Chapter 5: Relation of the Christian Books to Contemporary Thought and Literature
Symbolism does not take up so large a space in the Seven Letters as it does in the rest of the Apocalypse. In the letters the writer was brought more directly in contact with real life and human conduct; and the practical character of Christian teaching had a stronger hold on him when he felt himself, even in literature, face to face with a real congregation of human beings, and pictured to himself in imagination their history and their needs, their faults and excellencies. Yet even in the letters symbolism plays some part; ideas and objects are sometimes named, not in their immediate sense, but as representatives or signs of something else. Not merely is the general setting, the Seven Stars, the Lamps (candle-sticks in the Authorised and the Revised Versions), etc., symbolical: even in the letters there are many expression whose real meaning is not what lies on the surface. The "crown of life," indeed, may be treated as a mere figure of speech; but the "ten days" of suffering through which Smyrna must pass can hardly be regarded as anything more than "a time which comes to an end." Even the metaphors and other figures are not purely literary: they have had a history, and have acquired a recognised and conventional meaning. The "door," which is mentioned in 3:7, would hardly be intelligible without regard to current Christian usage.
Two points of view must be distinguished in this case. In the first place a regular, generally accepted conventional symbolism was growing up among the Christians, in which Babylon meant Rome, a door meant an opening for missionary work, and so on: this subject has not yet been properly investigated in a scientific way, apart from prejudices and prepossessions.
In the second place, the letters were written to be understood by the Asian congregations, which mainly consisted of converted pagans. The ideas expressed in the letters had to be put in a form which the readers would understand; to suit their understanding the figures and comparisons must be drawn from sources and objects familiar to them; the words must be used in the sense in which they were commonly employed in the cities addressed; illustrations, which were needed to bring home to the readers difficult ideas, must be drawn from the circle of their experience and education, chapters 11 and 13.
It has been too much the custom to regard the earliest Christian books as written in a specially Christian form of speech, standing apart and distinguishable from the common language of the eastern Roman Provinces. Had that been the case, it is not too bold to say that the new religion could not have conquered the Empire. It was because Christianity appealed direct to the people, addressed them in their own language, and made itself comprehensible to them on their plane of thought, that it met the needs and filled the heart of the Roman world.
It is true that the Christian books and letters had to express doctrines, thought, ideas, truths, which were in a sense new. But the newness and strangeness lay in the spirit, not in the words or the metaphors or the illustrations. In the spirit lies the essence of the new thought and the new life, not in the words. This may seem to be, and in a sense it is, a mere truism. Every one says it, and has been saying it from the beginning; yet it is sometimes strangely ignored and misunderstood, and in the last few years we have had some remarkable examples of this. We have seen treatises published in which the most remarkable second-century statement of the essential doctrines and facts of Christianity, the epitaph of Avircius Marcellus,--a statement intended and declaring itself to be public, popular, before the eyes and minds of all men--has been argued to be non-Christian, because every single word, phrase and image in it is capable of a pagan interpretation, and can be paralleled from pagan books and cults. That is perfectly true; it is an interesting fact, and well worthy of being stated and proved; but it does not support the inference that is deduced. The parts, the words, are individually capable of being all treated as pagan, but the essence, the spirit, of the whole is Christian. As Aristotle says, a thing is more than the sum of its parts; the essence, the reality, the Ousia, is that which has to be added to the parts in order to make the thing.
It is therefore proposed in the present work to employ the same method as in all the writer's other investigations--to regard the Apocalypse as written in the current language familiar to the people of the time, and not as expressed in a peculiar and artificial Christian language: the term "artificial" is required, because, if the Christians used a kind of language different from that of the ordinary population, it must have been artificial.
Nor are the thoughts--one might almost say, though the expression must not be misapplied or interpreted in a way different from what is intended--nor are the thoughts of the Christian books alien from and unfamiliar to the period when they were written. They stand in the closest relation to the period. They are made for it: they suit it: they are determined by it.
We take the same view about all the books of the New Testament. They spring from the circumstances of their period, whatever it was in each case; they are suited to its needs; in a way they think its thoughts, but think them in a new form and on a higher plane; they answer the questions which men were putting, and the answers are expressed in the language which was used and understood at the time. Hence, in the first place, their respective dates can be assigned with confidence, provided we understand the history and familiarise ourselves with the thoughts and ways of the successive periods. No one, who is capable of appreciating the tone and thought of different periods, could place the composition of any of the books of the New Testament in the time of the Antonines, unless he were imperfectly informed of the character and spirit of that period; and the fact that some modern scholars have placed them (or some of them) in that period merely shows with what light-hearted haste some writers have proceeded to decide on difficult questions of literary history without the preliminary training and the acquisition of knowledge imperatively required before a fair judgment could be pronounced.
From this close relation of the Christian books to the time in which they originated, arises, e.g., the marvellously close resemblance between the language used about the birth of the divine Augustus and the language used about the birth of Christ. In the words current in the Eastern Provinces, especially in the great and highly educated and "progressive" cities of Asia, shortly before the Christian era, the day of the birth of the (Imperial) God was the beginning of all things; it inaugurated for the world the glad tidings that came through him; through him there was peace on earth and sea: the Providence, which orders every part of human life, brought Augustus into the world, and filled him with the virtue to do good to men: he was the Saviour of the race of men, and so on. Some of these expressions became, so to say, stereotyped for the Emperors in general, especially the title "Saviour of the race of men," and phrases about doing good to mankind; others were more peculiarly the property of Augustus.
All this was not merely the language of courtly panegyric. It was in a way thoroughly sincere, with all the sincerity that the people of that overdeveloped and precocious time, with their artificial, highly stimulated, rather feverish intellect, were capable of feeling. But the very resemblance--so startling, apparently, to those who are suddenly confronted with a good example of it--is the best and entirely sufficient proof that the idea and narrative of the birth of Christ could not be a growth of mythology at a later time, even during the period about AD 60-100, but sprang from the conditions and thoughts, and expressed itself in the words, of the period to which it professes to belong. It is to a great extent on this and similar evidence that the present writer has based his confident and unhesitating opinion as to the time of origin of the New Testament books, ever since he began to understand the spirit and language of the period. Before he began to appreciate them, he accepted the then fashionable view that they were second century works.
But so far removed are some scholars from recognising the true bearing of these facts, and the true relation of the New Testament to the life and thought of its own time, that probably the fashionable line of argument will soon be that the narrative of the Gospels was a mere imitation of the popular belief about the birth of Augustus, and necessarily took its origin during the time when that popular belief was strong, viz., during the last thirty years of his reign. The belief died with him, and would cease to influence thought within a few years after his death: he was a god only for his lifetime (though a pretence was made of worshipping all the deceased Emperors who were properly deified by decree of the Senate): even in old age it is doubtful if he continued to make the same impression on his people, but as soon as he died a new god took his place. New ideas and words then ruled among men, for the new god never was heir to the immense public belief which hailed the divine Augustus. With Tiberius began a new era, new thoughts, and new forms: he was the New Caesar, Neos Kaisar.
There are already some signs that, as people begin to learn these facts, which stand before us on the stones engraved before the birth of Christ, this line of argument is beginning to be developed. It will at least have this great advantage, that it assigns correctly the period when the Christian narrative originated, and that it cuts away the ground beneath the feet of those who have maintained that the Gospels are the culmination of a long subsequent growth of mythology about a more or less historical Jesus. The Gospels, as we have them, though composed in the second half, and for the most part in the last quarter, of the first century, are a faithful presentation in thought and word of a much older and well-attested history, and are only in very small degree affected by the thoughts and language of the period when their authors wrote, remaining true to the form as fixed by earlier registration.
Similarly, the Seven Letters are the growth of their time, and must be studied along with it. They belong to the last quarter of the first century; and it is about that time that we may look for the best evidence as to the meaning that they would bear to their original readers.
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