Entombed in a Dead Language:
The Saints Raising out of their Graves

By Thomas May

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #2
Bahá'í­ National Center: Wilmette, Illinois, USA
March 25–27, 1994
(see list of papers from #2)

    Baháíuílláh tells us of the two-fold language of scripture: the clear and the obtuse, the literal and the symbolic: "... this symbolic language, more eloquent than any speech, however direct . . . " A small, but increasing, number of Christian scholars also expound this understanding; but for the vast majority, ecclesiastics, academia and lay alike, this is the age of empiricism. Conrad Hyers states that the empirical thought is so pervasive that almost no one appreciates, understands or even recognizes symbolic language. Thus Nietzsche could pronounce that 'God is dead.' Northup Frye sees the language and thought of Biblical times as symbolic and therefore, so is the language of the Bible - both Hebrew and Christian. As he illuminates this language, Frye is moved to say, "God ... may not be so much dead as entombed in a dead language.'

    This paper looks at four Gospel "episodes," each chosen to fit three criteria: illustrating a particular aspect of symbolic language, presenting a certain "difficulty," and extraordinarily bringing forth the beauty and meaning gained with a symbolic understanding. The first of these episodes is a phrase that occurs six times in the Gospels: "(on) (the) first day of the week," in the common English rendering; "(day) one of (the) week," in a literal translation of the Greek. Illustrated is both the power of the symbol and also their, perhaps, unexpected frequency. The difficulty is often in recognizing them, especially when obscured time, language and culture. The beauty is the image of a new "Genesis," a new day of creation, called forth by each of the Gospel writers as the women (or singular) set forth to visit the tomb of the martyred Jesus.

    Our second example is the birth narratives of Jesus, examined both in Matthew and Luke and also in the Qur'an. The choice here shows the nature of sacred narrative - Commonly referred to as myth. The difficulty is the almost universal empirical understanding of sacred narrative as history and the beauty is seeing the 'truths' - the life leading truths - embedded in them. Additionally is the certitude in seeing the difference between 'facts" and "truths."

    Jesus' "walking on water" is most often presented as the touchstone of faith, the definitive miracle story for which there is no plausible physical explanation. Are we then forced to choose, in this empirical age, between faith and reason? Upon looking at this third archetype, it is immediately apparent that "water" is actually sea - both in the original Greek and almost all English translations - which opens up the symbolic aspect. Sea is seen as the symbolic expression of Yamm, the God of Chaos, and chaos. With this and connected symbolic understanding, there is no longer only a choice between faith and reason but instead a richer acceptance of the divinity and power of Jesus. This episode Illustrates the physical, concrete, face most commonly put forth by symbol and sacred narrative, when In fact, cast within them, are fuller, richer spiritual meanings.

    The last episode, a periscope found only in Matthew, presents the difficulty of theology. There is a vast collection of theology concerning the resurrection: the first and second resurrection, which one is bodily or not, time of, and so on. This periscope is found immediately after Jesus dies: the "renting of the veil" and the "raising of the saints." Many Bible commentaries and even a AAR/SBL session label these verses as obtuse, difficult, beyond comprehension and best to be forgotten. They are so labeled apparently because any literal understanding conflicts with the prevalent theology, A truly symbolic rendering does not encounter those difficulties but shows a deeper, fuller faith of the saints (believers) both then and now. God is not dead.

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