Over on a Better Bibles thread, I was reminiscing about a course I had with Northrop Frye in my student days at the U of Toronto. My mentors at the time included Brian Walsh (thinking like a Christian), H. A. Gleason, Jr. (linguistics), J. S. Holladay, Jr. (Syro-Palestinian archaeology), Al Pietersma (Greek), and E. J. Revell (Hebrew). John Bowen was the InterVarsity staffperson at the time, Terry Donaldson was president of the TSF chapter and I, a lowly undergraduate, its secretary. Craig Hincks, Greg Bloomquist, myself, and a few other ne’er-do-wells published a literary monthly entitled Ash Wednesday (after the poem by T. S. Eliot). Frye was teaching a course that became his book The Great Code. What did Frye teach us?
He taught us to read the Bible through the history of its reception. His favorite prisms through which to read the Bible were, if memory serves, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and whatever Blake wrote, painted, and printed.
Decades later, I have to say that Frye was not wrong. But first, some caveats. I remain convinced that it is essential for someone who wants to read the Bible for all it’s worth to learn the languages and read the Bible in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek until you can just pick the Bible up and read it like the newspaper.
I believe this strongly enough that I would like to institute, as a highlight of future SBL biblioblogger dinners, a 10 minute spec-tacle in which two contestants, when the referee says, “SWORDS!”, will simultaneously brandish a sword-shaped photocopy of 100 chapters taken from Biblia Sacra Hebraica et Graeca of the opponent’s choosing, open it to a spot at random, and require his or her opponent to read, translate, and comment, with reference to the literature, in real time. And vice-versa. A panel of distinguished student bloggers will adjudicate the winner. The model for the contest: the oral exams of the seminary I graduated from, the Waldensian Theological Seminary in Rome. I did this once. I prepared for it for months. It was worth it.
But, already at the U of T, I learned a lot more about how to read the Bible by reading literature, lit criticism, philosophy, and theology (Chaim Potok, Rudy Wiebe, Elie Wiesel; Erich Auerbach, Soren Kierkegaard, Emil Fackenheim, and Jacques Ellul) than I did by reading commentaries by Fachleute and looking up words in BDB and BAG.
I am at the point now where I’m starting to put together my right and left brain as it were. I imagine a synthesis of what I’ve learned from the history of the Bible’s reception in the broadest sense, and the hard, sweaty work of Einzelexegese in the tradition of the historical study of the biblical text.
But I digress. Here is a question for readers.
Frye taught me, in my own words, that you cannot understand the Bible unless you’ve read Ovid, Milton, and Blake first. Who do you think one must read first in order to understand the Bible?