Friday, 11 June 2010

Barnstoning the New Covenant (1)

Very occasionally someone comes along who provokes all kinds of new thoughts on a subject. Such a someone is Willis Barnstone, acclaimed translator of obscure Gnostic documents. Some time ago he turned his focus on the New Testament, beginning with a translation of the four canonical gospels and the book of Revelation (the project has recently been completed.) The translation itself is interesting for a variety of reasons, but for now my interest is on the additional material he provides, starting with an article dealing with the unknown sources of the gospels.

"By Old Testament criteria, the gospels are the canonical Apocrypha of the New Covenant."

Eh, what's that?

"As in the instance of the canonical Apocrypha of the Hebrew Bible, we also lack an original Hebrew or Aramaic text to support them."

The point Barnstone is making is that the decision by Jerome and others to sideline the deuterocanonical books was occasioned by the lack of evidence for these documents in an "original" form prior to their appearance in Greek. A case of little Johnny's mother's sage advice on seeing her son bullying a younger kid: "put down that boy Johnny, you never know where he's been!"

Barnstone also notes that these apocryphal writings have since emerged from under that cloud.

"The main difference between the apocryphal status of the gospels and the canonical Apocrypha is that, while we still have no earlier documents to authenticate or trace the tradition of the gospels, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls we now have fragments in Hebrew and Aramaic for some of the Septuagint Apocrypha."

Gospels 0, Apocryha 1.

As for the gospels, "[t]here are no original fragments in Hebrew or Aramaic and little hope that there will be any found."

"Before the Greek scriptures is the void."

Galilean fishers are unlikely candidates for Greek literacy, but there are more problems than that.

"It is not likely that Pilate ever addressed Yeshua in Latin, and whether or not Yeshua had Latin to respond to him is unknown. It is similarly unlikely that Pilate and Yeshua spoke to each other in Greek. If they spoke, it was through interpreters. And because of language differences, it is also improbable that they exchanged those austere life-and-death questions and retorts heard dramatically in the gospels. What fidelity of phrase was there when the Latin of Pilate and the Aramaic of Yeshua moved into the Greek of the gospels?"

There's enough raw material here for a book, let alone a series of blog posts. Barnstone's gift is to extract the obvious from the well worn observations of others and wave them under our noses as something needing our immediate attention. Could the conversation between Jesus (Barnstone prefers the Aramaic form of the name rather than the Latin) and Pilate really have happened that way? Why the rush to canonise Greek gospels that appear out of "the void" when skepticism reigned over Tobit, Wisdom and the Maccabees?

Good questions to mull over, and even better for the fact that while they've been in plain view all this time, they've also been largely overlooked.

(Quotes are from the previously issued first volume of Barnstone's translation, containing the gospels and Revelation.)


  1. "A case of little Johnny's mother's sage advice on seeing her son bullying a younger kid: "put down that boy Johnny, you never know where he's been!"

    Sometimes you crack me up, very much!

  2. Why unlikely that Pilate and Jesus would have conversed in any particular language? Jesus is reputed to have turned water into wine, raised the dead, etc... So why quibble over the language he might have spoken?

  3. Tkach's Bean Counter12 June 2010 at 18:41

    Gospels: Greatest, most audacious literary fraud ever ?

    Modern academic scrutiny exposing their historical bankruptcy ?

  4. Welp, there's another one on my should-buy-whenever-I-get-a-spare-bundle-of-cash list.....Your blog is proving somewhat expensive, as of late, Gavin. ;-)