The Poems of Jesus Christ, by Willis Barnstone

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Born in 1927, Willis Barnstone is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Indiana University and an admired translator . His rendering of The Poems of St John of the Cross is rightly revered by believers, non believers, scholars and general readers. His translations of texts essential to understanding Judeo-Christian history , including The Other Bible: Jewish Pseudepigrapha, Christian Apocrypha, and his work on Kabbalah, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, are masterful restorations, and he has edited, co-edited and compiled many anthologies. He has also published seventeen volumes of poetry and three memoirs, all displaying the range and profundity (a word I use sparingly) of his creative and spiritual appetites.

Those appetites have led to previously hidden or distorted meanings in material he encounters, bringing to bear his understanding of Greek , (the language into which the Bible was first translated) Aramaic, (the everyday spoken language of Jesus and his neighbors) Hebrew (the language used in Jewish places of worship) and the cultures these languages are entwined with. By the time Barnstone gets through with text, it is more precisely accurate, and often beautiful.

The Poems of Jesus Christ are excerpted from his Restored New Testament, which Norton published in 2009. It is no secret that The King James Version of the Bible, thanks in part to its popularity and melodious sound, had an immense and ongoing effect on writers. For all its linguistic and musical influence (I am in love with that sound), it was written in paragraphs that obscure the shapes of the poetry of the original.

The Prophets and Psalmists of the Old Testament, and Jesus of the New, spoke in poetry, and Barnstone puts Jesus back where He belongs. Part of his method is to share samples of poems by Whitman and Heaney that are threaded with Biblical references, some very clear, some a little obscure, reinforcing my conviction—one that may strike some as old fashioned—that Biblical studies are essential to understanding literature.

Barnstone is modest, fair, and generous with credit. In his introduction he mentions that the 1966 Jerusalem Bible was the first to put the Gospels into verse, and “liberates all words of Jesus from prose lineation.” That Bible was produced by Jesuits and is a glorious milestone, enriched when reflecting on The Poems of Jesus Christ.

It is no secret that poetry can be memorized with efforts that seem natural, as opposed to what it takes to own prose. This has much to do with how the body absorbs rhythm and sound, and how spirit processes sound. So in restoring the words of Jesus to their rightful poetry, and making an excellent case for this necessity, Barnstone brings their music, passion, ethics and intellectual rigor into a more complete view.

Every page in this project is backlit by scholarship and appreciation for what he encounters. Noting that “The Gospel of John is unparalleled in the Bible,” he reminds us that its “prologue is magical for believers and nonbelievers, a singular moment in religious scripture and world literature.” He goes on to say that “The first luminous lines of John are not lines of poetry spoken by Jesus, but a poetic account of Jesus’ voyage to the earth.” It makes perfect sense to declare:

In the beginning was the word
And the word was with God,
And the word was God.

The entire verse is quoted, accompanied with clarifications containing Hebrew and Greek, speaking to God’s achievement of making matter from word. Atheists and agnostics can also recognize that this is powerful to contemplate if one cares about what words do. This makes it the appropriate prologue to every speech of Jesus as John reports :

Get these things out of here!
Do not make the house of my father
A house of business!

This famous passage highlights Jesus’ fury at the commerce in the temple, and the Barnstone translation is stronger and more alive than its predecessors, bringing one closer to the speaker, which is the goal of every translator’s effort. It is also a reminder of what Barnstone calls the “solo performance” of Jesus, whose life story is one of constant connection with people, including his adoring Mother, even when they found him weird to the point of unfathomable.

Utterance is effort to persuade, so even if one does not accept the divinity of Jesus, Barnstone has strengthened the voice here. When Jesus tells a woman that he does not condemn her, the poetic form bolsters the morality of compassion, intensifying its necessity :

Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?
Neither do I condemn you.

The Jewishness of Jesus and his spoken language, Aramaic, have taken centuries to get used to, and in those centuries have suffered much abuse. In titles to each passage of poetry, Barnstone’s gifts often remind us of that, in a manner so restorative it could be called soothing were the message(s) of Jesus not so radical. In the Gospel of John, 10.25-28, 30, the title is both a reminder of occurrence , and an indirect reference to word and light :


Hannukka is celebrated as the festival of lights and miracles, the unexpected gift after great travail. So listener/reader is linked by Barnstone to immeasurable brilliance. This happens on many occasions when Jesus speaks in these pages:

Be Children of Light

For a little time longer the light is with you.
Walk about while you have the light
So that the darkness may not overtake you.
If you walk in the darkness
You do not know where you are going.
While you have light, believe in the light
So you may be the children of light.

The Poems of Jesus Christ is a book that shimmers with intellectual, spiritual and literary grandeur, to be engaged with for generations. Keep it within reach, for the “living water” the finest undertakings bestow.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →