Church of Our Saviour

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COS Reads: The Restored New Testament

The Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary, Including the Gnostic Gospels Thomas, Mary, and Judas, by Willis Barnstone (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009)

This remarkable book is a New Testament for the general reader and for people who love words—a version literary, historical, and truly poetic. The translator/editor, Willis Barnstone, is a professor of comparative literature at Indiana University and former professor of Greek at Colgate University. He is also an acclaimed poet and biblical scholar. Placing his choices of words into rich historical and biblical context, Barnstone manages to blend the reality of the gospels’ time and settings with modern meaning (and commentary) into a thought-provoking, lyrical text. He strives in part to emulate a far earlier biblical translator, William Tyndale, who when translating a Greek version correctly into the people’s English of his day (1525) wrote “He was a luckie fella” (later inflated in the far courtlier King James Version as “He was a fortunate gentleman”).

In an interview in Library Journal, Barnstone offers the following explanation:

“Briefly: [this book’s] a restoration of the probable names of persons and places to their Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew originals; a book that avoids Biblespeak, the half-lovely archaized speech that most translations fall into after the King James Version, or really infelicitous lowbrow talk that floats like lead when the scripture is gold. I attempt to translate the Bible as others have translated Homer or Virgil. Why not? I also show that the name changes—Elizabeth for Elisheva, James for Yaakov, Mary for Miryam—are an attempt to mask the fact that all the characters, big and small, except for the Romans, are Jews. Jesus was a circumcised rabbi who died during the Passover days of the seder. I also show by translating much of the book into verse that like all the world’s religious scripture the book was meant to be chanted as it is today in Greek Orthodox churches. We read the Song of Songs, Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and many of the prophets as lineated poetry. We should do the same with the New Testament, which, like the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), was half in poetry, including Revelation, the epic poem of the Bible which I did in blank verse.”

He goes on to say, “I have also taken out the artificial pomp by using messenger, not apostle, and student rather than the Latin disciple.” An apostle stays at home and admires his robes, but Paul’s apostles, many of them women, hit the road for the cause.

Why a new translation now? Barnstone answers,

“I hope the reader feels that the restored scripture reveals the commonality of the Abrahamic sects of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I hope the faithful and secular see a work closer to the original scripture and not bathed in the propaganda of bias and willful persuasion, a fascinating read, with verve and freshness. Unlike most scripture it has whimsy and humor for a world drowning in gravity and fear and misunderstanding. Surely laughter is part of our life and not a sin against seriousness.”

We all know that the same ideas expressed in different but similar words can reveal whole new ways of thinking. I’m not a biblical scholar and can’t vouch for the accuracy of Barnstone’s translations, though, so here are two familiar passages, from the gospels of Markos (Mark] and Mattityahu [Matthew] that demonstrate what Barnstone has tried to do. Read them and see whether you think a bit differently
about Jesus the Messiah, or “Yeshua the mashiah,” his calling, and his teachings. Barnstone’s ample notes and commentary can help you with words and names that might now seem unfamiliar—so get this book from Robbins Library in Arlington and take a look.

The Restored New Testament, Mk 1: 1-5
Good news

In the beginning of the
gospel of Yeshua the
mashiah, son of God.

As it is written in Yesha-
yahu the prophet

Look, I send my messen-
ger ahead of you,

And he will pre-
pare your road;

The voice of one
crying out in the desert,

Prepare the way
for Adonai and make his
paths straight.


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