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Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2009

The Restored New Testament?

More Perspectives on Ancient Writings

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New translations of the Bible continue to roll off the presses 500 years after Gutenberg and Luther and the pace has only accelerated during the past half century. Some of the new translations were in response to new scholarship concerning ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. Most were composed to make a particular point or two. If God provided the original inspiration for these texts, they have always been authored, transcribed, translated and interpreted by people from their own perspectives.

Willis Barnstone, an Indiana University comparative literature professor, comes to the Bible as a pro-Gnostic, philo-Semitic poet. In his The Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary, Including the Gnostic Gospels Thomas, Mary, and Judas (W.W. Norton), this leads him to:

• Footnote and frame his new translation with comments favorable to Gnosticism
• Seek the Jewish context of the New Testament by restoring the Hebrew or Aramaic names to places and persons (as much as these can be ascertained)
• Compose the English with a sense for the cadence—the poetry—of the original texts

He understands that the role played by the Gnostics, and even their identity, will always remain controversial. History, especially ancient history, will always keep its secrets. As for restoring the original Hebrew names, Barnstone overstates the necessity by claiming that all previous translators were guilty of “an eager over naturalization of the immigrant Semites into Anglo-Saxon characters, making Jerusalem Jews named Elisheva or Kefa into local friends called Elizabeth or Peter.” True, in some times and places many Christians didn’t understand the Jewishness of the gospel setting, but Barnstone should be reminded of the strenuous efforts by anti-Semites in the 19th and early 20th centuries to concoct an Aryan family tree for Jesus, denying the generally accepted knowledge of Jesus’ Jewish heritage. In any event, ignorance of the Jewish identity of key biblical figures is hardly a problem nowadays beyond crank sectarians who are unlikely to be swayed by restoring the name of Jesus to Yeshua and Jerusalem to Yerushalayim. Barnstone’s exercise is interesting and informative but accomplishes less than he intended.

The translation itself is fascinating to read, occasionally revealing truths hidden behind the thicket of too familiar language from four centuries of English translations. But in contrast to the team efforts that began with the King James Version, The New Testament Restored is largely a one-man show. In undertaking the monumental task of exploring the ancient texts, Barnstone should have had at least a few native guides at his side. One of them might have warned of the danger of colloquialism when he described Herod as being “outfoxed” by the Magi, whom he repeatedly identifies, between commas, as “astrologer priests from the east.” That is indeed what the wise men were, as fundamentalist Christians should be reminded—but in a footnote, not the text itself. Also, there is the awkward business of calling John the Baptist Yohanan the Dipper. Rather than inadvertently turning him into a comical sounding character, Barnstone might have chosen Yohanan the Immerser, since one of his footnotes defines baptist as Greek for “one who dips, washes, or immerses.” Aside from sounding better, immersion is a more accurate description of the baptisms John performed in the river Jordan.

Ultimately, Barnstone’s commentaries, rivaling in length the texts he translated, are the book’s most important point of interest. His own writing is scholarly, accessible and generally careful to distinguish various perspectives (including his own) from the evanescent facts being perceived. Occasionally, he slips. Barnstone’s sarcasm about the canonization of Pontius Pilate by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was not, as he states, for “his honorable role in ordering the execution of the Messiah,” but for ruing his part in Christ’s death.

With many quibbles aside, The Restored New Testament is a fascinating work that should be considered by anyone interested in the origins of the three monotheisms that have dominated much of the world over the past 2,000 years.

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