The Bible as Metaphor and Symbol

The contemporary debate among Christians today is whether or not the Bible should be taken literally.  Many Evangelical Christians view the text as being without error and without requiring interpretation.  From my perspective, there are problems with this approach.  First, it glosses over the obvious contradictions in the Bible, like which story of creation (there are two of them), Noah’s ark (there are two of these, as well), or the resurrection of Jesus is correct (there are four different stories of the resurrection of Jesus)? Second, it fails to acknowledge that a translation of any text to another language is itself an interpretation because languages communicate differently.  (If the only language you speak is English, think about the differences in American English with the idiom spoken in England or Australia.  It’s the same language, but the idioms are not the same.)  Third, a literal understanding of the Bible dismisses the significant differences among cultures, particularly cultures from the Iron Age which are the foundation for the Hebrew Scriptures.  Fourth and perhaps most importantly: a literal interpretation of the Bible is a relatively new phenomenon within Christianity.

Those of us who frequently read writings from the first millennia of Christian history, like the writings of mystics, early theologians, and saintly people, know that these people did not take the Bible at face value.  Instead, they understood the text from metaphorical and allegorical perspectives.  For example, stories of Jesus feeding thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of dried fish were not understood as magic.  Rather, Christians from the first millennia would have heard this story as a metaphor for how the teachings of Jesus nourish the entire person: body and soul.

Recently, news of the recovery of a long lost commentary on the Gospels was carried by major press outlets.  The rediscovery of the text happened some years ago.  What news was really worthy was that this commentary, written by Fortunatianus of Aquileia in the fourth century CE, has been made available online in an English translation.  This commentary was described by early Biblical scholar, St. Jerome, as “a pearl of great price.” Jerome emulated in his own work, which is considered to be the first great Biblical commentary.  Throughout this 1500 year old commentary is the clear sense that the stories of the Gospel are not understood as literal stories, but as allegories about the message and meaning of Jesus as communicated to people in particular communities of faith.  You don’t have to take my word for this.  You can follow the links in this article and review the commentary yourself.

What led Christians to begin to view the Bible in a literal way?  While the history is complicated and nuanced, in the end it boiled down to the inability of church leaders to accept scientific discoveries as they unfolded.  First was Copernicus who demonstrated that Earth was not the center of the known universe but that the Earth rotated around the Sun.  This challenged the European view of the order of not just the universe but of social structure, of nobility and surfs, and the economic and political structure of Europe.  Later came Darwin’s observations of the natural world and the evidence for evolution.  Darwin published his Origin of Species in the middle of the 19th Century.  While there were stirrings toward a more literal approach to the Bible since the 17th Century, in the 19th Century many Christians doubled-down on the belief that humanity had been specifically created by God as God’s prized creation.  The possibility that we are in some way related to apes was simply untenable.  By the end of the 19th Century, Evangelical Christianity and Biblical literalism as we know it today was a reality.

Ultimately, Biblical literalism is a result of people’s inability to adapt to changes that came about from new scientific understandings of life on Earth and in the cosmos.  There’s always been resistance to change.  When the electric light bulb was invented, many people preferred to continue using oil lamps for lighting.  The same resistance to change occurs today as people cling to fossil fuels rather than adapting to renewable energy sources.  So, perhaps it’s not so strange that some people cling to a Biblical worldview not supported by current knowledge and, oddly enough, wasn’t even part of the first millennia of Christian understanding.  Because some people resist change, that doesn’t mean others can’t embrace the evolution of thoughts, ideas, and ways to understand the world and our place in it.  The ironic aspect of this in terms of a Christian understanding of the Bible is that it brings us back to the ways early Christians understood the Bible as metaphor rather than clinging to a literal view which is incompatible with the history of Christian thought.

Perhaps the words of Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan summarize this best.  In his book, Who Is Jesus?, Crossan wrote: “”My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and that we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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One Response to The Bible as Metaphor and Symbol

  1. I’m amazed, I must say. Rarely do I come
    across a blog that’s both educative and amusing, and without a doubt, you’ve hit the nail on the head.
    The issue is something that not enough people are speaking intelligently
    about. I’m very happy that I stumbled across this in my search
    for something relating to this.

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