is not a defect, but a virtue. As the language is not at all strange, since it is similar to other genres, the reader or listener first pays attention to it and then comes to realize that the novelty of things in the world is present in the very narrative that he now hears or reads.

Another reason for the poetic character of the Gospels, precisely concerning the merit of the translation that is now presented, is the concreteness of the language, well understood, the objective materiality, capable of putting the unfolding scene before the ears or eyes of the public. Let us take as an example the scene from the Gospel According to Matthew in which John, with his feet in the Jordan River, says to one of the people who have decided to convert: “Egò mèn humâs baptízo en húdati eis matanoian”, which translates as: “I immerse you in water for a change of mind.”

Well, what happens is that João, having rested his hands on the head of someone who decided to convert, actually plunges him into the waters of the river, spectacularly dramatizing with the gesture the change of thought, or belief, or idea. , finally, the change of the complete mental perspective with which the subject will start to relate to the world.

Now, “diving” in Greek is said baptized, and the verb applies to any ordinary and trivial act in which one plunges himself, or another, or something into any waters. It is well known that, baptized through Latin came to give “batizo” in Portuguese, so that it cannot be said to be a mistake in translating the term. However, according to Marcelo Musa Cavallari’s translation proposal, which could be said to be “synchronic” or “temporary”, the translation by “baptize” would be inaccurate because it is anachronistic or extemporaneous, since “baptism” as an institution had not yet gained its consummated existence as we know it today.

Before, it was as if appearing precisely in that act and it is the contemporaneity and the very direct concreteness of the act of diving (materialized before our eyes when we hear or read the word “diving”), which is lost with the use of “baptize”, which with undue anticipation presents us with the future result of that singular and concrete act. It is precisely the triviality of the term and the triviality of any dive that gives that singular “mind-changing dive” its most radical meaning. What does the verb baptized applies to other terms that the reader encounters.

Inventing a way of relating the life and death of the strange God that Christ is, notwithstanding the humility of the God and of the listeners or readers (or perhaps because of it itself), would not have been an easy task. What was extraordinary about the events engendered a new genre, a new discourse, whose novelty, which is literary and poetic, can only be perceived today if the reader, any reader, Jew or Gentile, Christian or pagan, mentally strips himself of the facts that he already knows or that he thinks he knows and becomes contemporary with the narration of events in order to know them and experience them in their becoming.

The reader is invited to put aside what he knows about the life of Jesus Christ in order to get to know it, in the first Gospel he reads, from the point of view of absolute ignorance and let himself be informed of what he is successively informed, including the different versions of the other Gospels that you read later, to reach the most acute dimension of suffering, of betrayal, but also of the compassion that, step by step (and not forever), Jesus comes to know that he will suffer. It is necessary to read it in such a timely manner, in order to perceive the humanity of the God-man who, according to the Gospels, Jesus Christ was.

*João Angelo Oliva Neto is a professor of Classical Letters at USP. He organized and translated, among others, The Book of Catullus(Edusp).

Reference


The Gospels – A Translation. Translation, presentation and notes: Marcelo Musa Cavallari. Cotia / Araçoiaba da Serra, Ateliê / Mnema, 2020, 512 pages.

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