Book Review: The Poems of Jesus Christ
Translated by Willis Barnstone
W.W. Norton, 2012
Readers of the great Scriptural scholar Willis Barnstone’s massive 2009 magnum opus The Restored New Testament, with its bizarre text-scape inhabited by such strange and new creatures as Mattityahu, Prushim, Shlomoh, Yohanan the Dipper, and Yeshua ben Yosef the Mashiah – Matthew, the Pharisees, Solomon, John the Baptist, and of course Jesus son of Joseph, the Messiah – will be far better prepared for Barnstone’s slim new volume, The Poems of Jesus Christ than newcomers who might previously have presumed the foundational Christian texts as immutable. In his Scriptural re-workings, Barnstone, although a sweeter man could scarcely be intelligently designed, has always done a great deal of damage to such presumptions. His versions of the New Testament and Apocrypha aren’t just living documents – they’re lurching, laughing, lunging ones, intent on upsetting readerly complacency in an effort to stimulate new engagement with the best-known Western literature of all time.
The Poems of Jesus Christ is a themed collection of extracts from The Restored New Testament: instead of full-length versions of the Gospels and apocrypha, here we get mostly just the words of Jesus Christ, with a quick new Introduction by Barnstone that refers to Jesus as “the great invisible poet of the world.”
Readers under the assumption that there is no poetry in the New Testament will be in for a concentrated little series of surprises. Barnstone maintains that “in migrating from their Aramaic speech source into written Greek translation, and later into English translation, the lyrics got locked up in prose lineation.” The “lyrics” in question, according to our author, constitute the “wisdom poetry” of Jesus – a kind of poetry made up of “short maxims, in narrative parable, and always in memorable metaphor.”
Startlement ensues, and some of it is quite delightful. In rendering Mark (sorry – Markos) 4.26-29, Barstone turns the familiar into the poetic in just exactly the way the billing of this book promises:
Seed On The Earth
The Kingdom of God is like a man throwing seed
On the earth.
Sleeping and rising the night and day
To see the seed sprout and grow
In a way he cannot perceive
On its own the earth bears fruit.
First grass, then a stalk, then the full grain in the ear.
But when the grain is ripe,
He immediately takes out his sickle.
The harvest has come.
Less successful, perhaps, is what he makes of Matthew (Mattityahu) 19.24:
Perfection on Earth
If you wish to be perfect, go and sell
What belongs to you and give it to the poor,
And you will have a treasure in heaven,
Then come and follow me.
There’s a sing-songy quality around the edges of a familiar moment from Luke (Loukas) 14.5:
Healing a Man with Dropsy on Shabbat
Who among you who has a son or an ox
Fallen into a well
Will not lift it out immediately
On the day of Shabbat?
And of course the verbose John (Yohanan) goes long in this version of 3.19-21:
And this is the judgment:
Light came into the world
And people loved the darkness rather than the light,
For their works were cunning,
For all who do shoddy things hate the light
And do not come toward the light
So that their works will not be exposed.
But those who do the truth come toward the light
So their works may shine as accomplished through God.
But as unsettling and therefore potentially enlightening as these subversions are, their very strangeness pushes them uncomfortably close to parody. Barnstone is either unaware of this or blissfully unafraid of it, since he gives us things like:
He Spat on the Earth, Made Mud with the Spit, Smeared it on the Man’s Eyes, and Healed Him, Saying
Go wash in the pool of Shiloah.
Pilatus Asks Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”
You say it.
Or the full text of “To a Shomroni [Samaritan] Woman Drawing Water from a Well,” which, if true, would go a long way toward validating my grandfather’s oft-expressed opinion that every man in Ireland is a poet:
Give me a drink.
The smaller questions here involve mere poetics and its technicalities. With all due deference to certain drug-addled Beat sensibilities, it’s no more possible for a single line to be a poem than it is for a single point to be a line, or a single pixel to be a jpeg, or single fascist plutocrat to be a Republican Party – some things only come into being in relation to more of their own kind. “You say it” is not a poem, wisdom or otherwise; it’s just a sentence.
As to the most pressing larger question – is there any actual scholarly, linguistic evidence to suggest that any of this is in fact right, that Jesus taught in chanted ‘wisdom-poetry’ which was then squashed into prose by tin-eared translators? – the answer is of course a quick and definitive: Nope! Not one tiny scrap! But it hardly matters: The Poems of Jesus Christ may be daring, but it’s not dumb – and it may be fanciful, but it’s far, far from fruitless. The poems on these pages throw the well-known sentiments of the New Testament into sharp and unexpected shapes, thoughtful and thought-provoking shapes that will blow the dust off many a well-worn platitude, both for readers well-versed in their Scripture and those coming to the material for the first time. All those readers are urged to buy a copy of the mammoth Restored New Testament as soon as possible, but The Poems of Jesus Christ will certainly do in a pinch.
As for genuine superb Christian poetry – dump this Mashiah and get your George Herbert down off the shelf.