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Musings -- A Continuing Series of Comments on Specific Translation Issues within the International Standard Version New Testament

by Dr. David Alan Black

"So great is the force of established usage that even acknowledged corruptions please the greater part, for they prefer to have their copies pretty rather than accurate."

Jerome

drblack.jpg (5141 bytes)
Dr. David Alan Black
Associate Editor
, ISV NT

On the Reading of Poetry1

Readers of our generation are stubbornly convinced that they prefer prose to poetry. Perhaps that is why the discovery of the joy that verse affords is more exciting than in a poetry-laden period. Christianity has always found poetry to be a vehicle through which its teachings and aspirations are uniquely expressed.2 The imaginative element in poetry heightens spiritual insight deepens emotional responsiveness, and broadens a sympathetic communication of the common affirmations of faith.

Like roses or music, poetry is a deep kind of pleasure. Think of a poem as a compact condensed structure of language, in itself more formal, more patterned, and more complicated than prose. It operates by suggestion and has a deliberate pattern of rhythm not words set to music, but words in music. Like all experiences, reading a poem is a way of living: multiple explosions of the senses, emotions, and understanding take place. Quite unlike the language of prose, poetry has a memorable rightness in the way it fits together. We sip and savor it like a good cup of coffee in the morning. We like the way its phrases fall. We say them over and again, like a kind of magic. Compare two versions of one of the "trustworthy statements" of the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy 3:1):

The one who would an elder be,
     A noble task desires he.

This verse is less poetically and less memorably rendered "If a man desires the office of overseer, he desires a good work." For magical lines we might think of Jesus' words from Matthew 8, verse 20:

Foxes have holes and birds have nests,
     But the Son of Man has no place to rest.

The reader who enters the physical world of the poem will see that the singleness of the concrete imagery, the doubleness of the metaphor, the sound and motion of the 1anguage all make an unforgettable pattern. Even the visual arrangement of the lines can make a difference: they may be straggling or compact in formal designs or in irregular positions that emphasize certain words and relationships. With internal logic, there may be arrangements of lines in some familiar patterns, such as the couplet, a pair of rhyming lines (1 Timothy 1:15):

To this world Christ Jesus came,
     Sinful people to reclaim.

or the quatrain of Matthew 11:17, a four-line stanza:

A wedding song we played for you,
     The dance you did but scorn.
A woeful dirge we chanted, too,
     But then you would not mourn.

Occasionally an entire poem, like a sonnet will be formed in a specific pattern of lines and rhythms. These are outer patterns that can be grasped quickly by the reader; they are the formal signs of the ordered experience inside the poem. The Christ Hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 is a good example of poetry working in this manner. Rendered in prose, Paul's song reads as follows:

Although he existed in the form of God, he did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself; taking the form of a servant being born in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself; becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

And now rendered in poetry in the ISV:

In God's own form existed he,
     And shared with God equality,
          Deemed nothing needed grasping.
Instead, poured out in emptiness,
     A servant's form did he possess,
          A mortal man becoming.
In human form he chose to be,
     And lived in all humility,
          Death on a cross obeying
Now lifted up by God to heaven,
     A name above all others given,
          This matchless name possessing.
And so, when Jesus' name is called,
     The knees of everyone will fall,
          Where'er they are residing.
Then every tongue with one accord,
     Will say that Jesus Christ is Lord,
          While God the Father praising.

The pleasure of this poem is in its sharp, exact imagery, its revealing metaphors, its shapely pattern. Yes, you say, but what of the meaning? Do we have to find the hidden meaning in a poem?

The truth is that there is no hidden meaning. There is, in poetry, only a more involved meaning. It is more involved because, like all experiences, it is made up of many simultaneous events and intricate relationships -- the physical beat of the lines, the sensations of the mind, the emotion and the understanding that come through a particular ordering of events. The poet is not playing kicks to hide meaning. Nor is reading a poem the same as working a puzzle to find a single answer. For this reason, a good poem can be read again and again, with more of the meaning discovered each time. Poems, in short, are like people: distrust those who have no mystery after the first meeting. The only way to find a meaning or have an emotion is to go down inside the poem and let it have its way. Afterwards one will be able to say that a certain poem is about aspirations, or humility, or disillusionment or even the fun of a catchy rhyme. We will recognize several forms of experience.

Poetry, then, does have meaning, but the poetry exists not so much in the meaning as in those intangible elements that sharpen and deepen the meaning, charging it with the force of life itself. Poetry is breath filling the lungs, blood pulsing in the veins. These immaterial or invisible substances are seemingly insignificant in themselves, but withdraw them and, though the body seems the same, it dies. For example, take the lines of Epimenides, quoted by Paul in Titus 1:12:

Liars ever, men of Crete,
     Savage brutes that live to eat.

The meaning is clear and familiar: Paul's opponents in Crete -- false teachers all -- have sunk to the level of beasts, unrestrained in their brutality, always on the prowl for prey. By quoting a Cretan poet Paul ingeniously underlines the authority of his own judgment without exposing himself to the charge of being anti-Cretan. We can compare this with the same statement in prose:

Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, and lazy gluttons.

This does have meaning, but the magical quality, the poetic quality -- that fusion of form and function that sets off a bright explosion or a steady glow illuminating the imagination -- is destroyed in the prose rendering.

Once we have firmly in mind the genuine nature of meaning in poetry, once we realize that all poems have meanings but that not all meanings are poems, we are ready to attempt useful interpretation of poetry. At this point we may become frustrated and annoyed -- frustrated because the interpretation of poetry is difficult and annoyed because our interpretations are open to challenge. We might in desperation even invoke the fallacy so prevalent in our post-modern culture that "all interpretations are equal" and claim an inalienable right to "our opinion."

But though interpreting poetry is far different from solving mathematical problems (with answers in the back of the book), the skill is still a far cry from being just a matter of one's opinion. Final authority for interpretation rests not with majority opinion, nor with the nationally acclaimed "expert," nor with the scholar, but with the text itself. Of course, experience counts for much in this as in any other field; the experienced critic will have an edge on the inexperienced reader. But when we go to the ultimate authority -- the text -- we should expect to find answers, though not simple ones. Words are sometimes ambiguous, frequently rich in connotative meaning; and all this ambiguity is ultimately involved in the meaning. It is, therefore, quite possible, and indeed it frequently happens, that several interpretations, all somewhat different but not mutually exclusive, illuminate different aspects of the poem. We may similarly view a painting or piece of sculpture from a variety of perspectives. But in spite of this seeming multiplicity of meaning, debates over a poem's central direction are rare. We should thus avoid both an extreme rigidity in interpretation of poetry, which allows only a very narrow meaning, and an extreme looseness in interpretation, which allows a poem to mean all things to all readers.

As you read the poetry of the International Standard Version New Testament, you might try looking at the poems in a number of different ways to see how much relevant and valid meaning you can discover. Try writing a summary or precis, by reducing the meaning to the briefest prose statement. Such a process is obviously of limited value, precisely because it captures and preserves only the bare substance of what is said in the poem, its non-poetic part. But the process has its value, not only in sharpening the understanding, but in compelling the imagination to entertain alternatives to the fixed words on the page. For example, read the following poem taken from 2 Timothy 2:11-13:

In dying with Christ, true life we gain.
     Enduring, we with him shall reign.
Who him denies, he will disclaim.
     Our faith may fail, his never wanes—
For thus he is, he cannot change!

A possible summary: It is only as we die with Christ, by identifying with him in his death, endurance, and fidelity, that we can have spiritual life in him. This, of course is merely a summary, like the bruised rind of an orange from which all the delicious juices have been squeezed. A harpsichord has been exchanged for a pennywhistle. The summary simply illustrates the fact that every interpretation of a poem involves in some way the process of analysis, or the careful examination of the whole and the definition of all the parts and their relationship. Analysis is but the thoughtful consideration of a poem. Its first responsibility is to evaluate; its end is to understand. But if readers are to become deeply involved, if they seek a lasting experience with the poem, they must accept the poem's invitation to enter, to step inside and participate in the physical life of the poem -- listening to its music, observing its shifting colors, feelings it shape and form.

In what follows we present the poems published in the International Standard Version New Testament. These selections are, for the most part, acknowledged to be poetry (or at least elevated prose) by the majority of New Testament scholars. The formal patterns followed encompass the generally accepted characteristics of English poetry that distinguish it from prose: compactness, frequent (though not prescribed) employment of meter and rhyme, reliance on the line as a formal unit heightened vocabulary, and freedom of syntax.3 We anticipate that here may be found vessels from which readers shall drink deeply to discover renewed inspiration in familiar lines. Indeed, the abiding joy of poetry is the reader's personal identification with the writer's mind and the realization that the poet has skillfully interpreted his or her needs and aspirations.

The Committee on Translation of the International Standard Version is responsible for the formal shape of the poems given below.4 Each of its members would gladly repeat the poet's prayer for absolution:

For those my unbaptized rhymes,
Writ in my wild unhallowed times,
For every sentence, clause, and word,
That's not inlaid with Thee, my Lord,
Forgive me God, and blot each line
Out of my book, that is not Thine.
But if 'mongst them all, Thou find'st here one
Worthy Thy benediction,
That one of all the rest shall be
The glory of my work, and me.5

We believe that no verse is here that is not the clear expression of its begetter. It has also seemed to us that voice after voice speaks in unison. But our business is at an end when the voices have been assembled. As to whether these poems have a message, and if they have, what message that may be, we leave to the wisdom of the reader.

Poetry Selections from the International Standard Version New Testament

An Ode to Christ (from Philippians 2:6-11)

These verses contain one of the greatest Christologies in the New Testament. The literary form of this beautiful passage has led many to regard it as an early Christian hymn that Paul incorporated into his letter.  But Paul himself was quite capable of highly poetic style and may well have composed these lines himself.6 Whatever their precise origin, they are a masterful statement of Christology and serve well the author's purpose of illustrating humility and self-abnegation.

In God's own form existed he,
     And shared with God equality,
           Deemed nothing needed grasping.
Instead, poured out in emptiness,
     A servant's form did he possess,
          A mortal man becoming.
In human form he chose to be,
     And lived in all humility,
          Death on a cross obeying
Now lifted up by God to heaven,
     A name above all others given,
          This matchless name possessing.
And so, when Jesus' name is called,
     The knees of everyone will fall,
          Where'er they are residing.
Then every tongue with one accord,
    Will say that Jesus Christ is Lord,
          While God the Father praising.

Five "Trustworthy Statements" from 1 Timothy 1:15; 3:1; 4:8; 2 Timothy 2:11-13; and Titus 3:4-7)

The formula "This statement is trustworthy" is found only in the Pastoral Epistles.  It is always attached to a maxim (relating either to doctrine or practice) on which full reliance can be placed.  Undoubtedly these maxims circulated in the early church as short, pithy sayings replete with enduring significance.  All the sayings have a gnomic, rhythmic quality, and the formation of a collection of maxims analogous to the words of the Lord (Acts 20:35) is implied.

To this world Christ Jesus came,
     Sinful people to reclaim.

The one who would an elder be,
     A noble task desires he.

Godliness is very dear,
     A pledge of life, both now and e'er.

In dying with Christ, true life we gain.
     Enduring, we with him shall reign.
Who him denies, he will disclaim.
     Our faith may fail, his never wanes—
For thus he is, he cannot change!

In grace our Savior God appeared,
     His love for mankind to make clear;
'twas not for deeds that we had done,
     But by his steadfast love alone,
He saved us through a second birth,
     Renewed us by the Spirit's work,
And poured him out upon us, too,
     Through Jesus Christ our Savior true;
And so, made right by his own grace,
     Eternal life we now embrace.

The Secret of Our Religion (1 Timothy 3:16)

The secret of true religion is well expressed in this striking poem. The arrangement reflects two stanzas of three lines, which balance each other, contrasting the incarnate Christ with the ascended Christ.

In flesh was he revealed to sight,
     Kept righteous by the Spirit's might,
          Adored by angels singing.
To nations was he manifest,
     Believing souls found peace and rest,
          Our Lord in heaven reigning!

A Poem of Epimenides (Titus 1:12)

Here Paul apparently quotes from Epimenides (6th - 5th century BC), who was held in honor on Crete as a poet, prophet, and religious reformer.  So notorious was the Cretan reputation for falsehood that the Greek word kpetizw ("to Crete-ize") meant "to lie."  Now Paul vouches for the truth of the ancient jibe by joining the witness of an apostle to the oracle of a prophet.  Thus the two witnesses required by Jewish law (1 Timothy 5:19) make their appearance.

Liars ever, men of Crete,
     Savage brutes that live to eat.

Three Sayings of Jesus (Matthew 8:20; 11:19; and 16:2)

These three sayings of Jesus reflect his ability to express himself in memorable statements.

Foxes have holes and birds have nests,
     But the Son of Man has no place to rest.

Absolved from every act of sin,
     Is wisdom by her kith and kin.

Red sky at night, what a delight.
     Red sky in the morning, cloudy and storming.

A Children's Song (Matthew 11:17)

In comparing the people of his generation to petulant children who will play none of the games suggested (in this case weddings and funerals), Jesus makes an astonishing point: the Jewish leaders reject all of God's advances, whether made through the ascetic John or through the life-loving Jesus.

A wedding song we played for you,
     The dance you did not scorn.
A woeful dirge we chanted, too,
     But then you would not mourn.

A Song of Love (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

Paul's description of love is perhaps one of the best known passages in all the Bible. Every one of the moral excellencies that he enumerates is aimed at the special faults exhibited by the Corinthians. The pleasure of these lines comes partly from their own lilt and rhythm, their tune. It also comes from the exactness, the intensity, of what is named: love in all her multi-faceted expressions. Paul convincingly promises the impossible.

Love is very patient,
Love is very kind,
Love is never envious
Or vaunted up with pride.

Nor is she conceited,
And never is she rude,
Never does she think of self,
Or ever get annoyed.

She never is resentful,
Is never glad with sin,
But always glad to side with truth,
When 'er the truth should win.

She bears up under everything,
Believes the best in all,
There is no limit to her hope,
And never will she fall.


1See also the writer's "On Translating New Testament Poetry," in Scribes and Scripture: New Testament Essays in Honor of J. Harold Greenlee, ed. D. A. Black (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1992) 17-27.

2Everywhere it is plain that the authors of the New Testament use hymnic material. In 1 Corinthians 14:26 such compositions are mentioned, and in Ephesians 5:18-19 and Colossians 3:16 the saints are encouraged to sing songs for their mutual edification. Early Christian composers just like the authors of more recent Christian hymns incorporated and amalgamated various biblical texts and themes into new units.

3These characteristics are true, of course, of both verse -- extraordinarily patterned prose -- and poetry. If all poetry is made up of metaphor (as Robert Frost insisted), then a good deal of our poetry is in fact rhyming verse. Happily, a fine distinction between levated prose and poetry need not be insisted on.

4Numerous commentaries and other resources have been consulted with fruitfulness. The most helpful sources of information have been those commentaries in the Anchor Bible and International Critical Commentary Series.

5His Prayer for Absolution, by Robert Herrick, in A Treasury of Poems for Worship and Devotion, ed. C. L. Wallis (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959) 9-10 (adapted slightly).

6See further D. A. Black, "The Authorship of Philippians 2:6-11: Some Literary-Critical Observations," Criswell Theological Review 2 (1998) 269-89.

Introduction Poetry Lettuce? Press on? Good Giving Good Citizens Can Faith Save? On Poets & Liars An Ode to Love The Disciple Teachable? Sloppy Agape Mustering Mystery Alliteration Whom Sweet Whom Conclusion

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