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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Evangeliad

I'm introducing a new project that will be written, in serial fashion, for my Wednesday poetry posts. It's a long project (maybe decades long, depending on how it goes), so I'm anticipating taking breaks here and there, sometimes for an extended period of time, while I work on other poems and hymns. But the basic idea behind this project is to render the full story of the Gospels into the medium of epic poetry. I'm calling it The Evangeliad. It's written as a work of devotional literature, making no pretensions to actually be Scripture, and is in no way intended to replace one's regular practice of reading the Gospels themselves. Below is a set of links to the completed sections; and further below you'll find an explanation of the historical, poetical, and theological considerations behind this work.


1.) Section 1:1-5 (corresponding to John 1:1-5)
2.) Section 1:6-14 (corresponding to Luke 1:5-13)
3.) Section 1:15-18 (corresponding to Luke 1:14-17)  
4.) Section 1:19-24 (corresponding to Luke 1:18-23) 

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- What does "Evangeliad" mean? - It's a combination of the Greek word for Gospel (evangel) and the Greek suffix often attached to works of epic poetry--as in the Iliad, the Alexiad, and so on. 

- This doesn't exactly follow the text of any single Gospel. Why not? - I'm not attempting an actual translation of the Gospels; my main interest is to tell all of the stories about Jesus contained in the four canonical Gospels. It will attempt to faithfully include the substance of everything said in the Gospels, but it is an artistic rendering of that substance, not an attempt at a new version of the inspired, authoritative text. The nature of this sort of project, which aims to tell a single, cohesive story, requires a measure of blending, since no single Gospel contains all of the stories, and it would be too long and redundant to try to do four such poems exactly corresponding to each Gospel. So my poem will follow a traditional "harmony" of the Gospels. The text of the Evangeliad follows the structure of the most famous harmony of the four Gospels, the Diatessaron. The Diatessaron (which means "one from four") was a Gospel harmony composed by the Assyrian early church father Tatian in the late second century AD, and it was so widely accepted in the Christian East that it actually became the standard liturgical text of the Gospels used in Syriac churches until the fifth century.

- Aren't there some textual and doctrinal issues with Tatian's Diatessaron? - The Diatessaron is a very faithful harmony of the Gospels. It does have two major exclusions--the genealogies of Matthew and Luke (which I wouldn't include in the Evangeliad anyway, because those sections would be burdensome and unnecessary in an epic poem), and the pericope in the Gospel of John about the woman caught in adultery, which was probably not original to the Gospel (but which I, unlike the Diatessaron, might choose to include). There are some doctrinal concerns which have been raised about Tatian himself, but these tend not to concern the Diatessaron. Tatian was indeed suspected in the West of slipping into heterodoxy or heresy after the death of his teacher Justin Martyr, but these claims are a little difficult to pin down. He was suspected by Irenaeus of developing some Gnostic-ish ideas; but at least one of his major works (his Oratio) continued to receive wide and favorable use in the West, and he went on to tutor one of the greatest of the early church fathers, Saint Clement of Alexandria; so one might fairly assume that the concerns about heretical Gnosticism were overblown. The claim that appears to hit closer to the mark is the accusation that his theology led him too far toward spurning matrimony as an appropriate, God-given institution, which would put him in a camp of Christianity that was, if not exactly heterodox, at least an example of heteropraxy. It should be noted, however, that much of the early Assyrian church, of which Tatian was a part, shared this suspicion of marriage and exalted the celibate ascetic life instead, so in this regard he was largely representative of his own local church culture. In the Syriac-speaking branch of the early church, he remained a pillar of mainstream theology and practice: his Diatessaron, in addition to being used in churches for hundreds of years, also had the distinction of having the great Saint Ephrem the Syrian write a biblical commentary on its text. Thus, since the Diatessaron has a long and faithful legacy of use by the church, I've opted to make it my model "Gospel harmony" on which to base my narrative poem.

- Why is it written in rhyme instead of free verse? - It's traditional for epic poetry in English to be written in the form known as "heroic meter," which is comprised of rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter. 

- Why are the sections numbered as they are? - The section numbers follow the text of the Diatessaron (I'm using the enumeration provided by the 1895 Hogg translation). If, at the end of the project, my Evangeliad proves worthy to stand on its own in some sort of published form, I will probably introduce a more standard poetic enumeration. 

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