It's the day after Thanksgiving in the bustling kitchen of Willis Barnstone's book-filled home in Oakland's Piedmont Avenue neighborhood. The 82-year-old poet, translator and literary critic has just typed out a poem about what happened the day before yesterday - when he tripped at the Chinese restaurant just down the street from City Lights bookstore in North Beach, bumping his head and nearly knocking out his lights. The irrepressible Barnstone is still a bit woozy. His wife, the Chinese-art historian Sarah Handler, is standing at the espresso machine, churning out cappuccino. His son the architect is home for the holidays with his wife and their two extremely cute kids. They are toasting bagels and divvying up the last of the lox - to-die-for lox flown in from New York.
Barnstone is supposed to be talking about his masterful new book, "The Restored New Testament - A New Translation With Commentary, Including the Gnostic Gospels Thomas, Mary, and Judas" (Norton, 1,485 pages, $49.95). The book seeks to restore the lyricism and mysticism of the Jesus story, and perhaps most important, to undo centuries of mistranslation designed to obscure the Jewish identity of the carpenter from Nazareth.
But keeping Barnstone on message is not easy. There's lots to talk about when you've lived the life this man has lived and published 58 books of poetry, memoir, biblical commentary and translations of Sappho, St. John of the Cross and Mao Zedong, to name a few. There's the story about the week Allen Ginsberg crashed at Barnstone's Beijing apartment, not long after Nixon went to China, but we're not here to talk about that.
We're here to talk about this extraordinary opus, a lifetime of work that seeks to radically restore the historical Jewish context of these all-too-familiar stories about the lives and times of an itinerant rabbi named Yeshua, a.k.a. Jesus Christ.
That's the first thing you notice about this Bible. The names have been changed, and not to protect the innocent. Other Bibles make it too easy to forget the fact that Jesus and his first 12 followers were Jews. This Bible starts by restoring the Jewish names of the purported authors of the familiar gospel stories. Matthew becomes Mattityahu. Mark morphs into Markos, Luke is Loukas. John appears as Yohanan. John the Baptist is renamed Yohanan the Dipper.
Barnstone adds three other versions of the story, the recently discovered Gnostic gospels of Toma (Thomas), Yehuda (Judas) and Miryam of Magdala (Mary Magdalene), and argues in his commentary that they are at least as important and potentially accurate depictions as the canonical accounts that made it past the theological censors and into that ancient anthology we call the Bible.
The next thing you notice about the Barnstone Bible is the poetry, which is this translator's real passion.
Sitting in his kitchen, which like every other room in this house is filled with books, Barnstone lights up when he starts talking about how these texts began as spoken stories. They were later sung and chanted in verse. Most modern Bibles have lost that sense.
"It's poetry locked in prose," he says between bites of his bagel.
Barnstone came to the Bay Area after retiring from more than three decades as a professor in the departments of comparative literature, Spanish and Portuguese at Indiana University in Bloomington. Born in Lewiston, Maine, he studied French and philosophy at Bowdoin College in the 1940s. He earned his master's from Columbia University in 1956 and his doctorate from Yale in 1960. Along the way, he taught in Greece at the end of the civil war (1949-51) and in Buenos Aires during the "dirty war" (1975-76). He first went to China in 1972 during the Cultural Revolution and was later a Fulbright Professor of American Literature at Beijing Foreign Studies University in the mid-1980s.
Barnstone has published four other works of biblical commentary and translation, including "The New Covenant: Four Gospels" and (with Marvin Meyer) "The Gnostic Bible." Some of that work is repurposed in his new book.
He approaches the Bible as a scholar, not a believer. Barnstone describes himself as "a secular Jew" but insists he has no theological agenda. He rarely even eats bagels, he says.
"This is a good study Bible, and I hope it can unite people whether they are secular or religious."
At the same time, Barnstone pulls no punches in commentaries and annotations dealing with certain inconsistencies and improbabilities in the New Testament.
His sharpest critique is saved for those parts of the gospel story that blame the Jews for the death of Jesus and attempt to portray Pontius Pilate and his officers as reluctant executioners. Centuries of pogroms and other persecution, Barnstone says, flow from the story of Pilate washing his hands of the blood of Jesus and the incongruous response of the Jewish mob. "Let his blood be upon us and upon our children!" (Matthew 27:25)
"Would anybody shout a curse upon themselves and their children?" Barnstone asks in his commentary. "The notion is silly but noxious, and has followed the Jews for two millennia."
These accounts, Barnstone argues, were probably written at least two generations after the death of Jesus, by early church leaders who were attempting to show their loyalty to Rome. The whole story of the trial and execution makes sense only if Jesus and his early followers are robbed of their Jewish identity.
It was identity theft of biblical proportions.
"This depiction of a militant Yeshua (Jesus) siding with Rome in anger against the people of Jerusalem should be seen as a portrait wrongful to Christians at all levels of faith," he writes.
One of the scholars praising Barnstone's Bible is Frederick Crews, who calls the work "profoundly subversive."
Barnstone is not sure he agrees with that assessment. His purpose, he says, is not to subvert.
"This book is revolutionary in that it seeks to restore, not to destroy, who these people were and what they might have said and thought. It's not subversive; it's conservative. A conservative, ironically, is one who conserves. And that's what I want to do here - conserve and restore."
'The kingdom is in you'
Willis Barnstone includes the first verses of the Gospel of Toma (Thomas) in "The Restored New Testament." This collection of 114 wisdom sayings attributed to Yeshua (Jesus) was discovered in 1945 in a sealed jar buried in a farm in Upper Egypt near the town of Nag Hammadi:
Whoever discovers what these sayings mean
Will not taste death.
Seek and do not stop seeking until you find.
When you find, you will be troubled.
When you are troubled,
You will marvel and rule over all.
If your leaders tell you, "Look, the kingdom is in heaven,"
Then the birds of heaven will precede you.
If they tell you, "It is in the sea,"
Then fish will precede you.
But the kingdom is in you and outside you.
When you know yourselves, you will be known.
Doing justice to poetry in prose
Here is a comparison of a familiar verse of the New Testament in the King James Version of the Bible and Willis Barnstone's "The Restored New Testament":
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
1 Corinthians 13:11-13, King James Version
When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child and reasoned like a child. When I became a man I put an end to childish things. For now we look into an enigmatic mirror. One day we will gaze face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know in full as I myself was fully known. Now faith, hope, and love remain, these three. Of these the greatest one is love.
1 Corinthians, 13.11-13, "Restored New Testament"
Here is Barnstone's explanation of how he reconsidered the passage: "A striking difference is that I put this passage, as the whole long letter, 1 Corinthians in blank verse to do justice to the poetry locked in prose. Of course the King James Version is now read archaically, but it is insuperable. There are big problems, however. The famous phrase 'For now we see through a glass, darkly' is as wrong as it is beautiful and memorable. The notion of seeing through a 'glass' is wrong. The Greek (author of 1 Corinthians) tells us he is looking at a mirror and it must be understood as a mirror, probably of bronze, since there were no mirrors then of glass. It is also not dark, though enigmatically it may be taken by a stretch as 'dim' or 'dark.' Finally, Greek 'agape' is rendered as 'charity' rather than 'love.' A terrible, pious, churchly distortion, based on Jerome's Latin caritas (charity) in his Latin Vulgate version of the word."
The article was first published in the Dec. 25, 2009 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.