2016-06-30
Prolific poet and scholar Willis Barnstone has long been fascinated with religious texts. His most recent translation, The New Covenant: Commonly Called the New Testament: The Four Gospels and Apocalypse, reestablishes the canonical gospels as Jewish texts and restores the probable Hebrew or Aramaic name not only to Jesus, but to many other familiar people and places. It also renders many speeches in poetry, as they were originally written.

You've translated an eclectic mix of religious and secular texts. Could you talk a little about your religious background?
I'm the grandchild of Jewish immigrants who came to America in the 1880s. My parents were secular. My stepfamily is Mexican and I was educated at a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania. So I'm an eclectic mess.

For some 30 years I've been connected with the Unitarian Church, which my children also attended. Every now and then they asked me to give a talk to replace the minister for a Sunday, which in my case ranged from Mao's classical poetry to St. John of the Cross and the Gnostic meditation. Very Unitarian.

I began translating the Bible after I did a book for Yale called "Poetics of Translation." I had read the Gospels many times in the Greek, and [in that book] I wrote about the 'disguisements' of Jesus' identity through intentional mistranslation.

Such as?
Using, for example, for the same word in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. If the text says "rabbi" in the Greek, it usually came out as "Master, Lord, Sir, or Teacher" [in other translations]. All of which are possible names, but the intention was "rabbi."

There are many new definitions of Jesus out there these days: "Mediterranean peasant," etcetera. Which portrayals seem accurate or appeal to you?
I love the Jesus of poverty, the Jesus who was one with the poor, not too much above them. The Jesus who could be hungry, sick, frightened, and who was scared to death on the cross.

What doesn't attract me is what has been enforced by religious establishments--the Jesus who punishes, the militant Jesus. It's not the statements like "I have come not to bring peace but the sword." It's just the notion that if you are with me and believe, then I love you. If you do not believe, you will die an eternal death of unmitigated pain. And that's true of virtually all religions. It's less true of the Hebrew Bible because the Hebrew Bible was not infused with Platonism and a notion of the eternal.

Belief is an equation of love. Disbelief is punishment. There's virtually no page that does not reveal in some way the proselytizing desire to bring people into the folds of belief, and the consequences--such as the destruction of Jerusalem, etcetera.--that will happen if one doesn't.

Speaking of the destruction of the temple, you describe in the book how the gospels became pro-Roman.
If early Christian Jews made overt statements against the Romans, they would not only be thrown into exile, they would be immediately dead. So the gospels coated their anti-Romanness. (In contrast to Revelation, which is totally anti-Roman.) They had good reason. The gospels--I think everyone understands this--are an apology for Rome. In the East, in some sects of the Orthodox Church, it's Saint Pilate.

The centurions are cast as uniformly good in the gospels. At one point, the centurion is said to have a better soul than anyone in Israel. The centurion in charge of Christ's execution is among the first to recognize that Christ is risen, that he is innocent. His army--the one who's just done this nastiness--stands apparently converted on the spot. So we have the Romans are the first new Christians, which is necessary from the point of view of a church situated in Rome and Constantinople.

This helps us understand why anti-Semitism came up. It was a means of getting the Romans off the hook. Although Jesus is killed by the Romans, possibly at the behest of the Jews, it was more important to make the Romans seem like unwilling collaborators with the Jews.

How does your translation deal with this pro-Roman overlay?
I focused on the literary qualities of a text. Rather than using euphemisms like "Judeans" or "opponents," I call the people who were accused of doing all these horrible deeds "Jews." We have to say that, but at least we can restore the probable names [of the gospel characters], remembering that they were all Semitic rather than Greek or Roman, and we can at least present them in a beautiful literary way.

I'm working on the Acts of the Apostles now, and I call them the "Activities of the Messengers." And I use "student" rather than disciple. It's less lawyer-like. The Greek is so beautiful. It's wonderful narrative Greek, full of the best a Camus or a Hemingway could do with plain Greek. One should translate it as plain, austere, chaste Greek, and not inflate.

What does working with original text tell you about Jesus's divinity?
That's really stuff that is not in the text. But at the crucifixion, if he is God, he's not speaking consciously as God. Because I don't believe that scream of abandonment is false. If you ask me what I believe, that's a different question from what the gospels tell us. They don't really tell us. We have to read what's not in there to know about Jesus' divinity or not.

And then, look, we're reading a text in English which is a translation from koine Greek. Was it a translation based on lost Aramaic texts? On oral gospelling? We don't know. We just know there's a 50 or 100-year-old gap, and then suddenly we have a story. When we try to read an immense amount into the truth of every word, we must understand the truth of every word is so relative to the accident of its survival. How much we can read into the accident of survived texts should be taken with great caution.

You call Jesus a great oral poet of first century, and say that John the Evangelist and John of the Apocalypse are poets.
Yes. They give us parables, rather than conceptions. A kiss is better than the word 'love.' When you read the last pages of the gospels, it's like Shakespeare and the Greek tragedians. It's a completely, insufferably purging experience. It's the great drama of the world.

I write this book not as someone pushing a one religion over another, even though I try to readjust what I feel is a misplacement of the whole question of Judaism in early Christianity. I did this book because I think good texts are universal. [Our reading] should not be a legalistic correctness or incorrectness; it should simply be [to read] a beautiful, moving spiritual text given to us as it might have been sung or chanted or understood by the early people for whom it was made.

We must never forget that these were holy songs, which is why poetry seems most apt. Poetry slows you down. Remember, St. Augustine is stunned when he sees three of his fellow priests reading silently. He was not aware that texts could be read silently. Everything was oral. The idea of the sung word should hopefully come through. Poetry gives us a beautiful, just pause.

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