Archives For Gospels

If you were a Scandinavian living a millennia ago, you would be faced with a critical decision. Would you embrace Jesus Christ and a new life based on mercy, or would you cling to Odin and the Norse pantheon, with its glorification of bloodshed?

When I first heard this choice posed as a choice between the “White Christ” and the blood-drenched Thor, I assumed the white color alluded to traits commonly associated with it today—e.g. purity, innocence, and holiness.*

To my surprise, I recently learned there was a completely different to the Vikings. For them, referring to Christ as “white” was a term of derision.

Before returning to the Northmen, let’s consider for a moment the Inklings. These brilliant writers were well acquainted with white as a biblical metaphor for holiness, etc. They understood how the miracle of the <a rel="noreferrer noopener" href="http://&lt;!– wp:embed {"url":"https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+17%3A1-9\u0026version=ESV","type":"rich","providerNameSlug":"embed","className":""} –> <figure class="wp-block-embed is-type-rich is-provider-embed wp-block-embed-embed"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+17%3A1-9&version=ESV </div></figure> Transfiguration described Jesus’ radiant face shining “like the sun” as the “bright cloud overshadowed them.”

As <a rel="noreferrer noopener" href="http://&lt;!– wp:embed {"url":"https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+17%3A1-9\u0026version=ESV","type":"rich","providerNameSlug":"embed","className":""} –> <figure class="wp-block-embed is-type-rich is-provider-embed wp-block-embed-embed"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+17%3A1-9&version=ESV </div></figure> Mark records in his Gospel, Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.”

It is no accident Tolkien’s Gandalf the Grey returns as Gandalf the White following his deadly battle with the Balrog.

In C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan manifests himself to the children as an unblemished lamb.

But between them and the foot of the sky there was something so white on the green grass that even with their eagles’ eyes they could hardly look at it. They came on and saw that it was a Lamb. “Come and have breakfast,” said the Lamb in its sweet milky voice. . . .

“Please Lamb,” said Lucy, “is this the way to Aslan’s country?”

“Not for you,” said the Lamb. “For you the door into Aslan’s country is from your own world.”

“What!” said Edmund. “Is there a way into Aslan’s country from our world too?”

“There is a way into my country from all the worlds,” said the Lamb; but as he spoke his snowy white flushed into tawny gold and his size changed and he was Aslan himself, towering above them and scattering light from his mane.

On the other hand, C.S. Lewis tosses us a curve with the White Witch in his Chronicles of Narnia. The reason for her identification with white is obvious, since she is holding Narnia in an austere, perpetual winter. The witch’s hue carries other messages. Her unthreatening appearance moves Edmund to drop his defenses during their initial encounter.

[Queen Jadis was] a great lady, taller than any woman that Edmund had ever seen. She also was covered in white fur up to her throat and held a long straight golden wand in her right hand and wore a golden crown on her head. Her face was white—not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her very red mouth. It was a beautiful face in other respects, but proud and cold and stern.

Northern Mythologies

C.S. Lewis was enraptured by Northernness. He and Tolkien spent many hours reading Viking sagas.

However, Lewis was inspired not by the warrior Thor, but the person of Baldur. Several of my online friends and acquaintances have also written about Lewis’ affinity for Baldur. These include Brenton Dickieson, Eleanor Parker, and Bradley Birzer.

Turning from Baldur (Baldr) the Brave to Thor (Þórr), the god of thunder, we find the Norse deity with the largest number of followers. Thor was the ideal divinity for independent adventurers, warriors and violent raiders.

The story of the heroic thunder god still resonates today, as the success of the recent cinematic blockbusters attests. To suit contemporary tastes, the bloody red giant-slayer of myth has shed his more gruesome traits. They have been replaced by nobler aspects, as befitting a modern superhero protecting Midgard (Earth) from danger.

But the medieval period was not the relatively safe world we know. And pleas to turn the other cheek sounded like utter foolishness. The belligerent nature of the Germanic and Scandinavian chieftains of the era, resulted in a modification of the Gospel which was shared by some evangelists. In order to impress a militant population, the pacific nature of Jesus was downplayed. In “Why Trust the White Christ?” we read, “Not until the 1100s did the concept of the suffering Christ take root in Scandinavia; before that Christ was depicted as a triumphant prince—even on the cross!”

Eventually the Gospel would triumph, but one of its first effective renditions for the northern barbarians came in a gospel harmony⁑ entitled the Heliand. A number of references to the Gospel in J.R.R. Tolkien’s academic writings reveals his familiarity with the Old Saxon work, which he also mentioned in his lectures. The Heliand was commissioned by Charlemagne’s grandson Louis the German (806-876) to reach the Franks’ fellow Germanic tribes who remained Pagan. It was written by a Benedictine monk named Notker, who also wrote The Life of Charlemagne.⁂

The fact that this alliterative Gospel (in poetic form) was composed for the Saxon warrior class (their nobility), makes it particularly interesting.  Knowing it was recited not only in monasteries, but also mead halls, makes one’s personal reading of it feel like a journey into the ancient past.

Mariana Scott’s 1966 translation ⁑⁑ is available here. This site posits her translation beside the original Old Saxon. One of my favorite passages comes in the “introduction,” as the context of the Gospel proper is set for the hearers. It is very serious and describes the four Evangelists as inspired by God.

[The Lord] had filled the hearts of the heroes,
     with the Holy Ghost.
Perfectly all,
     with pious opinion,
And wise words many
     and still more of wit.
That they should begin
     the goodly Gospel
With their holy voices,
     raise it on high—

The Question of the White Christ

Referring to Jesus as the “White Christ” may have been related to the association of white baptismal robes worn by the newly baptized. But it involved more than that.

Apparently, the appellation “white,” especially when linked to Christ, was a Pagan insult. In a Scandinavian Studies article entitled “The Contemptuous Sense of the Old Norse Adjective Hvítr, ‘White, Fair’” we learn that it possessed a pejorative sense.

The [Old Icelandic] heathen religion glorified physical strength and courage in combat, a direct antithesis to the Christian ideal of pacifism based upon the Golden Rule. Hence, the heathen Icelanders interpreted the Christian Hvítakristr ‘The White Christ’ as a cowardly, contemptible counterpart of Thor, the god of courage and strength . . .

And this negative connotation continued, even after the triumph of the new faith.

[Even] after Christianity had become established as the national religion in Iceland, this heathen conception of Christian ‘cowardice’ disappeared but left its traces in the epithet hvítr, especially when one wished to belittle or vilify a personal enemy.

. . .

The double sense (‘fair’ : ‘cowardly’)was characteristic of skaldic poetry and served to enhance the sarcastic effect.

And thus my youthful innocence about the meaning of the White Christ has been dispelled. But, at the same time, my insight into the historic prejudice against the sacrificial Son and Lamb of God has grown.

Jesus was no coward, but he is—now and forever—pure, innocent, and holy.


* It should go without being said that associating the color white with Jesus has absolutely nothing to do with ethnicity. The Incarnation of our Lord makes it abundantly clear that Jesus was a Jew born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. The Bible describes nothing noteworthy about his appearance that would distinguish him from the rest of the Jewish people in ancient Palestine. Thus, whatever Jesus’ complexion, he would have looked little like the pale Anglo-Saxon messiah we have often seen in paintings and cinema.

⁑ A Gospel harmony is a blending together of the four canonical Gospels into a single account. Tatian (c. 120-180), an Assyrian theologian, compiled the Diatessaron, which was prominent in the Syrian church, and is thought to have directly influenced the Germanic harmony, the Heliand.

 ⁂ Notker (c. 840-912) who also composed hymns and poetry. As mentioned above, the Benedictine monk also wrote The Life of Charlemagne which records many fascinating stories about Frankish and Germanic Christianity. Apparently a poor precedent was set by Frankish generosity when a group of Northmen serving as envoys received baptism.

As I have mentioned the Northmen I will show by an incident drawn from the reign of your grandfather in what slight estimation they hold faith and baptism. . . .

The nobles of the palace adopted them almost as children, and each received from the emperor’s chamber a white robe and from their sponsors a full Frankish attire, of costly robes and arms and other decorations.

This was often done and from year to year they came in increasing numbers, not for the sake of Christ but for earthly advantage.

A very enlightening and sadly entertaining account. But what happens when the gifts run out?

⁑⁑ In the foreword to her translation, Scott shares some intriguing thoughts on the challenging labor of translation.

It was important for me to remember that the Heliand was originally intended for recitation. This accounts for the very great emphasis on rhythm. While the exact form of the old alliterative verse, though common to both early English and German poetry, proved too confining, a freer adaptation was possible. Let us remember that much of the effect of modern free verse depends on the interplay of sounds: assonance and alliteration.

Keeping in mind the purpose of the original, I read my translation aloud as I worked, repeating lines several times, varying and checking rhythms, trying to imitate the surge of the meter and yet avoid monotony. The end result was a line of variable feet, usually a rather free alternation of anapests and iambics with a few scattered tribrachs and spondees, divided by the traditional caesura.

I aimed for an alliteration of at least one accented syllable in the first half line with one accented syllable in the second half. If more sounded right, I was delighted. If none worked, I tried to make the rhythm carry the line along to the next cadence. Not all of it, I painedly admit, turned out to be poetry—but then not all of the Old Saxon is!

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True or False? The Bible is so simple to understand that studying how to read it is just a waste of time.

Obviously, the answer to that question is a resounding “False.” While some might argue with me, every serious student of the Scriptures knows that probing its depths requires a variety of skills beyond simple faith.

Well, “simple faith” actually is essential for understanding God’s word, but it requires more than simply possessing faith to comprehend its meaning. If that were not true, then everyone being trained in seminaries and colleges to help others explore God’s word are wasting their time.

Exegesis—the focused study of biblical texts—is a core subject for Bible students. It goes deeper than secular “Bible as Literature” courses, and strives to interpret each passage as faithfully as possible. After all, Christians believe these words are inspired.

In 1952 C.S. Lewis wrote a letter in which he noted the value of knowledgeable instructors in understanding the Bible.

It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him.

Bible Study Magazine had an exceptionally good issue several months ago. They provide online access to some of their articles, but sadly, not to the essay I wish to cite. It was written by Karen Jobes, a retired professor of “New Testament and Exegesis” from Wheaton College and Graduate School. She writes:

Different cultures’ writings function in particular ways and settings, and a given literary genre is signaled by textual clues—stock phrases or forms recognizable to anyone familiar with the literature of a given culture.

Jobes begins her article with an example. “Imagine you’re sitting down to read . . . The book in your hands begins, ‘Once upon a time.’” Western readers would know immediately what to anticipate in the pages that follow.

Then she raises a curious question. “Now imagine you’re a student taking a physics course. If your textbook began, ‘Once upon a time,’ you’d no doubt be confused by the phrase and wonder how you should understand it in a scientific context.”

Her article discusses the importance of properly recognizing the genre of what we are reading. This is a concept quite familiar to most readers of Mere Inkling. But what is unfamiliar to many, who have not had opportunity to study biblical exegesis, are the genres and guiding principles employed by Old and New Testament writers.

Reading the Gospels

In two brief pages, Dr. Jobes explains a fundamental principle that we spent weeks discussing in my seminary courses. Knowing the genre of the biblical text is the key to understanding it. Let’s look at the Gospels.

Mark . . . identifies his text as evangelion (“good news,” Mark 1:1), picking up the term Jesus himself used to describe his message (Mark 1:15). The early church came to refer to all four accounts of Jesus’ life using the same term, which survives today in English as “gospel,” a literary genre unique to accounts about Jesus.

The author points out a similarity between the Gospels and “an ancient Greek genre called bioi (“lives”). Rather than provide a day-by-day journal, these “biographies” focus on what is truly important in the perception of the writer.* John offers the prime Christian example of this, in devoting nearly forty percent of his Gospel to the final ten days of Jesus’ life.

C.S. Lewis’ Rules for Exegesis

Hundreds of people sought advice from the Oxford professor. Many asked questions about various Bible passages and religious doctrines. Lewis did his best to point them in the right direction, all the while explaining that he was not a trained theologian.

Within his letters, we find examples of his advice about how to understand the meaning of the Scriptures. “I take it as a first principle that we must not interpret any one part of Scripture so that it contradicts other parts, and specially we must not use an apostle’s teaching to contradict that of Our Lord.” He also wrote:

The two things one must not do are (a) to believe on the strength of Scripture or on any other evidence that God is in any way evil (In Him is no darkness at all) (b) to wipe off the slate any passage which seems to show that He is.

Behind the shocking passage be sure there lurks some great truth which you don’t understand. If one ever does come to understand it, one sees that it is good and just and gracious in ways we never dreamed of. Till then it must just be left on one side.

But why are baffling passages left in at all? Oh, because God speaks not only for us little ones but for the great sages and mystics who experience what we can only read about, and to whom all the words have therefore different (richer) contents.

Would not a revelation which contained nothing that you and I did not understand, be for that very reason rather suspect? To a child it would seem a contradiction to say both that his parents made him and God made him, yet we see how both can be true.

We began with a question, so it’s fitting to end with one.

True or False? Understanding the Bible is so challenging that we should postpone reading it until we become experts at exegesis?

The answer to this question is as obvious as the one with which we began. Don’t delay reading the Scriptures. Immerse yourself in God’s word. But, if you long to know them better, invest some time in learning how to best understand their full meaning.

_____

* In his biographical collection entitled Parallel Lives, the Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch (c. 46 – c. 122) expressly described the bioi genre.

In writing the Lives of Alexander the Great and of Cæsar the conqueror of Pompeius, which are contained in this book, I have before me such an abundance of materials, that I shall make no other preface than to beg the reader, if he finds any of their famous exploits recorded imperfectly, and with large excisions, not to regard this as a fault.

I am writing biography, not history; and often a man’s most brilliant actions prove nothing as to his true character, while some trifling incident, some casual remark or jest, will throw more light upon what manner of man he was than the bloodiest battle, the greatest array of armies, or the most important siege.

Therefore, just as portrait painters pay most attention to those peculiarities of the face and eyes, in which the likeness consists, and care but little for the rest of the figure, so it is my duty to dwell especially upon those actions which reveal the workings of my heroes’ minds, and from these to construct the portraits of their respective lives, leaving their battles and their great deeds to be recorded by others.

The parchment shown above is the earliest copy of the Gospel According to John. Included on the recto (front) are John 18:32-33.