Philosophical Friday: Giovanni Boccaccio and the Obscurity of Poetry

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was an Italian scholar, raised in Florence. He wrote a wide variety of works: allegorical poems, prose tales, romances, and more. Among Boccaccio’s most well-known books is Genealogy of the Gentile Gods, “a mythological sourceboook that would introduce readers to the study of the ancient poets” [1]. One goal of Genealogy of the Gentile Gods was to provide an argument in favor of poetry as a means for locating truth, setting himself apart from Plato who saw poetry as opposed to truth. Instead, poetry is understood as being from “the bosom of God.”

I am interested, though, in how Boccaccio deals with the problem of poetic obscurity and how Boccaccio’s perspective builds off of and develops older traditions. Initially, Boccaccio frames his argument in terms of a caviller, a person that raises petty quibbles, who objects “that poetry is often obscure, and that poets are to blame for it, since their end is to make an incomprehensible statement appear to be wrought withe exquisite artistry” [2].

In response, Boccaccio offers a few example of texts and writers who are equally obscure but not criticized. First, he makes reference to the philosophers. He offers a question: “do they”, namely philosophers, “always find their close reasoning as simple and clear as they say an oration should be? If they say yes, they lie; for the works of Plato and Aristotle… abound in difficulties…” [3]. In short, philosophical writings are unclear. Second, Boccaccio notes that even the Holy Writ is obscure sometimes. Therefore, any condemnation of poetry on account of obscurity results in the blaspheming of the Holy Ghost. After all, even Augustine comments that certain passages of Isaiah are unclear to him.

On this basis, Boccaccio argues that “no one can believe that poets invidiously veil the truth with fiction,” but they rather veil truth “to make truths which would otherwise cheapen by exposure the object of strong intellectual effort and various interpretation” [4]. In other words, the Holy Writ and non-Holy Writ texts alike veil truth as a means of preventing it from becoming worthless and too common. Such an explanation is remarkably similar to how Augustine explains the obscurity of the Holy Writ: “It is a wonderful and beneficial thing that the Holy Spirit organized the holy scripture so as to satisfy hunger by means of its plainer passages and remove boredom by means of its obscurer ones” [5]. In other words, the obscurity in the Holy Writ is intentional.

While Boccaccio and Augustine both discuss the problem of obscurity and poetry, the reason and way they employ it is distinct. Augustine refers to the obscurity of scripture and its divine cause in order to provide a theological explanation for misunderstood and obscure biblical texts. In other words, his formulation in On Christian Teaching is intended to deal with a theological problem. Although Boccaccio draws from Augustine, inasmuch as he notes the theological problem of viewing obscure texts like the Holy Writ as being impractical, Boccaccio takes Augustine’s framework and applies it to non-biblical material. So, whereas Augustine primarily considers obscurity as reasonable within the Holy Writ, Boccaccio expands this to include non-Holy Writ.

In doing so, Boccaccio creates a divide between that which is Holy Writ and that which is not Holy Writ. By distinguishing between a special, select group of texts and all others, Boccaccio implies a distinction akin to the distinction between secular and religious. In his situation, the Holy Writ is a religious text, whereas all other texts are secular texts.

Boccaccio’s distinction is worth emphasizing because it illumines how the foundations of poetry as an academic object of study are themselves historically defined and understood as that which is not Holy Writ. Such a genealogy is worth examining further.

[1] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 201.

[2] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 206.

[3] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 206-207.

[4] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 208.

[5] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism168.



Review: “Beyond Orality: Biblical Poetry on its Own Terms” by Jacqueline Vayntrub

Jacqueline Vayntrub. Beyond Orality: Biblical Poetry on it owns Terms. New York: Routledge, 2019. 252 pp., $140 (hardback).Orality

For nearly three centuries, ‘ orality’ has served as a framework for understanding biblical texts, especially in terms of their formation and imagined origins; however, as Jacqueline Vayntrub demonstrates throughout her study, the Great Divide framework remains active. As such, she aims to shift to a distinct notion of orality. Rather than interrogating the orality of poetry in terms of transmission, she focuses on the literary claims of biblical texts about their orality or literary transmission. One such literary claim is that poetry has a dimension of orality inasmuch as it is performed by characters in the biblical text. Put another way, poetry is almost always “configured either explicitly as speech or implicitly so” (7). In this view, orality is a literary trope attending to “how characters and speakers perform certain kinds of speech in the written text” (9), indicating how texts should be read.

In Chapter One, Vayntrub lays out how the ways biblical narratives are framed “determine the very way we understand the biblical texts” (20). This framing contributed to the ‘Great Divide’ in Biblical Studies, namely the divide between pre-developed oral and developed prose. Drawing primarily from Johann Gottfried Herder and Herman Gunkel, she shows that the developmental framework, at base, perceives the oral and poetic to be more archaic than the written and prosaic. She suggests that such a developmental framework is the consequence of how the biblical narrative is framed: “In biblical narrative, poetry is framed as a past oral discourse in the voice of characters, and its language is often – whether by transmission or deliberate design – more archaic than its prose frame” (22). This is also evidence in Shir Hashirim Rabbah, Francis Bacon, and Giambattista Vico, whose readings are reflective of the Great Divide and a consequence of how the Hebrew Bible frames texts. For though Bacon, Vico, and Shir Hashirim Rabbah had distinct goals, they nonetheless had similar theories of literary origin. Put simply, “the biblical authors have shaped traditional modes of expression such that they now reflect the characteristics of those characters” (32).

In Chapter Two, Vayntrub demonstrates how the essence of biblical poetry is usually identified as the mashal; however, this was always mediated “through the influential aesthetic theory of the time” (37). Narrating a genealogy of mashal as a poetic concept, she initially points to Lowth’s parallelism as being derived from a classical rhetorician Christian Schöttgen, who wrote 20 years prior to Lowth’s seminal lecture. Categorizing Hebrew poetry as mashal is also evident in medieval Jewish Spain. Moses ibn Ezra, echoing Aristotle and Plato, perceives the style of a mashal, of poetry, to be deceptive, though not necessarily the content. Moses ibn Tibbon understands mashal as part of a spectrum (literal, mashal, and poetic), mashal being an intermediate discourse, not fully false (poetry) or true (literal). Shem tov ibn Falaquera struggle similarly with the notion of truth in poetry.

In each case, “The essence of poetry was to be located with the audience, not the poet” (45), namely the effects upon the audience. During the Renaissance, John Dennis adapted the notion of Sublime into poetry, the earliest forms of poetry being Sublime. Paired with Vico’s notion of the origins of language, Herder brought these ideas into conversation with biblical poetry, as did Lowth. Lowth’s understanding of the mashal is that it was “property expressive of the poetic style” (49). With this, he distinguishes between didactic and sublime, indicating that Sublime poems, those on religion, were truer poetry. As such, the proverbs were not sublime. In other words, his “evaluation placed poetry with theological content in a position of privilege” (51). Herder, developing this notion, understood Hebrew poetry and the sublime as an opportunity to identify the sublime with genius of human authors. And with the subsequent works of Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, Georg Heinrich Ewald, and Michaelis, the mashal was officially denotative of a state prior to poetry. As parallelism became popular in the 20th century, Stephen Geller, Michael O’Connor, James Kugel, and Adele Berlin came to identify poetry essence with parallelism. In all, these understandings of mashal did not “attend to the mashal’s persistent incompatibility to external categories of poetic genres” and, as such, “results in its identification as “poetry,” writ large” (59).

Chapter Three explores how mashal as a genre within wisdom literature is typically defined as a result of circular thinking and logic. To frame the chapter, she lays out three major issues with viewing mashal as a proverb. First, she points to how identification of mashal as a genre is rooted in circular thinking, wherein scholars use words from proverbs as a means of identifying whether or not other things fit into the “wisdom” genre – Proverbs being the paradigmatic mashal. Even so, mashal typically occurs outside of traditional wisdom literature. Second, because form-critical approaches see oral traditions as earlier, a diachronic perspective is assumed in literary forms of the mashal, not considering that mashal may simply be incompatible with modern literary categories. Third, she looks to HALOT, BDB, LXX, and the Vulgate, clearly showing that mashal cannot consistently be translated as “proverb.”

Shifting gears, Vayntrub focuses on how mashal is employed to frame speech in biblical texts. She puts forth three characteristic uses of mashal as a frame: in narratives, the mashal is a speech performance; mashal sometimes denotes a speech transmitted across generations; and mashal asserts conventional views. Concerning transmission and conventional views, she looks at two points – folkloric studies and mashal as oral register – which lead her to conclude that the structure of speech must be identified, as well as the oral register and the implied social context.

Highlighting the framing of Biblical texts as shaping analysis of compositions, Chapter Four analyzes how Balaam’s speeches are framed. First, she shows how the frame and speech performances of Balaam are thematically and terminologically connected to the mashals in Gen 49 and Deut 33, the broader concern of J with blessing fulfillment, and contrasts Balaam with Deut 33 and Gen 49 inasmuch as Balaam is a non-Israelite medium. Second, she analyzes Balaam’s speech from multiple perspectives. Broadly, she suggests that the narrative frames the speeches as instructional discourse (mashal), though he still participate in prophetic activity. Moreover, the speeches are all framed with Balak as the audience, the mashal primarily being observations of the world and categories, touching on issues of Yahweh’s authority over Balaam. At base, then, the mashal classifies and categorizes the world and its actors with various structures in order to make claims about those categories. Third, she analyzes the content and structure for each of Balaam’s mashals, examining the particular claim in each mashal. Though framed as Yahweh’s words in Balaam’s mouth, the speaker “articulates his own observations, makes generalizations about the world and its actors from these observations, and then particularizes the generalizations for specific situation” (134). On this basis, she suggests that Balaam’s speeches are primarily instructional, not prophetic.

Continuing her discussion of mashal in Chapter Five, Vayntrub looks to Isaiah 14 and 1 Sam 24 in order to further illuminate how mashals are framed. First, she analyzes Is 14, demonstrating how the mashal, as expository discourse, “uses the particular case of one ruler who aspired to belike the deity” (165). And in order to explain elements of Is 14 that are not clearly mashal, she suggests that the mashal in Is 14 incorporate elements of the qinah, which is “the proper discourse of failure” (147). Second, she analyzes David’s mashal in 1 Sam 24. Continuing with the notion of the mashal as expository discourse, she shows how David’s use of a mashal contextually bolsters claims that he cannot be violent to Saul, a performance of shared, authoritative knowledge from antiquity. Finally, she considers what it means to become as a mashal. Drawing parallels with the notion of become a horror, she suggests that היה למשׁל is similar – to become the subject of future expository משׁל from which generalizations about the world and its actors may be drawn.

In light of her extensive discussion of orality in Biblical texts, Chapter Six analyzes how titles and tales, broadly construed, frame speech performances. The object of study is Proverbs. First, she emphasizes the literary value of titles as enabling us to better contextualize Proverbs within ancient Near Eastern instruction literature. Second, she identifies a spectrum of types of speech performance phrases in non-narrative texts: extended narrative, minimal narrative (with a verb of performance or transmission), and non-narrative frame (with genre and an individual, typically called a title). With this typology, Vayntrub looks towards other ancient Near Eastern instruction texts, all of which “fictionally represent a moment and situation of performance in their frame” and “contextualizes and generically marks the advice that follows” (192), each using extended narrative. Strikingly distinct is that the frames in Proverbs do not “stage a performance of the named figure, and it is not clear from the titles who is in fact speaking these texts apart from the text itself” (196). This, among other details, indicates a degree of recognition within the texts of Proverbs about its textual nature as a mediator of instruction: “By attributing its disembodied inscribed text to a legendary past figure who embodies wise speech, the book of Proverbs implies that writing has the capacity to preserve and transmit the internalized speech of tradents” (205). She concludes by directing the readers to four implications.

1)      Socially, there is value in the performance of speech by certain individuals; however, within texts, the presentation of speech as an authorizing device is a literary trope (204-205).

2)      In light of her analysis, we should pay more attention to how writteness develops in ancient Judean literature within the broader contexts of writteness in Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia, along with possible influence in that regard.

3)      We must admit the shortcomings of our own “inherited intellectual frameworks to theorize the meaning of ancient text production within a given literary culture” (205).

4)      Textual awareness is not a progress but a phenomenon.


She notes two potential lines of inquiry in the conclusion. First, scholars should more thoroughly investigate how anthologies of biblical poetry frame the speech. For, within her study, this investigation enabled her to observe that Proverbs is framed as a literary medium for instruction, distinct from other ancient Near Eastern instructional texts. Second, the embodied voice of characters within the Hebrew Bible should be connected with other types of biblical speeches, such as deathbed testaments and mortuary inscriptions.

Overall, Vayntrub’s volume is helpful on multiple fronts. First, her overview of the history of biblical poetry, mashal, and other associated ideas effectively and clearly deconstruct the traditional framework for interpreting biblical poetry. In doing so, she is able to provide a clear alternative to approaching biblical texts on their own terms. In doing so, she emphasizes how a text is framed. Though not discussed thoroughly, the centrality of the frame of a text has implications for sub-fields within biblical studies. For example, concerning redaction criticism, she comments on Proverbs: while the authors may have redacted aspects of Proverbs in order to shape in a particular manner, “we may never be able to know with certainty one way or another. What we can do, instead, is theorize the aim of editorial and anthologizing activity” (198). Applied outside of Proverbs, it raises a concern in Pentateuchal criticism: perhaps the only things we can definitely theorize about is the editorial and anthologizing activity of the Pentateuch’s composition. Perhaps somebody will pick up this line of thought in the future.

Second, the attention she gives to the texts as literature is particularly instructive. Far too often, as she discusses thoroughly, scholars leverage biblical texts for social and cultural history without paying adequate attention to it as a literary text, with all its intricacies and constructive elements. What Vayntrub successful accomplishes is to identify how speech and orality function within literature itself, not attempting to claim that the literature is necessarily the same as the historical social situation, though she does recognize that it is reflective of it. Such an approach should be hearkened to by all biblical scholars, namely approaching the text in such a way that does not presume certain ideas about how the text relates to the world.

Third, her work is on par with Adele Berlin’s The Dynamic of Biblical Poetry and F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s On Biblical Poetry. Any studies on biblical poetry must deal with Vayntrub’s volume on account of what Vayntrub accomplishes in her work. If future studies on biblical poetry do not at least consult Beyond Orality, that should raise a red flag.

Although the book was splendid, a few comments are in order which may strengthen her overall argument. First, it would be helpful if she employed a more structured approach to describing texts in terms of their frames of reference. For example, Benjamin Harshav (Explorations in Poetics) offers a helpful analytical method for describing texts. His method is especially focused on describing how frames of reference function within literary texts. Had Vayntrub incorporated Harshav’s method for describing texts, her analyses would have been sharper on account of the more precise method and terminology for exegesis.

Second, though her description of the history of scholarship about the mashal is marvelous, one particular aspect could be pushed back chronologically. She notes early on that Lowth derived his notion of the Sublime in poetry, that is privileging theological content in poetry, from Longinus (1st century CE) and John Dennis (17th century CE). Though he may have primarily been influenced by Dennis and Longinus, it is worth noting that the privileged position of the Sublime in poetry reaches back to Plato. For although Plato views poetry as inherently untruthful, which she discusses with regard to medieval Spanish Jewish thinkers, Plato makes an exception for poetry praising deities: “We shall be angry with a poet who writes such [untruthful] lines about the gods and shall forbid their presentation in public. Nor can we permit teachers to make use of such poets in instructing the young if our guardians are to become god-fearing men, and indeed godlike, insofar as that is possible for me” (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2019, 65). In light of Plato’s comments, the introduction to The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism suggests that “Socrates recommends that it,” namely poetry, “be banished from the ideal society, except perhaps for poetry that praises the gods and avoids representing them in an unseemly fashion” (2019, 7). In other words, the privileging of theological poetry over and against others stands within a text and author central to the canon of the Renaissance and reaching back into the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, namely Plato. As such, the privileging of the Sublime has deeper root in the Western intellectual tradition than she suggests.

Third, the issue of “wisdom” as a genre or literary category is problematic. She touches on this issue, deeming texts like Proverbs, Ahiqar, and various other ancient Near Eastern texts as instruction texts, not wisdom literature. She does, though, mention “assumptions guiding the study of wisdom literature” (75). Yet, as Will Kynes (2018) suggests, “wisdom literature” took its current form in the 19th century as an attempt by scholars to situate the Hebrew Bible’s texts within the broader discussions of philosophy and theology. In other words, what constitutes “wisdom literature” became characterized by 19th centuries philosophy. Although Kynes’ observations by no means delegitimize Vayntrub’s analyses or conclusions, it would be interesting to see how his observations may impact, for better or worse, Vayntrub’s conclusions. Perhaps in the future, assuming Kynes’ scholarship stands up to scrutiny, Vayntrub can work this into her ongoing scholarship.

Fourth, in terms of the organization of the book itself, the flow of the text is sometimes unclear. To be clear, the book is not poorly written; rather, it was simply sometimes difficult to follow the logic of the book. This comment, though, is less of a criticism and more something to be aware of when reading the volume.

Overall, even with these minor comments about the volume, Beyond Orality: Biblical Poetry on its Own Terms is necessary for any biblical scholars interested in poetry, literary cultures, or orality. Moreover, even folks outside of biblical studies will find Beyond Orality to be of interest on account of Vayntrub’s discussion of how the Great Divide has played out in biblical scholarship for the last 400 years. Though the volume is still expensive for individuals to purchase, it is, undoubtedly, necessary in the Religious Studies section at any serious university.