THE RESTORED NEW TESTAMENT translated by Willis Barnstone

Review by Art BeckThe Restored New Testament tr. by Willis Barnstone

translated by Willis Barnstone

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10110
ISBN 978-0-393-06493-3
2009, 1504 pp., $59.95

The Crucified Rabbi and the Unconquered Sun

On Parker Street in San Francisco, just across from the cathedral-like, self-described “Jesuit Baroque” Saint Ignatius Church is the humble Carmelite Monastery of Cristo Rey. My experience is limited, but the monastery’s small chapel is unlike any other Catholic church I can remember visiting. Some twenty rows of simple chair-pews look up to the altar where, instead of the expected crucifix, a larger-than-life gilded image of Christ stepping out of the sun glorifies the hushed room. At times, the cloistered nuns can be sensed more than actually heard, whispering incanted prayer from behind a screen. Or perhaps what you “hear” is just the aura of their vow of silence?

The impression is pre-medieval, evoking, perhaps, the time of Constantine, when the Christian Church was finally accepted by the State, but co-existed with mystery religion cousins like Mithraism. A time when the cross was abstract, symbolic. The graphic, bloody crucifixes of the dark ages would have been distasteful for most in a generation when crucifixion was only just about to be abolished. And when Constantine built his new namesake city at Byzantium, personifications of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun, served to simultaneously honor the newly risen God of Christianity but still preserve a traditional symbol of the Mystery cults.

The secluded chapel of Cristo Rey has always had this effect on me: A sense of suddenly not only walking out of my era, but of bypassing intervening history, of stepping into late antiquity without effort. Drawn, in fact, by the energies that preceded it, rather than impeded by the years that separate us from it. The chapel doesn’t look forward, but backward to its pre-Christian roots.

Conversely, the dust jacket of Willis Barnstone’s new translation portrays a 20th century crucifixion scene—Marc Chagall’s The White Crucifixion. A haunting image of the bleeding Messiah hanging dead on the cross, with a Jewish prayer shawl for a loincloth. The condemned Rabbi Jesus is surrounded by Holocaust and pogrom images. The cross bears the INRI inscription, but over a Hebrew prayer.

The Chagall reproduction was a natural cover choice for a New Testament translation that seeks to preserve, though its word choices, both the Jewish and Greek Koine roots of the Gospels. In Barnstone’s version, Jesus the Messiah is the Meshaih Yeshua. The angel of the Annunciation is Gavriel. The Virgin is Miryam; her saint of a husband, Josef. Prayers end with an amain. And Biblical terms we’re accustomed to in their Graeco-Roman Vulgate forms are returned to their Hellenic roots. The Apostles become messengers; disciples, students.

None of this is too jarring, but you begin to feel like you’re reading the story for the first time when John the Baptist becomes Yohannon the Dipper. When the scriptural interjection “behold” is routinely translated (and intensified) as “look.” When, where you expect to see the word “servant,” you almost always find “slave.” As in the opening of an epistle, in which “Simon Peter” introduces himself as “Shimon Kefa, slave and messenger of Yeshua the Mashiah.”

The cumulative impact is that you begin to feel you’re reading the iconic text not through the patina of 20 centuries of subsequent Christianity and whatever childhood interpretation you might have grown up with, but through the ancestral eyes of believers who weren’t quite sure just what they believed and were definitely uncertain about what was going to happen.

Bring the Work to the Reader or Vice Versa

A primary choice in translating archaic texts is whether the translator decides to bring the reader to the work, or to bring the work to the reader. The question is akin to the decision of a director to stage a Shakespeare or Classical Greek play in period or modern dress. If the latter, something of the original is lost, or rather, retreats. But when contemporary staging (or translation) works, the resonance of intervening history, the echo of the present, can impart a sense of resurrection and reincarnation.

Paradoxically, bringing an archaic text forward can—in time—produce another archaic text. The King James Version of the Bible is a prime example. The KJV along, with Shakespeare, became the foundation of a new English literature, serving as a storehouse of image and expressions for poets and writers into our own day. It’s such a standard touchstone that there’s that rural legend about the fundamentalist farmer who, when asked if he was interested in learning a foreign language, replied, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me!”

But insofar as literary translation is akin to performance, the KJV might be characterized as the Bible performed on a Shakespearian stage. And what was contemporary in the early 1600s has now become a 17th century prism. For a 21st century reader, the cultural “feel” of The King James New Testament evokes Jacobean England as much, if not more, than the Age of Augustus, Tiberius, Nero, Vespasian, etal.

20th century Bible versions have again brought the work to the contemporary reader, generally by way of un-stylized, plain speech prose. But, as Barnstone himself has noted, the KJV opened a door to poetic, literary translation that sets the bar of expectation well beyond the prosaic. Translation is both interpretation and expression—a yin to yang continuum. Why add another expressionless version?

Barnstone too uses plain speech. The original New Testament Greek Koine, was, after all, the common spoken, as opposed to “classical,” Greek. But the stylistic flourish of opting for Semitic rather than Hellenized names serves handily to help wipe away the echo of the centuries and bring the reader to the original stage.

But Barnstone is an accomplished poet as well as a highly credentialed translator and scholar. And this also becomes an essential element in a translation that attempts to evoke what Barnstone perceives as an underlying poetic pulse. In doing so, he sets large portions—including Jesus’ parables, St, Paul’s Epistles and the entire Book of Revelations—into eloquent blank verse, a subtle shift in language that moves us away from the everyday into a sort of timelessness. His grasp of meter and nuance is usually effortless and invisible, adding to the sense that we’re hearing the speakers in their own unadorned voices, not ours.

In the 1971 Oxford Revised Standard edition, Romans : 11 opens with St. Paul saying:: I ask then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Eli’jah, how he pleads with God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed thy prophets, they have demolished thy altars, and I alone am left and they seek my life.

In Barnstone’s version, Paul (nee, Shaul) speaks in poetry:

Then I ask, “Did God reject his own people?”
Never! I am also an Yisraeli, from the seed
Of Avraham and of the tribe of Binyamin.
God did not reject his people, not those
Whom he has chosen before. Do you not know
What Eliyahu says in his writing, how he pleads
With God against Yisrael? As written in Kings:
Lord, they killed the prophets, torn down your altars.
And I alone am left and they are after my life.

The Quality of Love

With Barnstone it’s clear that Paul was a Jew sermonizing to Jews on behalf of a Jewish sect still trying to define itself. And by presenting Paul as a poet as well as apologist, Barnstone’s treatment allows Paul’s thorny contradictions to add energy rather than impede logic.

The great flights of Korinthians Alpha are meant to soar:

Now brothers, I say this, that flesh and blood
Cannot inherit the kingdom of God,
Nor will corruption inherit incorruption.
Look, I am telling you a mystery.
Not all of us will sleep, but we will all
Be changed. In an instant, in the twinkling
Of an eye, suddenly the last ram’s horn,
The ram’s horn will blow and the dead will wake
Uncorrupted, and we shall all be changed…

Set as poems, even the—to our ears—offensively anti-sexual/sexist passages take on a certain homely logic:

Concerning those things about which you wrote,
It’s best when a man doesn’t touch a woman,
But because of filthy sex let each man have
His own wife and each woman her own husband.
Let the husband pay his debt to his wife
And let the wife render hers to her husband.
The wife does not possess authority
Over her own body. That is her husband’s.
The husband does not have authority
Over his body. That belongs to his wife.
You musn’t spurn each other’s needs except
Through an agreement for a time so as
To give yourselves to prayer. But then come back
Again out of fear that Satan
Seduce you both into incontinence.

Barnstone points out that we expect self contradiction in poetry, citing Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well… I am large, I contain multitudes.” Setting the Epistles as sermons in verse allows us to experience Paul as a multi-dimensional personality, speaking from the heart as much as reasoning and moralizing. From a heart more than capable of sweeping away his cranky prudishness with a helpless upwelling:

If I speak in the tongues of men and angels
But have no love, I am but sounding brass
Or a clanging cymbal. If I have prophecy
And understand all mysteries and all knowledge
And if I have all faith to remove mountains
But love I do not have, then I am nothing.
If I give all my goods to feed the poor
And give my body to be burned, and love
I do not have, in all I have gained nothing,

Love suffers long and love is kind. Love has
no jealousy and cannot boast and has
No pride. Love isn’t crude and doesn’t seek
Things for itself, is not provoked to anger,
Nor counts up wrongs. Not gloating in misdeeds,
Its happiness is truth. Love bears all things,
Believes all things; it hopes and endures.

Love never falls. Yet prophecies will cease
And tongues turn dumb and knowledge also vanish.
We know only in part, we prophesy
Only in part…

When I was a child I spoke like a child,
I thought like a child and reasoned like a child.
When I became a man I put an end
To childish things. For now we look into
An enigmatic mirror. One day we will gaze
Face to face. Now I know in part, but then
I will know in full even as I am fully
Known. Now faith, hope and love remain,
These three. Of these the greatest one is love.

This passage, Corinthians #13, doesn’t submit easily to logic; in fact it forces a choice between clerical logic and poetry. Barnstone argues that the Greek word used by Paul, agape, simply means “love” in all its expressions—an elemental, permeating force. When St. Jerome translated agape into Latin for the Vulgate, he chose not amo, but caritas. A less passionate sub-category of endearment, although not particularly “spiritual.” In the King James Version, the translation became “charity,” begging some level of metaphysical interpretation. And, according to Barnstone, Paul’s KJV “charity” was even also sometimes used as an opportune sermon exhortation for tithing.

Twentieth century Bible versions have generally translated Paul’s agape as “love,” leaving the interpretation to the various theologians. Setting this passage in poetry evocative of Shakespeare’s “quality of mercy,” Barnstone , I think, exploits an expansiveness and pulse that would be difficult to capture in prose and with any other English word but “love.”

…and to Forge in the Smithy of my Soul, the Uncreated Conscience of my Race.

In Romans, Paul consciously struggles with his doctrinal contradictions and the religious contradictions of the Yeshua sect—the dissenting Jews who were the first Christians. Paul’s Epistles (letters that served as sermons to be read in the sect’s synagogues) are the earliest extant New Testament documents, written in the mid 1st century, a couple of decades before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the great Jewish diaspora it triggered. But his co-sectarians appear to be already expatriated, in fact, as much exiles as emigrants.

Their Meshaiah Yeshua was executed, (possibly) at the insistence of the religious establishment, condemned for blasphemy. At this distance, they might be characterized as the Jewish equivalent of excommunicates. Traditionally, the first “Christian” martyr, St. Stephen (Stephanos) was stoned to death, circa 35 A.D., by an enraged congregation after speaking in his own synagogue.

Centuries later, Stephen would be invoked as the patron saint of stonemasons and headache sufferers. These medieval niceties would probably horrify Paul, who, according to legend, passively assisted at the stoning while still an unconverted Pharisee. Rather than invoking the martyrs, Paul, in Romans, spends a good deal of time constructively reasoning that theirs is the new orthodoxy. To Paul, the Yeshua sectarians were both the true heirs and progenitors of the millennia of Jewish heritage. The fulfillment rather than anathema of Torah.

But these were Jews living among the Gentiles, the “Greeks.” And they seem to have been actively assimilating Gentiles as well as being assimilated. Paul was as fluent in Greek as Hebrew or Aramaic, an ex-Pharisee, Roman Empire cosmopolitan, but with a convert sectarian’s passion to proselytize. A sympathetic Greek would like to join, but couldn’t understand having to give up lobster? No problem, just stay away from the pagan temple burnt offerings that tend to attract demons when eaten.

And circumcision, that ancient bond and badge? That’s a hell of an impediment to would be converts. Wait, isn’t circumcision really just a metaphor?

Obey Torah and circumcision helps
But if you break the law your circumcision
Becomes uncircumcision. Others who
Are the uncircumcised yet keep the law,
Will their uncircumcision not be seen
as circumcision?…
Someone is not a Jew by what is seen.
Rather one is a Jew by what is hidden.
Circumcision is of the heart, the spirit.

From an orthodox standpoint Romans might seem, in large part, a heretical manifesto. But there are parts of Romans, as conveyed by Barnstone, that, for me, conjure, not so much Luther’s “ Here I stand,” but Stephen Daedalus’ “I will not serve.” By the end of the Epistle, one gets a sense that as with Ireland for Joyce, the “mother country” of Judea has become an entanglement. In Stephen Daedalus’ words (in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) :

When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets. … I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile and cunning..

But “eloquence” not “silence” is Paul’s strong suit as he cuts the Gordian knot of entangled Judaic law:

Owe no one anything except to love.
one another. For, in loving the other.
Torah is fulfilled. And the commandments:
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not murder.
You shall not steal.
You shall not covet.
And any other commandment there may be
Is comprehended in this one statement:
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Love does not work harm on your neighbor.
Love is the fulfillment of Torah law.

A Seder Like no other Seder

The New Testament forms a multi faceted, iconic text that’s engendered scores of sectarian and theoretic interpretations from the second century to this day, and will no doubt continue to do so. So I think it’s incumbent on any translator or commentator to declare their bias and intent. Barnstone does so, identifying himself as a non-observant Jew and religious agnostic translating the New Testament as literature in the way Homer might be translated. He makes no religious or cultural judgment, presents miracles as miracles, resurrection as resurrection and sets parables in poetic eloquence. And a Biblical scholar will find no shortage of source material and historic context discussion in Barnstone’s annotations and exhaustive background essays.

But as aforementioned, the one “spin” Barnstone explicitly employs is to stress by way of word choices that Jesus and the apostles were Jews preaching and debating within a Judaic context. As a reviewer, I should also address my own perspective and bias. I might be characterized as the Christian equivalent of Barnstone’s non-observant Jew—a purposely “fallen away,” “cultural” Catholic. As a reviewer, I’m primarily reviewing Barnstone’s Restored New Testament on its literary, not theological or theoretical, merits.

But as I read Barnstone’s version, I also find myself drawn to the historic context of a canon that records an essential shift in Western culture. A turning point so pivotal that no adjective could be too strong to describe it. Perhaps the simple terms A.D. and B.C.E. best point up that the first century, Rome’s golden age, also planted the seeds of the slow decline of Classical Graeco-roman culture that culminated in the dark, pre-Renaissance, Middle Ages. A dynamic the historian, Charles Freeman characterized as “The rise of faith and the fall of reason” in the subtitle of his 2002 study, The Closing of the Western Mind. This is a theme as old as Gibbon, but history tends to be better at telling us “what happened” than at putting us in contact with the energies of “why it happened.”

Of course, there’s the believer’s simple explanation of “God’s revelation and Divine will.” But even the believer might want to get a feel for the dynamic of the time, a sense of “what were they thinking?”

That sense of historic voice first struck me when I decided a good entree to Barnstone’s version—for someone like me who hadn’t read the Bible since childhood—might be to return to my Catholic childhood and read the Passion sections of the Gospels during Holy Week. Although an internet query will reveal a fair amount of theologically defensive controversy on this point, in Barnstone’s version there’s little question that the Last Supper was either a seder, or meant to evoke a seder.

From “Markos”: “On the first day of the Feast of the Matzot, when the Pesach lamb was sacrificed, his students said to him ‘Where do you want us to go arrange for you to eat the Pesach lamb?’ “Mattityahu” and “Loukas,” the other two “synoptic” evangelists, relate a similar message.

In a critical epilogue entitled “Historical or Mythical Jesus, the Passover Plot and the Rap of Deicide,” Barnstone eloquently argues that the only known historical fact of the Crucifixion is that the Romans carried out the execution. And that the Gospels written, at earliest, some generations later (and whose only manuscripts date from the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries), portrayed the story in a Roman-centric perspective. If Christianity were to establish itself in the greater Empire, Jesus couldn’t be cast as a rebel against Rome. And so the Jews became the scapegoat for deicide. And the seeds of anti-Semitism were planted. A respectable segment of modern scholarship, as cited by Barnstone, supports this view.

But it’s not the historic Jesus (of whom the early Christians knew as little as we do) but the mythic Jesus that drove history. And in the Gospel Last Supper accounts, especially in Barnstone’s translation, Yeshua is the rabbi of a small congregation of very unorthodox Jews. There’s none of the ritual of a seder—the dishes, the questions, the recounting of Jewish history. Reading the gospel accounts with Barnstone’s Hebrew names, you almost want to ask, “Why is this seder different from all other seders?”

Instead of tradition, there’s the institution of the Holy Sacrament. In Markos :

While they were eating, he took the matzot, and blessing it he broke it and gave it to them and said
Take it, this is my body
And he took a cup and after giving thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And he said to them,
This is my blood of the covenant
Which is poured out for many…

A phrase, according to Barnstone’s note, that infers a kinship with God, foreshadowed by, and equal to, Moses. Wouldn’t this seem heretical, if not blasphemous, to the orthodox? Over time, the established Christian church would be burning its own heretics. Why wouldn’t it be logical, as Christianity became an institution, to imagine that the orthodox Jewish religious establishment would treat its heretic any differently?

Yerushalayam Encircled

But there was something else going on at the time the Gospels were being committed to writing. The Mark, Matthew and Luke (“synoptic”) Gospels all include Yeshua’s prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem. From “Markos”:

Do you see these great buildings?
No stone on stone will be left that will not be thrown

From “Mattityahu”:

And Yeshua left the Temple and was on his way when his students came to him to show him the buildings of the Temple. But he said to them:
Do you not see all this? Amain, I tell you,
Nothing here will escape destruction. No stone
Upon a stone will not be thrown down.

And in “Loukas”:

When you see Yerushalayam encircled
By armies, then know that its devastation is near
Then those in Yehuda must flee to the mountains
And those in the city must escape
And those in the fields not go into her,
For these are the days of vengeance to fulfill
All that has been written by the Prophets…

The Diaspora

In 70 A.D., at the culmination of a four-year rebellion, the Roman army, under the future emperor Titus, laid siege to Jerusalem. Some five months later, the great Temple, elaborately rebuilt by Herod on King Solomon’s thousand year site, was flattened and the city sacked and burned. The citizenry was indiscriminately punished with extreme cruelty. Josephus, the Jewish historian who accompanied Titus’ army, wrote that some 500 crucifixions took place daily outside the walls. In the end, Josephus estimated over 1,100,000 Jews were slaughtered with most of the 100,000 or so remaining residents taken into slavery. The Romans continued to pursue anyone connected with the rebellion, culminating in the mass suicide (or possibly slaughter) of resistors at Masada.

Judea then became an occupied territory under the direct control of Rome. A second revolt in 132 AD, led by a purported Messiah, Simon Bar Kokhba, was even more savagely suppressed. According to the historian Cassius Dio, some 580,000 Jews, apparently the bulk of the local population, were killed and over a thousand towns and villages razed—the survivors expelled or sold into slavery. Hearkening back some 50 years to Paul’s comments on circumcision, it might be worth noting that one of the sparks of the Bar Kokhba revolt was a ban placed by Hadrian on circumcision, which most Romans viewed as mutilation and child cruelty.

After the suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt, Judea essentially no longer existed. Hadrian ordered the names Judea and Israel removed from maps, to be replaced with Syria and Palestine. Jerusalem was re-named and made a Roman colony with statues of Jupiter and Hadrian erected at the former Temple site. Dispersed Jews were forbidden to return or visit. To be a Jew was henceforth to be an exile.

Reading Barnstone’s Hebraicized version, it seems impossible to view the Gospels and other contemporary documents without reference to these horrendous calamities. It doesn’t really matter whether Yeshua’s prophecies about the destruction of Jerusalem were actual prophecy. Or later emendations to oral tradition, not committed to writing until well after the events. The Yeshua followers who told the Gospel stories to each other and to their Gentile converts weren’t acting as historians but as propagators of a story that seemed to gather strength and depth with the retelling.

And insofar as they considered themselves heirs to Judaism, how could a late 1st or early 2nd Christian separate the trauma of their crucified Rabbi—even as they came to see him as the Meshaiah son of God—from the trauma and humiliation of 70,000 crucified Jews at the siege of Jerusalem? If Christianity is indeed a product of Jewish culture, how can it be separated from the cultural and physical genocide of the late 1st and early 2nd centuries in which it took form?

For a non-believer like myself, Barnstone’s version doesn’t really bring me any closer to an understanding of why Christianity–supplanting long and still vital traditions of philosophical reason and quizzical religious diversity with “faith” and monotheism–came to transform a sophisticated Classical Graeco-Roman culture.

But it does leave me with an—albeit stretched—metaphoric image. Imagine that the Axis won the Second World War and that Hitler became as revered as Julius Caesar: the founder of a new world order. But that some years after Hitler’s death (maybe from assassination, like Caesar?), the shattered descendants of a handful of accidental extermination camp survivors began to gather and reach out to simple Germans with the forbidden Torah and Kabbalah. And over the next two hundred or so years, bruised by the excesses of the Thousand Year Reich, Europe, quietly, little by little, then inexorably, became Jewish. An idle metaphor, maybe, but the kind of thought that occurs reading Barnstone’s version.

A Summary of Sorts

Barnstone’s Restored New Testament is much more than a re-translation of the canonic New Testament. It also includes the known apocryphal texts, is judiciously but not excessively annotated, and provides ample separate chapters of sophisticated, wide ranging commentary both on Biblical and translation theory. The commentary is a storehouse of information. But it’s the almost Blake-like, quirkiness of the core translation and the reliance on verse as a central component that seem to energize the text, much in the manner of medieval illuminations.

Barnstone maintains a disciplined neutrality in doctrinal interpretation and I doubt he will be off-putting to either believers or skeptics. But while he’s concerned with accuracy and often footnotes alternate interpretations, I don’t think he was aiming for an “authoritative” version. He doesn’t try to supplant other versions. Rather The Restored New Testament unabashedly strives to be literature, poetry, and “translation as performance.” Taken as such, it’s a unique work, and—whether or not to one’s taste—a magnum opus.


Art Beck is a San Francisco poet and translator who’s published two translation volumes: Simply to See: Poems of Lurorius (Poltroon Press, Berkeley, 1990) and a selection Rilke (Elysian Press, New York, 1983). His chapbook, Summer with all its Clothes Off, is reviewed by Ellaraine Lockie in Rattle E-Reviews. His article on Rilke, “And Yet Another Archaic Torso–Why?” can be accessed in the Australian online journal Jacket.

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