A traditional biblical scholar meets Jack and Jill (warning: satire)

A traditional biblical scholar now approaches the account of Jack and Jill falling down the hill, hoping to uncover the historical core. What is the historical probability of Jack and Jill falling down the hill? Conservative scholars point out that “Falling down a hill is historically plausible; uniform and repeated human experience demonstrates that people fall toward a center of gravitation, rather than, as some liberal skeptics would seem to assume, falling up hills” (Lindsell 1970: 3). More avante-garde, textually-informed scholars, however, point out that gravitation here is merely a metaphor for sexual repression (see esp. Madonna 2006: 14-79).

Conservatives tend to argue that the names “Jack” and “Jill” are attested for the early seventeenth century, when the nucleus of the story is thought to have originated. Some scholars even suppose that this is the same “Jack” who is “a dull boy,” although this proverb (“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”) is attested as early as 1659, and the Jack mentioned here is hardly dull. (Conservatives respond that only a dull boy would seek water on a hilltop.) Further, nomographers attest that “Jack” was already a widely used name in this period (pace scholars who admit no evidence for “Jack” before the eighteenth century, when the name became most prominent as a heroic archetype). It was also commonly used in nursery rhymes. “Jill” and “Gill” were popular names already in the Middle Ages.

Against the historical plausibility of the story, consider that Jill’s tumble appears causally connected with that of Jack, and yet if Jack fell first and fell into Jill, she could well have tumbled down in front of him instead of “after” (I. Newton, 1683). The majority of genuinely critical scholars, therefore, recognize that the story as it stands must reflect considerable legendary development and cannot be original in this form.

Most scholars today thus postulate several layers of redaction. In the earliest layer, “Gill” was boy like Jack, as attested in an interpretation from the 1700s, though some fundamentalists, barely worth mentioning, appeal to the pairing of male and female as “Jack” and “Jill” already in the 1600s. In this earliest version, the two surely went to the top of the hill merely to see what was on the other side (much like the chicken who, in the same period, crossed the road but was run over by a horse-drawn carriage). Despite the protests of fundamentalists, who doubt that such a bare story would have warranted preservation, the original nucleus is clear because water prevails in valleys, not on hilltops. Being cautious and not wishing to engage in skepticism, scholarly consensus dates this first layer of the story, the ascent of Jack and Gill, to the spring of 1703, when a shortage of water is known in the village of Kilmersdon.

The second layer dates from the mid-1700s, when a redactor educated in Shakespearean drama noticed the pairing of male and female as “Jack and Jill” in Shakespeare (or, for more mature critics today, a pseudo-Shakespearean redactor). This scholar rightly interpreted their ascent as a fertility ritual, a form of cultic prostitution. The tumbling down of both, by contrast, was added in the Victorian era, to provide a moral by depicting a dismal end for these wretched transgressors of moral law (cf. here Shaftesbury 1883: 11). Granted, some texts of the rhyme do attest the falling down already by the beginning of the 1700s, but this interpretation could have become the dominant one only in the Victorian era and not before.

Some interpret the rhyme as an allegory of Norse mythology, a Protestant attack on Cardinal Wolsey, or the loss of crown of Louis XVI (although this event is dated to 1753, the French king’s execution could have been modeled on the earlier rhyme). Most biblical scholars prefer instead the profound explanation of Rudolf Bultmann, namely, that Jack and Jill represent the male and female aspects (respectively) of the gnostic redeemer figure (Bultmann 1954: 324). In the original version, the figure descended and then ascended. Later this was reversed to ascending the hill and then falling when gnostics became a marginalized sect. It is in fact this hypothesis that best accounts for all our evidence and must be considered now a proven fact.

One final point. Hermeneutics allows us to draw theological implications for today: the ultimate meaning of this, which transcends mere historical analysis, is obviously existential encounter with Being. Coincidentally, this is the hidden meaning that our hermeneutic allows us to uncover in every text.

Oh, we have some newly published, cutting-edge information coming in. Genre, you say? This is not written in the historiographic genre? Why didn’t you tell us that to begin with, you scoundrel! {Speaking of genre, if you endured to the end of this and haven’t figured it out yet, the genre of this post today is satire … of my profession, no less! ☹ }

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