A Death in the Desert

A Death in the Desert May 14, 2018

I recently posted about a nineteenth century response to the rise of Biblical Higher Criticism. Here, I offer another literary example, a work that is splendid in its own right, but which also offers a very well informed perspective on how scholars read and discussed the Bible then – and what they do today.

In 1864, Robert Browning published his lengthy poem “A Death in the Desert.” Let me summarize the work here, and then say more about why it is so important for studying the development of the New Testament. Browning’s work purports to be an ancient manuscript written by one of the last companions of John the Apostle, the author of John’s Gospel. The work records John’s closing words, which offer a wide ranging discourse on the relationship between faith and doubt, reason and evidence. It’s a rich and provocative work.

I published an essay on this, as “A Critic in the Desert: Robert Browning and the Limits of Plain Historic Fact,” Fides et Historia 45(1)(2013), 14-29. As I wrote then, Browning’s poem asked basic questions about the capacity of even the best-informed scholarship to reconstruct spiritual realities. How could even the finest observer report an overwhelming glimpse of absolute Truth, and why should he be believed to the point of death? To what extent must genuine faith rely on external material evidence, whether that meant miracles or scriptural authority? At a time of high popular excitement about the potential of Bible criticism, Browning was asking challenging questions, which often remain unresolved today. If you don’t believe in the literal and inspired value of every word of the Biblical text, what are the grounds of Christian faith?

Beyond his obvious significance as a church leader, John is so treasured because he is the last direct earthly link with Christ, the last who

—Saw with his eyes and handled with his hands

That which was from the first, the Word of Life.

How will it be when none more saith ‘I saw’?

We think here of the poem’s pointed title. It is not just John himself who “dies in the desert,” but that personal authentic link with Christ himself – and perhaps even the possibility of accurate historical knowledge.

So far, so good. But what is truly striking is Browning’s wonderfully well-informed sense of the kind of problems that critics and scholars had in interpreting manuscripts and texts. In describing this fictional work, he could just have pretended that it was a writing by some character with an imagined name – Demetrios, say. But no, he has to indicate the multiple levels of authorship and editing that so often make it difficult to interpret ancient texts.

Here is the poem’s opening:

[Supposed of Pamphylax the Antiochene:

It is a parchment, of my rolls the fifth,

Hath three skins glued together, is all Greek,

And goeth from Epsilon down to Mu:

Lies second in the surnamed Chosen Chest,

Stained and conserved with juice of terebinth,

Covered with cloth of hair, and lettered Xi,

From Xanthus, my wife’s uncle, now at peace:

Mu and Epsilon stand for my own name.

I may not write it, but I make a cross

To show I wait His coming, with the rest,

And leave off here: beginneth Pamphylax.]

In other words, we have to imagine an unnamed Christian who has some ancient text on this shelf. Digging a little, we realize that John had a number of (fictional) companions at this death, including Pamphylax and Xanthus. Pamphylax wrote the text we have here, and we are told its provenance.

It is the Xanthus that escaped to Rome,

Was burned, and could not write the chronicle.

Pamphylax himself completes his manuscript the day before he is destined to meet the beasts in the arena. But through Xanthus’s family, the text survived to come down to the unnamed narrator, who is a Christian. For fear of persecution and death, this last person will not even give his name.

Browning only hints at what else might be in the group’s possession, but at one point a young disciple takes a lead plate from the secret chamber, and proceeds to read a verse from John’s Gospel. Probably, we are meant to infer that besides protecting the Apostle himself, the disciples are also guarding his gospel, perhaps even the only copy. Presumably again, this would find its way to the narrator, together with the death account.

But do note – the text is only supposed of Pamphylax, and “supposed” is given prominence as the very first word in the poem. Even at that ancient stage of the church (around 125?), the narrator cannot be sure of the authorship of the document, any more than (say) of John’s Gospel, and that situation would not improve with passing centuries. Doubt piles on doubt. As Alan Culpepper remarks, the fictional parchment is thus “a document that purports to be the end result of a lengthy series of events, oral traditions, glosses, and stages of transmission” – exactly the kind of material that the Higher Critics delighted in deconstructing and reinterpreting.

As so often, we are meant to understand, a text – like a gospel – represents multiple stages of editing and composition, and has passed through many hands before reaching the form in which we find it. In that process, the text receives glosses and comments. In Browning’s poem, the story of John’s death has acquired a whole final section, presented thus:

Cerinthus read and mused; one added this …

Cerinthus was a celebrated early Gnostic, who reads and meditates on  the document, but Pamphylax – or another commentator – responds to him,

Call Christ, then, the illimitable God / Or lost!

And as the narrator – or Browning – proclaims finally,

But ‘t was Cerinthus that is lost.

How very easy it would be for manuscripts to attract such glosses, side-notes, and even debates, which over time are copied into the main text as if they were the work of the original author. It then becomes very difficult indeed for later scholars to sort out these various layers and stages.

Browning’s text was fictional, but he genuinely understood the kind of problems that must be negotiated in understanding any genuine work. Although fictional, A Death in the Desert could still be usefully read today in a course on reading the New Testament.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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