Harrell Beck

The Wisdom of Harrell Beck

Christ the Sceptered Dolphin


One of my teachers was a German by the name of Gerhard von Rad. I’ve had delightful times in his home. So after he died it was my business, ‘twas my duty, to get to Heidelberg and visit his grave. And on Gerhard von Rad’s tombstone are the following: his name, the dates of his life, and a dolphin.* And I said to myself, “Good heavens! What did he do? Slip a gear in his last years?” So then I went to the history books and I discovered amongst the martyrs of the ancient church and in the catacombs of Rome a dolphin portrayed on the tomb. And I discovered in some of the catacombs of Rome a dolphin wearing a crown!  And sometimes a dolphin carrying a scepter! And then I read a reference or two to Christ the Sceptered Dolphin. I was intrigued! Wouldn’t you be? And I discovered that the Mediterranean people around Italy and Greece and North Africa had a tremendous regard for the dolphin or the porpoise. And there are three reasons why I love the dolphin.

Every Mediterranean person who had gone to sea knew that when there was a captain who didn’t know his way... it is a matter of record that dolphins will lead a ship across the exit from the harbor along the rocky reef and if necessary, clear to the far port.  That is a matter of record!  It is also known that occasionally if a little boat should be encountered by a school of sharks – the dolphin will take on the whole blooming group!  And we have instances where dolphins have offered their lives to protect the people on the ship! And I, who have had the joy of sailing the Mediterranean a number of times (because I was a poor school teacher and down on the lowest deck) -- know that when they don’t have anything else to do, dolphins like to come back in schools of two or three and entertain the passengers.

How could I ever say a thing like this: “Christ is the Sceptered Dolphin” to a group of educated graduates of Claremont? Then I discovered... are you still credulous? I discovered, down in New Zealand, on its Eastern side, that there is a port called Pelorus, and that for thirty years a dolphin lead every ship in and out of that harbor. In nineteen hundred and four, New Zealand made "Pelorus Jack" a National Hero and put him under the patronage of the army and navy of New Zealand. The next year a group of characters went out and killed him!**

Why do I bother you with the heart of Biblical religion? Because in the simplest possible way you know, I’d like to be loyal to the sceptered dolphin -- to help people find their way. Especially when the rocks are sharp. Am I bold enough to intercede when the enemy is violent? And is it possible in meaningful and wonderful ways that meaningful communication could go on?  Should that begin to happen, they will not only know we are Christians by our love, they might just think that the biblical people and the body of Christ are synonymous.

- adapted from The Heart of Biblical Faith and Images of Hope: Christ the Dolphin (a blending of two tellings)



*NOTE: Harrell may be confusing von Rod’s tombstone with someone else’s here. von Rad and his wife are buried in Heidelberg's “Hadnschusheim Cemetery.” On their marker is a minimalist impression of a fish. However, it is clearly depicting Jonah emerging from the great fish, said to be an Old Testament foreshadowing of resurrection. See picture at right.

**NOTE re: the Pelorus Jack story: Some of the details Harrell shares are incorrect, but the gist of the story is the same. It’s hard to remember a pre-internet age when a good story would come to light and there were almost no local resources for confirming the details. There are many examples among Harrell’s stories where the details aren’t quite right, but the theme of the story is apropos to his message. For details on Pelorus Jack, click HERE. 



Featured Image: Mosaic of a dolphin with an anchor is from the "House of Dolpins" in Delos, Greece (2nd century BCE). Retrieved from Lessing photo.