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
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.