Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
LECTURE TRANSCRIPT: PROGRAM 26
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THE LANGUAGE OF PROCLAMATION: STYLE AND RHYTHM IN THE BIBLE
In approaching the part of the Bible that has noted that has its center of gravity in the New Testament, I want first all to make some observations about the style and rhythm of the Bible. The King James translation has been a great deal praised for its simplicity, and that simplicity certainly exists. But there are two kinds of simplicity. One is the democratic simplicity of one person writing for other people in as lucid a way as he can, so that he is not putting any barriers into his readers' path. But there is another kind of simplicity, a simplicity of authority that is most clearly present such in things as military commands. The officer's orders in an army have to be as straightforward in their syntax as possible- what literary critics call paratactical- and they have to be given in the fewest possible words, because soldiers will not hang themselves on barbed wire in response to a subjunctive mood or a subordinate clause. If there is adjustment or explanation to be done, it is for subordinates to do it.
The simplicity of the Bible throughout is the simplicity of the kind of authority that comes from being unquestionably the boss of the operation. It comes through in the laws, where it is the voice of divine commandment itself. And it comes through in the wisdom literature, because the wise man is speaking with the authority of tradition behind him. It comes through in prophecy, because the prophet's function is to say, 'Thus saith the Lord'. And of the discourses of Jesus, it is noted that he spoke as one having authority: one notices that quite frequently what he says begins, 'Ye have heard that it hath been said unto you… But I say unto you…', and that is that.
So the style of the Bible is a rhetorical style, but it employs a special kind of rhetoric. There are two aspects to rhetoric. On the one hand, it is an orator's attempt to persuade an audience, and on the other hand, it is a study of the figurative use of language; because oratory normally makes use of the standard figures of speech, like metaphor and antithesis, and it is continually falling into rhythms like Lincoln's 'of the people, by the people, for the people' or Churchill's 'We shall fight in the beaches, we shall fight in the hills'. The study of figures of speech was part of the school training of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and was the best possible training for poets, as well as for people who were going into the church or the law and who would naturally need to be effective speakers.
But the Bible's rhetoric is of a special kind, and scholars have given it the name, kerygma, which is a Greek word meaning 'proclamation'. That proclamation is the core of what the Bible says: that is, it answers the existential question of what one should do to be saved. We notice, again, that this proclamation has the unquestioned authority of a divine origin.
The earliest of the prophets who seem to have recorded their prophecies was Amos, who lived in the eighth century B.C. Amos prophesied in the Northern Kingdom, and as the prophets were very strong supporters of the worship of Jehovah, his criticisms of royal policy were not very popular. So he was approached by an official of the North Israelite court and asked if he please wouldn't go down and prophesy to Judah instead of to Israel, because they were much wickeder in Judah and needed it much more. Also, he then wouldn't be bothering the North Israelite king or the court.
Amos says, in chapter seven, verse sixteen: 'Now therefore hear thou the word of the Lord: Thou sayst, Prophesy not against Israel, and drop not thy word against the house of Isaac. Therefore thus saith the Lord: thy wife shall be a harlot in the city, and thy sons and thy daughters shall fall by the sword, and thy land shall be divided by line; and thou shalt die in a polluted land'. The prophet may be right or wrong, and he may be reasonable or unreasonable, but the thing he does not do is hedge.
That voice of authority, which is heard constantly through the Bible, is still there in the Pauline epistles, where Paul makes a sharp distinction between what he says which he knows is the voice of God and what he says from himself, which he warns his readers is not to be taken with the same degree of authority.
But we notice that there are different levels on which this authority is expressed. In the Ten Commandments, for example, there are commandments like, 'Thou shalt not kill': as we say now, period. There is no qualification of any kind. The Hebrew just says, 'Kill not'. There is no provision to be made for justifiable homicide or killing in self-defense or going to war or executing criminals, although those things are taken care of in other parts of the Mosaic Code; because, after all, the commandment is addressed to people who want to kill so desperately that they couldn't even understand an unconditional prohibition of killing, much less obey it. But the point is that it is in that totally unconditional prohibition, 'Kill not', that we hear the ring of authority most clearly. Now that means that there may be a difference in level between a law and a commandment, and that the commandment not to kill cannot be a law, because all that it means in the legal sense is, 'Private murder is wrong because it's unpredictable and it upsets established social authority: but going to war or executing criminals, there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's really something quite splendid'. That is the legal meaning of the commandment. And yet one is left with a kind of uneasy feeling in the back of his mind that there might possibly be some kind of community or state of being where 'Kill not' actually meant 'Kill not'.
There's a poem of Blake's called Auguries of Innocence which consists of aphorisms; and at the opening of the poem, we're told of the various things that befall people who ill-treat animals: 'A robin redbreast in a cage Puts all heaven in a rage', and, later on in the poem, 'He who to wrath the ox has moved Shall never be by woman loved'. One's first reaction on reading that is to say that it is nonsense: that possibly it ought to be true that people who abuse animals should be unloved by women, but as a matter of experience, it is not in the least true. They are much more likely to be admired by them. If someone had said that to Blake, he would have said, 'I never said that that was true of the state of experience. The poem is called Auguries of Innocence: that is, prophecies of an innocent world in which people who abuse and torment animals have no real place in the human community'. Possibly the Ten Commandments are different from many of the laws of the Book of Deuteronomy and elsewhere in that they are really auguries of innocence. In other words, they describe a world which is not the world we live in, but which nevertheless is the genuinely human world.
When you turn to the Gospels, you find that Jesus is continually commenting on or quoting the books of the law, the first five books of the Old Testament. He is asked what the greatest commandment is and he quotes from Deuteronomy. The Sermon on the Mount is in very large part a commentary on the Commandments, but is emphasizing a positive element which is grammatically not in the Exodus formulation. The Commandments in Exodus are given a negative form: don't kill, don't commit adultery, don't steal, don't bear false witness. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says in effect, 'The commandment says, "Don't kill"; but what that really means, positively, is a genuine enthusiasm for human life. The law says, "Don't commit adultery". But what that really means, positively, is a habitual respect for the dignity of women. And "Don't steal" really means an enthusiasm for sharing your goods with those who need them more’.
What that kind of commentary is doing is bringing out the aspect that I’ve called the 'commandment aspect' as distinct from the aspect of legalism. That is the basis of the distinction in the New Testament between law and gospel, which is not a distinction between one religion and another. As I’ve said earlier, nowhere in the New Testament is the legalism which it condemns identified with Judaism. Similarly, legalism and what is meant by the gospel are simply two aspects of what may be the same verbal formulation: they are simply different attitudes towards them.
Now, if we drop the question of the Old Testament and just think of law in its ordinary secular sense as the set of rules by which a society orders itself, we notice that in the secular context of law, the crucial difference is between what is done and what is not done: it is the act that either observes or breaks the law. From the point of view of the law, therefore, in this secular context, a man is an honest man who has not actually been convicted of stealing. But naturally no society can hold together if it has as vague a sense of morality as all that. There has to be a very much tighter sense of personal integrity even in the secular sphere.
The emphasis in the gospel teaching is at the opposite extreme from that of secular law, because it throws the entire emphasis on the state of mind rather than on the action; and in a sense, a wrong action is only wrong because it manifests a wrong state of mind. That is, the Seven Deadly Sins, the mortal sins that destroy the soul, as they were classified in Middle Ages were pride, wrath, sloth, envy, avarice, gluttony, and lechery. Not one of those sins necessarily results in criminal or anti-social actions. Sin is not error or wrongdoing or anti-social behavior: the word 'sin' has no meaning outside of a religious context. Sin is the attempt to block the will of God, and it has no meaning otherwise, no social or moral meaning.
Adultery in the Middle Ages would have been regarded as a subdivision of the Deadly Sin of lechery; but lechery could take many forms which would hurt nothing except the state of mind of the person himself. It may be immoral, but it is not criminal. Various people have tried to make it criminal, but that is another corollary of the teaching of the gospel: that when you interpret things that the gospel condemns as illegal, and start passing laws against them, then you've got the most fantastic tyranny. That's the situation that Shakespeare sets up in Measure for Measure, where the hero is condemned to death because he's betrothed or legally married, but hasn't the public declaration of his marriage, and therefore falls under a remarkably unenlightened law that provides the death penalty for it. So the distinction is that these conceptions of law in the gospel are rooted in the state of mind of the individual and not in social welfare.
Thus, the emphasis is thrown on the state of mind of the individual, and recurrently throughout the Christian tradition there has been an attempt to incorporate the gospel in legislation: that has resulted, as I say, in the most frightful tyranny. The situation is really the one outlined in Plato's Republic, where Socrates erects the pattern of the just state, which would be unmitigated hell to live in, and then, at the end of the ninth book, says, 'Do you think any such state could exist?' Those that aren't drunk or asleep by that time simply shudder and say, 'Heavens no'. Socrates says, 'Well, neither do I, but the wise man will always live by its laws, no matter what actual society he may be in'. That is the conception behind the gospel, the conception of a spiritual kingdom of which we are citizens and follow its laws, but which cannot be incorporated into actual society in the form of legislation. Thus, Paul throws the strongest possible emphasis on the state of mind, which he calls justification by faith, as distinct from the person who attempts to add himself up, to calculate his worth, so to speak, in legal terms as a matter of what he does.
You remember the chart that we began with in this course, including first of all the Garden of Eden, then the Promised Land, then the city and the Temple of Jerusalem and Zion. In the New Testament period, these have become a spiritual kingdom which has dropped its connections with history and a specific society. When I say it has dropped its connections with a history and with a specific society I mean, among other things, that it has disappeared from the world of time and space, and that its conceptions of the ultimate categories of existence take us beyond those normal ultimate categories of time and space.
One of the things that Jesus says about the kingdom of heaven is, 'The kingdom of heaven is within you': entos hymon. The New English Bible, which seems to be very unhappy about this remark for some reason, translates it as 'among you' and gives four alternatives in the margin which, I daresay, seems to imply: 'We don't know what the hell it does mean'. The reason is that, as everywhere in the Bible, we have to remember that the faith of the translator has a great deal to do with the translation he makes; and if you regard psychological truths as the profoundest truths, then you will prefer the word 'within': the kingdom of heaven is within you. But if what you want is a social gospel, then you will say, 'The kingdom of heaven is among you', and the New English Bible translators obviously had a social conscience, because they prefer to say 'among'. The Gospel of Thomas, which was not discovered until 1945 but is a collection of sayings of Jesus, says, 'The kingdom heaven is inside you and it is outside you', which makes a good deal of sense, I think. It seems to me that the statement in Luke, 'The kingdom of heaven is entos hymon', may mean 'within you' or it may mean 'among you': those are subordinate meanings. The central meaning is, it is here, and not there. In other words, it transcends our normal sense of space; because everything in our ordinary experience of space is there. We live in an alienated world that keeps receding from us, and everything that we point to, even the middle of our own backbones, is still there. If we want to arrive at a conception of here, we have to draw a circle around ourselves so that here is inside it. And yet, here is obviously the center of space. If you apply the same categories to time, you find yourself in the middle of the same paradox of reality and illusion. Time is the fundamental category by which we perceive everything: we perceive nothing that is real except in time. And yet time as we ordinarily experience it consists of three unrealities, a past that doesn't exist any longer, a future that doesn't exist yet, and a present that never quite exists at all. So we get our fundamental reality out of a threefold illusion. And yet, we feel that now is the center of time, just as here is the center of space. But again, as with space, the only way we can get at it is to draw a circle around the very near past and the very near future and say that 'now' is somewhere inside it.
It is this sense of the genuineness of here and now that gives us what we might call a real present and a real presence. Now of course that's a rather heavy dose for people to take, so you find over and over again that religious and theological works are shot through with ordinary conceptions of time and space. In religion, there is a use of two words in particular, the word 'eternal' and the word 'infinite'. Now practically whenever everybody uses those words, they mean by 'eternal' indefinite time, time that goes on, and on, and on, and on, and on and never stops. Similarly, by 'infinite' they mean space that just goes on, and on, and on, and never stops. I think what those words actually mean in religion is something more like the sense of the reality of now and the sense of the reality of here. But of course, the notion of a world that went on and on and on in time and never stopped, which would be unending happiness for the virtuous and unending torment for the wicked was a notion that made something very unpleasant in human nature say 'yum-yum'. Consequently, you get doctrines of heavens and hells extending indefinitely in time, which were adopted primarily because they were powerful political levers.
Another reason there is so much emphasis on heavens and hells is that in Jesus' teaching, the fundamental reality of things was a division into his spiritual kingdom of heaven and the world of unending torment that man keeps constructing for himself. In his teaching, there are no realities except those of the spiritual kingdom and that which is without, which is outside the spiritual kingdom. But contingent existence as we know it in time is a mixture of the two things, and so there is the parable of the wheat and the tares: that this world is a very badly sown wheat field which is full of weeds. It's no use trying to dig out the weeds and leave the wheat in ordinary existence. That is why there is also an emphasis in the Gospels on the spiritual kingdom as immediate. Again, the general religious tendency was to keep postponing it into the hereafter, into the life after death. But Jesus' emphasis is consistently on its immediacy. That takes one into an area where history can be seen as forming a kind of shape and as having reached a kind of fulfillment. Now in our ordinary experience of history, that never happens: history just keeps on going. That was a great puzzle, we gather, to some of the earliest Christians, who assumed that what Jesus meant was that there was going to be a tremendous firework show that would descend on us next Tuesday and would turn the sun into darkness and the moon into blood, and would put an end to history as we've known it. That didn't happen. So it's obvious that that fulfilling of history must go on somewhere else.
The implication, then, is that there are two levels of knowledge, and the thing which is described as knowledge of good and evil entered the world and became the legalism that the New Testament condemns. This vision of legalism descending from the knowledge of good and evil is the one that engenders the legal metaphor that runs all the way through the Bible, and which thinks in terms of trials and judgments with defenders and accusers. We've seen that even Job is confident that he has a defender, a go'el, who will take his part. Then he wishes that his diabolos, his accuser, had written a book and stated the case against him. But having read the first two chapters of Job, we can see that while this legal vision is utterly natural and inevitable to Job, it is nevertheless not quite the one that's there.