Willis Barnstone: Writing Jesus’ words for a new generation

Willis Barnstone in his lifelong vocation: Writing! Photo by Sarah Handler, released via Wikimedia Commons.Willis Barnstone is a living testament to the power of pen over the frailty of flesh. In his mid-80s, when most of us are at least slowing down, he continues to publish major works in poetry, religion and translation that freshly inspire readers of all ages.

Aside from his major works on poetry and world literature, just consider his books on biblical themes in recent years:
The Gnostic Bible
, a 900-page 2009 volume that he co-edited with Marvin Meyer;
The Restored New Testament
: A New Translation with Commentary, Including the Gnostic Gospels Thomas, Mary, and Judas
, a 1,500-page 2009 volume that collected his own translations of biblical and gnostic scriptures;
and, this spring, the closely related new book called, The Poems of Jesus Christ, which weighs in at a more comfortable-to-carry 288 pages.
Meanwhile, Barnstone has two more big books about poetry and the art of translation nearly ready for coming seasons.

Also, read our interview with Wilis Barnstone.


Considering that Barnstone’s favorite cultural realm is thousands of years in our past—immersed in the works of poets such as Sappho, Deborah and Wang Wei—he has a remarkable talent for timeliness.

There is no hotter topic in Christianity today than the words of Jesus. Beyond the decades-long debate over what Jesus actually said, a growing chorus of influential Christian writers are urging the deeply divided body of Christianity to reunite over the actual teachings of Jesus. This note is struck loudly and clearly in new books by John Dominic Crossan, Diana Butler Bass and N.T. Wright.

Other leading Christian writers are going further than that. Campaigning for a specific spiritual focus on the words of Jesus are the matriarch of re-emerging Christian spiritual practices, Phyllis Tickle, and the barnstorming theologian popular on college campuses nationwide, Tony Campolo.

Phyllis Tickle tried to capture the enduring power of Jesus’ sayings in her own book, The Words of Jesus: “Devoid of narrative context, the sayings come straight at us like so many bullets, piercing all our armor and destroying all our carefully thought-out prior convictions.”

In his book, Red Letter Christians, Tony Campolo tried to give this particular spiritual movement a name, focusing on the sayings of Jesus: “By calling ourselves Red Letter Christians, we are alluding to those old versions of the Bible wherein the words of Jesus are printed in red. In adopting the name, we are saying that we are committed to living out the things that Jesus taught. The message in those red letters is radical, to say the least. If you don’t believe me, just read Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5-7. … Jesus calls us to an upside-down Kingdom, far away from the dominant values of the modern American consciousness.”

What all of these efforts lack, until now, is a fresh, artful and authentic rendering of Jesus’ words in contemporary language. Yes, accurate contemporary translations of the Gospels are widely available—but that authenticity is rarely coupled with the “fresh” and “artful” pen of a poet. Enter Willis Barnstone. These sayings of Jesus, now separated out and rendered in poetic typography in this new volume, also appear in the complete Gospel texts of his 2009 Restored New Testament. Or, well—almost—Barnstone tells us in our interview later this week. When this more compact new volume was prepared, Barnstone freshened the prefaces to set the tone of each gospel and he did tinker with a few lines here and there—perfecting them in this purely poetic format.

Bottom line: If you care about reading the Bible in fresh ways—and especially if you find yourself among the broad movements encouraged by the many other Christian writers, described above, then order a copy of The Poems of Jesus Christ from Amazon now.

Care to read more about Willis Barnstone’s
creative process as a poet?

By coincidence or perhaps by fortunate inspiration, Barnstone wrote a new poem on the occasion of our ReadTheSpirit interview, which we have published today. This new poem a fascinating additional perspective on the multi-faceted ways Barnstone reflects on his longevity, his vocation and other issues you will find raised in more prosaic fashion in the interview, later this week.

Samples of Willis Barnstone’s translations of Jesus’ sayings

Click this cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.In his book, Barnstone argues that Jesus spoke in poetry—at least his most famous sayings were in that form. This idea makes sense, if you are involved in regular Bible study in your church and think about this point for a moment. First, we know that Jesus often was quoting directly from the Hebrew scriptures—lines of poetry from psalms, prophets and other ancient texts that were set in Hebrew poetic forms. Beyond that, most of the teachings that his followers shared so widely were in memorable forms poetry. So, Barnstone argues that he is not turning Jesus’ sayings into poetry. Rather, Jesus taught in poetry and Barnstone is simply restoring the original format in this translation.

In the opening pages, Barnstone writes: “Jesus Christ is the great invisible poet of the world. Like the Old Testament prophets, he communicates in wisdom poetry—in short maxims, in narrative parable, and always in memorable metaphor. We hear the lyrical voice and his words are on our lips, yet implausibly for two millennia the lyricism has not been heard as poetry.”

Taking the advice of Tony Campolo and others about the Sermon on the Mount’s enduring power, here are samples from Barnstone’s new book that are part of that much larger passage.


You are the light of the world.
A city cannot be hidden when it is set on a mountain.
Nor do they light a lamp and place it below a basket,
But on a stand,
And it glows on everyone in the house.
So let your light glow before people so they may see
Your good works
And glorify your father of the heavens.


You have heard it said,
“You will love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
I say to you to love your enemies
And pray for those who persecute you
So you may become the children of your father in heaven,
For he makes the sun rise over the evil and the good,
And he brings the rains to the just and the unjust among us.
If you love those who love you,what reward have you?
Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
If you greet only those who are your friends,
How have you done more than others?
Have you done more than the gentiles?
Be perfect as your father the heavenly one is perfect.

Birds of the Sky and Lilies of the Field

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?

ALSO: Enjoy our interview with Willis Barnstone.

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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