Jesus, Poets and Prophets

I recall reading somewhere not long ago in my studies of oral tradition (which has touched on folksong, epic, and the Parry-Lord school) that those who composed such works would often withdraw to compose their works, and then would return and send out troubadors or other performers. I couldn’t help but think of the way Jesus is depicted in some parts of the New Testament, as withdrawing to isolated places, and then returning and sending out his students (= disciples).

The connection (and blurry distinction) between “poetry” and “prophecy” has often been noted, perhaps most famously in the case of Muhammad. This is not surprising, since composers and poets have often felt like their works were coming from somewhere outside them, appearing almost fully-formed in their minds. But I wonder whether trying this category on for size is likely to be helpful in the case of Jesus, whether in terms of historical research or in terms of mediating between his ancient context and our own.

What do you think?

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  • J. K. Gayle

    I wonder whether trying this category on for size is likely to be helpful in the case of Jesus, whether in terms of historical research or in terms of mediating between his ancient context and our own.Great question! I like what Willis Barnstone does. He connects and blurs distinctions between “poet,” “prophet,” AND “translator.” Sorry to go on with such a long comment here, but I think a single paragraph from Barnstone’s commentary (p 35) on his translation of four gospels and the apocalypse of John relates to what you’re suggesting:”So speaks the invisible poet in the gospels.The voice revealed through translation of his words into the Greek, and now into English, is a world poet. To call an unidentified poet Yeshua of the gospels or John the Evangelist or John of the Apocalypse is a shadowy name and distinction, since in each case there is a poet or recorder of the poet behind that voice: the evangelists in the case of Yeshua, and John and a Greek Jew, said to be from Patmos or Efesos–though his origin is quite dubious–behind the great revelation in the Apocalypse. The voices, of uncertain name and of distinctive mystery of origin, must be perceived so we may hear them as we have heard other ancient poets of Asia, of a religious and metaphysical cast, from China’s Laozi tradition, India’s Mahadevi, Sumeria’s Enheduanna, and Israel’s many-voiced prophets. Isaiah and Laozi are respectively the great poets of the Hebrew Bible and the Chinese Daoist Daode jing, yet in each case what is held together under each name are several voices. We speak of Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, Isaiah 3. We speak of Laozi as the author of the Daode jing or Confucius as the author of the Confucian odes. But in each instance we know it is many songs under a single name. In short, under each name is a tradition. In the New Covenant [i.e. ‘New Testament’], the most distinctive voices are Yeshua and the two Johns (of gospel and Apocalypse). Following the tradition of retelling the gospel story in different voices, in each gospel the poems take distinctive wordings as they are retold.”

  • James F. McGrath

    What a great quote! Thanks for sharing it!

  • Angie Van De Merwe

    I don’t like apocalyptic understanding, as it assumes/promises that God breaks into history…and is based on a hope that is transcendent. Hope has to be real, not ethereal. This is where my way of thinking or understanding is at a crux, like Bart Ehrman’s. The real historical, political, contextual situation is what is important as far as hope is concerned, which means that politics must be engaged. Otherwise, disconnection transpires when it comes to “real hope”. Our country’s founding was based on such hope and people were willing to risk much to gain the freedom that was “hoped for”. This goal of real hope is what humanitarians,(or counsellors, mentors, etc.) undertake, but it is also what politicians attempt to do in diplomacy, policy, etc….I cannot agree with “theologizing” as John did for an “otherworldly” Hope….that is not realistic, but “pie in the sky” for me…Perhaps, I’m a Marxist utopian, after all….because I do not truely know what is after death. I only know what is in this real life and world….But, I also agree that poetry, and art, which many pragmatists would abhor has a beneficial goal in reminding humans that there is something that moves our asthetic sense. The asthetic breeds a hope as well, for the perfect and beautiful (I can cry over thinking of it)….It is the call for the “arts” to make the difference in a life, such as been undertaken by our Secretary of State in diplomatic attempts at cross=cultural artistic expression…Now I have spoken out of both sides of my mouth!

  • Ted

    Given how much we almost certainly don’t know about the time and culture of Jesus (and/or the time and culture out of which stories about Jesus arose), I think there’s a lot of merit to trying out different modes of understanding.Moreover, the image of Jesus-as-poet might be useful for some in the construction of religious meaning and the performance of religious identity, and I think such resources are valuable.

  • Chris

    Since the Jesus-as-poet image has fallen somewhat out of favor, most people don’t realize how immensely popular it was with the Romantics and Transcendentalists. Schleiermacher was one who sometimes talked about Jesus as a poet. You’ll also find such references in Coleridge, Matthew and Thomas Arnold, and, perhaps most famously, Emerson. The latter wrote,Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.’ But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! There is no doctrine of the Reason which will bear to be taught by the Understanding. The understanding caught this high chant from the poet’s lips, and said, in the next age, ‘This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man.’ The idioms of his language, and the figures of his rhetoric, have usurped the place of his truth; and churches are not built on his principles, but on his tropes. Christianity became a Mythus, as the poetic teaching of Greece and of Egypt, before.This tradition is carried on today by the likes of Harold Bloom.

  • Tom Verenna

    I think the whole idea of Oral Tradition is rather overrated. Lest we forget, the only evidence of ancient “oral tradition” we have is that which is written down, supposed that what we assume is actually Oral Tradition (and not just a part of the narrative the author invented on the spot or borrowed from models). Additionally, there is the problem of what that Oral Tradition (or meme) would have been like prior to being written down and immediately following. Did the author change, alter or adjust in some form the Oral Tradition, its meaning, or its intent? (For example, did the author satire the tradition, add to it, or change its origin? If so, with what intention?) Did those immediately prior to the author change the tradition? How would you know? The whole idea of Oral Tradition is a little hairy and even in this instance it should be cautioned that very little (if anything) claimed as Oral Tradition is more than speculative. However, I do like your interpretation, James. I do not think it lends any credibility to methods for historicity, but it certainly does add a flavor to exegesis that I had not considered before. Thanks for this.