Arts book review

Religious writings, as poetry

A master translator reconstructs the poems of Jesus Christ for a new millennium


The Poems of Jesus Christ

Willis Barnstone

W.W. Norton

April 2012

I remember the exact moment when I realized some of Jesus’ utterances only made sense as poetry. The time was an evening in early January 1994. The place was the public square in Chitré, a small city in Panama’s countryside. While hundreds of youngsters rode their new Christmas bikes in the tropical summer breeze, I — at the time an 18-year-old devout Christian — sat quietly inside my father’s car, reading my Bible under a dim yellowish light. The version was Nácar-Colunga’s direct translation from the original Greek and Hebrew into my native Spanish. I remember the exact passage I was trying to assimilate: Matthew 6:25-34. “Do not worry about your life,” said the Lord. “Look at the birds of the air … Consider the lilies of the field.” And then the inspired prescription: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow.”

I remember having underlined those verses with orange fluorescent gel ink (hey, it was the ’90s!) and shaken my head in awe. “Is He saying that one should not prepare for the future?” I asked myself in disbelief. Unless you can multiply fishes and breads on command, the policy of making no provisions for future nutrition doesn’t fly as a practical logistics. People starve to death all the time, everywhere, so why did Jesus preach that they should not worry, since God would feed them? After a few minutes of rumination, the idea hit me: this statement is not a moral teaching, and one would be a fool to follow it as a command against long-term planning. The birds of the sky and the lilies of the field are something else. They are poetry! The evidence of malnourished kids around the world attested that these words have to be poetry.

A less charitable interpretation of these teachings “central to the doctrine of Jesus” is provided by the late Christopher Hitchens, of “new atheism” fame, who said that the instruction to “take no thought for the morrow, no investment, no thrift, no care for your children” is a ridiculous and immoral proposition. It can only be interpreted as the words of someone who honestly believed the world was coming to an end before the next meal, or else — in the words of C.S. Lewis — was “a lunatic” or “the Devil of Hell.” With all respect to both C.S. Lewis and Hitchens, I think Lewis’ Trilemma of mad, bad, or god, is incomplete without a fourth option: poet.

I invite you to read the following text as poetry (divinely inspired if you want, yet poetry nonetheless):

“Consider the birds of the sky.

They do not sow or reap or collect for their granaries,

Yet your heavenly father feeds them.

Are you not more valuable than they?

Who among you by brooding can add one more hour

To your life?

And why care about clothing?

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow

They do not labor or spin

But I tell you not even Shlomoh in all his splendor

Was clothed like one of these lilies.

And if the grass of the field is there today

And tomorrow is cast into the oven

And in these ways God has dressed the earth,

Will he not clothe you in a more stunning raiment,

You who suffer from poor faith?”

Isn’t this poem beautiful? Entitled “Birds of the Sky and Lilies of the Field,” it is taken from The Poems of Jesus Christ, compiled and translated by Willis Barnstone.

Barnstone, himself a renowned poet and a prolific translator, is convinced that “Jesus Christ is the great invisible poet of the world,” and that Jesus used “wisdom poetry” to communicate. Barnstone insists that, although we can still “hear the lyrical voice” in the common translations of the New Testament, Jesus’s teachings have not been “heard as poetry” as they were spoken in two millennia. Where did the poetry go, you ask? Here’s a tip: Jesus spoke in Aramaic, yet the earliest of the canonical gospels was written down at least forty years later in vernacular Greek. As Robert Frost famously quipped, “poetry is what is lost in translation.” So after the conversion from Aramaic verse to Greek prose, we were left with the wisdom but without the poetry. It is this poetry that Barnstone has tried to restore in the texts, which he now presents as a collection of poems.

Translation of poetry is a particularly treacherous enterprise; “traduttore, traditore!” goes the Italian saying. When the poetry being translated is seen as sprung from divine inspiration, the perils are greater. Yet having victoriously translated many masters of Hispanic and Greek poetry, Barnstone has turned his linguistic and literary prowess to the translation of God: sacred texts, both canonical and apocryphal, have been rendered anew, often in the form of poems, by his ambitious pen.

I have a feeling Barnstone felt himself spiritually inspired in his task, and even sees himself — perhaps immodestly ­­— as more than a translator: “With respect to poetic felicity in translation,” he says while discussing the Jerusalem Bible, “quality inevitably depends on the aesthetic pen of both translator and original artist. Hence, two poets are at work: the original poet and the translating co-author.” The oblique suggestion is that he ought to be seen as Jesus Christ’s co-author. With similar lack of modesty he warns the reader that “whatever our origin or our faith or doubt,” once we are faced with the restored poetry of the Nazarene, “all ethno-religious epithets fade as clouds fade before the strong morning sun, and we enter the day and the night of the tale, never to return the same.”

He is excused, since modesty in this case would be vain: Barnstone emerges victorious from the titanic enterprise. While I remain skeptical that I will be forever transformed after reading these verses, this much I can say: the same vibrant voice of wisdom that I found in the Gospel is here refreshed, one might even say “resurrected” into the lyricism it deserves, into the poetry it probably was when originally spoken two thousand years ago on the hills of Palestine. My days as a Christian are long gone, yet even now, I am willing to admit without hesitation that my heart still blooms when I hear this Jewish tekton speak of the birds of the sky and the lilies of the field. Barnstone may not be the co-author of Jesus Christ’s poems, but I’ll say this of him: “traduttore, salvatore!” He is certainly their savior.