Willis Barnstone's new translation of the four Gospels and Apocalypse proceeds in a radical two-pronged strategy. It returns the familiar names Jesus, Mark, John, and so on to their biblical Jewish originals. And it returns the poetry to the text. The result is a strangely new and compelling reading experience.
Barnstone's decision to translate the New Testament set the stage for a revelation: "The great discovery for me was the invisible poet hitherto hidden in unlineated Greek prose."
His text looks like some translations of the Old Testament sometimes verse, sometimes prose. Barnstone is an award-winning poet and no pitchman. He writes: "There is no more polemic or proselytizing here than were this book a new version of the Odyssey or of Sappho's fragments, yet I hope that my love for these extraordinary world scriptures will show through."
Aside from questions of literary tradition, the source of the poetry is in the vision. His brief preface makes one point utterly clear: This gospel was preached to the poor. "That picture of primal nakedness covered by a colorless mean cloth, of hurting bodies that speak with need from a primal poverty, insures that the gospels, independent of faith, doctrine, commandment, fearful warnings, and metaphysic, will always reach those with eyes to hear and feel the human condition of the spirited body waiting on the earth."
So the poetry rises from the misery of the people and the promise of salvation.
In the afterward, a set of valuable essays on everything from the art of translation to the treatment of Romans in the Bible, Barnstone explains the complex issues behind his decision to replace familiar names such as Jesus and James with their Hebrew equivalents, Yeshua and Yaakov.
Whereas the common name Yaakov is often transliterated as Jacob, in the case of the brother of Jesus, the original editors of the gospels used a Greek form, which in English becomes James.
And in those erasings and replacings hangs a tale. This tale has many versions but one theme: It was politically correct for the early Christians to remove themselves from their Jewish origins. The Romans of the first and second centuries had it in for Jews, which included Christian Jews. Roman roads were lined with crucifixions by the thousands. The Christians felt it prudent to pretend they had nothing to do with the Jews.
The ramifications of this decision are everywhere in the particulars of the traditional text, accounting for what Barnstone calls the "schizophrenic presentation of Yeshua's Jewishness and non-Jewishness." In the gospel of Yohanan (John), for example, when Mary the Magdalene first encounters Yeshua after he emerges from the tomb, the text has her address him as "Rabboni!" and then parenthetically adds, "which means 'teacher,' " as if Jesus were not a Rabbi but a mere "teacher."
Once Barnstone had documented the pervasiveness of the confusion the result of which is a message "contradictory and untenable" he had to make a decision about his translation: "Soften the blows or let it all hang out?" Many a recent translation had chosen the former course, replacing the word "Jew" with less "offensive" words.
Barnstone decided that the "overt racism and intense anti-Judaism must remain in the text as it is. The informed reader can see the bigotry and reject the message of sectarian hatred." And he adds: "So, unlike well-intentioned new versions, these translations leave Jews as Jews, with no euphemism, change, omission, or addition."
Barnstone's ideal "informed" reader has the capacity to feel the poetry of the profound commitment to the poor while experiencing, on a different level, the historical ironies of the text. To read this translation with unconditional attention is to learn to read with faith. The facts are complicated and often in doubt. His notes and appended essays deal with these problems of fact.
But then there is the poetry the searing vision of mankind. "The gospels and Apocalypse go beyond interpretation of plain fact, which in any case is illusive. Paramount is the adventure of a wanderer among the deprived, healing the body, and liberating the physical and spiritual eye that explores the astronomy of cloud and mind, or drifts through neighborhoods of prodigal sons and Miryams generous with myrrh."
Barnstone's achievement is nothing less than a gospel for our times. His faith in the reader is well placed only if the reader remains alert to what this scrupulously argued and beautifully presented translation makes available. As Barnstone writes, "It is good to wrestle with the words, as Jacob wrestled with God until daybreak, for the child of that struggle will come up intact, imperfect, and handsome." Barnstone's act of translation, which can be defended on purely literary grounds, is itself an act of faith.
Thomas D'Evelyn is an editorial consultant in Providence, R.I.