C. S. Lewis once wrote that the modern dilemma is
either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste—or, more strictly, to lack one kind of knowledge because we are in an experience or to lack another kind because we are outside it. As thinkers we are cut off from what we think about; as tasting, touching, willing, loving, hating, we do not clearly understand. The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter into reality, the less we can think.
This is part of the problem we have with beauty. When we are in the act of abstracting beauty into a definition and thinking about it, we are not experiencing it. When we are simply experiencing it, we are not analysing that experience for the sake of defining beauty. The one act excludes the other. This is a problem for those of us who have inherited the philosophy of the Western tradition. To think about beauty is to lose its experience, and to experience it is to cease thinking about it.
The Hebrew writers of the Old Testament display no consciousness of such a dilemma. They never seem to abstract the experience of beauty into a philosophical, speculative concept. Consequently, to attempt to find a philosophical definition of beauty in the Old Testament will likely be an elusive exercise. Instead, the Old Testament writers are pointing to a shared value, even an ultimate value, found in creation.
By the time of the writing of the New Testament, the Jewish authors of the New Testament have felt the influence of Greek speculative thinking, but still display continuity with their Old Testament counterparts in combining concept and experience. The New Testament has a similar array of words. At least nine Greek words occur over 300 times, which carry the ideas of appropriate, well-bred, handsome, fine appearance or beauty, beautiful, good, useful, free from defects, or fine, pleasing, agreeable, lovely, amiable, magnificent, sublime, majestic, adorn, decorate, brightness, splendour, radiance, glory, honour, and fame.
The Literary Form of Scripture
Scripture not only speaks of beauty, but displays it itself. Form cannot be separated from content, and the Scriptures that describes beauty also employs it. The Bible is given in aesthetic form. Biblical writers chose to use sophisticated literary forms: narrative, poetry, wisdom and other forms that display a high degree of craftsmanship.
Literary structures such as parallelism, chiasms, and sophisticated narrative structure abound in Scripture. Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985) examines in detail the forms in which Hebrew parallelism take, the narrativity within biblical poetry, the structures of intensification, indeed, even the powerful use of irony, wit, and humour. These literary structures demonstrate implicitly the importance of beauty to the Hebrews. Arranging the actual form of the narrative, poems, prophecies, and wisdom literature into recognisable literary structures displays the writers’ desires to communicate not only accurately, but also beautifully.
Aesthetic literary structures are equally abundant in the New Testament. Chiasm is evident in Matthew, Mark, John, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, 2 Timothy, Philemon, Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation. The Gospels each display a sophisticated use of selected events, summaries, discourses, travel episodes, interludes, and speeches to paint a portrait with a particular emphasis. In summary, New Testament writers remain in harmony with their Old Testament counterparts, seeking to convey content in an aesthetically pleasing form.
But word studies and literary form studies by themselves are not persuasive that beauty is central to Scripture. One could easily dismiss these lists as showing nothing more than Scripture’s gesturing towards the quality of excellence, or its adoption of commonly used literary structures. What is needed is proof that the Bible actually presents beauty as a theme, and not merely as a subordinate theme, but as its primary theme. To that we now turn.