Monday, November 2, 2009

Exploring Barnstone: Anti-Semitism, Slavery, and Sexism in the Bible

My blogger friend John Hobbins attacked me earlier this year for saying there is “sexism in the Bible.” John noticed how I'd been trying to restore some of that at my other blog by translating.   Back then, I wished John had explored in greater detail what translators like Ann Nyland and Willis Barnstone had been saying and doing.  Both Nyland and Barntone see sexism in the New Testament and consider the need to recover the New Testament, to restore the text, by translating, and translating creatively.

John's attack against me was an odd turn, I thought, because months earlier he'd thanked me "for introducing Barnstone to a wider audience." John also exclaimed:
You are absolutely right, J. K.: Barnstone rocks. Most scholars cringe before his creativity. May they enjoy the reward of their pedantic conservatism: the insurance men will praise them. As for me, I prefer skydiving with the likes of Barnstone.
And John added: "This Barnstone guy seems worth exploring in greater detail."

Very few in the biblebloggersphere have explored Willis Barnstone or his new robust translation of the New Testament and what he himself says about it .  (Many more, it seems, have been excited by Robert Crumb's graphically illustrated version of Robert Alter's Genesis -- though far fewer have dared to say anything about its sexism and anti-Semitism.)

So in this post, I'd like to begin to explore Barnstone a bit more.  Below are some quotations of him from Barnstone's new, restored New Testament translation. He discusses anti-Semitism, slavery, and sexism in the Bible.

Here's Barnstone on the anti-Semitism in the traditional Christian Bible translations:
The scriptures are anti-Semitic just because Jews are falsely slammed in "words" that, as [Karen] Armstrong notes, "for centuries inspired the pogroms that made anti-Semitism an incurable disease in Europe."
I address this dire and central question of disenfranchising Yeshua [aka Jesus] of his religious identity in two ways:  by restoring the probable Hebrew or Aramaic names to biblical figures and framing savage anti-Semitic passages in a historic context in the introduction and the textual annotation.
(page 19)
On the slavery in the Christian Bible translation tradition, Barnstone observes:
    Slavery was accepted by the church.  When the Roman Empire became Christian, under Constantine, slavery continued, flourishing in the Byzantine Empire as well as in the West.  It came to the New World in the sixteenth century under the Spaniards, a century before the English and French brought in slaves from Africa.  Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566), a Spanish missionary and historian called "the Apostle of the Indies," heroically devoted his life to obtain, though without success, the complete abolition of slavery (the encomienda) among the native population in the New World.  In order to save the souls of the Indians for Christian conversion, he proposed to import black slaves from Cuba, who had no souls, he claimed, to work in the mines.  In Mexico, slavery was normal even in monasteries and convents.  When Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648/51-95), the major poet of the colonial period, entered the cloistered Hieronymite convent of Santa Paula in Mexico City, she brought with her to her luxurious apartment two slaves, one Indian, one black, onw of whome she later sold to her sister Josefa for 250 gold pesos. Although Sor Juana's biography, Response to Sister Filotea< (1691), was the first and truly most significant literary book concerning a woman's right to intellectual and artistic freedom prior to the publication of Virginia Woolf's emancipatory Room of One's Own, Sor Juana was unconcerned with the slavery that prevailed in working class Mexico during her lifetime.

Anciently, slavery was present in Israel and Christianity, in the Hebrew Bible and the Greek scriptures. There were rules concerning slavery in both the authentic and disputed letters of Paul. He asked for kindness to slaves and commanded that in the spiritual realm they be treated as brothers [siblings?] in Christ. With respect to the slave's obligations in the material world, in the letters in which he discusses slavery, he commands that a slave under threat of punishment, obey his master and not escape.

(pages 856-57)
The above comment is in introduction to Paul's letter to Philemon.  But Barnstone notes the pro-slavery arguments elsewhere:
The demanded behavior of slaves in I Peter, while stupefying, is not as offensive to contemporary understanding as its fuller articulation in the Pastoral Letters and in Paul's letter to Philemon.  However, here [in Peter's letter] as there [in Paul's], there is no hint of moral dilemma with respect to the institution [of slavery].  Indeed, the author of the sermon, as in the Pastorals, associates God's grace with obedience of slaves to masters.
(page 1002, footnote 31, a fn on I Peter 2:18)
Observing sexism in the Bible, Barnstone translates Paul's (or a pseudo-Paul's) first letter to Timo-theos this way, with some commentary:
11 Let a woman learn in silence and in full submission.
12 I do not allow women to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man.*
She must be in silence.
13 Adam was formed first. Then Eve.
14 Adam was not decieved, but the woman was deceived an became a transgressor.
15 She will be saved through childbearing, if she remains in faith and love and holiness and good behavior.**

*The word "man" in Greek can also secondarily mean "husband." However, by not choosing a specific word for husband, the Greek leaves the command open to all states of womanhood with respect to men.

**The extreme degradation of women in these famous verses, while often explained away, remains a fierce source of contemporary debate and protest. The kindest thing one can say in Paul's defense is that they were in all likelihood composed by church authorities between two and five decades after his death. However, the forgers using Paul's name were attempting to reproduce Paul's presumed thing.

(pages 935-36)
Likewise, in his footnotes on verses of Paul's first letter to Corinthians, Barnstone says this in viewing sexism in the text:
[Paul, whose authorship is not in dispute here] is contrasting the woman whose head must be covered, with the man whose head must not be covered (11.4). The more general meaning of the head covering is to give freedom to the man and to confine the woman to modest subservience. It is said that a woman exposing her hair in public reveals loose general morals and promiscuity.
In the next lines Paul develops the intense differences in station between man and woman, husband and wife, by the exposure or revelation of hair. He tells us that a man needs no cover since he is "the semblance . . . of God," but a woman need cover because she is the semblance of man. Paul pushes the parallel metaphor too far, since if the woman is indeed the semblance of man (even as a small relection), she is a semblance of an uncovered man and so she too should necessarily be uncovered.

The basis for Paul's assertion is that man was created before woman in both creation stories, in Genesis 1.27 and 2.7. The notion that woman was created "for the sake of man" has been a sore point emphasizing Paul's less-than-amenable position concerning the position of women, which is always subservient to men....

Paul now [in 11.15] acknowledges that women have a natural covering [i.e., their relatively long hair], which should imply they need no head covering. Then, catching the trap into which his metaphors have led him, he state succinctly states that if anyone wishes to take up a "contentious" line of reasoning, neither he and his group nor the synagogues of God have the custome of permitting women to go bare-headed.

(pages 738-39, fns 97, 98, and 102)
In his introduction ("Why a New Translation"), Barnstone gets at what he means by "restore" with respect to translating.  "And third," he enumerates, "I wish to translate as verse what is verse in the New Testament, as in Yeshua's speech..., following a practice that... has prevailed in rendering Hebrew verse as in the Song of Songs, the Psalms, and Job."  Barnstone sees as central to restoring (that is, as central to his project) that restoration of a Jewish, abolitionist, and feminist voice in the New Testament, namely Barnstone's translating of Yeshua (aka Jesus).  Barnstone adds:
    On all questions of faith versus fact, I take a neutral stance and address them in 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.  In her brilliant Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, Paul Fredriksen presents her first fact, from which all historical speculation must radiate:  "The single most solid fact about Jesus' life is his death: he was executed by the Roman prefect Pilate, on or around Passover, in the manner Rome reserved particularly for political insurrectionists, namely, crucifixion.  Constructions of Jesus primarily as a Jewish religious figure, one who challenged the authority of Jerusalem's priests, thus sit uncomfortably on his very political, Imperial death:  Pilate would have known little and cared less about Jewish religious beliefs and intra-Jewish religious controversy.
    As to denominations--Jewish, Christian, Muslim, the world--while respecting all views, I have not pitch for any camp.  There is no more polemic or preselytizing here than were this book a new version of the Odyssey or of Sappho's fragments, yet I hope that my love for these extraordinary world scriptures will show through.
(pages 14-15)
I do hope that John Hobbins and other bible bloggers too will explore more what Barnstone's done and is doing with greater detail.  To say that there's sexism in the Bible (and anti-Semitism and slavery) does not mean, as John has claimed it it does, that the Bible cannot be light to the outsider, the reader, so saying. "Good open-minded reader," Barnstone addresses those of us who will listen, "here is one translator's way to find the past of a book that may bring you light" (page 8). I think fellow blogger Michael Carden (at his blog Jottings: Michael Carden's Biblio-Blog: Reflections on Bible, Religion, Society, Sexuality, Politics) is listening. Michael takes note of "Ideology and translation of biblical texts" and of the difference translation can make.  A translator of the Bible does well, he says, when she or he "plays with and releases the text from such straitjackets and allows it to be revelation no matter how uncomfortable that might be." I myself am grateful to Barnstone for giving us the insight, courage, and willingness just to try to follow his lead. There are indeed various wayS of approaching the Bible, its sexism, and its translation.


Jay Seidler said...

It seems that Nyland is more ready than Barnstone to translate the texts in a way which reduces the sexism. 1 Cor. 11 and 14:33-36.

J. K. Gayle said...

Jay, That's a great observation. Both Nyland and Barnstone make use of footnotes to explain. But the former seems very interested in getting away from narrow sexist (and homophobic) interpretations to open up the translation to the fuller range of inclusive meanings. And while the latter isn't necessarily trying to keep Paul and Peter, for example, from being narrowly sexist, Barnstone does want to open the Greek text up away from a narrow, Christian (sometimes anti-Semitic) interpretation to its full Jewishness.

Dannii said...

Does Barnstone consider the great differences between biblical slavery and new-world slavery (and indeed, between Israelite and Greek/Roman slavery)?

J. K. Gayle said...

Dannii, There's no question that Barnstone understands the differences, but of course he's considering the great justification of new-world slavery to be biblical slavery. Likewise, slavery in the old Jewish texts gives justification to ongoing slavery in the post-Greek, Roman empire, justification by Jews like Paul, who are Messianic.