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.