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What Willis Barnstone wants for Christmas: Some questions on the Virgin birth, the New Testament, and its translation

December 16, 2011

Albert Mohler is asking (and has answered for us) this week, “Must We Believe in the Virgin Birth?”  Some time ago, Willis Barnstone was questioning who the “we believers” must be in order to ask such a question.  Let’s look at what both men are are saying (in three excerpts each).  At the end of the post, I’ll ask some questions and hope you will too.


Must one believe in the Virgin Birth to be a Christian? This is not a hard question to answer. It is conceivable that someone might come to Christ and trust Christ as Savior without yet learning that the Bible teaches that Jesus was born of a virgin. A new believer is not yet aware of the full structure of Christian truth. The real question is this: Can a Christian, once aware of the Bible’s teaching, reject the Virgin Birth? The answer must be no.

Even if the Virgin Birth was taught by only one biblical passage, that would be sufficient to obligate all Christians to the belief. We have no right to weigh the relative truthfulness of biblical teachings by their repetition in Scripture. We cannot claim to believe that the Bible is the Word of God and then turn around and cast suspicion on its teaching.

If Jesus was not born of a virgin, who was His father? There is no answer that will leave the Gospel intact. The Virgin Birth explains how Christ could be both God and man, how He was without sin, and that the entire work of salvation is God’s gracious act. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, He had a human father. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, the Bible teaches a lie.


The most notorious and successful means of deracinating the Jews from their own Bible has been to change the very name by which they are addressed there.  They are called Hebrews (with reference to a language) or Israelites (with reference to a place).  They are often referred to as “the ancient Hebrews” as we speak of ancient Greeks, thereby further distancing them, as a mythic, legendary, or symbolic people, from any real association with the Jews of the Christian Scriptures and thereafter.  But the Jews of the Christian Scriptures are also presented as a deracinated people, separated from their biblical ancestors.  They are never Jews, and certainly not “the ancient Jews,” which might identify the prophets and partiarchs more closely with them….  The Jews do not appear as Jews until the Christian Scriptures, when the word Jew uniformly means “unfriendly,” “unreformed,” “unrepentant,” and much worse.  It is used to designate all the implicit enemies of the sect that is being born, which will later be called Christianity.  Yet again through magical transformation, the participants in these first moments of the foundation are themselves exempt from their heritage.  They are just there, with no designation of race or religion (later they wil anachronistically be called the first Christians), and Jesus, his family, and his entourage are not Jews, ancient Jews, or even Hebrews or Israelites (which might at least link them to worthy ancestors), but simply unaffiliated people.

Yet let us dream.  Imagine if the Christian scriptures were retranslated today [1995], and instead of encountering Jesus and James; Mary, Peter, and Paul, we found Joshua and Jacob; Miryam, Kepha, and Saul.  Or better, if the New Testament were redacted without tribal references to Jews as distinct from Jesus’ tribe.  Imagine if the criticism there were Jewish self-criticism, as in the writings of the prophetic books, rather than Christian antisemitism.  Given these miracles, the deracination of Joshua the Messiah, his followers, and his believers, would end.  The presentation of Jesus and the Virgin Mary as Gentiles among alien Jews (the parabolic equivalent of Socrates and Plato as non-Greeks among Greek judges) would, after two millennia, be ineffective.  (pages 79-80)

Given the revolutionary importance of the gospel story, the absence of significant reference to them in the letters [of the New Testament] is overwhelming evidence that the apostles had no knowledge of Jesus’ life….  There are no words about the narrative of Mary and the virgin birth of Jesus….  In short, the epistlers had [communicated] knowledge of no key figure or event in the gospels other than the fact of the crucifixion…. (page 98).  Of those narratives, Paul [seems to have] lacked all knowledge, though he was born less than a decade after Jesus’ 4 B.C.E. birth date, which the gospels coincide with the year of Herod the Great’s death.  Curiously, Paul knew nothing about the man Jesus other than that he was the messiah foretold in Isaiah….  What we do know is that in Paul of the letters, no living voice of Jesus the Christ is heard.  Paul utters [and pens] no word about a virgin birth… (page 623).

So my questions:

Is it important that Paul be Saul, a Jew mainly working toward Jewish self-criticism by his letters?

Or if Paul is no longer to be considered a Jew but a Christian, then was he aware of the Bible’s teaching, of the essential (twice mentioned) Virgin Birth, and was his believing that doctrine what made him a Christian?

Has Barnstone by his Restored New Testament fulfilled the dream to re-present Yeshua and his mother Miryam as Jews among fellow Jews?  Does this restorative translation (i.e., “to fulfill the word of God uttered through his prophet Yeshayahu, saying ‘Listen.  A young woman will have a child in her womb / And give birth to a son, and his name will be Immanuel'”; and “In the sixth month the angel Gavriel was sent by God to a city in the Galil, called Natzeret, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Yosef, from the house of David, and the name of the virgin was Miryam”) require belief for membership among either Christians or Jews?  Has the translation rendered ineffective the millennia of deracination and implication of Jews as enemies of the sect that was being born as Christianity?  Has it brought any attention to antisemitism?  Has Moehler yet acknowledged the importance of Miryam as a Jewish woman, or either as a Jew or as a woman, when he asserts, “Even if the Virgin Birth was taught by only one biblical passage, that would be sufficient to obligate all Christians to the belief”?

15 Comments leave one →
  1. December 16, 2011 12:19 pm

    What, friend, is my obligation? To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with my God. I will not be obligated to believe otherwise. How will my obligation relate to Jesus? I don’t need to change his name though I would recognize him as Joshua. But I did need to change my behaviour, for I had not walked in my completeness (Psalm 26 reflecting Psalm 1). How will I change the behaviour of brokenness? What power will put Humpty Dumpty together again? Something more than Crazy-Glue. The same Spirit of Anointing (Spirit of Christ) that comes into the world and is known in the Law and the Prophets (and the Psalms) is also evident in the language and Word of the NT. If it is the same ‘spirit’, then let us not render such knowledge as different. Is is is? If Jesus is Lord, it is because ‘Spirit (that God is)’ found in him a resting place that was unencumbered. Why should I cumber it with obligations that are against its unity? But how will I apply such Spirit to myself, to one who serves self first – to one who seeks power? Some image from the One who is without image will help – which one I cannot predict for me or for you. Perhaps the cross, perhaps the completeness of walk, perhaps the icon of the virgin that the Anointed might form in me, even in a man, that my world might writhe in birth (Psalms 29, 96). Such a birth will make even me virginal so that I might be known בִּצְבָאוֹת אוֹ בְּאַיְלוֹת הַשָּׂדֶה, by the Hosts of roe or by the Goodly Hart of the Field. (Song 2:7). Or perhaps some other image (temple, sacrifice, burning bush, ladder) will invoke me into the walk, the love, and the justice that marks my true obligation.

  2. December 16, 2011 6:04 pm

    Thanks for your questions, Bob. Barnstone uses the word deracination, and isn’t is a profound depersonalization that would abstract and elevate religious doctrine to such levels that it separates human beings?

  3. December 16, 2011 9:32 pm

    Hi Kurk – my questions were all rhetorical – part of my response to your very interesting post. It even occurred to me later that one might in all faithfulness reject every metaphor and every literal in order to discover obligation – worship in spirit and truth without the risk of objectification. Deracination sounds very complex – and the spell-checker underlines it like some of my Canadian spellings 😐

  4. December 18, 2011 1:06 am

    Of course, Barnstone’s sentiment is a noble one; but I am not sure I understand the audience he is writing for.

    Let me say that Barnstone’s translation is of interest in its own right as a literary work. I want to understand his polemical purposes though.

    How are Christians to react to statements like Barnstone’s. Are Christians to regard themselves as a type of Jew? I know Christians who feel that way, but that view belittles Judaism as a unique religion — particularly given the supercessionist perspective of the New Testament (a view that is widely held by all major branches of Christianity.) Not only is the New Testament fairly consistently anti-Semitic in content, it also argues that Judaism is only a preliminary religion; a religion that was ultimately fulfilled through Jesus, and is thus obsolete. Jewish roots may be interesting to the Christian in the street in the same way that Cromwell and the Restoration is of interest to the average American: as a historical basis that helps explain the origin of her religion (constitution), but not an item of direct relevance to her.

    How are Jews are supposed to react to statements like Barnstone’s. Perhaps you know the old joke: “Why does the Book of Mormon exist? So Christians can understand how Jews feel about the New Testament.” Of course, the New Testament is important (1) as a historical (albeit highly partisan) document from the late Second Temple and post-Temple period; (2) as a cultural document that is foundational for the dominant religion of the West; (3) as a theo-philosophical document that contains precious insights (much like the Koran or the Buddhist texts or the Bhagavad Gita). However, it is not scriptural to Jews, and thus the standard reading is of outsiders looking in.

    It seems to me that Barnstone is not viewing the New Testament from the perspective of standard Christianity or Judaism. In his Restored New Testament, he includes various works from the Christian Apocrypha, including various “gnostic” gospels (Thomas, Mary, Judas), and he has separately published at least two other works of Apocrypha, The Other Bible and The Gnostic Gospels. In the latter, he also brings in a work of Islamic origin. I think that Barnstone’s intellectual and spiritual commitment is to his version of what he sees as gnostic wisdom. (I do not think that Barnstone is alone in this; for example I think Elaine Pagels and Harold Bloom share a personal spiritual commitment to what they see as gnostic beliefs.) Perhaps if Barnstone had been born in the 19th century, he would be a Theosophist.

    My personal reaction on reading Barnstone’s statement is one of nervousness. He goes in these statements well beyond simply declaring his translation philosophy, and instead is dictating how we should interpret the New Testament. Barnstone is being painfully honest (in a way that most translators are not — since it is fashionable to hide one’s biases), but I have to wonder: has Barnstone gotten closer to the original text, or is Barnstone merely showing off his rhetorical skill in explaining Barnstone’s view? I am reminded of the bickering pair — after a particularly eloquent argument by one, the other claims: “Your argument does not hold; it is merely the case that you are more articulate and make an argument that seems stronger.”

    Is Barnstone right, or is he merely articulate?

  5. December 18, 2011 8:09 pm

    I have been pondering the responses to this post. There seem to be many ways in which communications can go off the rails – to use a train image – I have been trying to get a 60 year old train to work again. I think you should not miss the Velveteen Rabbi’s latest post here. (And you likely haven’t)

    I think it is less important to be ‘right’ than to be known as one who loved – however difficult that is. I do wish you all at this blog the Blessings of the Season – and mine particularly. Consider my pondering as prayer.

  6. December 19, 2011 10:46 am

    My personal reaction on reading Barnstone’s statement is one of nervousness.

    I understand what you’re saying. But personally I’m as nervous about Mohler’s statement.

    This season I am with my extended family, many of whom are fundamentalist Southern Baptists, and Mohler’s dogmatic statement about the obligation to believe in the “Virgin Birth” in order to be a Christian has already come up. Together, we have to work through the fact that Mary (or Miriam) really only needs to be a female or a woman or a mother, for Mohler, because his theology needs a birthing-pod for the God-child. His “Must We Believe” essay does say:

    The doctrine was among the first to be questioned and then rejected after the rise of historical criticism and the undermining of biblical authority that inevitably followed. Critics claimed that since the doctrine is taught in “only” two of the four Gospels, it must be elective. The Apostle Paul, they argued, did not mention it in his sermons in Acts, so he must not have believed it.

    But Mohler, in the same piece, never comes back to what Paul wrote that most fundamentalist Southern Baptists usually use to refute the “critics,” namely:

    But when the completion of the time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, (HCSB, Galatians 4:4)

    Mohler has use for neither the Roman Catholic Mary nor Barnstone’s Miryam, who is Jewish as is her husband and her son. And Mohler seems to care less that she is a woman; he says:

    If Jesus was not born of a virgin, who was His father? There is no answer that will leave the Gospel intact. The Virgin Birth explains how Christ could be both God and man, how He was without sin, and that the entire work of salvation is God’s gracious act. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, He had a human father.

    So then we come to Barnstone. The bit I quoted from first is from his The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice. The context of his statement — however “honest” he was being in 1995 in “dictating how we should interpret the New Testament” — is a look back at the history of translation and is a look forward to his project of someday translating the NT.

    Poetry and translating are Barnstone’s two primary concerns. So, I’d say as much as he’s being honest about racism and about sexism perpetuated by certain translations he’s also being optimistic about what a difference different sorts of translation could make.

    Barnstone’s statement, however nervous they make any of us in isolation, have to be understood also in the context of the body of his work. He’s done much translation work on Spanish poetry, on Chinese poetry, and on Greek poetry, long before he came to the NT:

    And his latest NT – the Restored New Testament – he dedicates as follows:

    William Tyndale, Richmond Lattimore, Robert Alter
    for pioneer models of biblical translation

    Helle Tzalopoulou Barnstone
    who led me to Greece and Greek

    Sarah Handler
    who saw the Restored through its making

    As you brought to our attention, Barnstone’s project now is a volume on the poetry of Jesus. He’s interested in poetics, in translation, in giving voice and race and gender and sex and humanity to speakers and writers of texts. Mohler, in contrast, is not.

  7. December 19, 2011 10:47 am

    Thank you for the link to Rachel Barenblat’s post, and to the quotations of Marc Zvi Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine.

    The most important thing Brettler says, as Barenblat quotes him, is this:

    It is possible, even important, to be a religious believer, but nevertheless to admit that there are problems with your core religious text. I am tired of certain apologetic attitudes which de-problematicize…the problems we have in our Scriptures [that] need to be confronted head-on.

    (I do see his allusion to “the Virgin” as R’ Arthur Green began discussing her).

    And the most important quotation of Levine:

    The only first-century Pharisee from whom we have written records is Paul of Tarsus. Paul wrote 7 if not 13 NT documents…the more we know about first-century Judaism, the more we know how well he fits into the first century.

    The first person in history ever called “rabbi” is Jesus of Nazareth, and his statements make a great deal of sense in a Jewish context. The New Testament becomes for us a marvelous source of Jewish history.

  8. December 19, 2011 1:53 pm

    Of course, you are right about Mohler; however, I fear that my expectations for him are not high and thus I am not surprised by your quote.

    Here is another way of seeing my point about Barnstone: compare Robert Alter’s translation of the Pentateuch with Barnstone’s translation of the New Testament. In some ways, these translations are comparable: both translations are informed by their author’s strong commitment to particular translation philosophies and both translations feature extensive integrated commentary.

    However, by and large, Alter’s commentary seems to me to be far more academically neutral in that it focuses on the plain meaning of the text; while Barnstone’s commentary sometimes seems to stray over into editorial comments on Christianity or the proper way to interpret the New Testament. Have you observed this?

  9. December 19, 2011 4:04 pm

    Well, yes, I’ve observed that Barnstone is doing something that may just require “editorial comments on Christianity” and comments on wayS “to interpret the New Testament.” But would Alter do that much differently if he were to tackle the gospels or the apocalypse or the epistles of the New Testament? Who gets a monopoly on “the proper way” to translate the Christian scriptures? Is it the Christian guild of translators?

    David Trobisch, Trockmorton-Hayes Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, Bangor Theological Seminary, and author of The First Edition of the New Testament, has noted this:

    That the New Testament is written in Greek and received without reference to its Semitic sources is virtually neglected by the guild. This mistake haunts us, but Barnstone’s scholarship and poetry can open our eyes.

    And Alter himself, using the phrase “supersessionist distortion” for what has passed as “the proper way to interpret the New Testament,” has said:

    Barnstone’s new English version of the core texts of Christian Scripture is almost startling in its freshness. Scraping away many centuries of stylistic fussiness and supersessionist distortion, he gives us a set of Gospel narratives that are bold and direct in their simplicity and that show how steeped the first Christians were in the Jewish world from which they derived.

  10. December 19, 2011 6:51 pm

    Kurk, I’m not challenging the worth of Barnstone’s scholarship here, but rather noting that his commentary is oddly “devotional” to the extent that it argues beliefs one should hold, rather than limiting its argument to the question of the best translation.

    It is true that Barnstone (who is a neighbor of Robert Alter) did collect jacket blurbs for his book as you quote above, but by their very nature, dustjacket blurbs are hardly sustained analysis and they are not infrequently exaggerated. More to the point, my criticism here is not with Barnstone’s translation (which Alter praises in the dustjacket blurb above), but rather with some statements in his accompanying commentary.

  11. December 20, 2011 12:04 am

    Honestly I come down on the other side of this. I think the New Testament is irredeemably hostile to Judaism. The whole point of the book of Hebrews is that Judaism is the burned out husk of a dead religion. A major theme of Romans is that the branches of mainstream Judaism have broken off from the root to be replaced with gentile Christian branches grafted in. The point of John is Jesus is the incarnate eternal word, rejecting Jesus is rejecting true torah: the bread of life, the light of the world, the resurrection, the truth / way… The book of Matthew is a ferocious critique of Pharisaic judaism, which is the branch that became rabbinic judaism.

    Making Jesus Yeshua, Mary Miriam, Joseph Yosef makes things worse not better. I agree with the Jesus seminar make the New Testament about a bunch of Ioudaians living in Iouda. Leave their names in Greek. And heck do the same thing with Old Testaments when they are tied to New Testaments.

    The root of the anti-semitism is the bible itself, I don’t see any advantage to Jews in making the ties more explicit.

  12. December 20, 2011 4:09 pm

    I agree with your criticism of some of Barnstone’s own commentary that both precedes and accompanies his translation of the New Testament. It makes me nervous too, but maybe because he’s entirely platonic in his project, as if the Jewish voice in the New Testament were the only one, or really the only one that counts. He, for example, by translating the gospels into English as if Jesus were speaking Hebrew or Aramaic neglects the Greek translators of Yeshua. This in some ways makes Jesus the prototypical Jewish poet, and it minimizes both the perhaps-Jewishness and the Greek-rhetorical voices of the evangelists. In the same ways, Barnstone neglects the translators of the Septuagint. (I sent in a poem to the Willis Barnstone poetry Translation contest in which I “restored” an LXX Psalm, for effect, into English. Don’t know if I’ll hear a response, but the goal of deciding what under-the-surface Jewish realities are in the scriptures of Christians is, to me, as problematic as Christian missionary Bible translator consultants using the prototypical Eugene-Nida Dynamic-Equivalence translation theory to tell readers that all that matters is the evangelical meaning underneath the Hebrew and the Greek).

    What a wonderful comment! You inspired me to write another post (see the trackback above). I am sure that I cannot quite agree with you that “The book of Matthew is a ferocious critique of Pharisaic judaism, which is the branch that became rabbinic judaism.” For one, Paul hardly acknowledges Matthew at all, which is one of the points of this present post here that you’re commenting on. Secondly, although Ῥαββί is a highly marked word, and extremely rhetorical, in the gospel, it seems that our contemporary New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine concedes the sectarianism of the term but rescues it, even from or in the NT, as a decidedly religious-Jewish word of “advantage to Jews” (if I may quote you again).


  1. Jewish New Testament voices: the case of Matthew 7 « BLT
  2. Hal Taussig’s “A New New Testament” (and the Open English Bible) | BLT
  3. deracination: What’s a Bible translator to do? | BLT

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