LES ADRECHS, France — If Christians, Muslims and Jews are people of the same book, Willis Barnstone believes, they need a new edition. So he wrote the first significant English-language Bible since King James’ version in 1611.
“The Restored New Testament” is poetically paced and rich in imagery. But beyond literature, it seeks to restore the original message after centuries of distortion that feeds hatred among religions with a shared heritage.
Barnstone shatters encrusted myths, places women back into the cast of vital characters and shows how Judaism is at the roots of Christianity.
“Despite the wondrous beautiful qualities in the scripture, New Testament and evangelist authors are guilty of the greatest identity theft in history,” he said in an interview. “They have concealed the Jewish identity.”
Shifting back to Greek names from Latin, his Jesus is Yeshua, a rabbi whose favored acolyte is Miryam (no longer Mary) of Magdala. And Yehuda — Judas — has his good side.
The weight of this work surprises no one who knows Barnstone, polyglot poet and itinerant wise man. His new Bible, at 1,480 pages, was his 58th book when published late last year.
Newly married at 80, still traveling like Odysseus with air miles, he has since dashed off yet another tome. Laid low with TB, he wrote "With Pancho Villa on the Road: Songs of Adventure & Tuberculosis."
Barnstone works in Chinese, Spanish, German and French as well as Greek, old and new. He is intimate with Hebrew and Aramaic, with a working notion of Coptic.
After he translated Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine master proclaimed the United States had four great things to offer: Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Willis Barnstone and cornflakes.
After decades as a professor of comparative literature at the University of Indiana, Barnstone settled in Oakland, Calif.
In his long life’s work, the new Bible is Barnstone’s chef d’oeuvre.
In a forward, he praises earlier versions. Protestant reformer William Tyndale’s 1525 translation, he writes, was “as austerely plain and beautiful as a field of wheat.” But, he adds, language evolves, and great works need regular revision.
Here is how Barnstone renders Matthew 6:22:
“The lamp of the body is the eye.
If your eye is clear, your whole body is filled with light,
But if your eye is clouded, your whole body
Will inhabit darkness.
And if the light in your whole body is darkness,
How dark it is!”
Truth in packaging requires me to say Barnstone has been a close friend of 35 years. My Willis shelf sags with works on more subjects than the normal mind can imagine, along with others by his daughter, Aliki, and his son, Tony.
In recent years, he has focused on Christian theology, from the Cathars in French Languedoc to the Holy Land mainstream.
The word “Christian” does not appear in the original text, he said. It is the Greek word for “messianic,” an adjective describing what Jews had always been.
Barnstone says anyone who attacks Jews, per se, must also target Mary, Jesus, Paul and James (Miryam, Yeshua, Shaul and Yaakov). All major personages, along with early saints, were Jews.
“The book has been more than anything a literary restoration of the beauty once captured in the King James Version and thinned down in subsequent archaizing versions,” he said.
If it receives worldwide attention, he added, it could help dampen hatreds based on twisted history.
In the New York Review of Books, Frank Kermode catches the essence in his piece, “A Bold New Bible.” He cites three versions from the prologue to John’s gospel.
Tyndale had it:
“In the beginnynge was that worde, and that word was with god: and god made 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 King James, that became:
“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.”
Half a millennium later, this is Barnstone’s 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.”
Reading the pure poetic prose, hoary cliches suddenly fit into a timeless context.
“Revelations” comes from the Greek “Apokalypsis,” which suggests a more obvious translation:
“…. I saw and look, a pale green horse
And the name of his rider was Death, and Hell
Was following him. Power was given them
Over a quarter of the globe to kill
By sword and by hunger and by death
And by the wild beasts of the earth.”
Those Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are still with us.
Like Barnstone, Tyndale worked from the original Greek. He wanted, he wrote, to bring scriptures to all women, Scots and Irishmen, Turks and Saracens, plowmen and weavers. Judged a heretic, he was strangled, and then burned at the stake.