Why a New Translation of the New Testament?

By Barnstone, Willis | Tikkun, September/October 2010 | Go to article overview

Why a New Translation of the New Testament?


Barnstone, Willis, Tikkun


THE FIRST TRANSLATION OF THE NEW Testament directly from the Greek into English was made by William Tyndale in 1526 to bring holy scripture to the people. Before Tyndale only the Latin Vulgate was permitted, thereby limiting its reading mainly to the Latin-educated clergy. For flouting the English bishopric, in 1536 Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake in Antwerp, where he was hiding. Tyndale did his fresh version so that, citing his Dutch model Erasmus, "the word of the gospels should reach the eyes of all women, Scots and Irishmen, even Turks and Saracens, and especially the farm worker at the plow and the weaver at the loom." As the Protestant Reformation took hold, soon there was a flood of new translations into the European vernaculars, and especially into English.

Why the new translations? As religious sects diversify and change, so too do literary conventions for making speech contemporary and natural. Hence, each age and major denomination has demanded a new English version of the Bible. The King James Version (16?) had its literary and spiritual aims, which appear in beautiful metaphor in the first line of the prefatory: "Translators to the Reader: Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light."

As a Greek scholar, I undertook a new translation of the New Testament (The Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary, Including the Gnostic Gospels Thomas, Mary, and Judas) to give a chastely modern, literary version of a major world text. I translated as verse what is verse in the New Testament, as in Yeshua's speech (Yeshua was probably Jesus's name in his lifetime), the authentic Paul letters, and the epic poem of Apocalypse, following a practice that has prevailed in lineating Hebrew poetry as poetry (as in the Song of Songs, Psalms, Job, and the Prophets) since the nineteenth-century Scrivener Cambridge Bible (1873).

On all questions of faith versus fact, I take a neutral stance and address them in the annotations. As far as possible, I limit these matters to indicating a historical context of biblical happenings, always with the awareness that more is unknown than known. (Events recounted in the gospels are essentially theologically framed accounts confined to the gospels themselves, with no confirming external documentary evidence. The few references to Jesus outside of the gospels tell us little and are problematic with respect to historicity.) As to denominations- Jewish, Christian, Muslim- while respecting all views, I have no pitch for any camp. I hope this "bible as literature" version will appeal to those who want to read the finest examples of ancient story, myth, letter, and the surreal poetry of Apocalypse. There is no more polemic or proselytizing here than were this book a new version of the Odyssey or of Sappho's fragments. And I hope they will elicit love for these extraordinary world scriptures as well as sadness and dismay before the unrelenting pursuit of hatred for Jesus's coreligionists, the Jews.

Jesus the Jew

As A SECULAR JEW AWARE OF THE TRAGIC HISTORICAL FATE OF JEWS AT THE HANDS OF Christians incited by the New Testament, I present ideas that may radically alter popular reception of scripture and profoundly diminish its inherent anti- Judaism. My new translation makes clear that Christianity is the child of Judaism, having its first-century origin in Jerusalem as one of the diverse Jewish messianic sects vying for domination.

In our day some Christian theologians speak of Jesus as a Jew. In the past, almost no one did. Can anyone read Plato's Republic and not realize he was a Greek? No. Why should the ethnic and religious identity of the central figure in the emerging sect be concealed? The Jews are on each page, yet always portrayed as the evil opponents of a deracinated Jesus who has neither ethnicity nor religion. Hence, for two millennia the identity of Jesus, the later acclaimed messiah, the central figure in the New Testament, has remained obscure. …

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