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New Testament Poetry

POETRY, NEW TESTAMENT. The NT contains no single book that may be classed as poetical, with the possible exception of Revelation. In this respect, the NT differs from the OT with its poetical books (Job, Pss, Prov, Eccl, S of Sol) and with many poetical passages interspersed throughout the prophetical and historical books. Nevertheless, poetry has a significant place in the NT; although not so abundant as in the OT, it may be identified in the gospels, Acts, some of the epistles and, more extensively, in Revelation—provided that poetry is not too narrowly defined. If only writing marked by rhyme or meter is classed as poetic, it must be said that the NT contains very few fragments of poetry. But if, in accord with most of modern literary criticism, poetry is defined as the expression of intense experience or thought in creative and connotative language with or without rhyme or meter, then much more of the NT is poetical than most readers realize.

In accord with this broader concept of poetry, five kinds of poetical passages may be identified in the NT: (1) quotations from ancient poets; (2) quotations of unidentified poetical material—e.g., fragments of ancient hymns; (3) passages in the form of Heb. OT poetry (cf., Hebrew Poetry) or NT quotations of OT poetry; (4) passages that, although lacking rhyme or meter are genuinely poetical by reason of exalted and intense expression; (5) apocalyptic imagery (Rev and Matt 24; cf. Mark 13; Luke 21:5-36).

1. NT quotations from ancient Gr. poets are confined to Acts and the Pauline epistles. In his sermon on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31), Paul quoted (v. 28) from three poets: Epimenides of Crete, from whom “For in him [thee, in Epimenides] we live and move and have our being” comes; Aratus of Cilicia and the Stoic Cleanthes, who both have the words, “For we are also his offspring.” From the same passage in Epimenides that he drew upon in Acts 17:28, Paul quoted in Titus 1:12: “The Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy, gluttons.” In 1 Corinthians 15:33, the apostle used the aphorism of Menander, an Athenian comic poet: “Evil communications corrupt good manners” (KJV).

2. In addition to these quotations, the Pauline epistles contain several poetical fragments that may well have been 1st-century Christian hymns (cf. Eph 5:19). 1 Timothy 3:16 seems certainly to be of such a nature, although it is unknown whether it is by Paul or some unnamed author:

He [God] was manifested in the flesh,

vindicated in the Spirit,

seen by angels,

preached among the nations,

believed on in the world,

taken up in glory.

The balanced character of this passage suggests antiphonal usage. Similar in nature is 2 Timothy 2:11-13, which likewise suggests hymnic use. Another possible hymn fragment is Ephesians 5:14. The great Christological passage in Philippians 2:5-11, is clearly poetic in form and may reflect very early Christian hymnody.

Aside from quotations mentioned under 1 and 2 above, the epistles contain outstanding poetic passages. Portions of the epistle of James (the Lord’s brother) resemble the Sermon on the Mount. The other epistles include passages of stirring poetical power (e.g., Rom 8:35-38; 11:33-36; 1 Cor 13; 1 Cor 15:51-57; Heb 11:32-38 in particular; Jude 24, 25). Whereas it must be admitted that the beauty and cadence of the KJV may color the reader’s judgment about what is poetical, nevertheless the Gr. text generally confirms the poetical nature of this kind of NT eloquence.