Review by Mary Harwell Sayler
THE POEMS OF JESUS CHRIST
translated by Willis Barnstone
W. W. Norton & Company
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10110
2012, 288 pp., $26.95
When I heard that award-winning poet-scholar and translator Willis Barnstone had collected The Poems of Jesus Christ into a new book, I was thrilled and dismayed. Thrilled because I am always glad to see prized poets and writers give credence to Christ. Dismayed because I wanted to collect the poems and sayings of Jesus, and Barnstone beat me to it!
As a former professor of comparative literature, a founding member of the Institute of Biblical and Literary Studies, a linguist skilled in many languages, and an author of almost as many books as the Bible contains, Prof. Barnstone has more credentials than the alphabet has letters. So he’s more than qualified to take on any biblically oriented task he so desires.
I wish I could claim the same! As a lifelong student and lover of the Bible in almost every English translation, the only plan I had for my similar idea was to lift the red-letter words of Christ, and maybe some memorable lines of NT writers, from whatever translation sounded the most poetic to my ear at the time.
When I read such verses aloud, it does not matter to me whether a poem or poetic saying comes from King James, Douay-Rheims, New Revised Standard, New Jerusalem Bible, Revised English Version, or any of the dozens of translations I’ve read and loved. But, once again, Prof. Barnstone took our idea to a new level.
Before taking on the awesome job of compiling The Poems of Jesus Christ, Willis Barnstone first translated the entire New Testament (NT) into English!
I must admit, I have not translated anything but the Pig Latin my parents once used for code. In 2009, however, W.W. Norton & Company–the highly respected publisher of poetry, literary anthologies, literary criticism, and literary books for college study and beyond–published Wills Barnstone’s translation The Restored New Testament.
If I’d realized this before receiving a copy of the Jesus poems, I probably would have been too intimidated to even consider doing a review. So with fear and trembling, I read Prof. Barnstone’s highly recommended book then read it again.
After the second full reading and the third and fourth randomly-done peeks, I continue to recommend this book highly. And if I ever get to do a book on the same topic, I will highly recommend that too. Why? Perspectives.
As active poets and avid poetry readers, Prof. Barnstone and I both appreciate and acknowledge the unique characteristics of Hebrew poems scattered throughout the Bible and recognizable in parallelism, echoing sounds, and occasional rhythmic beats (usually three to four per line.) I had not thought of the Book of Revelation as “the epic poem of the Bible” until Prof. Barnstone pointed that out, but I knew what he meant when he referred to Saint Paul “as an eloquent philosopher of being who masters complex thought with flawlessly easy rhetoric and poetic flare.” Right on! (Or write on, as Paul has a habit of doing in sentences that go on and on for lengthy paragraphs.)
Jesus, of course, did not write down any of his poems or sayings as far as we know, but others did. So I totally agree with Prof. Barnstone that “[i]n the New Testament, Jesus is the unparalleled poet. His sayings, tales, and parables are plain, complex, and clear as open sky. Hence the universality of each lyric or narrative phrase he speaks. He speaks wisdom verse. The lines are imbued with joyful or sorrowful insight and inlight.”
Completely familiar with the Psalms, Jesus would have read aloud those poems and prayers, which range from high worshipful praise to low laments. He would have heard the melodies as well as the wisdom, truths, and insightful sayings when he got up “as was his custom” (Luke 4:15) to read in his local synagogue whatever Hebrew Scriptures were up next. From the cross, he even quoted Psalm 22, knowing that his followers would realize he was reminding them of how that poem ends–on an upbeat note of faith and assurance in the power of God to redeem.
But then, as a Christian, I believe Jesus had the power of God too. More than a prophet, more than a poet, more than a tradition man of his own times, my book of Jesus’ poems would differ from Barnstone’s in a couple of ways:
Besides listening for the musicality found in most of the English translations, I would omit the poems taken from the Gnostic Gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas. Although that apostle wrote an interesting book of quotes, which, as Barnstone suggests, was the most “likely source for wisdom sayings in the gospels,” I suspect he wrote down those sayings during Jesus’ earthly ministry. However, Prof. Barnstone also goes on to say, “There are two realms in Thomas, the physical and the spiritual. As to personal resurrection, in Thomas’s dualistic belief system, the spirit alone, not the body, is saved,” which explains why he strongly doubted the other apostles’ report that they had seen the Risen Christ until Jesus appeared to him, too, asking him to touch the obvious wounds.
This is speculation, of course, but what if Thomas had kept a daily journal before Jesus’ death and resurrection. What if the other disciples knew this and asked to see it to help them remember some of the quotes. What if they simply omitted the sayings that Thomas had not quite gotten right because of his own lack of belief in an after-life?
As Prof. Barnstone says in his introduction to Thomas, the Gospel of Thomas “may have been composed, most likely in Greek, as early as the middle of the first century, and may have been written in Syria, possibly at Edessa (modern Urga), where a memory of Thomas was revered and where his bones were venerated.” That places the apostle in an area where men are less apt to treat women with the same respect they give one another.
I mention this only because of Prof. Barnstone’s last footnote in the book, which I find especially lamentable as the last thought given to readers. To quote, “The anti-female ending is painful and cannot simply be explained away. It is traditional for the time.” True, but Jesus himself did not speak against women, whereas Thomas just might have done so.
Prof. Barnstone, who has elsewhere called himself “a secular Jew,” reportedly sees Jews, Christians, and Muslims as people of the same book, and The Poems of Jesus Christ as he has presented them can indeed become an avenue of communication and healing among peoples of God. I hope so. I pray so. But, as full disclosure, I must admit that goal differs from mine in that I want my work to focus not on The Restored New Testament but on restoring the faith, love, and unity among Christians as members of the Body of Christ at work in the world today.
Mary Harwell Sayler is a highly ecumenical Christian writer and traditionally published poet who helps other poets and writers through her blogs, critique service, and The Poetry Editor website.