Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thanks to Cyrus

In a recent exchange of comments about a critical discussion of God’s Word in Human Words, the author, Kenton Sparks, wrote:
Central to my epistemology is that human beings only need—and can only have—adequate understandings of the real world and never God-like, error-free perceptions. In all that we see and all that we talk about, there is both true understanding and falsehood, the latter a product of our fallen and finite interpretive horizons. That adequate level of knowledge and discourse is what the Bible offers and is in fact all that we can bear. ....
I have no competence to intelligently respond to a debate about inerrancy, and so I won't. But the quotation itself seemed to me, as an erstwhile student and teacher of history, to accord with how I approach the events recorded in Scripture. Likelihood and probability, depending on the available historical evidence, are the bases on which judgments about the past are inevitably made. It has seemed to me for a long time that Scripture provided me with an "adequate level of knowledge" to accept the central events of the Christian faith. Several writers helped me come to that conclusion and one of the best was Dorothy L. Sayers.

In 1946 a collection of Dorothy L. Sayers' essays was published called Unpopular Opinions. The volume included "A Vote of Thanks to Cyrus" in which it is argued that if we apply the same standards to Biblical criticism that we might apply elsewhere, then Scripture provides adequate historical knowledge. Sayers:
I OWE A CERTAIN DEBT TO Cyrus the Persian. I made his acquaintance fairly early, for he lived between the pages of a children's magazine, in a series entitled Tales from Herodotus, or something of that kind. There was a picture of him being brought up by the herdsman of King Astyages, dressed in a short tunic very like the garment worn by the young Theseus or Perseus in the illustrations to Kingsley's Heroes. He belonged quite definitely to "classical times"; did he not overcome Croesus, that rich king of whom Solon had said, "Call no man happy until he is dead"? The story was half fairy tale—"his mother dreamed," "the oracle spoke"—but half history too: he commanded his soldiers to divert the course of the Euphrates, so that they might march into Babylon along the river-bed; that sounded like practical warfare. Cyrus was pigeon-holed in my mind with the Greeks and Romans.

So for a long time he remained. And then, one day, I realised with a shock as of sacrilege, that on that famous expedition he had marched clean out of Herodotus and slap into the Bible. Mene, mene, tekel upharsin—the palace wall had blazed with the exploits of Cyrus, and Belshazzar's feast had broken up in disorder under the stern and warning eye of the prophet Daniel.

But Daniel and Belshazzar did not live in "the classics" at all. They lived in Church, with Adam and Abraham and Elijah, and were dressed like Bible characters, especially Daniel. And here was God—not Zeus or Apollo or any of the Olympian crowd, but the fierce and dishevelled old gentleman from Mount Sinai—bursting into Greek history in a most uncharacteristic way, and taking an interest in events and people that seemed altogether outside His province. It was disconcerting.

And there was Esther. She lived in a book called Stories from the Old Testament, and had done very well for God's Chosen People by her diplomatic approach to King Ahasuerus. A good Old Testament-sounding name, Ahasuerus, reminding one of Ahab and Ahaz and Ahaziah. I cannot remember in what out-of-the-way primer of general knowledge I came across the astonishing equation, thrown out casually in a passing phrase, "Ahasuerus (or Xerxes)." Xerxes!—but one knew all about Xerxes. He was not just "classics," but real history; it was against Xerxes that the Greeks had made their desperate and heroic stand at Thermopylae. There was none of the fairy-tale atmosphere of Cyrus about him—no dreams, no oracles, no faithful herdsman—only the noise and dust of armies tramping through the hard outlines and clear colours of a Grecian landscape, where the sun always shone so much more vividly than it did in the Bible.

I think it was chiefly Cyrus and Ahasuerus who prodded me into the belated conviction that history was all of a piece, and that the Bible was part of it. One might have expected Jesus to provide the link between two worlds—the Caesars were classical history all right. But Jesus was a special case. One used a particular tone of voice in speaking of Him, and He dressed neither like Bible nor like classics—He dressed like Jesus, in a fashion closely imitated (down to the halo) by His disciples. If He belonged anywhere, it was to Rome, in spite of strenuous prophetic efforts to identify Him with the story of the Bible Jews. Indeed, the Jews themselves had undergone a mysterious change in the blank pages between the Testaments: in the Old, they were "good" people; in the New, they were "bad" people—it seemed doubtful whether they really were the same people. Nevertheless, Old or New, all these people lived in Church and were "Bible characters"—they were not real in the sense that King Alfred was a real person; still less could their conduct be judged by standards that applied to one's own contemporaries.

Most children, I suppose, begin by keeping different bits of history in watertight compartments, of which "Bible" is the tightest and most impenetrable. But some people seem never to grow out of this habit—possibly because of never having really met Cyrus and Ahasuerus (or Xerxes). Bible critics in particular appear to be persons of very leisurely mental growth. Take, for example, the notorious dispute about the Gospel according to St. John.

Into the details of that dispute I do not propose to go. I only want to point out that the arguments used are such as no critic would ever dream of applying to a modern book of memoirs written by one real person about another. The defects imputed to St. John would be virtues in Mr. Jones, and the value and authenticity of Mr. Jones's contribution to literature would be proved by the same arguments that are used to undermine the authenticity of St. John.

Suppose, for example, Mr. Bernard Shaw were now to publish a volume of reminiscences about Mr. William Archer: would anybody object that the account must be received with suspicion because most of Archer's other contemporaries were dead, or because the style of G.B.S. was very unlike that of a Times obituary notice, or because the book contained a great many intimate conversations not recorded in previous memoirs, and left out a number of facts that could easily be ascertained by reference to the Dictionary of National Biography? Or if Mr. Shaw (being a less vigorous octogenarian than he happily is) had dictated part of his material to a respectable clergyman, who had himself added a special note to say that Shaw was the real author and that readers might rely on the accuracy of the memoirs since, after all, Shaw was a close friend of Archer's and ought to know—should we feel that these two worthy men were thereby revealed as self-confessed liars, and dismiss their joint work as a valueless fabrication? Probably not; but then Mr. Shaw is a real person, and lives, not in the Bible, but in Westminster. The time has not come to doubt him. He is already a legend, but not yet a myth; two thousand years hence, perhaps—

Let us pretend for a moment that Jesus is a "real" person who died within living memory, and that John is a "real" author, producing a "real" book; what sort of announcement shall we look for in the literary page of an ordinary newspaper? Let us put together a brief review, altering some of the names a little, to prevent that "Bible" feeling.
Memoirs of Jesus Christ.
By JOHN BAR-ZEBEDEE;
edited by the Rev. John Elder, Vicar of St. Faith's, Ephesus. (Kirk. 7s. 6d.)

The general public has had to wait a long time for these intimate personal impressions of a great preacher, though the substance of them has for many years been familiarly known in Church circles. The friends of Mr. Bar-Zebedee have frequently urged the octogenarian divine to commit his early memories to paper; this he has now done, with the assistance and under the careful editorship of the Vicar of St. Faith's. The book fulfils a long-felt want.

Very little has actually been put in print about the striking personality who exercised so great an influence upon the last generation. The little anonymous collections of "Sayings" by "Q" is now, of course, out of print and unobtainable. This is the less regrettable in that the greater part of it has been embodied in Mr. J. Marks's brief obituary study and in the subsequent biographies of Mr. Matthews and Mr. Lucas (who, unhappily, was unable to complete his companion volume of the Acts of the Apostles). But hitherto, all these reports have been compiled at second hand. Now for the first time comes the testimony of a close friend of Jesus, and, as we should expect, it offers a wealth of fresh material.

With great good judgment, Mr. Bar-Zebedee has refrained from going over old ground, except for the purpose of tidying up the chronology which, in previous accounts, was conspicuously lacking. Thus, he makes it plain that Jesus paid at least two visits to Jerusalem during the three years of His ministry—a circumstance which clears up a number of confusing points in the narrative of His arrest; and the two examinations in the ecclesiastical courts are at last clearly distinguished. Many new episodes are related; in particular, it has now become possible to reveal the facts about the mysterious affair at Bethany, hitherto discreetly veiled out of consideration for the surviving members of the Lazarus family, whom rumour had subjected to much vulgar curiosity and political embarrassment. But the most interesting and important portions of the book are those devoted to Christ's lectures in the Temple and the theological and philosophical instructions given privately to His followers. These, naturally, differ considerably in matter and manner from the open-air "talks" delivered before a mixed audience, and shed a flood of new light, both on the massive intellectual equipment of the preacher and on the truly astonishing nature of His claim to authority. Mr. Bar-Zebedee interprets and comments upon these remarkable discourses with considerable learning, and with the intimate understanding of one familiar with his Master's habits of thought.

Finally, the author of these memoirs reveals himself as that delightful rara avis, a "born writer." He commands a fine economy and precision in the use of dialogue; his character-sketches (as in the delicate comedy of the blind beggar at the Pool of Siloam) are little masterpieces of quiet humour, while his descriptions of the Meal in the Upper Room, the visit of Simon Bar Jonah and himself to the Sepulchre, and the last uncanny encounter by the Lake of Tiberias are distinguished by an atmospheric quality which places this account of the Nazarene in a category apart.
How reasonable it all sounds, in the journalese jargon to which we have grown accustomed! And how much more readily we may accept discrepancies and additions when once we have rid ourselves of that notion "the earlier, the purer," which, however plausible in the case of folk-lore, is entirely irrelevant when it comes to "real" biography. Indeed, the first "Life" of any celebrity is nowadays accepted as an interim document. For considered appreciation we must wait until many contemporaries have gone to where rumour cannot distress them, until grief and passion have died down, until emotion can be remembered in tranquillity.

It is rather unfortunate that the "Higher Criticism" was first undertaken at a time when all textual criticism tended to be destructive—when the body of Homer was being torn into fragments, the Arthurian romance reduced to its Celtic elements, and the "authority" of manuscripts established by a mechanical system of verbal agreements. The great secular scholars have already recanted and adopted the slogan of the great archaeologist Didron: "Preserve all you can; restore seldom; never reconstruct." When it came to the Bible, the spirit of destruction was the more gleefully iconoclastic because of the conservative extravagances of the "verbal inspiration" theory. But the root of the trouble is to be found, I suspect (as usual), in the collapse of dogma. Christ, even for Christians, is not quite "really" real—not altogether human—and the taint of unreality has spread to His disciples and friends and to His biographers: they are not "real" writers, but just "Bible" writers. John and Matthew and Luke and Mark, some or all of them, disagree about the occasion on which a parable was told or an epigram uttered. One or all must be a liar or untrustworthy, because Christ (not being quite real) must have made every remark once and once only. He could not, of course, like a real teacher, have used the same illustration twice, or found it necessary to hammer the same point home twenty times over, as one does when addressing audiences of real people and not of "Bible characters."

Nor (one is led to imagine) did Christ ever use any ordinary behaviour that is not expressly recorded of Him. "We are twice told that He wept, but never that He smiled"—the inference being that He never did smile. Similarly, no doubt, we may infer that He never said "Please" or "Thank you." But perhaps these common courtesies were left unrecorded precisely because they were common, whereas the tears were (so to speak) "news." True, we have lately got into the habit of headlining common courtesies: the newspaper that published the review of St. John's memoirs would probably have announced on a previous occasion:
PROPHET'S SMILE
The Prophet of Nazareth smiled graciously yesterday morning on inviting Himself to lunch with little Mr. Zacchaeus, a tax-collector, who had climbed into a sycamore to watch Him pass.
St. Luke, with a better sense of style, merely records that He looked up and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for to-day I must abide in thy house. And he made haste and came down and received Him joyfully.

Politeness would suggest that one does not commandeer other people's hospitality with a morose scowl, and that if one is "received joyfully" it is usually because one has behaved pleasantly. But these considerations would, of course, apply only to "real" people.

"Altogether man, with a rational mind and human body—" It is just as well that from time to time Cyrus should march out of Herodotus into the Bible, for the synthesis of history and the confutation of heresy.
God’s Word in Human Words
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