Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Obsolescence of Poetry in Early Christian Writings

By poetry I mean, in part, an elevated language arranged in verse having a measured rhythm.  Obsolescence in this case means that poetic language is not generally used by writers of early Christian texts. This circumstance is not unusual. Everything, including writing styles, naturally falls into disuse. For example, Plutarch (1st/2nd century), a priest of Apollo at Delphi, one of the most famous religious sanctuaries of the ancient Greek world, complained in his day that oracles (statements of the gods uttered by inspired prophets and prophetesses) were no longer being given in verse, and he noted further that even the numbers of prophets and prophetesses were declining.1
            It is well known that poetic form is extensively used in Hebrew Bible, and employed in a variety of ways.2 By using a modern translation, such as the New Revised Standard Version, it is easy to confirm the use of poetic language, since poetic form is generally arranged in verse in the translation.  For example, compare Isaiah 38:9-20.
            In New Testament texts, however, there is a virtual eclipse of poetic form.  Here is how Amos Wilder, a New Testament scholar who made the study of New Testament language a special interest, described the situation:
The poetic forms of the Old Testament which reappear in the New are also often distinguished under three heads according to the traditions out of which they come: (1) the 'gnome': the aphorism of the wisdom tradition of Israel, often found in highly patterned and pungent form; (2) the 'oracle': inspired rhythmic warning, promise, vision, curse, in the tradition of Old Testament prophecy; (3) the 'psalm': liturgical prayer-poems in the tradition of the Psalter. We find the best examples of the gnome and the oracle [in the New Testament] in the sayings of Jesus. Examples of the Christian use of the psalm, of course, are found in the Canticles of Luke.3
New Testament writers sparingly used "hymns" or "odes" (rhythmic units with a liturgical or deliberate theological character), such as Philippians 2:6-11; 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 John 2:12-14; Revelation 18:2-3; 18:4-8.  By far the largest numbers of poetic units in the New Testament appear in the Book of Revelation. Revelation has at least sixteen hymns or hymn-like units many of which are antiphonal.4 In particular, the dirge against Babylon (Revelation 18:2-8, 10, 14, 16-17, 19-20, 21b-24) should be noted among some of the other poetic units in Revelation.
            The heavy use of poetic form in Revelation may be due to the author's situation. The author was a Jewish Christian who "wrote in Greek [but] thought in Hebrew, and frequently translated Hebrew idioms literally into Greek." In other words he expressed himself in Greek in the poetic style of Hebrew idiom.5 If this is correct, then the author writes from the vantage point of the verge separating Hebrew linguistic sensitivities from that of an emerging Christian orthodoxy.
            "Greek is one of the most fluid and musical of all languages."6 And Greek poets have treated all sorts of subjects in poetic form from Homer to George Seferis—including religious subjects. So how should we account for the striking lack of poetic form and the dominance of pedestrian prose in early Christian literature?  Perhaps it is due to a desire to be direct and to communicate in clear language, for an elevated style is often not clear, as Aristotle argued.7 Paul seems to recognize the difference, when he claims that he did not proclaim "the mystery of God" in "eloquent words or wisdom" (1 Corinthians 2:1; 1:17). In short, the New Testament writers in general used unimaginative plain prose to communicate information, rather than intensifying religious experience through poetic language.8 Perhaps it is not important, but poetry "is regarded by some as something central to existence, something having unique value to the fully realized life, something that we are better off for having and spiritually impoverished without."9
            From my perspective, one finds a greater spiritual uplift in poetic hymns, which share the intensity of the poets' religious experience, than in the prosaic theological stumping of preaching, which generally views religious experience in a narrow way.
Is the New Testament deficient in spiritually uplifting linguistic forms?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1"The Oracles at Delphi" and "The Obsolescence of Oracles."
2Otto Eissfeldt, The Old Testament. An Introduction (Harper and Row, translated from the 3rd German edition, 1965), 57-64.
3The Language of the Gospel. Early Christian Rhetoric (Harper and Row, 1964), 100-101. See Luke 1-2 for the canticles (liturgical songs) of Luke.
4David Aune, Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric (Westminster/John Knox, 2003), 403.
5Charles, The Revelation of St. John (ICC; Charles Scribner's Sons, 1920), 1.xxi.
6T. F. Higham, "Introduction. Part II," in Higham and Bowra, The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Clarendon, 1938), xlvii. 
7Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric, III.2.1-3.
8Arp, and Johnson, Perrine's Literature, Structure, Sound, and Sense (8th ed.; Harcourt, 2002), 717-19.
9Perrine, Literature. Structure, Sound, and Sense (4th ed.; Harcourt; 1983), 517.


Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

How widely are you throwing your poetic definition net? Would it include narrative structure, parables, and aphorisms.

(1) I think that Mark (and perhaps the other gospels)constantly uses a repetitive structure throughout the gospel. The structure can be twofold: event, challenge, response, outcome (e.g., calling of the disciples) and/or premise, question, explanation, conclusion (e.g., Beelzebul debate). The key to recalling the passage is memorizing the challenge or question.

(2)Hear are two sources of what seem to me to be descriptions of parable as poetic:

The following definition is found in the work of the Jesus Seminar The Five Gospels, 546:

A brief narrative or picture drawn from common life to form a strange metaphor/simile, leaving precise application in doubt, and prompting additional active thought.

Or, more generally, all teachings, as described by the word "parabola," including brief one liner aphorisms, (e.g., see Mark 4:33)in the Christian canon (Zimmerman, Puzzling the Parables, 137-138):

A brief fictional narrative/unit drawing from common life. A non-literal use of words and/or contextual information which triggers interpretive curiosity.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Gene,
The definition that I used for poetry (line one of the blog) would in general exclude such things as repetitive structure, parable (although I think they are poetic fictions), aphorisms, etc. Unless one can make a case for them that they have a measured rhythm, are deliberately arranged in verse, and reflect an elevated language. The fact that such units are not generally cast that way by translators suggests that translators do not find such qualities in the units you mention.

Anonymous said...

I see poetic "form" (meter, rhyme, quantity of syllables)functioning as mnemonic devices, aiding one in memory. Elevated language, I see as not unique to poetry but found also in prose.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Dennis,
So what is poetry in your view?

Anonymous said...

I have to answer that as related to modern poetry (of the last 150 or so years), because that is what I compose. Poetry is imagery, concise and clear. As I taught my students, one tries to "put the world in a word." It is experience, not necessarily a conduit for memorization, though some of Allen Ginsberg's and Gary Snyder's work have great mnemonic cues. It is not the "form" of the past. W.C. Williams wrote ("Kora in Hell")"That which is heard from the lips of those to whom we are talking in our day's-affairs mingles with what we see in the streets and everywhere about us as it mingles also with our imaginations... But of old poets would translate this hidden language into a kind of replica of the speech of the world with certain distinctions of rhyme and meter to show that it was not really that speech. Nowadays the elements of that language are set down as heard and the imagination of the listener and of the poet are left free to mingle in the dance."

I do have particular "form," but it relates to syntactical connections. I use assonance, consonance and alliteration, but only to cause a relationship between the image and the words.

Incidentally, Jacob Neusner considers most of The Mishnah poetry. In the intro to his translation he makes a good case for this.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Elizabeth said...

"From my perspective, one finds a greater spiritual uplift in poetic hymns, which share the intensity of the poets' religious experience, than in the prosaic theological stumping of preaching, which generally views religious experience in a narrow way." I couldn't agree more, Charlie... Well stated!

You know me- I always have a question ;-)

1) Have you ever pondered the reason for the difference between the two literary styles of the Old and New testament writers? If so, do you attribute it to cultural differences between Jews and Greeks? Or do you attribute it to political differences between the two ethnic groups?

2) In your personal opinion, do the literary/linguistic differences between the way the Old and New testaments were written- does that difference reflect the difference between Judaism and Christianity as a wholel? In other words, is the religion of Judaism itself more spiritually uplifting and the religion of Christianity narrow and prosaic? I am interested in your opinion, but if you don't have one, that's perfectly fine.

Thank you as always, Elizabeth

Anonymous said...

Don't want to take up your time Here is a bit more explaining poetry as I see it. Ancient poetry? That will take a bit more time...
When I write a poem I work toward compression of words and phrases, along with an intensity that corresponds to what I’m writing. I look at the length of the lines as not dependent on counting meter but of presenting an image, elucidating the image or finishing the image. Instead of rhyming patterns, words are chosen for sound (as I said, assonance, consonance, alliteration, as well as onomatopoeia and portmanteau). Verb choice and word choice specifically are used to slow or speed the image. Can this be done with prose? Certainly. I think James Joyce and Jack Kerouac were two examples of those who wrote prose with the minds of poets. Poetry, too, should be heard to be appreciated. It is like music. I can read the notes on the scale, but until I play add intonation and “swagger,” the music it is just notes on lines. I believe it was meant to be heard, and can have, when chanted, a mystical property. If a population was primarily print illiterate, how better to preserve one's thoughts than in poetry and song? It helped one's memory.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, G.

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Dennis,
Thanks for engaging the question. In your earlier statement you said that elevated language was also used in prose. I agree some prose contains elements of poetry and we note the difference by calling that section "poetic." The rest of the section in which the poetic passage appears we call "prosaic." in other words, there is a recognizable difference between poetry and prose. As you said, poetry attempts to share a poet's experience; I agree; and prose only seeks to communicate information. In other words we get a "bigger bang for our buck" with poetry. The poet will pull out of the writer's knapsack whatever will aid in sharing the experience. The two styles have different ends and use different techniques to achieve that end--even including form.
Have the New Testament writers cheated their readers by not using more poetry, do you think?

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Sunday afternoon Elizabeth,
Both are good questions, but for you first question I could not give a definitive response. The Greeks used different poetic styles than the Hebrews but each culture produced their share of poetic works. So what I have noted in literary style is not between Hebrews and Greeks. The shocking disparity in the use of poetry is between the writers of the Hebrew Bible and the writers of the Christian supplement.
With regard to your second question: again I was only writing about the surprising lack of poetic language between the two blocks of literature NT and OT.
When I referred to the Christian hymns (include also the Psalmbook of Israel and their wisdom literature) as being more "spiritually" uplifting, I was using the term spiritual in this way. The hymns bring about an emotional response in me causing me to become more reflective about my personal situation in the world.
I would not leap from the particular to the general and pass sentence on either religion from this narrow sampling.