Distributed by Shakespir
Copyright 2017 Richard Hazzlewood
‘The eye is not filled with seeing, neither is the ear filled with hearing.’
- Ecclesiastes 1:8
It is the aim of this work to focus on a few select parts of the Bible, balancing Old and New Testaments: namely the Psalms, the Prophets (with a focus on Isaiah and Daniel), the Gospels and the Pauline epistles. Initially, an overview also considers the Bible briefly as a totality. Future works may include more areas of the Bible for focus, especially the wisdom books.
This work is intended both for Christians and non-Christians, as I firmly believe the sublimities of this great work can be enjoyed by all, whether on a purely literary level or a further spiritual level. A hint for non-Christians approaching the Bible: Ecclesiastes and Job should be top of your reading list. For Christians: I hope I can offer some new insights.
The Bible is almost visceral in its effect; it can startle and astonish; it can instruct us in the most sublime manner of living. Of all the books in the world, the Bible is the most dear to my heart. And this is almost certainly true of the majority of Christians. Yet this cannot rest on its status alone, and indeed it does not – the soaring sublimity of its words in many passages testifies to its great spiritual, intellectual and emotive power. All sacred scriptures of the world have a special appeal; of course, the difference with the Bible is it connects with my own chosen faith. I am so grateful that a work of such precious value exists – it is truly a desert island work. The David Suchet or Stephen Johnston narrations in audiobook form are excellent, as are the Navarre Bible commentaries. I believe God truly speaks to us through His sacred word – and what better way to prepare the ground for meditation? I react more favourably in my spiritual life to books and prayer than I do to church attendance, although the latter is still crucial for me. Also, reading and prayer tend to overlap in my experience.
I have always loved sacred scriptures; indeed, before I became a Christian, I studied in depth the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and the Dhammapada, as well as the KJV Bible from cover to cover. Sublime words suffused each text. Yet at that time, I probably understood the Bible the least – it took time for me to fully appreciate its graces. Back then, I read through the Psalms as a rather foolish tale of persecution; now, I see them as the finest poetry in the world. It is amazing how opinions can change, with the maturation of the intellect and understanding, and the progress of wisdom.
So what exactly produced the difference of opinion? It took a process of many years to acclimatise to the Bible’s wonderful and exalted meaning. At least I understand now when non-Christians tell me they find it uninspiring. But it is genuinely a great work, and its spiritual power is extraordinary. I sometimes like to read the Bible with the Navarre gloss, which provides added context and detail to the text. And the Catena Aurea is an excellent commentary on the Gospels. At other times I enjoy an audio narration of the Bible, as an easy way to absorb the text. The advantage of audio is that it is effortless, and more dramatic, and taps into the oral traditions of ancient cultures (literacy for most of history has been low, so people relied on narration).
The Wisdom Books I appreciated first, and this may be a good starting point for the non-Christian. I also loved the metaphysical Gospel of John, although now Luke happens to be my favourite Gospel, for its wonderful sense of narrative. There are so many high points in the Bible, that it is difficult to explore them all in one book, and indeed that is not my intention. Instead, I would like to focus on certain aspects of the text, and also give a kind of holistic sense of its totality; how it admirably coheres together from so many different authors and times. I would like to explore just what is the crucial underlying ground of the Bible, which is admittedly a tall aim, but one may as well be ambitious in such a project.
The Bible of course contains infinite depths, and we often speak of the fourfold sense (a Medieval system of interpretation). What animates the text is the beautiful Spirit-breathed words, and there are breathtaking highs and lows which really hit one on an emotive level. It speaks to our hearts because it relays the central message of God – of hope and salvation.
It may be worth considering here, before we properly begin – what is the ontological ground of the Bible; its underlying meaning? This is a profound question. For a Christian, it is unquestionably full of God’s wisdom, and has a singular place in spiritual tradition. We will touch on this further in the conclusion, but I would have to say for now that the Bible is principally a salvation narrative. And it touches our inmost souls, as the key for every person, in one way or another, is salvation. We can interpret this in numerous ways. The atheist too seeks his justifications, his life purpose, his achievements and goals, his meaning. For the Christian it is simpler: he seeks a place in the KIngdom of God. And the Bible helps us get there. I have seen the Bible, in a secular publication, described as ‘the original self-help manual’, and this contains much insight. For the Bible is a programme for the soul. Its pages are so much more than a moral lesson, and yet in the curve of salvation history within the scope of the collected books, we see mirrored the challenge and destiny of the individual soul, as well as an entire people: the Jews first, and then expanded out to all humanity. I don’t recommend a chronological reading – it is a guidebook for the soul, and to be used in that manner. So follow your heart in perusing its pages.
The Bible is a fabulously interconnected work and its literary quality, although of secondary concern, is admirably high. Of course as a Christian I believe the Bible to be the Word of God, i.e. scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is so voluminous that it can be difficult to grasp at first, or to see the interconnected whole, without a certain level of experience and expertise with the text. After a single read through in 2003 (as a non-Christian), I was left none the wiser. Yet in recent years I have come to readily see the singular perfection of the text.
One could start at Genesis, and proceed chronologically, but one is likely to become mired in the highly archaic, complex and dry book of Leviticus before one has proceeded very far. In fact, it is best to start with the Gospels, as this is the hub of the Christian message. The Gospels are so beautiful, and the quality is outstanding – the drama, the wisdom, the persons involved, all suffused with a wonderful sense of the sacred. Some of the sayings of Jesus are truly remarkable, nothing short of a spiritual revolution, and the reverberation to this day is incredibly countercultural and against the ways of this world. ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ The message of Jesus is so beautiful that one can read through the Gospels many times and continue to be refreshed, and then perhaps attempt a commentary such as the Catena Aurea.
After the Gospels, the letters are probably the next best place to proceed. For the letters contain so much valuable doctrine, and are genuinely wise. The exhortations and advice are of real practical value, and some of the language, especially of St Paul, is immensely beautiful. He is a great orator and can can reach great inspirational heights. 1 Corinthians is perhaps my favourite letter, and it contains some of the most famous passages of the Bible.
The Psalms are crucial, and for anyone that loves poetry they are even more special. Unfortunately when I read through them as a non-Christian many years ago they failed to inspire, so I am sensitive to the fact that some readers may not fully appreciate their form or content. When I first read through, I remember thinking: ‘the writer is constantly under siege! He talks about nothing but persecution!’ and I found it difficult to appreciate the sentiments expressed. Now that has changed completely – I have long been acclimatised to their wonderful poetry and many of the Psalms now are complete classics to me, of the highest order of poetry.
Job and Ecclesiastes are perhaps the most accessible to a non-religious philosophical mind, and indeed some non-Christians have said these were the only two books that inspired them. Of the deutero-canonical books, Wisdom is in a similar vein to Ecclesiastes, and indeed one of my favourite books of the Bible (certainly in my top three). Certainly the first two are so existential and questioning that they appeal well to a universal readership. They are also very popular with believers, who want to understand suffering or the nature of existence. Wisdom appeals to me so much because it is suffused with a mix of Hebraic and Hellenic wisdom traditions, and the language is so high and elevated. It appeals to me as a literature MA.
The prophetic books of the Old Testament are difficult and heavy going, although Isaiah in particular has some beautiful passages, and Daniel is perhaps the most accessible. Ezekiel is very deep but also hard to read; indeed, the New Testament Book of Revelation is much easier, and based in large part on Ezekiel. Revelation is again in my top three. The quality of the writing is so powerful; indeed, Revelation is probably the most literary book of the Bible, and certainly the most dramatic.
The Pentateuch can be heavy going, although of course Genesis and Exodus are essential. The historical books can have a novel-like quality about them and are very engrossing, although not as favourite a part of the Bible for me personally. Proverbs and Sirach are educationally useful; Song of Songs is a beautiful allegorical poem. I often find it is best to read the Bible as inspiration takes me, and hence I follow the course of what spiritually enthuses me most at that particular time. I think it is important to feel inspired to read, and not try and force one’s way through a text if one is not in the right frame of mind to absorb the message. There are times when the slightly opaque and difficult words of the prophets can inspire us most; at other times, one of Paul’s exhortations in the letters can have a marvellous effect. There is much high quality rhetoric in the Bible; its style is always dignified and it has an effortless grandeur. In terms of original languages and the issue of translation, this is really not a key concern except for the rigorous academic specialist. All the English translations of the Bible are similar, and I happen to love the Douay-Rheims but will also consult a more modern version for clarity. I will also sometimes consult the Vulgate, although my Latin is basic. As for Hebrew and Greek, I content myself with knowing some key vocabulary and the nuances of words and their etymologies. But none of that is strictly necessary. To appreciate the authentic Word of God one can safely use a good English translation; indeed, even the Catholic liturgy is in the vernacular now.
The Bible is the sort of book that contains insight on every page – it inspires and dazzles with its formal beauty, in equal measure. Those who have no taste for its formality and serious tone perhaps miss the point of the text: it speaks to the highest faculty in man, and we are meant to see it as the high and dignified Word of God. This age perhaps obtains its key insights from Shakespeare, but that is a terrible impoverishment. For Shakespeare can only question existence – he is lost in the muddle of existential outbursts, which ironically suits our own times. The Bible, on the other hand, contains such a beautiful message, and one which ‘the culture’ is liable to forget.
Startlingly, I used to see the Psalms as somewhat dull – they contained a lot of complaining, it seemed. Now, I am aware so strongly of the Bible’s sublimity, that my earlier reaction seems insensitive and even stupid. Yet it alerts me to possible negative reactions in others, especially non-Christians. In any case, the book to start with for most non-Christians is Ecclesiastes.
It is my contention that sacred scriptures are the best of all world literature. The Psalms are surely the greatest example of poetry, both because of the high subject matter and sublime imagery. Scholars sometimes declare that Shakespeare’s sonnets are the greatest poetry, but in some way the comparison with the Psalms is unfair. First of all, Shakespeare writing in his native English reaches a perfection of form that cannot be found in a translated work – especially a language as distant as Hebrew. And secondly, the subject matter cannot remotely be compared. To a secular scholar, perhaps romance is a more sublime subject matter than God, but not to a man of spiritual understanding. Yet it is more than simply God that the Psalmist writes about – he addresses human suffering, and the ontological basis of mankind. All existential questions are answered here, for one who cares to listen. The spiritual beauty is self-evident.
‘De Profundis’ is my favourite Psalm: ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice! O let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleading. If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive?’ [Ps 130] The Latin is especially beautiful: ‘Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine, Domine, quis sustinebit?’ The soul’s plea to the all-powerful God appeals to His tender mercy, from a place of near-despair. God is our saviour and our protector – the rhetorical point is that no man is justified on his own merits. This rejects the Pelagian notion of man’s innate virtue. On the contrary, we are all touched by original sin. Theologically, original sin is a sound principle; more poetically, we may see it as man’s universally flawed nature – his lack of perfection, whether Caesar’s ambition, or indeed St Peter’s acknowledged weakness, in his declaration: ‘leave me, Lord, I am a sinful man’. So we are all in need of God’s mercy, and this appeal to Him is deeply poetic and resonates with one’s soul.
The Psalms begin with a traditional demarcation between good and evil paths – this is the foundation stone of morality. It is said that for the good man, ‘he is like a tree that is planted beside the flowing waters’. This imagery is intensely peaceful and tranquil, recalling paradisiacal Eden. Psalm 4 continues the moral theme with an exhortation: ‘O men, how long will your hearts be closed, will you love what is futile and seek what is false.’ It is of course in the nature of man to go astray, to follow the natural man above the spiritual man, as did Adam. It takes the New Adam, Christ, to replace Adam’s sin, but men through that original sin have a crooked nature and seek out the wrong things. This can be wealth, pleasure, power or honour, the false goods. The Psalmist recommends ‘make justice your sacrifice and trust in the Lord’. For it is a just manner of living and faith in God which will ultimately save.
Psalm 6, the first penitential psalm, contains a beautiful refrain: ‘But you, O Lord… how long? Return, Lord, rescue my soul. Save me in your merciful love’. We learn that the Lord is not a condemning force at all but a saving and loving force who has mercy on His creatures. This is a theme repeated many times in the Psalms, such as Psalm 50: ‘Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offence’ and Psalm 85: ‘O Lord, you are good and forgiving, full of love to all who call.’ If we invoke the Lord, we can expect mercy, in His name. This is further amplified by the Gospel message, which we will see later. It is perhaps surprising to see that the Old Testament already fully recognised the compassionate and loving nature of God, which we tend to associate with the New Testament. This is in line with the two types of numinous experience outlined by Rudolf Otto: the mysterious and overwhelming, and the caring and comforting. We associate the Pentateuch with a wrathful God, yet God amply demonstrates His love and mercy countless times throughout the Bible.
Elsewhere, the Psalms indicate man’s intense need for God: ‘my body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water’ [Ps 62]. The idea of thirst and barrenness recall the desert of Exodus and the Israelites’ 40 year trek through the wilderness. Really man’s connection with God, this essential link, is at the forefront of the Psalms. Whenever we read these Spirit-breathed poems we are reminded that it is in fact the natural state to be in communion with God, to pray to Him and be in dialogue with Him, and the modern deviation which closes off the secular masses from God is in fact an abnormal state, a kind of spiritual deafness. The Psalmist makes this clear: ‘The fool has said in his heart, there is no God.’
It is worthwhile thinking about the function of the Psalms. Of course, they have become a vital part of Christian tradition, and I am thinking especially of the Liturgy of the Hours. The Psalms speak to our very souls. No other poetry can really achieve that on the same level – a love sonnet is by contrast only superficial, in a way that worldly love cannot intrude upon the things of the inmost spirit, namely our relation to God. We are frequently given advice, reassurance, and spiritual assistance in reading the Psalms, and they are masterfully crafted. In particular, the gradual Psalms are my favourite short sequence of poetry. They were seen traditionally as ascending a scale of spiritual progression. There is also much to commend the long Psalm 119 that occurs just before this set. The Psalm reminds me in many ways of Sirach; it is full of wise counsel.
Overall the Psalms are an immense gift to instruct and guide, whether prayed or simply read in a meditative manner. They cover a broad range of situations and emotions which serve the reader amply for daily life. They are sublime and poetic, but also of great practical value. Of note as supporting texts are St Bonaventure’s ‘Marian Psalter’ and St Ephraim’s ‘Spiritual Psalter’, both wonderful in the context of the original Psalms.
Of the prophets, Daniel has the best literary qualities and Isaiah is the most spiritually sublime. Ezekiel, meanwhile, is the most enigmatic. And this is without even considering the minor prophets. I will focus briefly on Isaiah and Daniel. But first it is worth considering the nature of prophetic works.
These are conventionally found to be ‘difficult’ texts due to the high use of symbolism and complex imagery. Yet they are also very rewarding. Let us take as a key example Ezekiel Chapter 1. This is the famous image of God and the four creatures in the prophet’s vision. The description is justly famous, yet some of the details seem obscure. What do the four creatures represent, and what is meant by the wheels? Why does each creature have four faces, that of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle (becoming later the symbols of the evangelists)? One can pick out details by consulting a commentary such as Navarre, but really the point of prophetic writing is not to try to over-interpret every minor detail. The symbols exist in all their brilliant opacity and often resist any straightforward explanation; the aim is more to establish beautiful and highly sublime images, with the purpose of showing forth the glory of God. The descriptions may well be symbolic but over-analysis in prophetic works doesn’t help.
In many ways Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2 is a lot simpler. A giant statue, of gold, silver, bronze, iron and clay. We are told that these things represent successive kingdoms, which will be destroyed. Yet the beauty of the passage is in the gravitas of the words and the vibrant descriptions. Daniel’s utter command of prophecy is remarkable and impresses upon the reader the glory and power of God, such that when Daniel says ‘The God of Heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory’ to the Babylonian King, we should fearfully consider that all possessions and attributes are gratuitous gifts that can easily be taken away, as only God has the ultimate authority. And really kings and all men of power have nothing else but borrowed titles.
Daniel’s literary qualities are evident, and it is a very profound work whilst being easier than the other Major Prophets. I recommend it as an introduction for those wishing for a suitable entry point into prophetic literature.
I love the way that Isaiah so neatly frames the Christian story. At times, it seems that God is directly addressing the reader. This is powerful and inspiring. Isaiah of course contains many prophecies of Christ, but it is also open to a strong anagogical interpretation, seeming to point to the New Jerusalem symbolically. Reading Isaiah also, I am struck by the Lord’s mercy: we have only to follow His commandments. And the yoke is certainly light.
Isaiah’s imagery is some of the most beautiful of the Bible, and although quite complex, it should be a high priority read for the Christian. It prefigures the New Testament and the Incarnation wonderfully, and is recommended on this basis alone, quite aside from the poetic and inspired language.
The Gospels are the most precious discourse imaginable, and perhaps due to cultural over-familiarity they lose some of their immense power. Yet really it is a shocking thing, that the Son of God is given a shameful and torturous execution alongside criminals. The power of the Cross is deeply revolutionary – it turns the world upside down. And of course the message of Christianity is about inverting worldly values, or rather returning them to God. Jesus’ message, of poverty, compassion, forgiveness and mercy, is incredibly powerful. The Gospel writers go about their message in different ways, from the literary Luke to the metaphysical John. Tradition has it that St Paul related the history to Luke the physician, and St Peter related his more terse compact history to Mark. In any case, the Gospels are likely to be overlooked by scholars of literature, as are the Psalms or any other part of Scripture. But their power is so all-encompassing and undeniable.
For the Christian, reading the Gospel is a spiritual exercise – it is also the main reading at Mass. They are undoubtedly the most important books of the Bible, and happily, among the most sublime. I previously stated that the Prologue of St John was the pinnacle of world literature, and it certainly seems that way to me. For contrast briefly that other possible contender: ‘To be, or not to be – that is the question: / Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them’. We know from the Psalms that suffering is a constant of life, yet Hamlet is questioning the very validity of being. That is entirely alien to the spiritual mindset, which trusts in God and the goodness of His creation. It seems anti-spiritual, even Gnostic, to doubt the goodness of creation. Hamlet has no faith, or his faith is an inconsequential thing. Again he asks ‘What is this quintessence of dust?’ He distrusts or disavows the spiritual nobility of man. And this is altogether counter to the Gospel. Jesus says ‘every hair on your head is numbered’ and ‘fear not: you are worth more than many sparrows’.
The ontological importance of man is never in doubt – yet by the sixteenth century, with the upheavals of the Reformation, men indeed began to doubt. Accept, if you will, my compact history: the Black Death a few centuries earlier arguably overturned Realism, as men began to doubt the Divine goodness; then Descartes formalised this trend in philosophy, with his revival of radical scepticism.
In any case, the Gospel of Luke is the most complete, and the first chapter contains many of the set prayers for the Divine Office: the Benedictus, the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis (the Divine Office itself is a great pleasure to recite – my favourite is Sunday Compline, ‘the protection of the Most High’. This is such a reassuring prayer, and one of the most beautiful). Luke undoubtedly has narrative brilliance.
Mark is powerful for its concision, and can be both reassuring and spiritually alarming. It is crucial that we hear early on, that Jesus came not for the righteous, but for sinners. For in this is all our hope. It is so wonderful that a faith reaches out to the most spiritually marginalised of society, and gives them hope. This is part of the power of the gospel. The doctor is sent to heal the sick – and indeed this must be the story of Jesus. For we are all sinners, and the closer we are to perfection, the more aware we are of the stains on our soul. Conversely the man bent on sin and fully immersed in an unthinking sinful life is crucially unaware of this state, seeing himself as without culpability. But he is more in need of healing than anyone else.
Merton says that the poor are first to find Him; indeed the gospel has some harsh words for wealth. Wealth is associated with avarice and corruption, as well as with worldly preoccupations and pleasures. It is seen as a key barrier to holiness. Yet in one of Paul’s letters we read ‘love of money is the root of all evil’, rather than the ownership of wealth itself – the only problem being that those with riches are frequently caught in the net of avarice. But the gospel offers hope for all sections of society.
Matthew is altogether an excellent gospel with some additional details. Crucially, it contains the Sermon on the Mount, which is one of the most important sections of the entire Bible. Matthew bears obvious similarities with Luke, but I would say that Luke is more literary, and Matthew is more doctrinal.
The Bible always offers to me an astounding sublimity – now that I am receptive to it. On my initial read through, as an agnostic, it had little effect on me. The Gospels are now so beautiful however, that it takes many secondary works to explore their infinite riches, such as the Catena Aurea, or Guardini’s ‘The Lord’. Maybe once one hears Bach’s ‘Erbarme dich’ one truly begins to appreciate Peter’s denial on a new level. But the Gospels contain their own internal music – they are such brilliant works. I realise as I am reading, that these are the most precious words I can study; I fully believe that it is inspired by God in a unique way.
The Gospels are so startlingly beautiful – cultural over-familiarity cannot dull them. There are simply so many profundities – secular literature cannot possibly compete. And when I read of all the cultural theories of postmodernism and deconstruction, with their relativisation of values, I cannot help thinking ‘what poverty! Scraps of stale bread before the feast of spirituality!’ Sometimes, I consider that people don’t want profound wisdom in their life. They are quite happy to go along in a mediocre fashion and experience whatever happens to come along, what chances to reveal itself on the existential plane. Yet, I would not want to live in that manner. And the Bible gives me hope of a more profound existence in this life, as well as the beauty and joy of the eternal.
When we consider the Gospel message, we must reflect on the social values. So, care for the poor and vulnerable, rejection of riches, obedience to God, sacrifice of popularity (Jesus rejects the crowds and goes to the mountain to pray in solitude), fight against corruption, standing up for eternal values of justice and compassion. The social message of the Gospel is very important, but so too is the message to each person as an individual. Now, arguably ‘individuality’ wasn’t strictly a property of the ancient world – people were defined more by kinship ties and their broader heritage – but we can still speak of the relationship between each person as a unit and God, or the interior life. Jesus advises us to go into our room alone and pray. The spiritual message of the Gospel balances communitarian and personal aspects. As Imago Dei we are each self-contained, but even God in His inmost essence partakes of relationship (in the Trinity). The soul’s relation to God should never be in doubt. Bible history is replete with individual callings, not in an atomised sense, but in the sense of the strong bond between the separate person and God, almost as the model for the primary relationship. God first, then neighbour; God more than ourselves, and neighbour as much as ourselves.
Jesus’ message always points above society and social structure, and certainly above any infantile political utopia, toward eternal spiritual truths. We do not live for ourselves, and happiness can be found in worldly adversity, if we remain true to God. But Jesus’ message was also highly radical, jolting, even jarring. His overtly shocking sacramental symbolism in the Gospel of John leads followers to desert him. He overturns the decency of moral and legal tradition, in favour of establishing a new covenant. This is all deeply upsetting to the religious leaders of his time. ‘It is expedient that one man should die for the people’ sounds like any modern-day rational political calculation, as indoctrinated as we are with theories such as utilitarianism, and yet Caiphas’ measured political calculus is exposed for all its rudderless, anti-spiritual, and immoral force. Rational politics can’t compete with the Kingdom of God – this is of another ontological sphere altogether. Decent political norms are utterly exposed when put up against the values of Jesus. King David, perhaps the high water mark of earthly jurisprudence, was nevertheless beset by terrible moral failings. Jesus, descendent of the Royal line of David, interprets his kingdom in the only way that possesses eternal value: that of the spiritual. The tension between the worldly and heavenly powers is high throughout the Bible, and never more so than in the ministry, and unjust execution of Jesus. We are meant to feel that the worldly system simply cannot deal with the disturbing and unsettling influx of Divine light demonstrated by Jesus’ life and brief earthly vocation – his three years’ ministry and his eventual passion.
The incarnation is filled with the most sublime mystery, suggested very nobly in Bach’s ‘Incarnatus’ from the Mass in B Minor, but of course most tellingly and highly set forth in the words of Scripture itself, in the Prologue to the Gospel of John. Metaphysics today is almost rendered obsolete by the overpowering clamour for scientism; that is, the reduction of reality to what is empirically verifiable. Yet great ontological depths of thought are often considered in the Bible, in a way that is completely passed over in the ‘streamlined’ brains of many a modern man or woman. Medieval man put the Bible equal with nature, in the metaphor of the two ‘books’, which far from showing an insular incuriosity to the things of the natural world, instead reveals a marvellous recognition of the sublime quality of Scripture. And Christians are not the only ones – Muslims make the Qur’an co-eternal with God. Sacred scripture is powerful; yet in the present day the humanities are collapsing into a meaningless epistemological void, precisely due to unseating of long held verities.
The crucifixion merits some deep reflection. Here we can call to mind the words of liturgy: ‘Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis’ (‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us’). Christ has become the slain paschal lamb, the blood sacrifice for the propitiation of the sins of the world. The New Adam has redeemed at last the fault of the original Adam, and the legacy of Original Sin. It is incredibly powerful. Christ’s sacrificial death has cosmic resonance, as the full connection to God is restored. This sublime symbolism only becomes fully apparent with the totality of the New Testament, incorporating the letters and Revelation.
What are we to make of the Passion? Man’s inhumanity to man is bad enough, but man’s inhumanity to God, the Lord of the vineyard, is altogether beyond reasonable bounds. The sorrowful mysteries succinctly set forth the key episodes: so we have the agony in the garden, the scourging at the pillar and the crown of thorns. Each of these should be considered. In Christ’s mental anguish we see some of the psychological torture of a man who should be above all human concern, but is deeply enmeshed in his incarnated self with the affairs and sufferings of man. ‘If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me’. From the depths of his sorrow Jesus recoils from the suffering of his passion, as any person would, and yet he never stumbles from the Father’s will. This sheds a light on the very human dimension of his Passion. The suffering is both real and actual, and symbolic – the sacrifice for sin. No less than God Himself must be put to death in His incarnated self, the eternal Word which mysteriously and sublimely took on flesh to suffer and endure like any other human being.
The scourging at the pillar shows forth the cruelty of Christ’s oppressors, albeit not in the same twisted fashion as the crowning with thorns. Matthew’s Gospel states simply ‘he [Pilate] had Jesus flogged’, but in any case it is a suitable Biblical meditation. The mocking actions of the soldiers is gone into in great detail, in here we see the twisted evil which is the universal result of Original Sin. The crown of thorns has great symbolic value. For it is the antithesis of worldly power, and Christ’s absolute spiritual poverty is shown starkly. The crown has obvious associations with power, and also conquest as the Romans were crowned with laurel wreaths as a symbol of martial victory. Apollo too was depicted with a laurel wreath. All these symbolic associations are woven together, and we are shown the necessity of the ascetic life, and the rejection of worldly trappings, by the fact that Christ is crowned with the thorns. Beyond this, it shows, like the stigmata of St Francis, that the mark of worldly suffering is somehow intimately connected to spiritual struggle and triumph. The crown of thorns is therefore Christ’s laurel wreath, his spiritual victory at the point of tremendous suffering, physical pain, and humiliation, which really leaves the pagans in the dust as pale worldly imitators.
The carrying of the cross is also laden with symbolism. Man’s burden on his path of life towards death is starkly illustrated with vivid detail. The stumbling and falling down show the limits of Jesus’ physical strength, and more deeply, symbolise the various ‘falls’ or ‘mini deaths’ a person undergoes in their life, through all their time on earth. Finally, the crucifixion itself is highly symbolic. ‘Cursed is he who is hanged upon a tree’ as we are told in Deuteronomy. Christ undergoes not only a physically excruciating death, and a psychologically low, humiliating and debased demise, but he is even accursed according to the old law. Truly sorrow is heaped on sorrow. And then he is taunted by the elders, meant to be men of understanding, learning, and wisdom, but once more highlighting the depths of Original Sin for which Christ died.
His final acclamation, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, is one of highest despair – although fruitfully here we can see the utter contrast between the faithless despair of Judas and that of Christ who is more on the model of Job’s patience. And it is an extraordinary outcry that the Eternal Word and part of the Godhead should utter, given that Father and Son are co-equal. It shows paradoxically an absolute trust in the Father because he questions Him rhetorically, as a response to his immense human suffering, and yet the address is also an affirmation of his eternal spiritual relationship. It is apt that they should be his dying words, and yet curiously disturbing, dramatic and jarring, because it looks for a brief moment like God has been sundered from God – although of course this is only illusion. It highlights both the extent of Christ’s suffering and his immense faith in that his final words can only be to the Father, not to reproach (which would be a misinterpretation) but to illustrate, in the possessive pronoun, that his bond and tie to the Father is unbroken. It is certainly paradoxical, and begins to break the logical seams of theology – but of course this all adds to the incredible sublime impact and dramatic tension.
The resurrection is greeted with fear and amazement, as are many of the supernatural works of God, but Christ’s final statement in the Gospel of Matthew bears reflection: ‘surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’. Thus the saving presence of Jesus Christ is assured for every Christian; he abides in the heart of the believer and can be consulted during prayer, and called upon during adversity. And truly this is no fantastical situation but the real Divine promise of our Saviour, and it is for men of discernment to determine the truth of the matter. For faith is a gift and it is for people to decide whether they wish to live atheistically or spiritually.
I imagine I could study the letters of Paul ad infinitum. I am admittedly a beginner in the letters. But I hope to study many secondary works. What is remarkable is that something so particular, to several small communities in the first century, could have such a powerful and universal value – it is surely testament to the man’s genius and inspiration.
Paul’s words are so instructive, and I love to read through them carefully, absorbing his admonitions and advice as though it were a personal conversation. Paul quotes scripture frequently, showing an admirable knowledge of Jewish tradition consistent with both his background and aptitude. When we consider the breadth of new doctrine in Paul’s letters, we can more properly understand the saying: ‘who was the founder of Christianity, Christ or Paul?’ But of course that is a false dichotomy. As Paul himself declares in my favourite letter, First Corinthians, ‘By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder’ but at the same time ‘no-one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ’. Paul lays a key foundation, but this is only to repeat the message and follow the spirit of Christ.
One of the greatest and most valuable lines of the New Testament, in my opinion, is ‘For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God’. The cross was a scandal to the Greeks, so used to sophisticated philosophical knowledge; they were meant to believe that the saviour of humanity was executed like a common criminal, and of humble means and obscure origins in an unimportant province? It must have seemed like foolishness to the wise, until Christianity was properly established in the Western psyche, that is. But that line goes deeper: man fancies himself as so intelligent and resourceful, yet really all man’s petty striving is nothing compared to the majesty of God. Man is a creature, nothing more, and he has a Creator, who is infinitely greater than him. All this is encapsulated in the line. Sophisticated urbane culture, and grand achievements, melt before the true glory of God, who often confounds the wise and strong with weak or humble instruments.
Paul’s sense of rhetoric is excellent: we see in Galatians chapter 2 for example, the climax of his disagreement with Peter: a rhetorical flourish of his conviction and reasoning that he builds in his epistle. ‘For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me’. The words are absolutely electric and convey Paul’s deep sublime conviction in his own state of grace, and his profound sense of mission. If you do not share my enthusiasm, do not be concerned: find your own areas of the Bible where you are ‘picked up’ and inspired. There is truly something for everyone in this collection of infinite depth. And for the believer, the sublimities just keep on coming, seemingly page after page (let’s forget the long and painstaking description of the ark of the covenant in Exodus!) But Paul provides many excellent flourishes for those who appreciate fine writing.
Paul has justly been called one of the greatest Christian thinkers, alongside Augustine and Aquinas. But the letters also contain such a remarkable rhetorical flourish which make them a pleasure to read, as well as providing crucial foundational insight into Christian doctrine. The doctrinal maze that is Romans is densely packed with fine argument; indeed it became the Biblical basis of the Protestant schism. Romans has much of value to say on sin and salvation, and it amply repays a close and attentive reading.
In this short work I have tried to give a basic idea of the Bible, and explore some key points. It is unsurpassed because it is the Word of God – but it stands on its own literary merits for the interested non-Christian, who will still be able to reap many rewards from a study of the text. And of course it is of supreme value for the Christian, and also an experience of great beauty, even at times epiphany, as God speaks to us through the pages of Scripture. How secular literature is a pale imitation!
Now the Church is heavily indebted to Greek philosophy, and I totally reject Sola Scriptura – Tradition has provided a beautiful parallel source of teaching and insight. But the Bible remains a great source of spiritual teaching for Christians – and to study its pages is itself an act of homage to God. May we be granted the capacity to understand the depth and significance of its manifold meaning! And of course, to grow in wisdom.