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Book Review: The Poems of Jesus Christ Translated by Willis Barnstone

Posted By Ed Voves On May 9, 2012 @ 11:50 am In Books,Non-Fiction Reviews,Religion | No Comments

The Poems of Jesus Christ
Translated by Willis Barnstone
W. W. Norton & Company, 288 pp.
CLR Rating:


Poems on the Mount

It is only slightly blasphemous to think of The Poems of Jesus Christ, translated by Willis Barnstone, as a “greatest hits” collection sung in a new, “relevant” style. Yes, all the “old standards” are there. Yes, Barnstone’s version has an air of freshness and originality that will appeal to people of faith.

There is, however, an important distinction to Barnstone’s translation. He is endeavoring to return the New Testament to its Jewish roots. Barnstone is a “puritan,” though not in the Protestant, 17th century interpretation of the word. Rather, he is trying to remove the elements of anti-Semitic bias that have blighted the way sacred scriptures have been read by Christians for centuries. These “poems” of Jesus originally appeared in Barnstone’s translation of the New Testament in its entirety. Published in 2009, it was entitled – fittingly – The Restored New Testament.

Barnstone, a gifted poet as well as a skillful and sensitive translator, has a worthy goal in stressing the Judaic foundation of what Christians regard as “holy writ.” Centuries of alienation and oppression, some of the cruelest — and most un-Christ like — in history, resulted from the way that the New Testament was interpreted. The fellow Jews whom Jesus encountered during his life were held to have rejected and betrayed him, events that led to his death on a Roman cross. Many Christians, when their creed was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire in a strange twist-of-fate, proceeded to punish their Jewish contemporaries for the “sins” of their fathers.

Barnstone proclaims Jesus as “the great invisible poet of the world.” Jesus delivered his message in verse to audiences whose entire lives were bound up in an oral culture. Though many of those who listened to Jesus were unable to read or write, they knew the Hebrew Scriptures from hearing them proclaimed by religious teachers like Jesus.

Jesus spoke in Aramaic, the Semitic language spoken by Jews living in Galilee and Judea. But the New Testament books were written in Greek. This was not the Greek of the philosophers and playwrights of ancient Athens. Instead, it was Koine Greek, a common language for many in the Roman Empire, including Jews living in Egypt, Syria, Cyprus and other eastern provinces ruled by Rome.

This shift in languages was to have many profound implications. Where the poetry of Jesus is concerned, the effect was particularly striking. As Barnstone notes in his introduction, Aramaic has verse forms that are difficult to render in Western languages like Greek, Latin and eventually English. The Gospels, the “Good News” of Jesus, were written down and shared with the rest of the world in prose, not poetry. A vital link to the actual words of Jesus was lost.

Prose literature is more suited to careful definition than verse, an important consideration for early Christians as they tried to arrive at a uniform statement of Christ’s teaching. Later Christians, especially Church officials during the Middle Ages, required an “authorized” Latin text for the New Testament — the better to enforce it. New translations of any kind were viewed as a threat to the established order.

This bias, incredibly enough, was aimed at the King James Version, published in 1611 and regarded for centuries as “the” Bible in the English-speaking world. When it was first proposed by Puritan zealots in the Church of England, many senior clergymen were not happy at the prospect.

“If every man’s humour should be followed,” thundered Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury, “there would be no end of translating.”

Bancroft’s arguments did not win the day. He was charged by King James I with assembling a team of experts, drawn from scholars and churchmen of the competing factions of the Church of England. In one of the rare cases of a committee actually performing better than could be expected, the resulting translation was a masterpiece.

King James’ Bible preached the Gospels in prose. But the beauty of its language was such that the implied “poetry” of the words of Jesus, and of Old Testament figures like King David, was readily apparent.

It is Barnstone’s “humour” to re-translate the New Testament in order to emphasize the poetical form of teaching that Jesus used. He achieved this result brilliantly in his 2009 Restored New Testament. The present volume unites all the poems of Jesus to be found in the four officially recognized Gospels and also from the Gospel of Thomas, which was not included in the contents of the New Testament.

To better understand the prose vs. poetry formats for presenting Jesus’s words, let’s look at three different English translations of one of the most compelling passages from the New Testament, John 15: 12-15. The first is the King James Version, followed by a highly regarded prose translation by Richmond Lattimore, from his The Four Gospels and the Revelation, published in 1979. Barnstone’s verse translation from 2009 concludes the comparison.

John 15:12-15 (King James Version)

12 This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.

13 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

14 Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.

15 Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.

The King James Version comes close to the teaching in verse that Jesus utilized. It is prose, with poetry running just below the surface.

Here is Richmond Lattimore’s translation of John 15:12-15, emphasizing simple declarative sentences. It was included in a narrative paragraph spanning verses 4-20.

This is my commandment, that you love each other as I loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I tell you to. No longer do I call you slaves, because the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I call you friends, because I made known to you all that I heard from my father.

Lattimore was a noted scholar and a poet, like Barnstone. He taught Greek at Bryn Mawr College. In his version, he allows the basic purity of word and message to flow and there is a lyrical cadence that is most impressive. But Lattimore’s prose is working against the restrictions imposed by narrative structure. This defuses Jesus’s empowering call for service and sacrifice. It seems instead like a set of instructions.

Barnstone, on the other hand, translates John 15:12-15 in poetical form. As a result, the words of Jesus fairly sing off the pages.

This is my command,

That you love each other as I have loved you.

No one has greater love than this,

Than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

You are my friends if you do what I command you.

No longer will I call you slaves

Because the slave does not know what the master does.

But you I have called friends

Because all things I heard from my father

I have made known to you.

Here Jesus’s bold declaration to his chosen followers is liberated from what Barnstone calls the “prose lineation” of standard translations. Courage and wisdom are the order of the day, Jesus affirms, for those who have been chosen to preach the Kingdom. The personal, one-to-one connection of Jesus to each of the disciples is unmistakable and indelible. So too, is the affirmation of the bond of each for one another, which results from their willingness to make the ultimate of sacrifices.

By freeing Jesus’s words from the shackles of narrative structure and presenting them as independent poems, Barnstone’s approach pays additional dividends. The underlying unity of the teaching of Jesus throughout the four Gospels is easier to grasp when we are able to compare individual poems rather than blocks of text.

Barnstone’s The Poems of Jesus Christ is indeed an impressive and inspiring book. It convincingly demonstrates how the teaching of Jesus, spoken in verse, was “imbued with joyful or sorrowful insight and inlight.” Barnstone writes movingly that Jesus’s poems “surprise as an unforeseen marvel, as perhaps the most significant and beautiful collection of wisdom poetry the world has known.”

Unfortunately, Barnstone diminishes the effect of this revelation by failing to control his enthusiasm for showing the Judaic roots of the New Testament. In his translations, Barnstone refers to Jesus by the Hebraic form of his name, Yeshua ben Yosef. He extends this treatment to the familiar cast of followers, with the Gospel writer, Matthew, appearing as Mattiyahu. Mary Magdalene puts in an appearance as Miryam of Magdala. The name of the charismatic John the Baptist is translated, rather absurdly, as Yohanan the Dipper.

Barnstone compounds the problem by referring to Jesus and these others by the traditional English-forms of their names in the introductory sections. He would have been much better advised to discuss the authentic names of Jesus/Yeshua et al in the passages of commentary and leave it at that. When a reader has to stop and wonder who Yeshayahu is (it is the Prophet Isaiah), then Barnstone has lost some of the magic of the verse that he has done so much to evoke.

Some of Barnstone’s changes, however, are on target. Instead of describing the followers of Jesus as disciples, for instance, Barnstone uses the word “student.” This is the way that they are called in the original Greek. “Disciple,” Barnstone explains in a footnote, is “an entitling Latin upgrade and less appropriate for Jesus’s immediate followers.”

For the most part, though, Barnstone’s name-changing imparts an air of confusion rather than authenticity. To use different forms of Jesus’s name in the text and in the commentary and footnotes is unsettling and counterproductive. It should have been one form or the other. Since this book is a translation of the New Testament for the English-speaking world, Jesus, not Yeshua, should have been the preferred usage. Once the Hebrew form of the name of Jesus was noted, the shifting back and forth is a distraction for the general reader and I suspect for most students of theology as well.

This point of criticism aside, Barnstone establishes beyond doubt that Jesus is indeed “the great invisible poet of the world.” The inherent beauty and sanctity of the poems of Jesus shine forth from Barnstone’s verse translation.

The Poems of Jesus Christ is a book for the faithful and for those yearning to believe. It is a book for one’s bedside and the study desk, a book to read aloud or to reflect deeply upon. But most of all, it is a book to take to heart.


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