Beowulf as Antetype of Christ
Horace Jeffery Hodges
Old English epic poem Beowulf
poses something of an enigma for scholars. The poet was surely a
Christian, but the poem depicts a pagan society, so what sort of
religion is being expressed? Most recent scholars have argued for a
Christian reading, but others still hold out for a pagan one. Some have
suggested Christian-pagan syncretism. In his 1987 "Introduction" to
modern critical interpretations of Beowulf, the influential critic
Harold Bloom still expresses doubts that the poem can be called a
"Christian" one. "Can there be Christianity," he asks, "without the
figure of Jesus Christ, without the presence of the New Testament?"
(Bloom, "Introduction" 1). He then quickly answers his own question:
"No one reading the poem would find Beowulf to be a particularly
Christian hero" because "[h]is glory has little to do with worship,
unless it be justified self-worship" (Bloom, "Introduction" 2). Even
the best of attempts to find in Beowulf a hero of Christian values
strikes Bloom as possessing "a fine desperation" (Bloom, "Introduction"
3). Is Bloom right? Are Christian readings, despite general scholarly
agreement, desperate? How are we to resolve this? I think that we can
concur with Bloom that we should not call "a poem Christian only
because it undoubtedly was written by a Christian" (Bloom,
"Introduction" 4). As minimal criteria, a poem would have to come from
the hand of a Christian author and embody arguably Christian motifs to
be called Christian. Some scholars, though, would likely prefer
strongly maximal criteria, requiring the explicit presence of central
Christian themes, e.g., reference to Christ's sacrifice.
Methodologically, I lean toward minimal criteria, but we shall see
can satisfy minimal, maximal, or medial criteria. This article will not
attempt to persuade other scholars to adopt a minimalist criteria as
methodological assumption because such is not essential for my
argument. Rather, my article will note some of the problems posed for a
Christian interpretation, along with some of the plausible responses by
a few other scholars. Then, I will present a suggestion concerning
typology that might help clarify what the Beowulf
poet is doing with his culture-hero Beowulf, namely, that Beowulf is
being presented an a pagan antetype of Christ in an epic Anglo-Saxon praeparatio
I've used Bloom as my opening gambit, but he was simply (and openly) echoing the remarks of E. Talbot Donaldson. Let's take a look at what Donaldson says:
[T]here is no reference to the New Testament—to Christ and His Sacrifice which are the real bases of Christianity in any intelligible sense of the term. Furthermore, readers may well feel that the poem achieves rather little of its emotional power through invocation of Christian values or of values that are consonant with Christian doctrine as we know it. . . . One must, indeed, draw the conclusion that while Christian is a correct term for the religion of the poet and of his audience, it was a Christianity that had not yet by any means succeeded in obliterating an older pagan tradition, which still called forth powerful responses from men's hearts, despite the fact that many aspects of this tradition must be abhorrent to a sophisticated Christian. (Donaldson, "Overview" 98-99)
Bloom quotes this same passage to support his point and then remarks that "Donaldson describes what I have read: a heroic poem celebrating the same values that Tacitus discerned in the Germans of his day" (Bloom, "Introduction" 2).
Tacitus (ca. A.D. 54-117) described the Germans in his work Germania, written near the end of the first century (ca. A.D. 98-99), and emphasized their courage in battle:
When they go into battle, it is a disgrace for the chief to be surpassed in valour, a disgrace for his followers not to equal the valour of the chief. And it is an infamy and a reproach for life to have survived the chief, and returned from the field. To defend, to protect him, to ascribe one's own brave deeds to his renown, is the height of loyalty. The chief fights for victory; his vassals fight for their chief. (Tacitus 93-94)
The Germanic tribes depicted in Beowulf fit this description rather closely. As with the tribes in Germania, "Courage is the prime virtue exalted in Beowulf" (Bloom, "Introduction" 2), along with loyalty to the death in battle. The setting of the narrative in Beowulf may be some 400 years later than Tacitus (Alexander 27-28; Chambers 2-3), but the tribes presented are still pagan, and many of their values and customs correspond to those of the (non-christian) tribes that Tacitus portrays.
Such pagan values and customs in Beowulf stand out clearly, and nowhere more distinctly than in the burial scene that follows the tragic death of Beowulf:
Then the people of the Geats made ready for him a funeral pyre on the earth, no small one, hung with helmets, battle-shields, bright mail-shirts, just as he had asked. Then in the midst they laid the great prince, lamenting their hero, their beloved lord. Then warriors began to awaken on the barrow the greatest of funeral-fires; the wood-smoke climbed, black over the fire; the roaring flame mixed with weeping -- the wind-surge died down -- until it had broken the bone-house, hot at its heart. Sad in spirit they lamented their heart-care, the death of their liege lord. And the Geatish woman, wavy-haired, sang a sorrowful song about Beowulf . . . . [They] surrounded the remains of the fire with a wall, the most splendid that men might devise. In the barrow they placed rings and jewels . . . . They let the earth hold the wealth of earls, gold in the ground, where now it still dwells . . . . Then the brave in battle rode round the mound . . . bewail[ing] their sorrow and mourn[ing] their king, recit[ing] dirges and speak[ing] of the man. They praised his great deeds and his acts of courage, judged well of his prowess . . . . They said that he was of world-kings the . . . most eager for fame. (Donaldson, "Text" 54-55 (3137-3184))1)
This fits what we know from various sources, Tacitus among them:
In their funerals there is no pomp; they simply observe the custom of burning the bodies of illustrious men with certain kinds of wood. They do not heap garments or spices on the funeral pile. The arms of the dead man and in some cases his horse are consigned to the fire. A turf mound forms the tomb. Monuments with their lofty elaborate splendour they reject as oppressive to the dead. Tears and lamentations they soon dismiss; grief and sorrow but slowly. It is thought becoming for women to bewail, for men to remember, the dead. (Tacitus 101-102)
Despite some minor differences, this passage from Tacitus coheres with the Beowulf account, and both clearly convey the martial obsessions of a warrior culture.
Interestingly, the Beowulf poem not only ends with a pagan burial, it also begins with a pagan one describing the sea-burial of Scyld Scefing (26-49):
Then at the fated time Scyld the courageous [died] . . . His dear companions carried him down to the sea-currents, just as he himself had bidden them do . . . There in the harbor stood the ring-prowed ship, ice-covered and ready to sail, a prince's vessel. Then they laid down the ruler they had loved, the ring-giver, in the hollow of the ship, the glorious man beside the mast. There was brought great store of treasure, wealth from lands far away. I have not heard of a ship more splendidly furnished with war-weapons and battle-dress, swords and mail-shirts. On his breast lay a great many treasures that should voyage with him far out into the sea's possession. (Donaldson, "Text" 1-2)
Tacitus does not describe any sea-burials—hardly surprising since he was reporting on the Germanic tribes of the European heartland—and the poem's description of a sea-burial may be largely a product of the poet's fancy rather than a passage reflecting any traditional burial rites. Sam Newton, for example, argues that "a treasure-laden, royal funeral-ship like that described in Beowulf would . . . [never] have been allowed simply to drift off" because the mourners might subsequently face "the rather catstrophic anti-climax of discovering the vessel beached with the next tide" (qtd. in Slade, "Explanatory Notes"). Be that as it may, the description of the great pagan ruler buried with treasures and weapons fits what we have already seen of the pre-Christian Germanic tribes described in Tacitus.
Christian burial procedures would ordinarily reflect Christian concern for an intact physical body, based on belief in the future resurrection of that body. Beowulf, however, begins and ends with burials that reflect nothing Christian. No vaguely Christian rites are alluded to; rather, pagan customs of cremation and of inhumation with grave goods are described. This is especially clear in the burial of the poem's hero, Beowulf himself, whose body is burned to the bones along with "helmets, battle-shields, [and] bright mail-shirts" (Donaldson, "Text" 54 (3141-3142)). Christian burial beliefs would preclude burning. Also hardly a Christian practice is the burial of the "rings and jewels" and the "wealth of earls, [and] gold" (Donaldson, "Text" 55 (3165-3169)). Taken together, these burial artefacts suggest that military prowess and worldly wealth are the crucial, positive themes in the poem rather than expected medieval Christian themes such as piety and poverty.
Moreover, the poem's final statement, that Beowulf was the "most eager for fame" (Donaldson, "Text" 55 (3184)), suggests a type of self-glorification that Bloom has already noted as not "particularly Christian" (Bloom, "Introduction" 2). Beowulf's own words of comfort to Hrothgar, after the latter has lost his best friend Aeschere to the depredations of Grendel's mother, confirm this view of life and death:
Sorrow not, wise warrior. It is better far a man to avenge his friend than much mourn. Each of us must await his end of the world's life. Let him who may get glory before death: that is best for the warrior after he has gone from life. (Donaldson, "Text" 25 (1386-1391))
are hardly the words of comfort that one would expect from a Christian
hero. Consistent with this pagan attitude is the poem's constant
extolling of battle (3-6, 1565-1571, et
its repeated praise of plunder (1199-1207, et
its explicit concern with wealth (36-37, 893-896, 1194-1207, 2744-2794,
and weapons (39-40, 1019-1033, 1457-1466, 1559-1564, 2193-2196, et
and its unembarassed depiction of the hero Beowulf as one who is
self-consciously proud, even boastful (418-425, 531-533, 631-637,
827-828, 2002-2012, 2511-2538, et
and willfully reliant upon his own physical strength and martial skills
for victory (432-439, 556-557, 573-574, 2539-2543, et
Fr. Klaeber would add to this list such practices as "the vowing of
sacrifices at idol fanes (175ff), the observing of omens (204), . . .
[t]he frequent allusions to the power of fate . . . [and] the motive of
blood revenge" (Klaeber 102). Moreover, there is "nothing of angels,
saints, relics, . . . of divine worship, church observances, or any
particular dogmatic points" (Klaeber 102). All of this would seem to
mark the poem as non-Christian.
The pagan-poem interpretation, however, faces many anomalies in the text. Most obvious are the biblical allusions. Lines 86-98 describe a poet singing the story of creation in terms that recall the Genesis account (cf. Genesis 1.1-31):
There he spoke who could relate the beginning of men far back in time, said that the Almighty made earth [Gen. 1.1], a bright field fair in the water that surrounds it [Gen. 1.9-10], set up in triumph the lights of the sun and the moon to lighten land-dwellers [Gen. 1.14-18], and adorned the surfaces of the earth with branches and leaves [Gen. 1.11-12], created also life for each of the kinds that move and breathe [Gen. 1.20-25]. (Donaldson, "Text" 3 (90-98); bracketed citations mine)
That the biblical creation account is intended becomes incontrovertibly clear in lines 102-114, which mention that the monster Grendel had taken refuge with the descendants of Cain (cf. Genesis 4.1-12), and in lines 1257-1270, which further strengthen the biblical link by establishing that Grendel is himself one of Cain's descendants. Another biblical allusion comes in lines 1689-1695, which refer to the Genesis account of the flood (cf. Genesis 6.1-8:17).
What are we to make of this? According to Bloom, not much, for he notes that "[e]very biblical allusion in Beowulf, all scholars agree, is to what Christians call the Old Testament" (Bloom, "Introduction" 1). Bloom would perhaps second J. R. Clark Hall's remark that "[a] pious Jew would have no difficulty assenting to . . . all" of the poem's theological statements (Clark Hall, xlvii), but I presume that Bloom does not intend us to infer that Beowulf is a Jewish poem, so the point is not entirely clear. Nor do Bloom's concluding remarks about Beowulf as a heroic poem clarify his meaning:
Heroic poetry can do little with the virtues of the New Testament, though considerably more with certain epic qualities of the Old Testament. The Beowulf poet . . . [chose] to write a heroic poem rather than a work on the finding of the True Cross. Is a poem Christian only because it undoubtedly was written by a Christian? There is nothing about God's grace in Beowulf, though something about God's glory as creator. (Bloom, "Introduction" 4)
Bloom is correct to note the tension between Christian and heroic values but wrong to imply that one necessarily excludes the other. The rise of chivalric literature shows how the two value systems can be conjoined, as can be seen in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Faerie Queene, for example. Or one could follow John Miles Foley and note that epic poetry indebted to oral tradition automatically makes use of traditional formulaic systems that can produce a layering of values in a single poem. Thus, Bloom is wrong to think that heroic poetry could do little with Christian values.
Let us return to Bloom's original question, in which he asks, "Can there be Christianity [in Beowulf] without the figure of Jesus Christ, and without the presence of the New Testament?" (Bloom, "Introduction" 1). Yes, of course there can. Consider the Christians of the first century A.D. No New Testament yet existed, and their only scripture was Jewish scripture, in which Jesus Christ makes no appearance. Admittedly, most of the writings that were eventually to be collected into what Christians would come to call the New Testament had already been written by the end of the first century, but these writings had yet no special status as scripture. That sort of sacral status awaited their general use by churches and their recognition by church councils. In the meantime, sacred scripture for Christians meant the Old Testament, and Christians insisted that this scripture was Christian.
Moreover, in the early centuries of Christianity, we find many writings that scholars cannot easily declare to be either "Jewish" or "Christian."2) Just because a text lacks characteristic Christian features does not mean that it is Jewish. Some biblical pseudepigrapha are exceedingly difficult to categorize. For example, Jewish studies scholar Jim Davila questions the older methodological assumption by which "texts that lack explicitly Christian content or elements . . . [are considered] originally Jewish compositions" (Davila, paragraph 1), for "[i]n some cases Christian compositions may not show any Christian signature features" (Davila, paragraph 38). Thus, he rejects the rule of thumb that "if it doesn't look especially Christian, it must be Jewish" (Davila, paragraph 1). On this, he agrees with religious studies scholar Robert Kraft, who argues that if a religiously inderterminate text of uncertain provenance has been preserved and used by Christians, then the burden of proof lies on those who wish to categorize it as Jewish (Kraft, paragraph 44). Assuming this methodological principle, we ought to conclude that Beowulf is Christian, not pagan, particularly since scholars agree that "its nameless author undoubtedly was a Christian" (Bloom, "Introduction" 1). Such a conclusion would probably strike most Beowulf scholars as too easy, for despite the author's having been Christian, the central themes of Beowulf hardly seem Christian to us. Indeed, for us, they seem largely opposed to Christian ones, as we have already noted.
Let us return to this issue in a moment, for I would first like to point out that it is not entirely correct to say that Beowulf is "without the presence of the New Testament" (Bloom, "Introduction" 1). Let us look at some passages. In Beowulf's response to Unferth's insult, he says:
[Y]ou became your brothers' slayer, your close kin; for that you will suffer punishment in hell. (Donaldson, "Text" 11 (586-588))
After defeating Grendel, Beowulf asserts:
[L]ike a man outlawed for guilt, he shall await the great judgment, how the bright Lord will decree for him. (Donaldson, "Text" 17 (976-978))
And after the death of Beowulf, his faithful thane Wiglaf says of the dragon's treasure that:
The great princes who put it there had laid on it so deep a curse until doomsday that the man who should plunder the place should be guilty of sins, imprisoned in idol-shrines, fixed with hell-bonds, punished with evils. (Donaldson, "Text" 53 (3071-3075))
Neither "punishment in hell" nor "the great Judgment" (of which "doomsday" is also an expression) are Old Testament themes. They do, however, occur very often in the New Testament.
Also lacking in the Old Testament but consistent with the New Testament are the epithets of Satan applied to Grendel: "feond mancynnes [enemy of mankind], Godes andsaca [God's enemy], feond on helle [the devil in hell], helle haefta [the hell-slave]" (Klaeber 104).3) Although the Grendel-figure is probably derived from Scandinavian notions of trolls and is identified in the poem as a monstrous human, these Satanic epithets tend to present him "as an impersonation of evil and darkness, even an incarnation of the Christian devil" (Klaeber 104). Satan does make a few appearances in the Old Testament, but his role is a decidedly minor one. In the New Testament, by contrast, Satan plays the major role as God's malicious enemy. The epithets of Satan that surface in Beowulf owe much to the New Testament and subsequent Christian tradition but almost nothing to the Old Testament. Despite Bloom, therefore, one cannot really maintain that the New Testament is absent in Beowulf.
Nevertheless, to our sensibilities, the New Testament and the specifically Christian do seem largely suppressed in this poem, whose central themes readily strike us not merely as non-christian but even as antichristian. How do we explain this? We can begin by observing with J. R. R. Tolkien that not only "the specifically Christian was suppressed, so also were the old gods" (Tolkien 20). Their names do not appear, not even when the text refers to them. For example, when the Scyldings find themselves helpless and hopeless against Grendel, they turn to a "god" for help:
At times they vowed sacrifices at heathen temples, with their words prayed that the soul-slayer would give help for the distress of the people. Such was their custom, the hope of heathens; in their spirits they thought of Hell, they knew not the Ruler, the Judge of Deeds, they recognized not the Lord God, nor indeed did they know how to praise the Protector of Heaven, the glorious King. Woe is him who in terrible trouble must thrust his soul into the fire's embrace, hope for no comfort, not expect change. Well is the man who after his death-day may seek the Lord and find peace in the embrace of the Father. (Donaldson, "Text" 4 (175-188))
This clearly Christian critique of pagan piety suppresses the name of the god appealed to (probably Odin) and substitutes an epithet for Satan: "the soul-slayer." Bloom would note that it also suppresses the title "Christ" and likely argue that the other titles, including the ambiguous "Lord," are consistent with the Old Testament. That would be to miss the significance of the title "Father" applied to God, for this very Christian title implies the existence of the "Son," i.e., of Christ.
As for the central themes of Beowulf that, for us, seem opposed to the spirit of Christianity, we need to keep in mind that the medieval Anglo-Saxons were not 'us' and that the poem's central values might not have been seen in such a way by Anglo-Saxon Christians at the time of the poem's composition. Other Old English poems, such as Andreas and Elene, manage to assimilate Christianity and the heroic code (Tyler, "Offlist," paragraph 8). Similarly, if we compare the figure of Beowulf to that of Christ in The Dream of the Rood, we find that the latter is portrayed in a way that emphasizes Christ's heroic character. Lee Edgar Tyler has pointed out that:
The Anglo-Saxon poem "Dream of the Rood" pictures Christ at the Passion as a Teutonic warrior (rinc) who mounts the cross with the same verb (astigan) with which a warrior mounts his steed or . . . boards his ship. (Tyler, "Violence," paragraph 2)
This suggests that the Anglo-Saxons expected to see Christ as a heroic figure. If so, Beowulf's heroic, warrior qualities would not be seen as contrary to Christian ones. Moreover, is the Christ of the New Testament consistently portrayed as a pacific figure?
Surely not. Without even counting the report of the earthly Jesus using a whip to drive the moneychangers out of the temple, which surely implies some degree of force (John 2.13-16; cf. Matthew 21.12-13; Mark 11.15-17; Luke 19.45-46), or a couple of sword passages (Matthew 10.34-36; Luke 22.36-38), we find the cosmic warrior Christ of the Apocalypse of John. Consider this passage:
19:11. And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, with the one sitting on it called "Faithful" and "True." In righteousness, he judges and makes war. 12. And his eyes are as a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, with a name inscribed that no one knows except him. 13. And he is clothed in a garment dipped in blood, and his name has been called "The Word of God." 14. And the armies in heaven, having been dressed in fine white, clean linen, were following him on white horses. 15. And out of his mouth goes forth a sharp sword, with which he may strike the nations, and he will shepherd them with a rod of iron. And he treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of the Almighty God. 16. And he has his garment and on his thigh a name inscribed: "King of kings and Lord of lords."
impressive figure procedes to make victorious war against the forces of
Satan. As we can see from this New Testament text, from the poems Andreas
and "from the Dream
of the Rood,
the Anglo-Saxons did not have a real problem assimilating Christianity
and the warrior ethos" (Tyler,
"Offlist," paragraph 8).
Still, a problem remains. Beowulf might be a "virtuous pagan" (Tyler, "Offlist," paragraph 8), but he's still a pagan. How did the poet expect us to read this epic? In an impressive, influential article, "Apposed Word Meanings and Religious Perspectives," Fred C. Robinson argues that words like "dryhten" had a double meaning―the old, pagan, pre-Caedmonian one (e.g., lord) and the new, Christian, post-Caedmonian one (e.g., Lord). This "appositive style" allowed the poet to express both pagan and Christian meanings simultaneously to remain true to his recognition that the ancestors were pagan while satisfying his own Christian convictions (Robinson, "Apposed" 82, 89). Robinson draws a parallel to the Christianizing of pagan Latin poets:
Reading Beowulf is . . . like reading the centos of Proba, Luxorius and Pomponious, who composed entire poems on Christian subjects by rearranging the verses of Virgil, Horace, and Ovid in order to make them convey Christian meanings. . . . Just as in reading the centos we think simultaneously of Aeneas and Christ, so in reading Beowulf we should hear distant echoes of Thunor and Woden [along with allusions to Christ and God the Father] when the men of old appeal to their mihtig dryhten and faeder alwalda. (Robinson, "Apposed" 100)
Robinson concludes that through this appositive style, the poet, in "a compassionate tone of Christian regret," invests the pagan ancestors "not with theological security, but with dignity" suitable to "his people's tragic past" (Robinson, "Apposed" 109).
Robinson finds more regret than I do, but reading Beowulf on two levels coheres with my understanding of the poem. Moreover, Beowulf as a bivalent construction is a special case of one early Christian interpretive strategy when faced by influential pagan traditions: praeparatio evangelium. This "preparation for the Gospel" goes back at least to the Church Fathers of the second and third centuries:
Irenaeus and the Greek apologists (Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria) developed theologies of history and revelation that understood God to be at work in non-Christian traditions and Christ, the logos, to be teaching and saving souls outside of Israel and the church. (McDermott 9)
We could add Origen to this list (cf. Lane, paragraph 13), but for brevity's sake, let us quote only from Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria. Justin Martyr (A.D. ca. 100-165) expresses very powerfully the opinion that pre-Christian pagans could obtain salvation:
Christ is the first-born of God, and . . . He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them. (Martyr, ch. xlvi)
Clement of Alexandria (A.D. ca. 150-215) provides a similar hermeneutic by drawing upon the illustrious example of St. Paul himself preaching to the Greeks in Athens (cf. Acts 17.16-34):
[I]t is evident that the apostle, by availing himself of poetical examples from the Phenomena of Aratus, approves of what had been well spoken by the Greeks; and intimates that, by the unknown God, God the Creator was in a roundabout way worshipped by the Greeks. (Clement, bk. 1, ch. xix)
Thus, the early Church Fathers, confronted with a powerful pagan tradition, did not always simply condemn the pre-christian pagans. While they condemned much, they also found things to commend. This is not quite the appositive style the Robinson examines, but it does constitute a doubled reading of pagan tradition.
Structurally similar to this is the double attitude toward paganism on the part of the Venerable Bede (673-735). In his History of the English Church and People, book I, chapter 30, Bede cites the instructions that Pope Gregory the Great gave in A.D. 601 to Abbot Melitus for missionary work in England:
[T]he temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let water be consecrated and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed there. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more freely resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they are used to slaughter many oxen in sacrifice to devils, some solemnity must be given them in exchange for this, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they should build themselves huts of the boughs of trees about those churches which have been turned to that use from being temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer animals to the Devil, but kill cattle and glorify God in their feast, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their abundance; to the end that, whilst some outward gratifications are retained, they may the more easily consent to the inward joys. For there is no doubt that it is impossible to cut off every thing at once from their rude natures; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps. Thus the Lord made Himself known to the people of Israel in Egypt; and yet He allowed them the use, in His own worship, of the sacrifices which they were wont to offer to the Devil, commanding them in His sacrifice to kill animals, to the end that, with changed hearts, they might lay aside one part of the sacrifice, whilst they retained another; and although the animals were the same as those which they were wont to offer, they should offer them to the true God, and not to idols; and thus they would no longer be the same sacrifices. This then, dearly beloved, it behoves you to communicate to our aforesaid brother, that he, being placed where he is at present, may consider how he is to order all things. God preserve you in safety, most beloved son. (Sellar, bk. 1, ch. 30)
As in Beowulf, the "gods" are suppressed and demonized, and new content is added, but the old forms and much of the familiar world remains. Interesting in this context are Bede's remarks elsewhere about the origin of the Anglo-Saxon term for "Easter," linking it to Eostre/Eastre, an Anglo-Saxon goddess of the rising sun (Bede, Temporum 1.5).4) In this instance, the name has been preserved but applied to Christ's resurrection.
Note that in the quotation above, Gregory the Great cites the Old Testament as providing a precedent for grafting Christianity onto pagan practices, a rhetorical move that allows for a bivalent reading of paganism. Bede himself applied a double hermeneutic to events in his History, also drawing parallels to the Old Testament in doing so. For example, in describing the victory of the pagan Anglo-Saxons over the Christian Britons, he cites the example of the Chaldean (i.e., Assyrian) conquest of Jerusalem:
[T]he fire kindled by the hands of the pagans, proved God’s just vengeance for the crimes of the people; not unlike that which, being of old lighted by the Chaldeans, consumed the walls and all the buildings of Jerusalem. For here, too, through the agency of the pitiless conqueror, yet by the disposal of the just Judge, it ravaged all the neighbouring cities and country, spread the conflagration from the eastern to the western sea, without any opposition, and overran the whole face of the doomed island. (Sellar, bk. 1, ch. 15)
Note the double significance of the conquest, which is "through the agency of the pitiless conqueror" and "by the disposal of the just Judge." In this interpretation, Bede takes as his model the prophet Isaiah's double interpretation of the Assyrian role: cruel conquerors and agent's of God's justice (cf. Isaiah 10.5-12). Similarly, Bede has a doubled view of the actions of Ethelfrid, a pagan Anglo-Saxon king:
At this time, the brave and ambitious king, Ethelfrid, governed the kingdom of the Northumbrians, and ravaged the Britons more than all the chiefs of the English, insomuch that he might be compared to Saul of old, king of the Israelites, save only in this, that he was ignorant of Divine religion. For he conquered more territories from the Britons than any other chieftain or king, either subduing the inhabitants and making them tributary, or driving them out and planting the English in their places. (Sellar, bk. 1, ch. 34)
that Bede, again drawing upon the Old Testament for his hermeneutic,
praises a pagan king who had conquered the lands of many Christian
as Old Testament: Christian Typological Readings
It would appear that, confronted by Anglo-Saxon paganism, Bede and other Christians readily drew upon Old Testament parallels for policies and hermeneutic strategies to read the presence of the true God in some beliefs and practices of the pagans. Perhaps this can help us to make better sense of the Old Testament allusions in Beowulf. One early Christian tendency was to find a kind of rough symmetry between Christianity's relation to pre-Christian paganism and its relation to pre-Christian Judaism. A fuller citation of the Justin Martyr quote provided above makes this explicit:
Christ is the first-born of God, and . . . He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others. (Martyr, ch. xlvi)
The "barbarians" mentioned here as Christians before Christ are figures from the Old Testament. Thus in a more expanded reply to Bloom's question about whether or not there can be Christianity without either Jesus Christ or the New Testament: yes, there can be, and not only because the earliest Christian scripture was the Jewish Bible but also, as we shall see, because the earliest Christians read the Old Testament looking for Christ.
Combing the New Testament for examples of this would prove tedious because there are so very many references to the Old Testament, especially the numerous prooftexts cited to demonstrate the messianic qualifications of Jesus. This is well-enough known not to require proof. But I would like to cite several New Testament passages that interpret particular Old Testament ones in a typological manner, finding prefigurations of Christ. In typological hermeneutics, "historical entities of the Old Testament," i.e., "objects, people, events, institutions or ceremonies" could be "seen as corresponding to the New" (Foutz, paragraph 4), such as Adam being a "type" (tupos) of Christ in Paul's theology (cf. Romans 5.14). Similarly, Matthew 12.40 (cf. Luke 11.29-32) finds in the figure of Jonah a prefiguration of Christ:
12:40 For just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea monster three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.
Jonah's experience is interpreted typologically as prefiguring Christ's death, burial, and resurrection. Similarly, in John 3.14-15, the bronze serpent that Moses raised up in the desert to heal the Israelites bitten by adders is interpreted as a sign of Jesus's crucifixion and the salvation thereby made possible:
3:14 And as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so is it necessary for the son of man to be lifted up 15 so that everyone believing in him might have eternal life.
In I Corinthians 10.1-4, Paul performs a typological reading that all but finds the real presence of Christ in the miraculous nourishment given to the Israelites in the desert:
10:1 Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 And all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock following them, and the rock was Christ.
St. Augustine makes a similar, explicitly typological statement: "[T]he sacraments of the Old Testament, which were celebrated in obedience to the law, were types of Christ who was to come" (Augustine, Faustus, bk. 19, sec. 13; my emphasis). In a very strong typological reading of Melchizedek, the mysterious pre-Israelite priest-king of Salem (i.e., Jerusalem), Hebrews 7.15-17 states:
7:15 According to the likeness (homoiotata) of Melchizedek, there arises another priest 16 who has not become one according to a law of fleshly command but according to the power of indestructible life. 17 For it is said of him: "You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek."
The Greek word homoiotata (likeness) establishes a close similarity between Christ as the great high priest and Melchizedek as a type of great high priest prefiguring Christ (cf. 6.20-7.28 for context), and he was understood typologically by early Church Fathers, e.g., Cyprian (d. 258), who cites Hebrews (and the Psalms) to support his statement that "Melchizedek is . . . a type of Christ" (Cyprian, "Letter to Cecil" 63.4). Indeed, much of the book of Hebrews is devoted to finding types of Christ in the Old Testament (cf. 3.1-6; 4.14-5.10; 8.1-6; 9.1-10.18).
Morton Bloomfield has argued "that Beowulf is set in an Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the age of the Old Testament and deliberately refers only to pre-Mosaic biblical events," an insight that receives further development in the scholarship of Nicholas Howe and Thomas Hill (Slade, "Epistemology," paragraph 2).5) Earlier, Tolkien had struck a similar note in his famous essay on monsters and critics:
It would seem that, in his attempt to depict ancient, pre-Christian days, intending to emphasize their nobility, and the desire of the good for truth, . . . [the Beowulf poet} turned naturally when delineating the great King of Heorot to the Old Testament. In the folces hyrde [peoples' guardian] of the Danes we have much of the shepherd patriarchs and kings of Israel, servants of the one God, who attribute to His mercy all the good things that come to them in this life. We have in fact a Christian English conception of the noble chief before Christianity, who could lapse (as could Israel) in times of temptation into idolatry. (Tolkien 24-25)
By explicitly alluding to pre-Mosaic (more precisely, pre-Noachic) biblical events as the distant past, the Beowulf poet links the pagan Anglo-Saxons' ancient past to the Bible's account of mankind's common primeval history and thereby implicitly presents the more intermediate pagan past of the Anglo-Saxons as parallel to the similarly intermediate past of the Israelites, as recorded in the remainder of the Old Testament. Seeing Beowulf as set in the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Old Testament times helps make sense of the fact that the Christian poet would avoid explicit references to the New Testament but openly borrow material from the Old Testament.
This allows us to read Beowulf as an Anglo-Saxon Old Testament and thus to look for Christian typological elements. Alvin A. Lee has asked if the hero Beowulf is "in any demonstrable sense, an imitation of Christ, as some have surmised" (Lee 147; cf. Brodeur 218; Cabaniss 195-201; Delasanta 409-416; McNamee 190-207; Nicholson, "Meaning" 151-201). In my view, this puts Beowulf and Christ in the wrong temporal order because it treats Christ as the (chronological) "archetype" (cf. Lee 151). Beowulf cannot be intended as a figure who imitates Christ, as in the Medieval understanding of the saint as imitatio Christi, for Beowulf is an antetype6) of Christ. If we were to interpret Beowulf as a Christ-figure after Christ, then he would have to be a severely flawed one, more of a failed Christ-figure, as some scholarly interpretations have suggested (e.g., Bolton 143; Gardner 83-84). But if we see him as a Christ-figure before Christ, then his falling short of Christlikeness (in the same way that, e.g., a hero like David did) does not lessen his status as an antetype of Christ. A central characteristic of "typology [is that it] invites at once a comparison and a contrast between the Old and New Testament events it links" (Braeger 132). V. A. Kolve notes that "the differences between figure and fulfillment are as important as the similarities" (Kolve 67). Failure to achieve complete Christlike perfection is typical of antetypes—e.g., Adam, despite his fall, serves in Pauline interpretation as the preeminent antetype of Christ (cf. Romans 5.12-19). Similarly, Beowulf is to be appreciated for his good qualities and for his role as prefiguration of Christ despite the fact that he must inevitably fall short.
In what ways, then, does the pagan culture-hero Beowulf prefigure the Christian culture-hero Christ? The fact that Beowulf opposes and defeats "Godes andsaca [God's enemy]" (cf. 785 and 1684) surely implies that he is doing something Christlike. Consequently, Klaeber discovers "features of the Christian Savior in th[is] destroyer of hellish fiends" (Klaeber 104). Other scholars have noted that by dying in the act of killing a dragon, Beowulf resembles Christ, who died to defeat Satan. Pertinant here, as Klaeber rightly remarks, is that "the dragon was in ecclesiastical tradition the recognized symbol of the archfiend" (Klaeber 104). Against this, some critics have held that the dragon, unlike Grendel, is more of force of nature, neither good nor evil (cf. Niles 23-28). Tolkien, however, notes that the portrayal of the dragon "approaches draconitas rather than draco: a personification of malice" (Tolkien 16). The passage describing the dragon's malice provides supporting evidence:
Then the evil spirit began to vomit flames, burn bright dwellings; blaze of fire rose, to the horror of men; there the deadly flying thing would leave nothing alive. The worm's warfare was wide-seen, his cruel malice, near and far—how the destroyer hated and hurt the people of the Geats. (Donaldson, "Text" 40 (2313-2320))
The word that Donaldson translates as "evil spirit" is "gaest." Donaldson's rendering is an interpretation, for literally, the term would mean "enemy" (Bosworth 357). The maliciousness (nearofages) of the dragon, however, suggests more than merely an enemy. Bosworth defines the same word (nearofages) to mean "disastrously hostile, bearing enmity the result of which is to reduce others to straits" (Bosworth 712). The poet's emphasis upon the dragon's malice allows for a religious interpretation of the dragon's destructiveness, and Beowulf's initial reaction straightway upon learning of the danger reinforces this, for he "supposed that he had bitterly offended the Ruler, the Eternal Lord, against old law" (Donaldson, "Text" 41 (2330-2332)). Fear that he has incurred God's punishment brings on unaccustomed gloom: "His breast within boiled with dark thoughts" (Donaldson, "Text" 41 (2332-2333; cf. 2420-2421)), perhaps indicative of a sort of "passion of Beowulf" (cf. Gospel of John 12.27; 13.21).
Several details of this dragon-fight suggest that the poet intended his audience to infer a connection to the passion of Christ. Beowulf's selection of warriors to help him fight the dragon recalls details of the gospels' passion narratives:
Then, one of twelve, the lord of the Geats, swollen with anger, went to look on the dragon. He had learned then from what the feud arose, the fierce malice to men: the glorious cup had come to his possession from the hand of the finder: he was the thirteenth of that company, the man who had brought on the beginning of the war, the sad-hearted slave—wretched, he must direct them to the place. (Donaldson, "Text" 42 (2402-2410))
Note that the full company comprises thirteen men, the thirteenth of whom does not truly belong but bears the blame for bringing on the confrontation with the dragon. No Christian poet could write such lines without implicitly alluding to Christ, the eleven believing disciples, and Judas, the betrayer.
The connections to the gospels' passion narratives grow stronger as the terrible ordeal takes place. Beowulf's eleven noble companions are watching from a distance as the fight ensues. The "thirteenth" man, the cause of the trouble, has already disappeared from the narrative (cf. 2846-2850). Of the eleven still keeping watch, ten lose heart and one alone remains faithful as Beowulf falters in the heat of the battle:
Encircled with flames, he who before had ruled a folk felt harsh pain. Nor did his companions, sons of nobles, take up their stand in a troop about him with the courage of fighting men, but they crept to the wood, protected their lives. In only one of them the heart surged with sorrows. (Donaldson, "Text" 45 (2595-2601))
The faithful one was the "beloved Wiglaf" (cf. Donaldson, "Text" 48 (2746): "Wiglaf leofa"; cf. Bosworth 611), who comes to Beowulf's aid to help him defeat the dragon and stands by him as he dies. All of the gospels recount how the believing disciples abandoned Jesus, but John's account presents one disciple, the "beloved" one (cf. Gospel of John 13.23; 19.26; 21.20 agapa), who does not abandon Jesus but remains faithful to the end, even keeping watch as he dies on the cross (cf. Eppler, paragraph 17). Again, no Christian could write this way without implicitly alluding to the passion of Christ.
These and other possible parallels to Christ and the gospels' narratives have been previously debated. Some scholars, such as Bloom, have dismissed them and have argued that Beowulf is "without the figure of Jesus Christ, and without the presence of the New Testament" (Bloom, "Introduction" 1). I think that a dismissal of the parallels can only seem reasonable if one assumes that the figure of Beowulf would then have to be understood as an imitatio Christi. Perhaps their reasoning is that such a Beowulf would seem too much like a failed Christ, which would lower the status of a culture-hero like Beowulf (cf. Eppler, paragraph 17-18). A similar reasoning pervades the views of those who do accept the parallels but interpret the poet as having composed a critique of Beowulf as culture-hero, as noted above. Bolton, for example, argues that Beowulf's "Christlike attributes serve to underscore how he is unlike Christ" (Bolton 143). Gardner finds Beowulf "unquestionably 'Christlike,'" but the imitatio is, "at least on one level, ironic" (Gardner 83-84). Margaret E. Goldsmith speaks for this view as well, finding in Beowulf some features of Christ but even more of the fallen Adam (Goldsmith, "Vulnerability" 144; cf. Goldsmith, "Perspective" 87). Beowulf falls to the twinned temptations of glory and wealth, argues Goldsmith, in attacking the dragon single-handedly and in desiring the dragon's gold (Goldsmith, "Vulnerability" 143-144). I think that this puts Beowulf in rather too negative a light. Goldsmith forgets that Christ also goes to his death for his glory (cf. Gospel of John 7.39; 8.54; 11.4; 12.16, 23; 13.31; 17.1-5), and she also forgets that Beowulf sought the gold not avariciously for himself but selflessly for his people through the traditional system of gift-giving (cf. Leyerle 168), as he tells Wiglaf (and us!) with his dying breath even as he looks upon the gold for which he has fought:
"I speak with my words thanks to the Lord of All for these treasures, to the King of Glory, Eternal Prince, for what I gaze on here, that I might get such for my people before my death-day." (Donaldson, "Text" 49 (2795-2799)).
dying words do not lend the impression that Beowulf's motives were
being subjected to especially critical scrutiny by the poet. It is true
that Beowulf's intent fails, for the gold does not go to his people but
is instead buried with him—his failed followers apparently being too
ashamed to take and distribute it through gift-giving (3163-3168). Yes,
ends in a failure. Beowulf is not Christ. But he is also not a failed
Christ, either, for he is no imitatio
Rather, he is a type of Christ, an Old Testament antetype among pagans.
We should not expect more of him than this.
At the outset of this article, I mentioned minimal and maximal criteria for evaluating whether or not Beowulf is a Christian poem. Although methodologically, I prefer minimal criteria, if I am right about Christian typology in Beowulf, then the poem comes close to satisfying even strongly maximal criteria, falling short only by being implicit rather than explicit. The shortcoming, however, really lies more with the overly rigorous maximal criteria since these would exclude subtle Christian writings that utilize purely implicit Christian motifs. Be that as it may, much remains to be done along the typological lines explored in this article. Of interest would be an analysis of Beowulf's farewell discourse to his thanes in lines 2426-2538 as a parallel to the Johannine farewell discourse in the Gospel of John 13.31-17.26. There are possibly many such instances where Beowulf prefigures Christ in subtle ways once we have the hermeneutic key. If I am right, the key is not to see Beowulf as an imitatio Christi—or to imagine that he would have to be if he were to be considered a Christ figure. We must take seriously the fact that the only explicitly biblical allusions are to the Old Testament. Indeed, these allude to events only up to and including the Noachic deluge, which suggests that the writer may have been intending to link the pagan Anglo-Saxons to biblical history by way of God's covenant with Noah. The key then becomes to see in Beowulf a pagan antetype of Christ in an epic Anglo-Saxon praeparatio evangelium. As such, Beowulf can fail, without failing to be like Christ. He is, in fact, as much in need of Christ as any Old Testament type of Christ—as perhaps implied by the possible baptism symbolism in lines 2791-2792 (waeteres weorpan; cf. 2721-2724: waetere gelafede) (cf. Lane, paragraph 16). Does Christ accept him?7) The poet, consistent with Robinson's "appositive style," leaves this ambiguous, saying only:
him of hwaethre gewat
sawol secean sothfaestra dom
"[Y]et from him went his soul to seek truth-fast judgement."8) Beyond this, we cannot judge.
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Beowulf as Antetype of Christ
Horace Jeffery Hodges
The article opens by citing Harold Bloom's question about the putative Christianity of Beowulf: Can it be Christian, he asks, "without the figure of Jesus Christ, without the presence of the New Testament?" After acknowledging the force of the poem's clearly pagan aspects, the article examines the explicitly biblical allusions and argues that while these are all from the Old Testament, there are also some more subtle New Testament motifs that give the the poem its Christian coloring, as many scholars have also argued. Where the article goes beyond previous Christian interpretations is in its argument that the culture hero Beowulf is a pagan antetype of Christ in much the same sense that, e.g., the biblical culture hero King David is an Israelite antetype of Christ. This means that while Beowulf is a Christ figure, he is not an imitatio Christi, for the poem places him in a pre-Christian era. If Beowulf were being presented as an imitatio Christi of the Christian era, then he would have to be considered a failed Christ, one who tragically falls short. Beowulf does fail, of course, in that he succumbs to wounds inflicted by the dragon that he slays and thus cannot ensure the long-term salvation of his people because he does not survive to redistribute the dragon's hoard of wealth through the traditional system of gift-giving. Yet, Beowulf can fail, without failing to be like Christ, for antetypes necessarily fall short of that which they prefigure. Moreover, Beowulf's final acts leading to his death prefigure those of Christ, especially as portrayed in The Gospel of John. Consequently, one cannot say that the epic poem Beowulf is "without the figure of Jesus Christ." He is present, even pervasive, in the Anglo-Saxons' culture-hero Beowulf, the antetype of Christ.
Key Words: antetype, praeparatio evangelium, Beowulf, Christ, pagan, Christian, Old Testament, New Testament, Anglo-Saxons
1) Unless otherwise indicated, citations of Beowulf are from two sources: (1) Donaldson's translation for translated text and pagination and (2) Benjamin Slade's online site for line identification and the Old English text: "Beowulf on Steorarume" <http://www.heorot.dk/>.
2) I have encountered much the same difficulty in a commentary that other scholars and I are working on for the ancient Greek text "The Life of Jeremiah," from Lives of the Prophets. Distinguishing between the (presumably) Jewish source and the (undoubtedly) Christian redactor is often very difficult.
3) Klaeber's bracketed modern English translations are from Donaldson.
4) Bosworth and Toller state: "A. Sax. Eástre, the goddess of the rising sun, whose festivities were in April. Hence used by Teutonic Christians for the rising of the sun of righteousness, the feast of the resurrection, Bd. de Temp. Rat. Works, vol. ii. p. 81: Grimm's Deut. Mythol. 8vo. 1855, pp. 180-183" <http://penguin.pearson.swarthmore.edu/~scrist1/scanned_books/html/ oe_bosworthtoller/b0235.html>.
5) According to Slade, this insight is further developed by Nicholas Howe, Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England and Thomas Hill, "The Christian Language and Theme of Beowulf," in Companion to Old English Poetry, 63-77. Unfortunately, I have not had direct access to these three scholarly publications and am relying almost entirely upon Slade's citation. However, according to the website Early Medieval Britain and Ireland, Howe's book demonstrates that "[i]n a variety of texts, ranging from Bede's Ecclesiastical History to the Old English verse Exodus, the Anglo-Saxons were presented as a chosen people (like the Israelites) who had left pagan Germany for the the Promised Land of Christian Britain" (http://www.postroman.info/ saxonl.html). Similarly, Lance Wilcox's online review of Hill's article states that "Hill offers the term 'Noachite' to describe the religious attitudes of the characters in Beowulf . . . [who have] the knowledge of God available to the Biblical patriarchs up to the Flood ("Noachite" comes from Noah) without knowing anything of the revelation to Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob." <http://www. elmhurst.edu/~lancew/courses/ENG321/AnnBibSample.pdf>.
6) Also spelled "antitype." For obvious reasons, I prefer the spelling "antetype." Note that prefigurative typological readings are related to allegorical ones but differ in that the typology takes a "person, object, institution, ceremony or event" as prefigurative of another person, object, institution, ceremony or event, whereas allegory takes them as figurative of "a principle or eternal truth" (Foutz, paragraph 24).
7) On this point, see the following literature. PRO: Donahue, 382-90; Garde, 159-73; Goldsmith, "Theme" 81-101; Goldsmith, "Perspective" 71-90; Goldsmith, Mode. CON: Stanley, 131-151; Bliss, 41-63; Brown, 438-460; Robinson, Appositive, passim; Fajardo-Acosta, passim.
8) Slade, Beowulf (2820-2821).