Baker Academic

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Remembering Percy Shelley - Le Donne

I was reminded that poet Percy Shelley died on July 8th of 1822 (anniversary yesterday). Shelley was one of those rare boy-geniuses whose body of work suggests a lifetime much longer than it was. He died before his thirtieth birthday. I gained an appreciation for Shelley from a college friend, but never knew about his musings in historical Jesus research until Dale Allison's Resurrecting Jesus (pp.59-60).

In Dale's discussion of Gehenna, he writes:
If, as it seems, Jesus muted the element of vengeance in his eschatological language; if in accord with the tradition about him, he proclaimed that God seeks the prodigal and graciously rains upon the unjust; and if, in the early sources, he shows no interest in either Joshua or Judges, books featuring violent holy war—then surely we might wonder whether he would have been comfortable with a traditional hell... To my imperfect knowledge, the earliest argument along these lines is about two hundred years old. It comes not from a theologian or biblical scholar but from a Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who lived before anyone knew the ABC's of source or redaction criticism. In his essay "On Christianity," he argued that the evangelists "impute sentiment to Jesus Christ which flatly contradict each other." Jesus, according to Shelley, "summoned his whole resources of persuasion to oppose" the idea of injustice inherent in hell; Jesus believed in "a gentle and beneficent and compassionate" God, not a being who shall deliberately scheme to inflict on a large portion of the human race tortures indescribably intense and indefinitely protracted" (Shelley, The Prose Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1:260, 253).  "The absurd and execrable doctrine of vengeance seems to have been contemplated in all its shapes by this great moralist with the profoundest disapprobation" (1:252-53).

Whatever one thinks about the doctrine of hell or the desire for consistency in Jesus' teaching, one must appreciate Shelley's seminal contribution.  For more on Shelley's musings in NT studies, see Dale's full excursus in the same book, beginning on page 100.

In personal correspondence, Dale wrote me saying: "Several years ago I discovered that the poet Shelley—hardly an obscure figure!!—is fascinating for historical Jesus questions and that no one at all in our field had ever bothered mentioning him. I tried to remedy this in Resurrecting Jesus by inserting an excursus on him. I don’t recall any reviewers ever saying anything about it. No one seems to care. Oh well…."

Well Dale, here's to caring. This, of course, illustrates a point that I make in my Historiographical Jesus and that Dale reiterates in his Constructing Jesus: "People are, as I have already stressed, inevitably wont to interpret their experiences in terms of previously established categories and prior expectations, even when the fit is poor" (Constructing, p. 64). Could it be that because Shelley does not fit neatly into the standard "Quests" paradigm that his contributions to the field are more difficult to remember?

1 comment:

  1. Orthodoxy holds that the nature of God is, in part, how Shelly characterized it, however a characterization of hell contains souls unable to accept the love of God. In a manner, the room will be filled with people both in heaven and hell and in His Presence with Love flowing to all there; for some it will be heaven, while others.......
    Another notion is creation is existence (by and for) God; without God there is no existence....hell is without God, therefor....
    Shows to go, we don't know