Poetry, New Testament
No one questions the presence of poetry of a high order in the Old Testament. The Study of the Old Testament as the literature of the ancient Hebrews has been critically made, and the attention of even the ordinary reader of the Scriptures called to the beauty and wealth of its poetic passages. The message of the New Testament is so vitally spiritual and concerned with religion that but little attention has been paid to it as literature. Naturally it would be strange if the poetic inspiration which runs like a tide through the prophetic and post-exilic periods of the Old Testament should altogether cease under the clearer spiritual dispensation of the New Testament. The fact is that it does not cease, but that under every fundamental rule for poetic utterance, save that of rhyme, the New Testament is seen to be rich in imaginative vision, in religion touched by emotion, and in poetic expression. The Gospels, the Pauline Epistles, and the Epistle of James, all afford examples of lofty poetic utterance, while the message of Jesus is saturated with words which readily lend themselves to song. In fact it is thought by some that Jesus was no less careful of the form than of the content of His message, and that all the finer types of Hebrew poetry found in the Old Testament can be matched from His sayings, even when tested by the same rules.
In the Gospels that of Luke gives us our best examples of poetry. "No sooner have we passed through the vestibule of his Gospel than we find ourselves within a circle of harmonies" (Burton, in the Expositor's Bible). From the poetic utterances of Mary, Elisabeth, Zacharias, Simeon, and the Angels, the church gains her Magnificat, Beatitude, Benedictus, Nunc Dimittis and Glorias.
The utterances of John the Baptist are filled with a rugged desert vision and an expression which reveals a form of poesy in no wise to be mistaken for prose.
Paul presents many of his ideas in harmonious and beautiful forms. He knew the secular poets of his day, and has immortalized Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus (Ac 17:28). He also quotes from Epimenides and the Athenian dramatist Menander (1Co 15:33). Paul knew the poetry of the Hebrews, and enriches his own message with many quotations from it. He was acquainted with the Christian hymnology of his own times, as is seen in Eph 5:14 and 1Ti 3:16. He offers also original flashes of poetic inspiration and utterance, a good example of which is found in Ro 8:31-37.
Who could doubt the poetic imagery of James? He might almost be called the poet of social justice and of patient waiting under affliction for the will of God to come to men.
When one comes to the words of Jesus he discovers that in a very true sense His speech answers to the requirements for Hebrew poetry. Examples of synonymous, antithetic, synthetic and causal parallelism are the rule rather than the exception in the utterances of Jesus. For the synonymous form see Mt 10:24; for the antithetic see Lu 6:41; for the synthetic and causal forms see Lu 9:23 and Mt 6:7. Not alone are these forms of Hebrew poetry found in the words of Jesus, but also the more involved and sustained poetic utterances (Lu 7:31-32).
No one can question the deep emotional quality, the vivid imagination and spiritual idealism of Jesus. That the form of His speech is adequately set to poetic inspiration and conforms to the laws for Hebrew poetry has not been so freely acknowledged. Independently of theory advanced in Did Jesus Write His Own Gospel? (William Pitt MacVey), every student of the literature of the New Testament must be grateful for the chapter on "The Poems of Jesus."
Spirituality and poetry have a kinship, and the interpretation of any message is aided by the adequate knowledge of its form. When the New Testament has thus been carefully studied as literature, it will be seen, not only that Jesus was a poet, but that the entire New Testament, if not as rich as the Old Testament in poetic passages, is sufficiently poetic to receive treatment as such in religious encyclopedias.
C. E. Schenk