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New Edition of the Gospels Helps Highlight the Many Consequences of Translation
The best thing ever produced by committee is the King James Bible. Its impact on the English language -- its beauty and power -- is unsurpassed. Its influence on Christian doctrine and interpretation, and especially on Protestant Christianity's role in shaping American thought and culture, is profound.
Now comes a new English translation of the New Testament, including the Gnostic Gospels of Thomas, Mary and Judas, titled The Restored New Testament. It is the brave effort of literary polymath Willis Barnstone, American poet and translator who works in several ancient and modern languages. The task required him to engage with Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and some Coptic.
Why does any of this matter to readers of a Jewish publication? Frank Kermode has observed that Christianity is the product of translations. The New Testament is the central text that drives Christian thought with its immense force -- often unhappily for us Jews. The letters of Paul inspired the final break of the sect of Jewish Christians from Judaism, gave Christianity its universal aspirations, and encouraged its acceptance by, and later conversion of, Roman authority.
The New Testament was the Church's handbook in Europe for a thousand years: the engine of European history, the wellspring of Continental culture, the bloody shirt of its politics. Christianity and its book have been the externalities that held Jews in their grip, and shaped our psyche and culture through history, as much because of Christian Europe's glories as its cruelties.
Much of Christianity's history was written by its theological winners, but Barnstone tries to set the record straight about the Gospels' original Jewish content. He argues that the texts were redacted and added to by zealots wanting finally to separate Jewish Christians from Judaism. Barnstone considers the texts to be "corrupted," and intends to restore the original intent.
Jesus is Yeshua, Mary is Miryam, James is Yaakov, Judas is Yehuda. In Gospel of Judas, Yehuda is the confidant of Yeshua and the agent of divine purpose. In other words, the Jews were not the villains. No one was: Yehuda's betrayal was part of the plan.
Barnstone's most important contribution is to help the reader understand the New Testament's temporal intentions -- how the often revised texts served new Christians within the Roman Empire in the intense and often vicious competition by Rome's minority religions for official acceptance and favor. Jews, Jewish Christians and later Christians were among the most contentious.
This combination of historical context and a different view of the Jews in the creation of Christian identity makes a larger point. Any text that is transcribed repeatedly over generations is captive of and changed by the limits of language, visualization and interpretation.
It is no less true of religious texts, and religious texts have consequences. The New Testament is the product of choices made and alternatives discarded by the Church fathers. We Jews know the consequences very well and can only wonder about the roads not taken.
It is a tricky proposition to challenge nearly two millennia of textual presentation that has served Christian faith so well. Even with Barnstone's translator's acumen, and even when he is read by Christians who respect Jews and Judaism, neither his lucid commentary nor even the contradictions among the Gospels in his translation will much dilute the back story of Jewish complicity in the Passion or Paul's pique at our recalcitrance.
But it is another step -- perhaps an important one -- on the rocky road toward Christian reconciliation with the existential fact that we Jews are here among them and plan to stay. Especially now, when muscular Christianity rises in America as a political voice, as a media power, as a force in the military and as an argument for social control, we need men and women like Barnstone, dedicated to pursuing truth through scholarship accessible to us all. That is the best hope we have to preserve the better nature of our hard-pressed democracy.
Jay M. Starr is the immediate past chairman of Gratz College. He can be reached at: [email protected].