Sammlungen des Stiftes, Melk Austria/Erich Lessing/Art Resource

Jörg Breu the Elder: ‘Pontius Pilate washing his hands,’ 1502, one of eight panels formerly decorating the altar at the Melk Abbey Church, Austria

This heroic enterprise, an expansive single-handed edition of the New Testament, is a substantial addition to the sixty-odd publications of the poet and translator Willis Barnstone. It appears in company with the fourth edition of a collection called Ancient Greek Lyrics, which contains practically all of Sappho and a large selection of other lyric poets—“our earliest songs in European antiquity”—that Barnstone “helped into English nearly half a century ago.”

Barnstone also translates from Chinese, German, and Spanish. He has collaborated on editions of several Gnostic texts, including the Gospel of Thomas, of which the original survives in Coptic; and has worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls, on the Christian Apocrypha—books found in the Greek version of the Jewish Bible (the Septuagint) but excluded from the Hebrew canon—and on the Jewish Pseudepigrapha, writings ascribed to authors of more antiquity and authority than their writers.

The languages one would need to know in order to do all this work are Hebrew, Greek—both classical and its “marketplace” version, koine (the language of the New Testament)—some Coptic, and some Aramaic (the Semitic vernacular used in Palestine and adjacent areas in the centuries when Hebrew was reserved for religious use). Add Latin, at the time of the New Testament the language of the Roman military occupation and later of the almost unchallengeably authoritative Vulgate, the Catholic Bible, and you might guess that after such a career a translator will surely have grasped the fact that Christianity is uniquely dependent on translations, and will have developed some ideas about the problems they raise. Barnstone has, but they are not always clear.

In a note on his translations of the Greek lyrics he remarks that it is

important to remember that the Greeks, as most poets in the past…wrote in a language which seemed natural and contemporary to their readers. My intention has been to use a contemporary idiom.

Would this apply to Pindar, for instance, or to Milton? Moreover, we seem to be faced with two conflicting senses of “contemporary”: the first concerns the simple contemporaneity of poet and first audience, the second implies the use of a form of the language contemporary not with the poetry but with a modern reader. These senses can get muddled when translators explain their wish to bring ancient text and modern reader together; and the results can be odd.

For similar reasons the translator will avoid rhyme when it is not a feature of the ancient text, as it very rarely is. The Bible, for instance, is very rich in verse but not in the sort that rhymes. Obviously rhyme would be a false archaism, everywhere to be avoided as a hindrance to the modern reader, except perhaps in the special case of Christian hymnody.

But the case is not entirely simple. Apart from Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator” and a few more rather obscure remarks of his on the subject, it seems—rather unexpectedly in view of the vast amount of translation that is always in progress—that there apparently isn’t a classic point of reference for discussion of theories of translation later than Matthew Arnold’s Oxford lectures “On Translating Homer” (1860–1861). The success of these lectures derived in part from Arnold’s fame, but also from the severity and brilliance of his attack on F.W. Newman’s version of the Iliad. Nor does Arnold spare more famous Homeric translators like Chapman, Pope, and Cowper. From his close readings of the failures of these poets Arnold can give clear expression to the principles they breached. Their faults point what he hopes may be the way forward for future attempts.

The gist of Arnold’s essay is his belief that Homer is rapid in movement, plain in style, simple in ideas, and noble. He is never, as Newman supposed, merely “quaint” or “antiquated,” never eccentric. His nobility of manner “invests his subject…with nobleness.” Arnold illustrates this quality by quoting some favorite passages from the Iliad: the one where Priam kisses the hand of Achilles, killer of his son Hector; another where Sarpedon addresses his stoical message to Glaucus; another where Achilles speaks sadly to his horse. All these passages are marked by a tragic nobility of manner. They avoid eccentricities of diction and use language that is always apt to the level of the material that is being presented. The Greek does not rhyme, nor should the English, and hexameters must also be avoided. The language of the Iliad, already ancient in Plato’s time, changed as languages must, but remained intelligible to Greeks because it was learned from the cradle, and was always suitable to any part of the poem—a model of what Arnold calls “the grand style.” Homer is not “elegant,” like Vergil; he is never “quaint” or conceited, as F.W. Newman believed. But Newman, having a mistaken notion that when Homer seems peculiar he should produce something peculiar too, offers a translation that makes Homer “odd and ignoble.”


Homer, who “sheds over the simplest matter he touches the charm of his grand manner” and “makes everything noble,” is thus disgraced by translators such as Newman, and the intention of the translator himself is frustrated; seeking to apply his genuine learning to the task of making the pleasures of Homer available to the Greekless reader, he went absolutely the wrong way about it, failed, and was then harshly called “ignoble.”

Despite the force and clarity of his arguments, Arnold himself can be called unjust; his “grand style” is a vaguely moralistic quality unhelpful to a translator who has to deal with matters not in themselves self-evidently noble or possessing what Arnold called “high seriousness.” The translator of an ancient text might, in reading Arnold, feel he must somehow escape his own ignoble limitations before he can do his work.

Barnstone does not mention Arnold’s challenge, but when he took on the translation of the New Testament he had a clear idea of the nature of the problems he shared with other translators, from some of whom he could expect little help. Good modern versions exist; and he himself gives high praise to Richmond Lattimore’s and qualified approval to Reynolds Price’s. And there is certainly no shortage of translations that demonstrate how not to do it. The Cambridge History of the Bible (volume 3) provides specimens, instances of what Arnold would have called “ignoble” or even ridiculous. Even the entirely respectable New English Bible of 1961, which claimed to use idiomatic English and avoid archaism, was judged dull and disappointing, perhaps not ignoble but certainly remote from any notion of grand style.

What remains surprising is the continued vitality of the King James Version of 1611, with all its well-known faults; and there seems recently to have been a revival of interest in William Tyndale, whose vigorous early-sixteenth-century translation, intended for “the boy that driveth the plow,” was to be the chief source of the King James translation. Tyndale’s achievement reminds us that vernacular Bibles were politically as well as philologically risky: his led to him being strangled and burned at the stake.

Barnstone pays his respects to Tyndale and to King James’s diligent teams of scholars; but modern readers may find Tyndale’s early-modern English trying to read. The King James Version, having left indelible marks on secular and religious literature generally, remains on the whole secure in the affection of Anglophone readers, but it is often archaic and inaccurate. Inevitably there is something to be said against most or all modern versions, and Barnstone’s bold and enormous book is designed to replace them all; though not with a straightforward translation of the usual text.

The novelty of the work is that it gives so much attention to a thesis, to be stated roughly as follows: the New Testament as we have it in our Bibles is a corrupt version of a lost original. We now know why Barnstone’s title talks about “restoration.” The analogy is with a painting that requires thorough cleaning and repair; and Barnstone has undertaken to do the same job for the Christian Bible. Once cleaned it will be available in its true colors, as it was originally meant to be seen. Among other things, it would be less pro- Roman and far less anti-Semitic.

Almost his first decision was to restore to the personnel of the New Testament (if we may retain that as a working title) their original names; so Jesus is replaced, via Greek Iesous, by Yeshua; Mary reverts to the Hebrew Miryam. Many other names are changed in this “New Covenant” (preferred to “New Testament” as better Greek, and correctly rendering Paul’s diatheke, which means a pact, not a testament). John the Baptist is translated in another sense of the word, rather like Bottom the Weaver, and now appears as Yohanan the Dipper, a job description more obscure than the one it replaces, and eccentric, if not ludicrous, by Arnold’s standards.

Barnstone argues that English “baptize” misses some of the meaning of Greek baptizomai (it “does not convey the specific image of dipping in water”). Perhaps this would be felt as a lack by persons of Baptist origin and education. Judas becomes Yehuda, standing for the Jews in contradistinction to the other disciples (now called “students”) who, in keeping with the anti-Jewish intention of the evangelists, are not even represented as Jews. The Gospel of Judas, recently discovered and first published only in 2006, presents Judas/Yehuda as the privileged confidant of rabbi Jesus/Yeshua, an agent of the divine purpose; but the “Christianizing” tradition made him “villainous,” an enemy of the Messiah (mashiah) whose return the dissident Jewish Christians continued to expect.


In this matter of restoring the Hebrew and Greek names, Barnstone allows himself some inconsistency, for he retains the familiar names of the four evangelists. This concession would have been approved by King James’s advisers, for instructions given to the translators of the 1611 Bible required that “the names of the prophets and the holy writers, with other names in the text…be retained as near as may be, accordingly as they are vulgarly used.” That seems sensible and familiar, but is not consistent with Barnstone’s purpose of restoration, which is very remote from that of King James’s bishops. When the restorative cleaning is done we should, according to Barnstone, be left almost entirely with characters who have Aramaic or Greek names. “We will not watch Andrew and Mark pausing in London or Chicago but Andreas and Markos walking a Greek city.” But that may not make them more “contemporary” with us; the effect might well be to estrange them.

However, that may turn out to be consistent with the translator’s larger purpose. When, late in the first century, division developed between Jew and Christian-Jew, the latter party, Messianists or Christians (followers of the anointed one) reworked and distorted the Judaic message. What Barnstone wants is the restoration of the scriptures to their unadulterated original Jewish form, as they were before they were corrupted by the propaganda of the Messianists.


National Gallery of London/Bridgeman Art Library

Antonello da Messina: Saint Jerome in His Study, circa 1475

The work of restoration also required the translator to present as verse whatever he thought should be regarded as verse in the New Testament—notably in the preaching of Rabbi Yeshua and in the Apocalypse. This is a bold undertaking. It lends itself well enough to such moments as the Sermon on the Mount or to disconnected sayings as recorded in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. In the Sermon on the Mount the beatitudes are neatly balanced (“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted”) and the lines have their own length and would probably fall easily under the rules of Hebrew versification as promulgated by Robert Alter. But in other passages the form of verse devised for this occasion seems very unsatisfactory. Barnstone claims to use “loose iambic pentameters” for epistles and the Apocalypse but, more vaguely, “poetic form” for “the utterings of Yeshua.” Again we are told these moves are necessary because of the need to make speech sound “contemporary and natural” as John Wyclif did when translating from the Latin Bible in 1380, and after him Tyndale, whose prose is here charmingly described as “plain and beautiful as a field of wheat.”

However, neither of these early and faithful translators versified his text. Barnstone had already made his text seem odd, even before the question of verse arose, by handing out those unfamiliar names. Now there will be further defamiliarization; he will provide Yeshua, and the author of Apocalypse, with verses corresponding to their poetry.

The grandest hymn in the New Testament is the prologue to John’s gospel. Here are three versions of its opening sentences:

In the beginnynge was that worde, and that word was with god: and god was thatt worde. The same was in the begynnynge wyth god. All thynges were made by it, and with out it, was made noo thinge, that made was.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
(King James Version)

In the beginning was the word
And the word was with God,
And God was the word.
The word was in the beginning with God.
Through it everything came about
And without it not a thing came about.

Barnstone, whose edition has a very ample—some might say self-indulgent—commentary, pauses to mention the word “it” in the fifth line of the third passage. The Greek allows “him,” and also allows “it,” which was the choice of Tyndale; the King James Version, though based on Tyndale, preferred “him.” This identification of the logos, the Word, with God is perfectly apt to the context but is not actually discussed in the long appended note, though long notes are a marked feature of this edition.

As to the verse, it happens in this passage to break up into short lines that have a certain coherence established by the chiming of “beginning,” “word,” and “God.” “Not a thing came about” is feeble compared with either Tyndale or the King James Version, both of which seem to emphasize the creative effort, the work of making and the condition of being made, hardly hinted at in the repeated “came about.” Barnstone’s version continues in this vein:

What came to be in the word was life
And the life was the light of people
And the light in the darkness shines
And the darkness could not apprehend it.

Compare Tyndale:

In it was lyfe, and lyfe was the light of men… And the light shyneth in darcknes, and darcknes comprehended it not.

The Greek word translated as “comprehended” or “apprehended” seems usually to mean something like “cooped up” or “overtook”; the darkness could not do so to the light, which continues to shine, in the present tense.

From this brief extract I think one can fairly go on to complain of a certain flatness in the language that the verse does nothing to amend. And here a fair test would be Paul’s famous and eloquent praise of love in 1 Cor. 13:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
(King James Version)

If I speak in the tongue 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.

The King James Version uses “charity” because Jerome in the Vulgate translated the Greek agape as caritas, and in this instance the English translators followed him, but Barnstone chose “love,” following Tyndale, who worked directly and rebelliously from the Greek. The authority of the Vulgate was still great and here the Jacobean bishops accepted it. Barnstone has a long note in which he argues that Paul’s agape must in this place mean love between man and woman, “love in all its meanings…love in the most expansive and joyous senses.” This in spite of the fact that in the same letter Paul “speaks against sensuality.” Barnstone’s note attempts to solve this paradox, but the note as a whole leaves the matter unclear and wanders, as his notes sometimes do, from the point he needs to make, replacing that explanation with pleasantly extravagant and enthusiastic surmises of his own. (In the passage I’ve been referring to, it appears that a line of type may have dropped out, adding to the general difficulty of the argument.)

Moreover, it cannot be said that the redistribution of the text of 1 Cor. 13 is a help to understanding, compared with the King James Version, and the same is true of most of the verse. “Loose iambic pentameters”—Barnstone’s own description—are verses that can be written in daydreams; to be caught by their rhythms has been the fate of very good writers like Dickens. To add the license offered by the word “loose” is to compound the danger.

Barnstone in these passages is primarily a writer of lyric poetry. The verse here alternates between spontaneous iambic pentameters which take the form that seems most natural—having a regular beat—and broken lines that are not pentameters at all, as in these instances, picked randomly from the Gospel of Judas:

“…And yet these men before
The altar constantly invoke your name,
And in their own practice of sacrifice
They fill the altar with their offerings.”
After their speech they were silent and troubled.

I am conscious, even as I complain, of failing to note the pleasing extravagance of this book, which is most attractive when the subject is Paul and his letters, but is always producing something novel. For example, the entire Testament is arranged on unusual lines. It opens with neither Matthew nor Mark but with the opening lines of John, discussed above; they are separated from the remainder of John’s gospel. The canonical gospels follow, but with Mark leading the Synoptics, as for a long time it has, by most scholars, been thought it should. Six Gnostic gospels follow; then come the authentic letters of Paul, followed closely by the inauthentic and the remaining letters otherwise attributed, including the ever-important Epistle to the Hebrews. Canonicity, authenticity, and chronology combine to impose the order in which the material is presented.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the position of the book formerly known as the Acts of the Apostles, that factual-fantastic account of the early Christian missionary years and the adventures of Paul. We are now invited to call this book “The Activities of the Messengers,” and to give up the old idea that it is the work of Luke, in fact a sequel to his gospel. Barnstone, being quite sure that there is no good evidence for Luke’s authorship, detaches “The Activities of the Messengers” from its old place after John and deletes its old title, which might have continued to be used from mere inertia; but this author rarely exhibits signs of that.

As a writer Barnstone is always lively and copious and, when he has a position to defend, willing to make his case with as much emphasis and repetition as it seems to require. It is a principal object of The Restored New Testament to ‘‘clarify the origin of Christianity as one of the Jewish messianic sects of the day vying for dominion,” and the book returns repeatedly to this and kindred issues, for Barnstone is sure that his view of the development of Christianity in the later years of the first century is the only one that will bear critical examination.

“As to denominations—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, the world—while respecting all views, I have no pitch for any camp.” In fact Barnstone has a deep fondness for the Christian testament but cannot excuse Christian interference with the record as we have it. Why, he asks, is it so soft on the Romans? Pilate is said to follow the Jewish ritual of washing the hands of guilt, something that would have been highly unlikely. Though Pilate speaks Latin and Yeshua Aramaic, they civilly converse. There is, one might add, that engaging vignette of Pilate’s wife. It is under the influence of wicked Jews that Pilate orders the crucifixion “during the Seder when somehow the crowds are not in their houses lighting the candles of Passover hope.” The cry “Crucify him!” is not “the voice of a Jewish mob in the street but the voice of Rome enunciated in highly redacted texts attributed to the evangelist.”

These “redacted” texts, Barnstone argues, were pro-Roman and anti-Semitic; and they reported impossibilities, or implausibles, as fact: among them the nocturnal meeting of the Sanhedrin; the penalty of crucifixion when the crime did not fit it; the conversion of the Roman centurion in charge of the crucifixion; the conversations impossibly reported; and a good deal more, especially the choice of the Jew Judas as the Betrayer. The very word “Jew” is “used only when referring to those who are not believers in Jesus as the messiah, but never employed when referring to the Jewish followers of rabbi Yeshua.” Moreover, those who were called Jews are “portrayed relentlessly as sinister, shouting and scheming fellows lacking virtue and respectability.” And here begins “a blood tragedy, and the essential historical source of inhumanity for Christian and Jew alike.”

Barnstone set himself the task of editing a text that he regards as corrupted by redactions later ascribed to the evangelists. A cover-up of the originals in the interest of keeping on the right side of Rome has been suggested before, and is not improbable historically. What gives this version of it plausibility is the editor’s affection for the lost version, the purged gospel that had once tried to teach the world peace and forgiveness in the sayings of a Jewish Messiah or Christ.

Barnstone’s wish to revert to original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek proper names was evidently strong. He had high hopes for it, believing that it might “dramatically change world thought with respect to the early family of Jews and Christians.” But some might find that familiar places and characters grow strange, exotic, in Matthew Arnold’s eyes “eccentric.” Even Barnstone would probably admit that we should all put up with “Matthew” rather than accept Mattityahu, even if promised such excellent results. It may be said that he has preferred to study a book that doesn’t exist, but it remains true that he and his many collaborators have had to work hard on editing the actual New Testament, with its endless problems.

Some idea of how he goes about his work may be had from the way he sometimes enthusiastically compels his annotations to contain more information than they can comfortably hold. Here is a note on Paul’s important declaration in Romans 8, “He sent down his own son in the likeness/Of sinful flesh” (Barnstone’s line division). The note explains that this phrase introduces what will become a central issue for Christians and Gnostics: Is Jesus a man or a god and only in appearance a man? This question divides the Monophysites (Copts, Syrians, Gnostics) who thought Christ had one divine nature from the orthodox Christian (Dyophysite) party who saw Jesus as both human and divine:

At the other extreme were the Arians—and Constantine himself called in an Arian bishop to baptize him on his deathbed—who believed that Jesus did not share God’s divine substance but was the true earthly messiah and the highest of created beings.

This note summarizes a few centuries of Christological speculation and dispute, with the parenthesis about Constantine squeezed in for the sake of completeness. It is a note that gives you some idea of the nature of the whole book: argument and information piled in together by an author admirably bold though occasionally deficient in finesse.