Christopher Rowland, Blake and the Bible
Southern Connecticut State University
On the final day of Christopher Rowland’s lectures on Blake and the Bible at Yale Divinity School in 2008, the renowned apocalypse scholar John J. Collins began the question-and-answer period by intoning, “Yes, well, but did Blake get Jesus right?” Rowland, the Dean Ireland Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture at Oxford, replied “Yes and no.” Blake got the “non-conformist” Jesus right but he was not particularly interested in the “historical Jesus”. Although the book developed from these lectures shows that Blake sometimes does get the “Jesus of history” right, Rowland’s primary focus throughout is on “Jesus the archetypal antinomian.” In one of the book’s most profound and original insights, Rowland suggests that the figure of the antinomian Jesus provides a key underlying pattern of thought connecting early and late Blake. In the course of tracing this pattern, Rowland accomplishes his goal of raising Blake’s exegetical profile, arguing persuasively for his place at the center of modern hermeneutical history as “one of the foremost biblical interpreters” (xii).
A compelling aspect of Blake and the Bible is the professional expertise that Professor Rowland brings to the study of Blake. Previous scholars have engaged with Blake’s use of the Bible—Northrop Frye, Thomas Altizer, Leslie Tannenbaum to name the most significant—but Rowland brings both an acute literary sensitivity and a matchless scholarly erudition that derives from extensive experience in the field of biblical studies. He has written widely on apocalyptic literature, including the pioneering work The Open Heaven (1982), as well as The New Interpreter’s Bible (1998) and Blackwell Bible (2004) commentaries on Revelation which allude to Blake throughout. He has written extensively on the merkabah (throne-chariot) tradition that derives from Ezekiel’s inaugural vision of God, particularly as a source of mystical ideas in rabbinic and kabbalistic as well as Christian texts. He has been on the leading edge of contemporary biblical hermeneutics, writing on liberation theology and Blake’s relation to it. And he has written on Paul, specifically on the intersection of apocalyptic and mystical traditions in the letters. One of the book’s major contributions is Rowland’s argument concerning Paul’s central importance to Blake, a position that goes against the grain of Blake criticism but that is demonstrated with skill and deep learning.
Blake and the Bible makes several specific contributions to Blake studies that stem from the author’s familiarity with the New Testament and the history of biblical exegesis. Not least is his grasp of Blake’s unique Christian interpretation of Job, the subject of the first two chapters that serve as a methodological model for the book. Focusing on the engraved text of 1826, Rowland gives a plate-by-plate reading that provides “a heuristic lens to view Blake’s theology and interpretation of the Bible as a whole” (15). His main points—Blake’s critique of transcendence, his removal of the division between the divine and human, and his rejection of scriptural literalism—are not new, but they are grounded more securely in biblical texts and exegetical history than previous studies, particularly the sweeping excursions of Frye and Altizer and the standard texts by Wicksteed, Damon, and Lindberg. Of special value is Rowland’s exploration of “defective divinity” in the relation of God and Satan and his emphasis on Job and his wife’s visionary experiences. Blake’s keen focus on passages featuring dreams and visions anticipates modern critical insights into apocalyptic elements in Job. Rowland’s reading of plates 16-17 is superb in this regard. As Satan falls to judgment, he is not excluded from but integrated into the divine economy, enabling God to appear as Christ and bless Job, who rises to participate in the divine life again.
The Job material sets up the ensuing chapter on divine contraries, bringing clarification to the debate about Blake’s Gnosticism. With great economy and agility, Rowland lays out the biblical and Gnostic texts that present various exalted angels and divine figures who open up “exegetical possibilities” that Blake exploits in his critique of transcendence (84-5). In his view of contraries, Blake “uncannily anticipates” late twentieth-century discussions about “the theology of Second Temple Judaism” (278). Rowland helped open up the area of biblical scholarship that sees the exalted angel figure in biblical and rabbinic traditions as providing early Christians with a scheme for placing the resurrected Jesus alongside God without departing from monotheism. He explains how Blake utilizes biblical texts that present this figure, both to challenge monotheistic views of God and to emphasize the human form of divinity, placing the transcendent and immanent in dialectical tension.
The middle chapters (5-7) slow the pace a bit. Though they contain intelligent commentary on Blake’s “Bible of Hell” (primarily Marriage and Urizen) and on Blake’s place in English radical traditions, the material will be familiar to Blake scholars. Even so, readers should not miss the outstanding section in chapter six on biblical prophecy (137-50), in which Rowland situates Blake in relation to biblical, rabbinic and early patristic interpretations of merkabah, showing how Ezekiel’s dramatic throne vision enabled later writers to “see again” what the prophet saw, but within their own experience and context.
The following two chapters are among the strongest in the book. They provide sustained discussion of the biblical roots of Blake’s antinomianism (complementing Jon Mee’s work) and demonstrate his indebtedness to Paul’s ideas of atonement and the divine body of Christ. In an astute reading of the Woman Taken in Adultery segment of “The Everlasting Gospel,” Rowland shows that Blake conflates passages from John’s Gospel and Paul’s letters to foreground the dissident Jesus. Blake appropriates Pauline language of “putting off” the garments of flesh in terms that refuse to negate desire, that instead accommodate desire and forgiveness, self and the other, in a dynamic movement. Blake thus maintains the contraries and takes a significant step forward (and away) from the Bible. The chapter devoted to Paul should set the course for future study of their relationship: “Paul is not primarily an interpreter of the Bible; he was, rather, a mystic whose sense of his communion with the heavenly world made him a broker of divine mysteries” (200-1). Rowland deftly summarizes Paul’s ambiguous views of Mosaic Law and provides a valuable overview of various types of antinomianism. In an excellent section on “The Cross” he argues that differences between Blake and Paul are largely superficial: Blake rejects Pauline language about the ransom theory of atonement in which Jesus’ death propitiates demands for divine justice and wrath; but Paul’s letters also provide what he calls “an entirely plausible gloss” on Blake’s concept of self-annihilation. Moreover, Paul espouses an understanding of Christianity in which the historical Jesus plays second fiddle to the cosmic Christ, a theme Blake develops into his core concept of divine humanity. In an original and challenging analysis of Ephesians and Colossians, often viewed as conservative and church oriented and thus less valuable for Blake, Rowland argues that their presentation of Christ’s body as a “wider, cosmic space” of divine activity and community had tremendous appeal for Blake.
As often with the best books on Blake, and as Rowland says of Blake’s relationship to Milton, there is a creative intimacy palpable on every page. The book reads as a continued stream of revelatory encounters between a renowned but unassuming New Testament scholar and an artist who has helped liberate him from the constraints of his field, enabling him to chart new territory. What I found most exciting about the book is the dynamic interaction it sets up between Blake’s images/texts and biblical traditions, one that reflects the author’s own deep insights and convictions. Indeed, a special feature is Rowland’s consistently capable analysis of Blake’s visual images, including the Job plates, sketches for the book of Enoch, and assorted biblical watercolors and other designs (handsomely reproduced). The only major gap I found is the lack of a sustained discussion of the epics, where Blake’s engagement with the Bible is crucial and where the antinomian Jesus is continually shadowed by the defeat of the cross and its appropriation by the forces of reaction. The book’s thesis of continuity between early and late Blake also would benefit from an analysis of Blake’s changing views of Milton. Nonetheless, Blake and the Bible performs a valuable service in placing Blake at the center of modern biblical hermeneutics.