The Bible and English Literature by Northrop Frye - Full Lecture 11

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3/4 inch U-matic tape
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Gerard Beckers, Chris Rodgers
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Ted Glickman
Bill Somerville
Robert Sandler
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Bob Rodgers
Robert Fysh (2008)
Jane Widdicombe

Northrop Frye and Michael Dolzani 

Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University




An unusual feature of Israelite society was its threefold division of authority into the figures of king, priest and prophet. King and priest combine to represent the temporal and spiritual aspects of the law respectively; and so the Scriptures in Jesus' day consisted of two parts, the law and the prophets, symbolized by Moses and Elijah, who consequently appear at Christ's side in the Transfiguration. The Bible in all its languages distinguishes between soul and spirit: at the center of Christianity is not the immorality of the soul,, which is a Greek idea, but the resurrection of the body.

Program Lecture Outline: Key Facts

  1. King, priest and prophet: the three figures of authority in Israelite society. King and priest represent the temporal and spiritual aspects of normal established authority; but the function of a prophet as representing the Word of God directly breaking in upon the continuity of human society seems peculiar to the West Semitic nations in Asia.
  2. In the New Testament, all three aspects of authority are attached to Christ.
  3. The law and the prophets, symbolized by Moses and Elijah, were the two parts of Scripture in Jesus' time.
  4. Malachi ends the Old Testament by an exhortation to remember Moses and to wait for the rebirth of Elijah as prophesied to occur before the coming of the Messiah. Jesus regarded this prophecy as fulfilled spiritually (metaphorically, not literally) by John the Baptist.
  5. Hence, Jesus as the Word is flanked by Moses and Elijah in the Transfiguration.
  6. Immortality of the soul is a Platonic idea: the center of Christianity is rather the resurrection of the body.
  7. The resurrected body is a spiritual body, however: the distinction between soul and spirit (Hebrew nephesh and ruach; Greek psyche and pneuma; Latin anima and spiritus) implies Paul's distinction between a mortal complex of soul and natural body—the soma psychikos, 'natural man', or 'the flesh'—and the spiritual body, the pneumatikos, the genuine individuality of each individual.
  8. The concept of time involved with the spirit is not immortality—an indefinite extension of ordinary time—but resurrection into a pure present.

Biblical Passages Cited

Malachi 4:4-6.—End of the Old Testament. Remember Moses; wait for the reborn Elijah.

Mark 9:12-13.—Jesus declares that Elijah has come.

John 1:21.—John the Baptist denies being the reborn Elijah (Elias).

Mark 9:2-9.—The Transfiguration.

I Corinthians 2:14.—The natural and the spiritual man.

I Thessalonians 5:23.— 'spirit and body and soul'.

The Teacher's Perspective

There is additional material in the transcripts for this program that can be used to demonstrate how the Old Testament symbols of authority, king, priest and prophet, become attached in the New Testament to the figure of Christ. The teacher may name various Old Testament figures, such as Moses, David and Solomon, and ask the class in what particular ways each one prefigures Christ. They have also become familiar with a number of other such figures in different contexts, such as the Melchizedek figure of the sacrificing king and high priest in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Students with a Roman Catholic upbringing may know that the words, 'Thou art a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek' are still used during the ordination ceremony for a priest. The teacher may point out the typological relation of the Solomon-Sheba story to the journey of the Magi, together with the Isaiah 60:6 connecting link. For literary analogies, see Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi' and Yeats' 'Solomon and the Witch' and 'The Magi'.

The Moses-Elijah business is a little more complex. First of all, the class may review the king and high priest figures of Zechariah 3-4 with their antitypes, the two slain witnesses of Revelation 11:3-4: we met these in programs 9 and 12, and now add the figures of Moses and Elijah to the number of their associations. The martyrdom of the two witnesses, who are obviously Moses and Elijah, together with the mention elsewhere in Revelation of a battle between Michael and the dragon, have got associated, at least in literary tradition, with the reference in the Epistle of Jude to a dispute between Michael and Satan over the body of Moses. This whole complex becomes recreated in the Bard's Song in Blake's Milton as Palamabron (the genius of civilized life) caught in his allegiance between Satan, who is the wisdom of this world, and Rintrah (associated with Elijah), who represents the prophetic authority of the imagination. Joyce's 'Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies' in Finnegans Wake is similar to this and perhaps influenced by it: Mick (Michael) and Nick ('St. Nick', Satan) are aspects of the conflicting brothers Shem and Shaun; and, as also in Blake, there is an autobiographical level which draws upon events in the artist's own life. The obvious visual aid for this section of the program is Raphael's painting of the Transfiguration.

The virtually incalculable influence of the Greek notion of the immortality of the soul has drawn a whole complex of symbolism into medieval and Renaissance poetry. The original Platonic references, such as in the Phaedo, 80, by virtue of their inherent tendency to separate the perfect and immortal essence of the soul from the imperfect realm of matter, led naturally to the construction of a hierarchical cosmology with God and spirit (considered as a disembodied essence) on top, and matter and chaos on the bottom, with man caught halfway in between and faced with the moral alternatives of rising or sinking. This is the basis for the great chain of being (see A. O. Lovejoy's work of that title) and for the concept of a narrative ascent, through some kind of sublimination or subordination of the bodily, towards a realm of the totally ideal. Such a Neoplatonic ladder would resemble the chart of apocalyptic imagery on p.166 of The Great Code, except that its top and bottom, instead of being identified metaphorically, would be considered an antithesis, moral as well as philosophical.

But this very resemblance ensured Platonic idealism's susceptibility to transformation by the Biblical tradition of metaphorical radicalism, once the Platonic materials were transplanted to a Christian context. It is interesting to compare Milton's Comus, 453-75, to Paradise Lost, V, 469-505. Because Comus has a Classical setting, the 'divine philosophy' the brothers are expounding is in fact neoPlatonic, and the chastity which the Lady is preserving from the temptations of Comus and his rout is equated with virginity; that is, with the preservation of an inviolate essence from material sensuality. Milton would have regarded such a philosophy as an imperfect rational shadow of the Christian revelation given by Raphael to Adam, and thus as part of the Classical wisdom which Christ has first to reject in its imperfect form in Paradise Regained in order to redeem what is valuable about it. Yet such is the influence of Classical formulations upon the Renaissance that the difference in wording in the Paradise Lost passage is not great: it is explicit, however, that 'spirit' means a spiritual body or substance; that matter is not evil, but redeemed; and this goes along with the different chastity of Adam and Eve in Eden, which includes both marriage and sexuality.

Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is much more explicit in rejecting any kind of matter-spirit or body-soul duality: 'Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that called Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age'.

As for the Bible itself, nothing would be perhaps more useful than a closer look at some of the more extraordinary passages in Paul concerning the spirit and the resurrection of the body, such as Philippians 3, Romans 6, and especially I Corinthians 15.

Finally, the class might try deciding how far the treatment of the concept of time in Auden's 'Kairos and Logos' or Eliot's Four quartets is related or comparable to what has been said in this program.

Supplementary Reading

1. Biblical Passages

Genesis 14:18, Psalms 2 and 110, Hebrews 7:1-3.—The figure of Melchizedek.

I Maccabees 14:41-43.—Simon Maccabeus takes on attributes both of high priest and king.

I Kings 10.—Solomon and Sheba.

Matthew 2:7-12.—The Magi.

Zechariah 3-4.—The king and high priest.

Revelation 11:3-8.—The two 'witnesses': antitype of Zechariah 3-4.

Revelation 12:7.—The battle of Michael with the dragon.

Jude 9.—The dispute of Michael and Satan over the body of Moses.

Philippians 3, Romans 6, I Corinthians 15.—St Paul: spirit; the resurrection of the body.

Genesis 5:24.—Enoch.

Deuteronomy 34:5-6.—The death of Moses.

2. Corresponding Passages in The Great Code

Chapter 1. Language 1.

pp. 19-20. Soul and spirit.

Chapter Three. Metaphor I.

pp. 71-72. The nature of time and eternity

Chapter Seven. Myth II

pp. 178-180. Prophet, priest and king.

Suggested Essay or Discussion Questions

  1. Discuss the popular series of books recently published describing the experiences of people who have revived after being declared clinically dead. Are such experiences relevant to the concepts discussed in this program? Some such accounts have borne resemblances to the experiences described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Carl Jung's 'Psychological Commentary' to that book may add fuel to the discussion.
  2. Dylan Thomas' poem 'And death shall have no dominion' is sometimes said to derive from Romans 6:9. Compare the poem's vision of resurrection to its possible source and to popular ideas of Christian theology.
  3. Compare Marvell's 'A Dialogue between the Soul and Body' to Yeats' 'A Dialogue of Self and Soul'; compare both to Henry Vaughan's poem 'Peace'.



Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University



I was speaking of the relation of the Exodus story in the Old Testament to the shape in which the life of Christ is presented in the Gospels, and was saying that the account of Jesus in the Gospels is not a biography and not conceived as one, but is a setting forth of the life of a person who is the spiritual Israel in an individual form. One rather striking thing about Hebrew society in Old Testament times is the very clear recognition of the difference between spiritual and temporal authority. That recognition is fairly late, and originally the king must have had a great many priestly functions as well as his royal functions: the association of the Psalms with David goes back to that. You can see also from such things as Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the Temple that the king was originally assumed to be somebody with important priestly functions. But for the most part the priestly authority and the royal authority were distinguished. The Israelites embarked on monarchy with a great many misgivings. But the role of the priesthood is set out in the instructions given to Aaron, the archetypal priest in the Mosaic code.

In other countries, such as Egypt, the king was always the high priest as well, but that was not true of the Old Testament period. And this division of authority between priest and king is accompanied by a certain autonomous authority given to the figure of the prophet. The three elements of authority, of prophet, priest and king, are, however, all associated with the figure of Jesus in various symbolic ways.

I've spoken of Jesus' role as king, which means he's both the king of glory like Solomon in the Temple and also the king of exile and humiliation like Zedekiah, and as in the symbolism of the 'suffering servant' in Isaiah. The Queen of Sheba coming to hear the wisdom of Solomon is the Old Testament type, in the Christian reading, of the Magi coming to the infant Christ: the connecting link is the prophecy in Isaiah 60:61: 'the multitude of camels shall cover thee the dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the Lord'. But of course, Jesus as the Messianic figure is associated with all three of these aspects of authority; and there are certain figures in the Bible that have a symbolic importance for that reason.

If we look, for example, at Genesis 14:18, we learn that after Abraham came back from a successful foray, he was greeted by a figure called Melchizedek, who is said to be the priest of El Elyon in Salem. Now, 'Salem' is probably Jerusalem. 'El Elyon' means, more or less, 'the most high God'. And Melchizedek means 'the king of righteousness', or 'the righteous king'; and he is here said to be the priest of El Elyon. He greets Abraham, pronounces a blessing on him, and brings forth bread and wine. If Salem is Jerusalem, then this figure, who is the priest of a god very readily identifiable with the Biblical Jehovah, El Elyon, the most high God, seems to be introduced to establish Israel's claim to the city of Jerusalem, which it didn't actually possess until the time of David.

In the 110th Psalm, a psalm which was always regarded by Christian typology as an extremely important psalm in setting forth the royal functions of the king: 'The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.' And in the fourth verse: 'The Lord has sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek' So here we have the priest, Melchizedek, identified with the royal figure, David. In the very late Old Testament period, the Maccabean rebellion was led by a priest named Mattathias, who was of a priestly family of the tribe of Levi and who had several brothers that came to power one after the other, first Judas Maccabeus, then Jonathan and then Simon. Because they came from a priestly family, all of these brothers as they came to leadership were made high priest. Simon, the third one, was also made high priest, but he took on a good many of the attributes of royalty as well, because he achieved independence for Judah, and his successors formed a dynasty where the kings were priests. Thus, for a very brief time, a little over half a century, before the time of Christ, the royal and priestly functions were united. And for that reason a great many scholars think that Psalm 110 originally referred to Simon Maccabeus. One scholar has proposed to work out an acrostic with Simon's name spelled out in it, but I don't have enough expertise in Hebrew to know whether he is right or not. I can merely say that most scholars think he wasn't.

The Melchizedek figure becomes prominently associated with Jesus and in the Epistle to the Hebrews in the seventh chapter, the author of Hebrews etymologizes his name in the way I did a few minutes ago, as 'king of righteousness in the city of peace', connecting 'Salem' with the word 'shalom'. He makes him, again, a prototype of Christ, as uniting the functions of king and priest in a figure of both spiritual and temporal authority.

The function of a prophet seems to be peculiar to the West Semitic nations in Asia, and represents an authority that is extremely difficult for any society to absorb. Nobody wants a prophet around. Kings and priests are all right, because they represent an established authority, and most of the prophets in the Old Testament were very well broken-in functionaries of either the court or the Temple. Those who were not had a long record of persecution and martyrdom.

In the time of Jesus, Scripture, that is, what we call the Old Testament, was not in its complete form: the status of some books was still undetermined. But in general, the Torah, the first five books of Mosaic law, was regarded as sacrosanct, and so were most of the historical and prophetic books—or what are called the Former Prophets and the Latter Prophets in the Hebrew arrangement: so that the Scriptures in Jesus' day were the law and the prophets. The symbolic names attached to these two elements of the Bible were Moses, representing the law, and Elijah, representing the prophets. At the same time, although Moses is the secretary of the law, he is explicitly described in Deuteronomy as a prophet, and his functions are quite clearly discriminated from those of the priest Aaron, his brother.

Still, Moses and Elijah become the symbolic figures of the Old Testament, and in the Septuagint arrangement of Old Testament books, apart from the Apocrypha, the Old Testament ends with the book of Malachi, as it does in the King James Bible. If you look at the last two or three verses of Malachi, you'll see that Malachi winds up the Old Testament from this point of view by an exhortation to remember Moses and to wait for the rebirth of Elijah before the coming of the Messiah. Verse 4: 'Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel'. Verse 5: Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming, of the great and dreadful day of the Lord'. Moses and Elijah are thus regarded as the continuing pillars of Scripture. At the beginning of the New Testament, you meet the figure of John the Baptist; and according to Jesus' own statement, the prophecy of Malachi that Elijah will come again was fulfilled by the coming of John the Baptist.

At the same time, when John the Baptist is asked if he is Elijah, he says that he is not. Now, there is no difficulty there, unless you want to foul yourselves up over a totally impossible conception of literal meaning: reincarnation in its literal there's-that-man-again form is not a functional doctrine in the Bible. At the same time, metaphorically, which is one of the meanings of 'spiritually' in the New Testament, John the Baptist is a reborn Elijah just as Nero is a reborn Nebuchadnezzar or Rameses II. So it is not surprising that the great scene of the Transfiguration in the Gospels should show Jesus as flanked by Moses on one side and Elijah on the other—that is, the Word of God with the law and the prophets supporting him. Again, that has its demonic parody in the figure of the crucified Christ with the two thieves flanking him on each side.

If you turn to the Book of Revelation, chapter 11, it begins with the commandment to the author to measure the Temple of God. Then he speaks of two witnesses in verse three: 'And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth'. The reference there is to the Book of Zechariah, which has a vision of a Messianic figure flanked by two olive trees and two candlesticks. So here again the author of Revelation has introduced the Messianic figure flanked by two witnesses, as he calls them, which is one of the meanings of course of the word 'martyr'.

Then he goes on to tell us that these two witnesses are martyred in the last days, and it is quite clear from his description of them that they again represent Moses and Elijah. In verse six: 'These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy'—that is what Elijah did, you remember, breaking the drought on Mt. Carmel—'and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues'. That of course is Moses, striking Egypt with plagues. Then they will be killed—verse 8: 'And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified'. Metaphorically, the demonic city is Sodom and Egypt, which both are sunk under the sea, and also the earthly Jerusalem, which had probably been sacked by the Emperor Titus shortly before this book was written.

There is a certain confusion in the New Testament and elsewhere between Moses and the figure in Genesis, the great-grandfather of Noah, who was called Enoch, and who is said not to have died; and you remember that Elijah went up in a chariot into heaven, so that traditionally Enoch and Elijah were the two people who didn't die. Enoch has some role to play here, although he has quite obviously been replaced by Moses. The thing is, that in Deuteronomy, there is clearly a certain ambiguity about the death of Moses. There is a suggestion at the end that Moses also did not die, at least didn't die as other men do. In Deuteronomy 34:5: 'So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord'. Verse 6: 'And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Beth-peor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day'. We're not quite sure what the antecedents of these pronouns are, but it looks as though God himself buried Moses. It became later a test of faith for people to believe that Moses was the author of the account of his own death, writing with one hand and shovelling with the other, but I don't know if we need that.

Howsoever, a legend grew up, already established by New Testament times, that Moses was, in the technical term, assumed, that he didn't really die; and that curious little Epistle of Jude, which is tucked in just before the Book of Revelation, speaks of a dispute between Michael and Satan over the body of Moses. So evidently the point of the author of Revelation is that anybody who is said not to have died has to come back and do it before the end of all death.

For Paul, the sacrament of baptism was a symbol of two things, a symbol of the fact that everybody without exception dies and a symbol of the fact that nobody has to die. That is, every part of you that can die is better off dead. And the part of you that doesn't die is the part that goes through the Red Sea to the dry land on the other side. Paul is certainly emphatic that it is possible to participate in things like the Resurrection before physical death. But again, it's a matter of what is mortal and what is not. There is, incidentally, no doctrine that I know of in the New Testament like that of Plato, which says that the soul is immortal by nature. I think the Biblical attitude is rather that immortality is something that is created by the power of God, but is not something inborn in man by his nature as a human being.

The Platonic idea, of course, also goes with the notion of the soul, which is thought of in terms of the metaphor of 'in'. Human consciousness feels that it is inside a body that it knows next to nothing about, and so it adopts figures like those of a bird in a cage or a prisoner in a cell to express it. Then, at death, the soul separates from the body: but although the doctrine of the soul certainly influenced Christian theology to a very considerable extent, I don't think it's a Biblical doctrine, I think it's a Greek one. As far as I can read it, the center of Christianity is not the salvation of the soul, but the resurrection of the body.

All the languages relevant to the Bible distinguish between the soul and the spirit. In Hebrew, they are usually nephesh and ruach; in Greek, they are psyche and pneuma; in Latin, they are anima and spiritus; and you have similar distinctions in modern languages, as in English between soul and spirit, and German Seele and Geist, and so on.

Paul, in speaking of how to read the Bible, in I Corinthians, 2:14-15, says: 'But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned'. Verse 15: 'But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man'. He's discriminating there between the spiritual man, the spiritual body, the pneumatikos, and what the King James version translates as the 'natural man'. But the King James version is struggling with the fact that there is no adjective in English for 'soul' corresponding to 'spiritual'. Because what Paul says is the soma psychikos for 'natural man', the man with the soul; in other words, Paul is drawing the essential line not between the physical body and the soul, but between the soul and the spirit. And the soma pychikos, the soul-body complex, seems to be a part of what he means elsewhere by 'flesh and blood' as distinct from 'spirit', which is of course a metaphor from 'breath' and expresses the sense of a life which includes the bodily life.

As he calls it natural, I suppose he means that he's thinking of the soul as part of the whole mortal complex in the human makeup. Elsewhere, I think in Thessalonians, he tells his correspondent that he prays for his body and soul and spirit, so evidently he does have a three-tiered conception. By the soul he seems to mean something like consciousness, which human beings have by virtue of the fact that they are human beings. That is something that a man does have by nature.

It is a matter of our habitual categories of expression. We think of, for example, life after death. Now the word 'after' is a metaphor indicating that we are still clinging to our ordinary conceptions of time. Or we say, is there something 'beyond': that's a metaphor from space, meaning that we are still clinging to our metaphors of space. The notion of something like the ego surviving indefinitely in something like time, in something like a place, is, I think, a slightly hazier notion than the New Testament is thinking of.

Jesus' teaching centers on his conception of the spiritual kingdom. We experience time in such a way that everything is either past or future. But when Jesus says something like 'before Abraham was, I AM', in a remark like that, time simply vanishes and you have to think in terms of a pure present, which is not in accord with our normal mental categories. And if that is true of the past, it must also be true of the future. While undoubtedly many of the early Christians thought of the Second Coming as simply a future event which would take place for the benefit of the faithful, perhaps next Tuesday, I think a rather subtler conception of time than that is involved in both Jesus' teaching and in the mind of the author of Revelation.

For Paul, the real individuality is the spirit, and the spirit is Christ in man. In other words, Christ is the genuine individuality of each individual. Without that, man is still primarily generic, primarily a member of a species. The spiritual life would, if it is a spiritual body, naturally include the soul as well as the body. He distinguishes later in Corinthians between the spiritual body of the Resurrection and the natural body. So the natural body apparently includes the soul, or consciousness or whatever was incorporated in the conception of soul.